Victorians Can’t Say Anything: Change My Mind

The topics of Victorian sexuality and class difference are distinctly interwoven but are little discussed in plain terms. However, passages from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, reveal the unsaid tensions between Mr. Franklin Blake and Rosanna Spearman. 

To frame my discussion of this class conflicted, unrequited love story, I turn to Rosanna’s letter to Franklin Blake after her death. The narrative perspective is framed from the bottom up, where rejection is received by the servant, not exacted by the gentleman, upholding gendered structures of power in the home. The nightgown is similarly uncovered and received into Rosanna’s possession when she investigates his chambers and launches an intimate point of contact between the two: “I undressed, and put the nightgown on me. You had worn it – and I had another little moment of pleasure in wearing it after you” (Collins 328). This is one of the very few (if any) points in Victorian novels where a woman is visibly naked, and even when she redresses, she does so for her own pleasure. Alone, the sexual pleasure she takes in the nightgown is secret and forbidden, as the word “little” in her confession could be read as the “little death,” or a codified confession of female orgasm. 

There are two main points of contact which make up Rosanna’s delight in wearing the nightshirt making contact with her skin. The first is the constant concern with its stains, plural, on the inside of the garment which must be hidden.  Not only is there the paint smear which could convict him of theft, the overt secret, but also the multiple seminal stains on the inside of the shirt. These are ghosts of past pleasure next to her skin belonging to a man whom she could never sexually engage with. Her use of his nightshirt as a sexual object is the closest she could come to that forbidden act.  A second key feature is the nametag embroidered on the inside of the neck. With his name against her skin, he becomes part of the whole of the nightshirt. Covering her, this text engages in the language of domination and subordination present in both a sexual relationship, but also in the class system that negates the possibility for such a sexual relationship to occur. 

Later in the narrative when Franklin Blake finds Rosanna’s confession and the nightshirt, his language of dismay is also sexualized. He states, “I had penetrated the secret which the quicksand had kept from every other living creature” (Collins 314). Mr. Franklin Blake is at the heart of Rosanna’s sacred place, the Shivering Sands, uncovering the secret of her passion. The very setting establishes an intimate connection between the two, and the fact that he has used the word “penetrated” to describe how he dug up the lock box from the quicksand only increases the tension. Finally, with the nightgown in his hands, reunited with his body in the privacy of solitude, the connection is finalized as an intimate link by touch. 

On the next page, there Franklin Blake has another interesting thought: “Of what was said between us on the beach, I have not the faintest recollection” (Collins 315). Though the recipient of this proposition is meant to be Betteredge, it also holds implications for the silent connection now established between him and Rosanna. Her influence, or ghost, resides in the Shivering Sands, as proposed upon her introduction as a character in the novel, and she now descends upon him as an undefinable inkling of the social forces that forbid their relationship. Franklin Blake places the clause of having a sensation of an external force before admitting his own ignorance to its implications. The ideology of preserving class structures by forbidding sexual encounters between them completely escapes Franklin Blake, it shows how deeply internalized those values of separation are in upper class Victorian society. Though he is thoroughly ignorant, Rosanna was bitterly aware of these social demands. 

What Do You Do When Petrarch’s Ghost is Haunting Your Gothic Novel?

In Avery Gordon’s article titled, “Ghostly Metters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination” they argue, “In haunting, organized forces and systematic structures that appear removed from us make their impact felt in everyday life.” Though there are literal ghosts in Great Expectations, there are also remnants of English poetics that haunt Dickens’ novel. 

The relationship between Pip and Estella very closely resembles the Petrarchan casting of Phillip Sidney’s characters in his sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella,“star-lover” and “star.” Sidney’s male narrator is infatuated with the lady beloved, praising her graces, and fixating particularly on her heart and eyes. Unfortunately, the beloved is cold, distant and unattainable. This same relationship exists between Pip and Estella, influenced by Miss Havisham. By her insistence, Pip focuses entirely on Estella, praising her beauty aloud to a completely unreceptive audience. Contemplating in silence, he is often completely convinced that they are destined. In his obsessive thoughts, Pip too is a Petrarchan solitary wanderer, “Of all [his] thoughts hath neither stop nor start / But only [Es]Stella’s eyes and [Es]Stella’s heart” (Sidney 350). 

In Great Expectations, there are many examples of Pip’s growing infatuation, but what is most interesting is that Estella herself informs Pip of her heart’s condition. She says, “‘You must know’…condescending to me as a brilliant and beautiful woman might, ‘that I have no heart – if that has anything to do with memory…I have no softness there” (Dickens 237). While Estella tries to inform Pip that her heart is unavailable, Pip is once again distracted by her beauty. His interjection, “brilliant and beautiful,” once again recalls the same praise present in Sidney’s lovers: Estella’s beauty shines brilliantly star-like at the center of his attention.  

The mention of memory and the heart is also interesting. Petrarch, who is the model for Sidney’s sonnets, is particularly concerned with the heart because during his age, scientific literature conflated the heart with the brain’s functions. If Estella is convinced that her heart holds no capacity for softness and memory, then she casts herself as the distant beloved. Pip, on the other hand, as the lover, does remember and remains obsessively warm towards her. In another of Sidney’s sonnets, his speaker ponders, “But she, most fair, most cold, made him therein take his flight / To my close heart, where while come firebrands he did lay, / He burnt unawares his wings, and cannot fly away” (Sidney 350). Despite the beloved’s rejection of love, he flies to the lover’s heart and memory to be kept safe.  

However, in love’s flight to the heart, he burns his wings on the lover’s infatuation with the beloved and is imprisoned. The same is true for Pip: his obsession with Estella despite her repeated rejections is dangerous to him emotionally but only makes his love stronger. Because injured love cannot leave Pip’s heart, he too, is untraditionally haunted. Dickens’ novel is concerned with types of literacy, so it is only appropriate that his Gothic fiction should be haunted by his literary predecessor’s legacy. 

Hareton: Nelly’s Definitive Proof that the English Colonialism Works

There are multiple Gothic elements at work in Chapter 19 of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which undermine the striking tranquility of  Hareton’s education. Describing Hareton’s transformation, Nelly states, “His honest, warm, intellectual nature shook off rapidly the clouds of ignorance and degradation in which it had been bred” (Brontë 323). In this passage, the key tension exists between the words “nature” and “bred.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines nature as “physical strength or constitution,” while bred means “to produce offspring” (Oxford English Dictionary Online 1b, 1a). In using these two words in such proximity, one must consider the implicit argument between birth order and eventual merit of personality. Considering that Hareton’s father, Heathcliff, was appropriated into a relatively wealthy lifestyle after his low-class birth, and the pair were kept in similar ignorance during their shared childhoods displays Heathcliff’s affinity for maintaining ignorance.  The implication of the lines is that his birth order does not impact the ability to become “civilized” by the Victorian standard. A valuable British citizen emerges as the dominant identity once Hareton is assimilated into Englishness through a British education.  

There is a clearly implicit anxiety that rises within the Victorian time period of the national “Other,” which the novel subtly expresses through extremely characteristic imagery.  Nelly emphasizes that Hareton’s ignorance was dispelled like clouds. The same imagery is used throughout the novel to describe the tumultuous and mysterious moors between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange: a threatening, liminal space full of uncertainty. Similarly, Hareton signifies a questionable entity because he has a foreign countenance and, particularly distressing, unknown origin.  This micro image of the British colonial system testifies to Roger Luckhurst’s theory that the gothic as a genre “pulses in sympathy with the rhythms of expansion and crisis in the British empire” with a distinct fear of “returning us to a savage state” (Luckhurst xiii-xiv). In this instance, Wuthering Heights is devoted to upholding the colonial doctrines of the British Empire, even if not explicitly because of the urgency and relief that accompanies Hareton’s conversion from intellectual “Other” to citizen. 

Another distinctive link that testifies to a palpable relief at the success of Catherine’s efforts toward civilization exist at the end of the passage when Nelly observes, “His brightening mind brightened his features, and added spirit and nobility to their aspects” (Brontë 323). In this moment, the distinct influence of physiognomic principles is obvious. Nelly believes she can tell that Hareton’s mind is progressing based on the increased attractiveness of his features. This implication is further complicated by the prominence of physiognomic ugliness as associated with criminality and violence across the rest of the novel. Furthermore, with his increasing intelligence, he gains nobility, a claim to a place in economic and social society, but also a spirit. This is fascinating because it reveals a distinct bias informed by religion, implying (through, and possibly misplaced in the British born Hareton) that perhaps global populations have no place in an afterlife beside good British citizens. In effect, to Nelly, a British education has quite literally saved Hareton’s soul.

A Ghost Might Actually Come in Handy…

In 19th century England, anxieties about protecting family property became so pervasive that ancestral claims were a common factor in many Victorian novels. This fact is especially true in Wuthering Heights, a novel which circulates around two ancestral homes. In one moment in the first book, the audience is attuned to Mr. Linton’s apprehensions about his property. In this passage, both Nellie and Edgar express anxiety about how quickly Catherine will recover because they are desirous for an heir for the Linton line.  

This excerpt features multiple words which appear to have multiple meanings. We begin the passage with “waited,” which could mean tended to, as Nellie is her nurse, or waited on with temporal impatience. Moving further in the passage, “Mr. Linton’s heart would be gladdened, and his lands secured from a stranger’s gripe, by the birth of an heir” (Brontë 135). These two duplicities work hand in hand with one another to create an unstated, but stifling nervousness surrounding Linton’s concern with his land tied subtly with the culturally discussed duties of a proper Victorian woman. Where one might expect that Linton would be glad of his wife’s company once she gets well, waiting anxiously because she is sick and would hate to lose a companion. Instead, she is subtly rushed in her recovery because Linton has external expectations for their marriage. The fact that at this moment she cannot carry out her essentially contracted duties is a source of worry for the husband, especially as evidenced by the fact that he may not be gladdened by his wife’s renewed health, but by her ability to satisfy his conventional need for an heir to assume his place in the Linton line. 

Looking further into Catherine’s essential position of indebtedness, we may examine another, more clearly stated duplicity. Nellie muses, “there was double cause to desire it, for on her existence depended that of another” (Brontë 135). Even Nellie, clearly indoctrinated into the prevailing ideology surrounding womanhood and marriage, admits that Catherine’s sole purpose in healing is to bring another (possibly more pleasant) life into the world. Her existence is diminished for want of a better, possibly male heir, and she becomes obsolete in the process. Inheritance was so fraught that the thought of investing an entire family line in a very shade of a person yet to come into existence remains the dominant frame of consideration when a woman is deathly ill. In this way, Victorian ghosts hold promise unsurpassed.  

Linton and Nellie are only able to half-mask their anxieties with their thinly veiled double meanings. Ultimately, they are deeply concerned with “the Other.” Roger Luckhurst’s quotation defining the Gothic can also be aptly applied to these concerns as Linton’s Other is, “the undamming of dark forces that rush into and insidiously undermine the order of everyday life” (xi). Because of the family that Linton married into, perhaps his true concern is the dispositions of his neighbors who are not the gentlest of folk. Because of this relation, perhaps another, less obvious fear that permeates Linton’s conscience is a question of matrilineal inheritance, and exactly what traits the child could display from Catherine’s family, and therefore what that may do to his property. Once again in this aspect, Catherine is reduced to nothing should she bring forth an “unacceptable heir” for Linton: someone who would upset the perfection of his gentry familial line. Not only does the child’s existence depend upon her, but her entire worth depends on his. 

Wherefore And When Do Gods Walk Amongst Men?

“Won’t you?” (with a taunting laugh), “then I’ll make you.” The young man raised his slight cane, and smote the artisan across the face with a stinging stroke. An instant later, he lay stretched in the muddy road, Jem standing over him, panting with rage” (Gaskell 167-168).

 Questions of power and how it is transmitted are central to the study of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, Mary Barton. In a moment of furious confrontation between two of Mary’s presumed lovers, Jem Wilson refuses to move from Mr. Henry Carson’s path until he promises to protect Mary from harm. Instead of yielding to the request, “the young man raised his slight cane, and smote the artisan across the face with a stinging stroke” (Gaskell 168). Ending the phrase with the alliterative “s” sound emphasizes the swiftness of action, but one word in this phrase draws more attention than others. In using the word “smote,” Mr. Carson is immediately transfigured into a God figure, more like those who rain fury upon the Earth when mortals see fit to challenge him than those of flesh and blood in his own town.  

This scene is a precise microcosm of the power that Mr. Carson wields not only in the street as a wealthy man, but as a factory owner across Manchester. This scene of “disobedience” between a master and subject could easily have been placed in the context of the beginnings of a worker’s strike. One man may go to the untouchable master, his status made so by his money, to plead for better working conditions, or perhaps a better salary. However, because of the discrepancy in status and the master’s miserly desire for power, these demands are seldom met, and moreover, often collectively punished. It is common for vindictive, mortal God to strike the poor man, and many accept this as the world’s order.  Because God never suffers the consequences of His actions, He perceives His power as limitless, undeniable, and irrevocable. So, for a moment, God stands above Jem Wilson, victorious. 

However, when considering the transference of power in this scene, one must also pay attention to the titles that the characters are given. Though formally introduced as Jem and Mr. Carson in the beginning of the text, their titles evolve into “the artisan” or “the mechanic” and “the young man” (Gaskell 167-168). As an artisan and mechanic, Jem Wilson is learned. He has a specialized craft for employment, a working knowledge of the industrial city, and specific social competencies to navigate a world plagued by want. He is a master of the fine arts and the sciences in a way that even Mr. Carson, only a young man with a fancy expensive education, could never. In his epithet, God has is diminished, infantilized to a state of naïveté and greed and characterized as one might chide a misbehaving child.  

This observation becomes especially important as one considers the implications of the final line in which, seemingly without effort and without being seen, Jem overtakes his opponent and stares him down in the muddy street (Gaskell 168). The distinct difference in the eloquence of the lines is striking: in order to hit Jem, Carson is aided by stinging alliteration his wealth and education can afford him, while Jem simply uses his own force of will which no words are swift enough to describe. In pitting these two characters against one another, there is an underlying question about the true source of social and work force power and furthermore who truly wields it. Is Carson’s showy vanity the power that controls England and its economy, or should we pause to consider the might of the working classes, particularly as Unions begin to form and demand industrial reform? The language in these few lines divulge secret but emerging forms of working class power in Industrial Victorian England where the faceless and skill-less God of antiquity is beginning to crumble.