Mettus Curtius and His Countenance

Image: Bacchiacca (?), Marcus Curtius (c.1520). Oil on wood. 25.4 x 19.4 cm. The National Gallery, London, 1860., 22 September 2015.

(Description taken from “The Poems of Michael Field” –

Michael Field, the pseudonym of two women, Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley, wrote beautiful, luscious poetry about many works of art, including Marcus Curtius, by an unknown artist (but possibly Bacchiacca). They entitled this poem “Mettus Curtius”, and it offers descriptions of the “lovely Christian knight” (Field 2) featured in the painting. The knight gazes gently down upon his horse and whatever is in front of him, and “poised for thrust his right / Hand grasps a knife” (Field 7-8). He wears a flowing shawl and a knee-length, “azure” (Field 3) dress. Although both the painting and the poem clearly indicate that their subject is a knight, there are many queer undertones. The Michael Fields use words like “sweet”, “effulgence”, “fresh”, and “perfume”, which one might expect to be used to describe a woman. Yet the poets use them to describe this knight, who is dressed in the fashion of a woman; he is not armored or suited for battle like other knights might be, and he rides a “mild, amber horse” (Field 6). Even his “countenance doth keep / Soft as Saint Michael’s” (Field 8-9). The Michael Fields clearly saw the queerness in this painting and brought it to life in their poem. This was also likely a nod to their own queerness. Edith and Katherine were lovers in private, and were friends with people like Oscar Wilde, Charles Ricketts, and Charles Shannon, who were also likely homosexuals.

The knight in the painting holds a dagger, or a sword, which is short and very pointy, and can be viewed as a phallic symbol. This symbol here represents the opposite of masculinity: it is pointed downward, which seems to imply that masculinity is not present in this scene. Although the Michael Fields write that the dagger is “poised for thrust” (Field 7), the knight does not seem keen on actually penetrating anything with it by the look on his face, as discussed earlier.

Delicate, Worthless, “Poor, Faint, Valueless”: Oh, Fair Dreamer!

The Fair Dreamer, engraved by Illman Brothers (picture by Knut Ekwall)

This engraving, titled The Fair Dreamer, depicts a woman reclining on a tree trunk with one arm over her forehead and the other grasping a vine on the tree. She wears many petticoats that are pulled up to reveal her pointed shoes; she is young, and her accessories include a hat and parasol. Her outfit and the scenery indicate that the temperature is warm, probably summer. A boat is visible in the bottom right corner of the image, and she seems to be next to a stream or pond; the grasses around her are the kinds of greenery that grow near a body of water.

Looking at the image, the viewer can see that the woman is likely daydreaming. She is taking a break from her stuffy life within the home to visit somewhere she is not normally. By looking at the boat, the viewer can infer that she either rowed herself to this location or had someone else (likely a man) bring her there. Knowing some things about Victorian ideas of gender, it is more likely that the latter is the case. Women were too delicate to do such manly things as rowing themselves down a river, right? This idea of delicacy is echoed in The Woman in White with Laura Fairlie. Laura is considered so pretty and delicate that she is hardly left on her own for one moment. Even when she draws and Walter “sells” the drawings to make money for the household, he describes them as “poor, faint, valueless sketches” (Collins 479). Walter feels the need to take care of Laura and make sure she never finds out that he is not actually selling her worthless drawings; she is too delicate to hear news like this, and it would hurt her.

Like Laura Fairlie, the woman in the engraving was probably not left on her own when she went to do her ‘fair dreaming’ next to the water. She is arranged in such a position in the image that her artist has made it clear exactly how she came to be dreaming in that position and who is there with her. This image is a definitive reference to the ideas of gender in Victorian art and literature and perpetuates ideas that men had about the states of women’s minds and bodies.

Our Two Favorite Women. Oh, and a Palace.

Taj Mahal – Agra, engraved by Robert Wallis

This image of the Taj Mahal depicts the palace from across the Yamuna River; it is unclear what year this piece was created. The way that the Taj Mahal sits forebodingly in the background, almost overlooking the men in the front, reminds me of the way a slave owner or master would monitor his slaves. The men seem to be performing duties; for whom and to what end, however, the engraving does not make clear. One seems to be gathering water, the others perhaps resting or preparing to defend themselves. These simple tasks directly contrast with the larger force of the palace in the background. The men seem to be skirting their main duties, and the smaller boats might be on their way from the palace to punish them.

In addition to this feeling of punishment and a power dynamic between the palace in the background and the men in the foreground, the shades of grey in the engraving speak volumes (I would say color but it’s all black and white, so, you know). The palace is stark white against the sky, pale and standing out against the water, clouds, and dark rock formation on the left side of the engraving. In addition, the palace is a palace, meaning it is a symbol of riches and wealth, and as such is a striking, detailed building that is admired by many. In contrast to this, the men in the foreground are dark and more easily blend in with their surroundings. They display signs of their poverty by wearing only rags around their waists, not wearing shoes, and allowing themselves to be unkempt.

This image and its depiction of the relation between classes and races directly relates to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Just like the rich, white Taj Mahal and the poor, dark men in the engraving, Collins’ novel has its two main female characters, the rich, white Laura Fairlie and the poor, dark Marian Halcombe. All the characters throughout the novel, including both Laura and Marian themselves, emphasize the class and race (at least in terms of beauty) differences between the women. It is a prominent theme; we, as readers, are hyperaware that Marian will never be as beautiful or as rich as Laura, because nobody can stop talking about it. As observers of this engraving, too, we are aware that the men in the foreground will never be as beautiful or as rich as the palace or the people that live and work within it; for both Marian and these men, it is due to the fact that they are simply not white enough to be accepted by society into this position.

Veni, Vedi, Veci: Caesar and the Bully

As Count Fosco tells his narrative, and he comes to the point where he explains his interactions with Mr. Fairlie, he simply sees the man as another obstacle to his malevolent plans. Fosco describes how he “came, saw, and conquered Fairlie” (Collins 605), a reference to the Latin veni, vedi, veci (I came, I saw, I conquered) used by Julius Caesar around 47 B.C. (see link at bottom of post). Caesar’s phrase was used in reference to a quick and easy victory, which was exactly what Fosco believed he had with Fairlie. Interestingly, going back to Mr. Fairlie’s narrative of the conversation with Fosco, he does not fully commit himself to the foreigner; Mr. Fairlie thinks to himself as he writes the note to Laura about traveling to Limmeridge: “There was not the least danger of the invitation being accepted, for there was not the least chance that Laura would consent to leave Blackwater Park, while Marian was lying there ill” (Collins 355). Fairlie did not believe he had been conquered by Fosco, nor even that he was obeying Fosco’s wishes; he merely believed he was acting in a way that would allow Fosco to leave the house without making too much of a fuss. Fosco, on the other hand, saw this as a victory; Fairlie was doing exactly what the foreigner needed him to, with little complaint or hesitation. This feeds straight into the idea that readers have of Fairlie. He never fights against anyone around him, he (oh God!) simply doesn’t have the nerves for it. Fairlie is weak, incapable, complicit and easily conquered; veni, vedi, veci indeed.

Fosco, of course, must boast about his victory over the feeble man. Like Caesar before him, he must let the world know that he came, saw, and conquered someone weaker than himself. Fosco does this because he is insecure; he is finally called out for the whole conspiracy to get Laura’s money, and clearly he was not able to conquer Laura or Marian, so he must go after the weakest link and tell everyone about it. This weakens Fosco’s character, although he believes it strengthens it, and makes him seem like a bully (which he is!).

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…Kind of

At the time that Mr. Gilmore comes back to Limmeridge to meet with Mr. Fairlie to write up the marriage settlement, the weather helps to indicate the tone of the scene. This is quite typical, as weather is the easiest element of a scene to put a reader ‘in the mood,’ but it was particularly interesting the way that the weather and tone of this scene played out. During the night of Mr. Gilmore’s arrival, “The house was oppressively empty and dull…The wind howled dismally all night, and strange cracking and groaning noises sounded here, there, and everywhere in the empty house” (Collins 156-7). However, what was both interesting and revealing was that the servants and other workers of the house matched the tone of the weather. They “were so surprised at seeing [Mr. Gilmore] that they hurried and bustled absurdly and made all sorts of annoying mistakes. Even the butler, who was old enough to have known better, brought [him] a bottle of port that was chilled” (Collins 156-7). Without a doubt, this section of writing set the tone for the rest of Mr. Gilmore’s narrative—he goes on to write away all of Miss Fairlie’s money and property in her marriage settlement, leaving a dark cloud over both Miss Fairlie and Miss Halcombe. However, this small piece of writing also marked a turning point in the entire novel. It created the feeling that nothing will ever be the same as it was before. Mr. Hartright is gone, Miss Fairlie’s money is about to be taken away from her (and given to Sir Percival Glyde, of all people), and a potential relationship between two budding young lovers has been lost. The servants, unable to perform their duties, represent Mr. Gilmore—who is about to be unable to perform his own for the young women—and the weather, hanging over the house threateningly, represents Sir Percival, who seems like he is about to come in and tear through the family when they least expect it.