Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

Author: solongandthanksforallthefish

This isn’t what we meant by “Knights need to be chivalrous”

Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott  (not to be confused with an onion lady) is one of his more famous poems, and another one that touches on Arthurian mythology. While not directly about the Knights of Camelot, their most famous knight, Lancelot is central to the heart of this story.

It is because of Lancelot that the titular lady, who is trapped in a tower unable to leave or look at the outside world, ends up turning her head in a moment of weakness and giving into the curse, trying to follow the knight back to Camelot.

It is kind of interesting that this temptation happens because of Lancelot, as later Arthurian stories all have his affair with Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, be one of the major reasons for the fall of Camelot. In particular this reminds of me of one such modern adaptation: Fate/Zero’s rendition of Lancelot and Arthur and how this affair happens.

For context, King Arthur in Fate is a woman and thus didn’t really care for Guinevere romantically. She was also emotionally distant and only cared about the outside world and the wellbeing of Britain and Guinevere turned her attention to Lancelot in much the same way The Lady of Shalott did. In both these stories, a woman is tempted by the knight, a symbol of loyalty and Christian values, but in almost opposite ways. Fate’s Guinvere is tired of Arthur’s obsession with the outside world and seeks away from it, while the Lady of Shalott wants to head into the outside world and is lured into it.

Both these stories share the same values of female temptation and how it brought about their respective ruins (Guinvere helping cause the fall of Camelot, the Lady of Shalott’s death by curse), and both have one of the most important knights in Arthurian mythology who is normally a symbol of virtue cause this. I found it very interesting that both stories have very similar themes despite being very wildly far apart in terms of time period and medium, and just goes to show how influential and varied a broad work of fiction like Arthurian mythos be interpreted by others.


Fig 1: Lancelot from Fate/Zero. Hard to blame either lady for being tempted if he was actually this good looking.

On the Count’s Presence (and the lack thereof)

What’s so funny about the book Dracula is that the titular character is largely absent for the most part of the novel.

If you think about it, he’s barely around in the book: his presence, character and eccentricity (and status as a monster) are established early on in the book, but his main atrocities are the reason we and the characters fear him. His conversion of Lucy into a vampire, the massacre of the Demeter’s crew and his attempt to convert Mina are some of the main evils he’s done, and almost all of it happens off-screen.

We are made aware of his evils through second-hand account mostly, and we are built up an image of a true plotting mastermind but he’s scarcely seen throughout the book, and his final scene doesn’t even have him truly awake and interacting with the rest of the cast. Yet despite this, Dracula is the premier horror character. Stoker ended up creating a modern myth that everyone in the world can claim some knowledge to know of, Dracula is iconic and a symbol as the vampire and a face of the horror genre itself. But why is he so venerated as a character?

Well, obvious reasons like vampires are cool and badass aside, let’s examine his cultural impact on the Victorians. We’ve talked a lot about Dracula being the stand-in for a Occidental evil that Western imperialism was being made aware of — the rising up of immigrants after the effects of colonization, especially by the British — and how this plays into a lot of Victorian fears. The Victorians were staunchly afraid of the foreigners coming into their country, and how different they were in looks and culture. They didn’t like any of that. What made Dracula so effective by being a relatively absentee monster is what made this fear possible in the first place. The idea of this hypothetical foreigner who exists, whose superstitions and beliefs were dangerous because they’re different from yours, is definitely a kind of scary one. I mean, it persists into modern day thinking as well, with people being afraid of immigrants for a similar kind of anxiety.

Dracula as a character plays into those anxieties and his perpetrated evils only make the anxieties stand out even more, and thus it’s important to Victorian readers he gets vanquished. The final battle being against Gypsies is even more so apparent, that’s a literal battle against foreigners by the Western imperialist cast.

In summary, Dracula works so well as a character not because he’s actually scary, but because his actions played well into Victorian fears of a potential foreign danger to their nation.

A Foreign Vampire Walks Into A Country….

One of the overarching themes that’s been presented so far in the novel is the idea of a conflict between the East and West. The main representation of this comes between Jonathan Harker, a British protagonist and his allies whom are also all British or American, versus Dracula, someone residing in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Europe.

“The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.” (Stoker Ch 1) This line right at the beginning of the novel shows us how distinctly Stoker wants us to acknowledge the differences in the East and West. When Harker is in Transylvania, he enters a world of unfamiliarity marked with superstition and darkness, it is there he first deals with the horror that is Dracula the vampire, and he is warned before to go back and given protection in the form of superstitious religions charms that he reluctantly accepts.

But upon returning to Britain as a setting, we are given the idea of how much purer it is. We know that modernity and civilization exist here, and we are made to think we are away from the danger — until of course, the monster himself arrives, and he brings with him death. The ship Demeter loses all its lives on its arrival, and the language used shows how Dracula brings with him the Eastern darkness from earlier: “Woke up from few minutes’ sleep by hearing a cry, seemingly outside my port. Could see nothing in fog. Rushed on deck, and ran against mate. Tells me heard cry and ran, but no sign of man on watch. One more gone. Lord, help us! Mate says we must be past Straits of Dover, as in a moment of fog lifting he saw North Foreland, just as he heard the man cry out. If so we are now off in the North Sea, and only God can guide us in the fog, which seems to move with us; and God seems to have deserted us.” (Stoker Ch 8)

And lastly, Dracula’s own heritage that he discusses with Jonathan while trying to learn about British culture.  He discusses his ethnic history and how they conquered, a plain contradiction as far as Western history is concerned, where the conquerors are the Victorians and their British Empire. The idea we are given is that Dracula is a stark spit in the face of Western culture here, and that his ways, despite being almost similar are in fact one of evil and detrimental to Western culture.

So maybe in essence, this dichotomy tell us something about the British at the time, and how at the sunset of the British Empire, British people were afraid of losing their power and being colonized themselves, and Dracula’s arrival in British territory and how he starts his rampage just leads into that idea even more.

Maybe even the Victorians were feeling a little Brexit in them since before Brexit was even a thing, who knew?

Get Smarter, Mr. Watson, You’re a Bad Biographer And Need To Understand Foreign Culture Better

‘ “It’s a swamp adder!” cried Holmes; the deadliest snake in India. He has died within ten seconds of being bitten.” ‘ (Doyle 57)

The Conan Doyle story, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, is one of the more wackier Sherlock Holmes plotlines. Wackier in the sense of how the murder is perpetrated anyway, where an elaborate plan by a doctor to steal his deceased wife’s fortune from his stepdaughters involves placing them in a room with a fake bellpull connected a ventilator for a snake to come down and bite them to death.

The snake is described as looking like a “peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles” (Doyle 57), hence the aforementioned title. But the bit that comes after, where Holmes declares immediately it is a swamp adder, is the interesting bit.

Now here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as a swamp adder. It’s such a seemingly inconsequential bit to this story, and even more inconsequential to analyze, but it does offer an interesting perspective into Victorian mindset that isn’t there at first glance.

The snake hails from India, or so Holmes claims. Except no such snake exists, and it’s probably some kind of cobra, given the description and its poisonous nature and the likelihood of a dangerous snake from India being a cobra. And this is interesting because Victorians were afraid of foreign things, and didn’t understand cultures, and with the Industrial Revolution’s boom things came in from around the world as the British expanded their territory. But places like India were seen as strange and foreign, and the average Victorian would’ve had little-to-no idea about any “swamp adders” or such, and would thus be remarkably frightened at the prospect of such a creature coming in, because they couldn’t understand it or the place it is from, despite the influx of new cultures coming in from colonization.

While Watson might not actually be at fault for the claim, and neither is Holmes since he’s the one who actually identifies it despite the title of this post suggesting otherwise, but from a Watsonian standpoint, i.e an in-universe one,  while the swamp adder is a fact and knowledge to them, from a Doylist standpoint, i.e from a author’s out-of-universe perspective, it is made up and obviously created to inspire foreign shock in readers. I mean, if the fact Dr. Roylott also owned a baboon and a cheetah weren’t exotic enough for readers…

Since Victorian fiction was serialized in periodicals, and coming off the sensation novel genre now becoming the basis for detective fiction like Sherlock Holmes, many of the same tropes  are still there. There are references to Roylott having a “temper approaching mania” (Doyle 42) being described as hereditary in males and exacerbated by his stay in the tropics, something similar to claims made in Lady Audley’s Secret which in itself talks about how Victorians thought madness was hereditary, and the idea of a foreign land where foreign things happen just ties into Victorians slowly learning about things they don’t understand.

All in all, Victorians enjoyed their sensationalism, and Sherlock Holmes and his strange cases were great for them because it was always going to arouse those feelings, and with layers of things like exotic foreign culture just meant more spice to the sensationalism.

“What’s in a painting” – or how we see past initial appearances of a character

“The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of colouring were there; but I suppose the painter had quaint medieval monstrosities until his brain grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something the aspect of a beautiful fiend” (Braddon 107)

This little passage is strikingly intriguing: in the context of the scene, it involves Robert and George discovering a painting done of Lucy Graham, now the new Lady Audley, whose painting is described above by our yet unknown narrator in much contrast to how she is originally described. Early on in the novel, Lucy Graham is portrayed as someone “lovely and innocent”(Braddon 49) and now she is described as resembling a “beautiful fiend” in her painting.

As far as history goes, there has been a pervasive idea that a portrait contains a part of someone’s soul, and thus offers a glimpse into their true nature. Contemporary literature at the time like Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess poem and Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray all played around with the idea of a painting being thematic to express a look into someone’s true character. Similarly, up till now, Lady Audley’s duality has been alluded towards sparingly, but made more explicit with the notion of her being a hidden monster, that a painter had been able to look past her surface and into her inner thoughts, and exposed her for what she is.

The imagery described, references to “quaint medieval monstrosities” gives us a visual idea of what might be running through the painter’s head as he worked on it, and the description of him becoming ‘bewildered’ shows strong language that wants us, the reader, to understand the growing horror of the painter as it dawned on him, that Lady Audley was not who she really was.

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