Queer Sexuality of “The Mermaid”


The voice of “The Mermaid” is a young female mermaid that appears to contemplate loneliness and long for love, mostly out of her own vanity. In the second stanza she is represented by a beautiful fountain and she describes a “great sea-snake” which seeks her “around the hall.” These lines create a metaphor for sex in which the sea-snake is a phallic object that represents the male positive and the hall represents the female negative. The sea snake being stopped at the gate is the mermaid’s rejection of the men that offer themselves to her for marriage, and they “feel their immortality die.” Tennyson may use mermaids and mermen to tell a story or love, sexuality, and lust because they are not human and therefore they may not have to fall within the acceptable expressions of human sexuality, although he is still discrete. The idea of immortality could suggest that the mer-people are more likely to experience multiple sexual relationships because they are not bounded by the concept of ‘till death do us part’ in the institution of marriage within human society.

The mermaid relies on her beauty to attract mermen and she is very flirtatious. She tells of her time playing with the mermen and running to and fro and playing hide and seek. She purposefully attracts these men and seems to use them for her entertainment even though she knows she does not love them and will not marry them. This seems to suggest that she is not engaging in simple innocent games with the mermen, but perhaps engaging in what could be regarded as early stages of courtship or even sexual activities. She knows they will flatter her, which satisfies her vanity and her need to be admired. Yet, she chooses to marry the king of the mermen. Even though she does possess a love that she wishes to reserve for one individual, the act of engaging other mermen for personal satisfaction with no intention of reciprocation indicates a version of the femme fatale. The mermaid does not literally kill or trap the mermen, but she does intentionally take advantage of them and allow them to suffer to love her. In the end, the mermaid even suggests that all of those above her look down for the love of her which may include human men sailing above her. This is consistent with the legends of sirens which attract human men and lead them to their deaths. This poem creates ideas of love and sexuality that on the surface may parallel Victorian traditions of marriage, but the mermaid holds far more power over her sexuality and her marital relations than most Victorian women could exercise.

Sexuality and Androgyny in “Goblin Market”


The frontispieces of “Goblin Market” depict women, men, and goblins. Of the two illustrations, the characters depicted are Laura, Lizzie, and the goblins; however, no character in either illustration fulfills a Victorian stereotype of gender. Instead, the drawings (consciously or unconsciously) maintain and perpetuate androgyny and the rhetoric of sexuality present in the poem itself.

The righthand illustration shows Laura cutting off a lock of hair to pay the goblins for their fruit. In the context of the poem, Rossetti implies that Laura pays the goblins in part to enhance or produce the goblins’ own pleasure: the image of Laura “sucking” as well as the goblins’ later determination to make Lizzie “eat” their “fruit” suggests that women eating fruit stands in for giving pleasure of a different kind to the masculinely conceptualized “goblin men.” In some sense, Laura pays the goblins so that they will feel pleasure in her consumption.

The image of Laura cutting her hair reinforces this reading. Laura’s face is sad, almost grieving, as she puts the knife to her hair (symbolizing the loss of her virginity/reputation/maidenhood), but the goblins, depicted as various animals, are leaning in on her in a predatory way. The sexual connotations of the illustration appear in Laura’s exposed neck and hair, the outline of her legs under her skirt, and the clear desire expressed through the animals closing in. However, Laura’s face and body are not drawn as delicate and female; her arms are strong, her neck muscular, and her face distinctly androgynous; were she wearing men’s clothes with her hair cut short, even if her body was in the same position, her attitude and features would depict a male.

The second image, of Laura and Lizzie cuddling while the goblins cavort in a dream-bubble above them, has overtones of heterosexual/romantic love. In the poem, Lizzie calls on Laura to “come and kiss me. . . Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices . . . eat me, drink me, love me, Laura make much of me.” These distinctly sexual, un-sisterly commands are reflected in the image of Laura and Lizzie in bed together. Despite the Victorian valuation of platonic/familial love, given the context of Laura and Lizzie’s relationship in the poem, the illustration of the two girls has overtones of sexuality as well as an unmistakable androgyny. Although the sisters clearly engage in an unconventional semi-sexual relationship with each other (and the goblin men), here the heterosexual norm of a man comforting a woman plays into their depiction. This androgyny could also reflect a male voyeurism of the sisters’ sexual relationship.

Overall, “Goblin Market” and its accompanying illustrations are creepy at best and downright disturbing at most.

Struggling with what “Victorian” means?

Hi y’all, if you (like me) found it difficult to pinpoint exactly what the term ‘Victorian’ meant for a Victorian audience, fear not for I have found a source that gives a thorough explanation. If you go to the Dickinson College Library homepage and type “Understanding the Victorians” into the Jumpstart search bar, you should find an ebook with the same title by Susie L. Steinbach. I particularly found the chapter titled “Marriage, free love, and ‘unnatural crimes’: Sexuality” to be particularly helpful in clarifying what the Victorian societal norms regarding sexuality and gender roles were at the time. I would try to download it as a PDF and attach it here, but alas I am technologically incompetent. Hopefully this helps!

Archive Project: Carmilla

For this project, I looked at Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic novella “Carmilla,” originally published in 1871-1872 as a serial in the literary magazine The Dark Blue. Shortly after, Le Fanu republished the piece in his collection of short stories, In a Glass Darkly. In 2014, “Carmilla” was adapted into a modern-day Canadian web series of the same name. As a result, the novella is steadily gaining recognition in popular culture.

The novella tells the story of an eighteen-year-old girl named Laura. As the narrator, she explains that she had been preparing to host a close family friend and his niece for a few weeks. One night, however, Laura’s father receives news from his friend explaining that his niece recently died under mysterious circumstances and he has decided to cancel the trip. Saddened and disappointed, Laura and her father walk out to the drawbridge. While enjoying the moonlight, they watch in horror as a passing carriage falls onto its side. The mother emerges from the carriage unscathed, but her daughter is found to be unconscious. The mother insists that she cannot delay her journey and asks where the nearest village is so that she may leave her daughter there to recover, but Laura implores her father to let the daughter stay with them. He agrees, and they take the young stranger into their home. Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla, a beautiful and cryptic girl of the same age, and the two become extremely close.

I chose to upload two passages to the VQA. In both passages, Le Fanu expresses the sexual tension between the two girls. Laura develops a passionate love for Carmilla, and although an arguable statement (once Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, we learn that she tends to seduce and manipulate all of the girls she preys upon), I believe Carmilla falls in love with Laura, too; their deep connection is both physical and mental, as seen in both of the passages I posted. However, regardless of whether their love is requited, the novella is “queer” in the sense that Le Fanu explicitly depicts both girls as lesbians. In the second passage, for instance, Carmilla kisses Laura and tells her that she loves her:

She kissed me silently. … ‘I have been in love with no one, and never shall,’ she whispered, ‘Unless it should be with you.’ … Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. ‘Darling, darling,’ she murmured, ‘I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.’

Unlike many other writers from the Victorian Era, Le Fanu doesn’t even code their love for each other; Camilla explicitly states “I love you” to Laura and kisses her, and considering how many Victorians were “prudish,” it’s extremely fascinating that Le Fanu decided to express their love so explicitly, especially in a relationship between two young women. The first passage I chose is even more sensual:

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.’ Then she has thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.

Le Fanu’s use of the words “hot lips” sounds like something you might read in an erotic novel in the 21st century, not something from the 19th century! And, again, not only is his word choice unusual for the Victorian Era, but it’s also referring to a relationship between two women. As we discussed in class the other day, I suppose most Victorians couldn’t even imagine two women having anything remotely close to a sexual relationship, so passages like this flew right over their heads.

I would highly recommend reading “Carmilla”–I absolutely loved it! Le Fanu is a brilliant writer.

Link to VQA: http://vqa.dickinson.edu/novel/carmilla

Hysteria – Cured by “Marriage” (Sometimes)

cw: trauma, genetalia related-language


Hysteria, in an article from the New York Times in 1843, is defined by being, “a morbid state without fever, characterized principally by suspension, generally incomplete or sensorial, intellectual and moral power with convulsion; is almost peculiar to women, appears by paroxysms.”

This is a particularly confusing definition, especially because it is not a consistent one, a number of sources from the 19th century categorize hysteria as a catatonic state, like a severe depression, or as Freud or L. E Emerson would say psychosomatic illness brought on by a sexual trauma of some sort, while Charcot (another researcher of hysteria) deemed it hereditary and tried to treat it with hypnosis. The unifying idea of hysteria is that it is a woman’s disease, lying dormant in their bodies until it manifests in a nervous temperament, being overstimulated or feeling a sense of “ennui.”

It is also clear in these texts that “paroxysm” refers to a “female physical response” or orgasm, that is supposed to be the cure for hysteria. The idea that a “woman’s disease” can be cured by stimulation or therapeutic massage by a physician or midwife until orgasm definitely queers the idea of heteronormative sexuality. Hysteria is supposed to be cured through a consummate marriage, but because of the patriarchal notion of intercourse, most women would not reach “paroxysm” thus feeling unfulfilled. The cure for hysteria, a massage/stimulation of the vulva negates the idea that a fulfilling sexual experience revolves around the presence of a man with a penis.

Furthermore, the idea that the lack of orgasm is due to some sort of hereditary problem or psychosexual trauma is problematic, because it reinforces the idea that a woman must reach orgasm through vaginal penetration of a penis, leaving no room for any sex other than heterosexual sex.Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 9.41.41 AM Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 9.46.40 AM

The Lady of Shalott

For anyone interested, Loreena McKennitt (famous folk singer and musician) adapted The Lady of Shalott to music.  She’s also adapted and drawn inspiration from other famous literary works including The Highwayman (my personal favorite), Dante’s Inferno, and works by Yeats, Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott.

Archive Project: Hysteria and Isaac Baker Brown

Link to the VQA

My contribution to the VQA is centered on the topic of “hysteria” and how Isaac Baker Brown, a Victorian doctor, dealt with patients’ “wandering wombs.” The concept of hysteria is inherently sexist and Brown’s cliterectomy treatment is inhumane; however, most typical Victorian remedies for hysteria consisted of assisted masturbation and (later on) the use of vibrators. In his book On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females from 1866, Brown discusses his “removal of the cause of excitement” and he mentions the fact that he cannot discuss “all the numerous varieties of insanity and other nervous disorders to which females are liable, but only those which [he] believes to be curable by surgical means ” (Brown, 2).

The section that I chose to analyze originates from Chapter One of his book where he compares other doctors’ assisted masturbation techniques to “superficial sore[s that] will not destroy deep-seated nerve irritation” (Brown, 10).  Isaac Baker Brown’s terrible treatments and his records of female genital mutilation belong in the Victorian Queer Archive because they represent the typical heterosexual male’s response to female pleasure and sexual enlightenment within the 19th century. Brown’s fear of sexual liberation is thinly veiled under his “research” and his anxieties remind me of a William Rathbone Greg’s article called “Why are Women Redundant” that was written in 1862 and published in the National Review. In the article, Rathbone Greg is startled by the “abnormal extent of female celibacy” and he fears that women are “redundant” because they are choosing to remain unmarried, which is essentially code for independent (of men) and chaste (Rathbone Greg, 162).

Since female masturbation matches Holly Ferneaux’s idea of something that differs from a “life-script of opposite-sex marriage and reproduction,” I believe that these accounts are valuable and that they display the growing fear of female pleasure without the presence of men. This dramatic shift from the marriage-plot format to a narrowed focus on alternative sexual methods implies that men (and their genitals) are irrelevant and replaceable by the other women, by stimulation of the clitoris from vibrators, or by solo-stimulation. Furthermore, since Brown’s novel discusses the dangers of the “continual abnormal irritation of a nerve centre (the stimulation of the clitoris),” I suspect that he is nervous about female liberation and the potential “redundancy of men.”

Indeed, Brown’s choice to remove the clitoris in order to cure “hysteria” provides a concrete visual representation of Victorian anxieties spanning from the existence of lesbian relationships, the ability to achieve pleasure without a penis, and the evolution and potential eradication of the marriage-plot. Brown’s language of “superficial sore” articulates his disdain for the female sex organ and his negative word associations with the “source of evil” are the perfect display of the Victorian patriarchy in its frantic attempts to suppress women’s social and economic mobility through sexual control.


Favorite excerpt from page 11 of Brown’s book: “Experience seems to teach that in those patients whose brains have been so weakened by long continued peripheral excitement, [clitoral stimulation] causing frequent and increasing losses of nerve force, there is not sufficient mental power to enable them to control any less powerful irritation of smaller branches of the pudic nerve, than that removed by operation.”

Victorian men, most notably Isaac Baker Brown, do not seem to approve of the fact that women are taking matters into their own hands.  In fact, they despise it so much that the only alternative method is either to “cure” these “irritations” by operating upon them or by assisting their stimulation in doctor’s offices.  How queer!


Baker Brown, Isaac. “Chapter I: Introductory.” On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females. Hardwicke. 1866. Pp. 2 & 8-10.

Rathbone Greg, William. “Why are Women Redundant.” The National Review. 1862.: available through Columbia University Press. 1999. Pp. 157-163.

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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

Oscar Wilde: Man, Portrait, Wax Figure…Modern Photograph?

While I was in the National Art Gallery over Thanksgiving break, I noticed the following photograph of Oscar Wilde (see below):


The process, as described in the caption to the photo below, was the photographer took a picture of the Madame Tussauds wax figure of Oscar Wilde (which in itself was based off of a portrait that he sat for) and used light and scale to create the illusion of photographing Oscar Wilde, creating as realistic a photo as he could.


I thought this was a interesting way to think about art reflecting life, the many layers of visual representation and how they can be manipulated – thoughts Oscar Wilde would have approved of!

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