Female Gothic Writers
Here is a snapshot of women writers whose works fall under the Gothic genre. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it will give you a chronological timeline of works and you'll begin to see echos between them and how they use established Gothic tropes.
Some of these writers you may have heard of and not realized they were Gothic, and others might be new to you. We’ll begin in the late eighteenth century, when the English Gothic novel began, and go right up until today!
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First off are Clara Reeve and Charlotte Dacre. Both women were writing at the same time as Ann Radcliffe, yet modern scholarship has brushed these two women to the edges of the Gothic movement.
Reeve’s short novel, The Old English Baron (published in 1777), could sit alongside Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) for its similarities—in fact, Reeve herself wrote that it is the “literary offspring” of Otranto. It is positioned as a found and translated story and includes supernatural events around the theme of inheritance. But unlike Walpole, Reeve wanted to have her story be more realistic in its supernatural—a balance that shows she was a bridge between the Gothic approach of Walpole and Radcliffe. She also set her Gothic tale in England, a decided change from the settings on the continent.
Charlotte Dacre on the other hand, wrote much more in the horror vein of the Gothic, a scandalous subject matter for a woman. Her most enduring novel, Zofloya (1806), was published just 10 years after Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and also faced criticism for how it portrayed religion. Set it Italy, this novel shows the corruption of women, the breaking of marriage vows, suspicious disappearances, and murderers in the night. It is a novel about the dangers of giving into all kinds of temptations.
But what cannot be missed in Dacre’s work, is the strong and sexual female characters throughout. She challenged established gender roles and boundaries in her work, and for that alone, Zofloya is worth a read.
I also can’t not mention one of my favourites: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Not only does this novel fall into the Gothic genre, but many also credit it as being one of the first science fiction stories. Published in 1818 by teenage Shelley, Frankenstein has many of the early Gothic tropes: a frame narrative (story-within-a-story), a gruesome creature, and certainly anxieties over playing God and the advancement of science from alchemy (I actually think it’s a good example of early Dark Academia too!). Shelley also wrote on ghosts, musing on if there is still room for us to believe in them as society modernizes—a great question that still *haunts* us today!
Forty years later, in 1861 we get Harriet Jacob’s autobiography titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Many scholars believe that Jacob’s tale presents a number of the early Gothic elements—murders, entrapment, ideas around purity and virtue threatened by white male masters (I would offer a content warning for sexual abuse with this one).
Skipping ahead to the turn of the twentieth century, I must mention Daphne du Maurier. Many of her works are set in Cornwall—keeping the Gothic in England like Clara Reeve—and many of her works were transformed by filmmaker Alfred Hitchock from book to screen. The Birds? Based on a 1952 du Maurier short story.
But it is her 1938 work Rebecca that is an absolute must read. It’s got the young naïve female protagonist and a fantastic haunting of a first wife—calling to mind Jane Eyre in a way! It is the doubt and the atmosphere that make this novel stand the test of time, including its opening line "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again." And yes, Hitchcock adapted it too (plus a recent Netflix adaptation).
And while readers think of dystopian fiction when they think of Margaret Atwood, many of her works have a nod to the Gothic. The established feminist themes of confinement, believing women, and hauntings are seen in her novels like Alias Grace (1996) and Robber Bride (1993). And like how Jane Austen satirized Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic in her novel Northanger Abbey (1817), Atwood take a similar approach to her 1976 novel Lady Oracle which uses cliches of the Gothic.
In 2005, we get the vampire story Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler, who is usually better known for her science fiction—so, like Mary Shelley, she straddles the line between Gothic and scifi.
Butler takes many of the early vampire tropes, established in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) over 100 years before, and instead creates vampire lore that is “biological instead of supernatural”, integrates them into the human world, and plays with the original paleness of the vampire to navigate racial commentary and allow them to step into the sunlight. This would be an interesting read right after Dracula!
More recently, Laura Purcell is crafting novels that have the flavour of Gothic themes of the past, which still surprising modern readers. Her breakout novel The Silent Companions in 2017 was a delightful and creepy read. She has since followed that up with a few novels that continue in this vein. For example, 2019’s Bone China takes place in Cornwall in a nod to Daphne du Maurier.
Also in 2017 is Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Ilac Crest which turns the nineteenth century trope of a woman placed in an insane asylum on its head by instead seeing a male protagonist put in a sanitorium because he cannot defend his masculinity. I think reading this alongside (or after) Willkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) or Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria (1798) would be an interesting juxtaposition!
Women have firmly found their voice in the Gothic, and it is wonderful to see how they have made it their own. And that includes addressing larger societal issues, like confining gender roles.