Yes or No? (or, That Candle is Uncomfortably Close to All That Paper)

Yes or No?

(Image: Yes or No? Illman Brothers, 19th century. n/a, n.d)

The above engraving depicts a woman in relatively typical Victorian fashion, laboring over some correspondence with an unknown conversational partner. The woman is surrounded by scraps of paper, most likely torn up by her as she tries to answer the question posed by the title of the piece: Yes or No?

Given the typical subject matter of the time period, it is likely she is corresponding with a suitor or lover–a man of some description. Before the woman is a box, filled with both paper and strings of beads. This seems to be some sort of storage container for precious objects. Clearly, the letters she is agonizing over mean a lot to her, enough that she would store them with her jewelry (the most prized possession of many women of both that time period and today). The presence of a four-poster bed in the background of the image, as well as a modesty screen suggests that the lady is writing in her own bedroom, the ultimate area of privacy. This suggests that this correspondence is either something she would prefer to hide, or something she feels is important enough to want absolute privacy as she makes up her mind as to the answer to the question.

The most interesting thing in this image, however, is the woman’s facial expression. She does not seem happy at all, and simply “pensive” does not seem to properly encompass the emotion displayed. The lady’s large eyes and quill pen at her lips seem to suggest a sort of sadness or regret, on top of just the simple thoughtfulness that is also portrayed.

The atmosphere of this print overall reminds me of the article on Victorian gender roles on the British Library website by Kathryn Hughes, in which she discusses the separate spheres that men and women were expected to inhabit during this time period. In the image, the woman is hidden away in her bedroom, shown to be solidly within the domestic sphere reserved for Victorian women. Hughes also mentions that “a young girl was not expected to focus too obviously on finding a husband.,” which may relate to the engraving if, indeed, the subject happens to be composing a letter to a male acquaintance or suitor. We have previously discussed in class how much Victorian language was encoded so as not to talk overtly about sex and sexuality–it is possible that the woman in the engraving is attempting to draft a reply to her lover that does not sound too forward, but also conveys her meaning well enough to be understood.

The imposition of societal gender norms on women in Victorian times may also account for the woman’s less-than-thrilled facial expression. As women were not supposed to necessarily enjoy the prospect of marriage or sexuality (being assumed to be more or less asexual as a whole [see William Acton’s medical text]) (Hughes), it would be understandable if the woman in the engraving was not portrayed as being eager to respond to a query from a lover–such correspondence would, naturally, be just an opportunity to gain the chance to produce children and fulfill the maternal duty. Though art oftentimes has messages undermining the social order of the time, the context given by Dr Flaherty seems to indicate that these engravings were indicative of the Victorian attitudes that American audiences desired to emulate, and would therefore likely not have contained such subversive messages.

Assumed Power

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There are many objects not immediately noticed in the piece of artwork, Debut in the Studio. Through an examination of this work, and a couple of poems read in class, I have come to see the way in which male dominance was accepted as a cultural normality during the Victorian Era. A man’s desire of a nice, virginal woman is suggested in this etching. A couple of objects in the work resemble angels. Angels generally represent purity, they can represent the dead, and they can represent holiness and faith. When looking at the etching, I noticed that at the top left there is what appears to be a doll hanging from the curtains (I’m not actually sure what this is supposed to really be). This doll is a stark white color which reiterates much of what we have talked about in class about the symbolism of this bright, however, quite eerie, color.

I see another angel towards the middle of the picture though looking at the picture in a literal sense, one sees that this purported angel is actually just the curtains and the tie that holds them together. Christina Rossetti’s poem, “In an Artist’s Studio” relates greatly to this piece of artwork. The word angel is included in this poem; Rossetti writes, “A saint, an angel — every canvas means / The same one meaning, neither more or less.”  Earlier in the poem the author writes, “One face looks out from all of his canvases.” In the etching, one can see that the focal point is the half clothed woman who is in the middle of the left side of the work. Everyone is looking at her, including the male artist. When one examines the man’s sketch though, he or she sees that a different woman is drawn. The ‘one face’ that Rossetti has written about is collective, it is woman’s face. There is significance in the fact that the artist is looking at one woman while drawing another, even though, both of these women look strangely similar. Their cherubic faces and shockingly white skin exemplify all that a woman of the Victorian Era should be. The angelic features make them desirable character’s in this man’s story. By creating an image where the man is focusing on two very similar-looking women, it is as if he is lusting over their similar features. These attributes are the women’s purity, and heavenly bodies. The man focuses more on those rather than the distinguishable traits that make each woman herself. This man allows himself, whether he realizes it or not, to see the woman as less than human thus asserting and displaying the control he (and other males in the Victorian era) have, and has over females.

A second observation of this work that demonstrates man’s great power over women is shown through the placement of subjects in the artwork. Despite there being five women (including the angels) and only one man, the man has the whole right side of the work for himself and his sketch. The man has so much space all for himself, while the women are cramped! The power that these men believe that they posses is further displayed in Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.” In this poem the main subject, a man takes control over his now former wife by hiding a picture of her behind a curtain. He is the one who draws the curtain, but only when he pleases. Browning writes, “ […] since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I […]” The man has control over who sees the painting of his wife, and the man in the etching has control over what he wants his women to look like as he is the artist (although I’m not sure that the women in this work can get any more white and similar-looking than they already are.)

Both poems and this artwork demonstrate the interesting gender power dynamics of this era. The fact that none of these works blatantly tells readers or viewers that men are in charge, shows that that role a man has, one of power, is just accepted. No one is repudiating the assumptions that these poems, and this etching are making.


Ramus, Edmond. “Debut in the Studio.” Trout Gallery,

She doesn’t have the look… or maybe it’s the stamina

The Feeding the Motherless etching by the Illman Brothers was one of my favorites that we saw on Monday.  I like that it was more focused on what the woman is doing than on how she looks. The artist did not go out of their way to make the woman strikingly beautiful either and gave the woman more depth than that. She has a plain face and therefore the eye is free to travel to the intricately etched nest and baby birds.

Both the woman in the etching and Marian seem to have been forced into mothering roles; the etching woman by the kindness of her heart in taking in helpless birds and Marian by her affections for her sister. The woman in the etching to me seems to be tired by her role as mother because of the shading around and under her eyes, which suggests to me that this role assignment is taxing on her. This also mirrors the burden Marian’s role as mother to Laura places on her as shown through the loss of freedom Marian has in going into hiding.

The etching’s focus on the woman’s actions rather than her looks also reminds me of Marian. Marian is described as “ugly” by Walter and while the woman in the etching is not ugly, she is not as glamorous as the other woman in the other etchings (Collins 34). I feel like because these are not woman who are praised for their looks the people portraying them use their actions in order to give them some value in the Victorian society.

This reminds me of William Rathbone Greg’s essay. He discusses how woman are redundant unless they are married or serving others and that these are their greatest purposes in life. Using Greg’s point of view it can be assumed that in serving, Marian and the etching woman are being fulfilled through their roles as mothers, despite the fact that the act itself is very draining on both women.

While I appreciate that the viewer gets to admire the woman through her work and not her look, the Feeding of the Motherless etching is still not the ideal portrayal of a woman given its Victorian context.

The Enchantress: Magic and the Femme Fatale

The Beguiling of Merlin (1885) Adolphe Lalauze
The Beguiling of Merlin (1885) Adolphe Lalauze

Women with magic or connections to nature are often presented as the adversary of Medieval, Romantic, and Victorian men. One of the most formidable to span across multiple periods is Nimue, Lady of the Lake. In a trio of adversaries[1] against Merlin, Nimue (the original of the three) is the one who casts a spell over the ancient wizard after stealing his power, sealing him inside a tree to sleep for all eternity. In Adolphe Lalauze’s print of Edward Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin (1872-1877) the wizard is depicted in a reclining form, gazing up at Nimue, who is holding one of his spell books. His black cloak created a shadow which envelops his form, giving his body a rather shapeless appearance, as if he is fading out of existence. Nimue on the other hand is clothed in a garment which is incredibly similar in tone and style to the forest around her (emphasizing her inherent connection to nature). Merlin’s left hand also gestures to the narcissus flowers growing by the lakeside, alluding to Narcissus, Merlin’s own vanity and desire, and that he will eventually be turned into a plant, trapped where he lies for all time.

There are a few variations of Nimue’s tale, sometimes replacing her with Viviene (usually due to some influence from Morgana le Fay), but each story ends with Merlin having his power stolen and being put to sleep inside a tree. There is another femme fatale of this time period who also holds standing in the Pre-Raphaelite circle: La Belle Dame sans Merci. Inspired by a John Keats poem of the same title, the story of La Belle Dame revolves around a gallant knight who is beguiled by a beautiful woman (who is either fairy-like or an actual fairy or “fey”) and lulled to sleep.

“And there she lulled me asleep,

And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide!-

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.” (Keats 29-32)

Both of these women are portrayed as powerful and magical beings who ensnare brave or wise men with their beauty, letting the men fall prey to their desires and enter into a cursed sleep. Women who are entwined with nature, not bound by society (who are perhaps older than mankind), become a threat towards power structures (chivalry, Arthur’s kingdom, etc). However, because of their magical and otherworldly nature they are beyond the reach of the mortal hand of justice. Thus they serve as a warning towards men both young and old to not let their guard down because of desire. However, because they become object through art, it is okay too look, just don’t touch.

Below are two other artistic representations of this scene, photographed in 1874 by Julia Margaret Cameron and her interpretation of Vivien and Merlin.









Another medium through which the enchantment of the Arthurian femme fatale is conveyed is Nimue’s song to Merlin from the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot.

[1] In Arthurian legend Nimue is Merlin’s oldest adversary, a nymph who puts him under an eternal sleep. She is later replaced by Morgana le Fay and Vivien in various tales, her sole purpose being to give Arthur the sword Excalibur and eventually carry him to Avalon upon his death. Morgana le Fay is the half-sister of King Arthur who swears to destroy everything Merlin has built for disguising Uther Pendragon like her father so he could sleep with her mother (Lady Igraine). She later casts a spell on Arthur and sleeps with in order to produce a bastard child Mordred (sometimes it is her sister Morgause who does this), who will eventually kill Arthur. Vivien is usually portrayed as being a student of Morgana who then pretends to be a student of Merlin in order to gain his power and put him under and enchanted sleep, all a part of Morgana’s plan to destroy Arthur’s kingdom.

Greg Would Love St. Valentine’s Day

One of my favorite images that we looked at in the Trout Gallery is titled St. Valentine’s Day by the Illman Brothers.

St. Valentine's Day

This image shows what I assume to be a family or a large group of close friends celebrating the holiday of Valentine’s Day. We can see that the group of people in the picture are in an upper class based on their clothing and the decorative elements within the house they are in. What I like most about this image is how the artist made it mostly in black and white with just a few pops of color.

In William Rathbone Greg’s article, “Why Are Women Redundant?”, he discusses his issue with the fact that he finds many women in Britain to be redundant because they are not fulfilling their duties by marrying, serving their husbands, and having children. Greg would appreciate the image St. Valentine’s Day because in it women are anything but redundant. The artist put pops of colors into the outfits of the women, drawing the viewers eyes to them and making them  the subject of the image. All of the women we see in the image are right next to or touching children. One woman is holding a baby, one woman looks like she is playing with two children, and there are three women who appear to be watching over two other children. We also see one of the women taking care of the household duties by answering the door and receiving the mail. Greg would be incredibly pleased that these women are all looking after children because he believes that women’s “minds will narrow and hearts wither if they have nothing to do, and none to love, cherish, and obey” (Greg 159). One woman standing in the back of the image is the only woman without color on her dress, perhaps symbolizing that she is a servant of some sort. Greg would also approve of women as servants, because he believes they are fulfilling their purpose and are not redundant.

While there are many aspects of the image that Greg would like, he would probably have an issue with the ratio of men to women. There are more women than men in the image, which means some of the women must be unmarried (*gasp*).

Looking into the Light (Future)

Image from the Trout Gallery archives in Dickinson College. ( courtesy of the archives of Dickinson College’s Trout Gallery)

The etching “Looking into the future” features a young woman on a balcony looking longingly up into the sky. Wearing a long white dress, she exemplifies the ideal Victorian woman–the “Angel in the House,” as Furneaux says in her article. As we’ve previously discussed, the white dress implies the woman’s purity and innocence. However, the dress darkens as it gets further and further into the room, possibly suggesting that the woman has had a bleak past and is only just coming out of the darkness. In the poem “My Last Duchess,” the portrait of the late duchess is hidden behind a curtain, a tradition that is often seen in the Victorian Era. Although the drapes depicted in the etching surround a window instead of a portrait (which doesn’t directly imply that they’re a symbol for mourning), they still add to the gloomy atmosphere of the room and adding to the implication that the woman’s past lurks behind her. However, the drapes are tied back, which could suggest that the woman has successfully moved on from her past and is not letting it get in the way of her future. Furthermore,the beautiful and decorative column next to the woman seems to stand almost entirely in the light, so maybe it could be interpreted as a pillar of life that represents strength and stability.

I do not believe that there are any passages to directly support this (?), but I see Laura Fairlie when I look at the woman in this etching. Although Laura’s life isn’t entirely applicable to this etching, the dark and gloomy past behind the woman might be Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival, her time spent in the mental asylum, and the time she spent hiding with Walter and Marian. Like I mentioned in my previous post, Laura seems to be happier than ever when she and Walter are married, so perhaps her marriage is her first step out into the light. Laura may or may not be the “Angel in the House” depending on your view of her, and given her past you might not see her as pure and innocent. However, I personally do see Laura Fairlie (or Hartright) in this “light.”

Victorian Chicks

Illman Brothers- Feeding the Motherless

The print called “Feeding the Motherless” from the Illman Brothers is striking because I think it directly relates to ideas about social responsibility that were strong throughout the Victorian Era and The Woman in White. The woman in this image is feeding baby birds, which are a completely helpless and frail entity. These are characteristics often applied to women in the Victorian Era, and the chicks physically resemble the image of women at this time. Both the woman and the birds are the same shade of white, indicating that they are related in some way. There is limited shading, but the artist has designed the image so that is seems as though light is emanating from the woman in the photo, while the darkness surrounds her. That light quality represents the supposed purity and moral superiority of noble women. These visual aspects of the print lead me to connect the baby birds to abandoned women and poor women, who cannot survive on their own. This relates directly to The Woman in White and its assortment of helpless females that must be helped to survive, even at the most basic level.

One such woman is Anne Catherick, who is “helped” first by Lady Glyde, who sees her as motherless and in need of moral and intellectual education. Glyde cleans her, dresses her all in white, and is attracted to her in large part because of her helplessness and inability to be like Laura herself. In a way, Anne promises to be an ongoing project that can never function independently, just as a bird trained to expect food from a human will never learn to hunt on its own. The fact that an upper class woman is feeding the birds as a leisure activity reveals an interesting aspect of Glyde’s care for Anne, as she sees it as something that fills her time and gives her satisfaction. She tells her husband the result of Anne’s consultation with the doctor, writing, “he says her careful bringing-up at school is a matter of great importance just now, because her unusual slowness in acquiring ideas implies an unusual tenacity in keeping them,” which is very revealing because it shows that the doctor essentially wants someone to control the ideas entering Anne’s mind (Collins 60). Lady Glyde proceeds to educate Anne, dressing her all in delicate lace frocks and beginning to instill ideas about traditional femininity in her mind. Like the abandoned birds, Lady Glyde feeds Anne things that are not natural for her, leaving her without the ability to live on her own. In this way, the doctor’s prophecy comes true when her mind becomes warped and cannot function properly.

Laura exemplifies the way that hand feeding a helpless woman through adulthood leaves her similarly without the ability to be independent. She is raised being fed ideas, and so when she is faced with opportunities to decide her own fate, she cannot act on her own behalf. She has been trained to serve men and to remain pure and honest, and so even though she does not love Percival, she cannot exit her engagement for fear of defying all that she believes a woman should be. She expects to be delivered the correct answer, much like a domesticated bird waits to be fed in the nest. Even though she ends up in a stable situation, her welfare has been the activity filling Walter and Marion’s lives, and will presumably continue that way. These two delicate birds in the novel end up unable to survive on their own, dependent on patrons to care for them.



Feeding the Motherless

Illman Brothers- Feeding the MotherlessThis image from the Trout Gallery called “Feeding the Motherless”, appears simple at first. At a glance, it looks plainly as if a well put-together woman is feeding motherless birds with the tip of a feather in a dark walled-room that also contains a table. Simple enough, right?

However, a closer reading would prove that this etching is filled with Victorian connotations, ideals and limitations. Primarily, one must address the woman’s attire. She is wearing a white dress displaying her purity and innocence, a characteristic of women in this period that our class can seemingly never escape. Her hair is pinned back with lovely white flowers and she is wearing limited make up. Right from the beginning one can assume that she is of a higher class based on her outfit. She need not go into other methods of making money (prostitution), and can instead spend her time looking around for motherless bird’s nests. The white flowers in her hair also suggest that although she is chaste and pure, she’s most likely blooming and ready to be married off.

Now, one must address this feeding action that is taking place. There are two seemingly competing ideas about what could be going on here. My initial reaction, was, hey this looks a lot Marian, and also she’s taking care of some smaller frailer creature resembling Laura. The woman appears to be very intent on the birds showing this sort of stark determination. Many other women in the other etching we saw in class display women looking off into the distance forlornly, or moaning for their lover. Rarely we see a woman physically doing something in an etching, in contrast to her normal role as the object itself. However, this image could also read the opposite. In the reading we read for class this Wednesday, the British Library discusses women’s role in the domestic sphere. The site says, “Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands laboured all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life,” (British Library). In essence it was the woman’s role to nurture youth, and have them grow up in the ways in which society was governed. Thus this woman feeds these baby birds, and nurtures them showing her ability to thus assume this motherly role to a real human child. Her hair is blooming like her body, and she’s ready to get prego. The dark background of the photo adds to this well by promoting this woman as the object of motherhood. There’s no distractions, just this pure and fertile woman.

So this leaves me with questions. What does this say about Marian now? Although she acts through determination and vigor, can she still not escape these stereotypical gender roles? She in essence becomes the mother of Laura, and even plays a similar role to Laura’s newborn son, so does she achieve the same status of man? We had such high hopes for Marian, but it seems that the cards lie where they are. This image of this woman suggests, “Women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction,” (British Library). This woman depicting a motherly vibe, is more likely a more chaste way of telling the general public that she’s ready to nuptially open her legs.

The Beguiling of Men

Adolphe Lalauze’s painting the “Beguiling of Merlin” depicts a woman named Nimue reading from a book of spells and seducing Merlin.[1]  This image is highly reminsicent of the poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad” because they both feature a male figure being bewitched by a beautiful, mysterious woman. In both case, the woman in question—a femme fatale—seems supernatural in nature (in the Keats poem, she may be a faery or a changeling and in the Lalauze painting she reads spells that send Merlin into a trance.[2]

The Victorian web describes the femme fatale as a mixture of “sensual, erotic but invulnerable” traits, making her alluring, dangerous, but also demure enough to avoid suspicion.[3] In the Keats poem, for example, the woman in the meads cries during their lovemaking, implying that she pretends to be an virgin (the visions the knight experiences of other duped men implies she has seduced many men before him, thus negating her virginity).[4]  In the painting, Nimue exposes her neck, a disarming move that demonstrates her vulnerability.  However, it also indicates her erotic power over the man she seduces. The neck is an erogenous zone, therefor the sexual overtones of this action should not be underestimated.

Furthermore, parity between the poem and painting can be seen in the shared setting. In both instances, the femme fatale has bewitched a man in the heather. The beautiful, flowering setting of the meads and later the grot obscures the darker undertones of the femme fatale narrative. The combination of lovely scenery and innocence of the lady allow her to seduce the man and entrap him forever.

“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”[5]

Even when the man may suspect something is amiss–as evidenced when he notices her alarmingly “wild eyes”–he still proceeds with sleeping with her.[6] The wild eyes allude to her true nature, a nature that is steeped in folklore and magic.  Indeed, perhaps this is what makes her so attractive in the first place.   Once again, the idea of a dangerous woman is tied directly to both the natural and the supernatural world. In this case, perhaps the knight overlooked her wild eyes due to other, less obviously dangerous, aspects of her character. Her long hair, her light footfalls, and her beauty make her irresistible. Nimue of the painting has likewise lulled Merlin into a state of bliss, to the point where he is no longer standing and instead is lounging among the flowers in the bushes.[7] The lazy angle placement of his arm and hand also indicate that he is in a trance and he seems unable to take his eyes off of Nimue. Interestingly, in the Arthurian legend, Nimue learns the bewitching spells from Merlin.  By using both her beauty and her erotic magnetism, the femme fatale is able to use the man for her own gain.

[1] “The Beguiling of Merlin” ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’, Edward Burne-Jones. Lady Lever Art Gallery.

[2] “The Beguiling of Merlin”

[3] Lee, Elizabeth. “The Femme Fatale as Object.” The Victorian Web. Brown University, 1997.

[4] Keats, John. La Belle Dame Sans Merci. 1819.

[5] Keats, John.

[6] Keats, John.

[7] Burne-Jones, Edward. The Beguiling of Merlin. 1872-7. Oil on canvas. Trout Gallery, Carlisle PA.

The Beguiling of Merlin
The Beguiling of Merlin:


Women, Nature, and Beauty

One theme I have been noticing during our recent studies on Victorian  Sexualities is the theme of women being connected to nature. In John Keats’ poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad” the woman is described as ethereal and immersed in her natural setting. The scene is described near a lake with birds, squirrels, and harvests. Although the scene is being set up as eerie and lacking of life, the poem is still placed in the natural world immediately.  One particularly striking stanza is when Keats writes, “I see a lily on thy brow,/ With anguish moist and fever-dew,/ and on the cheeks a fading rose/ Fast withereth too.” The mention of flowers and dew in this stanza is one of the many ways the narrator using aspects of the natural world  to describe the beauty of the woman he is enchanted by. This portrayal of the beautiful woman as immersed in nature is also shown in the painting titled, “The Fair Dreamer.” This piece, published by the Illman brothers in the nineteenth century, depicts a young woman lounging on a tree, immersed in the shrubbery. Both the woman in the poem and the woman in the painting are portrayed as the epitome of beauty, and both are connected to the natural world. As I mentioned once in class, Sherry B. Ortner’s, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture” describes how women have been linked throughout history to nature whereas men have been connected to culture and progress. I noticed this in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” as well where the women were always somehow connected to nature whereas Frankenstein was the epitome of science and progress. I have been thinking about why this is and one theory I have come up with is that women and nature have two things in common; they are seen as mysterious and as beautiful. Man has been entranced from the beginning of time by nature and its force. In fact, most pronouns for nature are she/her/hers. Nature has also been linked to women as it has been ‘dominated’ by men, similar to the way men have ‘dominated’ society and women, in particular. As a result, in much of our literature and art, women are described as and portrayed as very close to the natural world.