The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Doomswoman (1892)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Doomswoman was written by Gertrude Atherton and first appeared in Lippincott’s (September, 1892). Atherton (1857-1948) was a notable American novelist and won the Légion d’Honneur for her hospital work during WW1. The Doomswoman is a historical romance of Old California.

The Doomswoman is set in the days when America and Spanish-controlled Mexico vied for control of California. Doña Chonita Iturbi y Moncada is the daughter of an old Castilian family, one with long roots in Mexico and a great patriotic feeling for Mexico and Spain. But when she meets Don Diego Estenega, the scion of her house’s hated rival, it is love/hate at first sight. The Romeo and Juliet plot plays out amidst a backdrop of political intrigue. Don Diego is a philanderer but grows increasingly obsessed with Doña Chonita, Doña Chonita wavers between pride and desire for Don Diego, and at the end of the novel Doña Chonita’s twin brother Reinaldo foils Don Diego’s schemes for power and then tries to prevent Don Diego from marrying Doña Chonita. Reinaldo and Don Diego fight, and Don Diego kills Reinaldo, thereby condemning himself to the execution block.

While The Doomswoman will never be mistaken for one of Atherton’s major works, it is an enjoyable light read. It is told in an appealingly laconic style which the overheated dialogue cannot spoil. As melodrama it is more than acceptable. Atherton’s research into early California’s history and culture is lightly but firmly carried, resulting in a novel with a great deal of verisimilitude. And the titular character is an interesting variation on the Fatal Woman character type, similar to Holmes’ Elsie Venner (see: Elsie Venner). Doña Chonita is not sexually knowing, but her beauty and innocence, and her power and vengefulness, make her as dangerous as Gautier’s Clarimonde (see: Clarimonde”).

The protagonist of The Doomswoman, Doña Chonita, is of note. Besides her beauty—“quite beautiful enough to plant thorns where she listed”1—she has “the power, as twin, to heal and curse,”2 as well as dream prophetically and astrally project during those dreams. When a dark haired Mexican beauty presumes to flirt too seriously with Don Diego, Dona Chonita brings down a curse on the woman, causing her to fall into a raging fever and then for her hair to fall out. In other words, Chonita is a superhuman. Interestingly, unlike nearly every other superhuman of the late-nineteenth century, Chonita is not a social outsider.

For 50 years after the Gothics ended, the supermen and superwomen of Victorian heroic fiction would be outsiders—not outsiders whose stories were of their slow reintegration into society, but permanent outsiders, for whom reintegration into society is simply not possible. And for the Victorians, to be a permanent outsider who never would be or could be reintegrated into society was largely to be an enemy of society.3 

Chonita’s status as an insider, and a valued member of her local society, can be explained as due to her American origin. The great majority of Victorian supermen and superwomen who were not outright villains were created by English or French authors, rather than Americans. The American trend toward transgressing class restrictions in fiction meant that texts like “The Gray Champion and The Doomswoman would feature superpowered protagonists who were accepted rather than rejected by their societies. As well, Atherton was ultimately writing a romance, a genre in which outsiders are far more likely to be men than women.

Of course, Atherton knew what she was doing in writing a novel with a superhuman protagonist. Atherton rejected the American Realism of authors like William Dean Howells, preferring “the glorification of female independence of spirit and the denigration of maternity, subservience, and monotonous domestic routine.”4 

Repeatedly, Atherton attacked Howell’s “commonplace,” which for Atherton meant the literary confinement of women to conventional roles. Atherton’s heroines defy these conventions and often emerge as “Amazonian” or “superwomen.” Although criticized for her heroines, Atherton “saw no need to apologize for choosing superwomen as heroines, since she continued to avow her contempt for everything ‘commonplace’” (Leider 337).5 

Modern literary feminists are hesitant to label Atherton as a feminist: "Leider observes that ‘Atherton’s New Woman heroines command a manipulative sexuality used to attract and control,’ much like Atherton herself, and that ‘Atherton was the kind of feminist who complains about how ugly most other feminists are.’”Feminist or not, however, Atherton became a symbol of the New Woman, and her work is usually counted among the American school of New Woman fiction.

The Doomswoman is agreeable light reading.

Recommended Edition:

Print: Gertrude Atherton, The Doomswoman. Los Angeles: Hardpress Publishing, 2012.



1 Gertrude Atherton, The Doomswoman (Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott, 1892), 267.

2 Atherton, The Doomswoman, 267.

3 Nevins, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 124.

4 Emily Wortis Leider, California’s Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and Her Times (Stanford: Stanford University, 1991), 248.

5 Catherine Cucinella, “Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948),” in Laurie Champion, ed., American Women Writers, 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000), 9.

6 Leider, California’s Daughter, 5.