The wicked abbess is a character type developed in the Gothic incorporating the anti-Catholic and female-maligning projects of the genre. A prominent example of a wicked abbess from the early Gothic is the Prioress of St. Clare in Matthew Lewis' The Monk. The prioress is responsible for the nuns in the abbey, and is therefore a representative of the Catholic hierarchy. In order to prove her authority before Ambrosio, the Prioress decides to torture the heroine, Agnes, by confining her in a crypt, where she must give birth, and her baby dies as a result. The cruelty of the prioress is emblematic of a broader anti-Catholic theme, in which members of the clergy are depicted as hypocritical, destructive, and repressive agents of unwarranted power.
The wicked abbess is doubly dangerous in the Gothic because she is a woman wielding power over others, and therefore a subject of deep distrust. Her cruelty evokes a highly irrational fear of women run amok behind the walls of the convent, and exercising authority they should not have. When her brother produces a Papal Bull liberating Agnes from the convent, the Prioress lies, telling the family Agnes is dead, merely so she can continue to torture and imprison her.
Soon after The Monk's Prioress came W.H. Ireland's The Abbess, who is another madwoman dominating innocent girls, but Ireland adds an extra dimension to her wickedness, by also making her a seductress. The Madre uses her assistant to procure young men for her, whom she drugs and then engages in sexual encounters. Her unbridled sexuality suggests a critique of the celibacy vows of the Catholic clergy, suggesting that they only lead to secretive, criminal, or devious affairs.Works Consulted: Hoeveler, Diane Long. "William-Henry Ireland, T. I. Horsley Curties, and the Anti-Catholic Gothic Novel." European Romantic Review 24.1 (2013): 43-65. Print.