This is a series of ‘blogs’ (hmmm) which I wrote as a baby scholar during my Masters. I’ve been rereading it today as I finalise my lesson slides for tomorrow. It’s an investigation of the term Female Gothic and its legitimacy through an exploration of Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya and the simple question of whether or not it is ‘female gothic’. If you follow my work, you’ll know that I largely reject this term as unhelpful. This is how I got there – my first faltering steps as an academic!
The Presence of the Female
Whether Zofloya, or The Moor (1806)is ‘female gothic’ novel feels like it should be a simple question. However, since Ellen Moers first coined the term ‘female gothic’ there has been a continual refining and redefining of the concept. The vexed questions of what parameters to use to define the genre are at the centre of an ongoing debate. These three posts aim to investigate whether Zofloya is a ‘female gothic’ work by looking at a number of formulations of the ‘female gothic’ and in turn interrogating these definitions. Zofloya is uniquely placed to aid such an interrogation because it “challenges the easy gender distinctions that have governed much thinking about Gothic fiction’ by combining elements from purportedly ‘male’ and ‘female’ traditions. In this first post, I will look at Zofloya in relation to formulations of the ‘presence of the female’ – as writer, implied reader or protagonist – as the defining characteristic of ‘female gothic.’
Moers defined the female gothic as “the work that women writers have done in the literary mode … called the gothic.” In other words, it is a peculiarly female form, within a larger gothic mode, defined by the sex of the writer. Her definition raises the spectre of that contentious question: ‘What is the Gothic? I do not seek to offer a definitive answer to this much-debated question but only to offer a general working definition. According to Moers, the gothic ‘has to do with fear’ and other critics have repeatedly to elements including an aesthetic of darkness and uncertainty, the presence of the supernatural (whether ‘explained’ or real), a transgression of limits and an exploration of heightened emotional states. Zofloya is written by a woman and is easily identifiable as a gothic work. The novel explores the extremes of rage and passion, documents extreme transgressive acts and has the devil himself as a secondary character. Moers’ definition therefore classifies Zofloya as ‘female gothic’ but it is not in itself unproblematic. ‘Male writers’ appropriation of Female Gothic’ problematizes the assumption that author defines genre. This is particularly evident in the early period of the Gothic (1760s – 1820) with extensive male borrowing of location, plot and character from paradigmatically ‘female gothic’ works such as Ann Radcliffe’s. Zofloya reflects another dimension of this objection – it is written by a female but ‘in the style of the first edition of The Monk. That is, it follows the pattern laid down by the male writer Matthew Lewis in its use of the real supernatural, scenes of visceral violence, and the corruption of the central character. Clearly, the sex of the writer does not guarantee a peculiarly male or female form.
Margaret Davison’s suggests that we ‘take a lesson from critics of the Female Bildungsroman who employ the designation ‘Female’ simply in a descriptive manner to identify the sex of the protagonist involved.’ Zofloya, based on this description, is ‘female gothic’. Despite the title referring to a Moorish slave/servant, Zofloya focuses on the story of Victoria and her own ‘coming-of-age’ story from a ‘wild, ardent, and irrepressible’ girl to a woman to whom the devil himself paid the ‘compliment’ that ‘few venture as far as thou has ventured in the alarming paths of sin.’ This definition suggests that Zofloya is ‘female gothic’ but, again, we must call into question the definition itself. The gender identity of the main protagonist is important because it places a female or a male experience at the centre of the novel. Moer’s widely accepted reading of Frankenstein (1818) as a birth myth, suggests that the main protagonist need not be female for the central experience delineated to be female. Understanding this to be the case, the sex of the protagonist loses importance as a defining characteristic.
The implied reader could point us towards the ‘female gothic’. The opinion of critics contemporary to Dacre was that the ‘fair sex’ were the presumed readers ‘the principal supporters of writing of this kind. There appears to be no differentiation between the types of gothic in this perceived consumption. We must then look within the text at the specifically implied reader to find any distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’ gothic trends. In the early Gothic, the ‘moral’ can help to locate this implied reader. Zofloya’s final moral- ‘Reader…over their passions and their weaknesses, mortals cannot keep a curb too strong,’– appears to be unisex. It is clearly related, however, to the moral downfall of the female protagonist and therefore to female transgression. A clearer appeal to a female reader is evident in the oft-repeated moral reflections on the culpability of a mother ‘whose criminal desertion of [her] offspring entailed upon them such misery and degradation.’ However, while this criterion again points to Zofloya as a ‘female gothic’ work, it is problematic. The implied reader is often unclear especially in more modern fiction and to suggest that women only write for women is insultingly reductive.
‘The presence of the female’ – in the guise of writer, implied reader or main character – is ultimately insufficient as a defining characteristic of the ‘female gothic’ but its presence in some form in most if not all works defined as ‘female gothic’ suggests its validity as a signifier. Its threefold presence in Zofloya, therefore, strongly ties the work to the ‘female gothic’. Much criticism, however, has viewed Zofloya as non-‘female gothic’. In the next post, I will explore some of the formulations which have led to this view by looking at Zofloya in the light of conceptions of the ‘female gothic’ based on aesthetics and plot formulations.
Running maidens and unreal threats
In the previous blog, I looked at the ‘presence of the female’ as a defining characteristic of the ‘female gothic’. It was seen to be insufficient as a defining characteristic of the ‘female gothic’ but its threefold presence in Zofloya associates the work strongly the ‘female gothic’. Why, then, is Zofloya so often linked with a male tradition of the gothic? Definitions which have focused on aesthetic or plot, like Ann William’s in Art of Darkness, are chiefly responsible for this tendency and in this post, I will investigate Zofloya in the light of such definitions.
Zofloya’s close association with Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) is the reason many critics have associated it with the male tradition. In terms of narrative, Zofloya’s central plot of a figure seduced by a devil to deeds of increasing violence is the most obvious connection, following a similar pattern from murder to rape to murder. There are also a number of scenes in Zofloya which owe an obvious debt to The Monk such as the death scene of Victoria which echoes Ambrosio’s fate – tricked by the demon and cast down from a great height.
While there are obvious connections to The Monk, there are equally heavy debts owed by Zofloya to the plots of ‘female gothic’ texts. Ann Williams outlined a ‘female plot of gothic fiction’ with a usefully brief formula: a victimized heroine, a home of initiation which she will have to leave, a suitor, a male antagonist, a female antagonist, a confidante and a happily ever after.’ At first glance, Zofloya does not appear to reflect this standard plot – being hurled into an abyss is hardly a happy ending, nor does a sexually voracious murderer quite fit the bill as a victimised heroine. However, as Kim Michasiw points out, until about half-way through Zofloya, Victoria occupies the position of a ‘persecuted Radcliffean heroine.’ She loses her parents; the tyrannical Count Ardolph exiles her from her home; Signora di Modena imprisons her; the servant Catau helps her escape; and Berenza plays the suitor. She is not the ‘sentimental heroine’ found in so much Gothic fiction but she undergoes many of the same trials suggesting as big a debt to the works of Radcliffe et al. as to The Monk. It is also worth noting that the plot of Victoria’s downfall echoes that of Lewis’ Ambrosio but equally that of such Radcliffean femme fatales as Laurentini in Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Dacre merely recasts them in the leading role.
Any critical approach looking at plot elements to define ‘female gothic’ highlights the fact that Dacre draws from both ‘male’ and ‘female’ traditions. An investigation of Zofloya also highlights the weakness of these theories: the narrow rigidity of their criteria which conflate (an overly-homogenized view of) the Radcliffe school with the wider ‘female gothic’. They offer no place for works like Zofloya which repurposes elements of these plots or for later incarnations of the gothic, such as Frankenstein, which increasingly deviate from the early incarnations of the Gothic.
Aesthetic definitions of the ‘female gothic’ have a similar tendency to appeal to a Radcliffean model by allying the ‘female gothic’ with ‘terror’ and the ‘male gothic’ with ‘horror’. This distinction between terror and horror is based on Radcliffe’s essay, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826) in which she argues that terror ‘expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life’ and horror ‘contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.’ Terror is created through ‘uncertainty and obscurity’, so that the thing feared remains ultimately unexperienced or is proven to be unreal. Thus, the ‘terror school’ is associated with sublime yet menacing landscapes, dark passages, unidentified noises, unseen threats and the explained supernatural. In contrast, the ‘horror’ school is associated with visceral violence, the real supernatural and horrendous images which inspire physical horror in the readers. Zofloya bears the hallmark of the horror school in her inclusion of real supernatural agents and the almost voyeuristic focus on violence. Take for example the ‘practice murder’ of Lilla’s elderly relative where the reader is forced to stand by and witness how “Zofloya … compressed her withered throat with his dark hand, and the sounds, half-formed, rattled within it.’
While her use of ‘horror’ links her to a male tradition, we must be careful not to dichotomise the two schools. As Edward Jacobs argues, most ‘horror’ Gothic writers themselves also reproduced ‘terror’ Gothic conventions.’ So, for example, while Victoria is insensible to nature, many of the scenes themselves reflect the same aesthetic of ‘lonely solemn grandeur.’ The gendering of ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ is also overly simplistic. The techniques of horror are not limited to the male writer as Zofloya demonstrates. There is also a more general historical trend, as social mores and the boundaries of the acceptable change, towards more ‘on-stage’ violence, sex and horror. To hold the works of later centuries to a ‘terror’ standard popularised in the 18th is to ignore historical and social trends in our investigation of the ‘female gothic’.
Both aesthetic and plot-based definitions of ‘female gothic’ tend to produce an overly-limiting set of boundaries. They are tied too specifically to a perception of Radcliffean Gothic which takes little account of the existence of later manifestations of the gothic. Zofloya highlights the limits of these theories by containing elements of both schools delineated, blurring the boundaries between them. In the next post, we will look at definitions which take into account a wider use of the term ‘female gothic’ by focusing on the underlying themes and concerns of the novels.
In my previous post, the aesthetic and plot-based definitions of the ‘female gothic’ investigated, proved too restricting and failed to categorise Zofloya which crossed many of the boundaries they erected. In this post, I will be analysing Zofloya in the light of broader based theories. I will investigate the mostly feminist definitions that categorise the ‘female gothic’ as offering an underlying ‘peculiarly female’ subtext concerned with women’s ‘generally repressed fears and desires.’
Ellen Moers coined the term ‘female gothic’ and also introduced the concept of the ‘female gothic’ as exploring uniquely feminine experiences and concerns and redefining female identity. Her reading of Radcliffe’s works led her to associate the ‘female gothic’ with ‘heroinism’, an inspiring new literary ideal of femininity with a heroine who ‘moves, who acts, who copes with vicissitude and adventure.’ The extremity of their gothic circumstances provided the license needed to act in unconventional ways. In Zofloya, Victoria clearly does not provide us with such an alternative model of female behaviour. Lilla’s characterisation is far closer to the ‘sentimental’ Radcliffean heroine. However, rather than offering an inspiring model, her virtue and innocence leave her defenceless against the wiles and ferocity of Victoria and lead to her horrifying death.
Zofloya highlights the ’fantasies about the power of femininity’ inherent in the ‘female gothic’ portrayal of the triumphant sentimental heroine and also parodies it in her portrayal of Victoria. Victoria knowingly ‘plays the heroine’, for example in her show of obedience to Signora di Modena, which is really fuelled by a ‘desire for revenge, deep and implacable.’ The technique is successful but only when exploited deliberately to be discarded when convenient. This practice of ‘playing the heroine’ very clearly echoes Hoeveler’s concept of ‘professional femininity’ in the ‘female gothic’. For her, the ‘female gothic’ is marked by a type of victim feminism which relies on ‘women constructing themselves as victims in their own literature’ to justify a condemnation of their ‘oppressors.’ While Hoeveler does not approve of this portrayal of women as victims, she nonetheless classifies it as feminism while she judges Zofloya to be profoundly misogynistic suggesting it isn’t ‘female gothic’. Such a position at first seems contradictory. However, it is this cynical usage by a character which Hoeveler objects to, especially when that character is ‘punished’ by the text. For Hoeveler, Zofloya is an incredibly conservative text which condemns female sexuality. She sees the destruction of Lilla as a portrayal of the danger inherent in everything that Victoria represents.
Other readings have seen the death of Lilla as a profoundly feminist moment in which Victoria destroys the fetishized version of femininity represented by Lilla. The portrayal of Victoria suggests this second interpretation is more viable. As the central character, she is portrayed with a psychological complexity which precludes her being a mere symbol of iniquity. We are offered extenuating circumstances for her downfall, such as the paucity of her education, and evidence of redeeming qualities, such as bravery. She is also allowed her own voice, which at times challenges the stated narratorial interpretation. Victoria’s assessment of Berenza, for example, as a ‘selfish and unworthy wretch, that played upon my youth,’ contradicts the eulogising tone of the narrator’s view. It reminds us of the bare facts of his initial seduction of an under-aged girl he deemed ‘unworthy of becoming his wife’.
While clearly not entirely sympathetic, Victoria is a fully-formed character who resists a simplified ‘misogynistic’ reading like Hoeveler’s. Zofloya does not offer an inspiringly virtuous heroine but this does not preclude it ‘rewriting’ the female. The monstrosity of Victoria itself relates to female experience, it can be seen as acting as a dark double of the author reflecting her own ambiguous relationship with repressed elements of her own identity. Rather than offering an idealised version of femininity, Zofloya portrays realities of female experience – the limiting choices, the insufficiency of female education, and the experience of a broad spectrum of emotions. In suggesting that ‘rewriting the female’ is an intrinsic part of the ‘female gothic’ we cannot define a priori what that rewriting will resemble. Victoria’s downward spiral is as much an exploration of concepts of feminine identity as an Emily’s quest for rational sensibility.
Many critic suggest that the ‘female gothic’ expresses fears and concerns particular to women in that it ‘registers the confinement of women in pre-ordained social, sexual … roles’ by focusing on patriarchal tyrants and confined or victimized women. Zofloya is seemingly lacking in patriarchal tyrants and while Victoria originally follows a similar pattern to a traditionally persecuted heroine, she quickly takes over the role of villain and oppressor. However, we must be careful when looking at any attempt to ‘a priori’ define the fears and concerns of women. We run the risk of universalising female experience. In Zofloya the experience of women is as strongly discussed as in more traditionally ‘female gothic’ works. In the cases of Victoria, Catau, Laurina and Megalena, Zofloya depicts the realities of life and lack of options for fallen or socially disadvantaged women. We must also be careful in seeking a female subtext not to ignore the other concerns of the work. In Zofloya, for example, issues of class and race are arguably equally important. A definition of the ‘female gothic’ which focuses on the representation of female experience offers the most coherent, yet flexible, way to define the ‘female gothic’. We must, though, be careful to ensure it is non-prescriptive and sensitive to other concerns.
So, it’s time to answer that original question: is Zofloya a ‘female gothic’ work? It was written by a woman about a woman to women. It features elements of the ‘terror’ aesthetic and engages with the plot conventions of the earlier Radcliffean female gothic. And, most importantly, it engages actively with the rewriting of women and the expression of female experience. It may not be what we expect from a ‘female gothic’ work but it is, unequivocally ‘female gothic.’
Bibliography – Works consulted
Anolik, Ruth Bienstock, ‘Introduction: The Dark Unknown’ in The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination edited by Ruth Bienstock Anolik and Douglas L. Hurd, (London: McFarland, 2004)
Botting, Fred, Gothic,(London: Routledge, 1996)
Burley, Stephanie, ‘The Death of Zofloya; or, The Moor as Epistemological Limit’ in The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination edited by Ruth Bienstock Anolik and Douglas L. Hurd, (London: McFarland, 2004)
Byron, George, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers: A Satire, third edition, (London: James Cawthorn, 1810)
Clery, E. J., Women’s Gothic: From Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley, second edition, (Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers, 2004)
Dacre, Charlotte, Zofloya, or The Moor, (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1997)
Davison, Margaret Carol, Gothic Literature 1764 – 1824, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009)
Ellis, Kate Ferguson, The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989)
Ellis, Martin, The History of Gothic Fiction, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000)
Figes, Eva, Sex and Subterfuge: Women Writers to 1850 – Eva Figes (London: MacMillan, 1980)
Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan,The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979)
Hoeveler, Diane Long, Gothic Feminism: The professionalization of gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës, (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1998)
Howard, Jacqueline, Reading Gothic Fiction: A Bakhtinian Approach, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)
Jacobs, Edward, ‘Radcliffe, genericism and gender’ in Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic edited by Dale Townshend and Angela Wright, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Keane, Angela, Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Lewis, Matthew, The Monk, (London: Penguin, 1998)
Michasiw, Kim Ian, ‘Introduction’ to Zofloya, of The Moor, (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1997)
Moers, Ellen, Literary Women, (London: Women’s Press Limited, 1986)
Moers, Ellen, ‘Female Gothic: The Monster’s Mother’ in The New York Book Review, March 21 1974 issue
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1974/mar/21/female-gothic-the-monsters-mother/> [accessed 11.11.2015]
Radcliffe, Ann, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ in Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook 1700-1820 edited by E.J. Clery and Robert Miles, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)
Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho, (London: Penguin books, 2001)
Smith, Andrew and Wallace, Diana, ‘The Female Gothic: Then and Now’ in Gothic Studies, 6:2, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), pp1-7
< http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/manup/gothst/2004/00000006/00000002> [accessed 10.11.2015]
Williams, Ann, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of the Gothic, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995)
W.W., ‘On the Effects of Novels’ in Gothic Documents: A sourcebook 1700-1820 edited by E.J. Clery and Robert miles, ((Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)
Anon, ‘Address to the Fair Sex’ in The Ladies Companion, (London: Robinson and Robert, 1770)
 Ellen Moers, ‘Female Gothic: The Monster’s Mother’ in The New York Book Review, March 21 1974 issue <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1974/mar/21/female-gothic-the-monsters-mother/> [accessed 11.11.2015]
 Kim Ian Michasiw, ‘Introduction’ to Zofloya, or The Moor, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pxxvi
 Ellen Moers, Literary Women, (London: Women’s Press Limited, 1986), p90
 Ibid., p90
 Based on the work of Fred Botting, Ann Williams, Carol Margaret Davison and Jacqueline Howard.
 Picture taken from Corvey Women Writers on the Web, <https://www2.shu.ac.uk/corvey/cw3/authors/CD1-f.jpg> [accessed 14.11.2015]
 Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace, ‘The Female Gothic: Then and Now’ in Gothic Studies, 6:2, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), p1-7
< http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/manup/gothst/2004/00000006/00000002> [accessed 10.11.2015]
 George Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers: A Satire, third edition, (London: James Cawthorn, 1810),p58
 Charlotte Dacre, Zofloya, of The Moor, (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1997), p4
 Ibid., p267
 Moers, The Monster’s Mother, whole article.
 W.W., ‘On the Effects of Novels’ in Gothic Documents: A sourcebook 1700-1820 edited by E.J. Clery and Robert miles, ((Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p211
 Dacre, Zofloya, p267
 Picture taken from a chapbook based on Zofloya. Daemon of Venice, (London: Tegg, 1810), cover page.
<http://www.nassrgrads.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/demon-of-venice.jpg> [accessed 13.11.2015]
 Picture taken from Matthew Lewis, The Monk, (Richmond: Valencourt, 2013) <http://valancourtbooks.tumblr.com/post/104605785976/out-now-in-a-beautiful-hardback-edition-gothic> [accessed 13.11.2015]
 Ann Williams, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of the Gothic, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), p256
 Kim Ian Michasiw, ‘Introduction’ to Zofloya, of The Moor, (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1997), pxvi
 E. J. Clery, Women’s Gothic: From Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley, second edition, (Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers, 2004), p14
 Ann Radcliffe, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ in Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook 1700-1820 edited by E.J. Clery and Robert Miles, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p168
 Ibid., p168
 Dacre, Zofloya, P175
 Jacobs, Edward, ‘Radcliffe, genericism and gender’ in Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic edited by Dale Townshend and Angela Wright, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p52
 Dacre, Zofloya, p202
 Margaret Carol Davison, Gothic Literature 1764 – 1824, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009), p91
 Ellen Moers, Literary Women, (London: Women’s Press Limited, 1986), p126
 Angela Keane, Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p3
 Charlotte Dacre, Zofloya, or The Moor, (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1997), p49
 Diane Long Hoeveler, Gothic Feminism: The professionalization of gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës, (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1998), p4
 Ibid., p15
 Dacre, Zofloya, p146
 Ibid., p127
 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar,The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p78/79
 Davison, Gothic Literature, p14