Arguably the most influential 20th century Gothic novel was Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938. But by mid-century, a host of other writers were penning romantic suspense with a strong Gothic element, and for a while it became the most popular women’s genre fiction. Phyllis A. Whitney’s period Gothic, The Quicksilver Pool, was published in 1955. In 1958, Mary Stewart’s seminal modern Gothic, Nine Coaches Waiting, came out. By 1960, when Victoria Holt’s period Gothic, Mistress of Mellyn, achieved bestseller status, the Gothic romantic suspense novel genre was truly launched. Gothics would dominate library collections and some bestseller lists for the next ten years. And numerous paperback reprints were supplemented by additional paperback originals by the likes of Elsie Lee, Dorothy Eden, and others. Many were reprints from overseas. (Additionally, to make hay while the sun shone, publishers repackaged older novels with suspense elements, including the entire oeuvre of 1930s bestselling suspense writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, as if they too were Gothics. I remember buying one with a cover blurb describing a typical Gothic setup and discovering on reading it that the blurb was a complete lie. I enjoyed the book anyway, but it was not a Gothic.)
The Gothic novel had its standard situations, usually the love story of an awkward, plain, Jane Eyre-like heroine who came to a mansion as a governess and ended up marrying the lord of the manor. This happy ending only occurred after she risked her own neck and suffered a number of vicissitudes in order to resolve some longstanding problems and uncover some old secrets.
Chiefly these were problems of the hero. The theme of the cursed man was key in the Gothic romance setup. Like Rochester in Jane Eyre, the Gothic hero had a secret, and it was always a nasty one. Again like Rochester, sometimes the hero was injured, even crippled. In fact, as it developed in the next years, frequently the hero was married at the time the heroine entered his household. Often he was some kind of tormented artist. Other times, he was just tormented. Not to mince words, if the hero’s wife was alive, she was always an Evil Bitch from Hell. She tortured the husband who had been stupid enough to marry her for her looks or for her pregnancy years before. She was unfaithful and gloried in it. And she was also a cold or hostile mother to her neglected child. Sometimes she was outright murderous. If she was dead, she was all of the above, or just an ineffectual wimp that somebody murdered. The Gothic heroine was kind to the hero and to his lonely child. In the process of winning them over, the heroine also won over various crusty or embittered household retainers, and assorted extended family relatives.
But there was usually a villain out to get her, to keep the secrets hidden. Sometimes it was a romantic rival for the hero. Sometimes it was an outright villain in sheep’s clothing. One of the most common situations in a Gothic romance was a near-death experience, supposedly an accident, happening to the heroine. But the hero simply did not pay attention. Worse, he or others in the household would accuse her of dreaming or imagining or making it up. One does not imagine a ton of carved stone gargoyle dislodged just as one passes under. But in Gothic after Gothic, that’s how the heroine was treated, as if her words and her experiences were of no merit. This surely mirrored how women were feeling in our culture at that time, that their intelligent observations were being ignored or pooh-poohed as female hysteria. It’s not coincidental that the heroine of a Gothic novel comes to a rotten situation, is the only person to see things as they are, and yet is either attacked (by the secret enemy) or laughed at (by those unwilling or too sunk in despair to change).
The Gothic heroine was always a catalyst. A bad situation might have held for decades before she showed up. But then once she started poking her nose into the family secrets and the messed up family dynamics, all hell broke loose. Hence the attacks on her. In addition to curiosity about old secrets, she brought love into the equation. She fell in love with the hero. She loved his child. But since someone else did not, the conflict between love and repressed hatreds caused a dramatic conflagration. This fire, often literally a house fire (as in Rebecca), burned out the nasty secrets of the past and freed the hero to start a sane and loving new life with the heroine.
Gothic novels were fine in their day, but most of the dramatic family situations a Gothic heroine encountered would not exist in today’s society of no-fault divorce and DNA science. True, in a period story, neither would come into play, but a large number of the Gothic novels were set in contemporary times. Which by now is half a century ago. Another societal change that would make the typical Gothic story hard to believe is the level of sexuality between men and women without a lifelong commitment. Those old Gothics had at most one passionate kiss per book. Compare that to our modern habit of open sexual relationships and imagine a Gothic heroine arriving at the scary mansion, having sex with the wrong man (who is secretly a multiple murderer) and then having sex with the right man, the hero. Maybe it could make a chick lit novel. But it wouldn’t be a romance, because romance values remain pretty much the same as they always were: the serious stuff is reserved strictly for the hero and heroine. That means a formerly randy hero suddenly becomes celibate once he meets the heroine. And that certainly forbids the heroine to make the mistake of going to bed with the Gothic hero’s insane half-brother, that angelic-looking pastor who secretly murders people! As beloved as Gothic novels were to a whole generation of women, it’s easy to see why it is difficult to write them for today’s readers. Good men are no longer stuck married to rampantly unfaithful women (if they ever were). Men even can win custody of their children in a divorce. And DNA testing can assure a doubting hero about the paternity of the child he is raising as his own. As for the heroines, women are no longer used to being ignored and laughed at in our culture. They also tend to have better job prospects than becoming a governess.
Gothic novels published in hardcover followed the fashionable non-representational style of the day, and often just featured a moody painting of a gigantic old mansion. Few or no people were visible. But Gothic paperback book covers often had the heroine on the cover. It has become a cliche that such romances always showed a white nightgown-clad heroine fleeing a massive old house that had a light shining from just one window. Truth is, very few did, as can be seen from some samples from the big name authors of the day.
Incidentally, as serious as Gothic novels were, one of the most memorable I ever read was a sly sendup of the genre, Sweet Jael, by an author who also wrote serious Gothics, Sarah Farrant. Makes for hilarious reading.
Looking at my collection of old Gothics reminds me how much fun they were. If you have time to ferret out some of these titles from libraries and used bookstores, or even find some new editions, you’re in for some excellent storytelling.