Christina Rossetti’s Sexuality

In Christina Rossetti’s poem The World, there is a strong contrast to her other poems in the way that she discusses women. Rossetti is known as a particularly feminist poet for the time, with poems like No, Thank You, John and In an Artist’s Studio showing her assertiveness and distaste for the expectations of women put by men. In The World, Rossetti describes a woman as an evil, two-faced entity, similar to tropes seen in other Victorian literature (Lady Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret, the woman in La Belle Dame, etc). She describes the woman as “A very monster void of love and prayer” (Rossetti, The World). This could be because her intention was not to describe women at all, but instead her own internal conflict with her sexuality. Rossetti had a complicated relationship with sexuality, being a feminist but also a devout Anglo-Catholic. She stayed unmarried and childfree her entire life, and expressed a disliking for men who were interested in her. In her poem, No, Thank You, John for example, Rosetti states “Here’s friendship for you if you like; but love,— No, thank you, John” (Rossetti, No, Thank You, John). This has the implication that perhaps she was not interested in men at all, and was not just uninterested in the men in her poems.

In her poem, The World, Rossetti makes multiple references to religion, and specifically, hell. At the end of the poem she states, “With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands. Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell My soul to her, give her my life and youth, Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?” (Rossetti, The World). This consistent mentioning of hell while asking if she should maintain her connection with the woman could be representative of her internal conflict on whether to listen to her heart or to her faith. She could be feeling as though building a relationship with a woman would destroy her connection to her faith. In other Victorian literature, men would often describe women as temptresses, leading good men astray. In The World it can be argued that Christina Rossetti is feeling the same as a man being called by a siren: as if she is losing control of her sexuality.

The Lady of Shalott

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott gives a nod to fairy tales from the 17th and 18th centuries like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. These stories tend to gravitate towards tropes like the damsel in distress and the knight in shining armor, which are rooted heavily in traditional gender roles, and have implications on what a woman’s role is within society. However, it is compelling how The Lady of Shalott deviates from this narrative: at the end of the poem, the Lady of Shallot dies because she has stopped weaving to look through her window at Sir Lancelot, who she thinks is “bold” (Tennyson, Part III). Her being distracted by the prospect of love, only for this love to lead to her death implies that the attention of a man was the only thing that was important enough for her to risk her life. “She left the web, she left the loom, She made three paces thro’ the room, She saw the water-lily bloom, She saw the helmet and the plume, She look’d down to Camelot.” (Tennyson, Part III). After years of sitting at the loom indoors, she gets up– for a man. This could have been due to Tennyson’s personal views that the only purpose women have in life is to be seen in the eyes of a man. Even in the final lines of the poem there are undertones of sexism. “He said, “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott.” (Tennyson, Part IV). Tennyson implies that the only thing that matters is her looks– that is her legacy; that is what she will be remembered for.

Purity Culture in the Victorian Era and it’s Effect on Lucy’s Story

Lucy’s experiences in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an interesting depiction of society’s view on female sexuality during the Victorian Era. When Lucy is bitten by Dracula, Dracula continues to pursue her even as great efforts are being made by Van Helsing to keep him away. This contrasts heavily with Harker’s experience; he escapes Dracula’s grasp and is never bothered again, in fact, his life seems to get better as Lucy’s gets worse. This is because of the ties of sexuality to vampirism. The text states, “There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” (Stoker, Chapter 3). Language like “desire” and “longing” suggest that Harker viewed what was happening as a sexual act, which implies that Lucy and Harker were experiencing sexual violence at the hands of Dracula. According to Victorian beliefs, once a woman has lost her purity, she has lost her value as a human being. So after Lucy was bitten by Dracula, Bram Stoker may not have been able to conceive another ending for her other than her demise.

There is an added strain on the idea of Lucy’s purity when she is given blood transfusions. Arthur believes “that the transfusion of his blood to her veins had made her truly his bride?” (Stoker, Chapter 13). This implies that Arthur views the transfusion as a sexual act, because in Victorian society a marriage was viewed as valid only when it was consummated. However, the blood transfusions being sexualized implies that after she has undergone them, she has been with multiple partners, because she received transfusions from multiple men. Somewhat shortly after this, Lucy becomes a vampire, and essentially loses her humanity. This implies that her humanity was tied to her purity.

Lady Audley’s Sexuality

“In those troublesome dreams he saw Audley Court, rooted up from amidst the green pastures and the shady hedgerows of Essex, standing bare and unprotected upon that desolate northern shore, threatened by the rapid rising of a boisterous sea, whose waves seemed gathering upward to descend and crush the house he loved. As the hurrying waves rolled nearer and nearer to the stately mansion, the sleeper saw a pale, starry face looking out of the silvery foam, and knew that it was my lady, transformed into a mermaid, beckoning his uncle to destruction.” Volume 2, Chapter 9.

This passage continues a theme in the novel of depicting women as otherworldly and mystical. Lady Audley being a siren is significant because sirens tend to represent ideas of temptation and deception. Robert sees Lady Audley as an evil entity, luring the good men in his life (George and Sir Michael) to their demise. This ties into the idea that gothic literature often references, that women who express their sexuality are inherently evil and manipulative. Language such as “bare” and “unprotected” indicate that the men of Audley court were vulnerable to the destruction Lady Audley would bring. In this dream, the waves symbolize the danger that the Audley family is in. Lady Audley being a siren implies that she is controlling the waves, as sirens often have power over water in literature.

Robert being so absorbed with Lady Audley’s gender and sexuality could be indicative that he is jealous of her. It is hinted that Robert has feelings for George mainly through his relationship with Clara, but his feelings towards Lady Audley convey a similar message. Lady Audley is able to have a hold over George that Robert never will, and that may be the cause of his resentment for her. In this passage specifically, Robert expresses a feeling of helplessness and not being able to steer his uncle away from Lady Audley’s influence. Robert likely feels a similar way about Lady Audley’s former influence on George. This could clarify why he refers to her as evil and why he goes on tangents about women in general.

Lady Audley’s Act

“She is altogether a different being to the wretched, helpless creature who dropped her mask for a moment, and looked at me with her own pitiful face, in the little room at Mount Stanning, four hours ago. What has happened to cause the change?” Volume 1, Chapter 19

This passage reveals Robert’s thoughts on Lady Audley’s change in demeanor. While she was usually composed and elegant, she was now disheveled. She is always trying to keep up an act while in the presence of others, and this may be one of the few times we see her being herself. This connects to the idea that women at this time were expected to only act a certain way, or they would be deemed hysterical or mad. Lady Audley desperately tries to be perceived in a certain way because if she was not, she could lose everything. This is partly because if she is perceived as a perfect, upstanding lady in society, no one would suspect her of committing evil acts. However, she would have to behave this way whether she was a murderer or not. Robert does not realize that women have to put up a show in the first place, making her “dropping her mask” (Braddon, Chapter 19) not as significant as he might think. These lines show Robert’s inability to realize that Lady Audley was not much different from other women at the time, she simply had more going on behind the scenes. Taking a closer look at the language in this passage, we can see Robert’s bias towards women. Language like “wretched,” (Braddon, Chapter 19) “creature,” (Braddon, Chapter 19) and “pitiful face,” (Braddon, Chapter 19) shows that he is only looking on the surface. He is not investigating her actions, he is criticizing her appearance. When investigating George’s initial disappearance, Robert reflects on his possible motivations for leaving, giving him leads. However, he doesn’t do that for Lady Audley, even though it may have given him a better chance of finding his friend.