Gender Construction in “The Yellow Drawing Room”

In Mona Caird’s “The Yellow Drawing Room,” St. Vincent fixates on Vanora’s gender in curiously. He notes, disapproves, and prescribes alternatives for all her actions, tastes, and opinions. And yet, despite his quest to make Vanora a loving, lovable woman in his image, his description of gender is strikingly modern. I do not mean to say that his sense of propriety is in anywhere ideal, nor that anyone should behave according to a fictional misogynist, like Vincent. Rather, the ways in which gender appears through this story seems to suggest that Victorian society had some idea of performance and gender as intertwined.

Throughout the story, Vanora represents a problem in Victorian society. As Vincent put it, “[s]he was supremely, overpoweringly womanly,” that the “womanhood of her sisters paled before the exuberant feminine quality which I could not but acknowledge in Vanora” (Caird 105). Vanora radiates femininity from her very being. And yet, paradoxically, everything she does, undoes her. Her excessive femininity (and excessive liveliness), according to Vincent, depreciates her womanhood. He belittles her in saying that she has “many qualities and ideas that are not suited to [her] sex” (Caird 106). Yet, never does Vincent separate which qualities femininize Vanora and which un-feminize her. In fact, the same actions that define her character do so in seemingly contradictory ways. Somehow, she is a woman, perhaps the most woman-like woman in the story, but she is also somehow not quite a woman. In being lively and bright, she brings out femininity. But by not adhering to a Victorian propriety, her liveliness gives her those ‘qualities unsuited to her sex’. In short, it seems that her actions bring about qualities which then help define her gender.

While “The Yellow Drawing Room” is certainly not an early rendition of Judith Butler, the appearance and focus on gender construction through actions is striking to read from a Victorian perspective. It seems that, during a historically contentious point in female propriety, behavior was at the center of a deeply anxious discourse on gender. Behavior, actions, and performance all seems to bring about those qualities which aid in the making of gender.

Sexuality and Being Self-Same

Throughout Victorian literature, and even in the minds of Victorians, women were expected to uphold certain beauty standards. Specifically, the tuberculosis-chic idealization, ever-flowing hair, and pale/ghostly skin, became a figure that women aspired to achieve. Due to this spreading notion, women were then considered to be redundant, and self-same, especially in the eyes of those during the time period itself. In both “The Sleeping Venus” by Michael Field, and “In An Artist’s Studio” by Christina Rossetti, notions of sexuality and redundancy are spoken upon.

The Sleeping Venus, by Giorgione, courtesy of The Poems of Michael Field

The poem itself, as written by Michael Field, essentially depicted the way in Venus, lays amongst the grass in peace. However, within the text, Field exclaims that Venus is the embodiment of all women, and how the entire community (of women) shares a sense of togetherness with one another, due to their utmost sexual and redundant appearance. Field states,

“And her body has the curves,
The same extensive smoothness seen…
For the sex that forms them each
Is a bond, a holiness,
That unconsciously must bless
And unite them, as they lie
Shameless underneath the sky” (stanza 3).

Through word choice, we as the reader are able to both visualize the poem into life, or in this case, what is shown through a painting. The repetition of the body being put up to almost a microscope, ultimately shows how women are constantly being looked at, especially in a sexual manner. By having the words “same” and “extensive” be in the poem itself, allows for the reader to assume that this view of women is apparent in all sorts of literature, and in many tropes within. Furthermore, the ‘bond’ and sense of union they share, literally and figuratively, demonstrates how women are grouped together based on the physical appearance they are expected to uphold.

Alike, in Rossetti’s piece, “An Artist’s Studio”, the idea that women are shape-shifters of one another is prevalent. She states,

“One face looks out from all his canvases,

A queen in opal or in ruby dress,

A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,

The same one meaning, neither more or less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (1).

In the excerpt, despite the role that these women play in society, ‘a queen’ or a ‘nameless girl’, Rosetti highlights that these women are in fact, the same, disposable beings. By having this man in particular, mold these women for his own pleasure, even if it is not in a sexual manner, it causes the reader to further make the connection between repetition of body standards, and how such can be harmful to the nature of women entirely.

Both pieces, “The Sleeping Venus” by Michael Fields and “In An Artists’ Studio” by Christina Rosetti exemplify how women during the Victorian era were seen as one-and-the-same, a union of figures that were ultimately deemed useless. Unfortunately, this was due to the beauty standard/ expectations of physical appearance during the Victorian era that kept this ideal in place for many years to come, even during contemporary times.



Sex Makes Women Mad

Comparing Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market with Michael Fields’ The Faun’s Punishment with each other through a lens of “sexuality” and “gender” raises interesting questions.


In Goblin Market, the young girl Lizzie is abused by a group of goblins that want to force her to eat the forbidden fruit. It becomes clear that this scene can be read as sexual abuse when the goblins torment her as she disagrees to open her lips. The goblins would keep trying to “cram a mouthful in”. Through the lens of sexuality, this could mean that the goblins want to force her to practice oral sex. However, Lizzie remains resistant and in the end, the fruit’s juices are all over her body. Lizzie describes the fruit juices as “goblin pulp” and “goblin dew” which could be an analogy for semen. This scene can be read as (attempted) gang rape and Lizzie trying to resist it.

In The Faun’s Punishment a group of maenads, abuse a faun because he was looking at them. The poem alludes to a painting from 1531. In the picture, we can see naked women sitting around a naked man, tearing on his skin, blowing a reed into his ear, preying on his helplessness. While this poem (and the picture) does not seem to be about rape, it does show signs of sexuality and violence. The nudity combined with images such as the woman playing the flute is very suggestive.

What is striking, is that the action seems very similar but it is performed on people of opposite genders. In Goblin Market the victim is a young girl and the goblins do not have a gender (or seem rather masculine), The Faun’s Punishment has a male victim and female abusers. Therefore, both of the poems mirror each other from a gender perspective. However, what both of the poems have in common is that the women are portrayed as mad, either in the position of the victim, or as the people driving men crazy. In Fields’ poem, they are “maenads”, which is a term that directly translates into “madwoman”. Maenads are known for their animalistic and sexual behavior. Laura, in Goblin Market is the first victim of the goblins’ abuse and she gives in to their form of seduction. As a consequence, she falls into a depressive state. Depression, in the Victorian Era, might have been seen as “hysteria” or “madness” as well as the opposite behavior of the maenads. Thus, according to the poems, the consequence of sexual activity, either as the product of abuse or as the active part, is always a mad woman.

Mettus Curtius and His Countenance

Image: Bacchiacca (?), Marcus Curtius (c.1520). Oil on wood. 25.4 x 19.4 cm. The National Gallery, London, 1860., 22 September 2015.

(Description taken from “The Poems of Michael Field” –

Michael Field, the pseudonym of two women, Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley, wrote beautiful, luscious poetry about many works of art, including Marcus Curtius, by an unknown artist (but possibly Bacchiacca). They entitled this poem “Mettus Curtius”, and it offers descriptions of the “lovely Christian knight” (Field 2) featured in the painting. The knight gazes gently down upon his horse and whatever is in front of him, and “poised for thrust his right / Hand grasps a knife” (Field 7-8). He wears a flowing shawl and a knee-length, “azure” (Field 3) dress. Although both the painting and the poem clearly indicate that their subject is a knight, there are many queer undertones. The Michael Fields use words like “sweet”, “effulgence”, “fresh”, and “perfume”, which one might expect to be used to describe a woman. Yet the poets use them to describe this knight, who is dressed in the fashion of a woman; he is not armored or suited for battle like other knights might be, and he rides a “mild, amber horse” (Field 6). Even his “countenance doth keep / Soft as Saint Michael’s” (Field 8-9). The Michael Fields clearly saw the queerness in this painting and brought it to life in their poem. This was also likely a nod to their own queerness. Edith and Katherine were lovers in private, and were friends with people like Oscar Wilde, Charles Ricketts, and Charles Shannon, who were also likely homosexuals.

The knight in the painting holds a dagger, or a sword, which is short and very pointy, and can be viewed as a phallic symbol. This symbol here represents the opposite of masculinity: it is pointed downward, which seems to imply that masculinity is not present in this scene. Although the Michael Fields write that the dagger is “poised for thrust” (Field 7), the knight does not seem keen on actually penetrating anything with it by the look on his face, as discussed earlier.

Dutiful Daughters?

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.

New York Tribune, Dec 17, 1916

Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Self Portrait (as a New Woman) 1896

A new sight in this song

Poetry has been used as inspiration for painting for centuries, whether the subject be nature, love, beauty, or a combination, artists tend to like drawing from poetic stories for their subjects. But Michael Field does the opposite, “they” reverse the process by writing a poem about a piece of art work. Interestingly enough too, many of the paintings already have been taken from poems or myths so therefore the process seems to be story, painting, and back to story. I am interested in seeing how the two stories (before and after) differ or are similar to each other.

I took a look at Spring which is written about La Primavera (1482) by Botticelli. Botticelli created this piece as a favola, a concept Botticelli created which refers to a new invention using fictions established in ancient poetry. In La Primavera Botticelli combines multiple sources about the springtime deities and the Roman Rustic Calendar. But what makes the painting interesting is the fact that it is a vernacular, contemporary painting with ancient subjects. The dress and style of the figures responded to Florentine popular culture and therefore would’ve been engaging for the viewer.

Looking at Michael Field’ poem in Sight and Song provide a feminine reading of the image that is actually very sad. The painting was suppose to be seen as a celebrate of spring and the new year, however, Field creates a depressing narrative from the perspective of Venus. Field give emotion to the painting by creating a story that describes the loneliness of Venus as the central figure. The other figures are here for a fleeting moment but will soon move on with their lives and have experiences before dying. Venus is isolated and cannot do anything but watch the Graces as they dance. Field gives emotion to the painting, more specifically to Venus, something that allows her to become more than just an object to look at by humanizing her.

The painting depicts a celebratory narrative while the poem conveys a sad portrayal of loneliness. Field creates the new narrative as a way to give a voice to the female character who is constantly objectified in art. Considering, I believe, all of the paintings are by male artist, Field gives the female figures emotions, thoughts, and freedom in a space that was not available beforehand.

The New Woman (Again)

The article “The New Woman Fiction” by Dr. Andrzej Diniejko draws a compelling timeline of the challenging and transformation of female gender norms at the tail end of the Victorian era. Diniejko tracks the satirical and parody representations of “New Women”, or in other words, women who were challenging gender norms and embodying a new level of independence and expression. Consistently, “new women” were compared to men, represented as “male-identified, or manhating and/or man-eating or self-appointed saviour of benighted masculinity.” (Richardson and Willis, as quoted in Diniejko)

This came off as very queer to me, as it no doubt was offensive to some women who didn’t identify with masculinity, while also possibly being affirming to people of non-normative gender expressions. This reminded me of a 1925-era song, “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” another example of mainstream gender parody which has since been reclaimed by queer communities. It’s my aim to briefly illustrate the similarities between the ideas of the “New Woman” of Diniejko’s article and the song text, hopefully illuminating the pervasive fear of masculine women through time. 

Diniejko writes that a central tenet to “New Women” philosophy was fashion, and a move towards pants-wearing and bike riding. Many satirical representations included bloomers. In “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” there is a similar expression of worry about pants challenging the status quo, “Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide/ Nobody knows who’s walking inside” Despite being separated by thirty years, the two eras share a worry about pants fundamentally changing women who wear them, and how pants conceal gender once they’re adopted outside of the traditionally male wearers.  

Diniejko also mentions the role of smoking in “New Women” art and literature, a symbol of independence, maturity, and manhood. In “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” the singer quips, “Auntie is smoking, rolling her own,” similarly positioning smoking as an independent act that becomes threatening when women adopt it. 

Finally, more generally, I believe the anxiety around the “New Women” and “Masculine Women” is fueled by the same desire to return to tradition. Diniejko writes there was a strong connection between the “New Woman” philosophy and other cultural revolutions of the time, rejecting the past and imagining a new future. In “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” the singer laments about the past, “Girls were girls and boys were boys when I was a tot / Now we don’t know who is who or even what’s what” and “Things are not what they used to be, you’ll see.” Without going into too much detail, I believe the cultural revolutions of the 1890s and 1920s were similar in their embrace of extravagance and pushing cultural norms. The worry about tradition being interrupted is evergreen.

So is the “New Woman” new? Or has she always existed? I believe throughout time there is an undercurrent of fear of women pushing gender boundaries and experimenting with masculine expressions. The very same fears of the 1890s “New Woman”, in all her pants-wearing, cigarette smoking, and tradition-interrupting glory, come back in full force in the 1920s. 



Monaco, James V, Leslie, Edgar and Hugh J. Ward (Firm). Masculine women! Feminine men! Melbourne: L.F. Collin, 1925.

Diniejko, Andrzej. “The New Woman Fiction.” The Victorian Web, 17 Dec. 2011, 


Alice to d4: Chess and Gender in “Through the Looking Glass”

The ways in which Lewis Carroll portrays chess in Through the Looking Glass intertwines ideas of innocence and femininity. Supposedly, proper women ought to be innocent. This innocence commonly involves having both limited knowledge of the world and limited autonomy to move about said world. For example, a young girl may require a guide to become a woman. Otherwise, the girl may get lost along the way. Someone would have to pick up the girl and move her up the ranks so she could mature and become queenly—almost like a pawn on a chess board. In chess, the horizontal rows are called “ranks,” and a pawn becomes a Queen only once it reaches the highest rank of eight. While the puzzle Carroll uses in place of a table of contents (Carroll 109) may seem ridiculous (and it is), this puzzle still intertwines notions of ‘proper’ femininity with innocence.

At this point, it is worth elaborating on the ridiculousness of Carroll’s chess. To name just a few absurdities: At one point, the White player makes nine consecutive moves, all Queens turn into sheep on the fifth rank, and moving Alice to d4 (the move played) should be considered the worst move for White. Yet, the puzzle’s nonsense both highlights which rules get followed as well as reveals a set of new rules distinct from chess. For instance, while White’s first move (Alice to d4) allows Red to check the White King (Qa6+), it prioritizes Alice’s maturity over all else. This becomes the first of the puzzle’s unspoken rules—namely that Queens, and the making of Queens, surpasses all other chess rules. The White player makes this clear in how every piece helps Alice to the eighth rank in one way or another. In fact, all the pieces (through seemingly random moves) coordinate as to always protect her with two or more defenders. The only move that definitely wins for White (Ng3+), therefore, cannot be played without removing the defender of the d4 square and breaking this pattern. 1.Ng3+, Ke5 2.Qc3+, Ke6 3.Qb3+, Ke7 4.Qg7+, Kd8 5.Qd7# may win for White, but leaves Alice undefended for three moves. While it is a chess principle to protect passed pawn, like Alice, White actually over defends her and, in doing so, risks losing the game. The person playing White infantilizes Alice by doing this, because they ignore the possibility that pawn-Alice may be safe on her own. However, it also establishes puzzle’s second unspoken rule—namely that young girls, such as Alice, must be protected at all costs.

Similar to how Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland depicts Victorian society only to distort it, Through the Looking Glass distorts chess to depict how Victorian society views femininity. In the game, Alice is made innocent. She may only move in one direction and other pieces over-protect her. Similarly, the win conditions shift from checkmating the other King to the making of Queens. In this sense, chess acts as a metaphor for maturity, in which pieces (people) are moved closer and closer in line with Queenliness. Ultimately, propriety becomes the priority.

Mirroring Expectations

Lacking expectations may quite simply mean not fulfilling someone’s desires, whether that be ones’ partner or society as a whole. While this inadequacy may include notions of sexuality, appearance, or personality in contemporary times, in the Victorian era, all of these components when put together, define womanhood.

“Expectation” from the Trout Gallery

The piece displayed above, provided by the Trout Gallery, exemplifies the two-fold of fulfillment and lacking, as well as expectation versus reality. In the artwork, one notices the typical woman showing redundant ‘tuberculosis-chic’ characteristics. The doe-eyed creature looking into the distance further characterizes her as lacking impurity and upholding a sense of virtue. With her flowing, dark hair contrasted to the whiteness of her gown, the viewer sees the way in which a Victorian woman is supposed to appear as, thus showing the expectation of women during the time.  However, reality soon plays a part in the piece, as we can see that the women is framed both literally and metaphorically. By having the focal point of the artwork, the woman, reside within a mirror, it allows for a greater message to unfold throughout the piece itself. The viewer and the woman within the piece are contrasted, because as the woman looks out of the mirror, us as the viewer, look in. Thus, while the woman is looking beyond, because she already upholds Victorian characteristics of womanhood, the viewer is looking inward, as they may not.

Alike to “Expectation”, where the viewer and woman in the artwork are on opposing ends, in Christina Rossetti’s poem, In An Artist’s Studio, the ‘self-same’ figure and the male painter also contrast one another, when Rossetti states,

“One face looks out from all his canvases,

That mirror gave back all her loveliness.

A queen in opal or in ruby dress,

A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,

The same one meaning, neither more or less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (1).

In the excerpt, the reader can see that the woman within the paintings all relate to one another, not necessarily because they are women, but because they all appear similar. Despite the role that they play in society, whether that be a ‘queen’ or a ‘nameless girl’, Rossetti makes it clear that these women are redundant, almost shape-shifters of one another. By having the male mold these women, and ‘feed’ upon them, it further shows the distinction between expectation and reality. In the piece “Expectation”, similarly, the woman stuck within the mirror is on display for those to gaze at her. Although she holds a higher ‘standing’ than the woman in “In An Artist’s Studio”, as she upholds Victorian beauty standards, regardless, altogether represents the desires of society. In Christina Rosetti’s poem, these women may be queens and saints, but to the painter, to him, they are only pieces to fulfill his desires as well as society’s.

Delicate, Worthless, “Poor, Faint, Valueless”: Oh, Fair Dreamer!

The Fair Dreamer, engraved by Illman Brothers (picture by Knut Ekwall)

This engraving, titled The Fair Dreamer, depicts a woman reclining on a tree trunk with one arm over her forehead and the other grasping a vine on the tree. She wears many petticoats that are pulled up to reveal her pointed shoes; she is young, and her accessories include a hat and parasol. Her outfit and the scenery indicate that the temperature is warm, probably summer. A boat is visible in the bottom right corner of the image, and she seems to be next to a stream or pond; the grasses around her are the kinds of greenery that grow near a body of water.

Looking at the image, the viewer can see that the woman is likely daydreaming. She is taking a break from her stuffy life within the home to visit somewhere she is not normally. By looking at the boat, the viewer can infer that she either rowed herself to this location or had someone else (likely a man) bring her there. Knowing some things about Victorian ideas of gender, it is more likely that the latter is the case. Women were too delicate to do such manly things as rowing themselves down a river, right? This idea of delicacy is echoed in The Woman in White with Laura Fairlie. Laura is considered so pretty and delicate that she is hardly left on her own for one moment. Even when she draws and Walter “sells” the drawings to make money for the household, he describes them as “poor, faint, valueless sketches” (Collins 479). Walter feels the need to take care of Laura and make sure she never finds out that he is not actually selling her worthless drawings; she is too delicate to hear news like this, and it would hurt her.

Like Laura Fairlie, the woman in the engraving was probably not left on her own when she went to do her ‘fair dreaming’ next to the water. She is arranged in such a position in the image that her artist has made it clear exactly how she came to be dreaming in that position and who is there with her. This image is a definitive reference to the ideas of gender in Victorian art and literature and perpetuates ideas that men had about the states of women’s minds and bodies.