Male Saviors and a Women’s Beauty

In Tennyson’s poem a woman known as “The Lady of Shalott” is cursed to live in an isolated tower. As a second condition of this curse, the woman is confined to look at a mirror. As she stares at the mirror she weaves together an image of Camelot as she sees it in the reflection. While in her tower, Sir Lancelot rides by and is seen by the lady. The final stanzas of Part 3 read, “the mirror crack’d from side to side; “The curse is come upon me,” cried The Lady of Shalott” (1184). In the poem’s conclusion, the lady leaves the tower in a boat, only to die before meeting Lancelot. Interestingly enough, this is the first time Lancelot sees the lady–who died traveling to the palace at Camelot. Upon seeing her body, Lancelot said “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy her grace” (1185).

The Lady of Shalott and her mirror.

This poem puts forth two complicated ideas about Victorian gender-dynamics. First we have the Lady of Shalott who induces the curse by her desire to see Lancelot. While her affinity with Lancelot ultimately results in her death, her interest in him also leads her to leave the tower. In this way, Lancelot appears representative of the freedom a man can bring to a woman. Her desire for companionship is evident in another line of the poem, “when the moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed; ‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said Lady of Shalott” (1883). The loneliness the lady experiences in seeing the newly weds demonstrates her disscontempt with her isolation. In this way, Lancelot represents how the male being can alleviate the Lady of Shalott’s desolation.

The second idea put forth is the superficial value of women. When the Lady of Shalott is discovered, Lancelot says nothing of her character or situation, but simply comments on her physical qualities. It’s ironic, as Lancelot’s only lines in this poem are in reference to the lady’s features. Nearly this entire poem is dedicated to the lady’s curse and her struggles–yet the on lookers who received her body know none of this. To them and Lancelot, the lady appears as nothing more than “a lovely face” (1884). The Lady of Shalott signifies the only form of beauty that men found in women at the time–surface beauty. In these ways, the poem depicts a world where men are the saviors of women and where women are nothing more than vessels of beauty.

Male-Female Gender Dynamics

In Dracula, Stoker has told an epic tale about the battles between our Anglican heroes and their foreign foe. Throughout this novel, Stoker has also told a less obvious story, but just as prominent and important: the complicated dynamic of sexuality in Victorian England. Dracula’s female characters exist in an England where they can be both independent and educated. After all, Lucy has the freedom to choose her husband and Mina greatly assists in compelling a manuscript on the Count. However, while some freedoms exist, women are still constrained by a suffocating patriarchy. This is evident when our male characters refuse tell Lucy why she’s ill and in keeping Mina away from their investigation. Not only this, but even our undead male villain’s only known concubines are all female: the three sisters, Lucy, and Mina. In this way, Dracula is a story characterized by complicated male-female gender dynamics.

To further illustrate this tension between male-female gender dynamics, let’s assess a specific incident. While compiling a manuscript, Mina is confronted by a distressed Lord Godalming. In her diary, Mina recounted that the Lord broke down in front of her, and she wrote that “I suppose there is something in woman’s nature that makes a man free to break down before her and express his feelings on the tender or emotional side without feeling it derogatory to his manhood” (p. 244). In concluding this episode, Lord Godalming conveys his appreciation for her comfort, and calls her a “little girl” (p. 246).

Here Mina is contributing equally to the work of our male leads. And while this may be true, Lord Godalming and others do not appreciate the work she does, but merely her gender for its assumed motherly and nurturing qualities. Lord Godalming does not express his concerns or grievances to those he directly works with, other males, but someone he seldom interacts with, a female. Effectively, by being a woman, Mina’s work goes unacknowledged and her emotional intelligence and sensitivity are overemphasized. In this way, Mina is able to stay close to the investigation, only insomuch as her presence provides comfort and vulnerability in the face of danger. This is why Mina is kept out of the loop on the specific work being done, yet still around our male characters. Effectively, Dracula demonstrates that while women have gained some opportunities, much of their livelihood is still subordinated to the comfort and bidding of men.

The Stigmatization of non-English people

While reading Dracula, I have noticed a common theme arising in the novel. With each turning page, a story of xenophobia has become more and more pronounced. In Dracula, Bram Stoker has depicted those who are not English as unusual in their habits and qualities. After all, it is in Central Europe where Jonathan Harker succumbs to inconsistent train schedules, the prevalence of the crucifix, and mythical oddities. Effectively, Transylvania is where our Englishman has many terrible experiences–ones our author depicts as unlikely in England. In this way, I believe Stoker has created this tale to demonstrate the stigma the English associated with non-English people. 

The first incident of this stigmatization arises early in the novel, when Harker encounters a recurring object: the crucifix. A women who warns him of the perils of St. George’s Day provides him with cross, saying that “for [his] mother’s sake” he should take it (p. 11). Not only this, but during his travels, Haker crosses lined the roadside and his companions all carried crucifixes themselves. In taking this all in, Harker wrote in his diary that he “did not know what to do, for, as an English Churchman, I have been taught to regard such things as in some measure idolatrous” (p. 11). Because of this confliction with his religion, he looked onto the cross judgingly, without any recognition of what it or the women’s warning meant. In this way, Harker’s view of non-English Church practices as inept resulted in his failure to recognize his impending danger. Only during his stay with the Count did Harker realize that these forewarnings were legitimate and his danger severe.

This stigma is one that the Count has noticed himself. While sitting with the Count in his library, Harker applauds him for his fluency in English. However, Dracula is quick to dismiss his compliment, stating that “none there are who would not know me for a stranger” (p. 27). Coming from a position where “the common people know” him and he is a “master,” the Count hopes to preserve that or a similar position in England. Dracula recognizes that the English stigmatize the non-English for their ways. As such, Dracula fears being viewed as a stranger because it carries such a low social status. To avoid such a fate Dracula goes to extremes to under all of England’s intricacies, such as reading anything written in English or holding an Englishman prisoner in his palace. Dracula requests that Harker teaches him the English intonation, so that he may speak as fluently as a native speaker. In this way, the negativity directed towards non-English people is one well recognized by the stigmatizers and stigmatized alike.

The Troubles of Victorian Marriages

“he [Sir Michael Audley] remembered the sick, half-shuddering sensation of regret and disappointment that had come over him then…. I do not believe that Sir Michael Audley had ever really believed in his wife.” (p. 299)

When I read this passage, I initially thought that Sir Michael Audley’s skepticism of his marriage arose from the book’s recurring theme: distrust of women. After all, the narrator urged us to not consider women the weaker sex, but “the stronger sex, the noisier, the more preserving, the more self-assertive sex.” (p. 178) Not only are they the more aggressive sex, but our narrator spoke of the power of beauty, insinuating that it taught Lady Audley “to be selfish and cruel… cold-hearted and capricious, greedy of admiration.” (p. 252) Along these lines, Sir Michael Audley had every right to suspect that his marriage would prove too go to be true. After all, he married someone not only of the stronger sex, but with physical qualities suspected of bringing out a women’s cruel qualities. However, I do not think that Braddon’s trying to make the claim that women are as sinister and vain as Lady Audley comes across in this novel. Through this story, I believe Braddon is instead critiquing marriage practices of the Victorian era.

The most prominent marriage practice in this novel is marrying outside of one’s class. We see it when Lady Audley married George Talboys, then again between Lady Audley and Michael Audley. In both cases, Lady Audley is marrying up a class. However, we also see the other side of this, with Robert Audley’s refusal to marry Alicia Audley. In this case, Robert Audley would have married up a class. Entering a marriage where the woman is the breadwinner would not appeal to man, as it would challenge his role as the head’s household. The prospect of Robert marrying his cousin is unsurprising, as marriages within wealthy families had been a common practice then.

Through this novel Braddon could be making a case to not consider class when marrying. She has supported this argument by demonstrating that when money and class are the primary reasons for marrying, genuine love is unlikely to form. Lady Audley stated herself that she only loved Sir Michael because he “elevated” her “to a position that he [George Talboys] could never have given me.” (p. 299) Along these lines, Sir Michael Audley’s “sensation of regret and disappoint that had come over him” when he proposed to Lady Audley makes sense. Deep down, he may have held a suspicion that marrying outside of the family or his class would not work out. Always suspecting that she married him only for his position, Sir Michael found himself in a marriage without love and trust. In this way, I believe Braddon has used her characters to critique the vanity and selfishness that characterized Victorian era marriages.

There was not much in it; neither gold nor gems…

“There was not much in it; neither gold nor gems; only a baby’s little worsted shoe, rolled up in a piece of paper, and a tiny lock of pale and silky yellow hair, evidently taken from a baby’s head.” (32)

One thing that immediately comes across is how unusual the content of Lady Audley’s secret drawer is. Kept hidden away in this drawer, “lined with purple velvet,” is a child’s “little worsted shoe” and a lock of “pale and silky yellow hair” (32). The fact that Lady Audley hides both of these items reveals two important ideas: 1. Lady Audley likely has memories associated with these items, which is why she wishes to preserve them. 2. The fact that she finds these items significant, but does not keep them preserved in a visible space, indicates that there’s a reason for that. Given the usage of “little” and tiny” in this passage to describe the baby’s remnants, the child must have been very young. Additionally, the secrecy of these items leads me to believe that Lady Audley may have had a first born before her marriage to Sir Michael Audley.

By ending the chapter on Phoebe’s and Luke’s discovery, I believe Braddon is foretelling what will come later in the novel: confusion over Lady Audley’s early life. While I believe this is one aspect of this passage, there may be another layer to it. Mary Elizabeth Braddon could have included this to combat gender roles at the time, which suggested women follow a prudent life before marriage. The prospect of Lady Audley having a child runs against this stereotype of women. At other points in the book, Braddon has described Lady Audley as a “fragile figure” and “as girlish as if she had but just left the nursery” (50). The image depicted here is a complete 180 from the Lady Audley whose past is eluded to by the drawer lined with purple velvet. In this way, I believe the author includes these depictions to tear them down later on in the book. If the readings to this point have hinted at anything, Lady Audley’s Secret could be one that challenges Victorian notions of femininity.