I was mortified to note recently, looking back on my posts about ghost stories and writers, that I have neglected to do a piece on any of the numerous and brilliant female authors of supernatural fiction. To remedy this oversight I should mention that it is no exaggeration to say that at least fifty per cent of quality examples of the genre were penned by women. This is especially true of the nineteenth century, which began with the classic Gothic novels The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Most of the greatest female writers of the Victorian era contributed marvellous tales to famous magazines like Dickens’ Household Words and All the Year Round. This great tradition has endured triumphantly from the Edwardian era up to the present day, not only with specialists in the genre but also with other mainstream writers who experimented rarely, but successfully, with the form. It was a woman, the American Edith Wharton, who famously put into words the measure of a ghost story’s success: ‘… if it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well’.
Why so many women were – and are – attracted to the ghost story form is a question that has received little critical attention. It is possible that during the 19th century women, being on the margins of society – politically speaking – were especially impelled to write about the margins of the visible, for the ghost story (as Dorothy Sayers once observed) deals with power and thus might be expected to appeal to those who felt the absence of self-determination in their own lives. From a more technical point of view it has been suggested by one critic that a taste for romance and sensitivity to mood and atmosphere made women well suited to this particular genre. I suspect that the reason why women took to the ghost story so successfully might be due less to some inherent susceptibility to the supernatural than to the practical – and often pressing – need of educated women to earn a living in the 19th century. The Victorian monthly magazines required an almost endless supply of fiction, short and long, and authorship was often the only means some middle-class women had to meet their financial needs. As ghost stories were consistently in demand it was natural that women, who provided so much other fiction for the magazines, should provide these too.
Whatever the reasons, female writers played a key role in the development of the English ghost story: in the last two decades of the 19th century alone the list includes Louisa Molesworth, Vernon Lee (aka Violet Paget), Edith Nesbit, Rosa Mulholland and Rudyard Kipling’s aunt, Louisa Baldwin. In the 2oth century women were equally productive, most notably Marie Belloc Lowndes, Eudora Welty, Daphne du Maurier and Jane Gardam. At the forefront, however, was the Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Edith Wharton, who claimed that it was a conscious act more than a belief to write about the supernatural. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts,’ she said, ‘but I’m afraid of them’. A loveless and repressed marriage made Wharton seek escape in writing, creating novels about the morals and private passions of American society and ghost stories that described dark and mysterious events in unstable households. These began with The Lady’s Maid’s Bell (click to read!), written in 1904, which deeply moved readers in recounting a story of adultery and supernatural protection. There can be little doubt that Wharton drew on her own experiences for this groundbreaking tale. This can be seen in particular with the narrator, the maid Alice Hartley’s near-fatal attack of typhoid, which Wharton had herself survived. From near-tragedy came great success: Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, making her the first woman ever to win the award.