I’m a big fan of gothic novels – who doesn’t love a teenagerhood spent reading Wuthering Heights, The Castle of Ortanto, The Mysteries of Udolpho? – and there’s a good chance that something of that genre can be found in most of my work. When it comes to the new novel The Path of Thorns, we’re talking more than a hint. Waaaaay more. It’s a novel that answers the question ‘What would happen if Jane Eyre met Frankenstein and Dark Shadows at a ball with an open bar?’ I love my heroine, Asher Todd; I wanted to have a protagonist who didn’t go to the big old dark house because they had nowhere else to go – I wanted her to go there because she wanted to be there and she had a plan.
So, here is my list of gothic heroines built in a similar mode to Asher – the women who won’t be silenced.
1. Mary Yellan in Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier. I know a lot of people will choose Du Maurier’s Rebecca as their go-to gothic (and Mrs Danvers is amazing villain but I’ve got no patience for the unnamed protagonist’s doormat tendencies), but Jamaica Inn is my long-term favourite. While the second Mrs De Winter was seemingly always looking for someone to tell her what to do, not so Mary Yellan. She’s sent to Jamaica Inn after her mother’s death, to live with the aunt she remembers as bright and happy. She thinks she’s going to find a safe place – except times and people have changed. Her aunt is a timid woman, cowed by her creepy bully of a husband, and there are unseen dangers lurking on the coast and in the inn. But Mary Yellan keeps investigating no matter what.
2. Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I love Antoinette because she is Jean Rhys’s reimagining Bertha Rochester, Jane Eyre’s mad woman in the attic. In Jane Eyre we see her at her end point after years of abuse and isolation – so, not at her best. Rochester marries her, changes her name (robbing her of even that piece of identity), takes her fortune and then locks her in the attic. He replaces her with another woman even as she still lives in the same house. For the longest time no one wondered what had driven her nuts. So, one life lesson is to always consider how your boyfriend/husband/lover talks about his ex. Was she really a crazy bitch? Or, given a matter of time, will you be the next crazy bitch the incoming girlfriend/wife/lover gets told about? And will you be locked in the attic too?
But Bertha keeps hold of the two things left to her: her fierceness and her rage – and when she takes her voice back, the world burns.
3. Merricat Blackwood in We have Always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I’ve seen this called a ‘mystery novel’ but I’m going with ‘gothic’ all the way. Big dark house on an isolated estate, bit of sympathetic magic and magical thinking, a village filled by hostile yokels, a dead family except for a sister worn out by her own kindness, a disturbed uncle, and a creepy cousin. Totally gothic. Oh, and a fire at the end. Sure, Merricat is a definite anti-heroine, there’s no getting around that, but she’s absolutely one of the best narrators of anything, ever, and she won’t let anyone silence her. When she gets around to telling the truth, it blows your mind.
4. Melmoth the Witness in Melmoth by Sarah Perry. Maybe a controversial choice – I’m not going for Helen Franklin, the protagonist, but rather the legendary figure of Melmoth in this story weighty with a lurking horror. Based on Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, Perry’s haunting figure saw Christ rise and then denied it. Her punishment is to continue to bear witness to all the awfulness of the world – and to see into the hearts of those who did the same thing she did to gain her curse. Deny the sacred position of the witness. The thing to remember with Melmoth is how critical her role is: bearing witness is the root of compassion. Watching, witnessing makes meaning in a difficult world. Melmoth gives suffering seen weight – and defies silence.
5. Sue Tinder and Maud Lilly in Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Two for the price of one! The heroines of Waters’ novel often feel like two halves of a whole. Both raised as unwitting actors in a diabolical plot, though their economic circumstances differ considerably, they both come from lives repressed by authority figures. And they also both rise above those repressors to find independence, redemption and love. They endure.
6. Lucy Snowe in Villette by Charlotte Brontë. I would put my money on Lucy Snowe rather than Jane Eyre in a knife fight – just in case anyone was wondering. Jane endures, sure, but she goes back to Rochester and I must say that I judge her for this. Lucy Snowe survives all the traditional gothic losses – bereft of family, friends, funds and left to make her own way in the way – she flourishes. When someone tries to bully her, she claps back. Faced with ghosts (maybe), she burns their costumes. Sure, her lover is a bully, but she never lets him walk all over her – and when he disappears in a shipwreck, she’s honest, saying ‘M. Emmanuel was away three years. Reader, they were the happiest years of my life.’ Because she was entirely herself, as she has always been. No compromise – and she fulfils the words she writes at the beginning of the book ‘Thus, there remained no possibility of dependence on others; to myself alone could I look … self reliance and exertion were forced upon me by circumstances.’ And, dear reader, at all things she excels.
7. Noemí Taboada in Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Noemí is a socialite, independent, brilliant and resourceful. She’s one of those unusual gothic heroines because she doesn’t need to be at the remote estate. She’s actually sent there by her father to investigate claims that her cousin is being poisoned. So the main male figure in her life recognises her abilities and believes in her resilience and resourcefulness. She is going on a rescue mission. Moreno-Garcia mixes horror, science fiction, dark romance, and peels back the cover on issues of colonialism and racism. It’s a brilliant book featuring a new sort of gothic heroine – who will say her piece and see her will done.