Being that today is the feast day of Saint Valentine it seems apropos for me to continue my celebration of Women in Horror Month with a look at one of my guilty pleasures: gothic romance novels. I read a metric ton of them as a teenager and young adult, before they seemed, sadly, to fall out of fashion. What did I love about them?
The plots were all kind of similar. A young woman who is all alone in the world is sent as a ward/governess/young bride to live in a creepy old house/castle to work for/marry/be a ward of a mysterious man with dark secrets. Once she gets there she is scared out of her wits by a series of supernatural/creepy, terrifying events, and must find the courage to solve the mystery, usually discovering that the mysterious man who controls her life is really a damaged and misunderstood man who will be saved by her love.
What I liked most about them was the atmosphere and that they featured plucky female protagonists. They would feature a slow build of increasingly strange events, which seemed to point to supernatural causes. I loved the slower pacing of these stories. They didn’t start out scary, but would gradually inch towards fever pitch – that lovely feeling of the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, biting your nails in anxiety, waiting for that moment when all would become clear and our heroine would save the day…and the hero.
I’ve recently read a few vintage gothic romances and they haven’t stood the test of time that well, unfortunately. Some do. Daphne du Maurier’s stand up well, some of Victoria Holt’s, but others just made me snicker at my younger self. Nowadays I don’t find men who lock their mentally ill wives in attics romantic at all. Ditto for men who neglect their wards and wives or sexually harass their governesses. Older and wiser, I suppose.
What I still enjoy and remember, though, was the creepy atmosphere. The scenes of heroines in flimsy gowns bravely entering the abandoned wing, falling down the stairs to the dank dungeons, climbing the steps to the attic full of memories and portraits, running from the house in terror. *shiver* No doubt you’ve seen these scenes in horror movies. Those moments of yelling at the screen: “don’t go into the basement!” have a long history.
Gothic romances were written mostly by women. One of my old faves, Victoria Holt, wrote more than twenty of them, and that was only one of Eleanor Hibbert’s many pen names. Du Maurier’s works have fared better, perhaps because so many of her works have been adapted for stage and screen, perhaps because not all of her stories ended with a romantic resolution and were thus given more serious consideration. At the end of the day, though, maybe she was just a better writer.
Both Hibbert and du Maurier were much influenced by the Bronte sisters, who in turn were well acquainted with another literary tradition, that of the gothic novel, particularly those of 18th century author, Ann Radcliffe. Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ is an affectionate parody of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Austen charmingly makes her heroine a Radcliff fangirl. Thus, the gothic romance has a rather thoroughbred pedigree.
Why did the gothic romance fall out of fashion? Changing times, I guess. Though when I encounter one of the recent plethora of YA paranormal romances, I always think of my younger years, under the covers with an atmospheric tale of dangerous men, beautiful gowns and plucky heroines. Maybe I’m wrong?