Uranian Desire: Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde’s Interpretations of Salomé

Salome Title Page
2. Title Page (1893) Aubrey Beardsley
15. The Climax (1893) Aubrey Beardsley

Playwright and poet Oscar Wilde is a prominent figure of the late Victorian Era, known for his aestheticism and somewhat scandalous nature. He is also an important queer writer, persecuted for his sexuality and eventual self-imposed exile from England. Many of his poems and plays contain double entendre and hidden meanings, a way of communicating homoerotic and homosocial desires. Wilde’s 1893 play Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act tells a story of forbidden and unrequited love, a theme which is captured in Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of the text.

If we are to look at these illustrations and consider the queerness of them, we cannot just think about their significance in relation to Wilde’s homosexual desires, after all, those are contemporary terms by Victorian standards. Holly Ferneaux defines queer as “that which differs from the life-script of opposite-sex marriage and reproduction.” Thus we have to ask how her definition applies to Beardsley’s illustrations of Salomé. Aubrey Beardsley had been asked to create a series of illustrations as a response to the play’s publication in 1893. Most of the images, sixteen in all, were censored and prohibited from being published in their original form. They were eventually published in the 1907 edition of the play, but some of the images were still censored.

Most of the illustrated characters, in particular Salomé and Iokannan (otherwise known as John the Baptist), possess the same appearance in figure, hair, and face. There is a sort of macabre androgyny attached to them, especially in the 15th illustration: “The Climax.” Salomé is depicted hovering in mid-air above lilied waters, bringing the severed head of Iokannan closer to her face in order to kiss it, as she has vowed to do multiple times throughout the play. Aside from her facial expression the two characters are almost like twins, having neither overtly feminine nor masculine characteristics. This is also the case with the second illustration, “The Title Page.” A devilish creature enwrapped in rose bushes is depicted with breasts as well as a penis and testicles (what is often described as “male genitalia”).

The question to ask now is why Beardsley’s artistic decisions matter for creating queer illustrations. Both of these images are examples of being queer, disrupting the gender binary by creating figures that exists outside of expectations of appearance based on perceived gender, allowing not only for homoerotic desire to be displayed, but for any desire and identity outside of the life-script of heterosexuality. Both the play and illustrations also invert heteronormative concepts of sexual conduct, making Salomé, despite being the femme fatale, the more active (or masculine) partner while Iokannon is, while resistant, feminine and passive. The OED defines the term “Uranian” as relating to homosexual love, but other dictionaries and Wikipedia also equate the word with “genderqueer” and other non-binary terms used by transgender and gender non-conforming people. Thus the illustrations capture a part of Wilde’s position as a queer person in Victorian England and subverting the societal expectations of desire, gender and performance.

A portion of the script as well as Beardsley’s illustrations can be found on the Victorian Queer Archive.

There is also a collection of the images on the British Library website.

Citation: Beardsley, Aubrey, and Oscar Wilde. Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act. 1893. John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1907.


Beauty & The Beast: Looking at the Use of Sexual Assault in a Narrative

"Salammbo" (1889) by Gabrial Ferrier
“Salammbo” (1889) by Gabrial Ferrier (Image provided by Dickinson College Trout Gallery)
"The Goblin Market" (1933) by Arthur Rackham
“The Goblin Market” (1933) by Arthur Rackham (Image provided by The British Library)

Many works of art and literature from the Victorian period, in particular illustrations for children’s novels, represent a method used to justify colonialism or at least xenophobia. Arthur Rackham’s 1933 (while not Victorian, it draws heavily on the text) illustration of Christina Rossetti’s poem “The Goblin Market” is one such example. He depicts a young girl, Lizzie, moments into her assault by the goblin merchants, depicted as grotesque anthropomorphic creatures that attempt to force the girl to partake of their fruit. The goblin merchants have a mystifying and almost hypnotic air about them, as Lizzie’s sister Laura has already fallen prey to them.

Another illustration that portrays the entrancement of a maiden and a beast (or at least can be interpreted that way through the Victorian male gaze) is Gabrial Ferrier’s 1889 print Salammbo. Beasts enwrap the titular character, like Lizzie, in this case a black serpent that coils around her frame. Her pale and nude figure is exposed in what can be seen as a sexualized, yet relaxed, position. This is not the case with Lizzie, as she is clearly distressed and afraid as the goblin merchants swarm around her. Thus the question I ask is why use these sexualized images and metaphors with animals, in particular portraying them as powerful and mystifying figures?

Colonialism is a part of the answer, as you can distance other people and cultures by portraying them as animals, making it easier to justify colonizing them or at least fearing them. Combining this racism and xenophobia with sexism further complicates the images, because while the stories to have sexual tones (and in the case of Rossetti’s story it has a moral lesson), strange creatures assaulting women and young girls further enforces the authority of an Anglo-Saxon man. However, if the concept is to justify colonizing and “improving” the lives of people in other cultures then why portray them as powerful? Part of this has to do with the gender of the creator/illustrator.

Christina Rossetti’s poem, while it does carry racial overtones, presents a moral tale for young girls regarding relationships, how the bonds of sisterhood are everlasting and can withstand the forces and desire of men. Rackham’s illustration fits well with her poem, although the age he has given Lizzie remains ambiguous. She resists the goblins for the sake of her sister, and it is made clear they care not for money but rather for power over women and possession of their bodies.

“If you will not sell me any

Of your fruits though much and many,

Give me back my silver penny

I tossed you for a fee.


No longer were they wagging, purring,

But visibly demurring

Grunting and snarling.” (Rossetti 11)

Overall the difference between the two images is whether or not the woman gives in to her temptation, yet both cases remain for the male gaze, even if Salammbo presents a more familiar image of the nude, or rather any image available for the pleasure of men. A better way to understand her narrative would be to look at the novel the print is based on. Gustave Flaubert is the author of the 1862 novel Salammbo, and his identity brings to light an interesting comparison. Christina Rossetti is the only woman among these four creators, so her narrative contains the most moral view (even with the racial tones). Thus we can see how the male gaze twists this narrative to justify colonialism while exploiting women and the violence inflicted upon them, calling for men to come save these pure and pale women from foreigners.

The Enchantress: Magic and the Femme Fatale

The Beguiling of Merlin (1885) Adolphe Lalauze
The Beguiling of Merlin (1885) Adolphe Lalauze

Women with magic or connections to nature are often presented as the adversary of Medieval, Romantic, and Victorian men. One of the most formidable to span across multiple periods is Nimue, Lady of the Lake. In a trio of adversaries[1] against Merlin, Nimue (the original of the three) is the one who casts a spell over the ancient wizard after stealing his power, sealing him inside a tree to sleep for all eternity. In Adolphe Lalauze’s print of Edward Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin (1872-1877) the wizard is depicted in a reclining form, gazing up at Nimue, who is holding one of his spell books. His black cloak created a shadow which envelops his form, giving his body a rather shapeless appearance, as if he is fading out of existence. Nimue on the other hand is clothed in a garment which is incredibly similar in tone and style to the forest around her (emphasizing her inherent connection to nature). Merlin’s left hand also gestures to the narcissus flowers growing by the lakeside, alluding to Narcissus, Merlin’s own vanity and desire, and that he will eventually be turned into a plant, trapped where he lies for all time.

There are a few variations of Nimue’s tale, sometimes replacing her with Viviene (usually due to some influence from Morgana le Fay), but each story ends with Merlin having his power stolen and being put to sleep inside a tree. There is another femme fatale of this time period who also holds standing in the Pre-Raphaelite circle: La Belle Dame sans Merci. Inspired by a John Keats poem of the same title, the story of La Belle Dame revolves around a gallant knight who is beguiled by a beautiful woman (who is either fairy-like or an actual fairy or “fey”) and lulled to sleep.

“And there she lulled me asleep,

And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide!-

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.” (Keats 29-32)

Both of these women are portrayed as powerful and magical beings who ensnare brave or wise men with their beauty, letting the men fall prey to their desires and enter into a cursed sleep. Women who are entwined with nature, not bound by society (who are perhaps older than mankind), become a threat towards power structures (chivalry, Arthur’s kingdom, etc). However, because of their magical and otherworldly nature they are beyond the reach of the mortal hand of justice. Thus they serve as a warning towards men both young and old to not let their guard down because of desire. However, because they become object through art, it is okay too look, just don’t touch.

Below are two other artistic representations of this scene, photographed in 1874 by Julia Margaret Cameron and her interpretation of Vivien and Merlin.









Another medium through which the enchantment of the Arthurian femme fatale is conveyed is Nimue’s song to Merlin from the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot.

[1] In Arthurian legend Nimue is Merlin’s oldest adversary, a nymph who puts him under an eternal sleep. She is later replaced by Morgana le Fay and Vivien in various tales, her sole purpose being to give Arthur the sword Excalibur and eventually carry him to Avalon upon his death. Morgana le Fay is the half-sister of King Arthur who swears to destroy everything Merlin has built for disguising Uther Pendragon like her father so he could sleep with her mother (Lady Igraine). She later casts a spell on Arthur and sleeps with in order to produce a bastard child Mordred (sometimes it is her sister Morgause who does this), who will eventually kill Arthur. Vivien is usually portrayed as being a student of Morgana who then pretends to be a student of Merlin in order to gain his power and put him under and enchanted sleep, all a part of Morgana’s plan to destroy Arthur’s kingdom.

King of the Barbers: The Irish and Italian as England’s Greatest Threat

As in my previous post I have touched on the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a text that bears striking similarity to The Woman in White as well as ideology in Victorian culture. I will be visiting it once again, however this time I am looking at Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco and their cultural identities. Within Sweeney Todd they are both found in the guise of Pirelli the Barber (or as he is also known Daniel O’Higgins), who swindles and charms the crowds of London. Initially an Irishman apprenticed to Sweeney Todd, O’Higgins eventually goes away and adopts the persona of Adolfo Pirelli, an Italian barber who serves the highest classes of Italy, including the Pope. He sells hair “tonics” to those desperate enough to fall victim to his words and charisma, despite being an incredibly effeminate and blindingly dazzling man. He embodies two types of people who the English see as suspicious characters.

Directly from his introduction Fosco is displayed as an effeminate, yet charmingly powerful and strangely terrifying man. (217) His little eccentricities and personality (which seems to be somehow false) force characters to like him, just as Pirelli works his “magic” over the crowds. Marian, being a sensible English lady, is immediately distrusting of Fosco, yet even she feels he is beginning to work his “miracle” (217) Fosco, as the Italian or non-Anglo Saxon, in addition to being of a higher class represents a threat to English society, much like a later popular character of Victorian literature[1]. His effeminate nature (I suppose that Pesca is his counterpart) combined with class represents a threat to English society and ideas about what men should be. However, he reinforces his dominance by controlling English women and fulfilling the desires of characters like Sir Percival Glyde.

While Glyde is not Irish no Italian (although his association with both seems unsavory by English standards), a brute Irishman is the cause of his misfortune and in turn the Secret and the plot against Laura and Anne. Because his mother was married to an Irishman (and thus her “marriage” to Sir Glyde was not valid) Percival is unable to inherit the family fortune. Although the Irishman’s deeds are by no means morally sound, it can be implied that it is his fault all of the events in the story happened, and he is not around to voice his own reasoning on the matter. He is nothing more than an Irishman whom can carry the blame (although we as readers still blame Percival for this). Thus both aristocrats, either by their ethnicity or association, represent the types of foreigners who England regards as deceivers and less respectable than true Englishmen.

[1] The Count, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, also represents a non-Anglo Saxon aristocrat who poses a threat to England through his charms, deception, and inversion of gender and sexuality.


Anne & Joanna: Women in the Asylum and “Masculine Responsibility”

“She has escaped from my asylum!” (31) Thus begins the fifth chapter of Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White. Walter Hartright, who has just helped a woman escape from an asylum and find her way to London, ponders the consequences of his actions while torn between two possibilities. “What had I done? Assisted the victim of the most horrible of all false imprisonments to escape; or cast loose on the wide world of London an unfortunate creature, whose actions it was my duty, and every man’s duty, mercifully to control?” (32) Anne Catherik’s appearance and situation while puzzling reminded me of the runaway bride, and while that has yet to be determined as the case it bears striking similarities it is reminiscent of the story of Joanna, and of many other women wrongfully put in asylums, from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street[1].

Joanna is in the care of an elderly and corrupt Judge Turpin who had her father sent to prison overseas because he wanted to possess her mother, and after he proposes to his ward (and she refuses) he has her thrown into the asylum until she “consents” to marry him. While this may not be the exact case with Anne, both characters represent a common problem for women of the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the London Science Museum website a multitude of women who “rejected domesticity” faced the potential danger of being thrown into the insane asylum. They were then subjected to moral treatment, in which a patient is treated like a child rather than an animal and the doctor/caregiver must view themselves as the father running a strict household. Women in asylums were regarded as needing a strong masculine authority in order to be “healed.”

Many people were outraged by how women were treated in asylums, which the London Science Museum also notes contributed to the trope of the “madwoman in the attic” in Victorian literature. If this is the case, and Walter clearly recognizes that women are often unjustly sent to asylums, why does he doubt his actions? While there is the possibility that someone escaping from an asylum has committed some horrible crime but due to their condition were put there, it is highly unlikely. Walter knows the reality of how common cases of innocent women in asylums are. Yet whether or not Anne is in the asylum there is still the problem of a woman on her own, who needs to be controlled by all men.

Thus comes a problem of not only The Woman of White but of society in general. If we think of Walter as all men (and so far the book has only been read from the narration of men), then there is an internal struggle of power due to societal standards and the forced “masculine responsibility.” Men recognize that women are in a troubling social position, yet don’t want to help for fear of relinquishing their power. Therefore, Walter’s thoughts after helping Anne reflect some form of male anxieties and the supposed necessity of male dominance.

[1] While the book The String of Pearls on which the musical is based takes place in the late 18th century, the musical adaptation is based around 1847 in Victorian London.