By Shrutakirti Dutta


The Victorians took their code of morality very seriously, going by the scathing comment on Jane Eyre published in The Quarterly Review in 1849 which reads as follows:
“We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre”.

The seemingly ‘unchristian’ description of desire and sexuality in Charlotte Brontë’s novel challenged the norms of repressed desire in Victorian society. The intimate first person narration allowed readers to be privy to the private thoughts of the protagonist who had heretofore boasted no more than a sometimes severe, sometimes formal relationship with its reader.

The general oppressive surveillance of Victorian society aside, Jane starts off under the stern gaze of her aunt and later the surveillance of Lowood School while forever under the gaze of an all-powerful God who proves an impediment to her ‘baser’ inclinations. The constant battle between a higher moral code and a perhaps deeper personal longing for love plays itself out in this bildungsroman. Through my paper I will explore the extent to which the author problematizes the gaze of contemporary Victorian society while challenging staccato Victorian ideas of love, desire, and intimacy through her proto-feminist, if slightly conflicted, protagonist.



The concept of the Gaze has been around since the beginning of the 19th century, although it was only formalised in the 20th century. Gaze, as Jacques Lacan theorises, is the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. The psychological effect, Lacan argues, is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realising that he or she is a visible object. This concept is bound with his theory of the mirror stage, in which a child encountering a mirror realises that he or she has an external appearance. By viewing himself in the mirror, the subject at the mirror stage enters into the realm of culture and language by establishing his own subjectivity through the fantasy image inside the mirror, an image that the subject can aspire towards. This is not to say that the object behaves optically as a mirror; instead it means that the awareness of any object can induce an awareness of also being an object. From Sartre to Foucault, the concept of the gaze has had a long and contested critical history, with the artist often cast both as the gazer and the gazed-upon. In Jane Eyre (1847), Brontë formulates her own concept of the gaze, and highlights the role of gazing and the idea of being gazed upon through her narrator Jane.

Through my paper I would like to propose that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre can be seen as a literary work that is fighting the permeating, critical gaze of its immediate society. This claim is not without its problems. I refer to the confidential tone of the novel, and the obvious familiarity with which Jane addresses her readers. Jane Eyre is not an epistolary novel but its intense tone is suited to one such. The novel (first published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography), reads like a tell-all open letter, one that looks to set records straight by ‘merely telling the truth.’ The narrative itself is structured carefully to give it the feel of a confession. The reader is addressed directly by Jane on numerous occasions, often appealed to, hoping for sympathy or empathy or even plain understanding. In doing so, Jane seems to be welcoming the gaze of the reader, and often reveling in the knowledge of that gaze, which again emphasises the duality of the protagonist’s character. It is an intimate novel in the fact that it takes its reader completely into confidence and makes him privy to its heroine’s every thought and desire, however scandalous. The addressing of the reader makes for a direct engagement with the content. We become intimate with Jane (and, through some removal, possibly even Brontë ) without being given a choice.

This unusually frank discourse is surprising because it stands out glaringly against the recurring and contradictory motif of ‘curtaining’ prevalent in the novel. Jane hides from her cousins by physically drawing the curtain around the window seat where she prefers to read in isolation  – an act she repeats several times in the presence of Mr. Rochester and his guests at Thornfield Hall. Jane is introduced to us as an anomaly from the beginning; a ‘little, roving, solitary thing,’ a social pariah more comfortable drawing the curtains around her protective lair than being held up for public scrutiny. However, it is exactly this continual self-cloaking which draws the attention she so wishes to avoid. After a point, we may even question as to whether there is some perversion of Jane’s desire to be seen that results in such a strong antipathy, and, indeed, fear, of the same. The novel is strewn with instances of Jane drawing attention to herself despite evidence of her deep anxiety at being in the line of observation. This is seen quite literally in the scene from Lowood where Jane, desperate to hide from Mr. Brocklehurts’s untoward attention, cloaks herself amidst a crowd of uniformed women only to drop her slate onto the floor with a crashing noise, thus defeating the entire process:

Hitherto, while gathering up the discourse of Mr. Brocklehurst and Miss Temple, I had not, at the same time, neglected precautions to secure my personal safety; which I thought would be effected, if I could only elude observation. To this end, I had sat well back on the form, and while seeming to be busy with my sum, had held my slate in such a manner as to conceal my face: I might have escaped notice, had not my treacherous slate somehow happened to slip from my hand, and falling with an obtrusive crash, directly drawn every eye upon me . . .[1]

Similar scenes are played out repeatedly in various ways throughout the novel The motif of Jane ‘cloaking’ her true thoughts against any immediate audience leads to its own paradox, where Jane the narrator forcibly pulls the reader into her world and yet hides herself from the people willing to know her. Her impulse for candidness is constantly at war with her almost masochistic impulse for self-erasure: ‘Being pushed unceremoniously to one side – which was precisely what I wished.’[2]

Although by her own admission she is ‘weary of an existence all passive,’ she vehemently chooses to be the looker-on, observing feverishly the subjects of her gaze:

[…] that I might gaze without being observed . . . I looked and had an acute pleasure in looking.[3]

Her self-cloaking, self-erasure, and her love for oblivion extend even to her name; Jane is constantly made to look, and indeed believe she looks ‘plain.’ So much so, that there is apocryphal believing that the term ‘Plain Jane’ itself, first reliably recorded in 1912, may have originated from the novel. Indeed the novel seems constructed in a way where Jane goes out of her way through its course to live up to this name, as it were. Thus, it is made evident throughout the narrative that Jane struggles with the several different gazes on her within the context of the novel. ‘Were I in her place it seems to me I should wish the earth to open and swallow me up,’[4] she says of Helen Burns’ public humiliation at Lowood School. It must be noted that the women around her do not seem as concerned by the gaze as she is (notably Blanche Ingram who actively seeks out Mr. Rochester’s gaze), nor do they exhibit fear and apprehension at its possibility. Helen Burns takes her punishment with equanimity but Jane cannot:

I, who had said I could not bear the shame of standing on my natural feet in the middle of the room, was now exposed to general view on a pedestal of infamy.  What my sensations were no language can describe; but just as they all rose, stifling my breath and constricting my throat . . .[5]

Jane’s portrayal as an anomaly serves a second purpose. It sets the stage for the novel which in the context of its contemporary literary scene was just as much of an anomaly in its own right. In a literary landscape that set precedence on a masculinist idea of success, Jane Eyre uniquely portrayed the upward mobility of a female (as opposed to a man) on her own terms and without the aid of marriage. Unfavourable reviews of the book followed:

We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.[6]

[Whoever Currer Bell may be], it is a person who, with great mental powers, combines a total ignorance of the habits of society, a great coarseness of taste, and a heathenish doctrine of religion.[7]


There was widespread censure of the novel on social and moral grounds due to its critical representation of religious sentiment, its easy acceptance of a love which transcends class and because of the protagonist’s uninhibited interaction with her readers. Thus, in the 1840s, Jane Eyre was a revolutionary text. Victorian critics did not like Jane’s strong-minded independence and many thought that the novel was coarse. The novel was blamed for the corruption of contemporary tastes and morality, in both life and art. Most contemporary critics felt that there was something dangerous in the novel’s underlying message, while Jane Eyre herself was seen as godless and unrestrained. Others thought that Charlotte Brontë’s personality was reflected in the novel and that personality was irredeemably vulgar and alien. Such a view was changed only after the publication of Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. Even Charlotte Brontë herself worked hard at rescuing the reputation of the book.

Charlotte Brontë is transparent in her use of Jane Eyre as a spokesperson. She deliberately inserts long-winded speeches within the novel which speak out against gross inequalities of treatment of the sexes:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally, but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.[8]

There is a reason as to why Brontë lashes out, especially when placed in the context of her actual socio-political reality. One must keep in mind the acute marginalisation faced by women in early to mid-nineteenth century England. Brontë herself remained vocal in her displeasure of laws against women’s right to own property (a law that would not be amended before 1870). Women’s economic solvency remained compromised until well after the Industrial Revolution. However, the prevalent myth that the general expectancy from their sex was solely marriage, (and subsequently, children) was factually incorrect. Professor John Burnett states:

What has, in fact, changed is that more married women and more middle-class women now work than formerly. Given the huge size of the Victorian working class (at least 80 per cent of the population if we take the ‘manual’ definition of class), the demographic consideration that because of the unequal sex ratio one in three women were ‘doomed’ to spinsterhood anyway, and the fact that the wages of many semi-skilled and unskilled male workers were so low or so uncertain that they would not support a family unless supplemented by the earnings of wives and children, it cannot be doubted that a high proportion of Victorian women, both single and married, regularly engaged in paid work.[9]

Since the Victorian woman was never granted personal freedom, Jane Eyre’s appointment as a governess and the groundbreaking notion that a woman could have paid occupation was considered independence, even if only financial. Typically, a Victorian woman was expected to get married and raise children. In these circumstances, Jane’s working, even in a menial position, underlined her desire for emotional and economic independence. Such an independence however, did not dispel the common prejudices that existed against women at that time. In a review of Jane Eyre, a critic quickly dismisses the possibility of Currer Bell being a female on the grounds of his heroines being accounted for so ‘favourably.’ However, the passage practically reeks of misogyny. The review said:

[…] We cannot pronounce that it appertains to a real Mr. Currer Bell and to no other, yet that it appertains to a man, and not, as many assert, to a woman, we are strongly inclined to affirm. Without entering into the question whether the power of the writing be above her, or the vulgarity below her, there are, we believe, minutiae of circumstantial evidence which at once acquit the feminine hand. No woman–a lady friend, whom we are always happy to consult, assures us–makes mistakes in her own métier–no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert-dishes with the same hands, or talks of so doing in the same breath. Above all, no woman attires another in such fancy dresses as Jane’s ladies assume.[10]

There remained strict binaries in the roles assigned to women, generally typified as ‘The Angel in the House’ and its antithesis, the ‘Fallen Woman’. Jane differs from the general conception of Victorian women in many ways. Most women at that time did not get the opportunity to read and write but Jane as a little girl started instructing herself in both, and took matters into her own hands when it came to her own educational and financial independence. She is represented as a strong-willed woman with her own personal convictions. She does not depend on a man to provide shelter and food for her because she is a modern day working woman capable of fending for herself.  From the outset of the novel, Jane demonstrates her rebellious nature and is duly imprisoned for her less than angelic behaviour. Ironically, Jane’s lack of restraint causes Mrs. Reed to shame her into submission and make her essentially the ‘Angel in the House’, who was expected to be devoted and submissive to her husband. The Angel was passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all – pure. The phrase ‘Angel in the House’ originally comes from the title of an immensely popular poem by Coventry Patmore, in which he holds his angel-wife up as a model for all women.

Brontë resolutely steers clear of this stereotype and strips Jane of all the conventional trappings of the Victorian heroine – that of beauty, lineage, or sparkling wit, and perhaps more crudely put, the ability to make a pastry. Thus quite naturally and in accordance with Brontë’s plan, she refuses to be dressed in plumes and silks or play the stereotype of the Victorian ideal. Notably, in her power struggle with Rochester prior to her wedding date, she refuses to be called an ‘angel’: ‘… and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.[11]

She struggles in the latter part of the novel to secure an equal footing with Mr. Rochester, shunning monetary or material favours from him which she herself cannot afford:

“I only want an easy mind, sir; not crushed by crowded obligations. Do you remember what you said of Céline Varens?—of the diamonds, the cashmeres you gave her? I will not be your English Céline Varens. I shall continue to act as Adèle’s governess; by that I shall earn my board and lodging, and thirty pounds a year besides. I’ll furnish my own wardrobe out of that money, and you shall give me nothing but – ”

“Well, but what?”

“Your regard; and if I give you mine in return, that debt will be quit.”[12]

There always remains in Jane, as in Brontë, an anxiety to assert independence which was difficult to achieve within the confines of their social realities. Education was a privilege of the moneyed; women were taught languages, music, sewing, and housekeeping—skills that would help them to be responsible, but agreeable wives. Transgressions from these rigid, social paradigms were considered taboo. Perhaps naturally then, a woman’s conduct was put under continuous scrutiny and a resultant verdict passed on her character. This is seen clearly in the Bertha-Jane contrast where the former, a Creole, is stereotyped as being a sexual, sensual predator driven to the edge of insanity through a life of indulgence. This depiction is further problematised by Bertha’s Jamaican lineage which ties in with the Victorian idea of the other. It:

[…] draws on a range of specifically Victorian discourses for demarcating otherness: gendered notions of inherited insanity; racially inflected ideas about self-indulgence and excess; constructions of colonial identity and England’s relations with her colonies in the early to mid-1800s.[13]

Bertha Mason is the embodiment of the Victorian ‘Mad Woman’ whose unleashed passion represents a deadly threat to respectable British society. Bertha’s crimes are associated with heat and passion and are portrayed as a manifestation of her madness – she sets fire to Rochester’s bed, and later to Thornfield’s, stabs and bites her brother and tears Jane’s veil in half when she finds out about her relationship with Rochester.  Some criticism suggests a connection between the cultural history of insomnia and that of moral insanity in women. Brontë’s text pairs Bertha’s persistent wakefulness to her insanity, nearly equating the two. She emphasises the dishonour shared by both thirst for sexual deviance and pathological criminality. In stark contrast is Jane who lives a life of deprivation and modesty. In the obvious glorification of one binary over the other lies proof of society’s deep-rooted prejudice against women.

The societal gaze on the female figure that strove to configure her movements, thought processes, and ideologies in order to make it fit a common rubric, is a near-constant fixture in the Victorian works. Protagonists shape their discourses through its influence; their choices and actions are guided by this disapproving presence. Young Cathy is made to exclude herself from the company of Heathcliff, and is groomed into becoming the less spirited Catherine Linton through marriage and familial pressures in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.[14] Esther Summerson, Dickens’ only female narrator, constantly undercuts her authorial voice by drawing the reader’s attention to her narratorial inefficacies and lack of ‘cleverness’ in Bleak House.[15]Jane Eyre cuts against this grain with its disarming frankness and sense of receiving the story as it is. In an increasingly artificial society riddled with religious and moral oppression, honesty becomes rebellion. But although she rebels against the conventional gaze of society, choosing instead to carefully paint a picture of independence through her writing, and trying to remain true to it, she is not entirely devoid of an often half-apologetic, mostly defensive tone that is all too acutely aware of societal prohibitions. She is mortified of her actions or attitude being misconstrued by those that watch. Interestingly, there is no shortage of such watchers throughout the novel. Mrs. Reed and later Mr. Brocklehurst watch Jane disapprovingly. Mr. Rochester is watched by Bertha in the dead of night. Jane needs to turn Mr. Rochester towards the moonlight to watch his expressions and determine their sincerity. As an artist it is a part of Jane’s curriculum to ‘watch’ the subjects of her painting. This raises the question as to how much Jane herself was watching the watchers. Does she see with the desire to be seen (a desire we have posited previously)? Does she see with a paranoid eye? Does she see with a voyeuristic gaze, and hence frightened at the thought of a similar gaze being upon her? These are difficult questions to answer, all things considered, with very little material to go upon save for the text, which in itself is suspect because we know Jane is manipulating our gaze from the start. At best we can depend on surmise. On top of a broader societal struggle there is in her an internal struggle trying to come to terms with her self-image, and her too unforgiving a gaze on herself. Perhaps, at the end of it all, it is not a single gaze she fears, because she also gazes inwards. Perhaps it is a multiplicity of gazes, uncomfortable in their exteriority. It is not necessary that this manipulation is depicted only through Jane herself. For example, when Rochester scrutinises the artwork, he opines that Jane had been accompanied by someone in the process of creating that piece of art because according to Rochester’s analysis of Jane’s gaze, the work depicted a quality that was beyond Jane herself. This is perhaps what had led Rochester to feel that Jane had had an accomplice. This exploration of Jane’s psyche by Rochester is a representation of him gazing into the abyss of her being and realising that the artwork had a quality that, while he was scrutinising Jane’s psyche, had eluded his gaze. It might, thus, seem that Jane has once again been limited to the patriarchal gaze of the male being, where Rochester suggests that if he has not found a quality present in the painting to be present in Jane, it is probably not her own quality. However, the truth lies in the paradoxical notion that Jane has chosen to keep herself hidden from Rochester’s gaze, denying him the right of complete understanding. While Rochester is assured that he has discovered Jane’s real self, Jane passively keeps herself hidden and creates an opaque shield against Rochester’s gaze. Says an unwitting Mr. Rochester of Jane: ‘Know, that in the course of your future life you will often find yourself elected the involuntary confidant of your acquaintances’ secrets: people will instinctively find out, as I have done, that it is not your forte to tell of yourself, but to listen while others talk of themselves . . .’[16]. Indeed, Jane’s redeeming features to Mr. Rochester, Mrs. Fairfax and even Eliza in the later years seem to be her unending modesty, sensible nature, and a constant self-erasing—conventional traits expected of a ‘woman of character,’ which again is subsequently condemned by Jane in her solitary musings.

There are marked inconsistencies in Jane and her narrative rebellion, and this dichotomy persists throughout the novel. Jane advocates women’s liberty to speak their minds and yet is aware of, and shrewdly plays to orchestrated manoeuvres to ‘win over the man,’ so to speak: ‘It seems to me that she might, by merely sitting quietly at his side saying little and looking less, get nigher to his heart,’[17] Jane says of Blanche Ingram and her coquetry. Having elucidated previously about the marginalisation of the Victorian women, Jane’s statement carries a certain degree of truth. Women had to strike a delicate balance between society and the self and this often resulted in a strained relationship with the self as well as with society. The only way to maintain one’s chaste reputation was to follow the conventional codes of conduct. Jane understands that Blanche Ingram is representative of this code that required women not only to speak less but also to look less. Jane Eyre, as established earlier in this paper, rejects certain ostentatious, stereotyped characteristics of the Victorian female. However, she is the one who moves out of the restricted boundaries of the space allotted to women and yet understands the need to be confined within those defined limits. On the one hand, this can be perceived as an anomaly in her character: a sort of dichotomy that runs throughout the text; and, on the other hand, it is a rather calculated move on the author’s part to instill in her protagonist a blend of the conventional and the rebellious. This may be viewed as a replication of Brontë  herself, breaking the norms by writing but using the male identity: the pen name of Currer Bell. Thus, both the writer and the protagonist share a common instinct to manipulate gender codes as they choose.

The question of religion is dealt with much in the same way. She is unable to reconcile entirely with the religious beliefs and showmanship of her times, (she markedly asks blasphemous question: about faith and the rigid concepts of heaven and hell) but keeps going back to a God she is uncertain about, unwilling to completely disregard a faith so deep-rooted in the fabric of her immediate society. But society is severe and watchful, both of which is best exemplified through an exchange between St. John and Jane:

“. . . Jane, I shall watch you closely and anxiously—I warn you of that. And try to restrain the disproportionate fervour with which you throw yourself into commonplace home pleasures. Don’t cling so tenaciously to ties of the flesh; save your constancy and ardour for an adequate cause; forbear to waste them on trite transient objects. Do you hear, Jane?”

“Yes; just as if you were speaking Greek. I feel I have adequate cause to be happy, and I will be happy. Goodbye!”[18]

It is interesting to note that for Jane, it is always a mutually exclusive choice between happiness and societal and religious approval. After considerable deliberation and despite St. John’s warning to resist temptation, Jane returns to Rochester. But she is not accorded the status of a fallen woman because of the mode of narrative cleverly chosen by her. The time of her return to Mr. Rochester is significant in the novel. In a morbid turn of events, it is only after he has been blinded, thus losing the ability to ‘gaze’ at her that she is able to return to him, this time surer of herself and of her grounding.

Jane claims to speak to Mr. Rochester, ‘not through the medium of custom or conventionalities but from the spirit.’ Critic Lisa Sternlieb says,

Jane is not completely satisfied with any of the benefits of marriage that she mentions—acting as Rochester’s amanuensis, talking with him all day, caring for him, or raising his children. She must write, and the act of writing itself belies her claims to ultimate happiness in marriage. [19]

Thus it is only when she is able to reclaim control over herself and is able to self-fashion on her own terms, away from the dictates of contemporary Victorian society that she is finally at peace. Jane cleverly negotiates the many gazes she is subjected to and uses it to her advantage. The novel is a bildungsroman in the sense that by the end of the novel Jane has been furnished with the capacity to draw aside her curtains and volubly speak her mind, not as part of some soliloquy but to a perceivable audience. Knowing that we are now in the same situation as Jane was, where we are her confidante as she had been to Rochester, our situation created by Jane makes for a strange, resonating sympathy, the harmony of which is hampered when we realise that Jane is aware of us, subverting the voyeuristic pleasure of a first person narrative.


Brontë uses her novel to construct the different paradigms of gaze and successfully shows how Jane can be financially, emotionally and intellectually secure irrespective of the collective gazes. No doubt Jane Eyre was a courageous step forward in the trajectory of the female protagonist, but one could perhaps argue that the very force and recurrence with which the novel strives to establish its heroine as an unconventional free spirit, reveals its deep-rooted insecurity in the faith of its heroine’s unorthodoxy. Jane’s constant duality and self-contradiction throughout the novel, and to some extent the incongruity of writer’s belief and action appear to be convincing enough as Jane represents the confusing transition of the educated middle class female of the times, one placed on the unstable fence between familiar customs and (following the industrial revolution and its resultant proto-feminist awakening) a scandalously rebellious worldview.








[1]Charlotte Brontë , Jane Eyre (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), p. 76

[2]Ibid., p. 291

[3]Ibid.,  p. 190

[4]Ibid., p. 61

[5]Ibid.,  p. 78

[6]Elizabeth Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, No. CLXVII (December, 1848), p. 82-99


[8]Brontë , Jane Eyre, p. 123

[9]  John Burnett, Victorian Working Women: Sweated Labour, (http://www.victorianweb.org/history/work/burnett2.html, accessed 2 January, 2015)

[10] Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, pp. 82-99

[11]Brontë , Jane Eyre, p. 280

[12]Ibid., p. 290

[13] Jill Matus, ‘Jane Eyre and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall,’ The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës, editor Heather Glen (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

[14] Emily Brontë , Wuthering Heights (London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847)

[15] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1853)

[16]Ibid., p. 150

[17]Ibid., p. 203

[18]Ibid., p. 418

[19] Lisa Sternlieb, Jane Eyre: Hazarding Confidences, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Mar., 1999), 452-479, University of California Press (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2903027?seq=3, accessed 14 October, 2014)

Shrutakirti Dutta is a postgraduate student pursuing her Master’s degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University after receiving her Bachelor’s degree from the same institution. She remains consistently interested in Victorian literary and culture studies, Post Colonial Literature, and American Modernism. Like a true post-graduate however, she is conflicted about her areas of interest but hopes to one day specialize in the cross-cultural study of culinary traditions in art and literature. Currently though, she prefers to eat and call it research.



By Anushka Sen


Virginia Woolf is known to harbour less than friendly feelings towards the Victorian age, and indications of such sentiments are distinctly present in her critical writings. It is evident however that her mistrust of this period is mixed with curiosity, and the Victorian age forms the background to substantial portions of her fiction. Woolf’s imaginative quasi-biography Orlando follows the magically long life of its protagonist from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th, in the course of which it traces the dawn and development of the Victorian period. Though Woolf’s wit is at its sharpest while exposing the conservatism, mawkishness and pomposity of Victorian society, this section of the narrative reveals what appears to be a sincere investment in the intimacy that Orlando develops with a man named Shel. My paper seeks to ask and respond to the following question among others—is the intimacy between Orlando and Shel presented as complicit with the Victorian tendencies that Woolf critiques or does it acts as a redeeming force, humanising an otherwise distanced set of values?

Along with Orlando, I would like to look at another of Woolf’s works—Flush, also a fictionalised biography, set entirely in Victorian times and written in a humorous vein comparable to that of Orlando. Here too, a substantial amount of mockery is directed at Victorian London, and the possibility of authentic feeling in the work is provided primarily by an intimate and sympathetic relationship—that between Elizabeth Barrett and her dog Flush. Like Orlando, Flush provokes questions about the reliability of meaning in a linguistic environment that destabilises itself through self-parody. Apart from exploring some of the nuances and shared resonances of the two works, this paper will take into account the larger background of Woolf’s commitment to forging ideals of intimacy (along with the other members of Bloomsbury), and her ambivalent stance on the Victorian period in this regard.

Paper titles are often carelessly conceived, but they do generate expectations about the framework of the paper concerned. Hence, a clarification of the questions raised by this paper’s title may not be out of order. The word ‘purpose’ in this case is not used to point at a clearly defined agenda, but at the semblance of a pattern, albeit subjectively perceived, that emerges from Woolf’s literature. As for ‘intimacy’, I have refrained from defining it too strictly in this paper. Intimacy, as opposed to mere acquaintance, usually suggests a certain depth in the given relationship. In this paper, I do not wish to distinguish between different shades of acquaintance, and point to intimacy’s position at one end of the range. Rather, I assume the implied presence of intimacy in any situation where the sense of relationship exerts a force upon the consciousness, and is perceived as something concrete, that requires a certain effort and involvement in response. Moreover, this intimacy is also accompanied by knowledge about the self in relation with an entity. This knowledge may be irksome, gratifying or epiphanic; may be sensed as an affect rather than as knowledge. Intimacy is therefore not necessarily accompanied by affection, and the only element which I isolate as a constant in all these explorations of intimacy, is the weight of association between (in this case, living) beings. In this paper, I have tried to focus on this weight of association and comment on its varying forms within a certain context—Virginia Woolf’s engagement with the Victorians. The paper begins with an exploration of Woolf’s popularly known views on the Victorian age, and her general position on intimacy. It then moves onto a brief discussion of two novels by Woolf where the Victorian context and the theme of intimacy are closely entwined.

Before this paper delves into the Victorian context, it is also necessary to qualify the phrase ‘Virginia Woolf’s “Victorian England”’ in the title. The possessive may imply that Virginia Woolf has moulded a tangible model of the age, one that remains largely consistent as an intellectual entity. Nonetheless, we can tell how unlikely that is, given the actual complexity of any demarcated time period and of a writer’s ideological trajectory. For a Woolf enthusiast and feminist, it is tempting to equate Virginia Woolf’s stance on the Victorians with her sharp indictment of Victorian patriarchy and propriety. Her most dramatic working out of such a position occurs in the essay titled ‘Professions for Women’, a revised and shorter version of an earlier speech. In this piece, she paints an ironic picture of the great bogey for women writers—the Angel in the House, an image derived from the Victorian writer Conventry Patmore. Woolf’s description of the angel leaves little room for doubt as to her position on this idealised female figure.

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it … Above all–I need not say it—she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty–her blushes, her great grace. In those days–the last of Queen Victoria–every house had its Angel. [1]

It comes as no surprise therefore, when Woolf talks about her need to kill, indeed strangle, this creature in ‘self-defence’[2], though we might register the violence in her language with a mild shock. However, Emily Blair, in her book Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth Century Domestic Novel, points out that even this outspoken critique is not free of ambivalence towards structure, self-effacement and charm—qualities that Woolf aims at explicitly in her prolific correspondence but which are also noticeable in the inviting, conversational tone pervading most of her essays[3]. In general, Woolf is fairly transparent about her discomfort with the ugly destructiveness of modern aesthetics, whose necessity she also acknowledges[4]. Her views in ‘Professions for Women’ is only one case among many which Blair studies in order to pursue the connections between Virginia Woolf and Victorian notions of feminine space and manners. Indeed, the importance of living space to Woolf is evident in ‘Professions for Women’. As Blair points out[5], she situates the figure of the female writer in the bedroom (‘You have only got to figure to yourselves a girl in a bedroom with a pen in her hand’[6]) and towards the end of her essay posits the following extended metaphor.

You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. You are able, though not without great labour and effort, to pay the rent… But this freedom is only a beginning–the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared.[7]

Like much of nineteenth century discourse, Woolf’s writing here reveals an investment in the special role of women in shaping space through certain performative codes, though the modern woman is more self-aware and purposeful. Woolf’s inclusion of sharing room in her list of goals leads us to the idea of human relations, which for her, frames or infuses space in a fundamental way. In a Room of One’s Own, the reference to which is easily recognisable in the last quote, she compares the structure of a novel to that of buildings, both possessing diverse and discernible shapes. Her comments on the significance of these shapes are striking.

This shape, I thought, thinking back over certain famous novels, starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it. But that emotion at once blends itself with others, for the ‘shape’ is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being [8].

Not exactly contradicting her own critique of Arnold Bennett’s solid house-like novels, she envisions the novel instead as a specialised form of architecture, where the arrangement of building material is inseparable from the pattern of human relations. The ‘relation of human being to human being’ remains an object of prime fascination for Woolf, the study of which brings us in contact with her notions of intimacy.

At this point, we may pause to consider the Bloomsbury circle to which she belonged, and the part it played in forming her ideas of social interaction. Raymond William’s chapter on Bloomsbury in Culture and Materialism drives home with exceptional clarity the group’s perception of itself as a network of intimate alliances. He writes, that it is especially necessary to consider the larger socio-political currents that shaped and held the members of the Bloomsbury circle together, because ‘[i]nfluentially, they went out of their way by assertion or innuendo, to deflect or deny them.’[9] That is to say, ‘deflect or deny’ the shaping forces. In this context, he quotes Leonard Woolf’s pronouncement—‘We were and always remained primarily and fundamentally a group of friends.’[10]

If we now depart from Williams’ methodology to focus on the individual figure of Woolf and particularly on her letters, we may sift a rich, conflicted commentary on social interaction from the vast array of her reflections. ‘Reflections’ seems an apt word to use here, because in one instance she speaks of the ideal letter as a mirror for the recipient[11]. Yet she is often painfully aware of how another person may be largely a creation of one’s own mind, and impossible to really know. She scoffs at parties for their superficiality and tedium while being drawn to their potential for cementing intimacies. Nor is she impervious to the luminous presence of beauty that is often manifest at these glamorous gatherings, a fact confirmed by her weakness for the perfect hostess figure, embodied in Mrs. Dalloway. She describes friendship to Vita Sackville-West as an extended conversation[12]. In yet another instance, writing to Vita, she seems to shrink from meeting people in a drawing room scenario because there is nothing to mediate and mitigate the oppressive sense of closeness between one another[13]. In her letters, she distinguishes the superlative affection she has for her sister and husband from the almost unmatched sexual candour that filters into her exchange with Vita, while setting both against the backdrop of artful conversation and disarming frankness she practises while writing to most of her friends. Aspects of her motivation are often at odds with each other. In one letter, she flinches at the picture of domestic bliss and speaks approvingly of how Keats has ‘no d—-d humanity.’[14] In other instances, she speaks with loathing about the cold intellectualism of Oxford and Cambridge[15], and registers surprise at the lack of human emotion in Milton’s works[16]. One may gather that reading and writing fiction, for her, is an escape from social bonds as well as an intensely charged approximation of complete sympathy with the world around her. Moreover, Woolf’s political position on social gatherings is evident in Mrs. Dalloway, where the archetypal party is exposed as superficial and fragile, but also presented as a sphere of almost heroic, even tragic protest for women, whose exclusion from worldly affairs drives to them to simulate perfection and agency by conducting a grand social event. The rapture and radiance of a party derives from something more transient and elusive than intimacy, but its high emotional charge seems to indicate something beyond mere interaction.

Regarding physical intimacy, Woolf often betrays squeamishness. Joanne Trautmann Banks, the editor of Woolf’s Selected Letters, writes that Virginia and Leonard’s honeymoon cemented their friendship, but was ‘a disappointment sexually.’[17] She adds that Woolf ‘could not long stand up to the other forms of intimacy enforced by marriage.’[18] Woolf’s early traumatic experience of sexual intimacy is well known. In a letter to Vanessa, she speaks jocularly of the sexual abuse she and Vanessa both suffered at the hands of their half brother George Duckworth[19], but it is not unreasonable to surmise that this experience had a lasting impact on her attitude to physical intimacy.

Keeping all of this in mind, I wish to move onto the more specific segment of my paper, which deals with two of her novels—Orlando and Flush, written in the years 1929 and 1933 respectively. The protagonist Orlando is based on Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s close friend and romantic interest for some time. In the fantastical world of this novel, he changes gender overnight without any ostensible cause and lives through centuries, maturing rather than aging. Flush too is a fictional biography, based on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog. Both novels actively engage in periodisation; both are written in a lighthearted and parodic tone, though the former is a far more complex work. The nineteenth century sets the stage for nearly two chapters of Orlando, a work that takes us rapidly through successive stages of English history from the sixteenth century to the start of the twentieth; while the entirety of Flush unfolds in the Victorian Age. Steve Ellis, in Virginia Woolf and the Victorians, argues that Orlando belongs to a phase of Woolf’s writing in which she attempts to integrate a critique of Victorian pomposity with a celebration of that same era’s capacity for harmonising oppositional elements. He feels that at the point where Flush is written, Woolf’s approach towards the Victorians is on the verge of disillusionment, and hence expressed in starkly varying tones at different times. Emily Blair on the other hand traces a continuity between Orlando and Flush in their mutual ambivalence about the Victorians[20]. Not being sufficiently qualified to take strong sides in this argument, I believe that both novels treat the Victorian age with a playful, satirical skepticism while allowing the central intimate relationships a sincerity that acts upon the reader’s sympathies. Admittedly, this is not a very illuminating claim but perhaps it helps create ground for reading subtleties and tensions in Woolf’s position that might otherwise be overlooked.


Through the nineteenth century in Orlando, a cloud hangs over Britain—a dank, gloomy industrial cloud, to counter which England develops a culture of highly artificial domestic warmth. Woolf mercilessly mocks the pitiful props of this culture, sparing nothing from beards to china ornaments, exposing the overabundance of ‘fine phrases’[21] and reporting the increasing hypocrisy plaguing sexual relations. Once more we encounter Nick Greene, a callow critic and acquaintance from an earlier era, his views no more refined than they were but his appearance greatly changed. Turned out like a gentleman, he has lost even the crude vitality which was once his only charm and is now a self-satisfied man, hailed the best critic of the Victorian age. In the true spirit of the age, the narrator deems it futile to record Orlando’s life as long as she sits and writes. Only action, not thought is considered worthy of biography, a prejudice that aligns writing with the female. What makes the narrator’s voice in Orlando exhilarating and troubling at the same time is the way it seamlessly fuses the acts of critiquing an age and merging with it.

In an age so obsessed with home and hearth, Orlando (by this time, female) goes against her independent instincts and craves a husband. Overwhelmed by a sense of desperation, she rushes out onto the moor where she lies in a trance while Virginia Woolf enjoys a laugh at Emily Bronte’s expense. At this point, Orlando meets her future husband in a chance encounter. He arrives, of course, on a horse. His name, of course, is long and weighty—Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine Esquire. Their romance is sealed in the following manner.

‘Madam,’ the man cried, leaping to the ground, ‘you’re hurt!’

‘I’m dead, sir!’ she replied.

A few minutes later, they became engaged.[22]

How one might ask, is this to be taken seriously? Should it be? Suddenly, brisk rebellious Orlando is languorous, sentimental, cocooned. Yet, it is unwise to look upon this marriage with undiluted suspicion. It may be pointed out that Orlando resumes writing her poem and finishes it only when her husband is away, and that this suggests a liberation in the absence of the husband. Nonetheless, her wedding ring sits snug on her finger all the while as an ostensibly happy reminder of her new bond. The narrative of Orlando does indeed undermine itself with parody and sudden shifts in register, but it would be slightly reckless to assume that the narrator is deceiving us with the unequivocal statement that Orlando ‘had never felt better in her life.’ Orlando and Shel are in love, they make each other happy—there is nothing to disprove this. They even recognise each other’s androgyny, but this does not seem redemptive enough to transcend satire altogether. Does marriage then stand for a pragmatic compromise demanded by every age in exchange for peace of mind, conducive to writing? The novel is not well suited to the distillation of answers, but we may take note of a similar mixture of defiance and compromise in Woolf’s nonfiction, where she advocates a hard struggle against the Victorian dictums of delicacy while preserving a dignity she does not always care to ironise. Then again, the choice may not always be a pragmatic one. We cannot forget Woolf’s personal investment in Orlando, described famously by Vita’s son as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’[23]. As for literature itself, whether in ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’, or A Room with a View, Woolf shows a genuine love for the vitality of Victorian writing—of a certain conviction and wholeness in its lyricism. Although she knows that modernity has undone the very fabric of life and literature, and that there are freedoms to be gained from this, Woolf remains enthralled by the beauty and power of the Victorian age, and the novel Orlando is remarkable in that it takes its parody of that age (and others) to soaring heights of lyricism. If there is an underlying anxiety, it does not, I believe, create discordances. The ecstasy and fulfillment with which Orlando greets the return of her husband at the novel’s end, achieves that haunting intensity which Woolf often speaks of as the quality she seeks to capture in literature. Though Shel’s return takes place in the 20th century, Woolf’s present, it is the growth of Orlando and Shel’s intimacy in the Victorian age which makes the ending possible.


Flush on the other hand, is a far less ambitious work. Nevertheless, it make its unique contribution to the terrain of our discussion. In the opening chapter, Flush is passed on to Miss Barrett from his original owner Miss Mitford. Used to running wild in the country, Flush is almost paralysed by the claustrophobic feel of the Barrett house on Wimpole Street. With destructive humour, Woolf uses Flush’s point of view to mock the excess of furniture and melancholy dimness in Elizabeth Barrett’s room, deliberately kept this way for the benefit of its invalid occupant. Miss Mitford abandons Flush to this alien territory, following which he suffers a period of jarring adjustment to his new life of relative seclusion in London.

Nonetheless, these miseries are redeemed by the cementing of his relationship with Miss Barrett. As the days go by, she proves to be his centre of security and comfort, even as her anchoring presence serves to restrict his liberty. Flushie,” wrote Miss Barrett, “is my friend–my companion–and loves me better than he loves the sunshine without.”’[24] The narrative of Flush, it must be admitted, is at peace with the hierarchical positioning of dog and human, where one must adapt far more to the other’s ways. However, the teasing irony of Woolf’s style demystifies Elizabeth Barrett by exaggerating her sensitive temperament.

Flush was … at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. There she would lie hour after hour … her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever … do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.”[25]

The parody in this passage however, is distinctly different from the mockery directed at the rest of London. The comic element in this equation does not negate the emotional value of a growing intimacy, transcending spoken language, between the two characters. The skewed balance of power between human and dog is not taken to be as destructive as the hierarchies within human society. Indeed, Woolf even sanctions the former to some extent, and though that lies open to criticism, what interests us here is the pride of place given by Woolf to Miss Barrett and Flush.

Flush is both an individual being and a generic symbol. He stands for a part of Miss Barrett, for his spaniel ancestry, and for all dogs of good breeding with the capacity to touch the lives and hearts of great people. Yet he is above all uniquely himself, and his relationship with Miss Barrett has no exact equivalent. This becomes most evident when on Flush’s abduction, Elizabeth is encouraged not to pay the ransom and to turn the crisis into a contest between the wronged residents of Wimpole Street and London’s dognapping underbelly. There is something overinflated about this heroism demanded of her, whose absurdity Woolf seems aware of when she lays bare the contents of Robert Browning’s long and eloquent letter encouraging Elizabeth to hold out against the villainous abductor. Miss Barrett however, proves herself to be made of sterner mettle, and not only resists her neighbourhood but negotiates with the dognappers, visiting for the first time in her life the seedier quarters of London. Her courage is inseparable from the degree of her sentiment. Her choice to act against the advice of Browning, who is and remains her lover, is a significant moment in the novel as earlier, Flush had to bear with acute jealousy and humiliation in the process of accepting his growing closeness to Elizabeth.

Flush may be integrally associated with upper-class luxury, but it is he who inspires Elizabeth’s emergence from domestic shelter and the bonds of paternalistic pressures. Of course, Miss Barrett is not exactly transformed by her experience, in which her class biases also rise to the fore, largely unquestioned by Woolf. The hegemonic social hierarchy that is in place within the novel is not seriously challenged by a few deviations, but it is complicated, and these intricacies vitalise the emotions circulating around Flush. On the other hand, we are given a taste of how cruel and oppressive a place Victorian London can be.

The faults of London show up even more clearly by contrast when she elopes with Robert Browning and travels with him and Flush to Italy, which is presented as safe, democratic, in short, full of sweetness and light. Steve Ellis however, remarks:

this simple antithesis and rejection of England is by no means Woolf’s last word on the Victorian scene… If The Years will largely continue the unsympathetic portrayal of Victorian England, the mix of rejection of it and nostalgia for it remains evident in other Woolfian texts of the 1930s in an undimmed complexity that was not perhaps appropriate in the biography of Elizabeth Barrett’s dog.[26]

This complexity needs to be explored at greater length, but the intention of this paper was to draw attention on two novels of comparable style, one frequently ignored, that seemed to shed light at a particular angle on the subject of Victorian intimacies. It is not that intimacy entirely redeems the Victorian age for Woolf, nor that she finds the period entirely despicable otherwise. Rather, the encounter between convention and intimacy in the Victorian Age feeds Woolf’s deep curiosity about human relationships, and allows her conflicted feelings upon the subject to be unravelled through a range of literary responses. As suggested by the earlier segment of this paper, conversation and mingling is, for Woolf, a chore and an art, both tedious and stimulating. Her letters are a perfect example of friendship turned into art, and language sustaining friendship. In her body of carefully crafted letters, candour and lies, abruptness and decorum all have their place and confessions of all kinds appear, from declarations of petty sentiment to heartbreaking cries of despair. It is difficult to attempt a gradation of intimacies in Woolf’s writing, as the lack of a clear hierarchy or a fixed set of responses are integral to the richness of her worldview. I return to the phrase ‘weight of association’ which I used earlier, to end with the thought that intimacy for Woolf is indeed a weight in the sense of a burden, a centre of pressure that generates tension, but also something that greatly enhances the texture of her experience, and lends substance to her literature.


[1] Virginia Woolf, ‘Professions for Women’, The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays, (Project Gutenberg Australia edition, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1203811h.html#ch-01, accessed October 9, 2014)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emily Blair, Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth Century Domestic Novel (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007).

[4] Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’, The Hogarth Essays (London: Hogarth Press, 1924), (http://www.columbia.edu/~em36/MrBennettAndMrsBrown.pdf, accessed October 9, 2014)

In pages 21-2, she speaks of the ‘indecency’ of Joyce, the ‘obscurity’ of Eliot, the ‘strain’ and limitations of Strachey, and how such ‘failures and fragments’ are the price one has to pay for the illuminations of a new age.

[5] Blair, Virginia Woolf, p. 31, 53.

[6] Woolf, ‘Professions for Women’.

[7] Ibid.

[8] VirginiaWoolf, A Room of One’s Own (Great Britain: Grafton, 1977), p. 78.

[9] Raymond Williams, ‘The Bloomsbury Fraction’, Culture and Materialism (London: Verso, 2005), p. 149.

[10] Ibid.

[11] VirginiaWoolf, Selected Letters, ed. Joanne Trautmann Banks (London: Vintage, 2008), xiv, p. 256.

[12] Woolf, Selected Letters, p. 216.

[13] Ibid., p. 198.

[14] Ibid., p. 35.

[15] Ibid., p. 44.

[16] Ibid., p. 101.

[17] Ibid., p. 74.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., pp. 65-6.

[20] Blair, Virginia Woolf, p. 70.

[21] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (New York: Rosetta Books LLC, 2002), electronic edition, p. 135.

[22] Woolf, Orlando, p. 148.

[23] Sherron E. Knopp, ‘“If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?”: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, Modern Language Association 103.1 (Jan 1988): 24 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/462459, accessed October 9, 2014)

[24] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Back Bedroom’, Flush (Project Gutenberg Australia edition, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301041h.html, accessed October 9, 2014)

[25] Ibid.

[26] Steve Ellis, Virginia Woolf and the Victorians (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 114.

Anushka Sen has received her B.A. and M.A. degrees in English Honours from Jadavpur University. She is presently employed as a Project Fellow under the School of Media Communication and Culture. Her paper, ‘The Purpose of Intimacy in Virginia Woolf’s Victorian England’, was presented when she was in her final semester of PG II. She remains interested in the themes of intimacy and the animal in literature, which she explored while studying for this paper.


By Avinash Antony and Somak Mukherjee


This paper proposes to establish the thematic similarities in the city as portrayed by Charles Dickens (in Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities) and Christopher Nolan (in his Batman trilogy). In both cases, the portrayal of chaos and the quest for order is what drives their narratives. The order desired is sometimes economic, sometimes legal, and sometimes political. But such order is shown to be ultimately impossible, both in the works of Dickens as well as Nolan. The order imposed in Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities and that imposed in The Dark Knight Rises is similar because they are clearly in conflict with false sense of redemption of their heroes. Is this a Dickensian way of telling us that individuals really do not matter in an ordered universe? We propose to analyse whether and why this is so and, in doing this, try to prove that this pessimism arises not out of a nihilistic world-view but is, rather, a result of the way in which the city has been socially constructed. Towards this, we will use Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the production of space (in this case, the city-space) and show how it is the Polis that creates the personnel and not the other way around. We will also utilize Bachelard’s phenomenological and topographical interrogation of space, establishing the presence of the house as something that creates an existence that is simultaneously within yet beyond the city space.


Towards this, we shall try to understand how the city has been imagined through history as a voluntary conglomeration, based on the idea that hierarchies provide stability. We will explore how the lack of stability can often arise out of conflicting hierarchies within a closed city-space.


We shall also consider how heterogeneous, mutually exclusive spaces within the city can exist –if not in harmony, then, at least, in denial. The problem arises when these spaces are forced together and compelled to notice each other. And if the city is cut off from the rest of the world, these internal contradictions lead, ultimately, to anarchy. In this light, we shall consider Gotham city, which is literally isolated from the rest of the world in The Dark Knight Rises, and Dickens’ portrayal of London in Bleak House. While the London of Bleak House is the center of a vast and continuously growing empire, there is a remarkable absence of the outside world in the novel. This is made even more evident by the fact that the only place of prominence (or mock-prominence) in the novel, other than London and its suburbs, is the fictional Borrioboola-Gha. We seek to analyse the Dickensian portrayal of the decay of isolation in contrast to that of Nolan.



As the nuclear dawn fades over Gotham, and we see its inhabitants start to raise their heads, and helicopters and boats converge on the island, we hear a voice. Jim Gordon.



‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss…’

Blake pulls out his badge, throws it into the river.


‘I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy…’



Gordon is reading from A Tale of Two Cities. Opposite is Fox, arm in a sling, and Blake, grim. Another figure is there, whose face we do not yet see…


‘I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…’

(Gordon closes the book, looking down at Bruce Wayne’s grave)


‘It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’”[1]



It is not surprising to see Batman laid to rest with a quote from Dickens if one considers the thematic link that unites the two. Like Dickens’ social critique, Batman’s vigilantism is impelled by his love for his city, and his desire to care for it. There are also striking similarities between the two cities: similarities based not on a conscious representation but rather on the way in which socio-economic conditions leave their impression upon the space within which they occur. Nevertheless, despite the similarities, these cities are remarkably different with respect to the way in which their citizens behave. This paper proposes to illustrate this difference by comparing the Dickensian characters in A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, and Great Expectations with those in Nolan’s Batman trilogy (as well as others in certain key storyline arcs like No Man’s Land). We will show that these differences arise from the different ways in which space is produced and represented in these texts. However, we must clarify that in our comparison, we do not seek to analyse either the institutions or the socio-economic conditions of the cities. Neither shall we consider any historical or political issues the texts might address. Rather, this paper will try to analyze how Dickens’ London, as a space produced and imbued with certain qualities, differs from the space of Gotham City. We claim that as a result of their production, these cities give rise to characters that operate in differing ways. The different constructions of space give birth to different sets of heroic ideals in the protagonists. We seek therefore, to understand characters by observing the space that gives birth to them. It must be noted that we shall restrict ourselves only to the way in which London and Gotham city have been portrayed in the texts mentioned above.


The dream that Commissioner Gordon refers to in The Dark Knight Rises, one shared by both Batman and Dickens, seems unrealized in both sets of texts. Although in both, the characters might achieve what they had desired or what they had set out to achieve, the city in question remains largely unchanged. This observation becomes pertinent when one realizes that the sense of purpose these characters possess, moral or otherwise, is constantly at odds with the structures that have embedded themselves within the city. In the case of Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities, this structure is legal; in the case of Great Expectations, it is socio-economic. In all cases, these structures are an integral part of the order imposed upon the city. The heroes of these texts wish to re-order and re-structure the space of the city – or at least establish an order they think is correct. The city then becomes a contested space: a space they either fight for, or must come to terms with.


In his study, The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre argues that space is not a neutral, vacuous container within which entities are placed and upon which entities act. Neither is it a conceptual abstraction used to understand ‘reality’ (whatever one means by the term). Furthermore, space is not the sum of various methods of analysis: it is not the sum of geometric spaces, social spaces, political spaces, literary spaces, etc. According to Lefebvre, space is a produced, ideologically charged, locus which gives rise to the entities that inhabit it, which affects them, and which, in turn, is affected by them.


…is it conceivable that the exercise of hegemony might leave space untouched? Could space be nothing more than the passive locus of social relations, the milieu in which their combinations takes of body, or the aggregate of the procedures employed in their removal? The answer must be no … I shall demonstrate the active – the operational or instrumental – role of space. How space serves and how hegemony makes use of it in the establishment … Of a ‘system’.[2]

What Lefebvre means is that the practice of power, political or otherwise, will invariably involve a reconstruction or perpetuation of space. And as its inhabitants come to terms with this power, they are either vying for or establishing an order upon it.


Towards this, it is instructive to note how Dickens constructs (or produces) the semi-fictional London in his novels. The portrayal of London is nowhere more palpable than in the first few paragraphs of Bleak House:


As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full grown snow flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better, splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper and losing their foot-hold at street-corners where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke) adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.


Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex Marshes, fog on the Kentish Heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of colier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.[3]


Presented here as dirty, decadent, and desperate, the city-space of London shows three characteristics. The first is the incompatibility between the city and its citizens. The jostling, slipping, sliding, and general infection of ill-temper that the citizens feel is indicative of the disagreement between the entities that inhabit a space and the space that encloses them. As Lefebvre puts it (about spaces in general) ‘[t]he subject experiences space as an obstacle, as a resistant ‘objectality’ ….’[4]


The second characteristic is that the streets are muddy, murky, and congested, betraying a certain physical impenetrability i.e. a difficulty in traversing space. This difficulty is also evident in the slow, cold, and weary plodding in the second chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Furthermore, this lack of movement (this stagnancy) is uncannily mirrored in the workings of the civic institutions of London. A prime example of this is the Chancery Court, where the nature of bureaucratic and legal perversity holds Justice hostage for years. Speaking of one such case (the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce suit) in Bleak House, the narrator says ‘Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers … there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.’[5]


The third characteristic is opacity: the visual impenetrability of the city-space. Victorian London, the industrial black-hole, is concealed by fog, smoke, and soot. This is a fog that not only ‘rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city …’ affecting the ‘eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards,’ but also one that is ‘cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of [a] shivering little ‘prentice boy.’ The concealment of parts of the city in this manner works on both a symbolic and a practical level. On a symbolic level, it indicates that the ones in power are blind to the needs of the citizens. On a practical level, the city can afford to delude itself about its progress precisely because the eyesores which arise as a result of this are hidden. As Dickens says about Tom All Alone’s ‘it might be better for the national glory even that the sun should sometimes set upon the British dominions than that it should ever rise upon so vile a wonder as Tom.’ The city, then, often acquires a split personality and there are two kinds of spaces (sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary) that arise as a result, with each kind either ignoring or trying to consume the other. One example of this is Bleak House and the Chancery. Here, the two conflicting spaces are in opposition, with the Chancery attempting (through the Jarndyce suit) to consume Bleak House, and Bleak House becoming a refuge against the ills of the Chancery. Another example, and one where the spaces are complementary, is that of Krook’s shop and the Chancery.


This curious relationship between spaces is present in Nolan’s Gotham as well. Take, for instance, Crime Alley and compare it to Wayne Towers and Wayne Enterprises. These spaces are in topological as well as economic conflict. Crime alley is a ghetto street, characterized by dark alleyways and closely knit houses; Wayne Towers and Enterprises are skyscrapers. Both skyscrapers are symbols of wealth, Crime Alley is a symbol of poverty. But more importantly, the skyscrapers exist in order to deal with the problem posed by Crime Alley. Thomas Wayne built Wayne Tower to help the citizens of Gotham, and Bruce Wayne uses Wayne Enterprises to provide him with his gadgets to fight crime. But the poor, the out-of-work and the criminal element of Gotham is located predominantly in Crime Alley. Further, the denizens of this alley are a threat to those associated with Wayne Enterprises and Wayne Towers: not only are they employed in organized crime, they also engage in freelance theft and the occasionally murder. The murder of Bruce’s parents is only one such example. It is evident, therefore, that these spaces are in continual conflict to overcome each other. It is not surprising that this split personality in the city gives rise to characters that are similarly either doubles or opposites of each other – characters that belong similarly aligned spaces. In Dickens, examples of such characters are Krook and John Jarndyce (who are opposites), and Krook and the Chancellor (who are complementary). In Gotham city, Batman and the Joker are opposites, and Two-Face and Ra’s al Ghul are complementary.


Returning to the issues of darkness and concealment, let us note that the visual impenetrability (that gives rise to the sense of darkness and despair) in the city is accentuated by the presence of dark alleyways and shadows. In Bleak House, Esther claims that they ‘drove slowly through the dirtiest and darkest streets that ever were seen in the world (I thought) and in such a distracting state of confusion that I wondered how the people kept their senses’. In his Sketches of Boz, Dickens writes about the seven dials neighborhood, describing ‘streets and courts [that] dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined.’ Again, the Jellybys live on ‘a narrow street of high houses like an oblong cistern to hold the fog’.[6] Narrow streets and dark alleys are also a typical representation of Gotham city. Indeed, the fictional poet Lincoln Killavey (in one of the Gotham Knights issues) says Gotham is ‘as if the city itself were an engine whose hot breath rained soot and despair upon its immigrant workers.’[7] This comment, which might well have been about London, indicates the socio-economic reasons behind the production of such spaces: industrialization. The effects of industrialization in London are too well known to mention here, but Gotham too suffers from the same malady. Of course, unlike London, Gotham is not industrial, but urban. Nevertheless, Gotham’s poverty is still a result of a depression caused by unsustainable industrialization. In the first part of Nolan’s trilogy (Batman Begins) Rachel Dawes tells Bruce Wayne ‘People talk about the depression as if it’s history. It’s not. Things are worse than ever down here.’[8] The fact that Bane wishes to give the city ‘back’ to its citizens in The Dark Knight Rises indicates the disempowered nature of the majority of the citizens. The inability to maintain jobs, and the resultant rise in crime rate, was what  Thomas Wayne was fighting  by using Wayne enterprises to create employment as well as provide public services (the train services, for instance).


Like Dickens’ London, Gotham city too gives rise to its own denizens. The malevolent, dark alleyways, dilapidated houses, and abandoned, decaying gothic structures with gargoyles atop give birth to a unique breed of super-villains. Unlike his fellow in Metropolis, or Keystone city, the Gothamite super-villain does not engage in crime for purely personal ambitions or reasons. Their lust for lucre, though present, is secondary to their need to establish the city as their own. Their love for Gotham (if only, in some cases, to see it burn) is evident when, in No Man’s Land, they (with the exception of The Riddler) refuse to leave the city despite having been released on the condition that they would. They stay in Gotham in order to ‘take over,’ even though in most cases it would be more profitable for them if they left. This attachment to the space of their origin is indicated in their origin itself. The Penguin, for instance, comes from and operates underground – in the sewers of Gotham city. It is from here that he became a major threat to Gotham. Waylon Jones, or Killer Croc, also lives and operates in the sewers of the city. Their emergence out of the ground (therefore, out of the city itself) indicates their relation to it. In the Batman continuity, Harvey Dent works tirelessly for justice as the DA of Gotham. When he becomes Two-Face, he retains his obsession with both justice and Gotham. Only now, his idea of justice is based on a random binary choice, and his obsession is to take over the city. But his attachment to the city is evident when, in No Man’s Land, he attempts to rebuild it. In Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Two-Face is shown to be more interested in revenge than in the city. But here too, he is unequivocally linked to the city due to the Dent Act. The idea of belonging is interesting if we now consider the Joker. The Joker has no past, no identity, and no origin: he seems to emanate from the subconscious of the city itself. It is as if the Joker is born out of the inherent chaos in the city. And all he wants is to make the city his playground. This is clearly evident in the scene in The Dark Knight where, escaping in a police car, he sticks his head out of the window and (as it were) soaks in the city. Unlike the other villains who see Gotham as a space they wish to possess and order, the Joker sees Gotham as a space to ‘dis-order.’ But this too indicates an attachment that isn’t unlike love. The Joker is obsessed with Gotham city – an obsession comparable only to what he feels for Batman. And Batman is the only character who, more than the Joker, is born out of and born for Gotham city.


The fear of darkness and the unknown is present in A Tale of Two Cities as well (as is evident in its second chapter). And the similarities between London and Gotham have been established. This leads one to question the absence of a Batman like character in Dickensian London. Of course, the notion of a vigilante presupposes a civic police force against which the vigilante works; in Dickens’ time such a force was in its infancy. Nevertheless, the very city of London, in A Tale Of Two Cities and in Bleak House, seems to be crying out for someone to watch over it and deliver justice despite the law. The notion of law is important here because in the texts we have considered, the characters are always constrained by the law (be it juridical or social). In fact, the purpose of most of the characters is to overcome the pernicious effects of a biased, stagnant, and incessantly voracious institution that seeks to consume them. In Bleak House, for instance, every event occurs under the shadow of gloom and futility that is created by the Chancery. John Jarndyce tries to oppose this by creating an atmosphere that is friendly, kind, and honest. It is clear that he is struggling to overcome the state of affairs established by the civil and property law. By helping Jo and Jenny, both Esther and Allan Woodcourt oppose a social norm: that of the inequality of classes. In A Tale of Two Cities, Carlton works towards the subversion of a corrupt and blind judicial system. In all these cases, the heroes refuse to be overcome by that against which they struggle. Even when they are consumed by it, they ultimately see it for what it is. Pip, in Great Expectations, is constantly disappointed by a social hierarchy (or social structure) that is not inclusive. His desire to be a gentleman, his continual expectation, is indicative of a system that (like the modern commodity) creates desire but refuses to satisfy it. But by the end of the novel, he recognizes the pernicious nature of this hierarchy and disavows it.


Batman is anti-Dickensian precisely because of the space he inhabits. He does not work from within the institutions he wishes to change; rather, he exists in that curious state of indeterminacy that lies between law-making and law-preserving violence. In his essay, ‘Critique of Violence’, Benjamin analyses violence as being of three kinds: law-making, law-establishing, and divine violence. Law-making violence is that which seeks to create a structure or establish a nomos – for instance, the violence of Two-Face, who wishes to create a system of spontaneous justice based on random chance. Law-establishing violence seeks to preserve the law by combating law-making violence. Examples of these are the violence of Falcone in the Batman Begins, and that of the police force in The Dark Knight Rises. Unlike these kinds of violence, divine violence is not violence committed as a means to an end. It is violence that seeks to overthrow the very notions of ‘means’ and ‘ends’ – destroying boundaries and breaking the cycle of law-making and law-preserving. It is arguable whether Batman’s, or even the Joker’s, violence falls under this category. But what is clear is that Batman’s violence is neither law-making, nor law-preserving: he neither works for the law, nor against it. But unlike other vigilantes, he does not have a structure that he wishes to impose upon the city. His dream for Gotham is not a systematic plan to improve it. Rather than engage in an institutional overhaul (as suggested by Ra’s Al Ghul), Batman seeks to work locally – combating particular instances of crime and wrongdoing as and when they occur. This makes Batman’s endeavors similar to the Foucauldian critique of power. Also, in combating law-preserving violence, but not with law-making violence, Batman situates himself in the space between the two kinds of violence – a space from which he openly launches an attack against anything that threatens his city.


Having established the difference between a Dickensian hero and Batman, let us approach the issue of the city-spaces from a different angle. Let us ask: what, in the creation of Gotham as a space, results in inhabitants who want to openly fight to conquer it? How does Dickens’ creation of London differ? Towards answering these questions, we must first note that the basis on which actions are judged is different in London, as compared to Gotham. In London (in all of Dickens’ novels), the basis of judgment is social, economic, juridical, and civic. For instance, the Chancery’s actions are wrong because they are both economically wrong (they rob people of their property) and juridically wrong (it is a perversion of justice). Similarly, Pip is socially wrong in snubbing Joe. Therefore, to set things right does not require extravagant actions: a simple rectification would suffice. In Gotham city, however, the basis of judgment is not right and wrong, but good and evil. This explains the overt gestures of rebellion in both the comics as well as the movies. But how can two similar spaces demand different yardsticks – different methods of judgment? To answer these questions, consider Lefebvre’s method of analyzing space. Lefebvre uses three concepts to analyze space as a product: Spatial practice, representations of space and representational space. ‘The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space …’[9]; the representation of space creates conceptions of it and knowledge about it; and representational space is a ‘space that is directly lived through his associated images and symbols’ (therefore the space is inhabited and used). It is the representational space that contains objects that signify its nature.’


It is obvious that the cities under consideration differ with regard to their spatial practices and their representations of space. This is a result of one being semi fictional (and semi historical) and the other being a completely fictional construct (that is being continuously created). Despite this, the similarities we have discussed still obtain. What interests us is to compare the representational spaces of both these cities. It must be noted that London of Bleak House and A Tale Of Two Cities is not an accurate or completely realistic representation of the ‘real’ London of 1790s or 1850s. Dickens imbues the city with an atmosphere that is semi mythical. For example take the reference to the Megalosaurus in the first chapter of Bleak House (‘ it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill’) and description of the age – the best and worst of times – in A Tale Of Two Cities. As a result of his intention to satirize what he describes, Dickens adduces an element of the fantastic (and fantastically absurd) to the city. However, his novels being particular accounts of particular events in lives of particular citizens, the city-space is represented but not much explored. It generally forms the background against which things happen. Even his non-fictional accounts of London explore the city from a journalistic, rather than mythic, perspective, concentrating on spatial practices rather than establishing a representational space. In contrast to this, Gotham city is almost always presented as an exploration of its representational space. It is a place with a mythical past of ritual worship. The city is now situated where the Miagani tribe once lived. Led by their Chief Palebear, they revolted against the fiery shaman Blackfire. Failing to kill him, they had entombed him in a cave, marking the location with a mystic totem. When the crops started dying, the Miaganis recognized it was due to Blackfire’s ill will: his influence was thought to have permeated the very soil of the city.[10] (Much of this constitutes the storyline of the first issue of Batman: The Cult). Gotham’s history is also irretrievably linked to the histories of the Wayne family and the Arkham family. Every event involving these two families adds not only to the mythology around them, but also to that around their city. Far from being the background to certain events, Gotham city participates in them. Consequently, there are places in the city that symbolize its mythic origins (the best example being that of Arkham Asylum). It is this preservation of mythology in the city-space that permits us to view Gotham as a battle-ground between good and evil.


The last point we would like to make is to notice a curious contrast in Dickens’ novels and Nolan’s Batman trilogy. In Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations, there is a movement away from the city, and its institutions, towards a ‘safe place’. In the first novel, this place is Bleak House – first Jarndyce’s house, then Esther’s. Esther’s journey to the first Bleak House, and then to the second (which is in Yorkshire, even further away from London) seems like an escape from London and its decay and despair. Pip’s return to decency is established by his return from London to Joe’s house. Even Darney, saved at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, returns from another pernicious city: Paris. This is in keeping with the nature of the Dickensian hero who, though embedded in the institutions he combats, seeks to retreat to a safer place. The reason these characters achieve happiness by the end of the novel is precisely because of this retreat. The only Dickensian hero who contradicts this notion is Sidney Carton. Carton’s sacrifice is much like Batman’s: he goes into the city (Paris) to save Darney. But he too is retreating from another city: London. Carton’s dissatisfaction with London is evident in his behavior prior to his last act of nobility. He wastes his life precisely because the city of London (it’s judicial and social structure) does not appreciate talent. This is why he can judge his life as being less valuable than Darney’s. But does this movement away from the city imply that the individual is powerless in the face of institutions? Is Dickens’ outlook pessimistic? We argue that it isn’t. Dickens makes it abundantly clear that individuals can effect a change, precisely by influencing other individuals. Each of the Dickensian heroes discussed here saves another character from the despair spread by the city. John Jarndyce rescues Ada, Pip gives Estella hope, and Sidney Carton saves Darney. Thus Dickens too believes in the power of small-scale, or local, social changes. But this social change, more akin to the Christian notion of charity than to a critique of power, is accomplished by a movement out of the city.


In Nolan’s trilogy, on the contrary, there is a movement into the city. Wayne Manor, on the outskirts of Gotham, is not Batman’s refuge from the city: it is where he prepares himself for the city. It is not surprising that there is a secret tunnel connecting the Batcave to the sewers of city: the foundation of Wayne Manor is directly linked to the foundation of the Gotham. Every time there is a threat to Gotham, Batman moves into the city to fight it. This motion into the heart of the adversarial structure is remarkably indicated by the transformations of the bat-signal in the movies. In Batman Begins, the Bat-signal is a makeshift one created from a harbour-light and the unconscious body of Falcone. This signal indicates Batman’s entry into the city, and establishes a unique symbol of his protection. In The Dark Knight, the Bat-signal is firmly established on the roof of the police department building. Even Harvey Dent uses it. This symbolizes the acceptance of Batman by Gotham’s police: Batman’s violence is viewed as law-establishing violence. But by the end of the movie, the Bat-signal is broken, symbolizing Batman’s rejection by Gotham. His violence is now declared law-making violence. As is evident, the law enforcement and judiciary of Gotham city are insistent on classifying Batman’s actions as either one kind of violence or another. However, Batman continues to behave the way he always did, and his actions are independent of such classification. Only Gordon knows the truth: Batman will be whatever Gotham needs him to be. This is clear from Gordon’s conversation with his son at the end of The Dark Knight.


In The Dark Knight Rises however, Batman’s relationship with the law is problematized. One cannot classify Batman’s violence now precisely because Gotham is a lawless city: it in a state of exception. This is why Batman feels it imperative to reassure the city, and to signal that it is still under his protection. The Bat-signal here is not in the sky, but blazes on the face of a building. The symbol of Batman has become inseparable from the city he protects.


There is one last transformation, and we would like to conclude with this. All this while, the symbol of Batman’s protection was a non-material phenomenon that did not occupy physical space. It was a shadow on a cloud or a fire in a building – symbols that cannot be objectified and kept within the city. This illustrated his unique position of being beyond the city, yet guarding it. At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, this symbol becomes a graphite statue of the dark knight established within the city. Here is the passage from the screenplay:



(Gordon, on a platform with dignitaries, watches a statue being unveiled. The curtain parts: Batman, immortalized in granite. We move in on the stone face…)[11]


Batman is now a city hero – its public protector. From vigilante to messiah to outlaw and, finally, to an institution – Batman has been assimilated into the very structure that he opposed. And as is the case with the Dickensian city, nothing changes. We have no indication that Gotham City improves. Further, Batman (as its protector) is rendered ineffective: even if he were to return, no one would fear him. This is precisely why Bruce Wayne leaves Gotham; this is why Gotham needs a new hero. This hero must be unknown, and unappropriated. This hero too is born in Gotham and rises from within it. This is why the trilogy concludes with the rise of Robin.







[1] Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises (http://alexcassun.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/tdkr.pdf, accessed on 15 October 2014)


[2] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 57.


[3] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/bleakhouse/2/ ,

accessed on 16 October 2014)


[4] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 57.


[5] Dickens, Bleak House (http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/bleakhouse/2/ ,

accessed on 16 October 2014)


[6] Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/882/882-h/882-h.htm , accessed on 16 October 2014), Chapter V.


[7] Robert Greenberger, The Essential Batman Encyclopedia (New York: Del Rey, 2008), p.128.


[8] David Goyer, Batman Begins (http://www.raindance.org/site/picture/upload/image/general/movies/batman_begins.pdf ,

accessed on 16 October 2014)


[9] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 37.


[10] Greenberger, The Essential Batman Encyclopedia, p.128.


[11] Nolan and Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises (http://alexcassun.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/tdkr.pdf, accessed on 15 October 2014)


Somak Mukherjee is currently a PhD Scholar in Department of English, Jadavpur University as well as the Research Fellow of the EQUAL Project. Previously he worked as the NAAC Project Fellow at Jadavpur University between 2013 and 2014. . He received his Masters and Bachelors degree from the Department of English, Jadavpur University. His area of interest lies in the fields of urban studies, Modernist poetry and theater.

Avinash Antony is an independent researcher. He received his Masters and Bachelors degree from the Department of English, Jadavpur University.



By Deblina Hazra

Michel Foucault saw the nineteenth century as one obsessed with history and commented that the present epoch would be an epoch of space. This paper examines the way space is represented in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford (1853) and the relation shared by its female characters with the physical spaces surrounding them. This paper explores two kinds of spaces, domestic and public, and the different functions they perform in the lives of the Cranfordian Amazons. The domestic space not only acts as a female confidante but also reflects the psyche of the women inhabiting it. While the domestic spaces are sites of intimacy, the public spaces are sites of subversions. The women of Cranford transform the public space of the village into a single large domestic space. In accommodating the public within the private they subvert two notions attached to them: first, old spinsters should remain indoors so as not to display their aged, celibate bodies in the public; and second, certain professions are exclusively male and women are debarred from practicing them. By treating the outdoor space of the town as an extension of their domestic indoors, the women freely make public appearances. Moreover, by transforming the dining parlour into a tea-shop, Miss Matty carries out the profession of business which is solely reserved for men. By studying these issues, this paper would, therefore, analyse the various symbolisms attached with space in Gaskell’s novel.


Family, the first and the most intimate community, is a microcosmic representation of the social community at large. In Victorian England, the pyramidal structure of social class was also reflected in the hierarchical structure of families where the members of a family were under the supervision of one patriarchal head. According to the famous Ruskinian ideology of separate spheres[1] prevailing at the time, man possessed the right to delve into issues beyond the boundary of the home, whereas with women rested the responsibility of staying indoors and securing ‘its order, comfort, and loveliness’.[2] Gaskell portrays a radically different community in Cranford (1853), where the titular town is an area solely in possession of women. Described often as a female-utopia,[3] Cranford has a glaring lack of men. The few men who are present, like Captain Brown, Mr. Holbrook and Signor Brunoni, disappear after making brief appearances, and Peter Jenkyns appears in person only towards the close of the novel. The household space of Cranford, therefore, is not in the shape of a pyramid. It is rather a horizontal space inhabited singularly by females.


The mid-nineteenth century saw a sharp rise in the number of women who were either supposed to remain or chose to be unmarried. Anna Jameson records that the 1851 census revealed an ‘excess’[4] of half a million females over male. This demographic change in the population drew society’s attention to the fate of the ‘Superabundant Woman’[5] and paved the way for the emergence of a new element in literary discourse, which George Lewes calls a ‘woman’s view of life, woman’s experience’.[6] The novel Cranford fits this description where a female author captures the experiences of her female characters and puts forth their views of life. Gaskell’s Cranford is a town which is characterized by this phenomenon of excess women. Cranford is ‘in possession of the Amazons,’[7] where the women are able to support their survival without the aid of men. It is, therefore, a female utopia where the women, who are primarily spinsters or widows, share a kind of female solidarity and communality as addressed by Lewes. Critics like Patricia Wolfe and Nina Auerbach, from a spatial standpoint, have celebrated the closed community of Cranford as an alternative, feminine space that challenges the dominant ideology of the male sphere.[8] The Amazons of the town lead their lives in a way which is different from the structure of the conventional Victorian families. They live together, ‘creating “families” of their own devising’[9] and cherish the absence of men from their lives. Lansbury reads such a devising of a unique familial structure as Gaskell’s way of portraying ‘the traditional family as a source of frustration and oppression’.[10] In eliminating dominant and active men from its boundary, Cranford thus challenges the Victorian conviction of the patriarchal family as sacred and a broken home as a pit of misery and misfortune. In this all female town, Gaskell uses the space of the domestic interior and that of the public arena as platforms to represent the two different functions of intimacy and subversion respectively. The next section of this paper explores the intimacy shared by the female inhabitants with the house, studying it under the theory of the house being an extension of the female body, and examining how that intimacy is stretched to the public domain to implicitly subvert the Victorian codes of conduct prescribed to the spinsters and widows, and to women in general.


Bachelard in his phenomenological study of the house, The Poetics of Space (1958), has described the house as a private maternal womb-like space. Equating the interior spaces of the house with the womb of a mother, Bachelard establishes a similarity between the intimacy shared by a child with its mother and the intimacy shared by the inhabitants of a house with its physical space. Like the mother, the interior space of the house, therefore, becomes the most important confidante of its inmates and there develops an intimacy between the living dwellers and the non-living house. Bachelard has also read the house as a space that frames our intimate memories, acting as a guarantor for a sense of selfhood. He credits the house with the preservation of the identity of a human being by being a repository of memory. Within every square inch of the house is buried some very personal and intimate stories of its inhabitants. The Jenkyns household in Cranford is no exception. The old letters, safely tied and put in a corner of the house, are documents of family history. They contain the passionate communications between a newly-wed couple staying far apart from each other, delicate and poignant exchanges between a mother and her lost son, and intellectual yet tender interactions between a father and his eldest daughter. Miss Matty decides to burn those letters lest they fall into the hands of some strangers. Prior to the burning she shares them with the narrator, Mary Smith, where each of them takes up one letter, reads it and describes its contents to the other. This act of reading the old family letters conjure up, in flashback images, the history of the Jenkyns household. Miss Matty not only makes Mary Smith her confidante but also metonymic of the enclosed space of the living room within which the past of her family is re-narrated. The house to Miss Matty, therefore, is a comfortable intimate womb-like interior in the Bachelardian sense, which becomes one of her most trusted spaces. Her decision to burn those letters in the fireplace of the living room is a symbolic attempt to bury the personal episodes of her family within the intimate space of her house. With that burning, the personal letters exchanged between a husband and a wife, a father and his daughter, a mother and her son, get safely concealed within the sanctuary of the house. In other words, after the cessation of the lives of Miss Matty and Mary Smith, the story of the Jenkyns family will be retained only within the four walls of the Jenkyns house. The physical space of the domestic interiors is thus portrayed as the most faithful and intimate confidante who will not breach the trust by giving away to the world the private records of the Jenkyns family.


Not only does Miss Matty entomb the personal memory of her family in the house, but also conceals the emotions of her own heart in the dark corners of the house. With the excuse of headaches, she takes refuge in her bedroom to hide her anxiety and pain at the withering health and approaching death of Mr. Holbrook, the man for whom she has possessed a secret and subdued love since her youth. The bedroom becomes analogous to her mind in aiding her to suppress her emotions and absorbing them within its four walls. Equating space with human psyche is a recurrent trope in Gaskell which finds complete maturation in her final unfinished novel Wives and Daughters (1866). She often uses spatial metaphors to express the innermost thoughts and feelings of her characters. In Cranford, too, she uses a spatial metaphor for describing the guilt faced by the narrator, Mary Smith, when she accidentally discovers Miss Matty’s erstwhile relation with Mr. Holbrook and her anguish at his steadily deteriorating health. When Mary Smith chances upon the actual reason behind her lost appetite, she feels guilty of having spied into tender heart of Miss Matty, as if she has spied into the private bedchambers of a lady. Thus, Gaskell emphasises the analogy of the space of the bedroom with Miss Matty’s heart on two occasions. Mary Smith uses it as a metaphoric expression and Miss Matty herself treats the bedroom as her own heart-chamber where, she feels, her feelings are safely hidden. With the exception of Mary Smith, the first person narrator who gains omniscience over Miss Matilda Jenkyns, every little detail of the latter’s personal life – her past, her thoughts, her emotions are only known to the interior space of her dwelling. The house, therefore, becomes an intimate friend to whom can be confided the deepest desires and untold pains of the heart without any fear of public revelation. Scholars have identified the dominant role played by female camaraderie in Elizabeth Gaskell’s writings.[11] Her fictions celebrate sisterhood across age, class and conducts: female bonding between a fallen woman and a pure woman as seen between Ruth and Jemima in Ruth (1853) and between Lizzie Leigh and Susan Palmer in Lizzie Leigh (1855); camaraderie across age as portrayed between Mary Smith and Matilda Jenkyns; sisterhood across social class as observed between Margaret Hale and Bessy Higgins in North and South (1855). In her personal life, too, Gaskell identified herself as one of a community of women writers as revealed through her letters. Also her relation with her sister authors was less problematic as compared to her contemporaries. Such a backdrop of the importance of female friendship in both her personal life and her fictions help us to make a second reading of the relation between Miss Matty and the Jenkyns house. The intimacy shared by her with her house and the extent to which the house becomes privy to the Jenkyns history, makes the physical space of the house synonymous to a female companion. Marjorie Garber in her essay ‘The Body as a House’ (2000) argues that women in being relegated to the confinements of the house, in effect, become the house itself.[12] This was best portrayed by Gaskell in the character of Mrs. Hamley in Wives and Daughters where her residence, the Hamley Hall, is depicted as an extension of the body of its mistress, so that after her death the hall gradually crumbles down into a ramshackle state. Conversely, in Cranford the house transforms into a female companion for its living owner. The house performs for Miss Matty the role that was played by Margaret Hale to Bessy Higgins. It becomes both a listener and a comforter to the aged lady, who finds the best solace within the enclosed walls of her house.


This intimate bond that Miss Matty shares with the physical space of her house makes it an outward manifestation of her own inner psyche. Her preference to economize on candles leaves many a dark areas in the house, which resemble the dark corners of her own mind. ‘The representation of the house as a human body is a very old idea’[13] and Gaskell draws on this idea to make the physical space of the house symbolise the minds of her characters. She uses the spatial dynamics of the house to portray the latent emotions of her characters. Miss Matty’s preference for dimly lit rooms where the lack of enough light turns many areas dark and invisible, represents her own heart which hides many unexpressed and unfulfilled passions and desires. These dark corners of her psyche are areas which she would not prefer to be explored either by the narrator or the readers. She chooses less light in the rooms symbolically, as if a semi-dark room where objects are partially and unclearly visible would help her to keep her desires, grief and pains embedded deep within the core of her heart and obscure them from the public eye. The enclosed space of the Jenkyns house, thus, not only hides the history of the family but also becomes a representation of Miss Matty’s heart concealing many emotions barely visible to others. Having had a failed relationship with Mr. Holbrook, she develops a ‘mysterious dread of men and matrimony’ which prompts her to deny her servants ‘followers’.[14] Martha thinks it is ‘hard of missus’ not to let her ‘keep company’ with young men, especially because the ‘good dark corners’ of the ‘capable kitchen’ can hide anyone.[15] What Martha does not realize is that the house can hide only the Jenkyns history, their emotions and their secrets. In this respect, the Jenkyns house is analogous to the life and body of Miss Matilda Jenkyns. Hence, when no man is allowed to enter into Miss Matty’s life owing to her fear of men and matrimony, her kitchen too, needs to be fortified against the entry of men. However, in spite of forbidding the entry of men, ‘a vision of a man seemed to haunt the kitchen’.[16] Mary Smith sees on two different occasions that ‘a man’s coat-tails whisks into the scullery’[17] and something that looks like ‘a young man squeezed up between the clock and the back of the open kitchen-door’. Anna Lepine in her essay ‘Strange and Rare Visitants: Spinsters and Domestic Space in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford’ argues that the

[…] ghostly working-class men haunting Miss Matty’s kitchen point to her own failed relationship with Mr. Holbrook who was not considered enough of a gentleman by the Rector and Miss Jenkyns because he insisted on being called yeoman instead of Esquire.[18]


These working class intruders who encroach upon the space strictly prohibited to them, constantly remind the readers about ‘an alternative life (that) she might have led.’[19] Gaskell uses the domestic space of the kitchen and the suggestions of male intrusion into that space to point out the lacuna that had germinated in Miss Matty’s life owing to her love for Mr. Holbrook, which failed to mature into marriage. The house, therefore, is treated by her as a site of multiple symbolisms for inter-relating the tangible space of the house and the private intimacy of Miss Matilda Jenkyns’s life. The house performs the dual role of being a female companion to its owner as well as spatially reflecting the mistress’s psyche and, through the spatial denotation of the kitchen, it keeps pointing to a very personal episode in the life of the protagonist.


The gendered social space of the nineteenth century was built upon the Ruskinian theory of separate spheres for men and women. Charlotte Yonge’s conduct book Womankind published in 1877 prescribed ‘invisibility’ to the spinsters. In other words, they were prohibited from making their aged, celibate bodies appear in the public. Gaskell’s Cranford negated Yonge’s prescription almost twenty-five years before the latter made its appearance. Published in 1853, Cranford’s Amazons ‘created rules of selective visibility whereby the entire village may be treated as domestic space.’[20] Janet Wolff’s seminal essay ‘The Invisible Flaneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity’ paved the way for the ongoing interest in the female counterpart of the nineteenth century flaneur. About the nineteenth century woman Wolff says, ‘She could not adopt the non-existent role of a flaneuse. Women could not stroll alone in the city.’[21] Cranford is definitely not a city but it is also not a rural pastoral landscape like Hollingford in Wives and Daughters. The author herself describes Cranford as a town, that is, a space that has urban features. Its women roam about the town carrying their domesticity around themselves like a shell, threatening the strict division of the Ruskinian separate spheres by ignoring their boundaries and wandering in the interspaces. They prefer indoor head-coverings even while moving in the public, which symbolizes their attempt at redefining the private sphere. Except for Miss Deborah Jenkyns who used to wear a little bonnet and dies in the second chapter of the novel, none of the ladies in Cranford seems to wear outdoor hats or bonnets. Instead they retain their indoor caps which they cover with calashes whenever they venture out. This act of wearing their indoor head gears outside in a society where there were strict and different codes of dressing for indoors and outdoors, can be read as their attempt to extend the personal and comfortable boundaries of their intimate interiors to include the public within the private space. Through such an inclusion the Amazons deftly expand their area of movement to the outdoors and challenge the prescription of indoor confinements. Ironically, in carrying their domesticity around themselves into the public space, they abide by Ruskin’s literal expression that ‘wherever a true wife comes, this home is always around her’,[22] whereas in reality they make prominent public appearances by defying the diction of confinement imposed upon them. On another instance, Mary Smith spots Miss Pole in the Fashion Showroom at Mr. Johnson’s store in her morning costume, that is, without teeth and wearing a veil to conceal that deficiency. By choosing a time of the day when, according to the Cranfordian codes of behaviour, the external world will not be looking, Miss Pole goes about the town as she would go about in her own house. By equating the public space of the shop with the domestic space of home, she not only ‘comes out’ as opposed to ‘going in’ but also blurs the border between the private and the public, merging them into one singular space. Anna Despotopolou in her essay ‘The Abuse of Visibility: Domestic Publicity in Late Victorian Fiction’ argues that the domestic space of the late Victorian drawing-room was a locus of visibility and ultimately publicity for the women.[23] Gaskell’s Cranford is a polar opposite of this argument where the public space is converted into an intimate domestic space by the ladies of the town. Cranford, the town, is not a domestic space but the ladies treat it as one. They extend the kind of intimacy they share with the interiors of their own house and expand that beyond the boundaries of their homes. They transform the public space of the village into a single, large domestic space and treat the entire female community as one family where the old ladies move ‘from one house to the next as though entering different room of their own homes.’[24] By making prominent appearances in what they consider a privatized public space, the Cranford ladies overthrow the prevalent notion that the spinsters should always ‘go in’, as it is inappropriate for the aged celibate bodies to be displayed in public. They use the outdoor space as a site for subverting the Victorian codes of conduct prescribed for the aged spinsters and the widows. Because they lacked the vital connection to a patriarchal family, ruled by a male member, the widows and the spinsters are seen as leading a peripheral existence outside the family structure. However, instead of being relegated to a marginalised status within the interiors, as was advised to them, they modify the spatial boundaries whereby their coming out into the public can be justified.


The episode of Miss Matty’s tea business further elucidates how the Amazons chose to make obscure the firm boundaries of the public and the private and, through that obscuring, challenged the established Victorian discriminations between male and female professions. The breaking up of the Town and County Bank leaves Miss Matty with very little income, thirteen pounds a year to be precise, as she loses a huge amount of about one hundred and forty-nine pounds per year. In order to provide for her own sustenance she steps into the exclusively male realm of business. In the nineteenth century, business was predominantly a male occupation. With the expansion of colonies, male traders were seen both trotting the globe to market the products manufactured in England as well as trading items found in the colonies in their homeland. The women, on the other hand, were seen as mere consumers of exotic goods like the Indian shawls, pearls or ivory. Miss Matty’s venturing into the business of tea is an implicit challenge to this accepted difference. However, what is significant is that though Gaskell makes her protagonist subvert the Victorian ideology of separate spheres by engaging her in a male occupation, she positions her within the domestic interiors for carrying out the business. In other words, a public act is carried out from within a private space. Miss Matty conducts her business from within the comfortable intimate space of her own house, transforming the small dining parlour into a shop. The public commercial arena is thus absorbed within the private domestic space. By engaging in the male profession of trading without stepping over the threshold of the house, the space traditionally allotted to the women, Miss Matty indirectly subverts the patriarchal code of separate spheres. She conforms to the notion of the house being the true place of women but from within that house involves in a vocation strictly reserved for men. The particular portion of the Jenkyns house that Miss Matty uses for the purpose of commerce is the dining parlour. The space of the dining parlour, according to the nineteenth century customs, was a space of domestic life. Thad Logan in his book The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study (2001) describes the Victorian parlour as such:

The Victorian parlour…was, like Shakespeare’s Globe, a little world. Within this space, the men, women, and children of the British middle classes acted out the dramas of domestic life.[25]


This space where the roles of domestic lives are played is transformed by Gaskell into an area where her protagonist performs a professional role. Logan further observes that ‘For most Victorian families, the parlour was the centre of the home and the most important room in the house.’[26] The parlour, therefore, was a space of intimate bonding where the family members gathered together to spend family time and it was the central part of the private space of home. By turning this area into one of commerce, both the Cranfordian ladies and their creator Elizabeth Gaskell, show how an intimate interior space can be used for the public act of business. In making Miss Matty carry out an act which is exclusively male from within the house, Gaskell transforms the even private space of the house into a site of subversion. The transformation of the dining-parlour of the Jenkyns house becomes more significant when judged against Logan’s take on the relationship between Victorian women and the parlour:

For women, the home was the workplace, and the parlour was the locus of the display of feminine accomplishments, including the social ‘work’ of paying and receiving calls and nurturing the family.[27]


The work that Logan talks about, clearly, is not any professional work but the domestic work of maintaining social relations. Miss Matty uses the parlour literally as her workplace. The only difference is that her work is the professional work of trading. By expanding the intimate parlour to incorporate within its fold the vocation of trading, Gaskell’s Amazon blurs the demarcation between the exterior and the interior; and, in doing so implicitly overthrows the patriarchal notion that business is strictly a male realm. This in turn challenges the distinction that was made between the public occupations of men and the more domestic duties of women. The space of the parlour is used as a platform for such a subversion of the dominant convictions.


The women of Cranford thus redraw the relation that exists between humans and the spaces they inhabit. Their intimacy with the private sphere of the home is developed to such an extent that the domestic interiors become symbolic representations of their own psyche. This intimacy is then extended to the public space whereby the entire town of Cranford is transformed into a single large domestic space. By re-defining the boundaries that demarcate the public and private, the spinsters validate and justify their moving out in the public – an act which was prohibited to them as per the conduct books of the nineteenth century. By domesticating the outdoors, the Cranfordian Amazons apparently conform to the norm of staying indoors, while in reality they make striking public appearances. Finally, through the character of Miss Matty and her tea-trade from within her house, Gaskell shows that while the public can be privatized, the private can also be modified to accommodate the public. In doing so, not only does she provide for a new definition of the intimate domestic space but also overturns the Victorian convictions of separate professions for men and women. While Miss Matty does not overstep the threshold of the house, she negotiates with the intimate space in a way to overthrow the biased gender assumptions of the nineteenth century, making the private space a stage for subversion. Different kinds of spaces in Cranford, therefore, are infused with a dynamic quality so as to be both metonymic and metaphoric representations of multiple politics involving the psychology of the characters and their actions.







[1] According to Ruskin, man’s duties are in the public sphere and include the maintenance, progress and defence of the home, whereas the woman’s duties are private and involve the securing of domestic order, peace and comfort. Kate Millet in Sexual Politics (1970) has read in the theory of separate spheres ‘the period’s most ingenious mechanism for restraining insurgent women’. However, recent scholarship has criticized Millet’s argument stating that Ruskin, far from prescribing confinement for women, actually advocated education and public duties for women and his stands were quite radical in the context of the nineteenth century. For more details on counter arguments against Millet, see for example, David Sonstroem’s ‘Millet versus Ruskin: A Defense of Ruskin’s “Of Queens’ Gardens”’ (1977); Linda H. Peterson’s ‘The Feminist Origins of “Of Queens’ Gardens”’ (2002) and Seth Koven’s ‘How the Victorians Read Sesame and Lilies’ (2002).


[2] John Ruskin, ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’, Sesame and Lilies, ed. Deborah Epstein Nord (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 88.


[3] Coral Lansbury in her analysis of the novel reads the town of Cranford as ‘as much a Utopia as any devised by a social reformer’. Utopian theorists from Plato onwards have argued that there cannot be any such perfect place on the earth where some of the inhabitants are not dissatisfied. However, Lansbury points out that ‘Cranford is the joyful expression of the liberty of the few in the midst of general conformity’. Coral Lansbury, Elizabeth Gaskell: The Novel of Social Crisis (London: Elek Books Limited, 1975), p.86.


[4] Anna Jameson, Sisters of Charity (1855) (https://archive.org/details/sistersofcharity00jame, accessed 10 March 2014), p. 80.


[5] Ibid., p. 80.


[6] George Lewes, ‘The Lady Novelists’, Westminster Review (July 1852), quoted by Pauline Nestor in Female Friendships and Communities: Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 5.


[7] Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (1853;  repr. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 39.


[8] Patricia Wolfe, ‘Structure and Movement in Cranford’, Nineteenth Century Fiction 23(1968), pp. 162-176.

Nina Auerbach, Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (1978; repr. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1998), pp. 78-96.
Jacob Jewusiak, ‘The End of the Novel: Gender and Temporality in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford
(http://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue73/jewusiak.htm, accessed on October 25, 2014)
[9] Lansbury, Elizabeth Gaskell, p. 87.


[10] Ibid., p. 88.


[11] For more details on female communality in Gaskell, see Pauline Nestor, Female Friendships and Communities: Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).


[12] Garber writes, ‘Women are to be sequestered deep within the house for their own protection … The man moves; the woman remains at home. In essence she is the home.’ Marjorie Garber, ‘The Body as House’, reprinted partly in The Domestic Space Reader, ed. Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), p. 126.

For more details on this theory see, Mark Wigley’s essay ‘Untitled: The Housing of Gender’ in Sexuality and Space, ed. Beatrice Colomina (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), pp.327-389, where drawing on a medieval treatise on the interior of the body, Wigley argues that the body is a house which houses the soul, but since a woman’s body is open, she needed a second house, that is, a building to contain and protect her soul; Emily Burbank’s Woman as Decoration (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917) (https://archive.org/details/womanasdecoratio00burbrich, accessed on 5 March 2014) where she traces how the view of the female body as extension of the house became ubiquitous at the beginning of the twentieth century; and Marjorie Garber’s ‘The Body as House’ in Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000), pp.73-80.


[13] Garber, ‘The Body as House’, p. 123.


[14] Gaskell, Cranford, p. 65.


[15] Ibid., p. 79.


[16] Ibid., p. 65.


[17] Ibid., p. 65.


[18] Anna Lepine, ‘“Strange and Rare Visitants”: Spinsters and Domestic Space in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 32: 2 (2010), 121-137 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08905495.2010.493444, accessed 4 August 2010), p. 130.


[19] Ibid., p. 130.


[20] Ibid., p. 130.


[21] Janet Wolff, ‘The Invisible Flaneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity’, Feminine Sentences: Essays on Woman and Culture (California: University of California Press, 1990), p. 41.


[22] Ruskin, ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’, p. 78.


[23] Anna Despotopoulou, ‘The Abuse of Visibility: Domestic Publicity in Late Victorian Fiction’, Inside Out: Women Negotiating, Subverting, Appropriating Public and Private Space, ed. Teresa Gomex Reus and Aranzazu Usandizaga (New York: Rodopi Press, 2008) in Google Books (accessed  20 January 2014), p. 87.


[24] Lansbury, Elizabeth Gaskell, p. 88.


[25] Thad Logan, The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 1.


[26] Ibid., p.23.


[27] Ibid., p.35.

Deblina Hazra is a final year M. Phil student at Jadavpur University, Department of English. She has completed her graduation and post-graduation from the same department. Her published works include, among others, “Escaping Victimhood: Refugees as a new Socio-Political Subject in Prafulla Ray’s Keyapatar Nouko and Shotodharay Boye Jaye”, published in Muse India (Issue 55, May-June 2014), “Female Camaraderie in Gaskell: A Study of ‘Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras’, ‘The Well of Pen-Morfa’ and ‘Lizzie Leigh’” published in Efflorescence (Issue 4, 2014), Journal of the Department of English in Naba Ballygunge Mahavidyalaya, and “‘Elegant Economy’: A Study of Old Age and Economic Agency in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford” published in Middle Flight (Vol.3, No. 1, September 2014), Journal of the Department of English in S. S Mahavidyalaya. She has also presented papers at several national and international conferences. Her areas of interests are Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, Post-colonial Literature and Indian Literature in English

REMEMBERING JASODHARA-DI (17th August, 1937 – 9th January, 2015)

By Rudrani Gangopadhyay


The first time I visited Dr Jasodhara Bagchi’s Jodhpur Park residence was in July 2014. Her new book on Motherhood in India was “stuck”, she had said on the phone, and she needed a research assistant to help her out. When I turned up at her place, thoroughly intimidated by her stature as an academician and an activist, the first thing that struck me was what Dr Sajni Mukherji would later identify as Jasodhara-di’s “great hunger for people”. We spent the entirety of the first day talking about me, with her expressing almost a child-like curiosity about my work, my schooling, my parents, my interests. On my way back home that day, my bag full of the books she had given me upon learning of my interest in Partition Studies and my insides full of the food she insisted I eat, I realized that somewhere along the way my great respect for her has commingled with a great affection as well.


I had known the facts for a while. That Jasodhara-di was educated at Presidency College (now University), Oxford University and Cambridge University. Upon returning to India, she taught English briefly at Lady Brabourne College. 1964 onwards, she spent a major part of her life teaching English at Jadavpur University and went on to become the founder-Director of the School of Women’s Studies there. She was one of the people responsible for the English Department getting the UGC Special Assistance and was one of the Programme’s first coordinators. Though she retired in 1997, she continued to be an Emeritus Professor at the School of Women’s Studies and an active part of the English department. However, as I began spending afternoons at her place, pouring over books and essays, the stories behind these facts began to come alive for me. During our frequent cha breaks, she would talk to me about her life. It would begin with something else: something I had read or something she had read, something on the news, something about Jadavpur, something about music (she had discovered early on our shared love of Rabindrasangeet). But it would go on to be about her first sighting of the Indian soil when she returned from Cambridge: she had joyfully sung “Dhana dhanye pushpe bhora…” from the P&O boat arriving at the Bombay docks. As her vast repository of experience began to unfold, I went home every day with a renewed sense of admiration. And, of course, a newer set of books which she thought I should take a look at.


Amidst all the golpo and the food, we would work too. Her commitment to the book astounded me. Every week, she would want to incorporate something new to one of the chapters. We wrote the chapters afresh at times, at times we rearranged the chapters completely. What was amazing was her thirst to learn new things and try to incorporate her learnings into the book. I had very casually pointed out one day how the outline did not seem to incorporate working mothers anywhere. The next day, I arrived at her home to find her buried in a pile of essays about working mothers around the world and a 15 page write-up to be considered, “to begin with”. It was amazing to see her be so open to the ideas of others. She would almost instigate them out of me at times. I had initially held back on my criticism, perhaps out of a kind of blind reverence for her. But she would not have it. Every time a chapter was finished, she would encourage me to tell her what was wrong with it. “Go home, read it again, and find out what is missing”, she would say. She would be delighted if I came back with notes, and hand me another pile of books to go through in order to find a fix for what I had figured was missing.


Soon after I had begun working with her, Hok Kolorob began to take shape in J.U. Her active involvement with every aspect of the movement – micchils, meetings, the students – was a wonder to watch . Around this time, our cha breaks began to focus more and more on what is being done for Jadavpur and what else needs to be done. She was part of the five-member team of emeritus professors that met our Governor and University Chancellor Keshari Nath Tripathi and demanded a new Vice-Chancellor for Jadavpur. On the day when finally the now ex-VC stepped down, I think all of us who knew Jasodhara-di wished she had been there in person, but had known that her essence had been there in our celebrations anyway.


As the movement continued, our book too began to take shape. Sitting in her fourth floor apartment, we continued to talk about all things under the sun over cha and chire bhaja. She would ask me to talk about my coursework, about my research, and would ask me to show her what I have been writing lately. It was with her encouragement that I applied and received a fellowship. Her elation appeared almost greater than mine. Incidentally, it was when I was interviewing her for this fellowship that I found out even more about her life.


I learned of her time as the Chairperson of the West Bengal Commission for Women. Found out about how she was one of the founder-members of Sachetana, one of the earliest women’s rights organization in West Bengal, as well as of Maitree, an informal network of women’s rights organizations and individual activists. Her substantial body of research over the years required little introduction, but it was humbling to hear about it nonetheless. Her work on Partition Studies with Dr Subhoranjan Dasgupta proved to a great and powerful inspiration for my own work.


The aspect of Jasodharadi that came back over and over in everyone’s recollection of her was the infectious energy she brought to her work, her fierce passion for research, and her involvement with her students and associates. What I personally found very touching in her rather maternal being was how she treated everyone and everything with a great deal of affection, whether it be her books, or her writing, or her university, or her students. She inquired about the fasting students’ health with the same concern with which she forced me to eat homemade chowmein because I had gone over to her place after a long day at the university. It was also with this same tenderness that we sent out the finished manuscript in November, right before her hospitalization.


I do not suppose any one of us have been able to process Jasodhara-di’s passing. At her memorial lecture, I remember seeing a number of my juniors and batchmates in attendance. None of them have been taught by Jasodhara-di in person (I exempt myself from this because I consider myself to have learned much from her in our brief time together), and yet, they were there. As our professors shared anecdotes about Jasodhara-di, I think all of us who have not been fortunate enough to have her as our teacher were trying to claim a bit of her legacy as our own.


I suppose this is how Jasodhara-di will live on. Through her family, her students, colleagues, associates and everyone whose lives she touched and bettered simply by being a part of it.