Nora Gilbert, Gaslighting, and the Friends Faculty Fellows

March 28, 2024

By Beth Penney, Friends of the Dickens Project Board Member 


According to CNN, “Gaslighting is so commonly discussed that Merriam-Webster deemed the expression its word of the year in 2022, after experiencing a 1,740% increase in searches for the term.” Recent misuse of the term seems to define it as “You don’t agree with me,” or “You’re not letting me do what I want to do.”

But those of us who remember 1944’s spooky film Gaslight, with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (and an impossibly young Angela Lansbury as the maid, in her first screen appearance), aren’t confused about the term. The classic film is set in the late Victorian era, sometime after gas lighting in homes came into general use in the 1880s, and it is those ornate gas-lit ceiling and wall fixtures, and the ability to make the flames in them burn higher or lower, that give the name “gaslighting” to the practice of making people doubt themselves.

nora-gilbert-author-photoNora Gilbert of the University of North Texas wants to remind people that “psychological manipulation is deployed by gaslighters to make their targets feel self-doubt, self-recrimination, even self-loathing.” She goes on to say, “One of the deepest fears that the gaslighting plot taps into is the fear that our mental health is inherently violable—that another person can, that is, cause us to become mentally ill simply by proclaiming us to be so.”

Gilbert also wants to remind us of the setting and the story of this film. She is putting together a collection of essays, with co-editors Diana Bellonby and Tara MacDonald, called Victorian Gaslighting: Genealogy of an Injustice, and psychological manipulation, she says, is “at the heart of all our chapters' readings.” Her own chapter connects George du Maurier's Trilby and Bram Stoker's Dracula to the two film versions of Gaslight and highlights the idea that another person can control our mental health.

The team presented their research at this year’s Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in January in Philadelphia, and the presentation was well received by attendees. “Our chapter overviews inspired a robust conversation during the Q and A,” Gilbert says, “and we had many people come up to us after the panel to tell us how excited they were to read the book when it comes out – which will hopefully be in 2025, if the peer review process goes smoothly.”

Gilbert is also the Dickens Project’s Friends Faculty Fellow for that program’s spring 2024 lecture. She is intimately familiar with the Dickens Project audience, having attended the Dickens Universe as a graduate student in 2005 and returning as a faculty member in 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2023. “We’re already very invested in making the essays in the book as engaging and accessible as possible, with the hopes that it will appeal to academic and public audiences alike,” Gilbert says of her upcoming Friends presentation. “I know the Dickens Universe audience well, and am thrilled to have this opportunity to share my current work with participants in this new format.”

The Friends Faculty Fellows program started in 2022, according to its website, with three purposes: “to give faculty members an opportunity to conceptualize and present their research to an enthusiastic public audience; second, to provide our Friends with a chance to get to know/interact with more Dickens Project faculty members; and third, to offer an opportunity to learn more about current research in 19th-century studies that may not fit into the purview of Dickens Universe programming. The Santa Cruz Public Libraries provide support for this program.” Presenters since the program’s inception have included Renée Fox of UC Santa Cruz, speaking on “Victorian Necromancies”; Grace Moore of the University of Otago, Aotearoa/ New Zealand), presenting “Anthony Trollope Down Under: Travel Writing, Bushfires and Australian Ecology”; and Deanna K. Kreisel of the University of Mississippi,  “Ecological Utopia: From the Victorians to Us.” The program features three Zoom meetings a month apart, which gives lecturers a chance to give the participants assignments that are then discussed and analyzed.

Gilbert says she is “especially excited to be able to introduce (or re-introduce) the Friends participants of this Dickens program to the film, which captures the feeling of a particular form of psychological abuse so gut-wrenchingly, hauntingly well,” she says. “Focusing our remote discussion on this neo-Victorian film will, I think, be an excellent way to delve into certain Victorian social issues and the extent to which those issues persist to this day.”

Gilbert explained her specific interest in the film more fully. “As a professor who co-specializes in Victorian literature and Classic Hollywood film,” she says, “I've long been obsessed with the movie, especially after the term ‘gaslighting’ that derives from the film (or, really, from the 1938 play that the film is based on) became so wildly popular in contemporary discourse,” Gilbert says. “What interests me in particular is the fact that Gaslight is pointedly set in Victorian London—a setting that is intrinsic to the plot, insofar as it revolves around the gas-based lighting technology that reached its peak in the late nineteenth century, but that also reflects a deeper thematic kinship between the plot of sadistic psychological manipulation featured in Gaslight and the plots of so many Victorian literary texts (including some by Dickens!). The fourteen essays that we bring together in the collection simultaneously show what we can learn about Victorian culture by reading it through the lens of ‘gaslighting’ and what we can learn about contemporary forms of mental oppression and abuse by reading them through the lens of Victorian culture.”

Gilbert’s research, however, doesn’t stop with Victorian England. “Some of the specific topics covered on the MLA panel,” she says, “included the acts of abolitionist gaslighting that can be seen in The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave; the acts of capitalist gaslighting that were perpetrated by the early coal-gas industry; the Puritanical gaslighting depicted in Elizabeth Gaskell's Lois the Witch, which is set in Salem, Massachusetts; the obstetric gaslighting portrayed in South African author Olive Schreiner's From Man to Man; and the personal and professional gaslighting of the late-Victorian writer Vernon Lee.”

Gilbert's Friends Faculty Fellowships presentation is on April 14, and a discussion of the film Gaslight is scheduled for May 19. Please visit the Victorian Gaslighting webpage to register and for more information about both events.