Friday, 27 November 2015

Let Me in at Your Window...

Pale, scantily-clad women stumbling round derelict churches, dripping in blood...wild-eyed men with a penchant for brooding silences followed by lengthy and somehow meaningless monologues...charcoal skies and teeming rain irrespective of the season...You could be forgiven for thinking I'm describing an average Glasgow Saturday night but, dear reader, you would be wrong. Welcome to the world of Gothic Fiction in all its doom-laden, elipsis-overdoing glory...

I was reminded how much I love this genre at a recent meet-the-author event with Kate Mosse whose latest novel moves her away from traditional historical fiction and firmly into the Gothic camp. I like that sentence, it makes my life sound far more-cultured than the reality which is offering helpful suggestions via the tv to the contestants on Masterchef. To be honest I was largely there because I have my own novel launch in January (for the full plug please now go to my website not Kate's) and am stalking authors trying to nick good stories. Anyway, I digress...

I love the idea that Gothic Romance began as an intellectual joke with Walpole's Castle of Otrantowritten in 1764, he pretended it was 400 years older than it was and then laid down many of the foundations of the genre (creepy buildings, the supernatural, oddly-behaving antiquities) as though they were an established tradition. It's a great conceit because if there's any genre that lends itself to parody, it's this one, from Northanger Abbey to Disney princesses, it's a gift:

As much as I love the stories, I will own up a frustration with a lot of the female characters: too often they are limp, passive heroines awaiting rescue or malnourished Edgar Allen-Poe consumptives who make Victoria Beckham's models look plus-size. But, feminist niggles aside, what's not to love about the plots, the settings and the fabulous clothes whose jet and lace melodrama still appear in almost every Christmas fashion spread. I've had more than my share of Siouxsie moments although I wish I'd remembered that sugar-watered hair snaps off when I recreated my daytime student look for a fancy dress party and overdid the falling down potion...

Gothic is everywhere - from fashion to furniture to tv shows. One of my current favourite shows is the insanely melodramatic Penny DreadfulDorian Grey, Van Helsing, Dr Frankenstein and his Creature plus the odd werewolf and vampire all living in a sort of Camden-on-laudanum slice of Victorian London with Josh Hartnett and the High Princess of Goth Eva Green  Seriously, what's not to love?

Perhaps it's the enduring themes that continue to attract: Frankenstein with its terrifying portrayal of what a life without love really looks like; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde's struggle with duality and repression; Jane Eyre and the desperate hope that love will bring redemption; Wuthering Heights and its bloody awful singing. Perhaps it's the disquiet caused when familiar objects and places take on threatening aspects or the exploration of the darker sides of the human spirit. Whatever brooding thing pulls the reader in, one thing is certain: the genre has been shaped by some incredible female writers: Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, the Brontes, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, through to Susan Hill and Joyce Carol Oates - it's quite a roll call. Just imagine them all sat round a cobwebbed-festooned, tea table, trading potion tips, borrowing each other's latest little black number and swapping notes on their favourite bad boys. 

So, for a recast, let's go to one of my favourite novels, Wuthering Heights, and let's get that damned song sorted once and for all - I have to warn you I find this disturbingly sexy...

I've lost count of the people who have seen only seen the terrible Laurence Olivier film and think that this twisted tale is a love story. Seriously? Domestic violence, racism, abuse and borderline necrophilia - I keep wondering why Tim Burton hasn't cast an eye over it or maybe Ken Loach for a gritty Northern version.

The novel is interesting for having 3 Gothic heroines: Catherine Earnshaw and Isabella Linton (or Scarlett and Melanie as Margaret Mitchell renamed them) and Cathy, Catherine and Edgar's daughter. What is even more fascinating is that, actually, we never really meet the character we all think of as the key protagonist, Catherine Earnshaw - she is a memory, almost a myth, only encountered in remembered voices and not even around for half the book. So, for our rebellious, self-centred, contradictory heroine, torn between passion and social position I thought I'd go for a woman whose life was also short but whose name has become mythic: Eva Peron. Think about it - she was born poor but rose to unexpected social heights, she broke social conventions and encouraged rebellion against the norm through her support of female suffrage and she died at the height of her beauty. Better for my link though, her name will forever live on though some of the worst music known to man. Oh the joys of immortality.

The we have poor pampered Isabella, raised in a secluded Victorian bubble by humans, reduced to jelly when  Heathcliffe wanders in - it's like watching someone dangle a kitten in front of a fox. When I first read it, I dismissed her as the archetypal good girl thinking it might be fun to go bad and then freaking out when she got there, actually she's more interesting - she breaks the mould, escapes her abusive husband and reinvents herself.

So, my Isabella is going to be the wonderful Nora Ephron creator of, among other things, When Harry Met Sally, and a woman whose career went stellar after she ditched her cheating husband. Besides, I like the image of an older, wiser Isabella explaining to Heathcliffe that just looking broodily at a woman doesn't quite push the necessary buttons...

Which leaves us with Cathy Linton - her upbringing is as enclosed as Isabella's but far more brutal. Cathy, however, is the one character who brings us some hope and the only one allowed to develop to a point where she can make, within the confines of her world, some kind of successful, independent life. I imagine her marching off the moor ready to reclaim life so my Cathy is going to be a suffragette and, in honour of her working class origins, I'm choosing Annie Kenney. A bit scrappy, pretty militant and very bright - my perfect heroine.

I've already mentioned the joy that is Gothic parody. If you haven't read Cold Comfort Farm you're in for a treat but if you want a filthy, hilarious romp through every over-wrought cliche then there's only one show you need. Fill a chalice with wine (red of course), light a flickering taper and treat yourself to the monstrous joy that is Hunderby, hush-ho my sweets, hush-ho...


  1. "Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim." Yay, Nora Ephron!

  2. Should be on a poster everywhere girls tread.

  3. This is a fab post, Ms Cathokin! Cathy and Heathcliffe are one of my favourite literary love affairs - she SO had to be a Leo, all that passion.

    Luv this bit: "malnourished Edgar Allen-Poe consumptives who make Victoria Beckham's models look plus-size"

    1. Thank you! I've always thought she was a bit of a Scorpio myself...


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