Girl Meets House: Kitchen Sinks, Joanna Russ and the Female Gothic

by on Jun 5, 2012 in Nonfiction | 2 comments

By Tansy Rayner Roberts

It’s not just me, right?  The Gothic novel is ripe for a comeback.  This particular sub-genre has been creeping into my subconscious for some time, and not just because I accidentally went to a lecture the other month on the Female Gothic in Film, which quoted Joanna Russ and made me squee like the fan girl I am.

Joanna Russ might be the Prime Minister (I’m not going to say queen) of feminist science fiction and literary criticism, but the first piece of her non-fiction that changed the way I look at the world wasn’t How To Suppress Women’s Writing at all.  It was Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think it’s My Husband: the Modern Gothic. (1970)

Before I read this article, I had no idea what a gothic novel was.  But it intrigued me.

In addition to the Heroine’s other troubles, she gradually becomes aware that somewhere in the tangle of oppressive family relationships going on in the House exists a Buried Ominous Secret, always connected with the Other Woman and the Super-Male (whatever relation they happen to bear to one another in the novel).  The Super-Male is at the centre of the Secret; when she unravels the mystery about him (does he love her or is he a threat to her?) she will simultaneously get to the bottom of the Secret.  Then the plot thickens…
–Joanna Russ, Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me.

Gothic novels were the original trashy read.  They were books built to be despised, and oh boy, were they despised.  Possibly the most famous literary interrogation of the genre is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, though as Jo Walton pointed out here, Jane Austen didn’t read the genre herself, merely parodied what it was in the mouths of her characters.  Thus continuing an essential literary tradition of people who don’t like a genre managing somehow to create a public definition of that genre.  (A phenomenon with which horror, science fiction and fantasy readers should be well familiar)  On the one hand, Northanger Abbey kept Mrs Radcliffe’s novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, from being forgotten, but on the other hand, it completely cemented the Gothic tradition as a silly genre of books read by silly girls.

And there’s another spark of familiarity.  Because “silly books featuring silly girls” (and read by even sillier girls, so many of them, that’s a bit of a worry) pretty much characterises how the Twilight fandom and, more recently, the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon are portrayed by people who don’t like or read those books.  After realising how much I don’t like the methods used to denigrate women as readers (and writers, and characters) in so much of the criticism surrounding Twilight, I find myself paying much sharper attention to other books that are dismissed for similar reasons.

I don’t have to like those books to defend them.  But neither do I want to automatically assume I won’t like them simply because many, many women are reading and enjoying them.  I’m far more interested in prodding said books with a stick to find out why.

“The Modern Gothics are neither love stories nor stories of women-as-victims.  They are adventure stories with passive protagonists.”
–Joanna Russ, Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me.

Joanna Russ is brilliant at a form of criticism I particularly enjoy: she is able to appreciate something for what it is and point out its cleverness and/or value while, at the same time, making fun of it.  Her point about the passivity of the Gothic heroines, and the appeal of that to so many (especially female) readers, is a concept that seems quite confronting today. Labelling a female character as passive in 2012 is generally taken as a literary insult akin to “get back in your kitchen and make me a sandwich.”

But books as well as audiences have changed a great deal since Russ was writing about “modern” Gothics in the 1970’s.  Given how much science fiction, fantasy and romance have all developed as genres in those four decades, what might the truly modern 21st century Gothic look like?  And would it be relevant to writers already working in genre fiction?

The author I think most likely to answer that question for me is Sarah Rees Brennan.  I’ve been a fan of her fiction as well as her blogging for some time, and her Gothic Tuesday blog series has particularly captured me.  These parodies of famous Gothic novels, intended to give some promotional background for her upcoming series of gothic mystery novels, the Lynburn Legacy, also serve to introduce readers to the conventions of what seems to be a long lost genre.  It’s from Sarah that I picked up the phrase “Girl Meets House”, something which crystallised everything that Russ had previously said about the genre.

THE PLOT: You know how people really like love triangles?
JANE EYRE: With HOUSES?
THORNFIELD HALL: Hiiii. I’m bachelor number three, tall, dark and brooding!

JANE EYRE: I gotta go visit my dying aunt in a Gothic manor full of suicide and despair.
MR ROCHESTER: Wait a second. Wait a second. Are you saying that you’re seeing another manor?
–Sarah Rees Brennan, Jane Eyre, Or: The Bride of Edward ‘Crazypants’ Rochester

So many Victorian novels I had read suddenly made a whole lot more sense.  Between this and Joanna Russ pointing out (in How To Suppress Women’s Writing) that Brontë novels are far more satisfactory if you’re not pigeonholing them as romances, Jane Eyre became totally redeemed in my eyes, without me having to reread the book.

I always liked Wuthering Heights best.  Sure, the characters are all completely vile, but I enjoyed that about it.  I never felt like I was supposed to think Heathcliff was a romantic hero, and so I wasn’t disappointed in the book.  Whereas Jane Eyre made me miserable because I assumed we were supposed to be shipping Jane and Rochester like crazy.

If Jane Eyre is not a romance, it’s ten times the book I thought it was, which is something of a wonderful revelation.  I also credit Joanna Russ with making me realise why so many movies of Wuthering Heights fail.  I assumed it was because they were only bothering to tell half the story but, no, it’s not that at all.  The films which miss out half the story (such as the classic Laurence Oliver-Merle Oberon version) do so because they think the story is supposed to be a romance, and that it conforms better to that format if you leave out the next generation.  But if you know it’s not a romance, the second half of the story is desperately necessary because it’s about the children redeeming the appalling behaviour of their parents.

So if you take the romance out of Gothic, what do you have left?

Gothic books are often referred to as “girl meets house”. House is intimidatingly tall, dark and sinister but madly attractive. Girl is scared of house! Maybe trapped in house! I mean, girls could and did feel really trapped in their own homes, way back when, whether it was in the kitchen or in the attic with the yellow wallpaper. But girls were also supposed to be at their most powerful in the house…if they could remove the lurking threat, they could be happy there, and secure both in the financial sense and in the not-getting-murdered-to-death sense. A house, a dude, the whole package.

Girls aren’t trapped in houses the same way anymore. But kids are: your parents want to move you to a sinister manor, your new address is No 1, Weird Stuff Going Down Here Lane.
–Sarah Rees Brennan, Ain’t No Other Manor But You

An intriguing aspect of the gothic, including Victorian and modern (70’s) and 21st century explorations of the genre, is the idea of a female protagonist dealing with a man who is both attractive and threatening.  (Angel and Buffy, anyone?)  If you assume this is purely a romantic fantasy, it’s deeply alarming, and it’s this “wow that’s disturbing” factor that has led much of the (often quite legitimate) critique against books like Twilight, in which the line between stalking and romance is very fine indeed.  When we’re talking about teen readers, it’s particularly concerning to think that they are buying into a frivolous romantic fantasy that factors ‘fear of your boyfriend’ into the 101 things you think are hot about him.

But if, as Russ urges us, you stop assuming that every novel by a female author is a romance, then the Gothic becomes a different genre altogether: a mode of literature that acknowledges and respects the fact that many women live in a world where the man they love or trust might well be a physical threat to them.

A great deal of horror is about an outside fear.  About a horror being visited upon you because you have wandered across an unseen boundary, or from a sinister but unknown attacker.  The very randomness of it, that it could happen to anyone, is what makes that kind of story scary.  But there’s a very real danger in assuming that this is the only kind of horror that is legitimate.  As a parent, I know that I worry about the fact that we put so much focus on Stranger Danger in schools when in fact violence within the home, coming from a trusted and known person, is far more common.

How do you teach the more complex dangers to children without terrifying them, or damaging the trust they feel for their parents and other loved ones?  The sad fact is that for many children, as well as many adults, you don’t have to teach them that such a thing can happen.  An acknowledgement that their situation is real and that they can access support is far more necessary.

“The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed.”
–G.K. Chesterton, as quoted by Terry Pratchett, When The Children Read Fantasy, (1994)

The Gothic tradition takes the real world fears of women, and creates stories in which houses, the symbol of safety and protection, can be both beautiful and threatening.  The men in these stories can be likewise alluring and potentially dangerous.  When real romance is found, it’s often with a sense of relief rather than innocence.  Oh, this one’s not going to kill me.  Unless….

At a lecture I attended earlier this year (at the Stranger With My Face women in horror film festival in Hobart, Tasmania), film critic and media studies lecturer Adrian Martin presented a screening of a short film which illustrated perfectly that the fear-and-desire appeal of the Gothic to female readers is not as simple as “being scared makes me feel sexy, oh whoops I tore my nightgown.”

Kitchen Sink, (1989) a short black and white film by New Zealand indie director Alison McClean, tells the story of a woman who finds a creature in her kitchen sink and tends to its needs as it becomes man-shaped.  As a viewer, I was gripped by this fascinating and subtle piece, which constantly flipped back and forth on me.  There were so few words or clues, it was pure emotion.  Was he going to attack her?  Had she hurt him?  Why was she trying to look after him?  Was he her lost husband returned to her?  Was he a threat to her home, or a necessary part of her home?  Did she love him?  Was she grieving for him?  Was he alive or dead?  Was he going to hurt her? Every thirty seconds or so, I changed my mind about whether she loved the creature or feared him, and I was on the edge of my seat when the final denouement came… (check it out on Shorts Bay to see for yourself: http://shortsbay.com/film/kitchen-sink)

Martin explained with great relish the different responses to the film–how many viewers, especially men, tended to dismiss the protagonist as stupid, whereas many others, especially women, tended to empathise with her need to protect and care for the creature.

The film has been acclaimed as feminist and groundbreaking. Maclean herself, in an interview, pointed out that it is a gender inversion of the Pygmalion myth, about a man that falls in love with the statue he has created. She also noted that if the point of view character had been male, it would have been read as a universal story, not a gendered one.

Gothic fiction is not a simple thing at all–it’s full of all kinds of fascinating metaphors about domesticity, the home, love, family, fear, safety and attraction.  And it puts female characters front and centre, celebrating a different kind of feminine strength than that which is usually celebrated in speculative fiction.  It would be easy to dismiss it as old-fashioned–but of course, it doesn’t have to be.  Personally, I long for a 21st century renaissance of this genre in order to see what the current generation of feminist, lefty, culturally & racially aware speculative fiction writers would do with it.  There’s a whole toolbox waiting to be taken apart and played with.

In particular, I think we’re due for some contemporary, fresh Gothic tales about a Girl Meets Spaceship, or Girl Meets Castle, along with Girl Meets House.   Maybe that’s the next big genre wave we can hope for, heading to the YA shelves first and then taking on the world.

What’s hiding in your attic?


More from Tansy Rayner Roberts:

Tansy Rayner RobertsTansy Rayner Roberts is the award-winning author of the Creature Court trilogy: Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts.  Her short story collection Love and Romanpunk was published by Twelfth Planet Press in 2011. You can find her at her blog (http://tansyrr.com/), on Twitter (https://twitter.com/#!/tansyrr/) and on the Hugo-nominated podcast Galactic Suburbia (http://galactisuburbia.podbean.com/).  Tansy lives in Tasmania, Australia with a Silent Producer and two superhero daughters.

2 Comments

  1. How about Girl Meets Roadkill…oh, wait, that’s been done 😉

    Great article!

  2. Thank you for such an interesting look at a form that has been too easily dismissed. For those interested in further study, I highly recommend “Gothic” by Fred Botting.

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