Victorian Women and Menstruation

I came across this article in my research for CALM lab and I found it both fascinating and hilarious.  It provides excellent examples of Victorian discourse  surrounding sexuality and women’s health and I think because of that it ties in nicely to our class.  The link below takes you to Dickinson’s JumpStart, but the full article can be accessed through JSTOR.

Expectations and the Other Reality

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll brilliantly defies all expectations. The form alone is very different from the standard Victorian novel and its content is even more foreign.  In fact, to Alice and her readers, everything is foreign in Wonderland.  Language is contorted, reason and logic appear senseless, and no previously learned schemas or scripts can be applied to aid our understanding of Wonderland and its inner-workings.  This is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the book.

For one, animals do not talk or wear clothing in reality.  But in Wonderland’s reality, they do.  When Alice first unfurls this nuance in meeting the Rabbit, “it all seem[s] quite natural” that the Rabbit runs around talking to itself, but when she thinks about it afterwards “it occur[s] to her that she ought to have wondered at this” (2).  Here the lines of expectations and reality are blurred.  Alice is a smart girl who has a strong sense of how the world works, but at this particular moment she allows a foreign reality (this Other reality in which animals audibly talk to themselves) to supersede any expectations or preconceived notions of the facts of her existence.

Once Alice is deeper into Wonderland, she defines her expectations and reality much more clearly. For example, when Alice enters the Duchess’s house she is appalled that the cook would throw pots and pans at the Duchess and her baby, but “the Duchess took no notice of them even when they hit her”  (48).  In Alice’s preconceived schema for what a home should look like, throwing pots and pans certainly does not jive.  But the scene does not phase the Duchess— she does not flinch or consider herself a victim of domestic violence as Alice assumes.  There is an obvious tension between Alice’s expectations of reality and the Other reality within the Duchess’s home.

I call Wonderland the Other reality because it exists in the book as a reality that exists alongside Alice’s perception of reality while also opposing it.  The Other reality is an unexpected reality whose credibility Alice chooses to accept or deny.

We can explore another example of the Other reality in examining Jean-Paul Jamin’s engraving, “Tragedy of the Stone Age.”

Upon first glance, this painting seems not unordinary, much like how the Rabbit did not appear unordinary to Alice.  After some time though, the Other reality reveals itself more clearly.  The first thing I see when I look at this painting is that the lion has killed a woman– not a terribly common situation, but it is not surprising either– which would explain the man’s anguish and grief.  But then I notice that the man is a hunter, too– a predator of does.  Knowing this, the man’s expression shifts from one of grief to one of aggression. And now a parallel reality is unveiled;  the Other reality here is the reality in which man and lion are peers of lust, power, and strength and the woman and the doe are their victims.  But it is up to the viewers to consider their own expectations and realities, like Alice, in order to actively accept or deny this Other reality.

Our Dynamic Demoiselle Duos

“If there ever comes a time when the women of the world come together purely and simply for the benefit of mankind, it will be a force such as the world has never known.” Matthew Arnold

The Beloved by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The image displayed above is a snapshot of a larger painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that illustrates a bride and her four bridesmaids.  The painting is probably most famous for its exoticism, but for the purpose of this post I will be focusing on the two women above.

Throughout many of our texts, sisterly bonds prove to be very powerful and withstanding of all outside pressures and evils.  Our first duo, Laura and Marian, are so intimate that Carolyn Dever writes, “the union of Laura and Marian is […] a union based on emotional depth, mutual trust, and the presumption of permanence” (114).  In spite of Sir Percival’s plot to embezzle their family fortune and install Laura into an asylum in lieu of her phenotypical twin, the sisterly bond between these two half sisters maintains its resilience throughout the Woman in White.

More recently in the course we’ve been introduced to a new couple of sisters, Laura and Lizzie.  In her poem “Goblin Market,” Christina G. Rossetti describes the two, “like two pigeons in one nest” and “two blossoms on one stem” (478, 6, 2-5).  And in the face of “the haunted glen,/The wicked, quaint fruit merchant men” the women survive a near death.  And in its sum, the last few lines of the poem praise the strength of sisterly bonds: “‘For there is no friend like a sister/In calm or stormy weather;/To cheer one on the tedious way,/ to fetch one if one goes astray,/To lift one if one totters down,/To strengthen whilst one stands’ (488, 26, 21-26).

If we return to the painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the bride and her closest bridesmaid, most likely her sister, seem like a particularly potent pair.  There is a clear sexual tension present and both the women make bold eye contact with the gaze of their audience, suggesting their fearlessness.  But if you examine the two women separately:

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their individual expressions maintain the innocence and purity of the ideal Victorian woman seen in many of the paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite artists.

And so it appears that the company of another woman or a group of women is what gives them their power.  This is something that Matthew Arnold clearly understood and I think it is also an underlying fear, perhaps, of other Victorian authors and painters.  For both pairs, Laura and Marian and Laura and Lizzie, possess a virtue, competence, and strength that suggests “a force such as the world has never known.”



Life, Liberty, Property, and Women

As the title suggests, the central characters in The Woman in White surround marriage and brides.  What is interesting about the novel is though marriage is the only acceptable social and legal communion between man and woman in the Victorian era, Collins’ presents marriage “as [the] sinkhole of deception, hostility, abuse” (Dever, 114) and illegal activity that is naturally present in male-female relations.

If we examine the conventional marriages in the novel, there is a clear male-dominated, female-directed ownership and exploitation that is justified in the name of property laws.  The most obvious of these is Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival.  The central marriage of the novel is motivated by the man’s desire to secure the monetary inheritances of his wife.

A side note here: traditional Victorian marriages typically joined a man and a woman of similar economic and social standing.  For instance, Laura’s father would never have arranged her marriage to a middle class, blue-collared worker because quite frankly his name would not deserve the Fairlie Estate and he would not be able to provide for his wife in a reciprocal nature.

Back to the point: When we realize that Sir Percival “was not Sir Percival Glyde at all, that he had no more claim to the baronetcy and to Blackwater Park than the poorest labourer who worked on the estate,” it becomes clear that he intended to absorb Laura’s property through the justification of marriage (510).  What otherwise would have been illegal (Percival’s right to aristocratic inheritance) is warranted by the sanctity of mariage.

We see similar questionable, if not illegal, manipulations in the Fosco marriage.  Throughout Walter’s investigations it is revealed that Count Fosco is associated with an illegal organization referred to as ‘The Brotherhood’ (574). And from what we’ve seen of Madame Fosco’s obedience to the Count, it can be assumed that she has been used and manipulated by the Count either to protect his identity or to further his illegal agenda.  When he writes his confessions he also admits to his control over his wife: “I ask, if a woman’s marriage obligations, in this country, provide for her private opinion of her husband’s principles? No! They charge her unreservedly to love, honor, and obey him” (612).  Clearly, Madame Fosco was not allowed to think or act independently within the marriage, so her illegal associations with The Brotherhood were a direct consequence of man’s ownership of woman.  Through her marriage to Fosco, Madame Fosco was legally contracted to act as the instrument for her husband’s illegal endeavors.

Even Mrs. Rubelle’s marriage ties her to illegal activity.  Her husband’s relation to Fosco directly linked Mrs. Rubelle’s interests to the Count’s if by nothing other than her marriage (598, 603).  And so Mrs. Rubelle becomes an active member of the illegal identity-swap of Anne and Laura for the legal benefit to both Sir Percival and the Count.

But women are also exploited when involved in extramarital male-female affairs.  The male-domination and manipulation of women is “natural” in a society where women are second class, but it seems that outside of marriage they are given no legal safety net for this abuse.   For one, Mrs. Catherick births an illegitimate daughter in exploitation by Mr. Fairlie’s sexual desire.  This consequently leads Mrs. Catherick to a life of isolation and societal rejection.  And on an unrelated occasion, she is also used by Sir Percival as a means to execute a criminal scheme to which she is held accountable until the day Sir Percival dies (532-533).

In fact, critics of The Woman in White including Carolyn Dever, cite homosexual and bisexual relations as the only ‘marriages’ that do not hinge on this unbalance between partners and abuse of women as men’s property.  More specifically, Dever writes that the sisterly love between Laura and Marian is “affirmative, loving,” mutual, and respectable (void of an illegal activity and exploitation) (114).  And so it appears that it is the legal and social sanctity of male-female marriages and relations that permit abuse and the less socially and much less legally acceptable sanction of female-female relations that allow for the freedoms of life and liberty.

Collin’s Narration and Marian’s Womanhood

From the very beginning of the novel, Wilkie Collins sets up a unique narration that sets the reader at the edge of page, quick to discover what comes next.  But what I find most intriguing about Collins’ narrative style is its strategic characterization of Marian Halcombe.

Our first impressions of Marian are relayed to us by Walter Hartright, “the lady is dark…the lady is young… the lady is ugly!” (34).  He continues to elaborate on Miss Halcombe’s bold, masculine features which include a strong jaw, facial hair, resolution, and strong will, concluding she is altogether wanting femininity in her physical appearance and demeanor (35).  Though, Walter does admit to a certain charm to her “modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved,” it is made explicit that Marian is more man than woman (35).  She is described as level-headed, intelligent, and analytical, a stark contrast to both Laura and Mrs. Vesey who project feminine passivity.

Not only does Walter divorce Marian from his schema of femininity, but Marian also reinforces this instinct by rejecting female-gender-roles and removing herself from the stereotype ‘Victorian woman.’  During Walter’s narration she repeatedly generalizes woman in a very negative light and explicitly admits, “I don’t think much of my own sex, Mr. Hartright” (36). This attitude towards Marian continues through the end of Walter’s narration and into Mr. Gilmore’s narration.

There is a shift however, when Marian begins her narration.  From this point on, Marian’s gender established in the first two sections is contradicted and blurred.  For one, we witness Marian accept her role as a woman when she coddles and protects Laura.  She laments the pain that all women suffer at the hands of men with “miserable, weak, women’s tears.”  And her narration produces a less rational, level-headed voice than Mr. Hartright suggested.  She narrates like a school girl might gossip, impulsively and indulgently.  She frequently relates one idea, only to contradict it later.  For example, when Marian tries to decide her feelings towards Sir Percival she is at first uneasy, though in her journal entry on December 2 she writes, “ on looking back I find myself aways referring to Sir Percival in disparaging terms. In the turn affairs have now taken, I must and will root out my prejudice against him” (186).  She continues of the next few days to praise his handsome looks and respectable behaviors as his “pure charity, his conduct….deserves extraordinary praise!” (190).  But on December 20 she writes, “I hate Sir Percival! I flatly deny his good looks.  I consider him to be eminently ill tempered and disagreeable, and totally wanting in kindness and good feeling” (191).  Therefore Marian is now seen as fickle and easily swayed, more like a woman than a man.  Even later Marian’s voice suggests hysteria in her jealousy and paranoia combined with her impulsive nature.  This shift in characterization of Marian is directly linked to Collin’s narrative style.  Mr. Hartright and Mr. Gilmore write their passage after the written events have already ended, giving them ample time to reflect on and analyze them.  However, Marian’s narration takes place as the events take place which therefore leads the reader to think that she is less rational than the men, more like a woman, and therefore less reliable as a narrator.