When it becomes clear which way Susan Collins will vote, clear that her speech has moved beyond any possibility for the plot twist I crave, Mo asks if we can just turn it off. We’ve been circling in our subdivision, sugar maples ablaze in the too-warm air, the child asleep in his car seat. I don’t let him turn it off. I tell him I need to hear this, because I need to feel my rage.
Any basic bitch will tell you that Venus went retrograde yesterday, that pumpkin spice rooibos is back in stock at Trader Joe’s, that she can’t remember how she got home. The feminist astrologer Chani Nicholas writes, If your rage is showing up… it trusts you enough to receive it.
Like Kabbalah, in the Gothic novel, there is another world hidden in this world. In Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, which is a good if not particularly famous example, Adeline, who, despite her preternatural talent for poetry and music, is often described as artless, takes refuge in a ruined abbey. She is in the care of strangers, and maybe she’s always been in the care of strangers; these particular strangers don’t know why they were forced to take custody of her during a strange scene of capture, entrapment, and exchange. Fearing themselves pursued by creditors, the family hides deep in the abbey, beyond a trap door.
Put another way, in the Gothic novel, there are girls in the walls.
I didn’t watch the testimony. I was ensconced in my office, prepping Milton for a class I am co-teaching, thankfully, with somebody who knows something about Milton. I blared the new Robyn single and then old Robyn albums through my earbuds, because fembots have feelings too, even me. Every few minutes, I’d check Twitter, where stoic pictures of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford circulated among the strangers to whom I choose to listen in the margins of my day.
You have to call Christine Blasey Ford a patriot in the purest sense of the word but you couldn’t call her artless. That term, I think, we must reserve for her fifteen-year-old self, that body held down against the mattress, its screams muffled. Apparently we can sacrifice that girl. Apparently we’ve moved on. As Collins intoned repeatedly, Christine Blasey Ford is a professor.
There’s a skeleton in a chest; there’s a Marquis who owns the abbey; there’s a terrifying manuscript; there was a captive here before.
I’m reading Margaret Cavendish for class, a class that I am co-teaching, thankfully, with somebody who not only knows something about Milton but also knows something about Cavendish. I’m listening to The Postal Service, which somehow, miraculously, holds up, and then to Phoenix because I’m craving voices that profess their own immaturity. In the margins I write, is this another world or the same world?
The Marquis wants to trick Adeline into a false marriage! She almost escapes through a window, but is rescued! Now he wants to kill her! By the way, he has already killed her father and stolen her inheritance! But things will turn out OK for her; don’t worry. There is an eligible bachelor, and there is something like justice.
Why did Susan Collins yell at the imaginary person who leaked Ford’s letter, as if revealing the world within this world were the true criminal act? Why this displacement, why this use of radio?
Gothic novels are not without their comforts; Jane Austen read them all the time. Her first finished work, Northanger Abbey, is all about this. The artless heroine, Catherine Morland, both reads novels and thinks she is in a novel. She is, of course, but she’s not in the novel she thinks she’s in, or maybe she is, I don’t know. When we glimpse Catherine reading, Austen’s narrator explains, “Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.” In spite of this, it’s typical to read Northanger Abbey as a satirical send-up of the Gothic genre.
The child has found a tangled necklace from my teenage years in a box of treasures, and asks me what it says. It’s an Einstein quote: Imagination is more important than knowledge. “Mommy,” he asks me, “what’s knowledge?”
Gothic novels are not without their comforts; I watch them all the time. In one of the final episodes from Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette, Rachel asks, “Can I leave?” and host Chris Harrison assures her, “you can’t leave.”
I’m not saying Northanger Abbey isn’t tonally peculiar; I’m not saying it takes the Gothic, or itself, seriously. It’s just that those who see Jane Austen—and, by extension, literary fiction—as moving beyond the Gothic in the early nineteenth century see her as inventing or perfecting something else. When we’re dealing with lines of inheritance rather than literal skeletons in the closet, we call this realism. But there is another world hidden in this world.
In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood avoids “falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion,” as she had once desired and maybe did already, and instead winds up with an older guy, Colonel Brandon, who is not not a mansplainer. For example, he mansplains to Marianne’s sister Eleanor the difference between the former’s “happy” ending and the fate of his young ward, Eliza, whose infatuation with Willoughby led to an unwanted pregnancy, an unwanted child, and, ultimately, her general unwantedness. In some twisted sense, Eliza’s downfall at the hands of Willoughby makes room for Marianne’s restorative marriage plot—Willoughby deserts her, sure, but she got off easy. Colonel Brandon may not make her palms sweat, but he knows how to treat a lady.
A few days ago, the writer Rachel Syme tweeted, Who is a woman who, growing up, you always thought of as a kind of public joke but upon getting older you realized her story wasn’t so funny after all? My answer, which I don’t post, is Lydia Bennet, the sacrificial lamb of Pride and Prejudice. She’s a desperate and disillusioned (but so flirty!) fifteen when we meet her; by the end of the novel, she’s “eloped” with the rake who already tried, and failed, to elope with Darcy’s fifteen-year-old sister. Darcy proves his love to Lizzy by essentially paying the rake not to abandon the disgraced Lydia, and to instead stay with her as man and wife. Put another way, Lydia is the victim of both abduction and child trafficking. Her victimization is the essential hinge of the marriage plot, opening the door to Lizzy and Darcy’s ideal union.
I read The Romance of the Forest a few weeks before my own wedding, in a literal forest (the reading, not the wedding).
In Sense and Sensibility, time gets a little slippery, and so we don’t know exactly how old Eliza is, or how old her child is, but we suspect she was either an older fifteen or a younger sixteen at the time of her disappearance.
I’m not saying every marriage plot isn’t a story of confinement. The Bachelor is a wife contest but it’s also a story about a lot of beautiful women trapped in a mansion. See, above, my use of the word subdivision. See Susan Collins twisting the knife by calling Kavanaugh a husband and father. But when she says—
To that leaker who I hope is listening now—
she is using a different poetic technique, that of apostrophe, an address to someone who is not there. But the literary critic Barbara Johnson taught us a while back that apostrophe makes the person be, if not there, then real.
You leaker. Stop crying, you leaker, you haunting, get back in the wall.
The patriarchy depends upon the periodic sacrifice of a fifteen-year-old girl. Jane Austen understood that, and we’d do well to remember it.
Rachel Feder is the author of Harvester of Hearts: Motherhood under the Sign of Frankenstein, which started here.
Image: “Lady Doyle After Sir Thomas Lawrence,” detail. Jake Wood-Evans, 2018.