Ghost Stories
The Literary Club

Why Were So Many Victorian Ghost Stories Written by Women? 

The nineteenth century is renowned for its technological innovation and scientific advancement. However, as knowledge of the world increased, Victorian Britain became increasingly fascinated with what was more difficult to explain: the supernatural. Let´s dive into ghost stories written by women in the Golden Era.

Victorian Ghost Stories – Why Women Writers Are So Popular in the Genre

The introduction of new technologies was greeted with tangible suspicion and anxiety, many people regularly interpreting their malfunctions as occult phenomena. Photography, for example, was still in its infancy and produced flawed pictures that resembled ghostly apparitions.

Moreover, over-exposure to the fumes induced by gas lighting is believed to have made people delirious and, as a result, caused hallucinations. Evidently, the widespread fixation on the supernatural resulted from societal paranoia and, hence, was closely linked to the emergence of psychology, a new scientific discipline studying human consciousness and behaviour. 

With this in mind, it is clear why the gothic genre flourished during the nineteenth century – but why were so many Victorian ghost stories written by women? 

According to the critic Diana Wallace, “The ghost story as a form has allowed women writers special kinds of freedom […] to offer critiques of male power and sexuality which are often more radical than those in more realist genres.” In other words, authors found creative ways to disguise the discussion of female oppression and criticise patriarchy through gothic metaphors and abstract symbolism.

These sensational mysteries serve to orchestrate the clash between the male-dominated world of modern rationality and older beliefs such as superstition, magic and intuition, which are traditionally associated with femininity. 

To better understand this, let us consider the standard features of a gothic tale. 

Ghost Stories – Women’s Contribution to the Gothic Novel

Gothic houses are typically isolated, dilapidated structures located amid a wild, untameable landscape. Their foreboding exterior and cold interior displace the expected connotations of a home where one should feel most secure. Victorians viewed the domestic sphere as the woman’s domain. Thus, her responsibility was to warm the building with her housekeeping duties, morality, and unconditional love for her family.

The supernatural activity of a haunted house conveys how the ideal can be destabilised either by the absence of femininity or by a wife’s or ward’s psychological distress. Take, for instance, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). When Catherine leaves the home, it falls into ruin and does not return to a hospitable environment until Heathcliff’s captive, Cathy, finds liberation and love. 

In ghost stories, women are often depicted as being more in tune with spiritual presences, a natural intuition that is frequently dismissed by men as foolishness or insanity. Even when the tale is authored by a female writer, the narrative is typically dominated by a man. In Edith Nesbitt’s Grim Tales (1893), although the frightening events target women, the ghost stories are always unreliably voiced from a man’s perspective.

Ghost Stories - Nesbit

In Man-Sized Marble from the mentioned collection, Laura’s husband discounts the wisdom shared by two generations of women. Although his “blood runs cold” at the “contagious credulity” of their forebodings, he quickly dismisses their words as intense, irrational ramblings caused by female hysteria. 

More often than not, the evil forces active in ghost stories choose to prey upon women. Chauvinist readers may assume this is because women are the “weaker sex” and, hence, more susceptible to supernatural interference. In reality, female writers used the victimisation of women to demonstrate how they were mistreated by the nineteenth century’s sexist society.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Grey Woman (1861) conveys how domestic abuse within a marriage can strip a woman of her autonomy. Gaskell employs an exciting twist to the tale by portraying Anna as the ghost after she is metaphorically murdered by her cruel husband on multiple occasions. Firstly, when she is separated from her family and forced to assume the identity of a powerless wife.

Ghost Stories - Elizabeth Gaskell

Secondly, when her husband stabs a similar-looking woman to death, whom he mistakes for Anna. And thirdly, when the fear and suffering he caused her transforms Anna’s appearance, turning her into the eponymous ‘Grey Woman’. 

The nineteenth century has been celebrated as the ‘Golden Era’ of supernatural fiction. However, women’s contribution to the ghost story’s success is not so widely recognised. Victorian women were not allowed to be outspoken. They were expected to stay submissive and support their husbands.

Due to this, female writers often reflected their frustrations through the gothic genre. Jessica Amanda Salmonsen, an American academic, claims 70% of Victorian ghost stories were penned by female writers, many of whom have been overshadowed by the works of male authors such as Henry James, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker.

I have spoken about some of the more well-known female writers in this article. Still, I encourage everyone interested in gothic fiction to delve further into the extensive catalogue of the frightening, insightful worlds depicted by these talented women.