What's feminist about the gothic? Critics have answered either that the "female" gothic, as a genre written by and for women, speaks directly to women's issues, or that gothic novels by both women and men often subvert cultural constructions of femininity. Writing in these feminist traditions but complicating their notions of self and subversion, Diane Long Hoeveler invests this question with new relevance in Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. For Hoeveler, female gothic novels are feminist primarily in their conflicted, duplicitous "victim feminism," what she defines as "an ideology of female power through pretended and staged weakness" (p. 7). She examines canonical writers of the genre—Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Charlotte Dacre Byrne, Mary Shelley, and Emily and Charlotte Brontë—and argues that we should read their works as both rebelling against patriarchical limitations and "encourag[ing] women to assume subject positions of acquiescence and passivity" (p. 49), as simultaneously subverting and accommodating the status quo. Rather than depleting the female gothic of power, however, this contradiction is the source of its hold over the feminist imagination. By maintaining that the genre did not simply express but contributed to the evolution of victim feminism, Hoeveler suggests that the real question we should ask is, "What's gothic about feminism?"
Though approaching these novels from a variety of theoretical perspectives, Hoeveler specifically links the gothic's victim feminism to Norbert Elias's discussion of the "professionalization" of gender. In creating a new ideal of "the womanly man and the manly woman" (p. 46), the eighteenth-century middle class was also able to contain the aristocracy and the lower classes. Indeed, according to Hoeveler, not only does the professionalization of femininity dominate the female gothic, Smith, Radcliffe, Austen, Dacre, Shelley, and the Brontës each participated in its success through their construction of characters who embodied the new codes of conduct. At the heart of the gothic heroine's self-victimization, she explains, is the masquerade, a posture of emotional restraint, decorous reason, and "wise passiveness" (merely a kind of passive-aggression) that we recognize in heroines throughout the history of the genre. This masquerade enables the heroine to claim the ancestral estate as her own, providing the ur-plot of virtue rewarded with property and a compelling fantasy for readers. The regulating force of professionalized gender is, however, best evidenced by the fate of other stock gothic characters. Aristocratic, extravagant, gothic "anti-heroines," culminating in Jane Eyre's Bertha Mason, are subject to "the ultimate beating fantasy" and relentlessly punished (p. 190). So that he can be rescued from his corrupt, aristocratic lineage and made safe for his marriage to the heroine, the gothic hero, too, must be ritualistically wounded and feminized, the best example, of course, being the blind and maimed Rochester.
Because of the overarching concern of her study, Hoeveler is necessarily less interested in differences than in similarities within the female gothic tradition. (For Hoeveler, the gothic is not so much a genre as a "highly ideological signifying system" or tradition [p. 8].) Her model is nonetheless far from static, tracing the chronological (if familiar) rise and fall, from Smith's early work in the form, Emmeline, to the female gothic's final chapter in Villette. Emmeline begins the tradition's cultural work, Hoeveler argues, by teaching the lessons of professionalized gender through the heroine as "newly 'feminine feminine' woman" and the hero as "sentimentally feminized man" (p. 47). Two chapters devoted to A Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian examine Radcliffe's revision of Smith's pattern, through the creation of the permanently adolescent, "overly feminine gothic victim," who for Hoeveler is "a veritable professional girl-woman" (p. 54).
Subsequent female gothic novelists continued to define appropriate gender behavior, but they did so, Hoeveler maintains, in increasingly complicated ways. Austen's Northanger Abbey, Dacre's Zofloya, and Shelley's Mathilda turn to satire, hyperbole, and melodrama, Austen and Dacre emphasizing the tradition's "issues" while downplaying its extravagances (p. 125), and all three responding to Mary Wollstonecraft's theories of female education. In fact, Hoeveler suggests that with the exception of Smith, who published Emmeline four years before A Vindication of the Rights of Woman appeared, each of these novelists addresses Wollstonecraft, making for some tantalizing, if undeveloped, suggestions for her role in the female gothic tradition. Though British culture was thoroughly professionalized and, as a result, the female gothic lacked meaning for female readers by the time the Brontës entered the scene, Hoeveler suggests that their novels are in some ways the tradition's most successful: Jane Eyre is the standard of the female gothic canon, Charlotte Brontë its "most self-conscious and controlled" novelist (p. 223), and Villette's Lucy Snowe the only heroine to achieve the self-defeating dream of escaping "that most gothic of nightmares, the female body" (p. 241).
If there are any limitations to Gothic Feminism, they stem from its sometimes programmatic emphasis on the female gothic. Over the last ten years, as Hoeveler herself notes, critics have looked at the genre more broadly, arguing that gothic novels by women are best understood in relation to the "male" gothic. Hoeveler's otherwise well-sustained counter-argument, that we must examine women's gothic writing as its own tradition, reveals its limitations when this tradition becomes the sole measure for a novel with clear ties to the male gothic such as Zofloya. Compared to the romance plots and explained supernaturalism of, say, Radcliffe, Dacre's novel does indeed stand out as "the most eccentric female gothic ever penned" (p. 148). But when set aside The Monk, Matthew Lewis' cornerstone of the male gothic tradition, Zofloya's heroine-killing and devil-dealing look like gothic business as usual. Which is not to say that Hoeveler entirely neglects male writers. She briefly considers male gothicists and makes interesting points about Henry Siddon's and James Boaden's dramatic interpretations of Radcliffe's novels. Primarily, however, the male counterparts to the women writers of her study (and perhaps her real "heroes") are the male romantic poets of her earlier book, Romantic Androgyny: The Women Within (1990), since they too were engaged in an "androgynous compulsion" (p. 92). If such details as Dacre's debt to Lewis get lost, it is because Gothic Feminism is part of a larger, more ambitious attempt to describe both the male (romantic) and female (gothic) response to shifts in Western European notions of gender during the eighteenth century.
Gothic Feminism's nearly exclusive focus on women writers, however, also reveals its strength. Hoeveler's determination to present the female gothic tradition on its own terms, while resisting earlier feminist critics' tendencies to romanticize even its most problematic aspects, reveals a history that both synthesizes insights of previous scholarship and offers a deeply original vision, not the least of which is the grand prospect of these novels in the context of her larger project. As a result, Hoeveler certainly adds to scholarship on the gothic (female or otherwise), and particularly the relatively uncharted territories of Smith's and Dacre's works. But more than this, she contributes substantially to our understanding of the history of feminism, and especially possible roles the gothic had to play in the development of both the misogynistic strand of "victim" feminism and the nearly gender-neutral positions of "professionalized" gender. In so doing, Hoeveler continues an ongoing discussion about the ways in which literature, and increasingly the gothic, not only reflect back to us our culture, but also shape it.