Ever since its inception, the gothic novel has been a curious mixture of over-exaggerated cliché and transgressive boundary pushing. On the one hand, the gothic novel has dealt liberally in tropes such as vampires, bloodlust, disembodied souls and wandering corpses, but it has also explored liminal states such as dreams and the unconscious, and through various literary devices, the very notion of boundaries itself.
Consistent with this characterisation, the women in gothic novels have been either two dimensional ciphers, hysterical screaming maidens in disarray as they flee through the underground mazes of castles and graveyards, or more complex heroines with a depth of passion and self- awareness that transcends their socio-historical situation. This characterisation has often depended on whether the novel in question is penned by a male or female author.
In fact, female authored gothic novels such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and even Angela Carters modern classics from her short story collection The Bloody Chamber, use the themes and conventions such as madness and fairy tale, to explore traditional restrictions around women’s roles in society and along the way, often subvert these radically.
Using fantasy, fairy tale and fugue states, dreams and dissociation, the writers of female gothic novels present us with alluring and engaging worlds within which women act out powerful new roles and dynamics. Indeed, the ubiquitous modern phenomenon of the hit series Game of Thrones uses gothic and fantasy elements in its depiction of the powerful heroines at the heart of its narrative. Through dreams and prophecies, mythical beasts, all-consuming emotions and elemental imagery, the female characters are defined and reinforced with powerful iconography.
I use Game of Thrones as an example here because it is a modern hit with global audiences, which has reverberated strongly through the collective psyche, and yet it is set in a world distinct from our own, a world with powerful women wrapped up in mystique and magic, but women who enact their own agency. For the most part, Game of Thrones, with its gothic elements and yet supremely modern depiction of the female psyche represents a compelling model for how female characters could be represented in contemporary fiction.
Of course, in Game of Thrones, and also in classic female gothic novels, women have to struggle against oppressive patriarchal structures that restrict the expression of their power and agency. This is somewhat less of a factor in the modern world, but it still exists, especially in some cultures, where women have less of a voice.
In my upcoming debut novel Never So Perfect set in London amongst a glamorous coterie of British Asian characters, I always had in mind the female gothic and its conventions as I developed the narrative of my heroine Mia. She is also somebody who has had a varied and complex journey, but the way her story reaches back into a dark past, and how this is then set against a glittering present that sometimes seems surreal and dreamlike to her, was my homage to the female gothic genre that has captivated my imagination ever since I first encountered it.
Delving into fugue states and exploring the boundaries of sanity in my own novel, and the way in which my heroine emerges from all this, fragile and yet powerful, transgressive and irreverent, with humanity and also humour, represents to me, my ideal of the modern female heroine – with a dash of gothic sensibility.
About the author of this post
Sobia Quazi has been writing on and off since she was a young child. Her early poems were published in a variety of poetry magazines, including The Frogmore Papers and Smoke. Eventually, she executed her escape from medical school and did her PhD in English Literature, dissecting a different kind of dead body, the spectral women of gothic novels and Japanese horror. She is still enthralled by all things dark and gothic, by the intricate webs of intertextuality, and by the transformative power of storytelling. Her first novel, Never So Perfect has been picked up by award-winning publishing company, Unbound, and is currently seeking crowdfunding. She tweets as @QuaziSobia