Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

Author: John H. Watson, M.D.

Be desirable–just not too desirable

In Christina Rossetti’s “A Triad,” the first woman represents promiscuousness–a trait that was deplored by Victorians for its sexual implications. She, like the three Vampire women from Dracula with whom she has the color “crimson” in common, was too sexually aggressive for Victorian society, too forward with her vivacity and desires, and therefore “shamed herself in love” (18).  This is just like Lydia and Kitty, the two flirtatious sisters from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Lydia ends up bringing scandal and shame to her family when she runs off with a soldier who has no intention of marrying her. The implication–which is never stated because it was such “unpleasant” business–was that they were sleeping together out of wedlock. This “shame” is also linked with the muse, the titular woman in “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning. Her husband, the narrator, a very powerful man of an ancient bloodline, grew jealous, as he believed she was having an affair, though he had no proof. He used words to describe her such as “alive,” “depth,” “passion,” “spot of joy” (blushing cheeks), “flush,” and “blush” (Browning 1). Most of these words have a connection to the color red, which, like in Dracula and “A Triad”, represents promiscuity and is reminiscent of sex, or they have to do with passion and vivacity. Like the first woman in “A Triad,” the Duchess “shamed herself” (Rossetti 18), and it ultimately led to her demise, though there was no proof of her affair; it is entirely possible that her husband was possessive and paranoid. Victorian society condemned and rejected promiscuous or forward women as they did not conform like the rest of society. Those who do not conform cannot be controlled, and therefore are made into pariahs. If they are social outcasts, they cannot influence others.

Libido in Dracula

High libido—or any amount of sexual energy save for that which was necessary for reproduction, and then only between a married couple—was severely condemned by Victorian society. According to Heather Marie Ward in Psychosexualism in Victorian Literature, 19th century society placed “immense importance on semen,” so that it was considered “more important in the male body than blood” (53). Semen was thought to be the bodily fluid that helped “men maintain their physical and mental strength” (Ward 53) and loss of that bodily fluid led to health defects in the Victorian male. Thus, sexual relations were heavily discouraged. This sort of atmosphere did not allow for much exploration of oneself or one’s sexual preferences. People were forced to turn to literature and the arts as a sort of escapism from the uptight propriety of Victorian society. Dracula was revolutionary in its perverse nature. The first blatantly sexual scene in the novel was Jonathan’s twisted encounter with the three vampiric women, in which Stoker placed an emphasis on body parts (“voluptuous lips…red lips…human lips…arched neck…went on her knees” (Stoker 45)) and phrases (longing… wicked, burning desire…sweetness…coquettishly…agony of delight…voluptuousness…licked her lips…lower went her head” (Stoker 45)) that are reminiscent of sex. Such overt imagery was not usually present in the literature of the day, and understandably caught the attention of Victorian readers. Second was Dracula’s rape of Mina, in which he demanded her silence, threatening that if she so much as “made a sound,” he would “dash [Jonathan’s] brains out” before her eyes. Dracula forced Mina to exchange blood with him. Strangely, though, he forces her to “swallow some of the blood” from an open “vein in his breast,” a perverse inversion of breastfeeding, and therefore a perverse inversion of gender roles, which seems to demonize the exploration of masculinity and femininity. Sex and sexuality were grossly misunderstood and underdiscussed by Victorians, and even by Stoker. The Athenaeum review of Dracula suggested it was a book solely for the lower class to be reading. However, it addressed an important topic—sex—vital to the human experience, which the upper classes would not deign to discuss.  

The “Evils” of Feminine Sexuality

In Dracula, the incessant conflict between good and evil manifests itself in the form of female sexuality. Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra, being chaste and pure in the eyes of Victorians, represent the good, while the “trinity” of vampire women represent evil.

Mina and Lucy embody values which have been regarded by Victorians as proper for women of society. Both are innocent and—in the beginning, at least—uncorrupted by the apparent evils of the world. Both women are devoted to the men to whom they are bound: Mina “helping to nurse” (Stoker 109) Jonathan back to health, and learning shorthand so as to attend him at work, and Lucy, looking forward to settling “down soberly into [an] old married [woman]” (Stoker 64). Thus, these women are deemed virtuous, or “good” by Victorian standards. They are not a threat to anyone as of yet.

The three vampiric women are a completely different story. All three are “voluptuous,” “coquettish,” and cause a feeling of “longing” and a “burning desire” within Jonathan (Stoker 43). Stoker provides ample imagery to describe their lips, their figures, and the eroticism that they exude. They are threatening—to men, and more specifically to Jonathan. This experience was more sexually thrilling for Jonathan than anything he had experienced with Mina, or ever would in her present chaste state. Jonathan lost his head, and therefore considered the women “evil,” as he had no power over them. Instead, they possessed the power over him.

The balance of good and evil begins to shift as Lucy is corrupted by Dracula. The reader can see her subtle transformation from virtuousness to sinfulness. She becomes more forward with her sexuality, asking Arthur to kiss her in a “soft, voluptuous voice,” which until now, had “never been heard from her lips” (Stoker 172).

The novel seems warn Victorian men to avoid women who are open and comfortable with their sexuality, for fear that–through no fault of their own–she will force them to lose control over themselves. And when men cannot control themselves, they cannot exert power over women.

Fear of the Working Class in “A Terribly Strange Bed”

“We had come to see blackguards…the English stranger was going to break the bank” (Collins 29).

I was first drawn to this passage because of the story’s strange fixation with silence. As I did more of a close read, however, I noticed other word clusters and binaries which suggest something more than just eerie quiet. Collins repeats the phrase “never spoke” three times when describing specific guests of the gambling hall. Other words, such as “mute,” “quiet,” “whispered” and “staring” (because when one is staring, he is not speaking) are distributed throughout the passage. But there is so much more to unpack, which leads me to believe that the haunting silence simply adds to the aesthetic rather than being Faulkner’s main concern, as was my original thought. After all, what about silence agitates the Victorian and not me?

I think this has more to do with the people who produce the unnatural quiet than the lack of sound itself. Collins’ alliteration (“…the flabby fat-face, pimply player who pricked his piece of pasteboard perseveringly…”) draws negative attention to the type of client the gambling house attracts. Faulkner describes the hall’s patrons as being “thin,” “haggard,” “dirty,” “sunken,” “wrinkled,” “desperate,” “hungry,” and as having “sunken…vulture eyes.” Collins’ word choice in describing the scene (“spirits,” “atmosphere,” “weird,” “strange,” “superstitious”) is oddly reminiscent of the supernatural–that to which the lower class Victorians were notorious for subscribing. “Blackguard,” a rude or unscrupulous person, repeats twice, again noting the type of people who haunt the gambling hall. Faulkner describes a man who merely watches with his greedy “vulture eyes” as the other gamblers play. He cannot participate, however, because he has gambled away “his last sou.” This desolation, juxtaposed with Faulkner’s apparent luck at winning (the word “won” repeats four times in one sentence) “incredibly,” “prodigiously,” suggests that success in a seedy gambling house such as this one is exceedingly rare. Or, rather, it suggests that success–in a more general sense–among the people who frequent the hall is abnormal. Luck does not often visit the members of low society. Faulkner tells Mr. Kerby that he had “entered the place to laugh,” but that the “spectacle before [him] was something to weep over.” “Tragedy” repeats twice, and words such as “horrible,” “depression” and “unfortunate” are scattered about the passage. I think that the immediate disgust Faulkner has for the patrons is a facade for a deeper feeling among the high and middle class Victorians. This was the height of the Industrial Revolution, and while it was also the Age of Reform, living conditions for the poor, working class citizens of Europe had hit rock bottom. Though Faulkner does not sympathize with the regulars, he fears them because they evoke a feeling of guilt from his subconscious. Some, when they see a homeless person on the side of the road, feel anger or repugnance. But this revulsion masks subconscious feelings of guilt and sorrow. We cannot but feel guilty and remorseful for being better off, and I think that this is what the passage is hiding.

“He sails to-night from Liverpool” (Braddon 95).

“He sails to-night from Liverpool…It isn’t like George Talboys” (Braddon 95).

In this passage, Captain Maldon tries to convince Robert Audley that George had just left for Australia. I think Braddon included it with the intention of the reader to become suspicious of George’s father-in-law and to come to the conclusion that he was lying about George’s disappearance. After all, Robert said that it “isn’t like George Talboys” to embark on a long journey “without even a change of clothes” or “word to…his most intimate friend” (Braddon 95). Captain Maldon seemed “anxious” to soothe “any indignation” Robert might have felt against his claims, suggesting that perhaps George would “write to [him] from Liverpool” (95). Using phrases such as “sick of the world,” “never to return” and “grave” Maldon implied that George might even have been contemplating suicide, perhaps trying to convince Robert to leave the matter alone (Braddon 95). He consistently offered excuses to support his lie, citing his daughter’s death as the reason for George’s strange behavior. Robert asserted that though George was miserable, he was in his right mind. This exchange harkens back to page 48 when Robert noticed Captain Maldon was “in a great hurry to get rid of [his] son-in-law” (Braddon). It seems to me that both Captain Maldon and Lady Audley have something against George, and had reason to want him dead or gone. It was confirmed on page 171 that Captain Maldon was in fact lying. Captain Maldon, a very poor and greedy man, would do anything to keep the tax collectors at bay. I think that Lucy bribed him with little Georgey’s watch to cover up for whatever she did to George.

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