Heroines from the very beginning of the Gothic novel are under the constant threat of sexual violence. A possible effect of misogyny, rape is used as a form of possession, of domination, of torture and abuse, and of a purely violent impulse against women. The Gothic predates many protections of women and certainly the legal concept of 'consent', but rape in England was a problematic crime long before the earliest Gothic novels were written. 17th century Lord Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale is quoted as saying "rape...is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent." Lord Hale is also the origin of the phrase, "In a rape case it is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial." In the days before DNA evidence, forensic science, rape kits, or female advocates, a woman had a very difficult time prosecuting a rapist, therefore the crime was often carried out with impunity. As women became part of the labor force, and therefore were not well-protected in their homes, they were more and more vulnerable to assault and rape. By 1753 Parliament was so concerned with the rape of rich heiresses as a way of forcing them into marriage (and thus gaining control over their fortunes and family connections) that it debated and passed the "Hardwicke Act" in an attempt to prevent what they euphemistically termed "clandestine marriage." The secretive nature of this particular crime and its capacity to render a woman 'impure' and therefore unfit for her intended role in society makes it particularly useful fodder for the darkest Gothic sensationalism.
The threat of rape has been deployed from the very beginning of the Gothic novel. Although author Horace Walpole does not use the word 'rape', he does write a scenario in Castle of Otranto in which Isabella has refused Manfred, and he has decided to take her regardless of her consent, saying “I will use the human means in my power for preserving my race; Isabella shall not escape me.” It seems Manfred intends to impregnate Isabella in an attempt to replace his deceased son and heir. Walpole glosses over any consideration of the threat of rape by having Isabella risk life and limb to escape the castle.
Rape is committed and described in detail in Matthew Lewis' The Monk. An argument could be made that Matilda's seduction of Ambrosio is unwanted, at least at first, and that her harassment of him constitutes a violation; however it is always within Ambrosio's power to withdraw, and in the end their relations are consensual. The remaining sexual crimes in the monk are all committed by Ambrosio against unwilling young women. These are not crimes of passion; Ambrosio premeditates them, carefully employing Lord Hale's logic to dismiss his likelihood of being caught: "He reflected on the enormity of the crime, the consequences of a discovery, and the probability [...] of Elvira's suspecting him to be her Daughter's Ravisher: On the other hand it was suggested that She could do no more than suspect; that no proofs of his guilt could be produced; that it would seem impossible for the rape to have been committed without Antonia's knowing when, where, or by whom; and finally, He believed that his fame was too firmly established to be shaken by the unsupported accusations of two unknown Women." Even in 1796, this argument probably sounded sadly familiar to the reading audience, and they were likely to predict his success in this endeavor. While Ambrosio's first rape attempt is foiled by Antonia's mother Elvira, he eventually manages to abduct her, and Lewis provides a nearly pornographic description of his success: "He clasped her to his bosom almost lifeless with terror, and faint with struggling. He stifled her cries with kisses, treated her with the rudeness of an unprincipled Barbarian, proceeded from freedom to freedom, and in the violence of his lustful delirium, wounded and bruised her tender limbs. Heedless of her tears, cries and entreaties, He gradually made himself Master of her person, and desisted not from his prey, till He had accomplished his crime and the dishonour of Antonia."
Rape in the Gothic is not limited to the works of male authors. Ann Radcliffe also writes about rape in The Italian, although she is not as sensational as Lewis in her depiction. The crime is removed from the primary romantic characters of the novel, instead having been committed long ago, as part of the villainous monk Schedoni's secret past. Schedoni murders his brother, then wants to marry his brother's wife, but everything goes wrong. In the testimony against him, Schedoni is quoted as saying: "I ventured to solicit her hand: but she had not yet forgotten my brother, and she rejected me. My passion would no longer be trifled with. I caused her to be carried from her house, and she was afterwards willing to retrieve her honour by the marriage vow." Radcliffe, unlike Lewis, doesn't have a taste for violent description, but instead presents Schedoni's rape of Olivia as the unspoken reason Olivia needed to 'retrieve her honour.'
Although these three Gothic novelists all contribute to it, the unfortunate truth is that the rape of the heroine is not a Gothic invention, but has been a recurring theme in literature dating back to ancient times. Theorist Christine Froula has traced literary rape back to the Homeric myths, and describes the presence of this topic as an insidious and damaging form of patriarchal control. Froula states:
"For the literary daughter—the woman reader/writer as daughter of her culture—the metaphysical violence against women inscribed in the literary tradition, although more subtle and no less difficult to acknowledge and understand, has serious consequences. Metaphysically, the woman reader of a literary tradition that inscribes violence against women is an abused daughter. Like physical abuse, literary violence against women works to privilege the cultural father's voice and story over those of women, the cultural daughters, and indeed to silence women's voices."
Radcliffe, although she is a female writer, is complicit in the silencing of the female voice in The Italian. Olivia, the woman Schedoni raped, is not present at his trial, and does not speak against him. In fact, in the immediate aftermath, she marries him in order to help hide the secret and preserve her own position. Trapped in that loveless marriage, Olivia does not escape, but instead is stabbed by the jealous Schedoni. He believes she is dead, and she escapes by allowing that falsehood to continue, becoming a nun, and leaving her child to be raised by Bianchi. Even when Ellena (Olivia's daughter and the story's heroine) demands the truth from her, Olivia does not admit the rape, only accusing Schedoni of being a 'bad husband'. Antonia in Lewis' The Monk is also silenced, but in a much different way. While Olivia's attacker failed to murder her, Antonia is stabbed by Ambrosio and succumbs immediately to her wounds, dying on the floor of a crypt because as soon as she is no longer virginal, Ambrosio begins to despise her. Although he had planned to keep her forever confined underground, she tries to escape, so he stabs her to death. Death is a very final enforcement of silence.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Cuklanz, Lisa M. Rape on Trial : How the Mass Media Construct Legal Reform and Social Change. Philadelphia, Pa. : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Print.
Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle : Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1989. Print.
Froula, Christine. "Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History." in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 11.4 (1986): 621-44. Print.