Hysterical Bodies and the Corporeal Grotesque in Rhoda Broughton’s 'Ghost’ Stories'

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paper


Rhoda Broughton’s supernatural tales are regularly referred to by literary critics as ‘ghost stories’, yet very few of them contain any ghosts. Instead they involve prophetic visions, physical antagonists such as murderers and thieves, ambiguous threats, unspecified “presences”. Broughton self-consciously subverts the conventions and clichés of the ghost story form, manipulating the readerly motivation for thrills in order to reset expectations of genre and theme. By misleading the reader to expect ghosts, Broughton renders her female characters – obstinately realistic and physical women – starkly present and solid. She satirises a medical use of ghostliness-as-metaphor, troubling the equation of spiritual insight with symptoms of female psychological disorder, and employs visceral, grotesque horror. Her stories go against the grain of much contemporary criticism on the female-authored ghost story, which focuses on the spectrality of women’s place in Victorian society.

Broughton’s corporeality and materiality leads to a description of female bodies which is unusual in Victorian fiction. Her characters resist the limits imposed on women by medical and cultural narratives about their natures, social roles, and biology. Vanessa D. Dickerson’s assertion that women’s ghost stories ‘provided a counter to the scientism, scepticism, and materialism of the age’ disallows a space in which women can write from a position of science, scepticism and materialism, and that can itself be a radical action. Broughton lays claim to a progressive space in which women can think about, and speak about, female bodies scientifically. For Broughton the ghost story becomes, counterintuitively, a space in which to interrogate materialism.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 22 Mar 2019
EventTales of Terror: Gothic, Horror, and Weird Short Fiction - Warwick University
Duration: 21 Mar 201922 Mar 2019


ConferenceTales of Terror: Gothic, Horror, and Weird Short Fiction


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