Book Review:

 The Female Fantastic: Gendering the Supernatural in the 1890s and 1920s, edited by Lizzie Harris McCormick, Jennifer Mitchell, and Rebecca Soares 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Foley O'Connor

Washington College

Review of The Female Fantastic: Gendering the Supernatural in the 1890s and 1920s, edited by Lizzie Harris McCormick, Jennifer Mitchell, and Rebecca Soares, Routledge, 2019. 246 pp. Hardcover (ISBN 9780815364023). Paperback (ISBN 9780367665869).

From a cursed saucepan that poisons the men who inhabit its female owner’s apartment to gender-shifting werewolves, magical animals, and spectral hauntings, to name just a few examples discussed in the collection, women’s involvement with the supernatural in literature has been long-standing and myriad. These interactions formed the groundwork for many key works of feminist literary criticism in the 1970s and ‘80s and continues to generate both anthologies and scholarly analysis. Despite the ubiquity and popularity of these collections, critical theorizations have largely been limited to specific genres and/or national borders. The Female Fantastic fills this gap. 

Taking as its premise that “there is no single formula for the fantastic… because it is an oppositional form,” (xiii), the collection emphasizes the fantastic’s transformative potential. As Harris McCormick, Mitchell, and Soares assert, “We argue that the fantastic manifests new multivalent ways of seeing and being and makes them cognitively possible for creators and readers” (xviii).  To this end, they claim “‘to fantastic” as a verb, for creating in the fantastic mode is an action that has tremendous power to open up space for new embodiments, identities, and relationships in a world now possible to view in nonbinary multiple vision” (xix). And this new world that is envisioned in the volume’s 14 essays is decidedly feminist and queer and committed to interrogating fixed notions of gender and sexuality.

While the editors do acknowledge that “there is no female fantastic,” as both the gender and the genre “are slippery for different reasons” (xviii), the collection is grounded on the need to cast a wide net to shed new light on what has traditionally been seen as unconnected subgenres rather than a unified field. At times this tent is a bit too capacious and results in contradictions rather than a clear theoretical framework. The Female Fantastic attempts to counter this thematic broadness with temporal specificity by putting texts from the very end of the nineteenth century in conversation with ones from post-World War I —both pivotal periods in gender(ed) history. In this way, texts that display the “new radical potential” of fantastic literature from the dawn of the New Woman in the 1890s are paired with those from the 1920s that show “a similar resurgence of interest in the fantastic, as modernism’s focus on narrative and experiential fragmentation evolved to embrace the other worldly” (xvii).

The Female Fantastic is divided into four sections—Fantastic Objects, Fantastic Spaces, Fantastic People, and Fantastic Creatures—that are introduced by a scholar who specializes in the field and who contextualizes the section’s essays by providing important historical, cultural, and critical framing. Overall, the essays provide excellent close readings; the best are theoretically engaged, connecting their specific area of inquiry both with the larger body of the work of the author under discussion and the fantastic writ large.

In the first section, “Heaps, Rubbish, Treasure, Litter and Tatters: Fantastic Objects in Context,” Jill Galvan discusses the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 and the rise in accounts of hauntings of all types, which led to increased importance for the ghost tale in the 1890s. Anne DeLong’s “Framing the Fin-de-siecle Female Narrative” discusses three ghost stories—Margaret Oliphant’s “The Portrait” (1889), Lee’s “Oke of Okehurst” (1890), and Edith Nesbit’s “The Ebony Frame” (1893)—that all focus on objectified women that all assert their own voice. Donna Mitchell explores the monstrous feminine figure in her reading of Daphne du Maurier’s lost 1927 short story, “The Doll” (23). Julia Panko’s excellent essay, “Uncanny Mediums: Haunted Radio, Feminine Intuition, and Agatha Christie’s ‘Wireless,’” persuasively demonstrates that radio was a fantastic, as well as a gendered, object and that Christie centrally engaged with the supernatural throughout her 1920s fiction. Rounding out the section, Melissa Edmundson’s “Buyer Beware: Haunted Objects in the Supernatural Tales of Margery Lawrence,” focuses on three of her 1920s stories to show how fantastic objects “highlight very real contemporary social concerns about gender dynamics between men and women, their proper roles within a modern British society, and the perceived threat of predatory female sexuality” (51).

Turning to the “‘unconscious processes,’” Luke Thurston’s “Profoundly and Irresolvably Political: Fantastic Spaces” outlines how the three essays in the section explore how fantasy can disturb realism in order to disturb and critique the influence of patriarchy. Anne Jamison insightfully plumbs “Female Desire, Colonial Ireland, and the ‘limits of the possible’ in E. CE. Somerville and Martin Ross’s The Silver Fox” (1897) by highlighting how the novel’s female characters strain convention in order to depict cross-class solidarity. In “The Haunting House in Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The Shadowing Third’” Céline Magot shows how the domicile itself participates in the spectral events. Jean Mills’ “Obscene, Grotesque, and Carnivalesque: Hope Mirrlee’s Lud-in-the-Mist as Menippean Satire” illustrates some of the genre’s links to the fantastic while showing how the 1926 novel “illustrates a queer social imaginary” (98).

In “The Fantastic and the Modern Female Experience: Fantastic People” Scott Rogers details the rise of female medium in the nineteenth century, one of several ways authors used the fantastic to explore alternative identities. Mary Clai Jones convincingly shows how Marie Corelli’s Ziska (1897) reworks tropes of fin-de-siecle mummy fiction to critique both imperialism and the objectification of women, while Andrew Hock Soon Ng revises interpretations of Edith Nesbit’s early Gothic fiction by arguing that three stories from 1893—“Uncle Abraham’s Romance,” “From the Dead” and “Man-Size in Marble”—all display an anti-feminist agenda. Manipulation of time unites the final two essays of the section, with Jennifer Mitchell highlighting how “uncanny time” functions in Radclyffe Hall’s “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself” (1926) and Woolf’s Orlando (1928), while Elizabeth English investigates how Katharine Burdekin utilizes queer time travel in The Burning Ring (1927) and The Rebel Passion (1929).

The final section, “Invitation to Dissidence: Fantastic Creatures,” begins with Jessica DeCoux’s assertion that fantastic creatures “simultaneously reveal and conceal, relying on traditional racially and socially coded significations of good and evil even as they work concomitantly to thwart and subvert such significations” (183). Colleen Morrissey contends that in The Sorrows of Satan (1895) Maria Corelli uses the figure of the Romantic Satan to critique both Christianity and the patriarchy. In a fascinating essay, Lizzie Harris McCormick explores how monstrosity can “serve a positive, liberating purpose” in Clemence Housman’s The Were-wolf (1890) and Aino Kallas’ The Wolf’s Bride (1928). The concluding essay, Kate Schnur’s “The Doctor Treats the Ten-Breasted Mate” shows how the love story in Djuna Barnes’ Ryder is a tragic one that critiques ideological identification. As a whole, The Female Fantastic explores a diverse mix of ghost stories, fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural thrillers by a wide range of female-identified authors from the 1890s and 1920s, who hail from England, Ireland, and the U.S. This blurring of the lines of traditional literary scholarships allows for some interesting pairings and unexpected new insights.

-10 Jan. 2022