Jane Healey on her Favourite Gothic Romances
Jane Healey's mercurial new novel, The Animals at Lockwood Manor, entwines an atmopsheric love story with an eerie tale set in a stately home on the eve of war. Here, Jane picks her very favourite examples of the bewitching genre that is gothic romance.
My debut novel, The Animals at Lockwood Manor, is a gothic love story set during the evacuation of a natural history collection to a country mansion during the Second World War. As the war progresses, the occupants of the house, including the workaholic museum director Hetty Cartwright and the haunted daughter of the lord of the manor, Lucy Lockwood, become convinced that someone, or something, is stalking them through the dark corridors of Lockwood.
As part of my research I reread stacks of gothic fiction both classic and contemporary. I was struck most by the way these books combined thrilling plots and eerie settings with an exploration of the subconscious and themes of identity, desire, and intergenerational trauma, using a rich reservoir of imagery and metaphor in which familiar domestic objects – mirrors, doors, books, candles – become uncanny and characters encounter doubles of themselves both living and ghostly. The gothic setting of these love stories, often a foreboding house or mansion surrounded by a desolate landscape, can be a reflection of a darkness at the heart of the relationship, a metaphor for societal forces who stand against the relationship, or a physical foil, a frightening labyrinth that our lovers must survive if they are to live happily ever after.
Here are five gothic love stories to add to your reading list:
A violently destructive love story that the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti called “a fiend of a book…an incredible monster” as if the book itself is a gothic beast any reader should run from. What struck me most on first reading this was how modern it felt, how wild and passionate, and how the characters are often the very worst versions of themselves. This novel also contains one of my favourite ever sentences: “You said I killed you—haunt me then.”
A book to read during a storm.
I was named after Charlotte Brontë’s heroine so I’m naturally biased towards this extraordinary novel – although the ghostly presence in the Red Room meant that I was too frightened to read beyond the second chapter until I was an adult. The wilds of the moors and the eerie occurrences at Thornfield Hall are unforgettable but it is Jane’s stubborn sense of self-worth against a world that has starved her of affection and care that makes this love story so memorable. Jane wants Rochester on equal standing or not at all, insisting ‘I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart.’
A book to savour, to read in the small hours wrapped in a warm blanket while the rest of the house is asleep.
Further reading: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which illustrates the cost of Jane and Rochester’s love, in the shape of Bertha and her tragic past; expands the world of Brontë’s novel to show the ties between the brutality of colonialism and the riches of English country mansions; and stands alone as a stunning gothic read.
Rebecca, a literary heir to Jane Eyre, opens with its gothic mansion, the infamous Manderly, in ruins. The seductive figure of Max’s first wife, Rebecca, haunts this novel, just as she does the narrator who, in marrying Maxim, has taken her name, Mrs de Winter, but feels unequal to the task of running the estate, thwarted by the housekeeper Mrs Danvers whose obsession for her late mistress might be argued to be the true gothic love story at the heart of this story. Du Maurier’s prose is sublime and bewitching, such as when the narrator notes that when the leaves outside Manderly “shiver suddenly, and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the patter of a woman’s hurrying footsteps, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled shoe…”
A book to become obsessed by.
The gothic mansion in this novel is the women’s ward of Millbank prison with its dank cells and locked doors, and the love story is between lonely spinster Margaret Prior and a spiritualist inmate Selina Dawes. Affinity deepens the metaphysical notion of soulmates that Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre introduced, and by the close of reading it you will be breathless and aching, swept away by Selina’s passionate assertions that love knows no boundaries of stone or flesh, that ours “is a world that is made of love.”
A book to read by flickering candlelight.
The epigraph of my novel – ‘She herself is a haunted house’ – comes from a story in this stunning collection, which draws from both gothic and fairy tale tropes and adds a feminist twist. The baroque lushness of these stories, the rich playful maximalism of Angela Carter’s prose, cannot be overstated, this collection is truly a pleasure to read. The love in these stories is transformative, sly, trembling, and ravenous; and the gothic details are gloriously voluptuous – blood-stained keys, vampires, beasts who wear men’s suits, clockwork doubles, faded palaces, magical mirrors, and trees that “stir with a noise like taffeta skirts of women who have lost themselves in the woods”.
A book to read with a goblin feast or, if you can’t find one at short notice, a slice of velvet chocolate cake so rich it makes your cheeks hurt.
More gothic love stories: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore.
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