A Feminist Michael Field

Much like Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Michael Field’s preface to Sight and Song is blatantly contradictory to its actual content. In this preface, Bradley and Cooper claim that their poems work as poetic translations which “express not so much what these pictures are to the poet, but rather what poetry they objectively incarnate.” Despite claims of objectivity, the poems themselves offer highly subjective expressions of sight, just as though they were intended for the male gaze. In W.B. Yeats’ review of Sight and Song, the fellow poet complains that “they have preferred to work with the studious and interpretive side of the mind and write a guide-book to the picture galleries of Europe, instead of giving us a book full of the emotions and fancies which must be crowding in upon their minds perpetually.” Yeats is upset that the two women, under the guise of Michael Field, have opted to express what each painting seems to incarnate rather than trying to pass their female gazes for a male one of Michael Field’s. In fact, pretty much all of the paintings they choose to write about are done specifically for the male gaze of their time.

Disregarding the masculinity of their pen name, Bradley and Cooper opted to present a feminist view of the paintings, allowing the depicted women to harbor their own emotions and thoughts. In doing so, the two are working against the societal norms of the Victorian era, in which women were seen as passive, domestic creatures fit only to be mothers and wives. As Mona Caird argues in her essay “On Marriage,” there is no overlap between a man’s public sphere and a woman’s domestic sphere, leaving no opportunity for connection and intellectual simulation between the two sexes. Going against the grain of the typical masculine perspective, as would be expected by their pseudonym, the two women writers work to give women that intellectual connection otherwise not found in ordinary Victorian life. It is important to note that Bradley and Cooper thought themselves as dramatists more than poets, and so they would have been much more aware of the idea of the gaze—especially from the experience of writing for an audience as in a play.

“The Figure of Venus in ‘Spring’” gives a strong, complex identity to the otherwise objectified and beautiful figure of Venus in Botticelli’s La Primavera. The poem focuses on Venus’ body language and hand gesture, searching for meaning behind her actions rather than her artificial looks—analyzing actions in lieu of the stagnant, sexualized male gaze. The first line, though describing her as a “simple lady,” gives her depth as she is “full of heavy thought.” Women of the nineteenth century were not accepted as intellectuals—a reason for Bradley and Cooper’s mask of “Michael Field,” for fear of being rejected as their true selves in the literary world. Here, they give Venus thoughts, and in doing so, contradict the preface claiming objectivity as they subtly impose their feminist views.

In “Venus and Mars,” Bradley and Cooper describe Venus as “in her sovereign place,” giving power to the usually submissive female figure. The poem works to imply that Venus has brought Mars into a submissive state, rather than the other way around: “Yet her eyes are alert; they search and weigh / The god, supine, who fell from her caress / When love had had its sway.” Venus’ sexuality has given her power over the god of war. By imposing such a narrative upon the painting, Bradley and Cooper break away from their claims of objectivity yet again. Rather, their subjective feminist views come in to play in order to present Venus as a natural sovereign to the usually almighty god of war.

Dorian’s Decadence and Desire

When Dorian Gray rejects and verbally abuses Sybil Vane after her one (and only, may I add) horrendous performance, he declares that she has killed his love: “I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadow of art….You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name” (85). In short, Sybil’s bad acting in the role of Juliet ripped the rose colored glasses off of Dorian Gray’s vision of her. Without her artistry, and her decadence, she is nothing to him. He really drives his cruelty home with the repeated use of “never,” which is really just very dramatic for the moment—afterwards, he still thinks of her and even contemplates returning, but it is these words that deliver Sybil to death’s door.

Much like Dorian is objectified by Basil and Lord Henry, the objectification of Sybil Vane is even more severe. For Dorian, she was just an object of artistry and desire. For Basil and Lord Henry, when they see her, she is only a pretty thing, and she is not even described as human to them: “the curves of her throat were the curves of a white lily. Her hands seemed to be made of cool ivory” (81). This objectification of the woman places further emphasis on the idea of materiality and decadence in the Victorian era, as Sybil here is placed among the men’s collection of exotic objects—alongside the Japanese tea table and Georgian urn, as well as Dorian himself (unbeknownst to him). With the decline of Queen Victoria’s reign, the people of England developed all consuming anxiety about the state of their affairs, looking to the accumulation of wealth and beautiful things to drown their feelings. Now lacking intellect and genius, Sybil no longer upholds Dorian Gray’s upper class standards of decadence, despite her remaining beauty. Theater itself is a decadent industry, and Dorian even expressed his desire to exploit Sybil’s image as an actress with his own fancier, more refined theater production geared towards a higher class audience. Without theater, Sybil lacks any valid substance for Dorian, who loves to collect pretty, decadent things.

This scene of The Picture of Dorian Gray relates to Lionel Johnson’s poem “A Decadent’s Lyric” in the subject matter and form. Decadence is demonstrated in the poem through alliteration and rhyme, as well as the repetition of “she and I.” Dorian’s dismissal of Sybil is decadent in its word choice, repeating “never” and using words with grander meanings such as “marvellous,” “genius,” and “intellect.” The same can be said for Johnson’s poem with the alliterations of “ardour and agony” and “desire, delirium, delight,” all of which are strong words on their own.

The “she” of the poem is attributed to a sense of performance, just as Sybil is an actress: “Her body music is: and ah, / The accords of lute and viola!” Like Sybil, without the artistry and musicality that this woman exudes, there is no performance, and there is no sex. It bolsters the act with the idea of romance. Johnson’s poem begins with the idea of the “very joy of shame,” as sexual acts were often seen as immoral at the time, but goes on to justify such thinking in the idea of decadence—if something is beautiful, it’s okay to indulge. Selfishness is justified as it demonstrates one’s appreciation for art, which is a major aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray overall. Dorian is really quite selfish in his disposal of Sybil Vane, as he does so without any sympathy for her feelings and merely scowls at her. His foul treatment of Sybil is validated by both Dorian and Lord Henry, who claims that such behavior, which resulted in her suicide, returned her to her art form by aligning her own life with a melodrama to mirror that of Shakespeare’s Juliet.

In both Johnson’s poem and Wilde’s character of Dorian Gray, decadence is used as a form of legitimization for one’s shameful actions.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Ledger and Lockhurst’s “The Victorian Age” focuses on the feelings of anxiety and ambiguity in the Victorian era. Be it intentional or not, Stoker’s Dracula essentially embodies this mindset, particularly in the way Stoker chose to end his story. In comparison to the intense  suspicious atmosphere beginning with Jonathan Harker, then with Lucy, and finally the men’s subsequent vampiric hunt, the culmination of it all feels rather disappointing, or anti-climatic. Count Dracula’s death is uneventful, as he merely turns to dust in the snow: “It was like a miracle; but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight. I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there” (Stoker 401). There is no bloody ordeal with the cutting off his head (and neither is he properly stabbed in the heart with a stake?). The vampire’s body is even so old and so ready for release from its evil vampiric form that it disappears into thin air. A final feeling of horror remains in the back of the mind—is it possible Dracula was able to turn into dust himself with the setting of the sun at the exact moment Jonathan and Mr. Morris managed to “fatally” stab him? Mina uses objective words to describe Dracula himself, allowing for no humane identification of the monster with the “body” and its “dissolution.” Not long after, Quincey Morris is given a proper death as he “died, a gallant gentleman” (Stoker 401). Despite Dracula’s demonic characteristics, however, he is able to achieve what Mina believes to be peace in his “dissolution,” or to put it more humanely, death.

Mina talks of happiness in the idea that this horrible monster could have found peace in death like her Lucy did, just as Ledger and Lockhurst pinpoint one cause for Victorian anxiety surrounding their faith: what happens to us after death? The newly established idea of time in the fin de siecle is the source of this anxiety: “On the one hand, there was not enough of it: the accelerated pace of change kept people too busy to assimilate the torrent of new ideas and technologies….Victorians felt they had little opportunity for reflection and often took scant comfort in it” (1055-1056). “Little opportunity of reflection” may go on to mean the purpose of life and what comes afterwards—what we are all living towards.

This fear of not having the chance to reflect on one’s life stretches to everyone in Stoker’s novel. It occurs when Mina is in danger of becoming a vampire, as time becomes more and more of the essence: “You are but a mortal woman. Time is now to be dreaded—since once he put that mark upon your throat” (Stoker 334). Even the vampires, who are caught between life and death, are given an opportunity to reflect. Lucy Westenra is freed from the shackles of vampirism in her “true death” by the hands of Arthur and takes on a “calm that was to reign forever” (Stoker 231). Though less explicit, Count Dracula, despite the fact that he has acted as the ultimate antagonist of the novel, receives the same fate. He is freed and reduced to dust, and now Mina, Dr. Seward, Van Helsing, and Arthur are all freed of their anxiety of what may come of the Count. Speaking for them all, Mina finds satisfaction with both the dissolution of their dangerous enemy and what comes next.

Interview with Count Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Dracula places emphasis on the stark divide between good and evil, especially in the beginning of the novel with Jonathan Harker and Count Dracula. Told through Jonathan’s eyes, the story creates a very one-sided image of the Count as the living embodiment of pure evil and fear. Today, vampires have a more mysterious reputation in our pop culture—they are seen as brooding and misunderstood immortal beings. Take the blockbuster film Interview with the Vampire, for example, which graced the world with Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and an incredibly young Kirsten Dunst as vampires.

There is a stark contrast of good and evil in this film too, between Tom Cruise’s Lestat and Brad Pitt’s Louis, but this contrast works more as a display of Louis’ humanity despite his vampiric form. Louis makes us sympathetic to him, as he is portrayed as a vampire who is capable of love and care. Before his re-birth, he was just widowed and in grieving despair. He does not forget this, and he comes to care for the little girl Claudia, his accidental creation. He strives to protect her from her youthful, unstoppable desire for human blood, but inevitably fails and is forced to watch her die by his own kind, sucking all the passion out of him. Like Dracula, the drama of Interview with the Vampire unfolds like a diary entry, but through the vampire Louis’ eyes. Narrating, he implores the audience to feel his pain. We see Louis struggle to come to terms with his loss of his human life-he even refuses to feed on human flesh for a time, opting for rats and animals instead. The vampire Louis straddles the fine line of good and evil.

Stoker gives us no context to Count Dracula—why he is the way he is, or where he comes from. The image of the vampire today has grown to accommodate people’s want for a dramatic story, complete with a dramatic transformation yet more relatable characters. People want to be entertained, but also crave connection. By the end of the movie, we feel bad for Brad Pitt and are scared for him as Lestat suddenly re-emerges to haunt him in the 1990s. Reading Dracula after having watched this movie this summer (it was entertainingly bad), I find myself wanting to know more about the character of Count Dracula. I want to be able to see SOME redeeming quality of humanity in him (or maybe I am just crazy?). If we had the Count’s background story, would he read more as Brad Pitt’s tortured Louis? Today, the lines between good and evil aren’t as black and white as they may have seemed in the nineteenth century.

It is also worth noting the casting choices made in this movie. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are well-known for their looks, and each has been named Sexiest Man Alive at least once. Kirsten Dunst is also known for her beauty, which she evidently harbored even as a young girl. The pure beauty of all the vampires in this movie (luscious long-haired Antonio Banderas also makes an appearance) is important regarding the idea of sexuality in Dracula, as in the scene of Jonathan’s encounter with the three vampiric women, and the mention of Lucy Westerna’s exaggerated beauty in death and re-birth as a vampire. For Stoker, the emphasis on beauty is placed only on his women, as he describes Count Dracula with animalistic features: “his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin….The backs of his hands…were rather coarse —broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm” (25). Pop culture’s vampires, however, are all rendered beautiful no matter their gender. Vampires are thought to be sexy (women AND men, now) and Interview with the Vampire corroborates that. In fact, how would that change Stoker’s Count Dracula if he had described him less beastly? Would it take away the sense of horror? Or does the idea of a beautiful seductive vampire give an even more horrific tone, since they look more like us?

Dracula now clearly defines the term “vampire,” including the outward appearance and the methods for keeping them at bay—garlic, stake through the heart, crucifixes, beheading, coffins. In today’s society, however, there is a much thinner line between good and evil, as there is a growing fascination with the study of humanity and what exactly makes people tick. Interview with the Vampire juxtaposes the classic gothic tale Dracula and raises questions of the meaning of Stoker’s story in a new context of the twenty-first century.

(Note: Interview with the Vampire is a book by Anne Rice, which the movie is an adaptation of—I have not read the book)

Dual Identities on the Island of Dr. Moreau

“It may seem a strange contradiction in me—I cannot explain the fact—but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes, and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realised again the fact of its humanity” (72).

The people of Britain in the late Victorian era were simultaneously caught between the feelings of fear and courage, or between both the romantic excitement and the anxiety of new innovations in the Industrial Revolution. In this passage, the narrator speaks of such contradiction as he recalls observing one of the Beast People, the increasingly animalistic Leopard Man, he had cornered in a scene of chase. The words “creature” and “animal” juxtapose the following “human” and “humanity,” further placing emphasis on the “strange contradiction” the narrator mulls over to the reader. There is also the use of “perfectly animal” and “imperfectly human,” along with the idea of “attitude” versus “face.” All of these opposing words in this passage are essential to the root of the novel—questions of identity and place. In this passage, Prendick is FINALLY able to see things the correct way, and how wrong these creatures are being treated by Dr. Moreau. It is fitting that it takes him to see the Leopard Man, whom he is about to shoot and kill, in his animal identity to realize the Leopard Man’s humanity in relation to his own. Though he has finally recognized the humanity in this creature, the Leopard Man is still an “other” to Prendick—still an “it” and not a “he.” The Leopard Man’s identity remained dual until his death.

With the words “I cannot explain the fact,” Prendick admits his own uncertainty. The phrase, which is separated from the rest of the sentence using dashes, pops out to the reader on the page. This feeling of uncertainty goes along with the idea of contradiction in the Victorian age, and a widespread emotion among people in the emergence of new technologies and innovations. It is the same feeling of uncertainty that people felt towards Time. The Longman Anthology of British Literature discusses the people’s increasing struggle with Time during the end of the nineteenth century, a period which has also been labelled the “Age of Doubt.” Many felt there was too much time, especially with the creation of train time tables and such, but many also felt there was too little time as innovation and technology began to make everything move so much faster. Prendick says he spent a year on the island. A year full of fearful discoveries and innovations on the island of Dr. Moreau, yet he “professed to recall nothing” for the space of a year. As for the notion of the Leopard Man’s, and his fellow Beast People’s, humanity, their artificial yet true humanity discovered by Prendick in this passage continued to haunt him for years following his stint on the island. And in the safety of his home, Time turned even more slowly than before.

While Prendick is recounting the story, he admits to us, his readers, that he is also still trying to work out the meaning of everything he encountered on the island. He is not quite sure of who he is.  Like his fellow Victorians, is still uncertain what to make of all the innovation of Dr. Moreau. Though he claims he is disgusted by such experiments, he is clearly in awe to some degree as well. Just as the Beast People were stuck between human and animal forms of identity, Prendick now finds himself distanced from his fellow men—highlighting the question of identity that come up all throughout The Island of Dr. Moreau and especially this particular passage, which points such a duality out to the reader.