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The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction

  • George Haggerty

…plus d’informations

  • George Haggerty
    University of California, Riverside

Why is gothic fiction always already queer? If the answer is as complex as I think it is—complex enough to warrant the larger project of which this essay is a part—it is also remarkably simple. Transgressive social-sexual relations are the most basic common denominator of gothic, and from the moment in the early pages of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) when Walpole’s anti-hero Manfred presses his suit on the fiancée of his deceased son (and she flees into the “long labyrinth of darkness” in the “subterraneous” regions of the castle [27]), a gothic trope is fixed. Terror is almost always sexual terror: fear and flight, as well as incarceration and escape, are almost always coloured by the exoticism of transgressive sexual aggression. It is no mere coincidence that the cult of gothic fiction reached its apex at the very moment when gender and sexuality were beginning to be codified for modern culture. In fact, gothic fiction offered a testing ground for many unauthorized genders and sexualities, including sodomy, tribadism, romantic friendship (male and female), incest, paedophilia, sadism, masochism, necrophilia, cannibalism, masculinized females, feminized males, miscegenation, and so on. In this sense, it offers an historical model of queer theory and politics: transgressive, sexually coded, and resistant to dominant ideology. [1] My larger purpose is to examine gothic fiction in order to relate it to the history of sexuality, as articulated by Michel Foucault and others, in order to rethink the assumptions behind a Foucauldian understanding of the history of sexuality itself. Joseph Bristow offers a useful summary of the emergence of the concept of sexuality in the later nineteenth century (1-11). From that perspective these works predate sexuality’s codification. But by predating, they also prepare the ground, as I hope these pages will show, for later developments in sexological studies. Less obvious, and less richly discussed, has been the gothic representation of Catholicism and its relation to the complex notions of sexual behaviours and sexual obsessions that these works invoke.

Catholicism emerges from the historical setting to play an active role in most gothic novels. In Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), a Catholic chapel provides one of the key sites of the action, and the unassuming Father Jerome, the local cleric, himself holds a significant position in the denouement of the action. More to the point, however, is the mood of religious sentiment that suffuses the whole. When Manfred decides to divorce his wife Hippolita in favour of his dead son’s fiancée Isabella, the transgression is personal and sexual—the incestuous implications of such a bond are by no means ignored—but it is also a violation of the religious law that sanctifies marriage. Manfred asks the priest to persuade his wife “to consent to the dissolution of our marriage and retire into a monastery” (50). Hippolita’s continual prayers emphasize this connection and involve Matilda in her world of private devotion. When Matilda is murdered by her father, moreover, she has been meeting Theodore in the chapel of Otranto, and her stabbing has all the markings of martyrdom as well as of Manfred’s incestuous sexual aggression. To a certain extent, these two things are the same. Matilda’s blind belief in her father, her devotion to his power and wisdom, and her refusal to accept him as inherently evil, all lead to her demise, and as she dies she blesses him and prays for his forgiveness. I have argued elsewhere (see Men in Love, chapter 6) that Manfred has reversed the trajectories of Freud’s Oedipal arrangement. He murders his son in order to marry his daughter; he destroys his (other) daughter in the violence of his lust. Manfred’s incestuous sexual violence becomes a nightmare of broken bodies and violated graves. This guilty patriarch’s attempts to force himself on the younger generation—Conrad, Isabella, Matilda, and Theodore—cause his dispossession. The heteronormativity of paternal power is itself the perversion here, and Walpole reminds us that the son and daughter must be sacrificed to the increasingly impotent and destructive sexual demands of the aging father. At the same time, as father Jerome reminds the hero, Manfred offends more than the family: “Profane prince! [. . .] is it at the altar that you choosest to insult the servants of the altar?—But, Manfred, thy impious schemes are known. Heaven [. . .] know[s] them” (93). [2]

By placing this violence in the chapel of Otranto and suffusing the scene with the air of a religious sacrifice, Walpole makes a subtle connection between the heteronormativity of sexual violence and the patriarchal law of the father that Catholicism insists upon. “The following work was found in the library of an ancient catholic family,” Walpole tells us in the preface to the first edition of the novel, and “the principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity” ([5]). The gothic terms of the work—the sexual hysterics and violently destructive abuse—have greater meaning because of the religious terms in which they are couched. Sexuality itself, that is, depends on its religious context to exert its full cultural significance. Sexuality and religion are not opposite poles from which to understand the action of the novel: they are inextricably bound in the cultural imagination. Walpole understands that clearly enough to couch his sexual excesses in religious terms.

Later gothic fiction makes this connection explicit by returning again and again to convent and monastery as a way to explore same-sex and otherwise transgressive desire. It is no accident that these repeated dramatizations of love between men and love between women take place in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These dramatizations are not ancillary to the history of sexuality or a by-product of a development in sexology. Because they anticipate sexological analysis at precisely the moment when these questions had begun to be explored, they themselves could serve as chapters in the history of sexuality. It is a commonplace to suggest that “homosexuality” emerged in the 1870s, when it was named and codified, at least tentatively. [3] But an earlier and very necessary process of popularization exists right here: Catholic gothic fiction and the history of sexuality, for this moment at least, overlap in countless ways. [4]

When in The Monk (1796), Matthew G. Lewis uses the details of conventual life to suggest lurid forms of sexual excess such as necromancy, incest, matricide, and same-sex love, he does not need to explain his choice of a Catholic setting, a Mediterranean country (Spain, not Italy in this case), or religious life itself. [5] All these things, to the English imagination at least, make such easy, rational sense that Lewis could assume a general understanding of (and even assent to) his extravagant posturing. And while reviewers criticized Lewis’s excess, they never suggested that his portrayal of Catholic monastic life was inappropriate. [6] If the novel can be considered sensational, that is not because anyone objected to the portrayal of the characters themselves: oversexed and violent Catholic priests, victimizing and vindictive nuns, devil worship and self-abuse. These and other lurid sexual possibilities were common popular perceptions of conventual life in Mediterranean countries.

The Gordon riots in 1780 revealed the depth and breadth of anti-Catholic feeling in England in the later eighteenth century. [7] The Catholic Relief Act passed by parliament in 1778 was meant to alleviate the plight of Catholics in the smallest ways, but it was widely viewed as a threat to English independence. As Colin Haydon argues, “the Act seemed objectionable on a number of counts. It seemed to violate the Protestant constitution as established in 1689 [. . .]. It formally suspended the old restrictions on Popish priests and it was felt that this new license might allow them to win converts. Above all, it aided a group which had long been represented by those in authority as dangerous and seditious” (206). The depth of this feeling is expressed in such popular publications as the Appeal from the Protestant Association to the People of Great Britain (1779): “To design the Advancement of POPERY, is to design the Ruin of the State, and the Destruction of the Church; it is to sacrifice the Nation to a double Slavery, to prepare Chains both for their Bodies and their Minds”—this was the kind of language that was used in popular pamphlets to inspire resistance to the Relief Law (qtd. in Haydon 210). [8] With cries of “No Popery” rioters raided the homes of prominent Catholics and Catholic sympathizers in London and in other important centres. “At the chapel in Duke Street, a dead dog with a crucifix between its paws was hung up against a wall of the building,” and at other places chapels were smashed and altars were paraded through the streets (Haydon 234). Some of the violence of the Gordon Riots, in other words, makes the excesses of gothic fiction seem almost tame.

Of course by the time that most gothic novels were written, there were other reasons to fear Catholicism or at least the political forces that emerged from Catholic countries. The anti-Jacobin feeling of the nineties, combined with a horror at the perceived barbarities of the French Revolution, exacerbated the mood that Haydon described and meant in short that villainous continentals were all the rage. The logic of anti-Catholicism is not exactly congruent with the political conservatism of the anti-Jacobin movement, but neither public sentiment at large, nor the bulk of popular gothic novels, can be accused of being systematically political, thematically consistent, or even regularly coherent. The fear expressed in anti-Catholic writing of the nineties is as deeply rooted as it was in the eighties, as the rhetoric of both Jacobin and anti-Jacobin writing suggests. [9] The barbarities reported from France, the excesses of the response to historical injustice, and the horror at pubic execution, are balanced by the seeming overthrow of the religion that had haunted English imaginations throughout the century. [10]

At the same time, and not coincidentally, attitudes about sexuality were similarly shaped by attitudes toward Catholics and Catholic countries. Throughout the eighteenth century, it was a commonplace that sodomy was imported from Italy and France, if not from more exotic locales, and often the monastery and convent were seen as the precise locale where same-sex desire could flourish. In one of the standard texts of the eighteenth century, this familiar quotation makes these relations explicit. The writer is complaining about the “fashion” of men kissing in public:

This Fashion was brought over from Italy, (the Mother and Nurse of Sodomy); where the Master is oftener Intriguing with his Page, than a fair Lady. And not only in that Country, but in France, which copies from them, the Contagion is diversify’d, and the Ladies (in the Nunneries) are criminally amorous of each other, in a Method too gross for Expression. I must be so partial to my own Country-Women, to affirm, or, at least, hope they claim no Share of this Charge; but must confess, when I see two Ladies Kissing and Slopping each other, in a lascivious Manner, and frequently repeating it, I am shock’d to the last Degree. [11]

Satan’s Harvest 51-52

This passage is not unique in the eighteenth century, nor is it out of keeping with the other passages I have considered. Sodomy is a contagion that has spread from the continent, a disease that threatens the island nation like rabies or the plague. In almost the same breath, but parenthetically, it emerges from a convent. The Catholic connection here is subtle but insistent. Italy and Italians, as well as Italian religion, politics, and culture, combine to represent sexual transgression. In a recent discussion of “The Import of Sodomy,” John C. Beynon cites several cases in which sodomy and Italy are connected in suggestive ways. Bernard Mandeville, in his A Modest Defense of the Public Stews (1724), for instance, names Pope Sixtus VI as the source of sodomy. Because he attempted to suppress female courtesans, the argument runs, men turned to one another for sexual solace (Mandeville 7-8). It is intriguing to think that a pope could be cited as the source of sodomy, but that is in keeping with the religio-political climate that I have described.

In his discussion of attitudes earlier in the century, Cameron McFarlane says that “just as the representation of the sodomite is refracted through the social structures of the gender and class hierarchies, it also intersects with a discourse of xenophobia directed particularly toward the Catholic countries of France and Italy” (55). McFarlane makes it clear how politically (in the larger sense) useful the association “Italian/Catholic/sodomite” became throughout the country and how it functioned in political satire as well as in broadsides such as Satan’s Harvest Home (80). Charles Churchill codifies these attitudes for the later century in his poem The Times:

With our island vices not content,
We rob our neighbours on the continent;
Dance Europe round, and visit every court,
To ape their follies and their crimes import.
To diff’rent lands for diff’rent sins we roam,
And richly freighted, bring our cargo home,
Nobly adventurous to make vice appear
In her full state, and perfect only here[. . .]
ITALIA, nurse of ev’ry softer art,
Who, feigning to refine, unmans the heart. [12]

lines 177-84

In one short passage, Churchill attacks the notion of the Grand Tour, the vice of Catholic countries, and the danger of foreign trade. He emphasizes the criminal and sinful aspects of sexual transgression and suggests that Italy is a particular danger for young English travellers. Later in the poem, he makes the terms of his fear of the continent more specific. (“Women are kept for nothing but the breed; / For pleasure, we must have a GANYMEDE, / A fine, fresh, HYLAS, a delicious boy, / To serve our purposes of beastly joy” [331-34]). In talking about how to educate a son, he writes:

Give him no tutor—throw him to a punk,
Rather than trust his morals to a monk;
Monks we all know—we, who have lived,
From fair report, and travellers, who roam,
More feelingly


Churchill is circumspect in his expressions, but the implications are clear. Monks transgress in ways that are threatening to English manhood. English travellers are physically threatened by priestly predators, the poem suggests, and by establishing a contrast between living and travelling, Churchill hints that even to leave England is to risk one’s life and reputation.

At the same time, of course, as E. J. Clery reminds us, “throughout the eighteenth-century, Italy formed the highlight of any European tour” (x). Endless eighteenth-century accounts—memoirs, letters, maps, paintings, and music—celebrate Italy as the fountain of art and culture for several generations. In addition to the possible experience of a deep cultural awakening, many adolescent British travellers used the tour solely as the opportunity for sexual experimentation, as well as other kinds of physical and emotional excess. Because classical culture offered so many models of same-sex love to the educated traveller, it is no wonder that certain activities and locations became associated in the British mind. If the prime exemplar of the intellectualization of the process happens to be German—“art historian, archaeologist, and chief librarian of the Vatican, the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann infused his influential vision of Greek antiquity with all the telltale signs of homoerotic desire,” as one scholar puts it (Richter 956)—that does not mean that English travellers throughout the century were not alive to the same enticing possibilities. [13] As satiric comments by Smollett and others make clear, the Grand Tour was also infamous as a source of sexual adventure, and various accounts of continental travel emphasize the sexual excess that was implicit in the Italian adventure. [14] The catalogue for a 1996 exhibit on “The Grand Tour,” for instance, states that Italy held the lure of various kinds of travellers: “outcasts of a more permanent kind, Jacobites, bankrupts, or homosexuals, seeking relief and some form of security” (Ingamells 26). This image of homosexuals “on the run” is surely a nineteenth- rather than an eighteenth-century image, but the suggestion that homosexuality, or more properly sodomy, loomed above the image of Italy in the eighteenth century is surely correct.

Of course, as the litany of “Jacobites, bankrupts, or homosexuals” suggests, it is not easy to separate the sexual and the political—or rather the religio-political—here. In talking about early modern England, Alan Bray makes the point that sodomy circulated as a political rather than a sexual signifier. In “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” Bray discusses the ways in which sodomy could be used as an accusation especially in cases of religio-political subversion, and vice-versa. He makes the case that in the Renaissance sodomy “was not only a sexual crime. It was also a political and a religious crime and it was this that explains most clearly why it was regarded with such dread” (3). He goes on to explain how “the ubiquitous association of sodomy with treason and heresy was put together and why one encounters it so commonly in the polemics of Reformation Europe” (3).

Approaching the topic from a different direction, Mark D. Jordan shows how sexual activity between men was proscribed by the early Christian church. His work demonstrates how the labels sodomy and sodomite were adopted to regulate various behaviours—sexual, political, religious, social—and indicates that their usefulness for early “fathers” of the church stemmed from their flexibility. This very flexibility suggests that sodomy has never been just one thing in the Western cultural imagination, any more than its use has promoted one sexual practice to the exclusion of all others. Jordan also argues that “as elsewhere in Europe, English sodomy legislation seems to have been enforced infrequently. Where sodomy cases appear in the surviving historical sources, they typically involve some other factor—political scheming, racial or religious or class prejudice, personal enmity” (“Sodomy” 830). [15]

Before the eighteenth century in England, questions of sexual relations between men are extraordinarily complex. The label sodomite is flung at politicians, papists, and at people from Italy, France, and Spain—from just about anywhere but England. By implication, the term is meant to regulate Englishness as much as any particular form of sexual behaviour. This remains true throughout the eighteenth century, to be sure, and the difference before and after 1700 is not as vivid as some historians have suggested. [16] Such associations do not end with the Age of Enlightenment: in some cases they even intensify. This is what some of the rhetoric of the Gordon Riots suggests, and it is what the more extreme language of the nineties articulates.

In this context, it is not surprising that Matthew G. Lewis can titillate with the possibility of same-sex desire in The Monk merely by invoking Catholicism, a monastery, and an emotional bond between a handsome priest and a blushing novice. In another essay (see note 3 below) I have explored the homoerotics of the scenes in the novel in which the novice gradually confesses his love for the older priest. In The Monk, Lewis attempts to outrage taste and scandalize propriety in as many sexually explicit ways as he can. As I have argued elsewhere the central plot—that of the seemingly virtuous Monk Ambrosio, who is seduced by the scheming Matilda, herself disguised as the young novice Rosario—is structured around uncontrollable sexual desire and “perverse” sexual transgression. The ambiguous sexuality of Rosario-Matilda insists on an especially titillating context for sexual experimentation, and when Matilda turns out herself to be an agent of Satan, desire itself comes to seem perverse and victimizing. Ambrosio’s “lusts” would in any case be difficult to categorize.

That his excess of prideful devotion has led him to these lurid scenes of sexual perversity is a given in the novel. The connection between Catholicism and bodily lust is made explicit in various ways: confessional confidence leads to sexual abuse; lust is exercised by means of devil worship; and the monastery and convent both are scenes of violence, victimization, and death. Such familiar scenes help make clear the ways in which the easy relation between Catholicism and sexual perversity has a political as well as a social valence. After all, (almost) all the violence in the novel is answered in direct political terms with mob violence and the destruction of the convent and monastery, as well as the brutal physical destruction of the prioress and several of the more violent nuns. Sexual excess and political subversion seem to go hand in hand with religious fervour. This connection is not accidental: religious fervour is sexual in its expression, and if sexuality is always already political, so is religion. The politics of religion and sexuality in the experience of gothic fiction, at least, have much in common.

Ronald Paulson has explained how the French Revolution influenced gothic writers and gave their work a currency that it might not otherwise enjoy. He explores the ways in which the fear and fascination inspired by events in France could affect a novel like The Monk:

Lewis exploits the dramatic resonances of the Revolution and its anti-clericalism, but simultaneously portrays the rioting mob as blood-thirsty, completely out of control, animal-like in its ferocity. The convent of St. Clare represents corruption, superstition, and repression, but its overthrowers, no more admirable than the tyrants, are capable of the same atrocities or worse. In the same way, many observers (conservative and otherwise) by 1793 saw the brutally oppressed masses of France usurping the tyrannical roles of their erstwhile oppressors.


I have elsewhere argued that Lewis was afraid of the torrent of passion that could be released when repression was overthrown.  [17] This happens in the individual case of Ambrosio and in the general case of the mob that destroys the Prioress of St. Clare. But it is important to remember that Lewis seems to take an explicit interest in the violence and even to celebrate it. Otherwise the details of destruction would not be so vivid nor would the dramatization of excess be so extensive. Lewis invests such scenes with an almost erotic excitement precisely because he connects them with the thrill of sexual transgression and the fear of uncontrollable sexual excess. Ironically, this technique does not decrease the relation between religion and sexuality; rather, it increases it. [18]

At this moment the yet uncodified history of sexuality emerges at sites like these: the automatic association of Catholicism with political-sexual transgression makes it available for the exploration of sexual difference. Ambrosio and Rosario are pushing the envelope of sexual definition, as it were, precisely because they are always already transgressive, as monks, as Catholics, as Mediterraneans, to the English imagination. Lewis uses this transgressive potential to confront his readers with the possibility of same-sex desire. The monastery is a precursor of the sexual laboratory, and in a sense it functions as the controlled environment in which the habits of an unfamiliar species can be studied. The horror that such an examination generates is a built-in protection for the observer. Lewis may not have the dispassionate zeal of an investigator like the twentieth century’s Kinsey, but he does perform a similar function for the later eighteenth century. Male-male relations are being examined here, even if they are being held up as a sign of horror and disgust. Like Beckford’s exotic use of the east to examine pederasty, that is, Lewis uses his “exotic” locale to make the connections he is seeking both revelatory and automatic. [19] He uses a Catholic setting and context in order to make these readings available to his age. They form a part of the sexuality itself, for the particular configuration of two men of different ages in a monastery occupies a different place in the eighteenth-century cultural imagination from any other configuration of two men. More is allowed, more is even assumed, than otherwise would even be possible.

Ann Radcliffe’s less excessive gothic is no less involved in establishing a context for same-sex desire. As an answer to the rigors of patriarchal law, Radcliffe offers the kindly maternal convent in which relations among women are celebrated and in which particular female-female bonds are valued, and even honoured. In describing the situation in The Romance of the Forest (1791), for instance, Robert Miles argues: “Radcliffe’s heroine on a threshold looks both ways, inward toward ‘maternal’ sensibility with its delusive image of subjective wholeness (delusive, because the heroine is still caught within a patriarchal structure, the family ‘house’ or abbey), and outwards towards a patriarchal order of repression and deferral” (Ann Radcliffe 107). In The Italian (1797), as I have argued, Radcliffe creates a context in which this maternal fantasy is no longer delusive. Ellena, Radcliffe’s heroine, wanders through the novel in a state that could be described as melancholy. She experiences loss as fundamental and determining. As the novel develops, it seems that Ellena must re-experience a primal “homosexual” attachment in order to give any significance at all to her love for the hero Vivaldi. The attachment inevitably offers itself in a convent, the Santa della Piéta, where Ellena finds herself drawn to a single nun: “Among the voices of the choir, was one whose expression immediately fixed her attention; it seemed to speak a loftier sentiment of devotion than the others, and to be modulated by the melancholy of an heart, that had long since taken leave of this world” (86). This first attraction develops into a kindly friendship that quickly becomes the centre of Ellena’s convent existence. Later, when this nun is revealed to be Ellena’s mother, the scene in which they express their love for one another is too powerful to admit anyone else into their circle. Vivaldi understands his exclusion, for the first feelings he has toward Olivia are those of jealousy. “‘Ah Ellena!’ said Vivaldi, as he gently disengaged her from the nun, ‘do I then hold only the second place in your heart?’” (135). [20]

E. J. Clery makes it clear that for writers like Radcliffe “the basis of the nightmare vision of Italy [is] the Roman Catholic Church. Whereas the classical heritage united Western Europe in the eighteenth century, religious difference led to alienation and antagonism, and Italy was in this respect regarded by Protestant nations as the epicentre of spiritual corruption” (xiii). Clery feels, however, that “Radcliffe and other gothic writers in fact participated in a gradual liberalizing of religious ideas” (xv). The aestheticizing forces of gothic fiction, Clery argues, meant that the convent itself is a fulcrum for change in this context. In Radcliffe, she claims, the convent is idealized “as a refuge for women, a place where they could escape crisis in the patriarchal family and secure some autonomy” (xx). Of course, in The Italian, the convent can also be a place of constriction and malevolence. What makes the difference, a distinction that Clery does not make but which seems to me essential, is the question of desire. Clery says that Radcliffe inspires “a curious empathy with the Catholic Other” (xxi). [21] She does this, I would argue, precisely by means of this deep, erotic maternal motif, which is the legacy of Radcliffe as much as any interest in aggressive fathers. In each of the novels a grim paternal figure threatens the heroine emotionally and physically. But in each the subjective experience of maternal love, exoticized as ghostly or eroticized as religious, spiritual, conventual, offers a consoling alternative to the experience of solitude that the solitary female faces. [22]

Other gothic writers, especially those actively pro-Catholic in their narrative agenda, do not cancel these resonances; they simply make them less immediately obvious. Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey (1797), restrained in its use of wicked monks and nuns, nevertheless tells a tale that deeply intertwines religion and sexuality. The heirs of Dunheath Abbey, Amanda Fitzalan, the heroine of the tale, and her brother Oscar, are nefariously disinherited and forced to struggle separately for survival. Amanda is sent by her widowed father to live with friends, but she very quickly becomes the victim of jealous competitors. She is a beautiful and unassuming girl, and a rumour spreads that she is somehow dishonourable. Out of the welter of suspicion and disappointment, Amanda finds solace in the form of a Catholic nun. The nun does not accuse, threaten, or victimize in any way. But even in this novel, the consoling force of the convent is often suggestive. When Amanda first encounters Sister Mary, this is how Roche describes her:

She was fifty [. . .] her skin was fair, and perfectly free from wrinkle, the bloom and down upon her cheeks as bright and soft as on a peach [. . .]. She wore the religious habit of the house which was a loose flannel dress, bound round the waist by a girdle, from which hung her beads and a cross, a veil of the same stuff descended to the ground, and a mob cap and forehead cloth quite concealed her hair.

1: 313; ch. 17

This fetishization of the nun’s downy skin, as well as the implied fascination with her aging virginity and her simple, coarse habit, give an erotic quality to scenes that transpire in the convent, scenes which in other ways represent a consoling escape from the exigencies of heteronormative desire.

Later, when Amanda’s father has died, Amanda collapses and remains “a considerable time in a state of insensibility” (3: 1; ch. 1). Her father’s death has overcome her, and in addition to knowing that she is friendless and unsupported, she is also trapped in her present circumstances. Sister Mary is determined to break into Amanda’s solitude and help her confront her future. As Amanda recovers, she “found herself in a bed laid upon the floor in the corner of the outside room [. . .]. She saw someone sitting by the bed, and perceived sister Mary” (3: 1; ch. 1). The nun responds to her grief and makes it possible for Amanda to loosen the grip on her heart:

“This is indeed a charitable visit,” cried [Amanda], extending her hand, and speaking in a low broken voice. The good-natured nun jumped from her seat on hearing her speak and embraced her most tenderly. Her caresses affected Amanda inexpressibly; she dropped her head upon her breast, and wept with a vehemence which relieved the oppression of her breast.

3: 2-3; ch. 1

Sister Mary does not turn out to be Amanda’s lost mother, but she offers her the consolations of one. Her ability to caress and to press the girl to her brings a response that is more powerfully physical than practically anything else that has happened to her. As if to emphasize the intimacy of this scene, Amanda expresses concern that her clothes have been removed, and she “requested sister Mary to assist her in putting on her clothes” (3: 3; ch. 1). Amanda finds that she can hardly be separated from the nun: “Amanda went to bed every morning, and was nursed with the most tender attention by sister Mary, who also insisted on being her companion at night” (3: 5; ch. 1). Later, when the friendless Amanda moves into the convent, “a little room, inside the prioress’s chamber, was prepared for Amanda, into which she was now conveyed, and the good-natured sister Mary brought her own bed, and laid it beside hers” (3: 21; ch. 1). Of course I am not arguing that these two women were having secret sexual encounters in this room, but I do think that the convent allows Roche to establish an intimacy between these two women that would otherwise be suspect.

The climactic scene of maternal confrontation in this novel also takes place in a chapel. Amanda, wandering around the Dunheath Abbey, “sighed whenever she passed the Chapel which contained the picture of her mother” (3: 231; ch. 12). Gothic elements and religio-erotic ones work together here to create the kind of primal scene that makes gothic so elemental and so irresistible. (“The silent hour of twilight was now advanced, but the moon-beams that darted through the broken roof prevented the Chapel from being involved in total darkness. Already had the owls begun their strains of melancholy on its mouldering pillars, while the ravens croaked amongst the luxuriant trees that rustled around it” [3: 238-39; ch. 12]). Like many gothic heroines before her, Amanda wanders through the darkness in hopes of encountering some hint about her own mother, and through her, her own past. The expression “reverential awe” uses religious terminology to explain family relations and it results in an intensification of domestic relations. The loss that she feels at this moment of confrontation, other gothic heroines have also felt. As I have argued above, Radcliffe’s heroine Ellena must re-experience a primal female-female attachment in order to give any significance at all to her love for Vivaldi. Something similar is going on here as well. Amanda experiences loss, deeply imbedded original loss, just as Ellena does. Her “agony of grief,” this passage suggests, concerns her own past and her own present as well. Her very subjectivity is encoded in this midnight confrontation, and this ghostly maternal figure makes its clear that Amanda’s subjectivity is grounded in loss.

This powerful scene can hardly prepare her for the confrontation that awaits her when she returns the next night and pursues her object in her mother’s own chamber. The excitement is palpable here, and Amanda moves forward with a temerity that marks her as a gothic ingénue. At the same time, the scene has all the quality of a dream: the darkness, the sudden moonlight, the room of indeterminate size, and finally the consoling portrait once again. But she finds that all is not what it seems:

Amanda [. . .] at last came to the door, it was closed, not fastened; she pushed it gently open, and could just discern a spacious room; this she supposed had been her mother’s dressing-room; the moon-beams [. . .] suddenly darted through the casements [. . .]. She advanced into the room; at the upper end of it something white attracted her notice: She concluded it to be the portrait of Lady Malvina’s mother [. . .]. She went up to examine it; but her horror may be better conceived than described, when she found herself not by a picture, but the real form of a woman, with a death-like countenance! She screamed wildly at the terrifying spectre, for such she believed it to be, and quick as lightening flew from the room. Again the moon was obscured by a cloud, and she involved in utter darkness. She ran with such violence, that, as she reached the door at the end of the gallery, she fell against it. Extremely hurt, she had not the power to move for a few minutes; but while she involuntarily paused, she heard footsteps. Wild with terror, she instantly recovered her faculties and attempted opening it [. . .] at that moment she felt an icy hand upon hers!

3; 243-44; ch. 13

This scene of horrified confrontation is a classic gothic encounter. This ghostly presence—maternal and enabling, even if not her actual mother—shimmers with erotic feeling. After all, the girl who is prowling through the castle in the middle of the night has suffered emotional distress and personal disappointment of various kinds. But still she thinks that the dark, gothic chamber will offer her some kind of satisfaction, some thrill of discovery. That the thrill becomes physical, that the cold white figure, follows, chases her, places its hand on hers, gives the scene a peculiar power that earns it a place among the other gothic novels I am discussing. Amanda was drawn to the chapel as a way of discovering something about her lost mother. Instead, she confronts a ghostly unknown presence that clasps her with an icy grip. An almost direct reversal of the kindly embraces that Amanda experiences with Sister Mary, this icy hand reminds her that the religious sublime can be anything but consoling. Here she must confront her deepest fears.

This quasi-religious confrontation leads, after a number of imaginative complications, to the novel’s resolution. This woman, her own mother’s stepmother and enemy, has been the cause of Amanda’s disinheritance, and she now pours out her guilt and apology to the appalled heroine. Like Radcliffe’s resolution, that is, Roche’s own insists on this confrontation with this maternal other before the past can be reclaimed. The terms of subjectivity here are based on a lost female-female bond. That it is recovered through the offices of a nun after prowling through a chapel in a mood of religious intensity now makes perfect sense.

William Henry Ireland returns to the extremes of Lewis. In Ireland’s The Abbess (1799), for instance, the church relics of the convent of Santa-Maria del Nova, at Florence, already display an excess that borders on the disgusting:

The most conspicuous figure was that of the Virgin, in massive silver, supporting on her left arm the Infant Redeemer, and, in her right hand, holding a small sphere of gold, said to contain three drops of her precious milk. Her head was encircled with a rich diadem of immense value, and her neck decorated with a string of diamonds, from which hung pendant a cross of gold, valuable only as containing a piece of the true Cross.

1: 3; ch. 1

The riches of the Catholic Church, the bad taste, and superstition are all encoded here in this “conspicuous” statue of the virgin. It is inconceivable that a convent with such a presiding genius could offer the kinds of consolations that Radcliffe’s convent of the Piéta (in The Italian) almost automatically implies. Here, the Abbess herself has more in common with Lewis’s scheming Prioress than with any of Radcliffe’s maternal figures. The features of her personality are apparent in this first description, in which “the Madre Vittoria Bracciano [. . .] wore indeed a religious habit, but was ill-calculated to adorn it, every worldly feeling predominating in her heart. Benignity, meekness, patience, and charity, such heaven-kissing attributes, were not the inmates of her breast. No—pride, cruelty, malice, and revenge; such were the passions that feigned triumphant over her mind. Her desires were too licentious and with difficulty bridled, even by the situation she held” (1; 6-7; ch. 1).

This classic anti-religious tirade is conventional enough in its terms. The beautiful exterior hides a mean, even vicious, interior. The position of religious superior depends on the stature of the family, and spiritual commitment is not included in the description of the Abbess’s qualities. Licentiousness is the key here, of course, because the Abbess’s willingness to give in to her desires is what motivates much of the malevolent action of the text. The “religious habit,” then, is part of an elaborate disguise. Rather than prohibiting transgressive behaviour, the habit allows her license to indulge her carnal appetites in ways that a non-religious woman never could.

The Abbess is not alone in her nefarious practices within the walls of the convent. When the young and handsome Conte Marcello Porta has found himself attracted to a young boarder, he is accosted by a monk, Padre Ubaldo, who promises to lead him to a private assignation with the girl. Ireland describes the midnight meeting of these two men and their progress through the gloomy vaults of the convent, and then, in an almost gratuitous aside, he mentions this simple scene of religious excess:

They proceeded to the passage; at the entrance of which, within a niche, rested a stone figure of the Virgin. The Monk placed the lamp on the ground, and, having bared his left shoulder, knelt before the image and seemed to offer up a prayer; then, loosening the knotted rope that girded his loins, struck himself several times with violence—the Conte turned from the sight with disgust. The Monk arose, and, having replaced his vestment, proceeded up the passage.

1: 23; ch. 1.

This odd scene of religious masochism serves no purpose but to underline the villainy of the monk and to remind readers that religious devotion and sexual excess are often one and the same. This abuse of devotion, this exaggerated and almost histrionic posturing, disgusts Marcello because his devotion is pure and unsullied. It is unclear why the monk performs this self-abuse in front of Marcello, unless of course he is hoping to involve Marcello in some sado-masochistic fantasy—or rather, unless he is trying to involve him in a sado-masochistic fantasy with himself instead of the one he is supposed to be involving him in, with the Abbess. After all, in dark and secret convent passages like these, anything is possible. Same-sex transgressive behaviour is as likely as (more likely than, really) the male-female encounter that awaits Marcello here. Besides, this novel makes it clear that desire is always compromised, always excessive, and that devotion by its very nature is excessive and disgusting.

The young boarder, Maddalena Rosa, is the daughter of the Duca Bertocci, who put her in the convent when his wife died. She is the object of Marcello’s desire, and as a result she becomes the victim of the Abbess’s jealous rage, as her erotic dream conveniently predicts:

As she slept, a vision floated before her fancy. She thought, that she again saw the amiable stranger in the church. His air was dignified, and he seemed more interesting, if possible, than when she had first beheld him. Suddenly, the grate which separated them mouldered away. He flew towards her, and knelt at her feet. At that instant, Maddalena imagined some one held her arm; turning, she thought the ghastly and forbidding figure of Padre Ubaldo stood at her side. The youth then vanished, and in his place stood the Madre Vittoria. Rage marked every feature: in her uplifted hand she grasped a naked poignard.

1: 124-125; ch. 4

This dream, a short précis of action to come in the novel, is set in a Church where grates moulder away before desire. The implicit suggestion of sexual attraction and its always already transgressive potential gives urgency to the dream. As Maddalena turns to the stranger who confronts her with his devotion to her person, the priest Ubaldo, “ghastly and forbidding,” grabs her and compels her to respond not to a less transgressive choice but to an even more illicit and demeaning one. In other words, the erotic embrace with Marcello immediately gives way to both monkish compulsion and Abbessian domination. The easy substitution of the Abbess for the lover is certainly suggestive; and given the erotic context, as she raises the “naked poignard” to threaten Maddalena’s life, she could also be seen to be threatening the young boarder with rape. Gothic narrative depends on such easy associations, and here the context of the church and the threat of the religious figures make Maddalena a more exquisite victim than her social position would suggest. Ireland is using the freedom of dream narrative to suggest at once illicit desire, jealousy, and compulsion. His version of the convent, that is, spells out in detail an entire range of transgressive potential.

As the dream continues, Ireland articulates the other, more familiar aspect of convent life, which Radcliffe and Roche have both emphasized: the nurturing of friendship and the possibility of intimacy between two girls who share the fate of convent life. Here again that possibility is written out as loss. It seems that Maddalena is forced to endure these hardships alone:

The form of her friend Marietta, pale and emaciated, then glided before her. Casting on her a look of ineffable pity, she disappeared; and suddenly the scene faded before her. She found herself in a spacious apartment, the walls of which were hung with black velvet, and in the middle stood a bier. Maddalena thought she surveyed the chamber, but no one was present; and she then proceeded to view the face of the deceased. She advanced to the spot where the coffin rested; but, as she bent over, and raised the pall, the earth opened and received it. A female figure glided along, who, smiling, seemed to approach her. It was again the nun Marietta. Maddalena thought she flew to meet her; but the figure changed to that of a handsome youth. She eyed him with attention, but could not recollect him. He clasped her to his breast in transport, and, at that moment, Maddalena awoke.

1: 125-126; ch. 4

Maddelana dreams that she loses her friend Marietta in death. It may be that she understands that this tender intimacy will be sacrificed to heteronormative narrative because when she flies to meet her friend, the handsome youth steps in her place. This shift in erotic object begins to suggest an erotic intimacy between the two women, an intimacy that the convent setting encourages. In an odd reversal of the situation in the first part of the dream, where the Abbess replaces the lover, here the lover replaces the friend. Pointedly, almost insistently, Maddalena remains the subject of loss in this scene, and she can hardly remember the handsome Marcello. When he grabs her, she awakes. He breaks the spell of the dream—the spell of sisterly erotic love in a convent setting, that is—and pulls her back into the reality around her.

The Abbess displaces Marcello in Maddalena’s arms because she has mistaken his interest in the girl for an attraction to herself. The scene in which Marcello makes love to the Abbess, Victoria Bracciano, is an embarrassment of sexually suggestive description:

At that moment, her beautiful hand pressed that of the Conte. What a delicious thrill ran through his feverish veins! Conceive the most delicate, small, and transparent hand, that ever nature formed, through which the branching streaks of blue were plainly visible [. . .]. Imagine fingers pulpy, round, and taper, each joint of which was an opening rose-bud; and, to complete the picture, add nails long and beautifully formed, at the extremity of which appeared a tinge of the carnation [. . .].

1: 147; ch. 5

This description continues in painstaking physical detail, and each fetishized body part adds to the erotic and transgressive qualities of the scene. That this is a nun who is being physically described and erotically coded, of course, only adds to the narrative thrill. The scene builds to a crescendo when she at last removes her veil and the Conte realizes that he has been caressing the wrong woman. The Abbess’s outrage at his obvious confusion (“a malignant fire darted from those eyes, which beamed before the languid rays of love” [1: 157; ch. 5]) is only mollified when the Conte pretends to love her. His false expressions of love in turn lead to her extravagant expressions of love that redound on him and the boarder when they are discovered in one another’s arms (“You have wounded my pride [. . .]. Every scheme that Hell can suggest to an injured and despised woman, shall be put in practice to destroy you” [1: 238-39; ch. 8]). This violent response leads to misery upon misery for the heroine, and the Conte himself is consigned to endless searching and pleading for his now sequestered love.

Later, when the Abbess’s wicked henchwoman sister Beatrice tells the young Giancinta that in the convent they “live in sisterly friendship” (2: 55; ch. 2), it is merely the prelude to deception, victimization, and violence. Ireland’s anti-Catholic interests seem like misogyny, and in this case as in other male gothic it would be wrong to downplay situations that seem misogynous to modern readers. At the same time, though, because we are looking for ways that religion and sexuality are played out in terms of one another, a novel like this can be especially revealing. Women do find friendship in the convent, and they relate to one another with the intimacy of Radcliffe’s characters at times. Both Marietta and Giancinta share deeply personal moments with Maddalena. When Marietta is on her deathbed, she gives Maddalena “a small crucifix of gold, which,” she says, “I have ever worn within my bosom. It was the gift of my mother [. . .]. Keep it, Maddalena, in remembrance of me.” Then she adds this intimate promise: “And at the silent hour of midnight, when thou art wont to chant thy hymn of praise, look upon it; for, if departed spirits ever visit those they loved on earth, I will, at that solemn hour, be with thee” (1: 177; ch. 6). This intimate promise, sealed soon after with a kiss on the lips, suggests that Marietta is willing to haunt Maddalena, and that she feels her love is strong enough to cross from the world of the dead to that of the living. To make this promise she uses a crucifix that she has worn on her breast. This tiny, precious, fetishized religious object gives their love a kind of holiness, and this sacrilegious promise takes on the quality of a religious vow. For these two inhabitants of the convent, this language may be all that is available to them; but at the same time, they can use religion to justify even these muted expressions of same-sex love.

If the convent offers a perversion of maternal love and the victimization of innocence, the prisons of the Inquisition, into which Marcello and Maddalena are ushered at the moment when her father seems ready to relent, offer a higher register of lurid sexual excess. To the English imagination, the Inquisition represents the perverse extreme to which religion and law can tend in the Catholic setting. The religio-political institutionalization of sadomasochistic pleasure within the prisons of the Inquisition is a regular feature in gothic fiction from The Monk to Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), and beyond. Ireland takes pleasure in dilating on the fevered imaginings of his incarcerated hero and heroine. He makes sure that the terms of these fantasies are not ignored. The Conte, for instance, wanders in his dreams through scenes of sadistic excess:

Now, [Marcello’s] fertile imagination paints the suffering Maddalena—the cords tearing her tender frame—her form pale, languid, and almost expiring—again the torture forces her back to hated life—her groans distract his soul—with anguish he awakes.

Again he slumbers—the horrid scene continues—he strives in vain to render her assistance—now, he is habited as a criminal, in the Act of Faith, he approaches the faggot—Maddalena Rosa is already chained to the stake—now, the ardent flames consume her garments—her beauteous hair now blazes—her flesh is scorched—her limbs wreathe in anguish—she cries for mercy—he hears her shrieks—again he wakes—the piercing cry still vibrates in his ear.

3: 6; ch. 1

This erotic fantasy brings various gothic obsessions together. The Inquisition is a useful trope for religio-political violence, and when it is coupled with the excessively victimized female, as it is here, it begins to suggest the ways in which such dominant fictions work in private fantasy. Ireland uses these materials to write such an overheated passage, I would argue, because they are connected in the English imagination to sexual license and sadomasochistic pleasure. This religious torture, the auto-da-fé, reverberates with a special quality of suffering. As the heroine is consumed in Marcello’s imagination, readers are invited to fantasize about the sexually titillating details of the horrors of Catholicism. The erotics of religious torture emerge so readily from Marcello’s imagination because they are already available in the lurid projections of British culture.

As the last volume of the novel develops, both characters are tormented by the sadistic inquisitors in quasi-pornographic terms. Marcello is tortured because he will not break his vow and explain what he was doing in the convent after hours. “‘Put him to the question, then,’ exclaimed the Judge”:

The familiars, in an instant, tore off the Conte’s habiliments, when a loose gown was thrown over his body. Cords encircled his wrists, which were then passed through pullies. Again, the question was put; but the Conte refused to answer [. . .]. The officials drew the ropes, and the Conte was suspended by his hands to the ceiling. He was for some moments kept in this painful situation [. . .]. During this interval, a ponderous mass of lead was attached to his ankles [. . .] every limb was stretched in the most dreadful manner, and he experienced unutterable agonies [. . .]. During this torture, the question was repeatedly posed; but the Conte maintained a resolute silence. In an instant, the rope was slackened, and he came with violence to the pavement. The sudden jerk dislocated every joint: the torment was too acute, and an agonized groan escaped his lips.

4: 20-22; ch. 1

With this detailed description of physical torture, more elaborately detailed than similar scenes in The Monk or Melmoth the Wanderer, Ireland seems to take pleasure in the image of the stripped and suffering male. By taking such care with description, he eroticizes the broken male body, just as Radcliffe and Dacre do. [23] But if Radcliffe and Dacre are interested in redefining masculinity, Ireland takes a lurid interest in the suffering figure himself. He pushes the familiar image of the wounded (castrated) gothic hero to an extreme: stretching him on the rack and jerking him suddenly to earth. He torments him with physical torture and insists on outlining the details of that torture for the reader. Often such a fate is only imagined in gothic fiction. Groans and muffled beatings are common. But in this case, the reader is forced to watch as the hero is tied and stretched and indeed almost dismembered. Like his contemporary the Marquis de Sade, in other words, Ireland takes pleasure in presenting the suffering male form. [24] This ghoulish spectacle depends on the hallowed chambers of the Inquisition for its resonance, and its full effect as pornographic titillation depends on the quasi-religious valence of the scene. The notion of the Inquisition, in other words, enables Ireland to bring all these concerns together in this single image.

When Maddalena is brought forward for similar treatment, the effect is strikingly different. She is told that her “agonizing shrieks shall pierce Marcello’s hardened bosom, and force the secret from his lips”:

The command was immediately issued—the familiars quitted the Conte, and seized the delicate form of the statue-struck Maddalena—already, they began to tear the garments from her tender limbs—already, the barbarians had rent the veil, that had concealed her alabastrine bosom, from which her palpitating heart was bursting—The big tears trickled down her pallid cheeks, like flaky snow, which the Sun’s heat dissolves upon the marble’s cold and polished surface—Now, her long auburn hair escaped the fillet, which had negligently bound it—one hand was raised, to cover her naked breast—the other, uplifted, seemed to supplicate Heaven’s protection.

4: 44-45; ch. 1

Ireland uses this moment to present the reader with a stripped and supplicating female character, and once again the sadomasochistic intentions are palpable. The tenderness of Maddalena’s limbs is emphasized because that is what will be violated in the torture to follow. The hand covering her naked breast also suggests vulnerability and tenderness. But the other images here—the alabastrine bosom and the cold and polished surface of marble, with which her cheeks are compared—suggest cold rigidity and polished smoothness. For all the pain and supplication apparent in the pose, there is also a rock-like hardness to her stance that even the threat of torture cannot pierce. When, in response to the suffering she faces, Marcello gives in to his tormentors and offers to break his vow in order to save her, she chides him almost brutally, considering his situation, and insists that he not tarnish his honour: “‘Shame! Shame!’ cried Maddalena: “how I blush at your pusillanimity. Resume your wonted courage: be the man of honour; or live despised by her, whose life you thus basely seek to purchase” (4: 48; ch. 1). If he is weak and broken by the torture he has experienced, then she is strong, strong enough to preserve them both and their honour as well. In a classic gothic reversal, he must take strength from her, and she must inspire the courage that she can alone respect. Maddalena becomes a slightly sadistic figure here herself, chiding her hero for his weakness and giving him an example of greater strength and greater ability to withstand suffering. Like the Abbess, in other words, Maddalena knows what it means to be a woman in this culture that fixates on the power and sensibility of the male.

Later, their pain is rewarded. The suffering hero and heroine are vindicated, and the true villains of the piece are exposed. Padre Ubaldo and his accomplice are condemned to death at the stake, and the Abbess herself is condemned to a physically and emotionally degrading series of penances. She faces exposure and ridicule both in her convent and in the streets of Rome. In her private moments of reflection, the reader is told that “the pangs of death would have been bliss, compared to those torments which the Madre endured. Sometimes, she cursed herself for having yielded to the agonies of the moment, and divulged her crime. Now, she painted the degrading punition which she was doomed to suffer” (4: 97; ch. 2). Her bold and transgressive defiance of laws both human and divine here redound on her head. This scene of reflection, this dramatization of inner torment, compares interestingly to the scenes of physical torture. The notion of an “avenging Deity” is calculated to implant fear in the soul of the Abbess. Because they are always already victims in this gothic tale, Marcella and Maddalena suffer less at the hands of the Inquisitors than the proud and imperious Abbess does here. Her physical, sexual indulgences will come back to haunt her as she stands in shame before her fellow nuns. The body that was so vividly eroticized earlier now becomes the sign of misery and self-contempt.

The novel turns uneasily to domestic arrangements and a hastily achieved union, which pale beside the scenes I have just discussed: “the Conte Marcello [. . .] proceeded to Bertocci palace; where he was received by the Duca with every mark of affection, while pleasure animated Maddalena’s tender bosom, on again beholding, after so many painful vicissitudes, the man she loved” (4: 202; ch. 2). This is not nearly as powerful as the frantic outbursts quoted earlier. It is so muted as to be meaningless in narrative terms. The domestic arrangements have less power here than the excessive physical and emotional torment of the Inquisition. The religious valence of the scenes of torment—several of the tormentors turn out to be duplicitous monks seeking vengeance—renders them more thrillingly transgressive than anything that happens at the Bertocci palace. As in the other novels I have considered, the resolution is incapable of containing the power that the plot has generated in scenes of religious excess.

If I conclude with the disappointments of the domestic resolutions of gothic novels, I do so in part because the sanctioned union of a man and a woman is not the central concern of gothic. Family does of course function importantly in gothic fiction; just think of the centrality of incest and other dysfunctional family tropes in every gothic novel. But remember, too, that family transgressions are often expressed in religious terms: Matilda is murdered by her father in a chapel; Ambrosio is a monk and a confessor when he commits incestuous matricide; transgressing nuns and priests either turn out to be lost family members, as in The Romance of the Forest, or avenging family enemies, as in The Abbess. In general, the Mediterranean, Catholic setting allows narrative licence that makes transgression the rule rather than the exception. Looking more closely at these works exposes an association between Catholicism and transgressive sexuality so deeply felt as to be almost invisible.

By making it visible, I hope I have begun to explain what this association accomplished culturally. Rather than discussing sex in an open and possibly dangerous way, the possibilities of sexual experience could be coded into these exotic narratives, disguised by time and space into a culture that was understood to be transgressive by definition. The possibilities for expression were therefore endless. Catholicism is not a vague feature of the background in most gothic novels; it is, rather, an active element in the romance of personal relations. If I have hinted at how gothic fiction queers religion in this essay, then I hope I have also showed ways in which Catholicism offered a licence for proto-sexological experimentation as well. The horrors of Catholicism, that is, play a more active role in the history of sexuality than has previously been acknowledged.

Parties annexes