The “New Woman” at the fin de siècle was the great specter of female independence for the traditional society at large. Buzwell’s “Daughters of Decadence: the New Woman in the Victorian Fin de sciècle” highlights the larger concerns about the New Woman, whether she was the intelligent sexually and societally liberated being or the surly, masculinized suffragette. Both ultimately posed great threats to the heteronormative ideals of typical Victorian life as the New Woman typically held few if any aspirations towards marriage. Ultimately this was due to “educational and employment prospects for women improving” which resulted in marriage and motherhood no longer being the inevitable methods of securing financial security (Buzwell). So, women with other aspirations were able to pursue education or employment in the new “pink-collar” jobs that became available to women in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.
However, the New Woman, both literary and literal posed a threat to the status quo of the society. Not only did these women overthrow the norms of familial duty and typical gender roles, but they also represented and worked towards broader social change. The quintessential New Woman was often a suffragette, campaigning for the vote in a pair of bloomers on a bicycle. Ultimately, she breaks the rules: few mannerisms that were to masculine, promiscuous or prohibitively unattractive, always breaking the rules of propriety, whether through her mode of dress or through a behavior like smoking.
Art, particularly satirical comics in newspapers were often used during the late Victorian and early Edwardian period. The Dutiful Daughter comic from 1916 gives one satirized example of a potential New Woman, who goes marching out in her thigh high boots, cheekily following her mother’s advice. Like many other New Women, she is technically following the established rules, but clearly her method meets disapproval. Obviously she is also being critiqued for her sexuality, filling a role like the sensual Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Buzwell). Other depictions of the New Woman featured a mannish and brusque woman who chain smoked and refuted any sense of feminine delicacy (Buzwell). Frances Benjamin Johnston reclaimed this title in her self-portrait as a New Woman, sitting with a cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other, she embodies the negative stereotypes of the brutish new woman and embraces them as well.
Victorian literary New Women are either embraced or punished in their respective works, but Victorian and Edwardian visual also functioned as a public method to either condemn or praise the women who engage in the society as “new women”. Satirical cartoons repressed the New Woman into a stereotype and painting her as the most undesirable type of person with a sad and bitter life, urging women to return to a more traditional social role. On the other hand, art like that of Johnston replaced the power back into the hands of “new women” allowing them to claim and correct their own image.
Moreau’s “The Apparition” depicts Salome demanding John the Baptist’s head. As the biblical story goes, Herod had imprisoned John the Baptist for claiming that his marriage to Herodias, wife of his late brother, was invalid. However, Herod was unwilling to kill the prophet due to his popularity. However, when his stepdaughter, Salome danced at a feast, Herod promised her whatever she wanted, and Salome demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Moreau’s painting depicts Salome as the ultimate temptress. In the Victorian eye, her assuredness in her power, shown by her stance, and her vanity and evil sexuality, shown through her opulent but revealing clothes secure her image as the clear villain of the story.
Similarly Bertha in The Lifted Veil fills the role of evil seductress. Latimer maintains that she “intoxicated me” seducing him with her “playful tyranny” (29). He blames her for his choice to continually pursue her. Like Salome, Bertha is characterized as vain and shallow through her “White ball-dress, with the green jewels” (34) and her “rich peignoir” (40) and her other efforts to remain fashionable. Despite his knowledge of Bertha’s character, Latimer still marries her and is shocked by her hatred. He is the architect of this failure, in spite of his gift of foresight, and still blames Bertha rather than his own actions.
The villainy of these women is effectively a twisted version of Victorian ideals placed on women. Victorian women were meant to be beautiful, fashionable, and above all—appealing to men. However, they were not supposed to have agency: effectively they were dolls or decoration, if they were beautiful, it was to be observed and enjoyed by others, their fashionable clothes were simply an expectation, not desired by the wearer. Any form of intention to beauty, fashion, or the use of these as tools was inherently bad. To intentionally dress in opulence or fashionable trends was to be shallow. If you were aware of your beauty, you were vain and self-absorbed. If your beauty or sexuality led to a man’s downfall, then you were an evil siren. The idealized attributes of women were never their own possession, and to claim them and use them was to take on the role of temptress.
The Pre-Raphaelite artists sought to create beauty in all things and have it present in every man’s life. Ruskin saw art as the Divine or godly expressing itself through artists, so beauty was “vital to man’s private existence” (Altick, 282). The Victorian artists even believed that the presence of beauty in society would help heal the moral decay of their society. The Pre-Raphaelite artists sought to make art that was “freshly observed nature transferred to canvas” (Altick, 288) primarily by painting ethereal women. This idea seems to echo William Rathbone Greg’s idea that women’s occupation should be “completing, sweetening, and embellishing the existence of others” (Greg, 158). The art seen during this period certainly seeks to use the female form for its beauty.
Christina Rossetti’s poem encapsulates this idea from the perspective of a woman and a model, but also an artist in her own right. She describes a “nameless girl” (Rossetti) who is valued for her beauty, not for her personhood, distinctly “Not as she is, but as she fills his dreams” (Rossetti). Christina Rossetti writes on how the unknown girl is in every painting “a saint, an angel” (Rossetti) truly anything other than herself. This creates an interesting dichotomy in how women are viewed in the Victorian mindset as both subhuman and superhuman. On one hand, women are effectively lesser, considered incapable of intelligent decision-making and good for childrearing. The upholders of the heterosexual family and not much else. However, they are simultaneously the ethereal muses and the symbols of precious Victorian beauty. Yet in neither of these analyses are women allowed to exist outside of male need and male ideology. At every turn, non-working-class women were meant to be the perfect mother and wife, yet innocent and virginal, beautiful and accomplished but not powerful. Madonna and Aphrodite in a single person who is not allowed agency or independence.
Count Fosco in every sense is a villain and master manipulator. He habitually controls everyone and everything conceivable in his environment. In Freud’s terms Fosco is himself under a compulsion to repeat. Marian’s primary impression of him upon their first meeting is of “a man who could tame anything” (Collins, 217). Fosco certainly seems to have that mission, given that he has already “transformed her [Madame Fosco] into a civil, silent, unobtrusive woman” (Collins, 216) and has trained mice, a cockatoo, and canaries all to do his absolute bidding. Essentially, Fosco engages in mesmerism to control and manipulate those around him. Even Sir Percival is forced to succumb to Fosco’s will, calming when Fosco tells him too and adhering to a schedule based on Fosco’s “absolute will and pleasure” (Collins, 314).
Freud theorizes that the repetition of a certain action or habit is the result of repression and states that “the repetition is a transference of the forgotten past…onto all the other aspects of the current situation” (Freud, 151). Using this idea, we can theorize about Fosco’s character and his past. Freud believes that this form of compulsive action is the result of repressing and forgetting a memory and situation until the person “reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it” (Freud 150). We can then ask why Fosco repeatedly seeks to control those around him and what fear or past he represses.
There is certainly an intense desire or need for control as Count Fosco will go out of his way to control anyone in his environment. His interaction with Percival’s dog indicates that need as he actively seeks out that interaction to bully the dog into submission. He declares that the dog is an “infernal coward” and that the dog won’t hurt him as “I’m not afraid of you” (Collins, 221). In the end, the dog fears Fosco. While fear is not necessarily Fosco’s primary mode of control, he certainly uses it, and seems to enjoy using it more than his other tactics of mesmerism. When Marian is the victim of his intimidation tactics, she notes that “There was something horrible – something fierce and devilish in the outburst of his delight at his own singing and playing, and in the triumph with which he watched its effect upon me” (Collins, 314). Fosco is then, perhaps much like the bloodhound he bullies: a coward who represses his own constant fear, seeking instead to transfer it to others.
“Mr. Hartright, you surprise me. Whatever women may be, I thought that men, in the nineteenth century, were above superstition” (62.)
Miss Halcombe rebukes Hartright’s superstition when he states that Laura’s resemblance to Anne “seems like casting a shadow” (62) on her future. The language of superstition tracks throughout the early parts of the narrative, increasing the sensational aspects of the novel. However, each instance is rejected as nonsense or overactive imagination, as Jacob Postlethwaite’s ghost “Arl in white—as a ghaist should be” (87) is dismissed. As Miss Halcombe seems to believe, the nineteenth century is too enlightened for ghosts and superstition.
The Victorian Gothic situates elements of the supernatural into a realistic setting. This realism tinged with the uncanny perhaps provides a space for the discussion of taboo topics. The first ghostlike appearance of the woman in white on the road to London immediately associates her with a spirit, rather than a scandalous lady of the night. This may allow Collins to work with her character without excessive criticism. Even her stance when the woman asks Hartright a question is incredibly gothic: “her face bent in grave inquiry on min, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London” (24). Obviously, this is a very unnatural way to ask a question, so by making the woman in white slightly off-putting or unhuman, Collins subverts some degree of sexual scandal in this section.
Doing this work is critical for the character of Anne Catherick, as she is the most easily provocative character at this point. She is consistently violating the rules of propriety and her past is rather uncertain. But by giving her ghostlike qualities, referencing European superstitions about a wraith-like woman or spirit all in white, Collins is ultimately able to write a character who breaks rules of propriety and conduct without his novel being entirely dismissed for sexual or provocative content. Her sudden and ghostly appearances and features, “deathlike stillness” (95) on her face or the petrifying nature of her touch (23, 97) all give her a spirit-like qualities, and these potentially free her from certain confines a character with purely human appearances might be under. Essentially, her otherness prevents an audience from judging her actions and appearance by normal standards as she seems to be supernatural.
While ultimately, Collins writes a sensation novel and gothic aspects are expected in that genre, he enjoys an element of freedom by working in allusions to the supernatural. Cohen’s writing on sex scandals and their effect on the Victorian novel hypothesized that the length of these novels was in part due to the urge to avoid explicitly speaking about sex while still producing works that comment on sexuality, gender roles, and sex through coded language (Cohen). The spooky setting of the Victorian Gothic provides a similar freedom as the uncanny and quasi-supernatural aspects cover a degree of the scandalous and provocative content.