Gaslighting in Global Victorian and Neo-Victorian Culture

deadline for submissions: 
March 1, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Diana Bellonby
contact email: 

The term “gaslighting” has reentered the popular lexicon with a vengeance in recent years, appearing in countless news stories and opinion pieces on the subjects of sex, race, politics, medicine, and emotional abuse. It refers to “the experience of having your reality repeatedly challenged by someone who holds more power than you do,” as one Washington Postcolumn recently articulated it. Such pieces often note that the term is drawn from a specific twentieth-century source text: George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight, based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play of the same name, which tells the story of a sadistic husband actively working to make his wife believe she is losing her mind. Rarely emphasized, however, is the fact that this story is ostentatiously set in late-nineteenth-century London. Not only is the setting necessary to the plot insofar as it revolves around the gas-based lighting technology that reached its peak at the height of the Victorian era, but it also serves as a hauntingly appropriate backdrop for the narrative’s representations of marital violence, domestic confinement, psychological manipulation, and other mainstays of Victorian fiction.

This proposed essay collection aims to trace the genealogy of gaslighting back to its Victorian roots, and to examine how portrayals of the phenomenon have evolved in literary, cinematic, and other media narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Building on studies from a range of fields and disciplines that focus on contemporary examples of gaslighting, we seek to demonstrate the urgent value of historicizing a form of violence that is fundamentally tied to gender- and race-based systems of oppression—and acts of resistance. Philosopher Kate Abramson, for example, has observed that gaslighting often occurs in response to “a woman’s protestation against sexist (or otherwise discriminatory) conduct” and “rel[ies] on the target’s internalization of sexist norms,” while political scientists Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst define “racial gaslighting” as a “process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.” While the white-male-supremacist patterns of behavior these scholars describe are key to understanding contemporary injustices, they were all shaped in crucial ways by Victorian culture. The intersecting institutions of patriarchy, transatlantic slavery, and colonial imperialism during the long nineteenth century made women and racialized others vulnerable to rhetorical attacks designed to undermine their capacity to articulate, authorize, and even believe their own lived experiences. Cultural case studies of gaslighting offer a new window into an era of social reform, abolitionist resistance, and feminist agitation.

How did Victorians and Victorian-era writers depict, enact, or endure gaslighting? In what ways did gaslighting shape the period’s racist and colonialist ideologies? Which writers or genres were particularly susceptible to or influenced by gaslighting? And how does neo-Victorian fiction and film—broadly interpreted—reimagine the phenomenon? We are interested in a range of approaches to this concept, such as gaslighting narrators or texts, gaslighting book reviews or paratexts (such as, to use John Sekora’s term, the “white envelope” surrounding slave narratives), or acts of gaslighting in the critical canon. We seek feminist, antiracist approaches to canonical works as well as less-studied texts from the Americas, colonial British India, and other imperial outposts. Contributors are encouraged to explore the ways in which historical approaches illuminate contemporary understandings and experiences of gaslighting. 

Please send 300-word abstracts plus short bios by March 1, 2023, to co-editors Nora Gilbert (nora.gilbert@unt.edu), Tara MacDonald (tmacdonald@uidaho.edu), and Diana Bellonby (dianabellonby@gmail.com), and feel free to contact us with any questions. SUNY Press has expressed interest in reviewing the proposal for its Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century series.