The solitary life, which Emily had led of late, and the melancholy subjects, on which she had suffered her thoughts to dwell, had rendered her at times sensible to the ‘thick-coming fancies’ of a mind greatly enervated. It was lamentable, that her excellent understanding should have yielded, even for a moment, to the reveries of superstition, or rather to those starts of imagination, which deceive the senses into what can be called nothing less than momentary madness.(Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 102)
In Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), spectres are often the product of a nervous young maiden's inflamed imagination or alarmed fancy. Ghosts are nothing but the heroine's own ‘spirits’, and her journey consists, therefore, in learning how to control them before she can be happily married. To do so, the Radcliffean heroine, driven by an irrepressible curiosity, is led to unveil the stories of other women, and gradually realises that the passionate female characters who fail to tame their wild nature end up locked up in turrets, convents or prisons of sorts. As Eugenia C. DeLamotte contends, ‘the discovery of the Hidden Woman’ is ‘a staple of women's Gothic’, and:
Gothic romances tell again and again this story of the woman hidden from the world as if she were dead, her long suffering unknown to those outside – or sometimes even inside – the ruined castle, crumbling abbey, deserted wing, madhouse, convent, cave, priory, subterranean prison, or secret apartments. (DeLamotte 1990: 153)
For DeLamotte, just like Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1984) in the now classic feminist study of nineteenth-century women writers, The Madwoman in the Attic, the discovered woman who has been buried alive may fall into one of two main categories, the ‘Good Other Woman’ or the ‘Evil Other Woman’, both the angel and the demon suggesting women's confining roles and the social conditions of Victorian patriarchy (DeLamotte 1990: 153).
Among the numerous examples of locked-up women, the trope of the madwoman in the attic is perhaps one of the most potent images of Gothic fiction. As this chapter will show, the madwoman was first and foremost a conventional sentimental icon.