Queer Victorian Gothic

Posted by maxfincher on July 20, 2012 in Dr Max Fincher, Guest Blog, Reviews tagged with

Ardel Haefele-Thomas, Queering Others in Victorian Gothic: transgressing monstrosity (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012) ISBN 978-0-7083-2464-6

In the last ten years, there have been a number of studies that have explored how the gothic is ‘always-already’ a queer genre, using the insights of queer critical theory as it has been articulated by theorists from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick onwards. Ardel Haefele’s Thomas’s new study takes this critical enquiry one step further by showing us how the ‘monstrous Other’, specifically in terms of ‘foreigness’, is often queer, and reassesses the assumption that ‘Victorian culture was monolithic in its disdain for those who were ‘other’’ (p.14).

Thomas’ definition of queer encompasses both ‘the generally weird, odd or ill’ and an early twentieth-century definition of queer as connected to homosexuality. Importantly, Thomas also argues that queerness resides in transgression, in the subject who crosses between socially- constructed identity categories, particularly gender.  Victorian gothic fiction was a safe cultural space ‘in which to explore ideas about race, interracial desire, cross-class relations, ethnicity, empire, nation and ‘foreignness’ (p.15).

Although there has already been some discussion of what is queer about texts like Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, there are some new and extended observations here. For example Elizabeth Gaskell’s recently published gothic short stories and Vernon Lee’s supernatural tales are examined, and suggest new ways of reconceiving female relationships and marriages in other genres in Victorian fiction too. In addition, Thomas chooses to discuss Florence Marryat’s novel, The Blood of the Vampire (1897) which infuses new blood into discussion of the vampire as a queer figure. My only reservation is that two of the texts chosen for discussion, The Moonstone and Henry Rider Haggard’s She do seem to stretch the definitional scope of ‘Victorian Gothic’ to breaking point. However, Thomas’s convincingly argues that the fear of ‘racial otherness and queer possibility’ create an atmosphere of panic and terror, especially in She.

The opening chapter discusses how both The Woman in White and The Moonstone both exploit the increasing anxiety over controlling the British Empire in the 1850s and 1860s, especially with the aftermath of the Indian mutiny at Meerut in 1857 where the families of British army officers were attacked.  The inscrutable bi-racial character of Ezra Jennings is both an outsider and a ‘go-between’. He ‘holds the key to the marriage plot’ and speaks the truth. Occupying a position of power in narrative terms, Ezra Jennings is a ‘subversive’ figure, rather than a kind of ‘bi-cultural puppet’. Thomas effectively traces Jenning’s queer status by contextualizing him alongside the figure of the hirja, the cross-dressed male Indian who, like the homosexual in nineteenth-century Britain, could not be spoken of. As Thomas argues, ‘like a hirja, he performs an important role through his opium experiment that will lead to the reconciliation of the heterosexual marriage plot’ (p.45)

Similarly, in The Woman in White, it is the queer figure, this time in the form of the masculine spinster, Marian Halcombe, who is given both narrative agency and the status of saving the heterosexual couple. Marian’s queerness resides not only in her masculine appearance, and her vocal opposition to loveless heterosexual marriages which are the ‘central monstrosity in this Gothic novel’, but also because she can ‘reconceptualize and reconstruct the definition of ‘family’, outside of rigid biological and matrimonial constructions’(p.26). Thomas gives a good close reading of the subtly homoerotic exchanges between Marian and Laura Fairlie. In contrast to the negative portrayal of the spinster for instance in Dickens’ Little Dorrit ,where ‘the androgynous Miss Wade who leads Tattycoram into lesbianism’, Marian Halcombe is an active character who brings both Laura and Walter back together. Nevertheless, one should be careful not to deduce from The Woman in White that Collins’s fiction always presents the queer positively. As Thomas notes, the representation of Frederick Fairlie as a ‘useless dandy and potential sodomite’ is never far away.

Similarly, the women in Elizabeth Gaskell’s stories, ‘Lois the Witch’ and ‘The Grey Woman’ restructure the heteronormative family by showing how close female relationships between women are created out of oppression. Although ‘Lois the Witch’ is set in seventeenth-century New England, and ‘The Grey Woman’ in late eighteenth-century Germany, both stories present women who refuse to participate in the heteronormative economy of marriage, especially to abusive tyrannical husbands. These stories subtly critique Victorian social norms of marriage and ‘the angel in the house’. Lois forms a closer bond with Nattee (an American-Indian woman who is a servant in her aunt’s household) than she does with her own family, and is deemed monstrous and hung as a witch for refusing to marry. In ‘The Grey Woman’, Anna escapes from her villainous husband with the help of her servant Amante by cross-dressing and living as husband and wife with her while on the run. As Thomas notes, the Victorian reader’s sympathy is, against the grain, directed towards what would ordinarily be considered the monstrous: ‘the juxtaposition of Amante’s biological sex and her gender identity is not treated as part of the Gothic horror of the situation’ (p.69).

Henry Rider Haggard’s novel, She (1887) also displaces late Victorian anxieties over gender diversity and queer sexualities. Thomas sets the novel within the context of the fear of the degeneration of Victorian society and culture, outlining how The Labouchère Amendment of 1885, criminalized same-sex desire between men in both public and private. The figure of Ayesha (she-who-must-be-obeyed) is subversive because she confounds the boundaries of living/dead, feminine/masculine and human/animal, and she may also represent Queen Victoria. Ayesha is a queen who can ‘out-man’ the ‘cross-dressed feminized heroes’ of Horace and Leo, who penetrate into the dark feminized continent of Africa to discover Leo’s inheritance. In addition to the novel being traditionally categorized as an example of detective/adventure fiction, its Gothic quality is evident in its anxiety over ‘the boundary slippage between the violent, degenerate, queer monster and the adventurers who are meant to perpetuate a heroic British self-image’ (p.76).

Ayesha also embodies late Victorian fears about miscegenation, the mixing of different racial groups, that is also found in Dracula (1897) and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897). Both Joseph Sheridan’s Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla (1872) and Florence Marryat’s novel, The Blood of the Vampire (1897) also present the half-breed as Other, vampiric and queer: ‘both Carmilla and Harriet Brandt originate from a black woman’ (p.99).

Harriet Brandt’s mother is a Jamaican woman who practises obeah (magic), and her father a ‘malevolent vivisectionist’, while her grandmother has been bitten by a vampire bat. Harriet both intrigues and repulses Margaret Pullen (a mother) and her spinster friend, Elinor Leyton. Harriet’s potential lesbianism is underscored by the reader learning she has been raised in a convent, but she also represents the fear of ‘the cannibalistic other who wants to devour English babies’ (p.110) after she is accused of killing Margaret’s child. As Thomas notes, ‘Harriet embodies many of the fears of late Victorian culture: she is biracial, bisexual, and in accordance with anti-Semitic myths, she drains the blood of Christians’ (p.100).

The last chapter of this study considers the supernatural short stories of Vernon Lee: ‘A Wicked Voice’(1889-90), ‘The Image’ (1896) and ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’ (1896). Lee’s tales are frequently set in Italy, an indeterminate space whose cultural history permits queer bodies and desires. Thomas notes her friendship with the gay painter, John Singer Sergeant and his circle at the Palazzo Barbaro, and argues that these stories are ‘examples par excellence of the ‘degenerative’ nature of decadent writing’, especially in how they deconstruct the binaries of male/female, and homosexual/heterosexual. The readings of these stories are closely linked to Lee’s awareness and engagement with contemporary social and media discourses on homosexuality and degeneration, such as the language of bestiality used to characterize the men arrested in the Cleveland Street male brothel in 1889: ‘strange’ and ‘odd’ were often ‘code words’ for the love that dared not speak its name.

Most convincing that Lee was supportive of queer people is that she was close friends with Oscar Wilde. Lee also wrote a scathing attack of Max Nordau’s controversial book, Degeneration (1892), a work that along with the writings of Freud and the sexologist Richard von Kraft-Ebbing, helped to solidify homosexuality as both a mental illness and expressive of the Decadent art movement. As Thomas notes, Lee opposed ‘normalcy as mediocrity’ and ‘took it upon herself to speak out against the injustice that she knew her friends were suffering’ (p.142).

This study extends our understanding of how from the mid-nineteenth century onwards that those who are queer are not always portrayed unsympathetically in Victorian fiction, as one might argue they are in earlier gothic novels and stories to a certain extent. Neither are queer bodies and their desires entirely absent from authors who, on a first reading, we might assume only represent heterosexual concerns, like Elizabeth Gaskell. Thomas’s analysis of the spinster, of those who refuse to participate in the marriage and child economy of heterosexuality, of the atavistic racialized other who wields power, could be applied to other genres of Victorian fiction, and might raise an awareness that ‘those who should be the monster are not’ (p.147).

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