Marked by the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, the death of the 'classic' Gothic novel saw the genre disperse into a variety of fictional forms during the 19th century. In its broadest sense, Victorian Gothic fiction captured the growing public anxiety regarding Britain's economic power and changing gender roles. Mid-Victorian Gothic is more specifically discernible by its disruption of patriarchal ideals of the Victorian home, while end-of-the-century Gothic replicates the sense of deepening gloom that was proclaimed to be suffusing late-19th century society. Modern critical understanding of Victorian Gothic has typically been shaped by the fiction of canonical male writers including Sheridan le Fanu, Henry James, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Machen and H. G. Wells. However, it was in fact female authors such as Ellen Wood, Amelia B. Edwards, Charlotte Riddell, Florence Marryat, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, Vernon Lee (pseudonym of Violet Paget) and Edith Nesbit who helped popularise the spectral tradition. Jenny Uglow notes that, because 'they were written as unpretentious entertainments, ghost stories seemed to give their writers a licence to experiment, to push the boundaries of fiction a little further'. Gothic fiction allowed female authors to explore issues around property and inheritance, women's financial dependency, and their position as wives, mothers and daughters. Granting the writers the ability to explore controversial and taboo subjects more explicitly than they would have been able to in their realist novels, Gothic fiction can be seen as an important part of the female protest movement of the Victorian period.
Haunted Houses and Weird Stories by Charlotte Riddell
In Haunted Houses and Weird Stories, Charlotte Riddell rewrites the Victorian property plot by using the haunted house, a staple of Victorian Gothic fiction, to advocate for greater economic rights for women and a corresponding transformation in the marriage relationship. Although little-known today, Charlotte Riddell was a prolific and relatively popular author during her lifetime. The consequences of married women's economic powerlessness are central to the four haunted house stories in Weird Stories: in 'Walnut-Tree House', Edgar Stainton inherits a dilapidated house in South London which he soon discovers is haunted by the ghost of a young boy; 'The Open Door' tells the story of Phil, a young man who is fired from his monotonous city job and so in an effort to win the respect of his sweetheart's family attempts to solve the mystery of a door which will not stay closed; in 'The Old House in Vauxhall Walk', the young male protagonist is visited in his dreams by a monstrous woman whose murderers he eventually manages to bring to justice; in 'Old Mrs Jones', the final story in Weird Stories, neighbourhood rumours of a ghost are proved to be true when lodgers report seeing the former inhabitant's wife with her throat marked by strangulation bruises. The two stories within Haunted Houses follow a similar vein. In 'An Uninhabited House' the hauntings are seen through the perspective of the solicitors who hold the deeds of the property. Riddell mixes a shrewd comedic skewering of this host of scriveners and clerks with a realist approach to the consequences of a 'haunted house' - how does one let such a property? In 'Fairy Water', Riddell again subverts the expectations of the reader by suggesting a complex moral character for her haunting spirit.
Wing of Azrael by Mona Caird
One of the most prominent figures of the New Woman movement (the beginnings of organised feminism), Mona Caird was one of the most important feminist writers of her generation and yet her name is now known only in academic circles. The majority of Caird's novels dramatize the contemporary repressive patriarchal institution of marriage: one such novel is Wing of Azrael which vividly portrays a woman's experience of marital violence. In love with Harry Lancaster, Viola Sedley, the heroine of the novel, is forced by her family to marry the arrogant and sadistic Sir Philip Dendraith in order to prevent their financial ruin. Viola is repeatedly subjected to both physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband. Viola's narrative control and psychonarration ensures that the reader is placed in the feminine position, forced, as she is, to experience these night-time horrors. Unable at times to comprehend and articulate the horrors she faces at the hands of her husband, Viola's story is shockingly still relevant and deals with the same questions which arise in modern debates on domestic abuse. Read our full review here.
The Face in the Glass by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Featuring stories of a young girl whose love for her fiancé continues even after her death; a sinister old lady with claw-like hands who cares little for the qualities of her companions provided they are young and full of life; and a haunted mirror that drains the beauty from those who gaze into its depths and reflects back a withered old age. These are just a few of the haunting and terrifying tales collected in this new collection of macabre short stories by Victorian heavy-weight Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The Face in the Glass highlights the deliciously dark imagination of Braddon, an author increasingly seen as one of the finest and most entertaining of her generation. This is the first selection of Braddon's supernatural short stories to be widely available in over 100 years. By turns curious, sinister, haunting and terrifying, each tale explores in dazzling fashion the dark shadows beyond the rational world.
The Power of Darkness by Edith Nesbit
Edith Nesbit, best known today as the author of The Railway Children, was also associated with the ghost story and tales of terror in her day. Her ghost stories, in which the returning dead feature strongly, have sadly been neglected for many years, but now, at last, they are back in print. In this wonderful collection of eerie, flesh-creeping stories, the reader encounters love that transcends the grave, reanimated corpses, vampiric vines, vengeful ghosts and other dark delights. Nesbit places the horrors of syphilis at the centre of her gothic short story aptly titled 'The Shadow'. Published the same year that Fritz Schaudinn and Erich Hoffman discovered the causative agent of syphilis, Nesbit's story exploits the mysterious, and it could be argued spectral, nature of syphilis during the 19th century. Nesbit centres her ghost story around this invisible disease and the hidden and horrifying effects it could have on a middle-class family. These ghostly stories, tinged with horror, are told in a bold, forthright manner that makes them seem as fresh and unsettling as today's headlines.