Looking through Byatt’s collection, the strong feminist slant is the single most impossible to ignore thread looping from one story to the next. From the girls learning to survive as women from the experience with The Thing in the Woods to an older woman finding definition for her life after the passing of her mother as she gradually turns to stone and slips into a different plane of being to a woman possibly materializing a younger version of herself to push her abusive husband into senility. Gothic fiction was never something I had much interest in so learning a bit more about it has been a bit of a crash course. But what I’ve found most interesting about the strength and transformation of the women characters is that it seems to take a convention of gothic fiction and put it on its head. The women seemed to have been the weaker sex, always fainting, fates forever at the hands of their masculine counterparts. The most active part they would take would be allowing themselves to be seduced by a guy more virile and “masculine” than her husband.
With Byatt, the idea of the heroine being defined as either the fainting damsel in distress or the Lover in Need goes out the window. All of the women are searching for more than that, are defined by more than that, are stronger than that. If anything, they take on the roles traditionally given to men in gothic fiction. Dr. Frankenstein is wrestling with matters of existence, trying to usurp the role of God for himself in conquering death while the heroine in A Stone Woman has a similar goal but transforms herself rather than creating a monster from harvested limbs and organs.
The Thing in the Forest is the most traditional Gothic work in that it takes place at an old mansion and the surrounding woods where nature literally rears up and leaves its mark upon the two young women. But instead of fainting, and despite living lives scarred by the event, they come around in the end as true heroines and use the event as a way of regaining control of their lives through the attempt of shedding light upon the horror that had befallen them.
I have to admit, I attempted to find some critical work involving the Little Black Book of Stories but I came up empty. Critical work on Byatt as a whole seemed lacking compared to what I had expected to find. So for the criticism minded reader, I think there might be fertile untouched ground on Byatt as long as you don’t mind avoiding her work Possession.
Links to Story Reviews: