Reading like a Gothic Heroine

Submitted by Hannah-Freya Blake, Academic Skills Tutor (Leeds) on Tue, 10/03/2023 - 16:16

Ever been trapped in a castle? Pursued by devilishly handsome and wildly eccentric aristocrats? Haunted by the ghost of someone who looks suspiciously like you? 

No? Me neither, unfortunately. But I have read a lot of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels about heroines facing such terribly thrilling adventures. I must admit, I am often at least a little disappointed when they don’t succumb to the kiss of darkness. Instead, they marry the heroic wet blanket.  

Grumpy British gentlemen in the long-nineteenth century were frightened of the kind of woman I am today: a novel-reader. We won’t be satisfied with our lot in life, they moaned. Our appetites, once awakened, would be insatiable. Feeding our minds would starve our bodies – bodies meant for marriage and childbearing. Reading books, especially popular novels like the Gothic, would doom us all. Ridiculous, of course, even if I admit I am happily single, child-free, and have a PhD.  

Gothic heroines are typically clever, well-read women prone to flights of fancy, which they gradually learn to rein in. For many of the OG Gothic novels from the 1790s, especially by Queen Goth Ann Radcliffe, the lesson for Gothic damsels is that the ghosts they think they’re doing battle with are less fearsome than the threat of losing their freedom and autonomy. They don’t fight with fists, which would be far too unladylike for a heroine at such a time; they solve the mysteries of the past before it can destroy their future. Storytelling is at the heart of their virtuous work: they read letters, learn local folktales, discover messages on walls, and listen to particularly loquacious servants.  

Take Mina Harker, would-be vampire bride in Bram Stoker’s fin de siècle novel Dracula. She pieces together diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, typing them all up on the ever-so modern typewriter to discover the truth about the Count. Before anyone who’s watched Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation asks, Mina was not, in fact, in love with the Transylvanian monster, and nor was he in love with her – that’s Hollywood for you. She was simply clever.  

Gothic heroines are driven by curiosity and undeterred by such paltry obstacles as locked doors and chains. They are resourceful, too. Although they might faint as often as the bell chimes for midnight, they solve the mysteries holding them back while the hero flounders in the dark. They’re critical thinkers, if you will.  

I suggest you read like a Gothic heroine. What I mean is that you should use whatever resources you’ve got to escape. Whatever you’ve got within reach. Adventure, fantasy, knowledge – none of it needs to cost the earth. Be curious and keep exploring. Ask questions of the stories you find; listen for the silences. Even echoes first sounded centuries ago can still whisper today.  

And what resources do you have, dear readers? Charity shops stocked full of pre-owned books, thumbed by strangers over many years with dog-eared pages tenderly tucked to mark a moment, a word, they liked the best. Libraries, waiting in quiet and solemn joy for fingers to trip over the spines of books like stones skimming water. Arden Library itself – a benevolent behemoth, offering the answers to your greatest and latest mystery.  

 So, read like a Gothic heroine, and preserve the majesty of the earth while you’re at it. And if, like me, you find yourself hungry for a taste of the dark, go ahead and bite. It’s pretty fun being the kind of woman grumpy old men fear. 

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