Archive Project: The Elements of Social Science

George Drysdale’s controversial essay on sexuality (among other things) went wildly against convention in its discussion of female sexual desire. This essay suggests that a “strong sexual appetite” in women is natural and normal, likening it to mental health as an appetite for food is to physical health. Drysdale comments upon the attitude towards open female sexuality at the time, mentioning how many consider that “to have strong sexual passions is held to be rather a disgrace for a woman”. Contrary to this commonly-held belief, he argues that it should be considered acceptable (nay, encouraged!) for women to both have and express sexual desire openly, in the same manner as men. Drysdale correlates the phenomenon of sexual desire with being both entirely physically healthy, and with being in accordance with nature’s wishes.

In an interesting section of the passage, Drysdale dwells upon the power that embracing sexual desire would bring to women. He writes: “The man or woman who is borne down by a weakened and diseased digestion, will recognize strength of stomach and vigour of appetite to be the greatest of all desirable virtues for them, that which lies at the root of every other advantage; and in the same way he who is wallowing in spematorrhoea, impotence, and sexual disgust, or the morbid and chlorotic girl, may recognize sexual power and strong sexual appetites, as the highest and most important of all virtues for them in their position.” Thus, by embracing their sexual appetites instead of repressing them in accordance with society’s expectations, these women will supposedly improve their lives greatly and be able to accomplish more than they would have were they still wallowing in misery stemming from repressed sexual feelings.

One of the most relevant lines, however, is from the third sentence of this excerpt. Drysdale writes that “The moral emotions of love are indeed thought beautiful in her; but the physical ones are rather held unwomanly and debasing.” This sentence sets up what is to come–a challenge to the societal perceptions of women’s sexual desire as being “unwomanly.” If a “woman” in Victorian society at the time is supposed to show no sexual desire (at a detriment to her health, according to Drysdale), but women of the time clearly did experience sexual desire, then what Victorian woman would truly be considered a woman? This passage, by arguing that the sexual desires of Victorian women, contrary to what society says, are natural and healthy, challenges the Victorian “life-script” by suggesting that women should exercise their sexual appetites as men do, and decries the notion of a chaste, virginal maiden, so desired in Victorian society, as unrealistic and unhealthy.

At the time of its publishing, The Elements of Social Science; or, Physical, Sexual, and Natural Religion was considered to be somewhat scandalous, sparking discussion and responses from many other authors of the time period. As a longer work, the collection of essays touched on many topics besides the repressed sexualities of Victorian women, but between then and now Drysdale has been referred to as somewhat of a “sexual pioneer,” with ideas ahead of his time. This is not to say that Drysdale was entirely unbiased and modern, but that he was perhaps more accepting of open sexuality than most of his era. Drysdale’s essay about embracing female sexuality, instead of deeming it “unwomanly,” belongs in the VQA simply for its radical views about female sexuality and how it should be accepted– a view that went against the popular convention at the time.

Link to post on Victorian Queer Archive

The Goblin Market and Identity: Victorian and Modern Perspectives

Christina Rosetti’s poem “Goblin Market” tells the story of two sisters, one of whom falls for the tempting fruits being peddled at the titular bazaar and begins to waste away after tasting these forbidden delicacies. She is only saved when her sister Lizzie braves the same market, but avoids consuming any of the food, instead bringing the juice back for the first sister, Laura, to eat and recover her strength. Overall, the narrative serves as a metaphor for sexual promiscuity and the way in which, in Victorian times, the concepts of virginity and purity were closely tied to personal identity and sense of self. It also highlights a strong sense of familial values and the importance of sibling bonds–“Tender Lizzie could not bear/ To watch her sister’s cankerous care/ Yet not to share.”

A more modern story, the webcomic “Namesake,” co-authored by Megan Lavey-Heaton and Isabelle Melançon, often references Rosetti’s varying works, but makes a fairly major plot point out of the mysterious “goblin market,” a place where vendors buy and sell names, the result of which is a divided identity in which a person’s “existence” is separated from their physical being. Most significantly, the main character, Emma Crewe, is actually the result of such a thing–her parents made a deal at the market, where Emma’s name (and therefore existence) were given to a changeling child, while Emma’s physical body was given to a man named One, the head of an organization currently acting as the main antagonists. This essentially calls into question the concept of identity–is a sense of self more tied to physical traits or to a more metaphysical concept? After some time (and a little help), Emma comes to the conclusion that her identity can’t be determined by what she’s supposed to be, but rather by what she is–even after the discovery of how she came to be, the most defining factor in what makes Emma Emma isn’t that she was created from somebody else, but the ways she relates to other people and her close personal relationships, especially with her sister, Elaine.

While these tales have obvious differences (one being a children’s rhyme written by a Victorian woman containing cautions about sexuality and the other being a very complicated ongoing webcomic written by two modern-day women dealing with a somewhat ridiculous number of thematic elements), the ways in which the works portray the idea of identity and the importance of sibling bonds are especially interesting to compare. The Victorian concept of virginity was highly tied to social status and identity–women were expected to remain virginal until marriage, and an “impure” woman was looked down upon. This change in class is reflected in the physical changes Laura undergoes in “Goblin Market” after eating the fruit: “Her hair grew thin and grey;/She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn/ To swift decay and burn/ Her fire away.” Meanwhile, the modern concept of identity is more focused upon the mental–the idea that who you are “inside” is more significant than who you are externally. This is shown with the conclusions drawn about Emma in “Namesake.”

Another common theme is that of the relationship between sisters. Goblin Market’s Lizzie braves the fairy creatures as a last resort to save Laura, due to their sisterly bond–they are described as being “Like two blossoms on one stem,/ Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow, /Like two wands of ivory” in a fashion reminiscent of the relationship between Hermia and Helena as described in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Emma has a similarly strong relationship with her sister Elaine–indeed, as tied into the discussion about identity, it was Emma’s love for her younger sister which allowed her to become more than a ghost of the “real” Emma Crewe and to take on her own identity–in a way, Elaine saved Emma without even knowing.

The ways in which the concept of a “goblin market” can be represented in works from different time periods can reveal a lot about the prevailing morals and ideologies of the time–for instance, the “sibling bond” is strongly valued in both modern and Victorian times, while (at least in this case) the concept of identity is less tied to morality and more to an internal sense of self.

Yes or No? (or, That Candle is Uncomfortably Close to All That Paper)

Yes or No?

(Image: Yes or No? Illman Brothers, 19th century. n/a, n.d)

The above engraving depicts a woman in relatively typical Victorian fashion, laboring over some correspondence with an unknown conversational partner. The woman is surrounded by scraps of paper, most likely torn up by her as she tries to answer the question posed by the title of the piece: Yes or No?

Given the typical subject matter of the time period, it is likely she is corresponding with a suitor or lover–a man of some description. Before the woman is a box, filled with both paper and strings of beads. This seems to be some sort of storage container for precious objects. Clearly, the letters she is agonizing over mean a lot to her, enough that she would store them with her jewelry (the most prized possession of many women of both that time period and today). The presence of a four-poster bed in the background of the image, as well as a modesty screen suggests that the lady is writing in her own bedroom, the ultimate area of privacy. This suggests that this correspondence is either something she would prefer to hide, or something she feels is important enough to want absolute privacy as she makes up her mind as to the answer to the question.

The most interesting thing in this image, however, is the woman’s facial expression. She does not seem happy at all, and simply “pensive” does not seem to properly encompass the emotion displayed. The lady’s large eyes and quill pen at her lips seem to suggest a sort of sadness or regret, on top of just the simple thoughtfulness that is also portrayed.

The atmosphere of this print overall reminds me of the article on Victorian gender roles on the British Library website by Kathryn Hughes, in which she discusses the separate spheres that men and women were expected to inhabit during this time period. In the image, the woman is hidden away in her bedroom, shown to be solidly within the domestic sphere reserved for Victorian women. Hughes also mentions that “a young girl was not expected to focus too obviously on finding a husband.,” which may relate to the engraving if, indeed, the subject happens to be composing a letter to a male acquaintance or suitor. We have previously discussed in class how much Victorian language was encoded so as not to talk overtly about sex and sexuality–it is possible that the woman in the engraving is attempting to draft a reply to her lover that does not sound too forward, but also conveys her meaning well enough to be understood.

The imposition of societal gender norms on women in Victorian times may also account for the woman’s less-than-thrilled facial expression. As women were not supposed to necessarily enjoy the prospect of marriage or sexuality (being assumed to be more or less asexual as a whole [see William Acton’s medical text]) (Hughes), it would be understandable if the woman in the engraving was not portrayed as being eager to respond to a query from a lover–such correspondence would, naturally, be just an opportunity to gain the chance to produce children and fulfill the maternal duty. Though art oftentimes has messages undermining the social order of the time, the context given by Dr Flaherty seems to indicate that these engravings were indicative of the Victorian attitudes that American audiences desired to emulate, and would therefore likely not have contained such subversive messages.

Bastard Children of Noblemen: A Look at Percival Glyde and Anne Catherick

At first glance, Percival Glyde and Anne Catherick share almost nothing in common–he’s an esteemed Baronet with crippling debts, and she’s an escapee from an Asylum. However, as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White progresses, these two characters exhibit surprisingly similar backgrounds: most plainly, the issues of both of their parentages.

The Secret™ that would ruin Glyde’s life, that Anne claimed to know, that Walter Hartright discovered in the discrepancies between the church records at Old Welmingham, is that his parents never married–in fact, his mother was technically still married to an Irishman, though they had since gone their own ways (531). This made Percival an illegitimate child, unable to truly claim his father’s property at Blackwater…unless he resorted to unsavory means.

After some sleuthing by Walter, it was revealed that Anne, too, was the product of an illegitimate union. “Philip Fairlie had been at Varneck Hall in the autumn of eighteen hundred and twenty-six, and that Mrs. Catherick had been living there in service at the same time (…) Anne had been born in June, eighteen hundred and twenty-seven” (553). However, in this circumstance, Anne’s parents did not remain together–their affair was brief , especially as Philip Fairlie “then left (…) and did not return to Varneck Hall till after a lapse of time, when he reappeared in the character of a newly-married man.” (553) Walter suspects that Anne did not even guess her true parentage–certainly she would have been unable to act upon it as Percival did, even if she was aware. She had no claim to the Fairlie fortune or estate, not to mention the fact that the legitimate Fairlie heir was very present, as opposed to the situation Percival found himself in.

With these similar origins of being born the illegitimate children of well-off men, it is interesting that Anne and Percival are so at odds in the narrative, and perhaps demonstrates the imbalance of power between Victorian women and men. Percival, a man, is made aware of his own “claim” to the Blackwater estate, and does everything he can to claim it, including forging a marriage record, blackmailing Mrs Catherick, and even shutting Anne away when it seems as if she might be too close to revealing The Secret™. Anne, a woman, is first of all described as “being always weak in the head” (534) by her own mother, and her true parentage is hidden from her. She is rejected by Mrs Catherick (perhaps her similarity to her father reminded Mrs Catherick of her own past mistakes?), and ironically receives some motherly affection from Mrs Fairlie, the wife of her true father.

However, the one direct confrontation between Percival and Anne, that leads to Anne’s imprisonment and drives almost the entire plot of the story, comes because Anne speaks up for herself against Percival’s dismissal of her as “the idiot” (536). In Mrs Catherick’s words, “she had always had crazy notions of her own about her dignity,” (536)–in order to gain the upper hand on Percival and establish her presence, Anne used the one thing she had heard that could potentially ruin him–a practice which backfires spectacularly on her, as this leads to Percival demanding she be shut up in an Asylum, a place where she would have even less dignity and autonomy than she had living with her mother. Anne is stripped of all power as Percival gains more.

The two illegitimate children of the narrative are treated incredibly differently, and what this unequal treatment seems to highlight is the unequal power afforded each gender in Victorian society.

Coincidentally Identical? Connections Between Anne and Laura

The striking similarities between the appearances of Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are often remarked upon in The Woman in White, most prominently in a letter from Laura’s mother. This uncanny resemblance seems at first merely an odd twist of fate, but certain remarks throughout the First Epoch of the novel begin to perhaps reveal a new picture. During Mr Gilmore’s description of Laura on page 128, he remarks that “[Miss Fairlie] takes after her father. Mrs Fairlie had dark eyes and hair…” In itself, this seems an offhand comment, but reveals that Laura’s appearance is more similar to the late Mr Fairlie’s, a character whose history has not yet been explored to any major degree. Later on, Mr Gilmore describes the circumstances of Laura’s inheritance and tracks the specific path that has led Laura to be the heir to the Limmeridge estate (148). Such time is spent on meticulously plotting the potential lines of inheritance and discussing the ways in which Laura could either lose or ultimately end up owning the property that the very presence of such a passage seems to foreshadow its coming importance. Is it possible that some later revelation could upset this system of birthright and legal claim to Limmeridge House?

When Percival Glyde is asked about the matter of Anne Catherick, he mentions his connections to her mother, who “had been doubly unfortunate in being married to a husband who had deserted her, and in having an only child whose mental faculties had been in a disturbed condition from a very early age” (131). What is significant here is the mention of Anne’s father, who has been conspicuously absent from any other description of her family until this point. Although not much information is given beyond the fact that he is a man who deserted his wife and young child, it is enough to perhaps piece together a theory about the connection between the two near-identical girls who are integral parts of the story.

Could it perhaps be proposed that the desertee father of Anne Catherick was none other than Philip Fairlie himself? It has already been stated by Mrs Fairlie that Anne was “about a year older than our darling Laura” (59), which would allow time for Philip to have broken off his relationship with Jane Anne Catherick, married Laura’s mother, and have Laura be born. If this is the case, the issue of the inheritance becomes even more complicated. Anne would take the role of heir to the estate, being the elder of the two daughters, and making Laura’s marriage settlement almost pointless. It follows that, if, perhaps, a certain Percival Glyde was aware of the parentage of Anne Catherick, but also aware of the fact that Laura was considered the heir to the estate, and was in need of money in order to pay off debts, Glyde would do anything in his power to guarantee his acquisition of the Limmeridge estate. If Anne Catherick was truly the heir to the estate, and Glyde knew about this, it would explain why he was so eager to shut her away in an Asylum, and to recapture her before anybody (specifically Mr Hartright) discovered her parentage. It would also explain why he then pursued Laura–in an engagement arranged specifically by Philip Fairlie (73)! Did Glyde threaten to expose Anne’s true parentage if Mr Fairlie did not give him Laura’s hand? As of yet, it is near impossible to say. However, the textual evidence seems perhaps to point to Anne and Laura’s resemblance being not mere coincidence, but a sign of a shared parent and much intrigue.