Unfemininity, Masculinity, and Miss Halcombe

Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White may have a lot to offer contemporary debates surrounding trans identities. In particular, the ways in which Walter Hartright describes and then alters his description of Marian Halcombe highlight some surprising attitudes towards gender expression and gendered expectations in Victorian Society. In brief, Hartright’s perspective of Miss Halcombe initially rests on her hips (literally). Upon noticing her “ugly” (34) face, his narrative shifts from her feminine traits to her masculine personality. What makes this significant is that Hartright first acknowledges Miss Halcombe’s female anatomy before writing her as a man. In a world where trans identities are routinely denied because of their reproductive parts, what could this example imply for the history of gender identities? And what might it mean that Marian’s gender seems to radiate, not from her hips, but from her head?

At this point, it is worth acknowledging that Miss Halcombe is not a Victorian era, trans man. The concept of a trans (or even gender non-binary) identity did not exist in Victorian society like it does today. Despite this, Marian Halcombe still presents an interesting example of gender-nonconformity. In fact, her character may even suggest that Victorian society viewed gender as connected to the mind (or individual), rather than genitalia. For example: although Miss Halcombe first enters the narrative through the male gaze (Hartright notably comments that “her waist” was “perfection in the eyes of a man” (34)), she manages to use her own wit and will to distinguish herself from Victorian femininity. Marian, through her own action, aided in making her character seem more masculine. Hartright’s narrative may have ceased to depict her in overtly sexual and feminine terms, but she took her own steps to ensure that she would been seen as unfeminine. Miss Halcombe comments how, “[she doesn’t] think much of [her] own sex” (36), and that “[she doesn’t] know one note of music from the other; but [she] can match [Hartright] at chess” (38). In both instances, she focuses on her unfemininity through her use of negation. In doing so, her sentence structure emphasizes her identity, in part, as unfeminine.

For Hartright, and a Victorian audience more generally, this must raise some questions. If Marian is not quite feminine, then what is she? This societal anxiety appears in how Miss Halcombe must offer an alternative gender performance. Rather than offer to play music, she offers “chess, back-gammon,” or “écarté” (38). These games all connote some type of logical thinking which traditional gendered expectations attribute to men. Yet, because Marian cannot fulfill traditionally feminine, Victorian standards, these games become, in part, a form of her gender expression. They become a tool for Marian to distinguish herself and for her to perform a type of overt masculinity and craft an identity for herself. Interestingly, these games all tie back to her unfeminine head. So, despite her ‘perfect feminine waist,’ Miss Halcombe is able to perform, identify and exist outside of Victorian femininity and despite her anatomy.

Archive Project: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Painting of The Bride

In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, which has many different titles associated with it from “The Bride” to “The Beloved” to “The King’s Daughter” where the focus is supposed to be on the pale woman at the center of the painting, but race is weaved throughout every detail of this piece. There are some symbols, some explicit, and some hidden aspects of race and colonialism embedded into the deeper meaning Rossetti’s work of art.

For one, the little Black girl is at the closest one to the audience in the painting. While she is at the forefront of the image, she is also tucked in the corner of the painting. She seems to be the flower girl, but she has  a lot of gold jewelry on while the rest of the women in the painting are more simple. This is playing up the historical aspect of British colonizing of African land for resources such as gold as well as the colonizing and controlling of Black bodies during slavery. While the girl is covered in gold, she is the only individual in the painting who has a naked torso, which queers the Black female body as a spectacle or as something to be looked at- there is sexualizing and fetishization of a young Black female body before she even reaches adulthood or goes through puberty.

There is one woman in the back of the painting, who for the most part is hidden from the audience’s view expept for part of her face. She seems to be either a mulatto woman, perhaps Egyptian, perhaps Muslim, perhaps Latina… It really is hard to tell exactly where she could be from, but her skin complexion gives off the impression of exoticism. It significantly represents how race is coded in Victorian English texts, just like sex, and not explicity talked about. Even when looking for a poem to pair with this painting, it was difficult to find one that related to race because Vitorian poets like Rossetti don’t explicity name the ethnicity of the female subjects.  And we see here the race of this woman, her full identity, is literally hidden from the audience while the little Black girl is positioned at the forefront, holding flowers- a symbol of life and fertility.

The bride seems to be wearing not the traditional white wedding gown, but what resembles a luxurious kimono and that could be a coded reference to Orientalism and colonialism. As an audience, we do not know where the painting’s setting is supposed to be or where this wedding is located geographically. There is definitely a sense of racial otherness, foreignness, and us vs. them in this piece because there are representations of non-Western culture all clumped together in one painting. There is not just reference to one race or geographical location, the symbols are recognizable enough to make a broad guess as to what part of the world is being referenced, but also too vague to tell what specific culture or community is being represented.




Rossetti, Dante G. The Bride. 1865-1866; 1873. Tate Gallery, London. http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/s182.rap.html

Archive Project: My Secret Life

For my Victorian Queer Archive project, I chose to include the second preface of My Secret Life. Privately published in 1888, this 4,000 page and originally eleven volume memoir features an incredibly detailed account of one man, “Walter”‘s, experiences with sex and sexuality, beginning when he but a small child. My Secret Life gained notoriety for both it’s unapologetically  detailed (and somewhat crude) descriptions of sexual encounters, sexual desire, masturbation, interactions with prostitutes, and obsessive nature of the text itself. Every single detail: every passing thought, every single time Walter is sexually aroused, every time Walter lets his “prick” make his decisions for him is carefully documented with a special attention to every single gory detail can be read in its entirety online on Project Gutenberg, which I will link down below.

Because it was published anonymously, it is difficult to discern how much of the text is fact and how much is fiction, and due it’s obsessive nature, it is easy to dismiss My Secret Life as nothing more than the world’s longest erotic novel. While we as readers will never be fully able to discern the fact from the fiction, that does not take away the text’s value as insight into a few aspects of Victorian Queerness, which Holly Furneaux defines as “that which differs from the life-script of opposite-sex marriage and reproduction”. With this definition in mind, My Secret Life could perhaps be seen as an epic retelling of one man’s experience with queerness as it pertains to deviations from the typical heteronormative Victorian marriage plot. To put it simply: if Walter’s well-intended mother were to read about his experiences with masturbation, sexual awakening by his wet-nurse, experiences with prostitutes (which he refers to as “gay women”), it’s possible that she would have a heart attack.

Instead of choosing one of Walter’s sexual encounters as the excerpt to post to the archive, I instead chose to include the author’s second preface, in which he addresses the issue of whether or not his memoir should even be published. What I found particularly interesting about the preface was the author claims that “it would be a sin to burn all this, whatever society may say it is but a narrative of human life, perhaps the every day life of thousands, if the confession could be had” (Anonymous 21). That is, the author contends that his memoir is not so much about chronicling his own experiences with sexuality, but instead chronicling his experience with a side of society which he is not alone in interacting with. My Secret Life therefore serves a dual purpose: to tell the story of Walter’s queer sexuality and to shed light on an area of Victorian society that is oftentimes left unexplored because it is not consistent with heteronormative ideals.


Victorian Queer Archive

Citation: Anonymous. “Second Preface.” My Secret Life , 1st ed., vol. 1, Auguste Brancart, Amsterdam, 1888, pp. 21–22.


Beauty & The Beast: Looking at the Use of Sexual Assault in a Narrative

"Salammbo" (1889) by Gabrial Ferrier
“Salammbo” (1889) by Gabrial Ferrier (Image provided by Dickinson College Trout Gallery)
"The Goblin Market" (1933) by Arthur Rackham
“The Goblin Market” (1933) by Arthur Rackham (Image provided by The British Library)

Many works of art and literature from the Victorian period, in particular illustrations for children’s novels, represent a method used to justify colonialism or at least xenophobia. Arthur Rackham’s 1933 (while not Victorian, it draws heavily on the text) illustration of Christina Rossetti’s poem “The Goblin Market” is one such example. He depicts a young girl, Lizzie, moments into her assault by the goblin merchants, depicted as grotesque anthropomorphic creatures that attempt to force the girl to partake of their fruit. The goblin merchants have a mystifying and almost hypnotic air about them, as Lizzie’s sister Laura has already fallen prey to them.

Another illustration that portrays the entrancement of a maiden and a beast (or at least can be interpreted that way through the Victorian male gaze) is Gabrial Ferrier’s 1889 print Salammbo. Beasts enwrap the titular character, like Lizzie, in this case a black serpent that coils around her frame. Her pale and nude figure is exposed in what can be seen as a sexualized, yet relaxed, position. This is not the case with Lizzie, as she is clearly distressed and afraid as the goblin merchants swarm around her. Thus the question I ask is why use these sexualized images and metaphors with animals, in particular portraying them as powerful and mystifying figures?

Colonialism is a part of the answer, as you can distance other people and cultures by portraying them as animals, making it easier to justify colonizing them or at least fearing them. Combining this racism and xenophobia with sexism further complicates the images, because while the stories to have sexual tones (and in the case of Rossetti’s story it has a moral lesson), strange creatures assaulting women and young girls further enforces the authority of an Anglo-Saxon man. However, if the concept is to justify colonizing and “improving” the lives of people in other cultures then why portray them as powerful? Part of this has to do with the gender of the creator/illustrator.

Christina Rossetti’s poem, while it does carry racial overtones, presents a moral tale for young girls regarding relationships, how the bonds of sisterhood are everlasting and can withstand the forces and desire of men. Rackham’s illustration fits well with her poem, although the age he has given Lizzie remains ambiguous. She resists the goblins for the sake of her sister, and it is made clear they care not for money but rather for power over women and possession of their bodies.

“If you will not sell me any

Of your fruits though much and many,

Give me back my silver penny

I tossed you for a fee.


No longer were they wagging, purring,

But visibly demurring

Grunting and snarling.” (Rossetti 11)

Overall the difference between the two images is whether or not the woman gives in to her temptation, yet both cases remain for the male gaze, even if Salammbo presents a more familiar image of the nude, or rather any image available for the pleasure of men. A better way to understand her narrative would be to look at the novel the print is based on. Gustave Flaubert is the author of the 1862 novel Salammbo, and his identity brings to light an interesting comparison. Christina Rossetti is the only woman among these four creators, so her narrative contains the most moral view (even with the racial tones). Thus we can see how the male gaze twists this narrative to justify colonialism while exploiting women and the violence inflicted upon them, calling for men to come save these pure and pale women from foreigners.

Peter Pan is Lewis Carroll

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily

In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

-Lewis Carroll, 1871, Through the Looking-Glass

Carroll’s poem “A Boat, Beneath a Sunny Sky” is a more sophisticated re-write of the childhood nursery rhyme, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” which punctuates the transformation that Alice goes through from adolescent youth to a matured young adult.

On a website I found online (http://shenandoahliterary.org), which told the background of Carroll’s writing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass, Alice Pleasance Liddell was an actual person and not a fictional character.Carroll was friends with the Liddell family and would tell the Liddell children (there were three of them) stories about his own adventures while they would all hang out on a boat and Alice became his “muse”. This poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass is just an autobiographical account of his relationship with Alice and the Liddell children as being something that engulfed his memories and haunted his dreams.

This is all very reminiscent of the tale of Peter Pan to me. Carroll was clearly saddened by the fact that Alice grew up and her youthful self still haunted him. Carroll is essentially begging Alice to never grow up, but that is only possible in his dreams and memories of her. He essentially took her and her two siblings to Wonderland through his stories, which is completely parallel to Peter Pan in the sense that Peter took Wendy and her two brothers to Neverland (Similar names for a childhood fantasy world… coincidence? I, personally, think not!). In both cases there are three children taken to an adolescent fantasy world where they frolic and roam free, with the little girl in the story being the center of attention and the fantasy for the man who is telling the story, yet alas, the girl must grow up eventually and leaves her mark on the guy who awakened her maturity or guided her through her transition. Carroll, like Peter Pan, realizes that children must grow up and be adults at one point- also there is the creepy factor that Carroll was an older man who probably spent a bit too much time with adolescent female children. Peter Pan could also be read technically as a really old man who chose to never “grow up” which may be symbolic of something else- but I digress.

So looking at Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland  tales with the context behind it now in mind, the text just seems to be autobiographical, or at least a retelling of events that actually occurred in the form of a “fictional”, fun children’s novel. Carroll is essentially keeping his memories of Alice in a metaphorical glass jar of sorts. He seems to embody the character that he saw Alice as, so her own personal narrative and personality is re-written by Carroll and that is the Alice we as a modern audience gets aquainted with.The children’s novel is Carroll’s way of keeping Alice youthful eternally, throughout time. An interesting connection between time and Alice is that in the modern movie directed by Steven Spielberg, Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Time is a personified character and Alice is running out of time throughout the movie to grow up and face the real-world where she is expected to marry and be a Victorian wife.


Also, here is a link to see some of the pictures that Carroll took of ALICE (who was brunette, by the way…).

Alice’s real fear

In class we’ve talked a lot about Alice growing and her desire to stay a child. At the beginning of Through the Looking-Glass Alice is talking to her cat about punishment and utters, “suppose each punishment was to be going without a dinner: then, when the miserable day came, I should have to go without fifty dinners at once! Well, I shouldn’t mind that much! I’d far rather go without them than eat them!” (116) One reason this statement is problematic is simply because one needs food in order to live. A second reason that this is an important part is that it makes evident Alice’s hopes to not grow, and perhaps shows her desire to avoid being nourished in a sexual way. Though it is not stated directly that the food eaten for these dinners would be sweet, the idea of fifty dinners is a whole lot of food. Eating that would be like a desperate attempt to satisfy some sort of desire. After experiencing quite unpredictable growth in the first half of the book, it makes sense that Alice is scared to become bigger and maybe even outgrow her home. Shortly after that statement, Alice speaks to the kitten about the weather. She says, “Do you hear the snow against the window-panes, Kitty? How nice and soft it sounds! […] I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ And when they wake up in the summer, Kitty, they dress themselves all in green, and dance about — whenever the wind blows — oh, that’s very pretty” (116-17). There are a lot of different things going on in this passage. First, the fact that she likes that the trees wake up in a changed state, as green beings, reveals something that our assumptions about her may have gotten wrong. Perhaps it’s not the actual act of growing up that Alice is afraid of, maybe she is moreso afraid of the rapid speed at which this growing is taking place. The fact that Alice enjoys the uncontrollable weather, the snow, further suggests that she is not afraid of the inevitable change her body is going through. Adding to this argument her enjoyment that arises about the trees sleeping for such a long time, through a whole spring season. This insinuates that it is, in fact, the rate at which she will experience this change that terrifies her.

A second part of this passage that, when examined, reveals Alice’s beliefs is the banal idea of whiteness representing purity. Snow is the white quilt that would hypothetically cover the trees as they sleep and mature into changed beings. As they emerge into the summer season, the snow is gone. This loss of snow could represent a loss of purity. It is as if snow’s kiss is a goodbye to a young Alice; she is undergoing a change that dictates the rest of her life.

Women and Pets as Domestic Objects

The print “Fannie’s Pets” captured my eye as it appears to be one of the most dynamic prints in the way the subjects appear to be moving, and who doesn’t adore the cute animals? The print features a woman outside, perhaps in a small garden, interacting with many species of birds: parakeets, ducks, a rooster, a peacock, etc. The light shines upon her and the animals so the audience’s attention immediately is drawn to those subjects. Behind the woman, on the left of the print, is a man crouched down in the dark, observing her.

This print brings to mind the role of Count Fosco in The Woman in White and his interaction with women and animals. The woman in the print seems to be interacting with the animals very naturally, while Count Fosco’s interactions with his pets are very strategic due to his training of them. He gives his pets treats when they perform to his satisfaction. He goes as far to call his birds his “children” (270). Count Fosco also gives his wife treats as she gives him his cigarettes which seems to parallel his treatment of his pets. He does not seem to have much of a sense of humanity or intimacy, instead his wife and his pets are objects of enjoyment and entertainment who are rewarded for how they serve him.

“Fannie’s Pets” creates a discourse with The Woman in White that shows the roles of women and domesticated animals to be more similar than different under the observation and manipulation of a Victorian Man. From the male view (assuming the audience takes on the viewership of a man or uses the man in the work itself), the main subject of the print is a woman and her pets and their values are both in their inherent beauty and entertainment-value. When the image is read through the lens created by The Woman in White, the woman and her pets are just objects to be manipulated and observed for enjoyment. There is further symbolism in the image of the birds flying and grabbing the garments of the woman, and while it might be a playful action, it seems to also represent freedom. Birds have the ability to fly away and the woman does not. Yet, this brings light to the captivating qualities that Count Fosco has over women and his manipulative nature towards his pets and women which really leave no opportunity for freedom.

You Don’t Own Me – Ownership and the Female Body

In Christina Rossetti’s poem, In an Artist’s Studio, we are guided around the studio of a painter who has depicted the same model as different characters. She becomes the queen, the virgin in a green dress, a saint, and an angel, but remains nameless throughout. The problem here is not just that the nameless girl remains nameless, but also that her body is used and objectified by this artist. She is no longer a person, but an aesthetic subject that is to be manipulated into a trope. Like Jen Marsh is quoted in Lee’s article “The Femme Fatale as Object”:

women are rendered decorative, depersonalized; they become passive figures rather than characters in a story or drama… women are reduced to an aesthetic arrangement of sexual parts, for male fantasies. (Marsh, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood)

Sure, the model is lovely, but that’s all she is. She is a passive figure to be manipulated in the way the artist wishes she could be. The depersonalization of women figures into tropes is too common, and in terms of Victorian literature, it is inherently connected to sexuality. The well-known trope of the Femme Fatale is played out in another poem: My Last Duchess.

In Browning’s My Last Duchess, the Duke is narrating a story about his last Duchess, who is depicted in a painting that he keeps behind a curtain. In the Duke’s eyes, she fulfills the trope of Femme Fatale because she finds pleasure in being looked upon and speaking with men other than him. He sees that she smiles at everyone, and does not value him over everyone else. The Fatale part comes into play when he seemingly murders her to keep her from smiling at everyone, and now keeps her behind the curtain. In this instance, her sexuality is totally under the control of the Duke for the rest of eternity: only he can look upon the “spot of joy” on her cheeks.

Like Marsh and Lee assert in the essay, the Duchess is literally reduced to aesthetic parts – the painting to look upon and then move on from to other paintings. She no longer has agency – she is trapped in a painting, posed beautifully forever. The Femme Fatale is fascinating only because of what she used to be, the amalgam of fear over “female malevolence” and therefore, a control over her own sexuality. Now, as an object, she can be controlled and fascinate her onlookers on command.

Victorian Prostitutes: Alone and Palely Loitering

Katheryn Hughes claims that during the Victorian Era, “A young girl was not expected to focus too obviously on finding a husband. Being ‘forward’ in the company of men suggested a worrying sexual appetite. Women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction (Hughes, Gender Roles in the 19th Century).” However, the societal standard of sexual purity and a lack of carnal desires did not exist for men during the 19th century. In fact, many men would pay for a prostitute’s services because they [these men] were eager to bed and not looking to wed. Yet, even married men would stray from their wives in search of sensual satisfaction from their standard village entrepreneur (prostitutes are really strategic opportunists if you think about it.) With the boom of this business, came the clap… and other sexually transmitted diseases that forced the Victorians to think about intercourse as a danger rather than a harmless recreational activity.

Correspondingly, the female body was mystifying to artists and poets most likely because it was uncommon for a woman to present herself in an overtly suggestive manner. Fascinatingly enough, the19th century definition of “prostitute” did not only describe women who sold their bodies, but it was also used to label “women who were living with men outside of marriage, women who had illegitimate children, or women who had relations with men solely for pleasurable purposes and not for monetary gain (Flanders, Prostitution).” Nevertheless, women were often mistaken for prostitutes (corporeal entrepreneurs) because men would misinterpret social cues. Remarkably, a man wrote to the Times magazine in 1862 to complain that his daughters were being hassled by “lewd scoundrels” in the streets; In the same way that the 21st century handles jeering and cat-calling, the man’s concerned comment was met with a series of men who suggested that perhaps “the girls’ dress or behavior had encouraged the men (Flanders, Prostitution).”

Similarly, La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats discusses a knight-at-arms who is “alone” and “palely loitering.” The knight says that the “harvest’s done” and that the “sedge has withered from the lake” which both sound like euphemisms for dwindling sexual prowess as a result of infertility represented by the barren harvest and an inability to ejaculate which is represented by withering sedge near an uninspiring lake. Furthermore, the knight meets a woman with wild eyes and long hair who makes a “sweet moan” when he places a garland on her head as he continues to “set her on [his] pacing steed.” However, once the sexual encounter between the knight and the beautiful lady finishes, the knight realizes that he has been deserted on a cold hill side where he can see other “pale kings and princess [who are] death-pale.” Keats details the “starved lips” of the other men and ends with a discussion about the sedge that has withered from the lake, which is most likely the result of a sexually transmitted disease. Yet, it is unclear whether the last four lines of the poem suggest that the woman is left, like a prostitute, “Alone and palely loitering, Though the sedge is withered from the lake, and no birds sing.”

Indeed, all of the men fall victim to their own desires and they pay for services that could endanger their health. This poem seems like a didactic tale that warns the public about prostitutes or other sexually liberated women. Yet, I wonder whether the Victorian men are afraid of female sexuality or if they are actually afraid of their own lack of self-control? It’s probably the former.

Expectation and What We’ve Come to Expect

Illman Brothers. "Expectation." Trout Gallery, http://www.troutgallery.org/
Illman Brothers. “Expectation.” Trout Gallery, http://www.troutgallery.org/

In the Illman Brothers’ “Expectation,” the female subject’s clothing loses shape the further away from her face you go, making it clear that her visage is the main focus of the work. Looking expectant is hard to visualize, in my opinion. It’s a trait you see in domesticated pets or in children who are waiting for gifts or fun outings. Maybe the woman is waiting patiently for the artist illustrating her to be finished more than anything else. Though, it’s not hard to deduce that Victorian women lead less active lifestyles than their male counterparts, especially those belonging to a higher class. The background appears almost amorphous; I interpret a sun surrounding the top of her head, either sky or clouds going down to her shoulders, a muted horizon to the right of her, and reflecting water. She must be waiting for her significant other to return from somewhere, as she has her hands (or at least her left hand) placed over her chest.

At the Trout Gallery, we briefly discussed the intricate ornamentation framing the portrait. The ovular shape of the frame suggests a mirror, highlighting the motif of the “woman as object” aesthetic that male artists go gaga for. And this one in particular is a sensual plaything, a fantasy. Grapes and cherubs (or whatever those angel babies are called) holding what looks like martini glasses only enhance the mood. I am of course reminded of Walter falling in love with Laura while making her his muse in the beginning of The Woman in White, as well as a more fragile Laura hoping for him to return from his errands when she loses her memory. The image also reminds me of a couple of lines from Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio”: “We found her hidden just behind those screens, / That mirror gave back all her loveliness” (3-4). The man who gazes at this etching is meant to siphon that loveliness (longing, yet perfectly poised) to feed his desire, to spurn him on.