This is an excerpt from Laurie Nienhaus’ new book Steeped: The Wanderings & Delights of a Tea Adventurer, which features humorous essays and original recipes along with ephemera art. As a fan of gothic tales, I found it especially fun and wanted to share it with you!
Woe, but It’s a Wicked World
For those new to the genre, it’s sometimes a murky line distinguishing the early gothic tale from a mystery or mere romance. How do you know for certain whether you’re reading a true gothic story? You need only look at your heroine and ask:
minus one parent whose advice and admonishments she
tenderly reflects upon?
prisoner in a small cottage, most likely after a long
or a haunted abbey, perhaps in total darkness and
terrified of witnessing some horrid spectacle?
cruel Italian uncle or guardian?
being forced to become a nun?
While gothic stories abounded with heroines named Adeline, Antonia, and Ellena, you’ll be hard pressed to find even a Matilda or Isabella residing in our modern novels. Gothic heroines simply aren’t made of stern enough stuff for today’s readers.
But in all fairness, the life of a gothic heroine is not easy. Her beauty creates endless complications. Her deepest distress makes her appear even more beautiful and so she tends to be greatly desired by men with wicked intentions. Aside from the man she is being forced to wed, there is likely yet another soon to make a kidnap attempt and still others she might hear discussing her, which only adds to her vague fears and nameless dread. All the while, of course, her mind is greatly preoccupied with memories of happy moments spent with the man she has given her heart to and from whom she’s been cruelly torn. His absence creates the deep melancholy she can never shake, but which serves to make her…still more beautiful.
One wonders if the lot of the gothic heroine would be easier if she didn’t feel things so deeply. While we admire, she feels extraordinary awe rendering her speechless. We may be nervous, but she’s assailed by horrid apprehensions her spirit can not overcome. We experience fear, but she’s convulsed with horror so excessive her senses are threatened. Her recollections are too painful to be endured and her astonishment is always profound. Imagine the fatigue!
Perhaps this is why gothic heroines are so prone to sinking lifeless and falling senseless. Their penchant for long solitary walks leads you to believe they possess hardy constitutions. In actuality, they’re quite delicate. In continual need of walls and window casements to lean upon, they lose consciousness with alarming regularity. Their steps falter with the arrival of bad news and their maids are ever ready with open arms to catch them when murder or possible loss of chastity threatens. The bravest gothic heroine might indeed seek out her cruel uncle to plead her case one last time, but it causes her to tremble terribly and she’ll likely end up falling at his feet, overwrought with emotion. The unexpected appearance of a lover, a circumstance occurring with far more frequency than one might expect, could well bring on a slight fever.
Tragically, gothic heroines are also not known for their deductive powers. Despite the lateness of the hour, the remoteness of the castle, and the strangeness of their situation, they’re unable to deduce that some foul plot is afoot. Although we can see numerous reasons why unaccountable terror might grip them, they, strangely, often fail to produce a single one. They’re only, yet again, overcome by their most constant of companions – nameless dread.
At least they’re rarely bored. As is often the case when locked in your room, there’s ample time for introspection. The gothic heroine spends a good portion of her day tormented by unanswerable questions such as, “What have I gained by my fortitude?” or “Is this a charm to lure me to my destruction?” and “Have I truly been abandoned to meet the storms of life alone?”
Their days fill with activity, especially as people leave much lying about for them to find. Chancing upon deadly daggers and mysterious manuscripts keeps a gothic heroine busy. Hours pass quickly when you’re discovering the veiled recesses of rooms not opened in years. Chance upon poetry carved into the trees outside your villa or begin wondering what is behind this or that door and, before you know it, it’s teatime.
A gothic heroine is also quite literate and, in an effort to resist the pressure of sorrow, usually makes at least a feeble attempt to read. Yet how impossible when the silent tears can not be stopped! And most amazing of all, the deepest melancholy or the most sublime enjoyment of nature puts her at her literary best. She can pen a two-page sonnet before the sun completely sinks below the horizon.
Although the gothic heroine finds the world to be a wicked place, in the end she manages to triumph, coming away a wiser, and usually happily married, young woman. She has been:
of mind, there is always another door to be opened.