Gender Construction in “The Yellow Drawing Room”

In Mona Caird’s “The Yellow Drawing Room,” St. Vincent fixates on Vanora’s gender in curiously. He notes, disapproves, and prescribes alternatives for all her actions, tastes, and opinions. And yet, despite his quest to make Vanora a loving, lovable woman in his image, his description of gender is strikingly modern. I do not mean to say that his sense of propriety is in anywhere ideal, nor that anyone should behave according to a fictional misogynist, like Vincent. Rather, the ways in which gender appears through this story seems to suggest that Victorian society had some idea of performance and gender as intertwined.

Throughout the story, Vanora represents a problem in Victorian society. As Vincent put it, “[s]he was supremely, overpoweringly womanly,” that the “womanhood of her sisters paled before the exuberant feminine quality which I could not but acknowledge in Vanora” (Caird 105). Vanora radiates femininity from her very being. And yet, paradoxically, everything she does, undoes her. Her excessive femininity (and excessive liveliness), according to Vincent, depreciates her womanhood. He belittles her in saying that she has “many qualities and ideas that are not suited to [her] sex” (Caird 106). Yet, never does Vincent separate which qualities femininize Vanora and which un-feminize her. In fact, the same actions that define her character do so in seemingly contradictory ways. Somehow, she is a woman, perhaps the most woman-like woman in the story, but she is also somehow not quite a woman. In being lively and bright, she brings out femininity. But by not adhering to a Victorian propriety, her liveliness gives her those ‘qualities unsuited to her sex’. In short, it seems that her actions bring about qualities which then help define her gender.

While “The Yellow Drawing Room” is certainly not an early rendition of Judith Butler, the appearance and focus on gender construction through actions is striking to read from a Victorian perspective. It seems that, during a historically contentious point in female propriety, behavior was at the center of a deeply anxious discourse on gender. Behavior, actions, and performance all seems to bring about those qualities which aid in the making of gender.

Alice to d4: Chess and Gender in “Through the Looking Glass”

The ways in which Lewis Carroll portrays chess in Through the Looking Glass intertwines ideas of innocence and femininity. Supposedly, proper women ought to be innocent. This innocence commonly involves having both limited knowledge of the world and limited autonomy to move about said world. For example, a young girl may require a guide to become a woman. Otherwise, the girl may get lost along the way. Someone would have to pick up the girl and move her up the ranks so she could mature and become queenly—almost like a pawn on a chess board. In chess, the horizontal rows are called “ranks,” and a pawn becomes a Queen only once it reaches the highest rank of eight. While the puzzle Carroll uses in place of a table of contents (Carroll 109) may seem ridiculous (and it is), this puzzle still intertwines notions of ‘proper’ femininity with innocence.

At this point, it is worth elaborating on the ridiculousness of Carroll’s chess. To name just a few absurdities: At one point, the White player makes nine consecutive moves, all Queens turn into sheep on the fifth rank, and moving Alice to d4 (the move played) should be considered the worst move for White. Yet, the puzzle’s nonsense both highlights which rules get followed as well as reveals a set of new rules distinct from chess. For instance, while White’s first move (Alice to d4) allows Red to check the White King (Qa6+), it prioritizes Alice’s maturity over all else. This becomes the first of the puzzle’s unspoken rules—namely that Queens, and the making of Queens, surpasses all other chess rules. The White player makes this clear in how every piece helps Alice to the eighth rank in one way or another. In fact, all the pieces (through seemingly random moves) coordinate as to always protect her with two or more defenders. The only move that definitely wins for White (Ng3+), therefore, cannot be played without removing the defender of the d4 square and breaking this pattern. 1.Ng3+, Ke5 2.Qc3+, Ke6 3.Qb3+, Ke7 4.Qg7+, Kd8 5.Qd7# may win for White, but leaves Alice undefended for three moves. While it is a chess principle to protect passed pawn, like Alice, White actually over defends her and, in doing so, risks losing the game. The person playing White infantilizes Alice by doing this, because they ignore the possibility that pawn-Alice may be safe on her own. However, it also establishes puzzle’s second unspoken rule—namely that young girls, such as Alice, must be protected at all costs.

Similar to how Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland depicts Victorian society only to distort it, Through the Looking Glass distorts chess to depict how Victorian society views femininity. In the game, Alice is made innocent. She may only move in one direction and other pieces over-protect her. Similarly, the win conditions shift from checkmating the other King to the making of Queens. In this sense, chess acts as a metaphor for maturity, in which pieces (people) are moved closer and closer in line with Queenliness. Ultimately, propriety becomes the priority.

A Man Who Thinks He Knows Everything?—Haven’t Heard That One Before

In George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil, Latimer’s obsession with knowledge seems to transcend the apparent moral of the story into a broader conversation about the role of women in Victorian society.

Supposedly, this story (at least, according to Latimer) has a definitive lesson. He laments how, “[he] thirsted for the unknown: the thirst is gone. O God, let [him] stay with the known, and be weary of it: [He is] content” (Eliot 1). At first glance, this comment seems to preach against curiosity, but the novel takes this idea even further. In fact, Latimer’s specific reference to “the unknown” alludes to two situations. First, the comment harkens to the scientific (and pseudo-scientific) leaps of the Victorian era. This depiction of knowledge also appears later in the text, when Latimer notes how he “had no desire to be this improved man,” who “knew the reason why water ran down-hill” (Eliot 7). The very use of the word “improved” in this context appears sarcastic, as if to make fun of both scientific curiosity and the people who pursue such knowledge. At a time period when society seemed hellbent on unveiling truth, the repeated attention to knowledge and specific types of knowing comes off as suspicious.

It therefore comes as a great irony when Latimer later becomes engrossed in curiosity himself. For, besides alluding to Victorian science, his comment about the “unknown” literally refers to Bertha. She, an English, Victorian, woman becomes the unknown. Latimer explains how (in oh, what loving terms) “[s]he was my [his] oasis of mystery in the deary desert of knowledge” (Eliot 18). Simply because he cannot know her like others, he becomes deeply entrenched trying to learn more and more about her. Latimer describes her as a “mystery,” because Bertha is, for him, something to solve. In this sense, Latimer does not fall in love with a person, but the idea of demystifying the woman of his fantasies. Yet as his use of the possessive “my” indicate that he views Bertha as something to own. Only she can defy his insight, and because of this, he desperately craves to subdue her.

Knowledge, and specifically un-knowledge becomes intertwined with the idea of Victorian women. At this point, it is worth reinforcing Latimer’s role as an unreliable narrator. All his whining and sensitivity both become apart of and cloud the narrative. I mention this to highlight that Bertha, and by extension the Victorian woman, is only unknowable to Latimer. At the risk of removing some of the story’s horror, this reading shows one way in which Eliot subverts Victorian patriarchy through writing. For, The Lifted Veil, may be read as a desperate attempt from a Victorian man, who thinks he knows everything, to understand his wife (and failing miserably).

A Man’s Resolution to Argue: Structure, Narrative, and Rhetoric in The Woman in White

In “A Man’s Resolution: Narrative Strategies in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White,” Pamela Perkins and Mary Donaghy investigate the authorial discrepancies between Walter Hartright’s claim over objectivity and his editorial footprint. They explain how, “[a]lthough he claims a social and legal sanction for his narrative, the novel itself provides ample clues that the defense of this authority is a hidden agenda” (392-393). Walter, both as an editor and, manipulates the story into a rhetorical framework. In this sense, not only does the novel explain how Walter came to possess Laura and the Limmeridge Estate, but it also serves to justify his acquisition of both. Perkins and Donaghy highlight how, “the imprint of Walter’s editorial hand lies on each account” (396), and accordingly, each piece of the narrative contributes to Walter’s claim over property and wife.

And yet, if we follow this logic, we inevitably face the narratives of Hester Pinhorn, the Doctor, Jane Gould, and a Tombstone. Together, these accounts seem to supply credited, ample evidence against Walter. Excluding the Tombstone, each narrative ends with an indication that the narrator “[s]igned” (Collins 404, 405) their story, implying that these testimonies once validated the death of Laura Glyde. The Tombstone, which appears after all the living accounts seems to compile and finalize this death. Both figuratively and literally, Laura’s fate is written in stone. However, it is precisely this structure which ought to raise doubt over Walter’s narrative.

Over the course of six hundred and eighteen pages, Walter Hartright posits a case for himself as the owner of the Limmeridge Estate and husband to Laura. In seven pages, he establishes what he needs to argue against—these legal documents. Structurally, these accounts function as counterclaim to his story. And in a rhetorical manner, Walter seeks to disprove them immediately by describing himself as dumbfounded when he apparently saw, “Laura, Lady Glyde, was standing by the inscription, and was looking at me over the grave” (Collins 411). Since by the time Walter has collected this story’s accounts, he would have known the full narration, his surprised tone here raises suspicion. Every aspect from Laura’s name to her action appears drawn out, as if to emphasize not her, but rather Walter. Besides pointing the reader at himself, his extra emphasis also helps reveal some of his goals. For Walter, it becomes not only important to relay the events, but to pose himself at just the right moment and with just the right reaction. Ultimately, when Collins opens with, “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve” (Collins 9) it showcases how Walter’s narratives surpass and erase what was written in stone. In a broader sense, Collins critiques a society where a Man’s resolution can both kill and raise someone from the dead, can defy what is written in stone, and can bend the narratives of others. In that world, what does anything mean when a Man’s resolution can erase and redefine what you knew?

Unfemininity, Masculinity, and Miss Halcombe

Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White may have a lot to offer contemporary debates surrounding trans identities. In particular, the ways in which Walter Hartright describes and then alters his description of Marian Halcombe highlight some surprising attitudes towards gender expression and gendered expectations in Victorian Society. In brief, Hartright’s perspective of Miss Halcombe initially rests on her hips (literally). Upon noticing her “ugly” (34) face, his narrative shifts from her feminine traits to her masculine personality. What makes this significant is that Hartright first acknowledges Miss Halcombe’s female anatomy before writing her as a man. In a world where trans identities are routinely denied because of their reproductive parts, what could this example imply for the history of gender identities? And what might it mean that Marian’s gender seems to radiate, not from her hips, but from her head?

At this point, it is worth acknowledging that Miss Halcombe is not a Victorian era, trans man. The concept of a trans (or even gender non-binary) identity did not exist in Victorian society like it does today. Despite this, Marian Halcombe still presents an interesting example of gender-nonconformity. In fact, her character may even suggest that Victorian society viewed gender as connected to the mind (or individual), rather than genitalia. For example: although Miss Halcombe first enters the narrative through the male gaze (Hartright notably comments that “her waist” was “perfection in the eyes of a man” (34)), she manages to use her own wit and will to distinguish herself from Victorian femininity. Marian, through her own action, aided in making her character seem more masculine. Hartright’s narrative may have ceased to depict her in overtly sexual and feminine terms, but she took her own steps to ensure that she would been seen as unfeminine. Miss Halcombe comments how, “[she doesn’t] think much of [her] own sex” (36), and that “[she doesn’t] know one note of music from the other; but [she] can match [Hartright] at chess” (38). In both instances, she focuses on her unfemininity through her use of negation. In doing so, her sentence structure emphasizes her identity, in part, as unfeminine.

For Hartright, and a Victorian audience more generally, this must raise some questions. If Marian is not quite feminine, then what is she? This societal anxiety appears in how Miss Halcombe must offer an alternative gender performance. Rather than offer to play music, she offers “chess, back-gammon,” or “écarté” (38). These games all connote some type of logical thinking which traditional gendered expectations attribute to men. Yet, because Marian cannot fulfill traditionally feminine, Victorian standards, these games become, in part, a form of her gender expression. They become a tool for Marian to distinguish herself and for her to perform a type of overt masculinity and craft an identity for herself. Interestingly, these games all tie back to her unfeminine head. So, despite her ‘perfect feminine waist,’ Miss Halcombe is able to perform, identify and exist outside of Victorian femininity and despite her anatomy.