Gerprude and Dionevil

For this blog post, I will examine the sharp duality exhibited in two passages of Vernon Lee’s Dionea which occur only one page apart. Just before the climactic ending of the story, Doctor De Rosis describes the imagined form of Waldemar’s wife Gertrude resting peacefully in bed: “I can imagine Gertrude lying awake, the moonbeams on her thin Madonna face, smiling as she thinks of the little ones around her, of the other tiny thing that will soon lie on her breast…” (Lee 25). Throughout the story, descriptions of Gertrude remain consistent in their physicality and allusions. The first mention of Getrude labels her as the “thin, delicate-lipped little Madonna wife of [Waldemar]” (16). A more thorough illustration again mentions “her thin white face” and “her long, delicate white hands,” as well as once again comparing her to “a Memling Madonna finished by some Tuscan sculptor” (19). The three recurring descriptions summarily capture Gertrude’s character: she is thin, white, and delicate, all symbolizing her innate purity. Most importantly, she is repeatedly framed as the Madonna, the holiest female figure of Catholicism. This passage on page 25 in particular reinforces this characterization: Gertrude is bathed in moonlight, emphasizing her whiteness and giving her an almost ethereal quality. Secondly, she is surrounded by her children and is even pregnant with another, explicitly aligning her with the figure of Mother Mary.

This passage is closely followed by a jarring turn in the story when the next morning Waldemar and his wife are found dead at the castle where Waldemar had been working on a sculpture of Dionea. Doctor De Rosis once again describes Gertrude’s body at rest (though not so peacefully) in an eerie echo of her previous positioning: “We found her lying across the altar, her pale hair among the ashes of the incense, her blood – she had but little to give, poor white ghost! – trickling among the carved garlands and rams’ heads, blackening the heaped-up roses” (26). Though Gertrude is still defined by whiteness as she is called a “poor white ghost,” her “pale hair” is sullied by the dark ashes of incense, representing how her purity has been damaged by the unholy desecration of her body. Despite ambiguities in the story, it can be assumed Waldemar, in a fit of insane passion, attempted to sacrifice his wife to the altar of Venus. Not only is the altar related to the Roman goddess of love, but it is also decorated with “carved garlands and rams’ heads,” other symbols of ancient mythology. Since she has been repeatedly posited as the modern manifestation of the Madonna, this marks a sinful misuse of Gertrude’s body in a non-Catholic ritual sacrifice. Even the roses, a hallowed symbol of love, are “blackened” by Gertrude’s blood, symbolizing how the sacred relationship between Waldemar and his wife has been destroyed by this crazed act.

The stark contrast between these two images of Gertrude reveals the story’s implications of the dreaded downfall of modern society itself. Beyond Gertrude’s symbolization of Catholicism, it is essential also to recognize how she serves as a foil to Dionea. While Gertrude is the white, delicate Mother Mary, Dionea is described as having darker skin and a sharp, almost threatening beauty, and is constantly compared to Venus. Even her name implies she may be related to the ancient goddess, as well as her skill with love potions. Throughout the story these characters are constantly at odds, and in the end it is Gertrude who dies, her beautiful pure body desecrated by an archaic pagan ritual, while Dionea disappears. This desecration exhibits the societal fears illustrated by this story through a hallmark of Gothic fiction: the threat of the ancient coming back to the present and endangering modernity. Just like poor Lucy Westenra, Gertrude represents the white, beautiful, vulnerable woman whose purity is defiled by a non-Western, non-modern “other.”