Archive Project: “The Terrible Scandals in ‘High Life'”

The newspaper article published by Reynolds’s Newspaper on December 1, 1889, titled “The Terrible Scandals in ‘High Life,’” discusses the treatment of the crime of sodomy by the police, specifically about the Cleveland Street scandal in which a male brothel frequented by several prominent men was discovered. The writers of the article criticize the police for attempting to hide the crime from the public, drawing on the belief that sodomy was a prevalent upper-class crime that corrupted youth like the telegraph boys recruited to work as prostitutes in the Cleveland Street house. The tension between those who attempted to hide the scandal from the public and those who worked to expose it is interesting because of their motivations: the police, according to this source, in part wanted to keep the public from knowing that so many high society men went to male brothels, which could seem to normalize the crime, while the newspapers wanted to promote prosecuting the crime more stringently and in the same way as they would any other crime, including publishing those accused in the papers.

In part because the events referred to would have already been written about in previous news stories, so that the public was aware of the nature of the crime, the language used in this article never explicitly refers to sex between men, but comes the closest when it explains the excuse Henry James Fitzroy, referred to as Lord Euston, gave for having been to the house, which was that he had mistakenly believed he would see “a display of naked women,” and that he left upon realizing that it was actually “one of the other sex”. The article itself actually acknowledges the coded nature of its own descriptions of the events, saying that the most extreme measures allowed by law should be used to “stamp out practices of an unnatural and revolting shape too hideous even to be mention[ed].” This article also subtly references the prostitutes murdered in the Jack the Ripper cases, saying that the police had worked harder to protect upper class criminals than lower class female victims, described as “unfortunate women.”  It is an excellent example of the type of under-the-surface discussion of taboo topics we read about in the excerpt from William Cohen’s book Sex, Scandal, and the Novel, while also showing the public points of view expressed towards homosexual acts, which included the belief that there existed a “Sodomite institution” amongst their apparently normative society.


Source: London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914

Literally Columbus: Language and Colonialism in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Christopher Columbus


In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice plays the role of the traveler through the rabbit hole into a foreign land who, despite speaking the same language as the natives, perpetually finds herself confounded by their alternate interpretations of words and symbols, confusing her cultural expectations. The scene in which Alice is presented the thimble from her own pocket as a prize for having won the race along with all the other animals immediately reminded me of Christopher Columbus’s description of trading with indigenous populations in his “Letter to the Sovereigns, 4 March 1493”: “Everything they have or had they gave for whatever one gave them in exchange, even taking a piece of glass or broken crockery or some such thing, for gold or some other thing of whatever value.” Columbus presents the natives as ignorant and naive because of these trades, which he views as imbalanced. Alice is equally puzzled by the presentation of the thimble, and “thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could,” (Carroll 20). For her, the ordinary, everyday object of a thimble would not qualify as a prize, but she plays along with the animals’ assumptions just as Columbus does.

These misinterpretations of objects as symbols demonstrate the relative values of objects and therefore the different meanings created based on those values. For Columbus, gold meant wealth because an arbitrary system in his culture had decided it, but for the native Americans, who did not necessarily have a use for gold, it was much less valuable. Therefore, even broken objects which were new and potentially useful like glass would have been seen as more valuable. For Alice, likewise, the animals had perhaps (it’s difficult to tell in a book of animals running around with human objects) never encountered sewing before, and may have therefore seen thimbles as interesting, exotic, and valuable. Each member of the exchange brings with them their distinct ideology, which affects their interpretation of every word of the conversation in a way that is usually not acknowledged except in interactions between different cultures. (This kind of misinterpretation happened over and over again when Columbus was involved, often in ways that were both hilarious and tragic.) 

The wordplay and double meanings play a similar role in the books, revealing the types of misunderstandings that occur between groups who encounter each other during colonial conquest. At the same time, this confusion is used to develop the world in which Alice cannot assume anything about standards for politeness (she offends the mouse without meaning to) because none of the standards of her home apply. This sense of constant discomfort and discovery and reevaluation of “normal” that Alice experiences as she tries to converse with the inhabitants of the other world is a part of her broader challenges involved in growing up. When children reach the age in which they are moving beyond the home and their hometown school for the first time, they are forced to confront other cultural expectations and rethink the supposed universality of their own beliefs. Therefore, the use of homophones and misunderstandings plays a double role in the novel, showing both the colonial nature of Alice’s encounters and also creating a space for her to develop as a person of the wider world.  

Gendered Futures: The Limits of Female Desire in the Victorian Era

The etching  “Looking into the Future” by the Illman brothers depicts a woman kneeling by a window with her hands clasped, face turned up and out towards the sun, which presumably is the source of light bathing her clothing and face. The pose is strongly reminiscent of kneeling to pray, which would suggest that she is not only looking to the future but hoping to better her future by making requests of God. The specific future she imagines is unknown to the viewer and must, therefore, be assumed or imposed upon her, which relates to ideas described in the article “Gender roles in the 19th century” by Kathryn Hughes. In the article, Hughes discusses the stigma against women displaying their desires, sexual or for activities outside of the usual realm of women’s duties. The female subject of the etching, therefore, has no agency to display her own desires. Even the title, “Looking into the future,” is so vague as to say nothing whatsoever to differentiate this woman from any other. No one else should know her specific desires for the future because anything outside of the home would be considered deviant.

Because of the strict gender roles during the Victorian era, all that was left for women was to dream of a future, with no agency to decide their own lives. The expectation was to marry and have children, and few alternatives were considered legitimate, as is exemplified by Florence Nightingale’s outbursts because of her unrealized desires to be useful. The only option in the limited world of a woman was to gaze outward and upward to God, dreaming of a future beyond a contained life like the one shown visually by the walls of the woman’s home.

This interpretation, however, would not have been the assumed one at the time. The well-covered woman has soft lines forming her face and a brightness in her face and clothes, showing her chastity and respectability. She appears gentle and feminine. Likely, the interpretation at the time would have been that she hopefully awaits her life in the home, or prays for the future health and prosperity of her family. What, we might wonder, would this etching look like were a man the subject, looking to his own future? Would the title even remain the same, or would a man’s entire approach to the future be so radically different that he would take action rather than passively anticipating his life? Would he be making decisions, assertively, with a range of possibilities available?

The article initially announced itself as describing gender roles during the time period and then, to my surprise, devoted itself almost entirely to the role of women, with only a few sentences in comparison devoted men. This idea that describing gender roles can be accomplished only through looking at women reminded me of the concept that men are a blank slate, the norm, whereas women are the deviation from the norm that inherently must be imbued with meaning, instead of merely describing each as normal though distinct in the context of a limited gender binary. I should acknowledge, then, that either my interpretation of the etching or the etching itself conforms to this belief as well, saying that the meaning is inherently altered by virtue of the gender of the subject. I have to wonder whether the message of a gender-flipped version of the etching could have been the same in that era, or if the assumption of male normalcy was so ingrained that it would never be possible.

Vanity and Supremacy: Count Fosco in Sum

During the scene in which Walter observes Count Fosco from above during the opera, he describes him in such a way that reveals both the artifice and the reality of the man’s public persona, going so far as to say that “the man’s voracious vanity devoured this implied tribute to his local and critical supremacy.” (Collins 569). This sentence is significant for its connections with consumption from both “voracious” and “devoured,” as well as the implied power structures from “tribute” and “supremacy.”

In this section of the text, Walter reveals that Count Fosco delights in his ability to walk about in public as the figure of the respectable gentleman, fooling everyone around him into believing that he is a considerate citizen, no more devious than anyone else. He feeds off of people’s impressions of him and the power they give him because of his vanity, even as he relies on the vanity’s of his victims to convince them of the mask he wears in general society. His is the mask of restraint and carefully calculated moves, always within the civil and socially acceptable as long as he is in the public eye. This mask is also a part of his vanity; he dresses in a distinguished manner, and never appears undignified, even when he is tittering at his little birds, thus preserving the illusion and demonstrating his tight control over his emotions, contrasting starkly with Sir Percival, who essentially dies because of his inability to separate desperation from his decisions.

The concept of giving tribute has colonial interpretations, reminiscent of indigenous peoples forced to give food, goods, and riches to their conquerors as a sign of submission and to allow them to amass their desired wealth. According to Walter’s descriptions of Count Fosco, the man believes that everyone around him is his inferior and therefore honors him by submitting to his influence. In fact, the only character who Count Fosco has not viewed as inferior is Marian. This power structure in which he holds complete supremacy over the other characters controls the entire plot of the novel, which rests on the loss of identity to those members of society (women) who are given no legal agency over their own lives and therefore do depend entirely on their male counterparts. Taking advantage of this unequal structure allows Count Fosco to feed his vanity by testing his own skills at pulling strings, gaining eventual control over nearly every event that occurs.


Sir Percival and the Whimsical Little Brute

Mr. Gilmore repeatedly reveals himself as partial to Sir Percival, to the point of almost willful blindness to signs of his faults. This is exemplified in his description of Laura’s dog: “Her cross-grained pet greyhound was in the room, and I fully expected a barking and snapping reception. Strange to say, the whimsical little brute falsified my expectations by jumping into my lap, and poking its sharp muzzle familiarly into my hand the moment I sat down,” (141). This comment directly refers to the earlier scene in which the dog barks at Sir Percival’s offered hand, and through comparison Mr. Gilmore opens himself to the possibility of seeing through Sir Percival’s gentleman persona, but instead redirects his conclusion in the wrong direction.

Drawing from the trope of dogs being able to sense evil characters, the initial incident with Sir Percival is a clue to his masked dubious character. He more easily disguises his interior self from other people, who have ingrained expectations about gentlemen and infer inward morality from outward presentation, than from the dog. Mr. Gilmore, instead of recognizing its perception, dismisses the dog as a “little beast, cowardly and cross-grained as pet-dogs usually are” (133), to fit the interaction into his previously established worldview. Mr. Gilmore has already given hints that he began his judgment with preconceived notions, as when he described the explanation Sir Percival gave as “simple and satisfactory as I had all along anticipated it would be,” (130). Now, he continues in that trend by misinterpreting the dog’s reactions.

The simplest explanation of the scenario, that being two men both acquainted with a dog, one met with fear and the other with affection, lends easily to the assumption that the first man has given the dog a reason to be distrustful. Mr. Gilmore, however, concludes from this scenario that the dog is “whimsical,” and therefore irrational in its reaction to Sir Percival. This conclusion allows him to continue on without yet being disabused of his expectations of Sir Percival, despite the evidence at hand.

This passage is really about the extent to which expectations based on wealth, power, and gender can influence all later perceptions of actual actions. Sir Percival has been afforded a place in society that allows him to pass without suspicion through most people’s judgments, particularly other men like Mr. Gilmore, who appears predisposed to sweeping generalizations about groups of people (“There are three things that none of the young men of the present generation can do” (128)). He comes assured from the start that Sir Percival will be able to provide a reasonable explanation for the accusations against him, and in fact dismisses Mr. Hartright’s suspicions to the contrary as romantic.

The descriptions of the dog also play into themes of appearance and expectation; Mr. Gilmore expects for the dog to be nasty but it instead reveals itself to be calm and loving, just as Anne Catherick acts animalistic and irrational when Sir Percival is brought up, but is otherwise sweet and docile.  Sir Percival, then, distorts the public perception of those whom he needs to discredit because they know the truth of his character, by simple virtue of remaining calm and unruffled as he provokes extreme emotional reactions (with Anne, this occurs when he gives his seemingly rational explanation for the accusations against him). Both the dog and Anne are voiceless to general society and thus unable to defend themselves in their reactions to Sir Percival, and both are automatically viewed with more suspicion by outsiders than a man of high social standing.