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Hester Musson's Five Favourite Gothic Heroines

Posted on 12th January 2024 by Mark Skinner

Evoking the atmosphere and intrigue of the finest Gothic novels, Hester Musson's irresistible debut novel The Beholders finds village girl Harriet secure a position at the grand Finton Hall. As events take a sinister turn Harriet must use all her intelligence and determination to uncover dark and dangerous secrets. In this exclusive piece, Hester discusses the great Gothic heroines that inspired the writing of the novel.  

Creepy castles, vengeful ghosts, psychological terrors – who can resist a Gothic tale on a stormy night? The spooky genre took shape in the eighteenth century and was almost immediately seized upon by female writers who used its fearful and claustrophobic elements to explore the dark undertow of women’s real experience.

As the centuries rolled on, Gothic heroines emerged that would offer women a different view of themselves and of what they might be. Gentle, reckless, pragmatic, irrational, victim, perpetrator: they are all great company. Here are a few that all lovers of Gothic should definitely meet. 

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

When Ann Radcliffe wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794, there was still much bickering over whether novels had any point or worth at all. This didn’t stop her from producing a smash hit, one that would influence writers to this day, and even publishing under her own (gasp, female!) name.

Her heroine, Emily St Aubert, is orphaned and then imprisoned in a gloomy Italian castle where she is subjected to all the terrors that Gothic can muster. But although the book is filled with gaping graves, ghostly visions and the rest, Radcliffe was already deliberately rejecting the supernatural. The forces working against Emily are more horrifying for being real; men’s legal stranglehold over women’s finances and independence was to become a common theme in female gothic. Emily also sets the benchmark for the rational heroine, who has to battle her own inner fears as much as external threats. 

As a bonus read, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a delicious parody – when her heroine falls under the spell of The Mysteries of Udolpho, she starts to mistake the most innocent people for Gothic villains.

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Boasting a dramatic Apine setting and imaginative interplay of psychological and supernatural dread, this groundbreaking work of early gothic horror finds a young girl thrown at the mercy of her aunt's villainous new husband.
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Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Catherine Earnshaw is a heroine I both disliked and wanted to be like in equal measure growing up. Proud, selfish and sometimes mean, she is also driven by a ferocious desire to live and feel deeply, torn between cultured but suffocating gentility and passionate but brutal nature. 

Brontë’s tale of a tiny, stifled community on the vast and stormy Yorkshire moors and the almost demonic love affair between Catherine and the foundling Heathcliff came as a shock to contemporary critics – cruelty, coarse language and digging up your lover’s body weren’t quite the Victorian domestic ideal.

The story also makes brilliant use of unreliable narrators – we are brought in closer sympathy with our heroine purely through our distrust of the narrators’ own views of her. Whether dream or ghost, Catherine’s scraping at the window to be let in feels like the plea of every Gothic heroine to be seen for who she really is.

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Detailing Cathy and Heathcliff’s self-destructive relationship amidst the wild, feral atmosphere of the Yorkshire moors, Emily Bronte’s sole published novel evokes the violence of doomed romance like no other work of literature.
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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Jumping into the twentieth century and New England, Shirley Jackson’s claustrophobic tale of sisters living in an isolated house with their ailing uncle is both exquisite and deceptive in its simplicity. The title can be read as either sweetly reassuring or darkly sinister – like the sugar and arsenic that poisons the rest of the family six years before the novel begins. Suspected of murder by their neighbours and preyed upon by a fortune-hunting cousin, they face mounting pressure until the ‘castle’ itself, both their stronghold and prison, is threatened with destruction.

The beguiling younger sister, Merricat, tells the story and takes the brunt of the persecution as she is the only one who ventures into the village for groceries. She tries to protect her home and sister through magical practices, but are these the innocent activities of a vulnerable girl or a hint of something darker? This is a different kind of unreliable narrator, and I promise she will leave you spinning. 

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A masterpiece of black comedy and sepulchral atmosphere, Jackson’s signature work introduces a gallery of unhinged characters and sinister machinations in a twisted tale of venality and wilful greed.
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Beloved by Toni Morrison 

Beloved has haunted me since I first read it as a teenager, both for its depiction of slavery and the startling use of the supernatural. It was inspired by the true story of a mother who, desperate for her children to escape the horrors she endured when enslaved, does the unthinkable. Giving shape to such waking nightmares is perhaps Gothic’s greatest power, allowing us to cross a line imaginatively which we would ordinarily shrink from approaching.   

Sethe is struggling with the furious and spiteful spirit of her baby, dead for eighteen years, which has turned her modest house in Ohio into a gothic setting to rival the most chilling castle. When friends finally exorcise the spirit, the daughter returns (possibly) as a mysterious and beautiful young woman who gradually takes over Sethe’s physical and psychological space. The intrusion of a terrible past into the present is a hallmark of Gothic fiction, and I can’t think of another story that does it so powerfully or eerily as Beloved.

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Part ghost story, part profound reflection on the evils of slavery, Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning masterpiece synthesises myriad themes and ideas into a scorching, emotionally devastating narrative.
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Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters’ story revels in all the twistiness of a Victorian sensation novel and then twists some more. Plotting to steal an heiress’s fortune by persuading her into a false marriage, Sue goes to work as lady’s maid for Maud, the vulnerable orphan. Both women act as narrators and between them continually shuffle the reader’s expectations like a deck of cards.

Writing for twenty-first century readers, Waters can take us to places that nineteenth-century novelists could not. Alongside traditional Gothic themes of persecution and madness is an exploration of female queerness and sexuality – concepts that were barely believed to exist at the time. Living outside of societal norms in more ways than one, each heroine is forced to forge a new path for herself, transcending her Gothic fate by learning not only how to survive but to flourish.

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Two women’s journeys through the underbelly of nineteenth-century society are rendered with dark beauty and brittle tenderness in this pitch-perfect recreation of Victorian England in all its urban squalor and rural decay.
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