Ghost stories, feminism and epistemic injustice

Humanities lecturer Dr Vicky Margree’s new book on women’s ghost stories has just been published.

In British Women’s Short Supernatural Fiction, 1860-1930 (Palgrave, 2019), Dr Margree argues that far from being merely an escapist entertainment form, the ghost story has historically been used by women writers to critically interrogate the situation of women in a male-dominated society.

In particular, women writers have exploited the conventions of supernatural fiction to point to what philosopher Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic injustice”: the injustice of having what you know dismissed because of prejudices about who you are.

Time and again in women’s ghost stories, women’s warnings about some supernatural danger go unheeded by their male hearers, not only because of an unwillingness to credit the supernatural but also because the testimony comes from a woman. So when the reality of the supernatural is confirmed, the narrative testifies to the inadequacy of the worldview espoused by its male, middle-class characters and the deeply gendered form of “rationalism” they espouse.

But Margree also cautions against reading women’s ghost stories as intrinsically subversive. They are equally capable of advancing politically conservative positions, she warns – for example, by asserting the rights of relatively privileged women while obscuring the injustices faced by working-class or colonised women.

Her book explores the political ambivalence of the women’s ghost story in Britain in the period tracing the emergence of feminism through to the achievement of the vote for women.

It explores how in stories by Charlotte Riddell and Margaret Oliphant, haunted house narratives become troubled by uncanny reminders of the origins of middle-class wealth in domestic and foreign exploitation. Corpse-like revenants are deployed in Female Gothic tales by Mary Braddon and Edith Nesbit. In the culturally-hybrid supernaturalism of Alice Perrin, the Victorian “Marriage Question” migrates to colonial India. And psychoanalytically-informed stories by May Sinclair, Eleanor Scott and Violet Hunt explore just how far gender relations have really progressed in the post-suffrage period.

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