Early career academic / Avid reader
This blog tracks my professional research on female identity in classic and contemporary Gothic narratives as well as my personal readings of (mostly) women's writing.
Artwork: Copyright of Taras Loboda
The latest issue of Humanities Education and Research Association / HERA’s Interdisciplinary Humanities journal includes an article on my doll research. It’s a print journal so only HERA members can access the entire text, but details can be found here.
My central focus was to analyse how dolls have the ability to act as memories (or mementos) of deceased children. I pay particular attention to the complex relationship between young girls and their toy dolls and analyse this relationship using feminist theory and psychoanalysis. While most of my discussion relates to the doll-like character of Claudia in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976), I also spend some time exploring the significance of doll figures in other texts such as Mexico’s Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls), Hans Bellmer’s anagrammatic doll designs and photography, and the real-life case of Antoly Moskvin’s mummified doll corpses.
Claudia’s significance as the core figure of this discussion can be traced back to the fact that Rice created her in a desperate attempt to preserve the memory of her daughter, Michele, whom she lost to cancer the year before she wrote the novel. Her resurrection of Michele led to the introduction of Claudia, who becomes the first memento infanti of the piece as she embodies the doll-like qualities of perfect beauty, youth, femininity, and silence.
The next section recounts the real-life story of Antoly Moskvin’s exhumation and mummification of young female corpses. My discussion explores how his collection of human dolls not only represent the memory of the girls they once were but also the manufacture of a a female figure according to the doll maker’s chosen design. In other words, they embody how the living girl’s identity has been replaced with a doll figure that can be read as a memory or imitation of a child who no longer exists.
The decorated landscape of Mexico’s Isla de las Muñecas is analysed in relation to its status as a piece of performance art that symbolizes the memory of a young girl’s drowning on the island. I emphasize the significance of the doll’s gaze during this process in terms of how it can have an unsettling and/or uncanny effect on the observer, especially when s/he is an adult as children don’t usually share the same fear of the doll’s animation.
Hans Bellmer’s creation of anagrammatic doll designs and photography is explored from the perspective of his intent to protest the perfectionism of ‘the Nazi human ideal’ that was prevalent in Germany at the time (in 1934). His deliberate mutilation of these female figures, and his distorted series of photographs that captured them, are examined through his interpretation of the female body “as an endless sentence” (Bellmer 1985) that can be re-arranged to create new meanings.
Further discussions of these texts will be included in my forthcoming book, The Gothic Doll: Gender Construction and Female Identity in Gothic Narratives (Palgrave 2018).
I signed my first book contract today! It’s a goal that I’ve been working towards for the past six years, and have been really focusing on for the past two years as a part of my post-doctoral programme.
The provisional title of my book is The Gothic Doll: Gender Construction and Female Identity in Gothic Narratives and it will be part of the Palgrave Gothic Series which is edited by Professor Clive Bloom. The central focus of my research will examine how the Gothic doll differs from her more familiar Horror counterpart in her representation of female identity. It will explore the doll motif in a selection of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth-century Gothic narratives ranging from classic literature to hypertexts, contemporary stop-motion films, and surrealist art. It’s a project that I’ve loved from the very beginning and one that I’m so happy to continue working on. I only hope that it will turn out as interesting as I imagine it to be in my head.
It’s going to be a busy year of research and writing but I’m looking forward to every minute of it and am so excited to have my first book published in conjunction with 2018’s Year of Publishing Women! #readwomen
My latest book review for The University of Stirling’s The Gothic Imagination website considers Catherine Spooner’s recently published work, Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic (Continuum Publishing 2017). This study considers how funny, romantic, and celebratory aspects of the twenty-first century Gothic text have been left unacknowledged by scholars and are therefore under-explored. Spooner uses a clever medley of examples to highlight the connection between Goth subculture and the omnipresence of happy Gothic in contemporary society. While I don’t want to give away too much information about it here, a link to the full review can be found at the bottom of this post. In short, this is a must-read for any academic working within the field of Gothic Studies.
One of my modules this semester is Romantic Literature which means I can spend a bit of time on the Gothic novel. This week I’m prepping lectures on the Gothic formula as seen in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) which is considered to be the first Gothic novel. Like all the best Gothic tales (e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)), Walpole’s story was inspired by a dream and set in his very own Gothic castle, Strawberry Hill. During my lecture prep for this topic, I came across a wonderful interview about the various restoration efforts on this site and may be of interest to anyone researching not just Gothic literature but also eighteenth-century art, architecture, and/or interior design. It can be found here.
Rather than discuss the novel itself, I want to focus on the Gothic formula that was created from the events and features in this novel. Having read it many years ago, I was already familiar with the basic story line and the unmistakably dark atmosphere that is set as events unfold. I remembered distinctively Gothic elements such as the castle setting and heightened emotions, as well as the presence of supernatural creatures and inexplicable events. I had however, somehow forgotten the impact of Walpole’s depiction of Isabella as she desperately tries to escape Manfred. The image of an almost fairy tale like heroine (i.e. Isabella is young, beautiful, virginal, gentle, and kind) running through the labyrinth like castle setting in an attempt to get away from a tyrannical villain is one that I have seen so many times during my research on female identity in Gothic narratives.
As the genre’s popularity steadily grew over time, various branches and sub genres of the Gothic began to develop. What was most interesting to me as I researched this novel was the fact that the Gothic authors to whom I return on a regular basis (Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Anne Rice) have taken this simple formula and used it to create the most complex of stories and characters. What’s more is that these figures and their patriarchal battles continue to reflect contemporary social concerns regarding the female figure and her freedom, future, bodily autonomy, etc. In terms of connecting this lecture prep to my own research on the genre, it confirms Gothic literature’s ability to act as a reflection of real life and the underlying horrors of the current state of world. It also highlights the sad fact that this is a dangerous time for women as Gina Wisker reminds us that their rights are in greater danger today than they have been in many years. I wonder if Walpole had any inkling that in creating Otranto’s Isabella, he was also creating an icon that would act as a medium for countless discussions and examinations of the fragile state of female identity within the strict confines of patriarchy.
Strawberry Hill image: Copyright of The Victorian Web & Gothic heroine image: Copyright of Hector Garrido
As I consider book reviews to be a great writing exercise between projects, I try to do them every three months or so. They’re especially useful after the Christmas break when I’ve finished my lecture prep for the coming term and am easing myself back into a proper writing schedule. Here’s a little summary of my latest one as well as a link to the full review.
I’ve spent the last few days reading Gina Wisker’s latest publication, Contemporary Women’s Gothic Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) for The Gothic Imagination. While the general topic of the book is contemporary women’s writing, Wisker divides her discussion into specific categories such as Canadian Gothic, African American Gothic, Domestic Gothic, and Postcolonial Gothic. She focuses on the fiction of Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Toni Morrison as well as many other female authors, and (as always!), her analysis and attention to detail in the chosen narratives is meticulous, compelling, and a pleasure to read.
My latest article has been published in the new issue of Studies in Gothic Fiction (Cardiff University Press). It examines female identity in one of my favourite novels by Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (1967). I fell in love with this book when I researched it for my thesis back in 2014 and I haven’t been able to get enough of Carter’s work since then. Once deemed the ‘white Witch of English literature’, her stories are famously radical and full of dark humour with an ability to both grip and unsettle their reader in equal measure.
The premise of my study was to consider the relationship between female identity and performativity in relation to how it is portrayed in Carter’s novel. Building upon recent Gothic criticism by Andrew Hock Soon Ng, which defines the house as a theatre box that reduces its occupants to actors who must execute the correct performativity for their gender at all times, it uses a doll motif to examine this effect on the Gothic heroine.
There are three parts to this investigation: The complex formation of female identity and the various components that influence this process; The female subject’s struggle for control of her identity and autonomy against a villainous patriarch (which is a common theme in many classic and contemporary Gothic narratives); The woman-doll dyad’s ability to epitomise the many components of female identity and performativity as well as the Gothic heroine’s experience of repression and conflict.
Set in Edwardian England, Alice Thompson’s latest novel centres on the twisted love story of Gothic heroine, Violet, and her new aristocratic husband. The tale opens with the suggestion that Violet bares a strong resemblance to Lord Murray’s dead wife, Rose. In a similar vein to the nameless protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Violet appears to become figuratively haunted by the ghost of Rose as she settles into her new marital home. And despite the comfort and wealth of her new surroundings, she quickly becomes aware that the house contains secrets of her husband’s past.
She also becomes enamoured with the houses’s library which contains a multitude of collector’s editions. One particular book of fairy tales, which she discovers locked away in a secret safe, becomes an unshakeable obsession and continues to play on her mind as she battles postnatal mental health issues. As the line between reality and her imagination becomes more and more blurred, she finds herself admitted into an asylum where her doctor replaces Lord Murray as the patriarchal figurehead of her masculine world.
When she eventually returns home, she finds her identity further challenged by the presence of a new nanny who seems to excel at her substitute role as wife and mother. As Violet attempts to make things right she begins to witness things that make her fear for her sanity and becomes paranoid of everything and everyone around her. In true Gothic style, the reader is brought on a journey of suspense and uncovered mysteries as Violet tries to make sense of her new reality and become her own saviour.
Evocative of Angela Carter’s early work, I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys the darkness of fairy tales or mystery fictions. For those who may already be familiar with this story and are looking for similar works, I would recommend Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber & Other Storiesand, as mentioned above, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
To summarise, this really is a wonderfully Gothic tale and one that I will be adding to my ‘to-be-reread-for-research-purposes’ pile (yes, I really have one!), as I definitely want to write a paper on it at a later date.
The Book Collector cover art image: Copyright of Salt Publishing.
This semester has been a busy one! As it comes to a close I’m making some final revisions to a paper that has been accepted for the forthcoming publication of A Critical Companion to Tim Burton edited by Adam Barkman and Antonio Sanna (McFarland & Co. 2017). I’ve always loved Burton’s stop-motion films and knew they would be a great fit with my latest research on dolls in Gothic narratives. More specifically, I wanted my chapter to focus on the concept of female identity and its fragmented portrayal in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005).
The first half of my chapter focused on the figure of Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Her status as a resurrected anomaly and rag doll-like creature that is literally stitched together exemplified my notion of fragmented female identity in these films. Structurally, I traced her evolution through all three versions of this tale. Her character is absent from the original text – a three-page poem that Burton wrote in 1982 as a parody of Clement Clark Moore’s traditional festive poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’(1823) – which can be viewed here. I spoke briefly about how she is portrayed in early versions of the movie script and then demonstrated how she only becomes whole after her unification with the film’s male protagonist, Jack Skellington. I examined how she manages to free herself from her creator, Dr Finkelstein, and steadily evolves into Jack’s double, one who tracks and mimics his movements, shares and often finishes his sentences, and eventually mirrors his behaviour.
The second half of my chapter looked at the female characters of Victoria and Emily in terms of their connection to the main protagonist, Victor, in Corpse Bride. Shared identity was the focus of my discussion once again as I explored how together Victor and Victoria personify the notion of the ideal Victorian citizen which can be broken down into two parts: Victoria’s virginity and high social status and Victor’s wealth. Male influence on corpse bride Emily’s identity in terms of her death and imprisonment was also relevant to my discussion, especially as her later sacrifice grants her freedom.
While I can’t say much more before its publication, I would like to mention how excited I am to be a part of this project. I’ve been a huge fan of Burton’s work for as long as I can remember, so to have my doll research included in what promises to be a definitive guide to his art is really special.
On a final note, one of Nightmare’s many highlights is its beautiful soundtrack, which includes two very different but equally gorgeous versions of ‘Sally’s Song’, sang by Fiona Apple for the The Nightmare Before Christmas Special Edition Soundtrack and by Evanescence’s Amy Lee for the Nightmare Revisited album. Do your ears a favour and take three minutes out of your day to listen to my personal favourite, Fiona’s version.
The Nightmare Before Christmas artwork: Copyright of Skellington Productions. Corpse Bride artwork: Copyright of Tim Burton Productions.
My latest book review for the University of Stirling’s The Gothic Imagination is the wonderful Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion edited by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik and published by the Edinburgh University Press. Unapologetic in its specifically feminist concerns, it deals with women as readers, writers, characters and critics of the Gothic. Once again, I’m not going to say much about the book here other than to mention that I really enjoyed it. It’s an essential text for researchers of the Female Gothic as it traces the various aspects in this sub-genre that have evolved over time and also pays particular attention to aspects that remain unchanged. In short, it’s a must-read for any Gothicist concerned with feminist and/or gender studies in the genre!
You can read my review of this excellent addition to Gothic studies here.
Cover art image: Copyright of Edinburgh University Press.
Last week I submitted my first draft of a paper that focused on one of Daphne du Maurier’s long-lost stories. Written in 1927 when the author was just twenty, ‘The Doll’ was briefly published ten years later and not seen again until its rediscovery in 2007. Rich in uncanny subject matter and subverted gender norms, it centres on an obsessive love triangle between the anonymous male narrator, his female love interest, Rebecca, and her life-size automaton, Julio. The unorthodox tale contains many features relating to gender norms and relationships that would become du Maurier’s signature style in later works, most notably her creation of a heroine who was either disinterested in traditional male-female relationships or disenchanted by the mistreatment of women by men. In this tale, Rebecca is unafraid to live outside of social convention and dismisses the pressures put upon her as a young, unmarried woman. I centred my study on how this particular lost story demonstrates du Maurier’s literary revolt against regressive societal notions of early twentieth century bourgeois England. Focusing on her experimentation with gender and sexuality, I explored how it can be read as a tale of monstrous femininity and objectified masculinity as well as a seminal text for some of her later works.
In du Maurier’s usual style, this story has a Russian-doll-like structure where the reader is told that the proceeding story was found written in an old journal belonging to an unknown (and heartbroken) man. As it is essentially his recording of events, the entire text is a creation of ‘the male gaze’ (which I have discussed at length in a previous post). It is interesting to note in this case however, that it is not only the female figure who is fashioned according to the design of the male gaze, but also her lover / his rival for her affections. His depictions are therefore heavily influenced by how he wishes the reader to view his subjects; he begins with Rebecca whom he describes in paradoxical terms of good and evil:
Rebecca – Rebecca, when I think of you with your pale earnest face, your great wide fanatical eyes like a saint, the narrow mouth that hid your teeth, sharp and white as ivory, and your halo of savage hair, electric, dark, uncontrolled – there has never been anyone more beautiful … Intense, restrained and soul-less; for you must be soul-less to have done what you have done. You have that fatal quality of silence … You would be fatal to any man … You fill me with a kind of horror (15).
His repetition of the word “fatal” in this passage can be read as a defining term in relation to her character. It creates a portrait of a mysterious and silent figure that is defined by her sexuality and therefore evocative of Christopher Frayling’s theory of “The Fatal Woman” (Horner and Zlosnik 111-2). The introduction of this femme fatale “altered the whole direction of the vampire tale from the mid-nineteenth century onwards [as she was both] sexually aware and sexually dominant … attractive and repellent at the same time” (Frayling cited in Horner and Zlosnik 111-2). Du Maurier’s creation of such female protagonists therefore exemplifies how early twentieth century literature reflected the arising “cultural anxiety concerning adult female sexuality” (Horner and Zlosnik 112) at this time. Using Sarah Gamble’s concept of ‘the monstrous feminine’ (again, explained in a previous post!), I analysed how Rebecca can therefore be defined as a pseudo vampire in relation to how female vampires are portrayed in core Gothic texts such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The narrator repeatedly declares his adoration of Rebecca’s beauty and silence, and in doing so, he emphasises the correlation between the aforementioned male gaze and its objectification of women as is signified in this text through the figure of the doll. His obsession with her doll-like beauty links her character to Olympia the doll in E.T.A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816). However, du Maurier’s narrator reveals in a journal confession the violent undertones of his lust / love for Rebecca. He admits his desire to envisage her in doll-like terms in a confession of “thinking [about] how easy it would be to … strangle her” (17). In this fantasy, he visualises her in inanimate terms by imagining her lips parted and her eyes turning lifeless and white similar to the doll’s standard facial expression. In doing so, he further connects her character to Hoffman’s Olympia. His tendency to view her in this manner is repeated once again when he observes her demeanour during a violin recital and recounts that her “eyes [were] wide open, her lips parted in a smile” (18) while she played “weird, haunting notes … like a child’s prayer” (18-9).
The issue of objectified masculinity arises when the narrator is introduced to Julio the doll. His immediate preoccupation with Julio’s eyes mirrors his earlier fixation on Rebecca’s saintly eyes and raises the notion of the doll’s gaze as he provides a detailed description of his love rival using a series of ominous and predatory terms:
“[A] boy of about sixteen, dressed in a dinner jacket, shirt and waistcoat, and long Spanish trousers. His face was the most evil thing I have ever seen. It was ashen pale in colour, and the mouth was a crimson gash, sensual and depraved. The nose was thin, with curved nostrils, and the eyes were cruel, gleaming and narrow, and curiously still. They seemed to stare right through one – the eyes of a hawk. The hair was sleek and dark, brushed right back from the white forehead. It was the face of a satyr, a grinning hateful satyr” (23).
Julio’s status as an automaton is only revealed afterwards, almost as an afterthought when the narrator recalls that “[t]here was no boy sitting in the chair. It was a doll. Human enough, damnably lifelike, with a foul distinctive personality, but a doll. Only a doll” (24). His distress at Rebecca’s possession of the doll as well as his discomfort in its presence remains throughout their encounter and demonstrates the uncanny effect of the doll when it is “perceived as [a] life-endangering” (Sencindiver 113) threat that can potentially “render the human inanimate” (Sencindiver 113). He becomes haunted by Julio who represents the figure of the Other. This is a technique that du Maurier repeats in Rebecca when the anonymous narrator is haunted by the Other in the form of Rebecca’s ghost, who exists as both “a phantom in [the narrator’s] mind” (45), and a “textual creation constructed in mystery” (Horner and Zlosnik 122-5).
The next part of the journal reveals details of his uninvited return to her apartment later the same night. He confesses that all his fears were realised when he finds her partaking in a sexual act with Julio. His attempt to influence the reader’s perception of Rebecca returns at this point when he describes “her eyes, the terrible light – the unholy rapture in her eyes, and her ashen – ashen face” (29) as she asks him “[h]ow can I care for you, or any man?” (29). Her unholiness is directly linked to her decision to practice an unconventional sexual preference for her doll rather than the narrator. Transferring his attention to Julio, he describes his horror at the motorised doll’s simultaneous state of animation and lifelessness which is a unification that emphasises his uncanniness. He is sickened to see “his filthy vile face looking at me […] he was not alive, not human” (29) and never recovers from his encounter with the doll. He admits that Rebecca left the following day and remains only as a memory to torment him as he realises that he “shall never see [her] again – no one will … It will always be Rebecca and Julio … they will haunt me” (30). By the end of the story, his demise appears to be inevitable as he confesses to feeling cursed and unable to cope or live with such pain and rejection.