Marie Wollstonecraft’s work: A Vindication for the Rights of Women And Maria, or the Wrongs of Women

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A typology of the Gothic female characters

The patriarchal position of woman is inherently uncanny; she must submit to confinement within a narrow range of acceptable roles, their very narrowness a symptom of the fear she arouses47. Anne Williams explains in this quotation that the perception of women in Gothic liter-ature is linked to the perception of women in the contemporary society of the author. In the eighteenth century, women are either represented as the Angel in the House, obedient and in-nocent or as the Fallen Women, who sinned and is looked down by her peers. The nun is in the in-between: she does not belong to the domestic sphere but is required to follow strict moral guidelines. The Monk presents a large range of female characters that can be part of dif-ferent categories according to their evolution within the story. This subpart will follow the ty-pology of women in The Monk from the Angel in the House in the first part, the nun in the second part, and the Fallen Woman in the third part.

The Angel of the Hearth

Thomas Gisborne publishes Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex in 1796 and Enquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society in Great Britain Resulting from Their Respective Situations, Positions, and Employments in 1794, in which he transcribes on paper the ideology of the separate spheres between men and women that can be found in a novel: The Angel in the House48. This ideology is based on the dichotomy between the private and the public within a patriarchal society in particular. The public sphere is for men, in charge of “the science of le-gislation, of jurisprudence, of political economy […]49.” In comparison, women are part of the private sphere, busy attending “to the comfort of husbands, of parents, of brothers and sisters, […] in the intercourse of domestic life50” and taking care of the early stages of education of the future generations to perpetuate this ideology. Women are also presented as the protectresses of virtue and reason according to Diane Hoeveler51. In addition to these values, Gis-borne also points out their aptitude for ‘sprightliness and vivacity’, ‘quickness of perception’ and ‘fertility of invention52,’ most of the qualities that may be found in gothic heroines.
The Angel in the House is written by Coventry Patmore between 1854 and 1862 as a tribute to his wife’s perfection as a spouse and a mother. In the author’s eyes, she is the per-fect bride because she is modest, caring, selfless, and supportive of her husband. By becoming a wife, a woman acquires a social and virtuous status. She is only concerned by helping her husband into becoming a better man, avoiding scandals that could deteriorate his reputation, and improvising her artistic and household skills, but these features are also applied to daugh-ters. Bram Dijkstra refers to the Angel in the House as a “household nun53.” The Angel in the House must also be innocent by being kept from external temptations or influences as she rep-resents a purity of spirit and body that is to be preserved until the wedding day: “The more chaste and innocent a young woman and even a wife was, the more she lived up to the ideal that is also described in the Angel in the House54.” The Monk mostly focuses on unmarried women or widows. None of their husbands is part of the action nor mentioned except if they are dead. The ideal of the Angel in the House can be found under various forms in these characters, because they are more nuanced and the “Angel-like behaviour” depicted in Patmore’s writing represents an extreme. The closest to this ideal are mostly auxiliaries to the main other characters.
Elvira and Leonella along with Antonia represent Angels of the hearth through their behaviour. Leonella is chaperoning her niece when they go to church in the first chapter and takes the lead in the conversation with Don Lorenzo. Elvira is obsessed by keeping her daugh-ter safe and pure, by keeping her home and being mistrustful towards the people who gravit-ate around her. This mistrust is actually perceptiveness when she faces Ambrosio and figures out his intentions, which links her to Gisborne’s conception of the perfect wife. After her death, Flora and Jacintha watch over and protect Antonia, especially when Ambrosio is around. As a result of her seclusion, Antonia appears as timid in front of men, hiding herself with her veil55. She is compared to an angel, which recalls the Angel in the House: “What a Seraph’s head presented itself to his admiration!56.” This simile draws her closer to the stand-ard of innocence to such an extreme that she is ignorant of the physical differences between men and women as “[these] are not fit subjects for young Women to handle57” though Leon-ella reminds her that “there is such a thing as a Man in the world58.” This observation is a subtle criticism from Lewis of the figure of the sheltered Angel in the House, which makes Antonia unfit and unprepared to face the society she lives in59. Similar auxiliaries are present around Agnes in the subplot. The Baroness of Linden-berg represents a motherly figure to Agnes and makes sure that her niece becomes a religious nun rather than a “household nun.” Dame Cunegonda, Agnes’ governess, appears as a more inflexible chaperon than Leonella is by acting as a warden. Yet, before Agnes becomes a nun, we may find elements of the Angel in the House in Agnes’s quick-wittedness in her plan of elopement with Raymond60. Yet, a tragic reminder of the consequences of their transgression can be seen in their stillborn baby at the end of the story. Marguerite, Claude’s wife, who es-capes with Raymond and Theodore in the subplot, may be one of the most accurate represent-ation of this ideal even if this character is also in-between as Baptiste raped her before marry-ing her. Indeed, she cares for her family, helps her husband, willingly or not.

A peculiar case of femininity: the nun

The nun intrigues because of her seclusion from the world, her devotion to religion and her faultless morality. In Gothic novels, the nun represents chastity and virtue, but also transgression through their sexualisation as “objects of erotic speculation61.” This results from the Anti-Catholicism present from the Anglican schism of 1534. This event led to the dissolu-tion of monasteries under the reign of Henry VIII. Mary Tudor intends to re-establish a Cath-olic monarchy by a violent crushing of the Protestants. The threat of a Catholic return hovers over the reign of the following sovereigns reinforcing the fear of this religion, and leading to evil and hypocritical representations of Catholicism in popular opinion62. Convents are impacted and become, in the popular imagination, the place of many type of fantasies. They are perceived as prisons where innocent young women are deprived of social life. As they are completely inaccessible, they are more eroticised by the outer world because of the ideal of chastity and the denial of sexuality they must respect. This contributes to the description of convents as lustful places due to the promiscuity offered by seclusion.
Agnes is bound by her mother’s promise to take the veil, but Raymond disturbs this prospect, and when he elopes with the ghost, she is more inclined to pronounce her vows to recover from his “treason” as Sarah Lewis explains: “The convent was too often the refuge of disappointed worldliness, the grave of blasted hopes, or the prison of involuntary victims; a withering atmosphere in this which to place warm young hearts, and expect them to expand and flourish63.” Yet, when Agnes reveals her pregnancy, the convent becomes a prison where she has to “serve her sentence.” With the punishment of Agnes, the convent could be seen as a Magdalene Asylum64, for these institutions were managed by Catholic nuns and received wo-men who had extramarital affairs and whose children would be put to adoption. Agnes giving birth to a stillborn baby may be seen as a reference to this, since she will not actually see her child again. Moreover, if the underground usually refers to the unconscious, Agnes’s punish-ment serves as an example for the other nuns, by being secluding her, she is meant to be for-gotten.
We can also have a look at the onomastics of the nuns’ names. Agnes refers both to the Greek hagnos “pure,” “chaste,” “holy”, and the Latin agnus “the lamb” which stresses the association with a martyr, and with Jesus, often referred to as a lamb, sacrificing himself to carry away the original sin, as Agnes who is “sacrificed” to restore the moral balance of the convent. Virginia’s name comes from the Latin virgo “maid”, “virgin” and her evolution through the story would eventually lead her to embody characteristics for The Angel in the House. Unlike Agnes, she was not supposed to become a nun but got convinced by the Prior-ess. She is portrayed as a caring young woman, as well as “[one] whose beauty you must often have heard celebrated65.” She is eventually freed from her vows and marries Lorenzo. This union accentuates the image of the “household nun” but also helps to illustrate the “rescued nun syndrome” drawn out by Susan Casteras in 198166 who establishes this theory by studying paintings depicting nuns:
The projection of romantic and latent erotic appeal into the depiction of religious maidens generated, among other side effects, what might be termed the « rescued nun syndrome. » A popular fictional subject, this commonly featured secret communica-tions with a former lover outside the high walls and a last minute reprieve with his aid from the monastic surroundings. The happy ending predictably included marriage to the deliverer or at least return to the domestic confines of home and family67.

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Fallen Angels

The second extreme in stereotypes of femininity in the eighteenth century is the Fallen Woman, “a woman who has lost her good reputation by having sex with someone before she is married68.” This label is presented as the complete opposite of The Angel in the House, as fallen women become ostracised from society. This categorisation basically applies to any woman who does not fit the traditional requirements of the bourgeoisie with an accent on ex- tramarital affairs69. In Advice to Unmarried Women: to Recover and Reclaim the Fallen; and to Prevent the Fall of Others, Into the Snares and Consequences of Seduction published in 1791, contributors give advice to fallen women on how to regain their place in a respectable society, though with difficulties70. In addition, according to Diane Hoeveler, female characters in Gothic literature are very likely to get the same treatment: Women who did not conform to appropriately coded bourgeois norms – who reminded the reading audience of long discarded and disgraced aristocratic flaws like adultery, passion, gossip, slander, and physical violence – became themselves the targets of savage beatings throughout the works.

Table of contents :

I – Gothic and Women
A) Romance in the shade of ruins: Women in the creation of Gothic works
1. The “Romance” label
2. Gothic heroines before The Monk
3. The Mysteries of Udolpho
B) Reception of The Monk
C) A typology of the Gothic female characters
1. The Angel of the Hearth
2. A peculiar case of femininity: the nun
3. Fallen Angels
II – Conformism and Transgression
A) The Monk as a challenge of a patriarchal society
1. The Church as a patriarchal microcosm
2. The threat of femininity
3. The depiction of masculine characters
B) The influence of religion
1. Representation of religion in Gothic Fiction
2. Over-zealousness leading to transgression
1. Duality Feminine/Masculine
2. Matilda as a witch
3. A femme fatale figure
III – Is The Monk a Proto-Feminist Work?
A) “The” Monk
1. Ambrosio as The monk
2. A monk can hide another one
B) Towards more subversive feminine characters
1. Immediate descendants: The Italian, Ann Radcliffe and Zofloya, Charlotte Dacre.
2. The Female Vampire: Carmilla, Sheridan Le Fanu and Dracula, Bram Stoke
3. Women as Monsters: The Lair of the White Worm, Bram Stoker
C) Gothic and Proto-feminism
1. Marie Wollstonecraft’s work: A Vindication for the Rights of Women And Maria, or the Wrongs of Women
2. The Female Gothic
3. Modern reception of The Monk: Is The Monk a proto-feminist work?
Appendix 1: Family Tree
Appendix 2: Summary of The Monk


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