In hot pursuit: Gothic virgins and villains in nineteenth-century American fiction
Barrett, Heather Elizabeth
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This dissertation investigates how three significant nineteenth-century American female writers strategically transform a central Gothic motif – the virtuous heroine pursued by a villain who lusts for sexual and socioeconomic power – to tell new stories about gendered bodies and the erotic relations between them. Established in the genre-defining British Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century, this popular motif endured throughout the nineteenth century in texts written and read on both sides of the Atlantic. This project examines understudied texts by E.D.E.N. Southworth, Louisa May Alcott, and Julia Ward Howe that exhibit a striking intertextual awareness of the motif, reformulating it to critique the era’s marital and inheritance practices that enable and reinforce persistent gender inequities. These texts presciently recognize the performative nature of gender, centering on protagonists that move fluidly between genders with strategic choices about dress, speech, and social roles. By examining these texts together, this project shows that they anticipate the insights of contemporary feminist and queer theory as their protagonists deliberately calculate how to blend traditionally gendered behaviors and transform sexual threats into situations in which they can either consensually participate or cleverly elude. Chapter One argues that E. D. E. N. Southworth’s popular serial novel The Hidden Hand (1859) rewrites the narrative pattern that situates Gothic heroines as vulnerable to rape by positioning its heroine as aware of her fictional status and therefore capable of using her metafictional knowledge to reconfigure sexually threatening situations. Chapter Two examines how Louisa May Alcott’s sensation tale A Long, Fatal Love Chase (1866) blends traditionally male and female Gothic narratives to cast its heroine as a female Faust figure whose desperate desire for freedom leads her to enter naively into a bigamous partnership with a Mephistophelean man whose relentless pursuit ultimately causes her death. Chapter Three contends that Julia Ward Howe’s recently recovered manuscript The Hermaphrodite (1848) situates its ambiguously sexed but male-identifying protagonist as a Gothic “heroine” who employs unconventional strategies to cope with conventional threats to his physical and financial autonomy and rejects all interpersonal bonds because of the gendered restrictions they impose upon him.