Ghost literature written by women in the 19th century was more about social commentary than pure entertainment, argues academic Melissa Edmundson Makala. Charlotte positively geeks out with Melissa about her book, Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Gothic Literary Studies)

Many of us will know the big names in women’s gothic literature, writers like Mary Shelley and the Brontë sisters, but what about short fiction writers? Short fiction has long celebrated the ghost story, and it’s women’s writing in this genre that has both consistently pushed boundaries and while also being critically overlooked.

Despite the limited remit women were given in their day to day lives at the time, they wrote about many controversial subject areas. Very little was considered off-limits within the realm of their fiction, including domestic abuse. While they have often been dismissed and were considered hack writers for a long time, many women writers of gothic literature and ghost stories were using the supernatural to comment on serious social issues.

The ghosts are often creatures of revenge, returning to the world of the living to find closure to personal trauma that went unresolved during their lives. In the afterlife, these female ghosts gain a voice they were denied during life. And while they might be dead, they are able to finally fight back. In death, they are free of the social pressures that may have kept them silent or forcibly weak.

These stories allowed women to be monstrous and contained some of the first instances of women as villains. They broke the mold when it comes to what women could be, something we are desperately in need of, even today.

‘Death is not the end of suffering… it continues into the afterlife.’

Texts and authors mentioned in this episode include:

  • The Monk: A Romance by Matthew Gregory Lewis
  • Ann Radcliffe
  • Violent Hunt
  • Marjorie Bowen
  • Eleanor Scott
  • Victorian Ghosts in the NoontideWomen Writers and the Supernatural by Vanessa D. Dickerson
  • Anne Bannerman
  • American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age by Dara Downey
  • A Suggestion of Ghosts – Supernatural Fiction by Women, 1854-1900 by Johnny Mains
  • Walnut Tree-House by Charlotte Riddell
  • Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • The Shadowy Third by Elizabeth Bowen
  • The Ballad of Sir Rupert by Elizabeth Harcourt Mitchell
  • The Poor Clare by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Vernon Lee
  • Alison Littlewood
  • The Open Door by Margaret Oliphant
  • A Mysterious Visitor by Ellen Wood
  • An Obscurity of Ghosts by J A Mains