Sexuality and Being Self-Same

Throughout Victorian literature, and even in the minds of Victorians, women were expected to uphold certain beauty standards. Specifically, the tuberculosis-chic idealization, ever-flowing hair, and pale/ghostly skin, became a figure that women aspired to achieve. Due to this spreading notion, women were then considered to be redundant, and self-same, especially in the eyes of those during the time period itself. In both “The Sleeping Venus” by Michael Field, and “In An Artist’s Studio” by Christina Rossetti, notions of sexuality and redundancy are spoken upon.

The Sleeping Venus, by Giorgione, courtesy of The Poems of Michael Field

The poem itself, as written by Michael Field, essentially depicted the way in Venus, lays amongst the grass in peace. However, within the text, Field exclaims that Venus is the embodiment of all women, and how the entire community (of women) shares a sense of togetherness with one another, due to their utmost sexual and redundant appearance. Field states,

“And her body has the curves,
The same extensive smoothness seen…
For the sex that forms them each
Is a bond, a holiness,
That unconsciously must bless
And unite them, as they lie
Shameless underneath the sky” (stanza 3).

Through word choice, we as the reader are able to both visualize the poem into life, or in this case, what is shown through a painting. The repetition of the body being put up to almost a microscope, ultimately shows how women are constantly being looked at, especially in a sexual manner. By having the words “same” and “extensive” be in the poem itself, allows for the reader to assume that this view of women is apparent in all sorts of literature, and in many tropes within. Furthermore, the ‘bond’ and sense of union they share, literally and figuratively, demonstrates how women are grouped together based on the physical appearance they are expected to uphold.

Alike, in Rossetti’s piece, “An Artist’s Studio”, the idea that women are shape-shifters of one another is prevalent. She states,

“One face looks out from all his canvases,

A queen in opal or in ruby dress,

A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,

The same one meaning, neither more or less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (1).

In the excerpt, despite the role that these women play in society, ‘a queen’ or a ‘nameless girl’, Rosetti highlights that these women are in fact, the same, disposable beings. By having this man in particular, mold these women for his own pleasure, even if it is not in a sexual manner, it causes the reader to further make the connection between repetition of body standards, and how such can be harmful to the nature of women entirely.

Both pieces, “The Sleeping Venus” by Michael Fields and “In An Artists’ Studio” by Christina Rosetti exemplify how women during the Victorian era were seen as one-and-the-same, a union of figures that were ultimately deemed useless. Unfortunately, this was due to the beauty standard/ expectations of physical appearance during the Victorian era that kept this ideal in place for many years to come, even during contemporary times.



Mirroring Expectations

Lacking expectations may quite simply mean not fulfilling someone’s desires, whether that be ones’ partner or society as a whole. While this inadequacy may include notions of sexuality, appearance, or personality in contemporary times, in the Victorian era, all of these components when put together, define womanhood.

“Expectation” from the Trout Gallery

The piece displayed above, provided by the Trout Gallery, exemplifies the two-fold of fulfillment and lacking, as well as expectation versus reality. In the artwork, one notices the typical woman showing redundant ‘tuberculosis-chic’ characteristics. The doe-eyed creature looking into the distance further characterizes her as lacking impurity and upholding a sense of virtue. With her flowing, dark hair contrasted to the whiteness of her gown, the viewer sees the way in which a Victorian woman is supposed to appear as, thus showing the expectation of women during the time.  However, reality soon plays a part in the piece, as we can see that the women is framed both literally and metaphorically. By having the focal point of the artwork, the woman, reside within a mirror, it allows for a greater message to unfold throughout the piece itself. The viewer and the woman within the piece are contrasted, because as the woman looks out of the mirror, us as the viewer, look in. Thus, while the woman is looking beyond, because she already upholds Victorian characteristics of womanhood, the viewer is looking inward, as they may not.

Alike to “Expectation”, where the viewer and woman in the artwork are on opposing ends, in Christina Rossetti’s poem, In An Artist’s Studio, the ‘self-same’ figure and the male painter also contrast one another, when Rossetti states,

“One face looks out from all his canvases,

That mirror gave back all her loveliness.

A queen in opal or in ruby dress,

A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,

The same one meaning, neither more or less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (1).

In the excerpt, the reader can see that the woman within the paintings all relate to one another, not necessarily because they are women, but because they all appear similar. Despite the role that they play in society, whether that be a ‘queen’ or a ‘nameless girl’, Rossetti makes it clear that these women are redundant, almost shape-shifters of one another. By having the male mold these women, and ‘feed’ upon them, it further shows the distinction between expectation and reality. In the piece “Expectation”, similarly, the woman stuck within the mirror is on display for those to gaze at her. Although she holds a higher ‘standing’ than the woman in “In An Artist’s Studio”, as she upholds Victorian beauty standards, regardless, altogether represents the desires of society. In Christina Rosetti’s poem, these women may be queens and saints, but to the painter, to him, they are only pieces to fulfill his desires as well as society’s.

“In a Greek Captive’s Studio” : Rossetti and the Trout Gallery

Within Christina Rossetti’s poem, “In An Artist’s Studio” , the writer depicts the way in which women are unfortunately forced to succumb to the male gaze. Specifically, Rossetti uses metaphors and imagery-rich descriptions to showcase how one man uses women as ‘objects’ for his paintings. Merely on display for the artists’ pleasure, Rossetti describes such when she states,

“One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:

We found her hidden just behind those screens…

He feeds upon her face by day and night,” (Rossetti 1).

In the excerpt above, women (through a masculinized gaze) could be characterized as mundane, with no purpose other than for the sole pleasuring of the male species. Likewise, as we viewed in the Trout Gallery, the piece “The Greek Captive” also displays the way in which women are forced to be subservient to men.

“The Greek Captive” from the Trout Gallery

Explicitly shown through body language and stature, the man in the back has utter control over the Greek woman leaning forward. Although it seems she is attempting to move away from the man behind her, the title of the artwork suggests otherwise as she is held under captivity. The weapon that he appears to be holding, the smirk on his face showcasing his supposed superiority, and the fact that he is standing upright all demonstrate the forced subordination of the woman. Showcased in Rossetti’s poem “In An Artist’s Studio”, the women subjects of the male artists’ paintings are inferior to him. While we as the reader may question if they are forced to be his ‘models’ or not, regardless, through phrases such as “he feeds upon her” and “we found her hidden”, it is evident that these women are victims of traditional gender roles: to sit still and look pretty. Both pieces, “In An Artist’s Studio” and “The Greek Captive” highlight the unfortunate gendered hierarchy of men and women, where regardless of force, are hindered to a state of inferiority.

“The Woman in White” or “The Men Who Take over the Entirety of the Novel”?

Within the novel by Wilkie Collins, the reader is encountered by various perspectives, of mostly men, as well as aspects of Victorian literature, such as sensation and superstition. Towards the end of the story itself, answers of questions regarding the plot and its purpose are brought forth. In particular, Count Fosco in his narration, expands upon the idea of identity and altogether, what Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie preserved for these men. He states,

“The whole force of my intelligence was now directed to the finding of Anne Catherick. Our money affairs, important as they were, admitted of delay–but the necessity of discovering the woman admitted of none…when coupled with the additional information that Anne Catherick had escaped from a madhouse, started the first immense conception in my mind” (600).

In the excerpt above, Count Fosco explicitly remarks on the ‘hold’ Anne Catherick has on himself, as well as how she has consumed his thoughts. Through the word choice and phrase, ‘the whole force of my intelligence’, one is able to fully understand that Fosco is infatuated with Anne Catherick, due to the ultimate bearing she has upon him. Furthermore, with the addition of the following sentence, where monetary aspects are supposedly pushed aside, it causes the reader to actually question whether or not this is ultimately true. As recounted in class, Collins employs hidden meanings when he brings forth an aspect and then quickly remarks on the fact that it is quite simply ‘no big deal’, or in this case, ‘admitted of delay’. From this sentence added, Collins characterizes Fosco, and other men within the text, as being infatuated with women as well as money.

Not only does Fosco recount how Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are inherent with aspects of money, but he also includes Sir Percival. He states,

“Lady Glyde and Anne Catherick were to change names, places, and destinies, the one with the other–the prodigious consequences contemplated by the change being the gain of thirty thousand pounds, and the eternal preservation of Sir Percival’s secret” (600).

Explicitly shown above, Fosco speaks on themes of money, 30,000 pounds, as well as Sir Percival’s secret. In relation to the text entirely, it is quite interesting that he begins by talking about the women within the novel, and then turns to how they have a direct effect on wealth. Throughout the entirety of the novel, we as the reader, have seen instances of wealth being the ‘end-all-be-all’ of most situations including women. In regards to Sir Percival’s secret, it is ironic that the secret, of him being an illegitimate child, is thus told by Mrs. Catherick to Walter, and ultimately scarred. Essentially, the fact that wealth is involved only heightens classism, and social standing acquired, truly answering the question of what the novel is truly about…males and money.


Preying on Vulnerability: Mr. Hartright, Miss Fairlie, & Anne Catherick

What is your level of comfortability, of vulnerability, of safety, when approaching a man like Mr. Hartright? 

Within Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, most of the female characters are not given agency, as they are essentially described through Mr. Hartright’s first-person narrative. Miss Fairlie and Anne Catherick, in particular, are two women that catch the eye of Hartright, both based on their physical appearance and their mannerisms. Ultimately, however, I am arguing that Mr. Hartright is infatuated with the two, not solely because of their looks or the way in which they act, but also characteristically, the way in which they appear to him.

Prior to arriving at the Limberidge house, Mr. Hartright is abruptly approached, by what and who the reader knows to be the “women in white”, and later on within the novel, Anne Catherick. At first, weary of her appearance and the abrupt manner in which she speaks, he then begins to become interested in her, not sexually, but rather peculiarly. The reader essentially is able to enter his mind and thoughts, when he states, “The loneliness and helplessness of the woman touched me. The natural impulse to assist her and spare her, got the better of the judgement…” (25). In this specific excerpt, through word play, we are able to see how Mr. Hartright preyed on Anne Catherick because of her outward vulnerability. Adjectives such as “loneliness” and “helplessness”, often terms associated with having a negative connotation, were used by Collins to portray him as predatory. Furthermore, the use of it being a “natural impulse to spare her”, unveils the idea that Hartright always wants to be seen as heroic, and selfless…always at a women’s rescue.

Later on within the novel, shortly after arriving at the house as a drawing instructor, he meets Miss Fairlie, who immediately catches his attention. Through thorough physical characterization, he deems her as “wanting something” and him, the same. The reader is able to contextualize and believe what, according to Hartright, they both want, is sex. As the narration continues, the two embark on conversations that include drawing, nature, and finally trust. The two show their immediate connection, when Miss Fairlie simply states, “Because I shall believe all that you say to me” (54). Shortly afterwards, the reader gains insight into Mr. Hartrights’ view and characterization of Laura, when it states, “In these few words, she unconsciously gave me the key to her whole character; to that generous trust in others, which in her nature, grew innocently out of the sense of her own truth. I only knew it intuitively then. I know it by experience now” (54). In this specific excerpt, Hartright is unknowingly, taking advantage of Miss Fairlie’s outright trust and vulnerability towards him. The use of “unconsciously” further demonstrates the unfortunate sense of her being completely and utterly oblivious to her, as Collins states, ‘giving the key to her whole character’, thus making her to be a woman of vulnerability.

Both Anne Catherick and Miss Fairlie unfortunately fall victim to Mr. Hartright’s outward obsession towards them, and furthermore, display a sense of vulnerability, which he takes advantage of. While Anne Catherick does so implicitly, through her weary and unstable mannerisms, Miss Fairlie explicitly does so, speaking of the utmost trust she has developed for him. Unfortunately, the two women succomb to Mr. Hartrights’ heroism in ways that many women do today.