Haunting, Female Agency and Women’s Imagination: A Comparative Study on Florence Marryat, Vernon Lee, Enchi Fumiko and Ōba Minako’s Fiction


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date14 Jun 2019


My thesis analyses the supernatural writings and fantasy fiction of four women novelists from British and Japanese cultures, including the ghost narratives of Florence Marryat (1833–1899) and Vernon Lee (1856–1935) from the late Victorian period and the novels and short stories written between the 1960s and the 1970s by the Japanese writers Enchi Fumiko (1905–1986) and Ōba Minako (1930–2007). In this thesis, I argue that these four women writers deploy haunting as a common strategy to challenge the long-established social norms in their respective cultures. I contend that their appropriation of different supernatural tropes and motifs to reclaim the voices of the women characters in their stories is a practice of female agency. My reading of agency is aligned with the spectral presence because both the act of haunting and the practice of agency are mediated by the dominant norms and relations of power within specific social and historical contexts. I read agency as constitutive of multiple and fluid subjectivities possessed of context-dependent contents and forms of action rather than a singular definition of femininity. By putting two fin-de-siècle British writers and two post-WWII Japanese novelists together, I note that their primary narratives share thematic affinities and I highlight certain cross-cultural contacts within the broader historical currents between these two countries. My research uses agency as a transcultural analytical tool to re-think haunting as that which both retrieves and limits the feminine voices across times and regions.

Haunting involves the ghost’s return from the past and thus it engenders critical discussion about time and history. The supernatural also serves as a metaphor that reveals the psychological state of the individual, such as one’s selfhood, fears, desires, memories, and trauma. As a figure that possesses an ambiguous form of existence, the spectre signifies otherness and reveals absences. Since the spirit of the dead re-appears in the present, it defies the conventional distinctions between the past, the present, and the future. The ghost is seen to embrace multiple temporalities. Haunting can come from the feeling of detachment from a place of origin, where the subject recollects his or her untellable experiences.

In her supernatural writings, Florence Marryat employs Victorian supernaturalism to challenge the traditional notion of womanhood. Her writing style that blends fact and fiction creates multiple voices in her narratives. The spectres in the séance sitting materialize physically but manifest themselves as figures of invisible visibility. Their ambiguity is metaphorically associated with the marginal status of Victorian women. While I situate Marryat’s works within the context of occultism, I interpret the spectral elements in Vernon Lee’s tales as psychological haunting. Lee draws on the subversive potential of the spectre to dissolve various kinds of dualisms. Her ghost stories respond to the emergence of transgressive femininity and alternative sexualities in the late nineteenth century. Enchi Fumiko engages with the spectres in pre-modern Japanese literature to expose gender inequalities and question strictly defined sexual roles being imposed on Japanese women in the 1960s. The haunting incidents illuminate the multiple versions of the female self. As for Ōba Minako, she reworks the supernatural in Japanese fairy tales and folklore into her modern stories. Ōba takes up the role of storyteller and creates characters who are storytellers and listeners. She asserts that women play a significant part in passing down women’s stories and giving war testimonies to future generations. Her fiction resonates with second-wave feminism in the 1970s in Japan.

    Research areas

  • haunting, female agency, Florence Marryat, Vernon Lee, Enchi Fumiko, Oba Minako