Common Ground Between Rossetti and Braddon

Christina Rossetti’s “No, Thank You, John” and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (LAS) both contain critiques of heterosexual courtship and marriage and refute the total control of the male over these relationships. These literary icons were published contemporaneously, both in 1862, and must have riled their respective audiences given what our class has discussed about Victorian sensationalist writing. To begin, LAS contains a whole episode where an older gentleman, Sir Audley, proposes to Lucy Graham and she attempts to dissuade him (Braddon, 17). Although she ultimately accepts, Sir Audley is left feeling disappointed. Much later in the text, it is revealed that Lucy is really an alias for another woman who abandoned her family in pursuit of better status and wealth through unlawful bigamy. Through this sensationalized narrative Braddon critiques marriage practices, the inability for women to attain a divorce once married, and women’s dependence on a spouse for livelihood or enrichment.

In the Rossetti poem, the narrator denies a man during his first overtures to her. To begin, “I never said I loved you, John/ Why will you tease me day by day” sets the stage for heartbreak for this unfortunate man (Rossetti, 30). Rossetti, however, imbues us to consider that he is being ridiculous and that the narrator is making a logical decision. “I have no heart?- Perhaps I have not; But then you’re mad to take offense/ That I don’t give you what I have not got/ Use your own common sense” (Rossetti, 31). Rossetti is denying the premise that any overture for courtship and eventual marriage needs to be accepted due to the dominance of the male figure in the situation. Women have the power to deny them and can be very logical in this decision given that they too can understand the fundamentals of love.

Within these two narratives, we can see similarities within difference. In both, the female figure assumes the position of power by their own accord. Lucy is able to attain social status and security through her acceptance of a marriage offer (in spite of the illegality of doing so) and Rossetti’s narrator is able to drive away an unwanted suitor and thus make her will and forethought known. There are, however, some discrepancies between the two. LAS is resolved with Lucy’s true identity and crimes being revealed. For this she is sent to a mental asylum and dies while Sir Michael Audley becomes a sympathetic, if unwitting, character. There is some back tracking as the once powerful Lucy is reduced to nothing and the “correct” balance of marriage restored. Rossetti’s poem is too brief to go to such narrative lengths, but our sympathies ultimately remain with the narrator. There are simply too many reasons for her to not marry him and this refusal is justified. In then end, the woman is still dominant. Better luck next time, John!

Technology in Dracula

The real hero of the novel
The real hero of the novel

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is cluttered with references to cutting edge technologies of the late Victorian era. For modern audiences this might seem quaint or superficial, but there is a deeper significance to these references. Stoker utilizes technology in his narrative to strengthen the novel’s thematic struggle between science and spiritualism. Stoker’s character’s alternating use of modern technology and rudimentary tools creates an effective foil to convey the contrasting impulse to modernize and the necessity of traditional items. This struggle is important to recognize and discuss because it gives modern audiences a sense of confusion and unease felt during late Victorian and Edwardian era debates over technological advancements and the displacement of man.

Technology, the application of science and engineering for the betterment of humanity, figures into the novel through Dr. Seward’s phonograph, telegrams, blood transfusions, and trains. Technology even becomes part of a competition within the novel as our heroes race Dracula’s sail-powered ship with a steam-powered locomotive (Stoker, 354). Needless to say, the locomotive prevails. Technology aids the heroic band on their quest to destroy the titular character, yet there is a concern voiced by Dr. Van Helsing that for all its worth, when science cannot explain something it disregards it as an anomaly (Stoker, 204). After this speech, the characters vow to “believe” and a shadow of doubt is cast over the centrality of scientific method and reasoning. This doubt is difficult for modern audiences considering the advances made in the century since Dracula’s publishing. After all, should there not be more doubt placed upon the existence of omnipotent, evil-doing, undead counts than on the limits of scientific comprehension. At this point, it is necessary to introduce the foil for technology found within spiritualism and its associated motifs.

To compensate for science’s limitations, Van Helsing utilizes religious objects and hypnotism in the pursuit of Dracula. Armed with crucifixes, garlic, communion wafers, and a Nepalese knife, Van Helsing’s band of gentlemen attack Dracula and force him from London (Stoker, 326). While preparing to depart, Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina as a means to stay in contact with the count and reveal his location (Stoker, 332). This blend of science and pseudoscience must have bewildered Victorian audience as much as it bemuses modern ones. The gothic motifs found in crucifixes strike a curious contrast to phonographs. On a more metaphysical and historical level, this contrast represents a tension found in Victorian society. Victorians found themselves on the cutting edge of technological development, but had yet to rid themselves of pseudoscience and superstition. This brackish conflation made it difficult to demarcate where knowledge or truth could be found in their society. There also seems to be an apprehension for technological development. Although some of the characters are reliant on modern gear, whether it is a phonograph or repeating rifle, they still need the aid of hypnotism, a spiritualist relic, to guide them to their quarry and simple communion wafers for protection. In this context, Stoker is able to convey the struggle between modernity and spiritualism.

Christian Sectarianism in Dracula

Beyond being the primary work in vampire mythology, Bram Stoker’s Dracula serves as a more nuanced text on Christian beliefs and piety. This should be hardly surprising as Stoker is a product of his culture, and Christian piety, as well as anxiety, is a center pillar of Victorian culture. What makes Stoker remarkable is his apology to Catholicism. Stoker was a Protestant Irishman living through the initial debate of Irish Home Rule and was himself a supporter. In this light, Stoker’s inclusion of Catholic symbols in Dracula and their literal importance in the salvation of Jonathan Harker is an olive branch extended between two Christian communities often found at political odds with each other.

Going right to the text, Harker encounters peasants along his way to Castle Dracula. They try to give him devotional objects, clearly knowing something Harker doesn’t, to ward off evil. Harker is dismissive of them, “I therefore tried to raise her up, and said, as gravely as I could, that I thanked her, but my duty was imperative” (Stoker, 11). Furthermore, “as an English Churchman, I have been taught to regard such things as… idolatrous” (Stoker, 11). Harker, through Stoker’s narrative, has revealed his prejudices against the non-reformed church and their associated impetus on public ritual. Theologically, Harker is representative of English Protestants, yet these objects hold the key to his survival.

In a later chapter, Harker is subject to Count Dracula’s impulsive rage upon accidentally cutting himself with a razor. Dracula lunges at him but it parried by the rosary the peasant give him (Stoker, 33). Following this episode, Harker reflects on the comfort the rosary has given him, “it is odd that a thing I have been taught to regard with disfavor and idolatrous should in a time of loneliness and trouble be of such help” (Stoker, 35). As his fortune has changed towards the perilous, Harker has found a new appreciation for the “idolatrous” symbols of the non-reformed church.

In relation to the wider world, this text is important as a Protestant apology of Catholicism. In a modern world with greater evils, Stoker expresses a need to overcome sectarian divides in the Christianity. Dracula, a greater evil of anti-Christian origin, is held at bay by a Protestant wielding Catholic devotional objects and finding new strength in them. In a text about reverse-colonization, sectarian divides diminish as a new challenge from the East presents itself. In relation to Stoker personally, these passages can be expounded as conveying a hope that Protestants and Catholics could reconcile differences in Home-Rule Ireland.

How Dynamic is Lady Audley

Throughout my reading of Lady Audley’s Secret, I have constantly questioned whether or not I consider Lady Audley to be a dynamic character. As I have mentioned before, the trope of a femme fatale is nothing new within Victorian literature. Even a semi-sympathetic mad woman had existed before this novel was published (see Jane Eyre). As I read the passage assigned in class today, found on pg. 346, I once again found myself questioning this dynamism. This passage and the text surrounding it prodded me into a position. Lady Audley is, quite possibly, a unique and dynamic character even when other femme fatale characters exist.
This passage has more to do with Sir Michael’s emotions surrounding the revelation that his wife is a formerly married fraud and attempted murderess. He is disappointed and references back to the foreshadowing tinge of regret he felt when he first proposed to Lady Audley (pg. 346). This can be considered a criticism of Victorian marriage customs (as I suggested in class and one of my colleagues “borrowed” from me on this blog) it made me revisit my own interpretation of Lady Audley and the larger societal implications of her character. Immediately after we learn of Sir Michael’s disappointment, Lady Audley offers her own defense. Her actions are a necessity because men had failed her starting with her alcoholic father. George Talboys “allied a helpless girl to poverty” and “had left her no protector… a slave allied for ever to beggary and obscurity” (pg. 347). In this regard, no matter how materialistic or superficial, men had failed to fulfill their obligations to her thus necessitating the resulting actions. In order to provide for herself, she needed to stage her death and marry another wealthy man. The only factor mitigating this sympathetic situation, as my female colleagues pointed out, was her abandonment of her own child.
So why does this matter to anyone but myself? This is possibly a literary criticism of feminine Victorian norms. A man, George Talboys, could abandon his entire family, but the matriarch, Lady Audley, could not escape the situation alive without ruining her reputation or neglecting her responsibility. Instead, she decided to stage her death. Furthermore, she is a sympathetic product of her environment. Without a (sane) mother, she was forced to endure an alcoholic father followed by a fruitless marriage doomed to failure. Short of outright advocating for divorce, I think the unsavory aspects of the situation (Georgy’s abandonment) are purposefully meant to stymie this claim; this text seems to criticize the inability to afford women any sort of option out after a marriage is conducted. The irony is that now Sir Michael has a way out of his betrothal to Lady Audley due to her bigamy. Still, he is not so much a victim of deception as he is to his own impulse and disregard for gut feelings.

Capt. Maldon is Kind of Weird

Pg. 48- The old man’s weak eyes sparkled as George declared this determination. “My poor boy, I think you’re right,” he said, “I really think you’re right. The change, the wildlife, the-the-” He hesitated and broke down, as Robert looked earnestly at him.

“You’re in a great hurry to get rid of your son-in-law, I think, Mr. Maldon,” he said gravely.

“Get rid of him, dear boy! Oh no, no! But for his own sake, my dear sir, for his own sake, you know.”

This exchange reveals a great deal about the characters, plot, and of foreshadowing. In the preceding passage, a despairing George reveals his intention to return to Australia. Immediately after this, Maldon’s spirit is lifted and he gifts the audience this gem. Maldon repeats the phrase, “I think you’re right” (pg. 48). After a physical reaction to George’s declaration, Mary Elizabeth Braddon is drawing attention through repetition to Maldon’s vocal reaction. Maldon wants George gone as soon as possible and thus warrants our suspicion. Other iterations of repetition are exhibited in Maldon’s stuttering, “the, the” and “his own sake,” (48). It seems as if in his excitement at Geroge’s expressed departure, Maldon is stumbling over his words and garnering more suspicion.

In terms of binary oppositions I have already discussed the contrast of Maldon’s disposition in the preceding passage to this one (“eyes sparkling,” pg. 48). Aside from this, Robert and Maldon become foils for each other. Robert, like the audience, finds suspicion in Maldon’s reaction and openly questions it when he could have just as well kept it to himself. Moreover, this opposition creates an opportunity for Braddon to identify proto-detective/ surrogate for the audience. To this point, Robert has merely been a supportive friend and embodiment of lethargy. After this passage he becomes a sort of detective by pointing out the oddity of Maldon’s behavior and earning the audience’s empathy in doing so.

In terms of a larger picture, this passage casts a sinister shadow on Maldon. He could very well be simply resentful of George, but his excitement at George’s intended departure indicates that he is in on something we do not know anything about. Could another character “disappear” to Australia? Most of all, it expounds on the mystery surround the novel and its events.