Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Haunted mansions! Thunder and lightning! Brooding antiheroes! Women running down corridors wearing long white gowns! I love the tropes of Gothic literature: they’re campy, they’re spooky, they’re sexy. What more could you possibly want from a genre? Well, sapphic romance, obviously.

As it happens, the Gothic is a pretty gay genre to begin with. Its themes of buried secrets, psychological crisis, and the instability of social boundaries all lend themselves perfectly to queer narratives. Despite this, I’ve always found it difficult to find recommendations for specifically lesbian and bi women’s Gothic literature online. But, dear reader, you don’t need to share my plight: I’ve done the work for you! Here is a selection of ten great Gothic works with sapphic characters to get you started with the genre…

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu,Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

A classic of 19th century Gothic literature, Carmilla is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction. Laura and her father live in Styria in the remote Austrian countryside. When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle, they agree to take in one of its passengers, a frail girl named Carmilla. Laura and Carmilla are immediate friends, but as the relationship grows more and more intense, Laura’s health starts to decline and Carmilla’s to improve – almost as if Carmilla is sucking the life out of her host.

 

Rebecca by Daphne du MaurierRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After a holiday romance with the handsome widower Max de Winter, his new bride returns with him to his country estate. Instead of being made welcome, she soon realises that her new home is ‘haunted’ by Max’s first wife, Rebecca, whose memory is kept alive by the loyal housekeeper Mrs Danvers. As the bride realises that she doesn’t know her husband at all, she starts to wonder just what happened to Rebecca. Although this isn’t an explicitly lesbian novel, it’s a cornerstone of the Lesbian Gothic: besides the heavy implication that Mrs Danvers was in love with Rebecca, the novel is also steeped with du Maurier’s repressed feelings for women – with whom she would have affairs later in her life.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

In 1850s Louisiana, Gilda escapes slavery and finds sanctuary with two brothel-women who also happen to be vampires. After being initiated into eternal life, Gilda spends the next 200 years living through African American history (and future), searching for community and somewhere to call home. With its exploration of race, sexuality and identity, The Gilda Stories was a completely new take on vampire fiction when it was first published in 1991, and it still feels as fresh today.

Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith is the fantastic Dickensian novel behind both the BBC miniseries of the same name, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Raised amidst thieves in the slums of Victorian London, Sue Trinder is happy to help when Gentleman – a conman and family friend – calls on her with a plan. Sue will pose as a lady’s maid to help Gentleman seduce the wealthy heiress Maud Lilly. After the two are wed and Maud’s inheritance is secure, Gentleman will have her committed to an asylum and split the winnings with Sue. However, Sue grows fond of her new ‘mistress’, and things aren’t as simple as they first seemed.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four strangers – one of them the paranormal investigator Dr Montague – plan to stay at a notoriously haunted house, with the aim of discovering empirical proof of the supernatural. The four make friends quickly, and Eleanor, a fragile young woman with a history with poltergeists, is especially drawn to Theodora, who is fresh out of a quarrel with her female ‘roommate’. The group are faced with spooky occurrences that grow ever more sinister as the night progresses, until it seems that the house itself is plotting against them.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsThe Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Frannie Langton, a servant and former slave, stands accused of murdering her employers. Although she can’t remember anything that happened on that fateful night, she knows that she couldn’t have done it – because she was in love with her mistress. Slipping between a childhood on a Jamaican sugar plantation and her domestic service in Georgian London, Frannie’s defense is her life story – a story that exposes crimes far greater than a couple of murders, committed in the name of science and empire.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane HealeyThe Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

During the London Blitz, the Natural History Museum’s collection of taxidermied mammals are evacuated to the countryside, along with newly-promoted director Hetty Cartwright. Their new home is the creepy Lockwood Manor, presided over by the bullying Major Lockwood and his troubled daughter Lucy. Lucy walks the house at night and has nightmares of la diablesse – a devil-woman in white that haunts the manor. Despite Hetty’s burgeoning friendship with Lucy, her residence at Lockwood grows impossible when the animals start to move about on their own.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria MachadoIn the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Studying at the Iowa writers’ school in her late 20s, Carmen Maria Machado met ‘the woman in the dream house’ – a petite blonde Harvard grad living in a cabin in Bloomington, Indiana. What began as a passionate relationship turned sour when the woman became psychologically and physically abusive, and the ‘dream house’ became a nightmare setting. Machado recounts her own experience while also examining the history and study of abusive romantic relationships between women, in a genre-defying work that blends memoir, gothic literature, academic study, and short stories.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura CarlinThe Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

Against a backdrop of Georgian London, where the city’s poor inhabitants can disappear with no questions asked, Hester White is desperate to escape poverty. When she gets caught under the wheels of Calder Brock’s carriage, she seizes her chance to be taken in by his aristocratic family, including the fierce Rebekah Brock. Rebekah tutors her in the ways of gentility – although she seems interested in more than just Hester’s education. Then Hester receives a note telling her to leave before she gets hurt. Together, Rebekah and Hester begin to uncover a dark web of penny dreadful-worthy mystery and crime with Calder at its centre.

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

In a vast house on the cliffs of Dover, twins Miranda and Eliot are in mourning for their recently-departed mother. In the wake of the tragedy, Miranda develops the eating disorder pica – where she hungers for inedible substances like chalk, dirt and plastic – and begins to hear the voices of women trapped in the walls of the house. Then one night she vanishes, leaving behind her loved ones, including her girlfriend Ore, her father Luc, and the house itself, to tell the story.

Sash S reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

It’s a new year and a new decade, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate an old classic. For that reason, I’m starting the year by revisiting Tipping the Velvet, which was published in 1998 and is set in Victorian England.

‘Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?’ isn’t an especially striking opening line on its own, but after the incredible journey this book will take you through, it’s one of those opening lines that sticks with you as something incredibly iconic. The direct address to the reader, the reminder of our protagonist’s humble beginnings, how evocative the concept of oysters becomes after hearing the protagonist describe her family’s oyster restaurant in fond detail. The way Nancy’s love interest describes the smell of her like “a mermaid”. Waters’ prose brings everything vividly to life.

It’s a coming of age story about Nancy, who falls in love with the performer Kitty and follows her to London. But it’s so much more than that. Tipping the Velvet is a huge novel which spans a time full of change in Nancy’s life, taking us through various areas of London in the process. This review is light on details because a lot happens, but it’s best just experienced.

It’s wonderful to have a protagonist so refreshingly frank about her sexuality. She realises she’s in love with Kitty and that’s it–there’s no crisis about it, that’s just how she is. Nancy is a lovely character to follow through this story, so fully realised that you can see just why she makes all of the decisions that she does. There’s sex and heartbreak and everything in between on Nancy’s journey.

There’s so much, too, to relate to in this book that transcends the time period it’s set in: realising who you are, falling in love for the first time, moving from your hometown and realising you don’t fit there any more when you try to go back; seeking validation in love and sex; realising what’s truly important in life. Waters holds up a mirror and reflects back at us these incredibly poignant life experiences that are relatable no matter who you are or what your sexuality is.

It’s a love story and it’s a story about Nancy learning to love herself and pick herself up and move on as much as it is about her romantic and sexual relationships with women. The ending is something that I think anyone who’s had a first love, or believed in any strong cause, will relate to. it is so, so emotionally raw and incredibly hopeful.

I love this book. I’ll always love this book. It’s a delight. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Rating: ****

Danika reviews That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston

Let me start this review at the end: The Author’s Note, which cleared up some things that I had been processing arguing with myself about the entire time I read reading it:

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a smallish story that takes place in a very big world. I wanted to be sure to include that world, not the least because in real life, Victorian England was kind of the worst. It would be unfair to paint it over with a glossy sheen, undoing all the colonial wrongs, in the name of Alternate History. To that end, I attempted to make everything slightly better than it was in real life. Throughout history, there are always people who say “What if we did this instead?” before those in power do something awful. They are almost always ignored, but in my made-up world, those people were listened to.

Basically, this is a book that is set in a world where the British Empire went very differently. Queen Victoria married off her children to people around the world, ensuring that the whole royal line is mixed race. Indigenous nations are recognized. The U.S. as it is today is three different countries in this world: the U.S. (Northern states which are… not doing well), the South (an independent nation of mostly former slaves, who are doing quite well), and Mexico. And that’s just scratching the surface. The Victorian Era has stretched on, because it is adaptive. The Church is made up of many different beliefs. The empire is not anti-gay. But it’s also not perfect. You can’t make colonialism a good thing. And I was worried that this alternate version was trying to present this shiny, happier, multicultural version of colonialism. But the author’s note put me more at ease, and there are moments when characters mention the horror that is the history of the empire (colonizing North America and the slave revolts in Haiti in particular).

You may have noticed that I’m well into this review and haven’t mentioned the main characters. Well, that’s because the setting does loom larger than the plot or characters in this case. This is an interesting world, and we’re clearly only seeing snippets of it. It’s not that I didn’t like the characters or the plot, but I kept coming back to thinking about the world and its implications. There are three main characters: Margaret, the princess and next in line for the crown. She wants to experience life outside of the royal bubble, so she’s in disguise for the summer, to try to get a taste of what her life would be if she wasn’t a princess. Helena is a very practical character who has her life completely planned, and is reluctantly drawn into a celebrity/royal party (where she meets Margaret). And August, who… I was not as interested in. He wants to run his dad’s lumber company, and everyone expects Helena and August to get engaged any minute now.

The Helena/Margaret romance is sweet, but I wasn’t particularly invested, and August never piqued my interest. The plot mostly involves these three characters’ collective emotional lives getting more and more tangled. (Spoiler) Helena finds out she’s intersex, which is its own subplot, but isn’t dealt with in a lot of depth. I’d be interested about what an intersex reviewer thought about this story line.

One other point I kept getting caught on is that in this world, people enter their genetic make up into a computer, and it connects them with good “genetic matches.” This is optional, and it seems to encourage people to match with other ethnicities? But although this may not be discriminating by race, isn’t this inherently a form of eugenics? What make a good genetic match? Is it trying to screen out the possibility of having children with disabilities? The whole thing made me uneasy, and it’s only really addressed as being a ‘limited tool’–useful, but not able to make matches based on love.

As you can probably tell by this scattered mess of a review, this book left me with a lot to think about. I imagine that I didn’t enjoy it as much because my philosophical brain latched so hard on to these two ideas (is this supposed to be nonracist colonialism? eugenics by dating app?) that all I could see was what connected to those. Browsing the Goodreads reviews, I can see plenty of people really liked it, but personally, I was too up in my head to really connect with the characters enough to properly enjoy it.

Megan G reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sue Trinder has been brought up to be a fingersmith – a petty thief. She lives with a baby “farmer” named Mrs. Sucksby, who has raised her as her own. One day, a man known to Sue as Gentleman arrives at Mrs. Sucksby’s house to enlist Sue’s help in a plot to gain the fortune of a lady. Sue is to be the maid of the lady, Maud Lilly, and convince her to marry Gentleman, after which they will abandon her to a madhouse. With the promise of a share of the lady’s fortune, Sue embarks on a journey away from the home she’s always known, unknowingly entering into a game far more dangerous than she could have expected.

Over the past few years, I’ve sometimes felt like I am the only queer woman in the world who has not read Fingersmith (or any Sarah Waters’ novels, for that matter). Well, maybe not the only one, but one of a handful. After years residing on my dauntingly large “to-read” list, I finally managed to pick it up, and oh, was it worth the wait!

Mystery is possibly my favourite genre, and Fingersmith delivered more than I could have hoped. I knew it would be a twisty tale, but I did not realize going into it just how many twists and turns the story would take. Every time I felt I’d just regained my footing after a plot twist, Waters threw another at me. Some were a little predictable, others caught me completely off-guard. Because of how many mystery novel’s I’ve read in my life, let me tell you, that is a pretty hard thing to do.

The love story is subtle, but poignant. There are very few explicit mentions of the women’s feelings toward each other until the end of the novel, and even then, it is dealt with in a way true to its time. Still, you can’t miss the obvious love these two women feel for each other, and despite all the deception and backstabbing they involve each other in, you can’t help but root for them. [Major spoiler] I also have to mention how wonderful it was to see a story like this end on a hopeful note for its lesbian protagonists. It would have been very easy for Waters to write their feelings off as a fluke, or to have them move on from one another, but instead she gives the reader, and the women, hope. It was refreshing, and allowed the story to end on a hopeful note, something I didn’t think would be possible [end spoilers].

If you have not read Fingersmith yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Although not technically considered one, I would easily classify Fingersmith as a classic. That being said, it is not without it’s warnings. There is a lot of explicit ableism and abuse (one extended scene of abuse taking place in an asylum had me cringing the entire time I read it). There are hints of rape, and very strong implications of a pedophilic relationship, as well as of pedophilic feelings from several men. [Major spoiler] A young woman is made to read sexually explicit stories aloud to men from a young age. As well, a character heavily implied to be gay dies in a very violent way [end spoilers].

If these are all things you can look past, I strongly encourage you to pick up Fingersmith if you can. Trust me, if you’re like me and haven’t read it before, you will be so happy that you did.


Holly reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

tipping the velvet by sarah waters

When I was just 30 pages in, this is the review I was considering writing for Tipping the VelvetThis book is so sweet I can barely stand it.  The end.  At this point I had hoped that the entire book would be a drawn out tale of Nancy and Kitty falling in love, staying in love, and laying in bed eating pie without a care in the world.  Of course, Sarah Waters tells a much more interesting story.

Spoilers ahead.

Nancy, the protagonist, narrates the story.  Born and raised in a small town by the sea called Whitstable, working in the family’s oyster restaurant, she lives a fairly unremarkable life until the day that she sees a male impersonator named Kitty Buttler perform at the local music hall.  Nancy finds herself compelled to return to the music hall over and over, night after night, in order to watch Kitty perform.  Eventually Nancy and Kitty meet and strike up a close friendship, while Nancy begins the bewildering process of falling in love.

Sarah Waters describes this process with such innocence and tenderness, and so skillfully plays on the reader’s sense of expectation, that I felt myself reacting physically to the words on the page.  I clearly felt the pang in my chest, the pull at my stomach, my heart in my throat when Nancy and Kitty finally–finally!–kiss for the first time.  From this giddy moment of joy to the eventual wretched heartache, we, along with Nancy, are mired in the whirlpool of doubt and certainty that accompanies the terrible and wonderful descent into the heart of another.

When reading about that heartache, I felt it, too.  So, at 134 pages, my review would have been more along the lines of This book is so sad I can barely stand it.  Again, Waters artfully details the nuances of emotion that accompany the anguish of heartbreak.  That personal hell we’ve each experienced, in which you’re so steeped in despair that it’s all you can do to provide yourself with the necessities of life from one day to the next.  I see that torment mirrored in Waters’ words.  I can’t do them justice here.  You have to read them for yourself.

Although the plot takes wildly unexpected turns, I feel that the characters always stay true to themselves.  Nancy is vain, sometimes conniving, and seems to piece together her identity from the expectations of those around her.  We do, however, see some flashes of self-actualization.  For instance, when looking for new lodgings, Nancy is drawn to an advertisement for a room which reads Respectable Lady Seeks Fe-Male Lodger.  She explains, “…there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male.  I saw myself in it — in the hyphen.”

Waters’ descriptive ability provides specific information that allows for the reader’s senses to respond to the words on the page.  The book opens with Nancy describing Whitstable oysters, and my mouth felt saturated by their description.  Waters specializes in the details, creating three dimensional scenes for us to walk around in while we read her words.  I didn’t realize that I had finished the book until I read the last sentence.  The story was so compelling right to the end that its conclusion, although satisfying, snuck up on me.

Laura reviews Red Falcon’s District by Leilani Beck

Red Falcon’s District is a historical fantasy novel by Leilani Beck. The story follows Bridget Caswell — a plucky young woman who has been on the run her entire life — as she takes sanctuary in an unusual, little known London district. A capable work by an emerging author, this book is an excellent choice for fans of beloved lesbian author Sarah Waters and queer-friendly writer Tamora Pierce.

Taking a page out of Waters’ playbook, Beck puts her intrepid Victorian era lesbian characters in situations highlighting racial and class tensions unique to that time. There are beautiful representations of complex human relationships, and several multi-layered character reveals that Waters fans will love. But on the whole, Red Falcon’s District actually much more reminded me Pierce’s work.

Though Pierce typically traffics in medieval knighthood, the fantasy elements of Beck’s world fall squarely in her court. The characters of Red Falcon’s District would be right at home doing magic with Daine in Tortall, or deploying their abilities alongside Briar in Emelan. Pierce fans will especially love Beck’s lively cast of unconventional characters. Their exceptionally practical concerns (How do these clothes impact my ability to run? How much are grapes at the market today?) are relatable and endearing. That Beck also manages to work in feminist themes throughout the work is just icing on the cake.

In a time when many ask where all the new lesbian authors are, Leilani Beck is a fresh, talented voice just waiting to be discovered. (The Washington-based author is not yet represented by an agent or publisher! Hint hint.) Style-wise, her writing can be a little clunky, particularly at the beginning of the novel. But if you can get past this, there’s a really fantastic story here, and I’m happy to have read it. I sincerely hope that you will give it a chance too.

Red Falcon’s District is available digitally for $2.99.

Laura Mandanas reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

A darker tale than one might expect, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is a story of deception, double-dealing, and dysfunction. Opening in 1862 in a dilapidated London slum known as the Borough, we meet heroine #1: 17-year-old Susan Trinder. Orphaned at a young age, Sue has been raised as a fingersmith (pickpocket) by Mrs. Sucksby, a crooked landlady who trafficks in foundling babies dosed with gin. When a smooth talking tenant approaches Sucksby with a get-rich-quick scheme to swindle a sheltered young heiress of her fortune, Sue eagerly volunteers to help.

The young heiress, of course, is heroine #2: Maud Lilly. Also orphaned at a young age, Maud lives a safe but excruciatingly dull existence with her uncle on an estate called Briar in the English countryside. Bored to tears and fits of mindless cruelty, Maud is punished harshly and bullied into submission as she is trained to take over her uncle’s distasteful line of work. Needless to say, when an alternative unexpectedly presents itself, Maud jumps at the opportunity. Though the two women come from opposite positions of poverty and privilege, Sue and Maud are both women confined by their circumstances. Though both are admirably strong-willed and cunning, they are also naive; preoccupied as they are in setting their elaborate traps, they often don’t see the ones set for them by others. (And as you fall for their charms, I daresay, neither will you. The Byzantine twists and hairpin turns of plot in this book are absolutely breathtaking.)

Told as a first-person narrative alternating between Sue and Maud’s points of view, the nuanced characterizations were fresh and a pleasure to read. More strikingly, the descriptive atmospheric details are among the most beautiful and realistic I’ve ever encountered. Waters is clearly a woman at home doing research, and there’s a reason why–prior to writing fiction, she was in a Ph.D. program at Queen Mary’s, studying lesbian and gay historical fiction

Although Waters is famous for penning “lesbo Victorian romps“, the actual lesbian content in this book is “more or less incidental.” And in this setting, I didn’t even mind it. The subtle touch felt right, and honestly, probably played a role in propelling the book to its success with mainstream audiences. As far as I’m concerned, the more people that get to read this lovely book, the better!