In Tamar Heller’s study, Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic, she suggests that Ellen Moers’ use of the term “Female Gothic” refers to the nightmarish marriages that are presented in novels of this genre, in which women were often imprisoned, trapped, and oppressed within a society that emphasized domesticity. Through the descriptions of forbidding castles and evil men, the heroines in these gothic novels are portrayed as being in a constant state of danger and peril as they lose all control over their own lives. In both Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, the leading female characters become isolated and trapped as the men around them dictate their futures, and the promise of marriage becomes the most terrifying aspect to both novels. Marriage in both of these pieces of gothic and sensation fiction is portrayed as being oppressive, dangerous, and brought about for all the wrong reasons. Each bride and groom has a different experience with marriage that is exemplified through the use of common gothic conventions, but Emily St. Aubert and Laura Fairlie both recognize the feeling and importance of love, yet are pushed into marital agreements that are based on falsehoods.
In The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Woman in White, Emily St. Aubert and Laura Fairlie both fall in love with men that the people around them prevent them from being with, and in turn they are thrust into marriages with men who do not have their best interests in mind. Emily, the strong-willed and spunky heroine of Radcliffe’s gothic piece, falls in love with Valancourt, and receives the approval of her father before his passing (Radcliffe 57). Her father liked him and believed him to be a good man, and her father’s opinion was held in Emily’s high regard. After St. Aubert dies, Valancourt reminds Emily of her beloved father and is in some ways the last living reminder of him in the world. Eventually Emily does marry the love of her life despite the villainous forces around her who try to push her into a marriage with Count Morano, a man whom she does not care for (218). He tries to force himself on her, sneaks into her bedroom, and even goes as far to threaten her. Emily loses her parents, who are the most important people to her, and not long after is put under the control of men who put her in constant danger and peril. Being forced into a marriage and being controlled by the people around her proves to be more frightening to Emily than any other seemingly supernatural occurrence in the novel, “as she trembled, more than ever, at the power of Montoni, which seemed unlimited as his will, for she saw, that he would not scruple to transgress any law, if, by so doing, he could accomplish his project” (219). Although Emily finally does get her happy ending and gets to marry for love just as her mother and father did, her aunt does not see the same fate. Her aunt, Madame Cheron, marries Count Montoni, an evil man with no interests at heart other than his own. He marries her merely to have control over her money and does whatever he can in order to attain it, even locking her up in a confined quarter of the already claustrophobic castle, in much the same way that she is already locked up in their marriage, and leaving her there to essentially die (364). Emily’s aunt is taken advantage of by Count Montoni and becomes literally isolated within a marriage where she only serves as a piece of property, which seems to be an exemplary model of marriage of the time, but is made more dramatic through the use of gothic conventions.
Laura Fairlie also finds a love of her own in her drawing teacher, Walter Hartwright, who stays in her home with her and her sister. Hartwright also shares a strong love for Laura, his sweet and charming pupil, but due to their difference in rank and Laura’s agreement to marry another man, Sir Percival Glyde, they are forbidden from being together. Unlike Emily whose father approved of the man that she desired, Laura’s father strongly promoted her marrying Sir Percival Glyde before his passing. Also a girl who loves and strongly respects her father, Laura feels that it is her duty to carry out her father’s wishes. With Sir Percival Glyde, “rank, fortune, good breeding, good looks, the respect of a gentleman, and the devotion of a lover, were all humbly placed at her feet, and, so far as appearances went, were all offered in vain (Collins 137). Despite what her suitor may have to offer, it means nothing because he is the not the man whom she is in love with. Marriage during this time period meant nothing more than a signing away of woman’s life to a man who would control her and have ultimate power over her body, life, money, and property. Women having the choice to marry who they love seems rare during this time period, and Laura is clearly distraught and aware of this fact as she tells her lawyer, Mr. Gilmore, “‘I have not been well – I have felt sadly weak and nervous lately; and I often cry without reason when I am alone’” (144). Laura isn’t so much of a heroine in this novel as she is more so exemplified by the gothic convention of a damsel in distress. She is put in a bad situation in which she has promised to marry a man who is not the person that she loves, and is only marrying her in order to seek access to her estate. Her sister, Marian, eventually saves her and is able to prevent her money and property from being put under the villainous man’s control, as she proves to be the heroine of the piece. Her lawyer is disgusted by the marriage contract because “the want of ready money was the practical necessity of Sir Percival’s existence; and his lawyer’s note on the clause in the settlement was nothing but the frankly selfish expression of it,” but he fails to fully stand up for what is right and still goes through with signing it despite being morally opposed to it (152). Laura does marry Sir Percival Glyde, but after his evil concocted plan unravels at the seams, she is able to eventually join in matrimony with Walter Hartwright, the love of her life, in much the same way that Emily is able to marry Valancourt. Emily and Laura (with the help of her sister) are both finally able to escape from the peril around them and seek happiness for themselves at the end of both novels.
Gothic conventions play an important role in both of these novels to portray marriage as being dangerous and oppressive to the women during this time period. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, the forbidding castle in which these characters reside is an important gothic convention that strongly contributes to the fearful idea of marriage in Radcliffe’s novel. Emily has no control over who comes in and enters her room, and her safety is constantly at risk as she never knows when her aggressive admirer will attack her. Emily and Madame Cheron, who becomes Madame Montoni, are both trapped in this haunting fortress by the men around them who all want something from them that they are determined to get. Due to both of these women having money but being unable to own property due to their gender, they are put at risk by these villainous men who wish to marry them to control them and oppress them, not to love them. In The Woman in White, dark doubling is another important gothic convention that lends itself to the presentation of marriage as being scary and nightmarish. Anne Catherick, the mysterious woman in white, is the dark double of Laura Fairlie, as she is perceived as being plagued by lunacy by Sir Percival Glyde. He uses the obvious resemblance between the two women to his advantage in order to steal his wife’s estate. Laura marries a villainous man out of obligation and fear of going back on a promise, and ends up in an asylum where her death is being feigned. The use of this gothic convention distinctly shows how strongly Sir Percival Glyde, and other men of this time, viewed women as property to which they would go through great lengths to gain control over.
Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White are both strong examples of novels representative of the gothic genre that use gothic conventions to display marriage as being potentially harmful and oppressive to women. Women during the time period presented in these novels often had no rights and no voice of their own, and had to sign away their property, money, and basically their life upon marriage. Marriage was seen as the end goal for women of the time, and a perfect wife is often portrayed as a character such as Laura, who is delicate, sweet, and dainty. Her sister, Marian, who views men as the “enemies of our innocence and our peace – [as] they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship – they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to a kennel” is described as being manly, dark, and even outright ugly (Collins 181). Women during this time were expected to be submissive and ready to submit themselves to marriage and a man’s control, and a woman such as Marian represents the opposition to this, and the way her appearance is described exemplifies how unaccepted and unpopular her opinion of marriage was at the time. Laura is aware of the fact that she is basically giving her life away in order to be trapped in a marriage as she tells her sister, “‘I can never claim my release from my engagement. Whatever way it ends, it must end wretchedly for me,’” and, “‘I must submit Marian, as well as I can. My new life has its hard duties; and one of them begins to-day’” (163, 172). In these works of gothic and sensation fiction, marriage is clearly and distinctly portrayed as being oppressive, scary, dangerous, and something to fear far more than the mysterious, claustrophobic castle of Udolpho where Emily is isolated, the dark, shady Blackwater Park where Laura is separated from her sister, and the dark doubling of the shadowy woman in white.