Diane Long Hoeveler, Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-271-01809-7. Price: $40.[Record]

  • Lauren Fitzgerald

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  • Lauren Fitzgerald
    Yeshiva University

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 …