The Inner Space: Female Sexuality and Place in the Gothic

No Gothic novel is complete without a huge, ancient, forboding structure of some kind for the heroine to get lost in. In the Female Gothic, this structure is more than simply where the story takes place; the structue in the story becomes the structure of the story, and as the following excerpts suggest, it also becomes the structure of the heroine's emerging sexuality.


From The Mysteries of Udolpho, 227-8

From this sublime scene the travellers continued to ascend among the pines, till they entered a narrow pass of the mountains, which shut out every feature of the distant country, and, in its stead, exhibited only tremendous crags, impending over the road, where no vestige of humanity, or even of vegetation, appeared, except here and there the trunk and scathed branches of an oak, that hung nearly headlong from the rock, into which its strong roots had fastened...

The gateway before her, leading into the courts, was of gigantic size, and was defended by two round towers, crowned by overhanging turrets, embattled, where, instead of banners, now waved long grass and wild plants, that had taken root among the mouldering stones, and which seemed to sigh, as the breeze rolled pas, over the desolation around them. The towers were united by a curtain, pierced and embattled also, below which appeared the pointed arch of an huge portcullis, surmounting the gates: from these, the walls of the ramparts extended to other towers, overlooking the precipice, whose shattered outline, appearing on a gleam, that lingered in the west, told of the ravages of war. Beyond these all was lost in the obscurity of evening.

While Emily gazed with awe upon the scene, footsteps were heard within the gates, and the undrawing of bolts; after which an ancient servant of the castle appeared, forcing back the huge folds of the portal, to admit his lord. As the carriage-wheels rolled heavily under the portcullis, Emily's heart sunk, and she seemed as if she was going into her prison; the gloomy court, into which she passed, served to confirm the idea, and her imagination, ever awake to circumstance, suggested even more terrors, than her reason could justify.


Ann Ronald, "Terror-Gothic: Nightmare and Dream," in The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), 176-186.

Those terrors, I suggest, are sexual. If so, the pattern is complete. The imagery, changing from wasteland to fairy-tale kingdom and then to sexuality, parallels the plot of Emilty's emotional journey. Just as she would in any novel of initiation, Emily is leaving the known (her childhood) to venture into the unknown (her adulthood). She pauses in a sterile wasteland (presexuality, a break with the past), moves through a never-never land (courtship magic, illusion, dream), and then arrives at full sexuality (female adulthood, as Radcliffe subconsciously perceives it). But the entire journey is described from a passive, almost negative rhetorical stance. The tone says terror, the alliteration suggests fear, the diction points to agony, the syntax indicates hesitation and evasion. Finally, by using imagery which unites sexuality with fairy tales, the author implies that her commitment is not to sexual fulfillment but only to sexual innuendo cloaked in nightmare and dream...

Emily is rewarded, not by a mature adult relationship, but by a promise of fairy-tale sex that titillates rather than fulfills. Radcliffe waves her magic wand in the final pages of the book and rekindles the love of Emily and Valancourt "by the spell of a fairy." Such is the ending of any children's story where the fairy godmother unites the princess and prince, and such is the ending of the formula most popular among adult women readers. One gets no sense of maturity, no suggestion of a heroine tempered by experience. Udolpho, filled with banditti and villains, could have been the setting for a number of initiation rites, especially since Radcliffe obliquely prepares her readers for certain activities by using sexual imagery to describe the castle. But sex never quite happens, impropriety never even takes shape, and experience never touches Emily's mind or body.


Nina da Vinci Nichols, "Place and Eros in Radcliffe, Lewis, and Bronte," in The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), 187-206.

Since Gothic danger lies in susceptibility as much as in circumstance, tenebrous settings and mysterious places victimize heroines as fully as do villains and other specific perils. For, whereas minor characters tend to be literalists and realists, the heroine possesses the romantic temperament that perceives strangeness where others see none...Her progress, therefore, from adolescence to maturity simultaneously weds plot to the central theme of emotional identity and demands that circumstantial, outward strangeness speak for the more perilous strangeness of her unknown inner self...

All the imprecision and vagueness typical of Gothic description and setting serve these central dislocations of outer and inner mystery. The heroine, for example, is conventionally isolated in gloomy places that compound nameless fears about her heritage, her suitors and herself. She nevertheless extricates herself from these dangers in order to find inheritances, annuities, and the arms of a lover waiting at the altar. Then, according to Gothic formula, her profound uncertainty gives way to confidence and reason: married love conquers fear unless she confronts the Gothic face of love, not leading sentimentally to marriage, but grinning at her darkly from every cornerstone of setting. Metaphorically, place intimates that her most sinister enemy is her own awakening sexuality; the web of circumstantial dangers she must unravel ensnares her nature as sensual woman.


Cynthia Wolff, "The Radcliffean Gothic Model," in The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), 207-223.

Mrs. Radcliffe must be credited with popularizing the bedroom dorr hat has a bolt on the outside only; such a door plays havoc with Emilty's tender sensibilities in The Mysteries of Udolpho:

[Emily}was alarmed by a strange and loud knocking at her chamberdoor, and then a heavy weight fell against it, that almost burst it open...A kind of instinctive remembrance of her remote situation from the family heightened [her fear]. She looked at the door which led to the staircase, expecting to see it open.

Merely the geographic configuration of this situation can be a source of repeated and continuing terror as eachnight the fearful fantasy returns:

"What if some of these ruffians," said she, "should find out the private staircase, and in the darkness of night steal into my chamber?"

It is scarcely necessary to emphasize the specifically sexual component that is latent in such scenes.

After Ann Radcliffe had begun to exploit the highly stylized paraphernalia that we now associate with the Gothic novel a castle or abbey that is for the most part a safe place, but which has as its foundation some "complicated maze of underground vaults [or] dark passages" and in its bedrooms "sliding panels and trapdoors" [Watt, 23] this endlessly reenacted [sexual] fantasy is always figured in terms of "inner space." Thus the Gothic building (whatever it may be) that gives the fiction its name may become in this treatment of the tradition a way of identifying a woman's body (in imagination, of course, the woman's own body) when she is undergoing the seige of conflict over sexual stimulation or arousal.


From The Monk, 154-5.

The Castle-Bell announced the hour of midnight: This was the usual signal for the family to retire to Bed. Soon after I perceived lights in the Castle moving backwards and forwards in different directions. I conjectured the company to be separating. I could hear the heavy doors grate as they opened with difficulty, and as they closed again the rotten Casements rattled in their frames. The chamber of Agnes was on the other side of the Castle. I trembled, lest She should have failed in obtaining the Key of the huanted Room: Through this it was necessary for her to pass, in order to reach the narrow Stair-case by which the Ghost was supposed to descend into the great Hall. Agitated by this apprehension, I kept my eyes constantly fixed upon the window, where I hoped to perceive the friendly glare of a Lamp borne by Agnes. I now heard the massy Gates unbarred. By the candle in his hand I distinguished old Conrad, the Porter. He set the Portal-doors wide open, and retired. The lights in the Castle gradually disappeared, and a length the whole Building was wrapt in darkness...

Occasional gleams of brightness darted from the Stair-case windows, as the lovely Ghost past by them. I traced the light through the Hall: It reached the Portal, and at length I beheld Agnes pass through the folding-gates. She was habited exactly as She had described the Spectre. A chaplet of Beads hung upon her arm; her head was enveloped in a long white veil; Her Nun's dress was stained with blood, and She had taken care to provide herself with a Lamp and dagger. She advanced towards the spot where I stood. I flew to meet her, and clasped her in my arms.


Nina da Vinci Nichols, "Place and Eros in Radcliffe, Lewis, and Bronte," in The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), 187-206.

Agnes' ambivalent attraction to and mockery of the ghost, her impersonation, the abysmal poem, Raymond's "incestuous" mistake about these identities, all point to a fateful resemblance between girl and ghostly mother that would have driven Emily [St. Aubert] into paroxysms of dread. Agnes, however, suffers no anxieties over the subsequent revelation of her actual kinship with the nun who was destroyed by her illicit passion. Then, too, although Agnes had to cross through the mysterious room (scene of the nun's sexual crime) in order to escape her presumptive castle of danger, we later realize she must already have been pregnant with Raymond's child and is therefore Lewis' tongue-in-cheek recreation of her literary ancestors. Neither Agnes nor her grim penalties for this transgression are to be read symbolically. Narrative and structure in the subplots are episodic and their chief function is to provide variations on the theme of sexual mastery