Call for Papers

We are seeking contributions for our 2016 special issue, ‘Realizing the Unreal: Victorian Speculative Fiction in Context’. The issue will focus on Victorian speculative fiction and its generic, thematic, historical, and cultural contexts. Victorian speculative fiction is usually described as ‘a flight from the real’; but we welcome submissions that go beyond this understanding to show how the Victorian imagination engages with the unreality of the real or creates alternative realities of the unreal in different forms of speculative fiction.

Possible topics may address some of the broad issues within the parameters set below or any other related area:
– Alternative cultures outside of or in contrast to the dominant culture of the nineteenth century
– Sexual themes; realistic sexual interactions in non-realistic settings; characters embodying non-normative, alternative sexualities
– Speculative fiction and its ties with science fiction, utopian, dystopian, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic narratives
– Speculative fiction and the other arts
– Human–animal relations, their ethical implications, and their social, political, and ecological effects
– Fantasy, supernatural and the gothic
– The parody/pastiche trope as deployed in speculative writings
– Space and time; concepts of parallel worlds and alternate history
– Virtual spaces and environments (cyber culture, gaming, digital comics)
– Use of technology to imagine an advanced Victorian age (fictional machines in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne);
– Neo-Victorian approaches to speculative fiction;  retro-futurism and steampunk
– Film and television adaptations/ re-workings

We invite college and university professionals and research scholars to submit abstracts of about 500 words, along with brief bio-notes, to by November 15, 2015. Queries can be made to the same address.

We accept entries in both English and Bengali.



By Debapratim Chakrabarty

As a poet from the working class, Eliza Cook was acutely aware of the marginalization of the lower classes, and her avowed mission was the ‘levelling up’ of her fellow working class men and women through her writings. Not only did her poetic creed coincide with the ideology of the literature of the Chartists, but she was also an active sympathiser of the movement. However, Chartism’s self-definition as a ‘brotherhood’ of revolutionaries largely led to the subsequent obliteration of the women’s voices in the movement. This essay aims at reading some of Eliza Cook’s poems in order to show her deep engagement with the ideologies of the movement as well as its poetic credo, and thereby tries to recuperate a woman’s voice in the exclusively male domain of Chartist literature.


Hailed by her contemporaries as the ‘new Burns’, Eliza Cook (1817-1889) was, in her lifetime, the most prominent woman poet from the working class of England. Though she was never employed as a farmhand or factory worker she belonged to a working class family, her father being a tin-man and brazier.

She was self-educated and self-directed, making a virtue of this, presenting herself as a poet for the people whose credentials were an innocent wisdom and an honest sentiment.[1]


A radical and Owenite socialist in thought, she committed herself to the mission of ‘leveling up’ her fellow working men and women— a mission that pervaded her thoughts and writings. In her Journal she declares her optimism about the glorious future that awaits the working class—

The leveling of this day is all of the leveling-up character… The number of self-risen men, sprung up from the ranks, is increasing and must increase. They are growing up to the highest standards. And the mass too is advancing with education and knowledge, and they too must gradually become leveled up.[2]


Many of Cook’s poems were dedicated to this political project of leveling up, which allies her with the Chartist poets of the 1840s. She was an active sympathizer of the movement and composed the poem ‘A Song: To “The People” of England’ to celebrate the Chartist petition of 1848. Some of Cook’s poems, originally published in the Weekly Dispatch, were later reprinted in Chartist gazettes like the Northern Star.[3] Sadly, however, her affiliations to the Chartist movement have been largely overlooked and her works are absent from the major anthologies of Chartist poetry. As Jutta Schwarzkopf has argued—‘Chartism’s ideal of ‘brotherhood’ largely marginalized the sisters in the movement[4]. Perhaps this also led to the marginalization and subsequent obliteration of this sister’s voice in the chorus of the Chartist brethren. The aim of this paper is to review some of Cook’s poems to discover resonances with the poetry generally associated with the movement and reinstate Cook as a strident advocate for the movement.


As scholars have argued, poetry was central to the Chartist campaigning. According to the Chartists, poetry had a power to uplift and unify because of its accessibility to people from all walks of life— ‘It penetrates to every nerve and fibre of society, stirring into irresistibility its undermost currents, and spiriting into life and activity the obscurest dweller of the valley.’[5] In his Anthology of Chartist Poetry, Peter Scheckner describes Chartist poetry thus—

Chartist poetry was primarily written by industrial and artisan workers— the great majority of whom were self-educated and printed in Chartist magazines, journals and newspapers. These works were read as literature, as agitation and propaganda for Chartist cause, and as a form of poetic handbill… Chartist poetry represented an alternative,    working class culture that articulated and extolled almost everything bourgeois writers stood against— radical social changes, internationalism, an end to national chauvinism and colonial rule, church reform, anti-racism, egalitarianism and democracy, the right to rank and file organizing, freedom of press, universal education and a more equitable distribution of profits.[6]


Chartist poetry is a self-conscious poetry which reflects its poets’ awareness of readership and purposes of their poetry so that their works simultaneously address two audiences, the enemies of the people and the people themselves, where it functions to confirm, uplift and emphasize both commonality and common purpose. Chartist poetry was written using the structural framework of ballads, hymns and songs which served two purposes— of making these forms familiar to the masses and underlining the communal nature of the poetry’s thematic content at the same time. The most dominant themes of chartist poetry were those of international brotherhood – extending among all classes, nations and races— and of the physical and spiritual destructiveness of industrial labour. The importance of education and the centrality of land were emphasized and nature was represented as an antidote to the corruptions of city life as well as a trope for the community.[7] Thus Chartist poetry was poetry for the working classes, written chiefly by working class poets in easily accessible language, using popular forms and dedicated to the elevation of labouring life. Cook’s poems repay scrutiny in many of the above grounds.


Besides her social and educational backgrounds, Cook shared other similarities with Chartist poets – like the use of simple language and predictable rhyming patterns. Her politics can be discerned from her concern to make her works accessible to the poor. In the 1869 preface to a new edition of her collected poems she noted that the volume was priced within the means of those who could not afford the previous edition. She also claimed that she would be ‘amply rewarded, and wish for no more gilded laurel’ if she could still retain the ‘sympathy and support of ‘the People’’.[8]


‘The People’, for Cook, stood for the community of industrial and agricultural labourers, as it did for the other Chartist poets. Cook’s identification with the people and popular culture pervades her poetry. In ‘The Street’ she describes her love for the urban working class culture exemplified by peddlers selling sculptures, organ-boys, blind fiddlers and the flower-girl. She writes—


Who scorns the ‘common’ sculpture art that poor men’s pence can buy,

That silently invokes our soul to lift itself on high?

Who shall revile the ‘common’ tunes that haunt us as we go?

Who shall despise the ‘common’ bloom that scents the market row?

Oh! Let us bless the ‘Beautiful’ that ever lives and greets,

And cheers us in the music and flowers of the ‘Streets’.[9]


Cook’s reverence for working class culture can be gauged from her use of the hymn meter in describing the street scene, as pointed out by Solveig C. Robinson.[10] The frequent use of the word ‘common’ within quotation marks and the similar use of the word ‘beautiful’ lifts the word from its negative connotations and emphasizes its positive senses of unity and commonality. For Cook the ‘common’ is the ‘beautiful’. Similar sentiments can be found in her nostalgic reminiscence of the call of the street-criers of her childhood in the poem ‘Old Cries’. These poems about the communal memories of her childhood serve to emphasize her own working class roots that empower her to lead ‘the People’ in the mission of leveling up.


A major strategy of Chartist poetry for encouraging the masses was to assert their importance in creating wealth for society and hence their right to an equitable distribution of it. This gave birth to a sort of stereotype that Ulrich Schwab calls the ‘noble workingman’[11]— a person who labours honestly to create the nation’s wealth. This figure is the direct descendant of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ and marks Chartist poetry’s descent from the radical poetry of the Romantics like Shelley, Byron and Burns. Cook creates such a figure in ‘The Poor Man to His Son’ in which the poor man exhorts his son to ‘Work, work my boy, be not afraid, / Look labour boldly in the face’ assuring him that it is his labour that is the ‘life-blood of the nation’s tree’. According to the Chartists this ‘noble workingman’ will be the foundation on which a new egalitarian society of England will be based. This axiomatically leads to the idea that the ‘noble workingman’ is a victim of deprivation while ideally the whole of England should belong to him and his fellow workers. Cook’s poem ‘They All Belong to Me’ expresses such an idea—


I care not who hold leases

Of the upland or the dell,

Nor who may count the fleeces

When the flocks are fit to sell.

While there’s beauty no one can barter

By the greensward and the tree:

Claim who will, by seal and charter,

Yet ‘they all belong to me’.


Such a theme is also dealt with in ‘Stanzas: Sure there’s enough of earth beside’. The poem written in retaliation to the fencing of the ‘commons’ asserts the working class’s right over those lands. They are—

The turf, where peasants blithe and bold

Can plant their footsteps day or night

In free unquestioned, native right.

The rest of the poem charts the centrality of the commons to ‘poor man’s beast and poor man’s child’. In the last stanza Cook uses a standard rhetorical device of the Chartists which Michael Sanders identifies as ‘interpellation’.[12] By this device Chartists seek to define themselves in terms of opposed social groups and conditions, producing a much sharper sense of class identity and marking the beginning of a class based paradigm. Cook employs this device to criticize the exploitative nature of the people in power. She writes:

And curse the hard and griping hand

That wrests away such “hallow’d” land

That shuts the green waste, fresh and wild

From poor man’s beast and poor man’s child.


Another major trope of Chartist poetry was to project an idealistic, romantic, pre-industrialized rural life as a setting for post-revolutionary England. As Raymond Williams has demonstrated, the country represents old ways, human ways, natural ways, whereas the idea of the city is allied with progress and modernization.[13] For Chartists the latter are entrenched forces that have to be reckoned with. Land thus gets bound up with working class life in a complex set of associations. Land, the symbol of the country, becomes more than a means of self-subsistence and material security and turns synonymous with working class identity and freedom. Through industrialization this essential link with the country is broken, leading to displacement and disintegration of the labourers. Thus the Chartist poets’ attempt is to establish, through literature, a connection with this form of pre-industrial idyllic life. Cook’s ‘They All Belong to Me’ is a good example of such a poem of imaginative recovery of old rural England. ‘The Green Hill-Side’ and ‘Must I Leave Thee, Paradise’ harp on similar sentiments of the inseparability of land and the working class poet whose art is stifled by urban ‘Propriety’s rule’. Establishing this connection with the land thus becomes the necessary pre-condition for the emancipation of the working class.


Similarly it is the connection with the soil that renders the ploughshare respectable to the poet. In ‘The Ploughshare of Old England’ Cook describes the plough as a ‘deity of plenteous festivals’. However the most idealized depiction of rural England is seen in ‘Song of the Haymakers’. According to Robinson this poem, like the best examples of pastoral poetry, ‘combines elements of idyll with subtle social critique and illustrates the complexities possible within a deceptively simple lyric form’.[14] The poem begins—


The noontide is hot and our foreheads are brown;

Our palms are all shining and hard;

Right close is our work with the wain and the fork,

And but poor is our daily reward.


This is an implied critique of the economic disparity in society. But Cook claims that there are compensatory rewards which are not available to the city dwellers. The rest of the poem is a catalogue of the virtues of rural life set in opposition to the ‘city’s dull-gloom’.


We dwell in the meadows, we toil on the sward,

Far away from the city’s dull gloom;

And more jolly are we, though in rags we may be,

Than the pale faces over the loom.


The poem is an exhortation to the city-bred to return to nature. The haymakers urge ‘gentle ladies’ and ‘dainty sirs’ to join the haying promising that they will get a natural carpet ‘…more soft…/ Than the pile of your velveted floor,’ and fresh air ‘as sweet / As the perfumes of Araby’s shore.’ Though the poem presents a picture which is far from the real, the basic idea is to inculcate the belief that work is a natural part of life and people should naturally find satisfaction and dignity in work. Work, when done in a natural surrounding becomes the perfect antidote to the artificiality that urban life breeds. Thus in ‘Song of the City Artisan’, Cook’s prescription for the city artisan’s pale forehead, ‘tintless cheek’ and ‘rayless eye’ is ‘The dewy turf, and open sky / The sunlight and the mountain.’


But Cook is not an impractical idealist. She is aware that the possibility of a return to the old ways of life is almost sealed off. Hence she urges the city workers to focus on developing their minds through education to tide over the physical and spiritual destructiveness of industrial labour, as the healing touch of nature is no longer available to them. Her poems about urban labour are more agenda-driven and champion many of the Chartist causes. They advocate reforms such as the improvement of working conditions, expansion of educational opportunities and extension of the franchise to the workers.


An Owenite in ideology, Cook was a firm believer in self-improvement through education, which empowers man and leads to social improvement. In the poem ‘ABC,’ she emphasizes the need to learn the alphabet. Once it is mastered new vistas open up: ‘How nobly wide the field…/ Wit, Reason, Wisdom all might be/ enjoyed through simply ABC.’ Similarly she celebrates the Sunday Ragged Schools in ‘Song for the Ragged Schools,’ praising the enterprise as a means to enable the working classes to be more productive in society.


To work, to work! with hope and joy,

Let us be doing what we can;

Better build schoolrooms for “the boy”,

Than cells and gibbets for “the man”.


Cook does not only celebrate small actions like the Ragged School, but she also takes up her pen in support of larger political actions like the Early Closing Movement. The poem ‘A Song for the Workers’ was written to commemorate this movement for shorter working hours. One of the best examples of Cook’s Chartist poems, it emphasizes the need to work and the dignity inherent in work at the same time as it stresses the evils of unregulated work on the workers as well as on society at large. The poem is anxious that the movement may be interpreted as an excuse for shirking duties and she clarifies that it is not so in the very first stanza:

Let Man toil to win his living,

Work is not a task to spurn;

Poor is gold of others giving,

To the silver that we earn.


Work is nothing to be ashamed of as honest work has an inherent dignity, for it creates the nation’s wealth. She exhorts—

Let Man proudly take his station

At the smithy, loom, or plough;

The richest crown-pearls in a nation

Hang from labour’s reeking brow.


Let fair woman’s cheek of beauty

Never blush to own its state.


Cook exhorts the people to work on honestly, addressing them as God’s own daughters and sons. The great value she assigns to labour is evident from this association of labourers with God. Both the exhortatory style and the emphasis on work are staple practices of Chartist poetry.

Cook then goes on to condemn the ‘Despot whips’ which are trying to make these workers ‘unceasing drudges’. Work beyond a limit affects the body and the mind and takes away the pleasures of the work. She says—

Shall the mercy that we cherish,

As old England’s primest boast,

See no slaves, but those who perish

On a far and foreign coast?


Here Cook employs the standard chartist trope of the domestic slave when she identifies the industrial workers with the slaves in America. As Kelly J. Mays remarks,

the goal of Chartist poetry is to encourage readers to see themselves as members of a community united by their experience of an oppression and the term used to describe both the community and the oppression they suffered in slavery.[15]

In the next stanza Cook employs the device of interpellation to contrast the working class identity with that of the bourgeois – pointing out that it is the economic exploitation of the latter that drives the former to poverty.

When we reckon hives of money,

Owned by Luxury and Ease

Is it just to grasp the honey

While Oppression chokes the bees?


This oppression leads to a dehumanization of the labourers, reducing them to ‘soulless things’. Cook claims the rights of reason and knowledge and health for the working classes, for without these liberty cannot be achieved.

Shall we strive to shut out Reason,

Knowledge, Liberty and Health?

No! for Right is up and asking

Loudly for a juster lot;

And Commerce must not let her tasking

Form a nation’s canker spot.


Closing with a repetition of the call to work, the poem not only conforms perfectly to the norms of Chartist poetry, but also has its uniqueness. As noted earlier, the Chartist movement was almost exclusively a masculine one. But an ardent feminist, Cook also highlights the drudgery the female workers have to undergo. By including ‘God’s own daughters’ in this struggle for liberty she expresses her vision of a more inclusive working class movement. Thus the poem harmonizes with and also stands apart from the chorus of male Chartist voices.


Like ‘A Song for the Workers’, Cook’s ‘Our Father’ is also effective in its depiction of the misery and exploitation of working class life and the social injustice they are subject to. Based on R.H. Horne’s report on the appalling condition of child labourers in factories (which also inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Cry of the Children’), Cook’s poem uses the trope of the domestic slave to create a working class consciousness. To Cook the child labourers appear as the ‘Pale struggling blossoms of mankind, / White, helpless slaves whom Christians bind’. They are continually subjected to ‘Labour’s grinding task’ which turns their brains ‘dull and torpid’. Cook presents an effective picture of the drudgery of the poor children’s lives and contrasts it with the pleasures of those who live in ‘Plenty, Love and Mirth’. Her appeal is to those ‘who but eat, laugh, drink and sleep’, to look at ‘Poverty’s cold gloom’ and learn from these children how to retain faith in the Father even in face of such adversity. By stressing the virtue of the poor children, in contrast to the indifferent complacence of the bourgeois, Cook reveals her essentially Chartist sentiments.


The most programmatic of all Cook’s poems, however, is ‘A Song: To ‘the People’ of England’ written in support of the Chartist petition of 1848. In this poem she eulogizes the Chartists as the representatives of ‘Liberty and Reason’. They are the English counterparts of the revolutionaries in France, Italy and the rest of Europe. But Cook is also anxious to distinguish them from other revolutionaries and presents them as a responsible, organized, peaceful lot who will not allow the revolution to degenerate into a bloody chaos. She urges the revolutionaries to act resolutely, but responsibly—

Show that you have sense and feeling,

Fit to gain and guard your place;

Let your own determined dealing

Meet Oppression, face to face!

Not with weapons red and reeking;

Not with Anarchy’s wild flame;

But with love and open speaking,

In “The People’s” mighty name!

Wisely think, and boldly utter

What ye think, in Wisdom’s speech

But ye must not even mutter

Words that madmen only teach!


Ye shall soon have wider Charters!

England hears the startling cry

Of her poor and honest martyrs;

And her glory must reply.

Ask for all that should be granted!

Show the festers of neglect;

If “a People’s” love is wanted,

“People’s Rights” must have respect.

Cook uses the standard techniques of radical exhortatory poetry like apostrophe and exclamations as devices to inspire ‘the People’. However she uses them to glorify peace and not war, to valorize self-education and salvation of the mind as pre-requisites of a successful revolution.


Let “the People” have THEIR “College”;

Only crucibles of Knowledge

Serve to melt Crime’s fetter rings.

Sons of England be ye steady!

 ‘Tis your heads, and not your hands,

That shall prove ye fit and ready

To enlist in Freedom’s bands!


As this poem and the others suggest, Eliza Cook herself was very much a part of this ‘Freedom’s band’, if not as an active agitator, surely as a moral and inspirational force for them. The influence she wielded on the working class can be gauged from the fact that her portrait numbered among the most precious of the household goods in a humble village cottage she once visited. Her biographical notice in Notable Women of Our Own Times states that her poems were likely to be quoted and sung ‘in the backwoods of America, or in the bush of Australia, as in the midst of civilized society at home.’[16] Her poems reflect the everyday reality, dreams and aspiration of the working class as envisioned by the Chartists. She does not only touch upon the major Chartist themes, but in certain instances her poems even exemplify the Chartist ideals to a greater extent than do the works of some of the acknowledged male poets of the ainclusion in the canon of Chartist literature.







[1] Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds ed., Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 174.

[2] Eliza Cook, ‘Levelling Up’, Eliza Cook’s Journal, quoted in Robinson, Solveig C., ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”: The Chartist Poetics of Eliza Cook’s Songs of Labor’, Victorian Poetry Vol. 39, No. 2 (2001): p. 229.


[3]Wikipedia, ( , accessed 7 November, 2009)

[4] Jutta Schwarzkopf, Women in the Chartist Movement (New York: St. Martin’s, 1991).

[5] ‘The Politics of Poets’, The Chartist Circular (October 24, 1840) cited in Peter Scheckner ed., An Anthology of Chartist Poetry: Poetry of the British Working Class, 1830s-1850s (London: Associated University Presses, 1989), p. 18.


[6] Scheckner, Anthology of Chartist Poetry, p. 16.

[7] Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 231.

[8] Eliza Cook, The Collected Poems of Eliza Cook, cited in Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 232.

[9] All poems of Eliza Cook quoted here except ‘The Streets’, ‘A Song to “The People” of England’, ‘Our Father’ and ‘A Song for the Workers’ are from Eliza Cook, Poems (New York: Routledge, Warne and Routledge, 1851). Of the aforementioned poems the first two are quoted in Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’ and the other two are from Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds ed., Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell,1999)


[10] Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 233.

[11]Ulrich Schwab, The Poetry of the Chartist Movement, cited in Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 234.

[12] Sanders, Michael, ‘Poetic Agency: Metonymy and Metaphor in Chartist Poetry 1838-1852’, Victorian Poetry Vol. 39, No. 2 (2001) p. 122.


[13] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973)

[14] Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 237.

[15] Mays, Kelly J., ‘Slaves in Heaven, Laborers in Hell: Chartist Poets’ Ambivalent Identification with the (Black) Slave’, Victorian Poetry Vol. 39 No. 2 (2001), p. 140.


[16] ‘Eliza Cook’, Notable Women of Our Own Times: A Collection of Biographies of Royal and Other Ladies Celebrated in Literature, Art and Society (London, 1883) cited in Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 232.


Debapratim Chakraborty was a student of the MPhil batch of 2014 at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. He has completed BA and MA in English literature from the same department. This paper was written in 2009 as an assignment for the undergraduate course on Victorian women poets.


by Parama Basu


In this article I would like to study the ‘deviant’ and defiant heroine portrayed in Victorian Sensation Fiction as a fictional construct whose rebellious ways was a cause of  critical consternation to the respectable Victorian society. My objective shall be to explore how various social, medical and legal constrictions threatened to libel the Sensation heroine, guilty of resisting all sexist assumptions of Victorian respectability and flouting the age’s strict adherence to gendered patterns of behavior. Were the mostly unsympathetic representations of such women in contemporary fiction as dangerous and/or ‘deviant’ betraying the anxieties of an age fast changing, unable to cope with the unstable gender roles that these women generally assayed?


My article will attempt to trace and reinterpret the social constructions of ‘deviance,’ defiance and ‘discipline’ in Victorian Sensation Fiction by focussing on one such Sensation heroine, viz. Lady Audley in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret, in order to reinterpret the construction of the ‘Victorian Woman’ as a specific subjective, imaginative as well as political category worthy of literary representation.


Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon first appeared in July 1861 in the popular weekly magazine Robin Goodfellow and its phenomenal success helped to launch and stabilise the genre of Sensation Fiction in literature. This new novelistic mode thrived on plots of crime, sensation and sexual transgression, lapped up eagerly by an addicted readership, contouring the new literary tastes of the age. Sensation novels combined moral, psychological and physical reactions to lurid tales of shock, scandal and exaggeration, and this admixture stirred the anxiety of the age over the rise of a genre that implicitly suggested pathological aberrations, which could prove to be the ‘indications of a widespread corruption, … called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite and contributing themselves to foster the disease, and to stimulate the want that they supply.’[1]

The sensation novel brought in its wake a sense of urgency, trepidation and anxiety that was representative of this age of transition wherein religious reading was being supplanted by secular reading, individual agency was slowly but surely replacing collective expression, and wherein criminality too was relocating its epicenter from the grandiose  gothic mansion of the eighteenth century to the apparent ideal of the  peaceful, complacent and respectable middle-class or upper-class Victorian family. Contending with the shifting categories of domestic stability, criminal responsibility, mental health and gender identity, Lady Audley’s Secret offers ‘a site in which the contradictions, anxieties, and opposing ideologies of Victorian culture converge’.[2]

Despite all claims and misgivings about the covert femininity of the form being written ‘by women, about women and, on the whole, for women’,[3] sensation fiction reveals itself to be highly ‘unfeminine’, and sometimes even ‘antifeminine’. Lyn Pykett notes that:

[…] despite their faithful transcriptions of the surfaces of provincial life, sensation novels were seen as deviating from the realist criteria of the proper feminine because they disappointed the “natural” expectation that a “lady novelist” would produce “portraits of women which shall not be wholly untrue to nature”.[4] […] Mary Elizabeth Braddon was censured for defying these unwritten rules of representation in her portrayal of Lady Audley.[5]

Lady Audley’s Secret, like much of the other sensation novels written during the period, offers minutely detailed accounts of women’s sensuous and sexual responses, investing in them a sexual agency hitherto relatively unexplored in literature. The dangerous politics of such representation overstepped the boundary of decorum not only because what the female writer represented was revolting, but also because the way it was represented openly refuted all sexual mores of the age. This transgression raised many moral objections due to the manner in which it ‘read’ the body, by its ‘appeal to the nerves rather than to the heart’,[6] to base passions rather than to the tempered intellect.

The ‘fleshly and unlovely record’[7] of the sensation heroine becomes now typecast as ‘the natural sentiment of English girls’, opines Oliphant in a caustic attack on the harmful effects of sensation fiction. Despite this exaggeration, the sensation novel clearly voiced suppressed female emotions and articulated their covert anger at the constricting social roles they were compelled to play. E. S. Dallas wrote in The Times:

If the heroines have the first place, it will scarcely do to represent them as passive and quite angelic, or as insipid – which heroines usually are. They have to be high-strung women, full of passion, purpose and movement.[8]

The heroine of the sensation novel was distinctive by her agency, for, as Elaine Showalter remarked in A Literature of their Own (1978), she was ‘a new kind of heroine … who could put her hostility toward men into violent action’[9], and thus externalize the darkest recesses of the Victorian woman’s mind, yearning to break out of the fetters of patriarchal surveillance and authority, and therefore reveling in this ‘grotesque falsification of lived experience’[10] that the genre offered.

Lady Audley’s radical transcendence of traditional socio-moral codes and ideologies is manifested in her attempts to secure social mobility and economic luxury for herself at the cost of deserting her minor son, concealing her real identity by pronouncing herself dead to the world, and supplanting her body with that of Matilda Plowson, a working-class girl; by effortlessly assuming the new identity of Lady Audley  – the blonde beauty who marries into aristocracy – all the while trying to protect that cherished identity from all the forces that tend to expose and expel it. In a bid to conceal her past, Lady Audley attempts the murder of her first husband, George Talboys, by pushing him down a well; and also tries to silence Robert Audley, her nephew by marriage, and the proto-detective in the novel, by setting fire to the inn in which he was sleeping. These double acts of attempted annihilation reveal her potential for violence, amounting to criminal accountability and possible incrimination.

According to Pykett:

[…] woman becomes the frontier between the order of man and chaos. [ … ] Neither inside nor outside the frontiers of high culture, sheis always in danger of receding into the chaos that lies beyond its gates.[11]

Braddon’s narrative in Lady Audley’s Secret ushers us into this very slippery terrain. So, what begins as a marriage of convenience between the young and sensuous governess Lucy Graham and the unsuspecting aristocrat Michael Audley soon lapses into a nightmarish encounter with the destabilization, staunch rejection and violent overthrow of the existing power and gender equations by the strong-willed heroine.

Lady Audley’s appropriation of the role of the female avenger is especially disturbing because she connives to destroy the Victorian domestic ideal while appearing to strive towards the very attainment of that ideal. Lady Audley plots and commits criminal offenses only to acquire a financially secure and socially profitable marriage, ‘to keep up appearances’[12] of respectability rather than ‘fall on to the streets’ [13] when her prospects are marred by her first husband’s disinheritance from his family property, and his consequent abandonment of her when encumbered with his child. Her target was what every middle-class girl of the age aspired to achieve, while the means to that end shows ‘the sensation heroine’s failure to conform to social codes … [and] convey[s] a sense of the threat of insurgent femininity trying to break out of the doll’s house of domesticity’,[14] as represented by the numerous ‘passive, dependent women, who are imprisoned by it, unable to articulate their sense of confinement, and driven to desperate measures’.[15]

When Helen Talboys advertises her own obituary to the world, she metaphorically kills the passive, restrained, unassertive and dependent wife who had so long defined her identity. When she resurfaces in the narrative as Lucy Graham, she is already a part of the newly emerging Victorian female workforce, setting a strong foothold in her role as a governess. In this new capacity, she seemed ‘perfectly well satisfied with her situation … as if she had no higher aspiration in the world than to do so all the rest of her life’.[16] In taking up the profession of a governess, Lucy earned for herself a modicum of agency as an independent earning subject, realized her potential to work, and thereby marked a departure from the conventional destiny of woman as the mere help-meet of man. Achieving emancipation from a male-controlled economy and a male-dependent identity, Lucy became the iconic representation of the woman of the age defiantly highlighting the ‘Woman Question’. However, Lucy Graham’s/ Helen Talboys’ dereliction of her motherly duties toward her infant son, whom she trusted to the care of her disreputable and alcoholic father, seems to be an early pointer in the novel to her latent ‘monstrosity’ and ‘unwomanliness’, which could make her ruthlessly ambitious for power, position, and their attendant luxury.

Each role that Helen Maldon faultlessly adapts herself to – whether it be that of the virtuous wife Helen Talboys, or the industrious governess Lucy Graham, or the aristocratic Lady Audley – actually records the number of times that she has successfully performed a masquerade, carefully concealing her vile potential and intentions. In her stint as Lady Audley, she manages to gain considerable finesse at performing the role of a ‘domestic angel who both is and isn’t  what she seems – she simultaneously qualifies as an icon of gentility and threatens the gentility of the gentry by gentrifying the middle class’, notes Jenny Bourne Taylor.[17] Embodying the ideal of complaisant femininity, Lady Audley sustains her masquerade for long as the criminal imposter, tenuously holding on to her new name and higher social rank. Though ultimately exposed and expelled from the narrative as well as the Audley household for her heinous crimes, Lady Audley’s facile impersonations repeatedly indicate that aristocratic manners and elite social status are acquired artifices. As Pykett astutely remarks, ‘Helen/ Lucy’s role-playing is a particularly acute form of Victorian self-fashioning’, intensely conscious that for a middle-class Victorian woman, the value of life lay in marrying well, and most importantly, in marrying above one’s station.

Lady Audley stuns and shocks because she does not merely internalize this social stricture, but also decidedly engineers its execution. Her transgressive actions critique the institution of marriage itself, laying bare that the sacrosanct union of two souls is a sham, a respectable cover actually hiding the layers of ‘lies, impersonation, fraud and murder’[18] which go into its making. Lady Audley’s act of bigamy can well be read as her sexual impropriety – she wants to traverse a sexual territory made inadmissible by the limits of law. Her crimes, then, are somewhat provoked by the uncompromising legal rigidity of the times. Lady Audley’s decision to remarry without legally concluding her first marriage is not simply influenced by her desire for a double identity under more enabling circumstances, but is also a result of the stifling contemporary legalities, which made the procedure of obtaining divorces a sexist, expensive and time-consuming choice.

There are obvious parallels between the plot of the novel and its creator, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s own life, as John Maxwell, Braddon’s husband, was married to another woman, and Braddon had to wait until 1874, when her husband’s first wife died, before she could legally marry him. Contemporary law relegated women to the status of vulnerable, powerless and dependent flotsams in the hands of patriarchy, constantly performing duties and never claiming any rights in their unaltering state of coerced subordination to the male sex. Barbara Leigh Smith’s pamphlet, ‘A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women, Together with a Few Observations Thereon’, circulated in 1854, criticized the legal condition of ‘coverture’ which defined the marital status of all Victorian women at that time, for rendering these women wholly subject to the absolute control of their husbands. Marriage in such a society traded the woman’s subjective persona to make her into an object, subjected to a state of subservience and repression. Legally, women of the time found it extremely difficult to absolve their marriage on grounds of incompatibility alone, and they were only granted ‘an entire dissolution of the bonds of matrimony’ if they could prove adultery along with ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ or ‘Unnatural Practices’ in their spouses.[19] The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 made divorces more accessible by reducing the cost to around £30. Nevertheless, it was not before the Married Woman’s Property Act was passed in 1870 that married women could retain some portion of their own wealth even after ending their union. In the light of these prohibitive legal complications, it is understandable why Lady Audley found it easier to tackle the pressure of living under a fake identity rather than filing for divorce from George Talboys.

Lady Audley’s Secret throws open many of the major anxieties of the age. Disrupting tradition by venturing into the male domain of work, Lady Audley transforms her identity from being the public spectacle of domestic respectability to represent the ‘Girl of the Period’[20] who was fast, passionate, fiercely deviant and financially independent. Standing at the juncture between Victorian ideas of male domination and the newly emergent rebellious streak of female liberation, Lady Audley’s defiant sexual stance inverts the conventional gender paradigms of rational pragmatism in men and moral fortitude in women. Lady Audley charts her own life’s course by marrying well, and takes extreme measures to safeguard her newly found status from being sullied by the blemishes from her past.

Lady Audley’s downfall is caused when Michael Audley’s nephew, Robert Audley, is at first disturbed by the unbelievably angelic exterior of his young aunt, and soon grows suspicious of her undisclosed past, and so takes it upon him to unmask and shame his uncle’s wife. Robert’s initial awe of Lady Audley is not merely out of reverence for his uncle’s wife, but it also shows his inwardly growing misogynistic fears and insecurities. Robert enjoys the cat-and-mouse game of detection that he plays with Lady Audley – frightening her with threats of exposure, and yet giving her a chance to redeem herself by confession and escape, even as she tries her best to hold on to her fraudulent identity and the superior class position that it granted her. In her bid to live a life distinguished by luxury, abundance and indulgence, Lady Audley marries men whom she does not truly love, and the repetition of such a decision twice in the narrative becomes an unforgivable crime. The ‘penniless heroine’ is a social climber, and has no inhibitions in brutally destroying all that which could be dangerous for her situation. The bigamist soon becomes capable of murderous violence, attempting to kill George Talboys before he can reveal too much about her. Again, when later in the narrative, Robert Audley resolves to discover the mystery behind the sudden disappearance of his bosom friend, George Talboys, Lady Audley feels insecure and first tries to ensnare him sexually and, on failing to do so, sets fire to the inn in which Robert was supposed to be resting, fervently hoping that the fire would claim his life and thus obliterate her nemesis.

Much as she justifies her radical ways as the result of the workings of an insane mind that she has inherited from her mother, Lady Audley’s madness, on deeper probing, is shown to be nothing more than a rueful chafing against poverty and the trying circumstances it gives rise to. Her confession of madness pathologises her aggressive actions, but they also hint at a larger socio-economic reality. Madness for this intelligent woman becomes an able cover-up for her ambition to rise above the lot of the average Victorian woman with limited means, fettered by the dogma of patriarchy. And so she contrives, in the early part of the narrative, to convince her husband Michael Audley that it is not she, but her over-zealous observer Robert Audley who is mad. Here, she transforms ‘from a frivolous childish beauty to a strong woman’[21] and betrays to the readers how she had been concealing her manipulative wit and self-assertive nature beneath a well-guarded mask of innocence and vulnerability.

The subversive potential of the novel plays around with the changing notions of gender identity, constantly oscillating between the roles of the active, masculinised transgressor and the passive recipient of violence simultaneously represented by Lady Audley; and from the ‘improper masculine’ of ‘feminised indolence’ to the dynamic, ‘socialised’ and ‘masculinised’ ‘head of the bourgeois family’, as in the case of Robert Audley.[22] Robert Audley’s perseverance in exposing the crimes of his aunt also leads to the simultaneous formation of his masculine, bourgeois identity, well-honed in the professional ethics of work and the patriarchal codes of manhood. He discards his feminized identity and becomes, in the course of his quest to discover his aunt’s secret, a legally sound detective, who was ‘anxious to keep to the strict line of duty’[23], in order to reveal his aunt to be ‘the demoniac incarnation of some evil principle’[24] who did not flinch from any act of perfidy. Defying essentialist notions of gender roles and gendered behavior patterns, Lady Audley, on the other hand – as Pamela K. Gilbert remarks in her article ‘Braddon and Victorian Realism: Joshua Haggard’s Daughter’ – is:

At once the heroine and the monstrosity of the novel. [ … ] The nerves with which Lady Audley could meet unmoved the friend of the man she had murdered, are the nerves of a Lady Macbeth who is half unsexed, and not those of the timid, gentle, innocent creature Lady Audley is represented as being. […] All this is very exciting; but it is also very unnatural.[25]

Lady Audley is ‘unnatural’ because she does not believe in the stoic self-suppression which characterized the psychic discipline and regulated the spontaneous expressions of the women of the age. Her increased agency was often seen as a sign of a rapidly eroding sexual purity. Violating the norms of respectability, she set up an opposition to the Victorian archetype for ideal womanliness – ‘The Angel in the House’,[26] i.e. the submissive and sexually timid image of the respectable lady in Victorian households.

However, Andrew Radford’s insight into the character of Lady Audley provides a significant contrast to the aforementioned notion:

Lady Audley is an interloper but a victim as well, who struggles to negotiate the tensions between marriage as an economic contract and marriage as an emotional bond. She is ‘buried alive’ by her husband’s family because they cannot face the ignominy of a public trial. It is only by pretending that Lady Audley is mad and transporting her away from the public gaze to the more sinister and absolute privacy of the asylum – an extended version of the home – that she can really be silenced and the family’s ‘honorable’ name salvaged.[27]

Contesting nineteenth century conceptions of femininity, Lady Audley’s criminality also places her securely in a discourse exploring subversive possibilities for women in an age which denied them most positive ways of self-expression. And much of her destructive violence is, according to critics such as  Andrew Mangham, led on by innate sexual desires ‘that, it was assumed at the time, could cause the inherent fires of womanhood to flare up with destructive consequences’.[28] Another important critic, Jenny Bourne Taylor, interestingly notes that Robert’s detection too ‘is as much about the instability and tenuousness of the masculine detective consciousness as about the threatening femininity it investigates and controls’.[29] Ann Cvetkovich too records in Mixed Feelings how ‘The novel is obsessed with the dangers of excessive passion and sexual madness, but it rewrites this dilemma as the problem of an individual woman’s murderous instincts and inherited madness’.[30] Thus are the hysterical outbreaks of the female protagonist in her crimes of passion perceived as the necessary, albeit inverted expressions of her long repressed sexual nature rarely gratified as per the conventions of the day.

Lady Audley’s adeptness at playing the part of a respectable, puerile lady is such an act of imposture that when torn apart, it shows the socially ascendant bourgeois subjectivity’s characteristic claim to a coherent self to be a sham. Her role-playing also opposes conventional notions of Victorian femininity to show what Radford observes as the deeply disquieting ‘malicious relish with which the anti-heroine acts out the contradictions and perversities that validate middle-class prerogatives’.[31] By this, ostensibly ‘unfeminine’ actions of criminal self-assertion became justified as the means by which the rising middle-class femininity rejected aristocratic Victorian conventions. Thus inequities of class and gender were sought to be neutralized by the modern woman who completely gave up her hapless, docile image in this new sensational representation of bourgeois femininity. In this light, much of the resentment of the age towards the Sensation Novel arose from the society’s acute consciousness of breaking from within, when faced with the alarmingly altering dynamics of social stratification and female sexuality.

Conventional expectations of feminine propriety are exploited by Lady Audley to serve her own ulterior motives. Initiating cold-blooded acts of villainy with perfect ease, Lady Audley soon turns the familiar familial site of the home into the perfect address for bitter resentment and hysterical violence, rendering it less worthy of the faith that religious and social guardians had so long instilled in it. By her own admission, Lady Audley had wanted to avoid fighting ‘the hard battle of the world, more disposed to complain of poverty and neglect’.[32] She acknowledged unflinchingly that madness first dissociated her from the realm of reason when her first husband, George Talboys, left her without any provision, staring into the face of poverty. But once she had secured for herself money and rank by marrying Michael Audley, the ‘mad’ fury of love never once besotted her. However, when this notion of stability was jeopardized by the announcement of George’s imminent return, and later provoked further by Robert Audley’s inquisitive investigation, Lady Audley recoiled in terror as she thought of her peril, and her dazed brain once again trespassed the invisible boundary, and found itself once more dictated by the passionate fits of unreason. Her madness then, in a sense, is also the strife of a woman of low birth to avoid a life of hardship, neglect and poverty. Jenny Bourne Taylor observes that Lady Audley disregarded the expectations from natural femininity – even before she was confessedly ‘mad’, Lady Audley had declared that she did not love her son, who had been nothing but a burdensome responsibility to her – thus showing that it was not madness, but rather the stark awareness of her fiscal and social position which made her loathe her maternal duty and blight her maternal love. Hence, irrespective of whether her decisions and actions are prompted by sanity or insanity, Lady Audley displays a natural intelligence to judge her situation and station in life, and it is this very intelligence that patriarchy fears and seeks to control.

The purging of criminal aberration is the requirement of the narrative, opines D. A. Miller in The Novel and the Police. Yet, in Lady Audley’s Secret, though the agent of the criminal deeds is neutralized, the young offender goes unpunished due to her claim to mental instability, and consequently, to diminished criminal accountability. Lady Audley is incarcerated in a madhouse and this, according to Miller, ‘reinstates the “phallocentric system of sexual difference” because the hysteric provides “the conduit of power transactions between men”’.[33]In her bid to alleviate her position in a society which was for the most part economically and psychologically governed by patriarchy, Lady Audley committed many crimes. On being found out, Lady Audley could well have come up with her insanity defense as a safety measure to relieve her from the enormous burden of guilt at having shown insubordination to patriarchal dictates concerning feminine deportment and, thereby, making all her crimes, moral and legal, pathologically excusable.

Lady Audley was not isolated and incriminated in order to extricate truths that she had struggled to keep secret, but rather, her confinement in a mental asylum on grounds of mental incompetence was a well thought out plan to ‘discipline’ her wayward nature by compelling her to conform to a condemned life of silence, guilt, regulation and forced attrition. Reconciled to a forced identity and a compromised mental condition, Lady Audley lives out her days as Madame Taylor, till she succumbs at last to ‘maladie de langueur’,[34] totally failing to remove the fetters of punitive power that bound her to the last. This power was no longer inflicted physically on the erring individual, rather such a force left an indelible impression on the mind, more so, when that very mind of the criminal offender was medically diagnosed to be unstable and incapable of rational thought. The voice of patriarchy now commanded every action of her body and soul in the punitively assigned institution of the sanatorium.

Autonomy is replaced by the strict regimen of state-discipline in order to curb the ‘demonic’ potency of the criminal heroine and thereby ‘shape a healthy, middle-class self. Until madness is pulled out of the hat as a solution and the means of plot resolution, what seems primarily to be the matter with Lady Audley is that she threatens to violate class boundaries and exclusions, and to get away with appropriating social power beyond her entitlement’.[35] Lady Audley’s own claim in the face of exposure that ‘You have conquered – A MADWOMAN!’[36] anticipates to some degree that this disclosure of her familial secret would be just the instrument that Robert Audley would need in order to wield his power over her. Her worst fears are confirmed as she enters the formidable portals of Villebrumeuse. In sheer horror of the dismal future that awaits her, she exclaims, ‘You have brought me to my grave, Mr. Audley, you have used your power basely and cruelly, and have brought me to a living grave’[37].

It seemed of little concern to the moral guardians of the time that Helen Talboys was jerked out of a sense of security, both emotional and economic, when her husband George Talboys deserted her to try his luck in Australia. Later in life, money again becomes the prime means of warranting her social death when Robert Audley sponsors all pecuniary arrangements necessary to confine his aunt by marriage, Lady Audley, to the mental asylum. Money purchases not just a solitary life for Lady Audley under an assumed name, but also saves Michael Audley from the public ridicule of pressing criminal charges against his wife at court. Thus, money, which acts as a motive for spurring Lady Audley’s criminal acts, becomes the very means for containing them.

In another important critical response to the depiction of female insanity in fiction, Helena Mitchie writes about sensation heroines:

Sensation novels abound with women who disguise, transform, and replicate themselves, who diffuse their identities and scatter clues to them all over the surface of their parent texts [ … ] In the cases of Lady Audley and Isabel Vane this duplicity, this multiplicity of identity, is explicitly marked by the text as criminal; it is the job of the reader and/ or detective figure of each novel to sort through the multiple identities offered by each heroine, to work against her self-reproduction, and to close the novel with a woman confined to a single identity, a single name, and a single place – In both cases, the grave […][38]

Braddon’s first ‘femme fatale’, Lady Audley, – like many of the other Braddon heroines – has her roots in an impoverished family. The daughter of an ignoble half-pay naval officer and a mother who is conspicuous by her untimely death as a mad woman, Helen Maldon/ Lady Audley grows up without any maternal guidance or indoctrination in the principles of Victorian morality and middle-class domesticity. She inherits both the burden of shame associated with her abject poverty, and the anxiety that she too may one day fall a victim to the very madness that tainted her mother. Though many may blame her for her well-preserved silence about her past, it must also be borne in mind that had she not been secretive about the streak of insanity running through her family, she would never have been recommended or favored enough by wealthy men to find a job and subsequently a match for herself in respectable upper-class society. Again, given her working-class background, it is also futile to suppose that she could economically support her own treatment. So her only chance of self-sustenance lay in suppressing her mental ailment till such time that circumstances forced the bitter truth out of her. Foiling all her attempts to improve her lot through devious means, Lady Audley is finally confined away from the public gaze in a mental asylum in the appositely named Belgian town of Villebrumeuse where she is only ‘At Peace’ on her death after much suffering.

With Lady Audley’s death, her secrets too are silenced forever and her identity as ‘Lady Audley’ effaced from public memory, never to be restored and reclaimed by mainstream society.

The figure of Lady Audley – the angel in the house turned domestic fiend – is also produced within and by a socio-medical discourse in which the image of female purity always contains within itself the antithetical image of female vice. Such a figure represents and explores fears that (actual, historical) women cannot be contained within dominant definitions of ‘woman’, or of normal femininity.[39]

This cultural anxiety is further explored when Dr. Alwyn Mosgrave, the expert on insanity called in by Robert Audley to medically confirm his aunt’s madness, declares that Lady Audley:

[…] ran away from her home, because her home was not a pleasant one, and she left it in the hope of finding a better. There is no madness in that. She committed the crime of bigamy, because by that crime she obtained fortune and position. There is no madness there. When she found herself in a desperate position, she did not grow desperate. She employed intelligent means, and she carried out a conspiracy which requires coolness and deliberation in its execution. There is no madness in that.[40]

Robert Audley unmasks the domestic angel to be a calculative fiend, and wants to get Lady Audley punished for her criminally duplicitous behavior. However, Dr. Mosgrave qualifies her madness and orders her confinement, not because she is mad or can inherit madness and also infect others with it (by means of transferring her debility to her progeny), but because she is ‘dangerous’ for the society:

There is latent insanity! Insanity which might never appear; or which might appear only once or twice in a life-time. [ … ] The lady is not mad; but she has the hereditary taint in her blood. She has the cunning of madness, with the prudence of intelligence. I will tell you what she is, MrAudley. She is dangerous![41]

  1. A. Miller argues that the ambiguity of the doctor in pronouncing a verdict on Lady Audley proves ‘two contradictory propositions: 1) Lady Audley is a criminal in the sense that her crimes must be punished and 2) Lady Audley is not a criminal in that neither her crimes nor her punishment must be made public in the male order of things’.[42] Lady Audley is ‘dangerous’ because she uses her rational faculty to openly challenge sexist Victorian assumptions and traditional patriarchal restrictions on women. She is dangerous because she refuses to be reined in by patriarchal authority, and because she might inspire other women to break out of the fetters of Victorian domestic ideology and think and act like herself. Lady Audley’s final removal from the aristocratic estate to the Belgian ‘maison de sante’ not just dispels the threat to patriarchy that she represents, but also redeems the aristocratic family from being contaminated by the working-class girl turned ‘lady’.

Robert’s insistence on exposing his aunt is suggestive of an attempt to publicly condemn Lady Audley’s deviant sexuality as a cover-up for his own ‘closet-secret’ of homosociality with deep sexual undertones, keeping it from becoming public knowledge for as long as possible. This decision turns the tables as the apparent protector of moral values and sexual mores of the Victorian society, who has himself been the victim of a superbly contrived game of fake identity, turns the oppressor into the oppressed, shrewdly scheming to defeat Lady Audley in this criminal politics of sexuality. Lady Audley, according to Pykett, was not ‘properly socialised’ to her class and gender position, and the urge to contain her transgressive aspirations gives vent to much of the anxiety the novel portrays. The normativity of femininity was a compulsory Victorian endorsement. Lady Audley could not live up to the ‘wifely expectations’ that her upper-class aristocratic family and the society in general had from her, and this was her real crime. Her secret then, as Elaine Showalter rightly suggested, is that she is perfectly ‘sane’ and knows only too well the devious ways of patriarchy which make a victim out of every inarticulate and dependent woman, and libel as ‘criminal’ every other.

Jill Matus in her influential chapter on ‘Maternal Deviance’ in Unstable Bodies writes:

Maternal insanity is itself a slippery term that signifies both madness occasioned by becoming a mother (puerperal insanity) as well as madness inherited from the mother (insanity transmitted through the maternal line). In Lady Audley’s maternal history, women go mad at the point that they become mothers. [ … ] On becoming a mother herself, she confronts exactly what she sought to avoid – drudgery and dependency and want – and she experiences fits of madness which cease when she takes action to make a new and better life for herself.[43]

Lady Audley’s abrupt transformation from sanity to insanity projects her as a victim of ‘partial insanity’ or ‘monomania’, a mental condition which, as Dr. James Cowles Prichard affirmed in his Treatise on Insanity (1835), was not the loss of reason, but rather an ‘understanding [that] is partially disordered, or under the influence of some particular illusion, referring to one subject, and involving one train of ideas, while the intellectual powers appear, when exercised on other subjects, to be in a great measure unimpaired’.[44] Madness, thus defined, perfectly suits Lady Audley’s individual case of an incorrect alliance between ideals and morals. Dr. Prichard, an authority on medical jurisprudence, stressed in his 1842 book, On the Different Forms of Insanity in Relation to Jurisprudence, on the general absence of motives behind the revolting crimes carried out under the impulse of moral insanity, and insisted ‘that the partially insane have as great a claim to acquittals as the raving lunatics’.[45] Yet in the case of Lady Audley, her actions were not without motive, and so, she too was not outside the orbit of judgment.

According to Laurie Langbauer, Lady Audley’s criminal actions signify her strife to avoid her mother’s mental disposition, and in this perspective, her acts may thus seem necessary and even justified, designed consciously to reject the hysteric inheritance of her mother’s deviance. ‘Mother’, notes Langbauer, is the ‘archaic synonym’[46] for the psychologically imbalanced – both are institutionalized for their own wellbeing and for the welfare of the society of which they are a part, but to which they can never fully belong. Maternity itself is considered a precarious condition – one in which the woman becomes prone to weakness – both physical and mental. Maternity causes particular consternation when acute mental strain and depression cause puerperal anxiety (insanity post childbirth) in mothers, and nursing babies in this condition puts the babies at risk of inheriting this dangerous taint from their mothers. Such a condition is explored in Lady Audley’s Secret where Lady Audley self-diagnoses her madness to be hereditary, a medical problem she inherited from her mother, who herself was the victim of a similar transmittance. The tainted maternal line therefore, is accused of being hazardous to the welfare of their progeny. Braddon’s narrative thus offers an alternate site covering up the sudden outburst of female disruptive energy which was a long due backlash against patriarchy, by cleverly imputing the guilt of the children on to the genes and poor mental health of their mothers. Her fiction also manages to conflate the actual statistics of criminality and insanity in the age because even though criminality was ‘five times higher among men than women,… insanity itself [was] higher among the latter’[47] as per W. Charles Hood’s Statistics of Insanity (1851), and Lady Audley’s representation as an offending lunatic served to show the vice of criminality as another dimension of insanity.

Michel Foucault writes in Madness and Civilisation that ‘All those forms of evil that border on unreason must be thrust into secrecy’[48], while quoting Malesherbes’s defense that ‘That which is called a base action is placed in the rank of those which public order does not permit us to tolerate…. It seems that the honor of a family requires the disappearance from society of the individual who by vile and abject habits shames his relatives’.[49] Lady Audley was kept away from the world in order to induce this sense of guilt in her, without letting the aristocratic Audley family feel embarrassed and ashamed. Moreover, the asylum conferred on to Lady Audley the doubly discriminated status of being a woman, and a criminal lunatic at that, robbed of all powers of autonomy, and of all claims to a civil status. Foucault notes in Discipline and Punish that penal justice which ostensibly aims to ‘correct and transform’[50] without encouraging savage forms of punishment, was one in which the punishment is such that it deters offenders from repeating the crime by maximizing ‘the representation of the penalty, not its corporal reality’.[51]

In the instance of Lady Audley, this translates into the pain caused to her because of social rejection, resulting in her withdrawal from articulation and assertion in the scheme of the narrative. Foucault writes, ‘A secret punishment is a punishment half wasted’[52], and Lady Audley’s eternal banishment would have meant the same had it been intended to reform and return her to the mainstream Victorian aristocratic society which had rejected her. In her stint at the sanatorium Lady Audley was deprived of the liberty even to cling on to her last claim to respectable society – her name, which stood for her rank and esteem – and in turn, she too, as a criminal who was perhaps conveniently concealed as a delinquent, unwittingly deprived the masses of their share of the knowledge of the scandal surrounding the convict. Thus was her secret punishment wasted, as it bore no impact on others, but only crushed her in body and soul. Even by punishing her crimes was a crime committed – that of stopping all possibility of others being warned through the publicity of Lady Audley’s pitiable state of confinement. Under the punitively acquired identity of Madame Taylor, Helen Maldon/ Helen Talboys/ Lucy Graham/ Lady Audley was for the first time in her life deprived of her very selfhood, forced to acclimatize herself to a new name, a new persona, and the changed ways of a world as it was too unyielding to accept her free-spirited, active agency which did not conform to the limits made permissible by the rigidly patriarchal Victorian society.




[1]W. F. Rae (Unsigned), ‘Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon’, North British Review XLIII (Sept. – Dec. 1865), pp.481 – 482, quoted in Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. with an introduction by Taylor, p.xiii.


[2]Lyn Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 50 – 51.


[3]Ibid., p. 32.


[4]W. F. Rae (Unsigned), ‘Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon’, p.189, quoted in Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p. 33.


[5]Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p. 33.


[6]‘Our Female Sensation Novelists’, Christian Remembrancer 46 (1863), p.210, quoted in Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p. 35.


[7]Margaret Oliphant, ‘Novels’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 102 (1867), p.259, quoted in Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p. 34.


[8]E. S. Dallas (Unsigned), ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’, The Times, November 18, (1862), p.4, quoted in Braddon,  Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor (London: Penguin, 1998), pp.xiv – xv.


[9]Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, (London: Princeton University Press, 1977), p.160, quoted in Andrew Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p.105.


[10]Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p. 87.


[11]Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p.32.


[12]Pykett, The Sensation Novel (London: Northcote, 1994), p. 54.


[13]Ibid., p.54.


[14]Ibid., p.49.


[15]Ibid., p.49.


[16]Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. Esther Saxey, (London: Wordsworth, 1997), pp.6 – 7.
[17]Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor (London: Penguin, 1998), p.xx.


[18]Pykett, The Sensation Novel (London: Northcote, 1994), p.54.


[19]Barbara Leigh Smith [Bodichon], ‘A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women, Together with a Few Observations Thereon,’(London: J Chapman, 1854): p.10.


[20]Elizabeth Lynn Linton, “The Girl of the Period”.Saturday Review, March 14 (1868), pp.339-40.


[21]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p.104.


[22]Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p.103.


[23]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p. 125.


[24]Ibid., p. 274.


[25]Pamela K. Gilbert, ‘Braddon and Victorian Realism: Joshua Haggard’s Daughter’, Beyond Sensation: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context, Marlene Tromp,Pamela K. Gilbert and Aeron Haynie eds., (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), p.185, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp.101 – 2.


[26]Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House (1854), <>.


[27]Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p.101.


[28]Andrew Mangham, Violent Women and Sensation Fiction: Crime, Medicine and Victorian Popular Culture (Hampshire, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 90.
[29]Jenny Bourne Taylor quoted in Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor (London: Penguin, 1998), p. xxxiii.


[30]Anne Cvetkovich, Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), p.52, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p. 101.


[31]Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p.88.


[32]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p. 280.


[33]D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p.178, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 96.


[34]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p. 354.


[35]Jill Matus, Unstable Bodies: Victorian Representations of Sexuality and Maternity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp.192 – 93, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, pp. 100-1.


[36]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p.274.


[37]Ibid., p. 310.


[38]Helena Mitchie, Sororophobia: Differences among Women in Literature and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp.59 – 60, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, pp. 107 – 108.


[39]Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 95.


[40]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p. 377.


[41]Ibid., p. 379.


[42]D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p.169, quoted in Mangham, Violent Women and Sensation Fiction: Crime, Medicine and Victorian Popular Culture, p. 81.


[43]Jill Matus, Unstable Bodies: Victorian Representations of Sexuality and Maternity, pp.189 – 90, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, pp. 115 – 116.


[44]Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, edited with notes by Jenny Bourne Taylor, with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor with Russell Crofts, p. xxxvi.
[45]Ibid., p. 161.


[46]Laurie Langbauer, ‘Women in White, Men in Feminism’, Yale Journal of Criticism 2: 2 (Spring 1989), pp. 228-229 quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p.115.


[47]Daniel N. Robinson, Wild Beasts and Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present, p. 160.


[48]Michel Foucault, Folieet Deraison: Histoire de la folie a l’ageclassique (Paris: LibrairiePlon,1961), Richard Howard, trans. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, with an introduction by David Cooper (London: Routledge Classics, 2001), p.64.
[49]Ibid., p. 63.


[50]Michel Foucault, Surveilleretpunir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1975), Alan Sheridan, trans., Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 74.
[51]Ibid., p. 95.

[52]Ibid., p. 111.

Parama Basu is a Ph.D. scholar in the Department of English, Jadavpur University. She is currently researching on Victorian Sensation Fiction as part of her doctoral thesis. Other related research areas of interest include criminology and feminism. She has been registered as a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, Jadavpur University, since 2012 and has been serving the Higher Education Department, Government of West Bengal, since August, 2014. At present, she is posted at Government General Degree College, Singur, as an Assistant Professor of English under the West Bengal Education Service.


By Aishani Roy


Clarissa Caldwell Lathrop’s ‘autobiography’ about being incarcerated in an American asylum in the 1880s provides a unique perspective into the theme of madness in narratives regarding how an insidious discourse of rationality underpins any exposition of madness; be it in ‘fact’ or fiction. Using Shoshana Felman’s idea of a ‘common place’ madness, which represents madness inside of culture, it is possible to destabilise the reductive binary of ‘fact’ and fiction which is a marked feature of all asylum narratives, and explore the narrative strategies employed in creating this cultural category of madness responsible for the trade in sensation fiction and madness narratives.



“‘You must be insane, or you would not be here.’”[1]  – Clarissa Caldwell Lathrop

“‘It is perhaps precisely this which marks the specificity of “madness” in our time as what can designate at once the outside and the inside: the inside, paradoxically, to the extent that it is supposed to “be” the outside.’”[2] – Shoshana Felman


Inside and Outside

Without plunging headlong into the subjectivity of what we call ‘madness’ at the very outset, it is possible to denote it summarily by the use of spatial signifiers like ‘here/there’, and ‘inside/outside.’ These signifiers, when used in speech, spatialise language by retroactively creating the places they denote.[3] Madness being the history of a division,[4] it can most effectively be termed a spatialisation of history, whereby madness and reason (history) are ranged on two sides of a line that effects a separation so absolute as to engender two new modalities of being[5]. What Shoshana Felman refers to in the extract is this: ‘Madness usually occupies a position of exclusion; it is the outside of a culture. But madness that is a common place occupies a position of inclusion and becomes the inside of a culture.’[6] However, her reference to madness being incorporated within culture must be appended with the knowledge that such a madness is not the madness which exists outside of it, and that this new ‘common place’ madness is an appropriation of madness by culture itself, rather than being the ‘inaccessible primitive purity’[7] that Foucault describes. This ‘common place’ madness is responsible for the traffic in sensation novels or narratives of ‘madness.’

The reason for choosing to begin the essay with this terribly inartistic gesture of the inside-outside, which borders on the polemical, will be clearer on discussion of Clarissa  Caldwell Lathrop’s ‘autobiographical’ account of madness and incarceration; whose text, A Secret Institution, embodies in its structure the ontological divide that we were speaking about. Autobiography, defined as

[a] retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality[8]


by Philip Lejeune, becomes a space where the identities of ‘the author, the narrator, and the protagonist,’[9] are conflated so absolutely as to be a marker of generic fixity and stability:

An identity is or is not. It is impossible to speak of degrees, and all doubt leads to a negative conclusion.[10]

An identity thus constructed is all too commonly conflated with unity, that is, a unitary subjectivity that is always positioned on the ‘inside’ of the generic form. The readers, of course, are partakers of the space of the ‘inside’, but only as outsiders looking on at a spectacle mediated through language.

A preoccupation with the twin spaces of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ characterises both the concepts being discussed: madness and autobiography. The dividing the line, the moment of division, the moment of decision in both signifies an identity, as Lejeune pointed out. It is thus also paradoxically the moment of identity formation. The split between reason and unreason in Foucault’s text also becomes the moment madness and reason are born:

The caesura that establishes the distance between reason and non-reason is the origin; the grip in which reason holds non-reason to extract its truth as madness, fault or sickness derives from that, and much further off.[11]

This discursive conceptualisation of the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ is exposed as being remarkably fluid[12], for while culture on the one hand comprises the inside marked off by the ‘white space’ of unreason, for Lathrop, imprisoned against her will in a state lunatic asylum in America, the inside is the space of madness, the space of the asylum, while the outside is the liberated sphere of (sane) culture:

People who have not lived in a social city like Rochester, which is composed of cultured, literary and musical people, cannot realize what I experienced in being thus torn away from home and friends, and immured in an insane asylum where I was treated as a condemned criminal![…]How I longed to go out in the free, fresh air! As I looked at the beautiful lawn through the cruel iron bars which shut me out from the world, the blinding tears would come into my longing eyes, only to be repressed by anxious fear[…]I felt as if I could dash myself against the cruel iron bars and cry aloud for liberty.[13]


Moreover, the staging of the central conflict between Lathrop and the antagonist Miss Hamlo is telling in its use of the tropes of ‘inside/outside’. Miss Hamlo is a stranger who takes up residence in her family, but in almost every occasion that Lathrop detects her instrumentality in her progressive sickness, it is Miss Hamlo who is believed to be the wronged party and Lathrop dismissed as entertaining delusions. Here, the closed internal space of the family doubles back on Lathrop as a wall that separates her from society in general.

Lathrop’s text, then, occupies a problematic space, which is neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’. Her psychological re-presentation of the two spaces becomes a sort of corollary to the split described by Foucault. It is, in short, an effect of space; a purely psychical entity that always situates Lathrop on the outside of the inside and the inside of the outside. In this image borrowed from Gaston Bachelard, the effect seems to be one of spiraling:

One no longer knows right away whether one is running toward the center or escaping.[14]


Subjected to a radical seismism of space, Lathrop never quite regains the poised equanimity of individuals who have not been privy to the same experiences, e.g., her family and friends. To her, ‘[s]pace is nothing but a “horrible outside-inside.”’[15]


In another radical reworking of the concept of language, Foucault argues that language is ‘the thought of the outside’. Thus, the very prerequisite for the being of Logos and language is the ‘outside’, which, in a motion of folding into itself, which Derrida calls ‘invagination’[16], creates meaning, and the act of meaning-making necessarily involves a ‘standing outside of oneself’— the Greek ‘ekstasis’. Lathrop, by choosing to write, incorporates this ‘thought of the outside’ into her narrative discourse, standing by her own self to retell an experience which is no longer what it was.



Fiction of  Fact

‘Do we really understand the significance of writing about madness (as opposed to writing madness)? Since there is no metalanguage, could it not be that writing madness and writing about it, speaking madness and speaking of it, would eventually converge — somewhere where they least expect to meet? And might it not be at that meeting place that one could situate, precisely, writing?’[17]


Writing charged with such epistemic meaning can never be a ‘true’ register of everyday experience. But madness is not everyday experience. Even then, madness more often than not has been seen to exist and arise in domestic settings, albeit in an alienated and disparate realm of its own. Sensation fiction of the late Victorian period can be said to be a space where the domestic and the extraordinary co-exist and interact in highly determined ways for the purpose of general entertainment. Commenting on the feeling of ‘defamiliarisation’[18] in the sensation novel, Elizabeth Langland writes:


Thus, even though sensation fiction has a familiar, domestic setting (distinguishing it from sub-genres like the Gothic novel for instance), from the novel’s opening pages – before there are any significant events – readers are aware that they are inhabiting a different realm, one at a remove from domestic realism. In sensation fiction, the privacy of the familial setting frequently facilitates rather than prevents the commission of crime.[19]


In Lathrop’s account, the domestic has always already been imbued with a foreboding which serves to characterise it more effectively than any other single attribute:


After I had gone to my room, my mother came in and asked some questions, to which I replied:

“I am too weak and tired to talk to-night. I wish to go to bed and sleep.” She remained a few moments silent and then left the room. Little did I realize that this was the last time I was destined to see her for many years![20]


As a matter of fact, it is Lathrop’s family, especially the mediation of her elder sister, Nellie, which leads to her being imprisoned in the Utica state asylum for a period of over two years, necessitating the need for the narrative in the first place. But while reading it, one must be careful to note that the ascription of malice or negligence to her immediate family is a retroactive one, where the end determines the progression of events rather than it being the other way round. In a way, it might be useful to invoke Hayden White’s idea of ‘emplotment’ in historical narratives at this point, which is a narrative strategy that reorients a set of events according to a particular narrative form, and all historical narratives, according to him, are ‘emplotted’ in this way, revealing a hidden structural basis for what is otherwise ‘fact’ and ‘event.’


The telos of Lathrop’s narrative is unusually similar to that of the sensation fiction available in her day, and the influence of the latter cannot be totally discounted while attempting an analysis of her text. Mary Elene Wood in her work on women’s autobiography and the asylum refers to this aspect when she says:


[T]he autobiographies of Smith and Lathrop subordinate any divergences to the development of a central story: the tale of their confinement, experiences in the asylum, and eventual release. While this central narrative maintains links to the early captivity narratives, in which all the action and thought had spiritual resonances, it is much more closely allied to the sensation novel, with its dramatic tales of women battling confinement. As she expresses her fears of the world around her, each narrator constructs a subject position that would have been familiar to a late nineteenth-century American novel-reader – that of the potentially paranoid but in the end justifiably suspicious narrator.[21]


The ‘justifiably suspicious narrator’ becomes a viable trope that is used extensively in Lathrop’s text, which further draws the focus towards the central tension between reason and insanity:


That night I had a singular and disagreeable [sic] dream, and as it was so peculiar, I spoke of it at the breakfast table. I dreamed I was placed in an insane asylum to prevent my marrying some one [sic], whose name I could not recall. It seemed as if my sister had something to do with it, but there were many people around me.

“It was so absurd, even to dream of such an occurrence,” I concluded, “in this enlighted [sic] age, that I have no patience to repeat more of it; it was like going back to the dark ages.”[22]


Lathrop’s text is a riddle of such coincidences which keep on recurring, and the staged nature of the conflict is apparent in the language that she adopts to represent her situation:


I was drawn one way by my reason, and drawn back again by my heart.
I revolved these curious circumstances in my mind and endeavored to draw some definite conclusion from them,—only to become more and more puzzled.[23]


Being a space of ‘overdetermined meanings’, the sensation novel embodies this puzzle-solving attribute of existing reading practices and the generic constraints that this automatically imposes on the text is reflected in the efforts at narrativisation undertaken by Lathrop.


The fabula of Lathrop’s story is fairly convoluted given the remarkable role that coincidences play in it; in short, Lathrop is slowly poisoned by the wife of her erstwhile suitor who wishes to marry her again, and the effects of this poisoning are displayed most prominently in her ‘acts’ of madness, which eventually lead to her being incarcerated in an asylum.  This  is then subjected to a retroactive, teleological treatment by narrative needs, creating the homogenous, tightly-knit end product which chronologically follows the events of her life from peaceful existence to being locked up in an asylum to being set free, like a wild beast held in captivity, in its natural habitat. This seemingly easy-sounding formulation is already a response to the ‘demand for narrative’[24] that Derrida identifies as being seminal to any kind of text, which comprises an agency, a subject, some of which demand the narrative of the other, seek to extort it from him, like a secret-less secret, something that they call the truth about what has taken place: ‘Tell us exactly what happened.’[25] The  narrative demand for a ‘secret-less secret,’ is a mise en abyme; trying to discover a work within a work, a story within a story, and in a different sense, exploring the limits of self-repetition and re-presentation. If the autobiography is about the ‘truth’ of Lathrop’s life, then is the text a reflection of it, or is it constitutive of the ‘truth’ itself, thus creating a series of infinite regression?


Madness, in a rhetorical sleight of hand, is a present presence, the very ‘presentness’ being a marker of its metaphorical absence or lack, and hence effectively breaks the series of infinite regression initiated by the question of ‘truth’ as narrative. The ‘common place’ madness previously alluded to becomes the only form of madness available to us, embodied in mass-produced cultural forms such as sensation fiction or ‘asylum narratives’. Thus, the rigidity of ‘plot’ in these narratives is not to be viewed as an arbitrary imposition on the inarticulate and amorphous concept of ‘madness’, but as the only representation of madness possible in a Foucauldian postlapsarian world, where reason and unreason have already parted ways, never to be reconciled in language.


Lathrop’s narrative offers surprisingly regimented views of what it means to be mad. The journey to the asylum marks a journey from the ordered realm of reason to the disorderly one of madness:


Almost before I knew it, I found myself dressed in an old thick dress I had worn the previous spring, a heavy winter cloak, and an odd pair of shoes, which I did not discover were not mates until the next day.[26]


The regular act of feeding oneself had turned into a parody of itself:


Such a scene I had never imagined! The table was entirely bare. Around this table were seated about twenty patients, a few of whom were regarding me with mingled curiosity and interest, while others, unconscious of their surroundings, seemed like animals waiting to be fed […]After these few observations, my right hand neighbor occupied all my attention. How I shuddered at her constant mutterings and frequent oaths! She was a coarse, disgusting woman, whom I was told by the attendants was one of the most troublesome and vicious of the patients, having set fire to the building once, and attempted it on another occasion.[27]


Lathrop’s description of the walks which were supposed to be part of the therapy intended for the mad (among others were ironing, washing bed linen and carrying food trays, reserved for the more ‘sane’) is remarkable in the image that it constructs of madness and those who ‘suffer’ from it:


I put on my things, and with Mrs. O. for a protector, walked directly behind the attendants. What a humiliation of pride it was, though! I felt that by so doing, I was in one sense classing myself with lunatics. It was an odd combination of humanity, dressed in their fantastic attire, which I think was purposely left unreplenished and battered in order to destroy the owner’s lingering self-respect, and make even the sane ones look as much like lunatics as possible.[28]


The operative term in this passage seems to be ‘look’: madness needs to ‘look’ like madness for it to be recognised, it is very much a retroactive classification which requires the satisfaction of certain criteria in order to be adjudged as ‘sane’ or ‘insane’, and it is concerned mostly (if not wholly) with appearances. It is the ‘scene’ that can never be ‘imagined’, which serves as the locus of narrative madness in general, and which needs to be complemented by what Barbara J. Shapiro has called ‘the culture of fact’[29] in order to be fully appreciated.




‘Do you remember my telling you so many times, that your imagination would be the death of you? How little did I think you would ever allow it to get complete mastery over you to your ruin. Fight it off resolutely, and be saved, before it is too late.’[30]


Madness, in the eyes of society, is akin to captivity – a captivity of reason by unreason. This cultural notion has been disturbed in no special way from the ‘Age of Reason’ heralded by the writings of Descartes and Locke to the time when Lathrop is writing her asylum account in the 1890s. Does Lathrop herself subscribe to such a view? Indeed, that is the aim of the present study – to investigate the narrative evidence available from her text, and to establish whether Lathrop is using the language of reason in order to construct a negative image of madness, or trying to appropriate it to serve her own ends – to strengthen the account of the sane individual in the asylum.


‘Building her autobiographical text around “truth” offered a preemptive rebuttal to the doubting reader,’[31] maintains Madaline Reeder Walter, whose doctoral dissertation on nineteenth century asylum narratives includes a chapter on Lathrop, where she explicitly calls it a narrative based on ‘fact’. In fact, ‘facticity’ would be a better term to describe what Madaline Walter refers to when she says


[t]hroughout the text, Lathrop used the word ‘facts’ as a means of establishing herself as reliable narrator, one who knew the real truth while others obscured or denied it. Multiple genres helped her illustrate evidence that existed in letters, her understanding of literature, and legal documents.


Lathrop’s investment in facts runs deeper than just a mechanical recording of past events, and she repeatedly tries to recreate the rational contexts in which they belong, so as to prove that her own surmises regarding the causal chain of events is the more ‘rational’ one:


How could I be secure in my own home from machinations which were so cunning and covert, that I had no actual means of exposing them without placing myself in an unpleasant position with those who had not sufficient reasoning powers to distinguish logical from illogical conclusions, and who did not seem inclined to believe what they had good reason to know was true, if they allowed themselves to reflect upon the facts of the case, and their slight knowledge of Miss Hamlo?[32]


Her incapability to convince others of what she believes is the rational explanation of events results in her dependence on ‘facts’ as a bulwark against what she perceives as the wordless world of the lunatic:


My despairing efforts to argue the facts, only more thoroughly convinced me of the utter futility of any further efforts in this direction, as I knew it was impossible for me to say anything different from what I had stated were I to remain in the asylum a thousand years, could I be doomed to exist so long a time as that; therefore, after the first six months of my imprisonment, the subject was not alluded to by me in any of my letters.[33]


Lathrop is seen here self-consciously constructing a selfhood based on ‘true facts’ which would vindicate her if they ever came to light. In fact, this entire narrative can be seen as an elaborate mechanism that she sets into place in order to argue for herself a sane, stable identity. She begins her text not with an introduction of herself, but a panegyric to the very real city of Rochester and then goes on to mention her family lineage:


My father and mother belonged to what is sometimes called ‘the good old New England stock.[34]


For the rest of the chapter aptly termed ‘Introductory’, she describes the lives of her parents before they met and then briefly mentions her childhood, terrorised by the presence of a Miss Hale, and still meanders around insignificant family details until she finally comes to the description of the meeting between her and Mr. Zell. This initial ‘grounding’ of her history in facts that her readers would be able to recognise and identify with is completely unlike the teleological force of the rest of the narrative, as it seems to skid from the time of her imprisonment, rush through her experience of the asylum (amounting to more than two years), finally screeching to a halt when she is released and reinstituted in society.


Having said that, it is necessary to enquire into the nature of her response to being imprisoned in a lunatic asylum against her will, and to evaluate that response in the light of what has already been discussed:


The agony this thought brought with it, I cannot express. I thought if I could only have my freedom for twenty-four hours, I would solve this mystery! I would not be so tortured, so racked with a thousand perplexing circumstances, each with a separate sting, and which I could not put to proof, which I could not grasp and analyze in a tangible manner, as all my evidence was of such a nature that it was entirely beyond my control to prove or disprove it in my present position. I could only suffer on in silence, awaiting as best I could the needed succor from the outside world.[35] [Emphasis mine]


The central emphasis seems to be on the fact that she is unable to react as a rational, sane individual would: by ‘grasp[ing] and analyz[ing] in a tangible manner’ the ‘evidence’ of the terms of her imprisonment, and ‘prov[ing] or disprov[ing]’ the reality of her state of madness. The nature of her anxiety is so great that she experiences as a bodily pain the impotence of her rationality inside asylum walls. This is the reason that Lathrop resents the response of the asylum attendants and doctors to her query, ‘Why am I here,’ where their circuitous and tautological phrasing metaphorically drives her insane:


“When can I leave here?” I asked, adding that I did not wish to remain.

“That is for the doctors to say,’ she replied. ‘I suppose when you get well.”

“I am not sick,” I said. “There is nothing for me to stay for.”

“Then what are you here for?” she asked. “There are none but insane people here. If you were not insane you would not be here.”

This was a cruel stab to me. I looked at her in amazement and left the room, finding it useless to argue the point with her.[36]

But considering the ‘fact’ of her own accession, that she never herself obtained the results of the poisoning test, nor could be said to corroborate her account of events with any other, places her testimony in the shadow region of ‘fact’ and fiction. With that in mind, this reconstruction of the dialogue she had with Dr. Brush can be read in a new light:


“Why must I stay here?” I asked Dr. Brush at the first opportunity.

“Because you are insane,” he replied.

“How am I insane?” I asked as before.

“Because you suspect you were poisoned,” was his answer.

“But I do not know whether I was or not. I am not insane,” I said.

“That is your delusion”, he answered, and walked off carelessly.[37]


Is the narrative the product of a deluded mind? Lathrop seems to be of the opinion that madness can be induced through (a) medicine or poison, (b) inhuman conditions in the asylum itself, (c) a profound mental shock, as in the death of a loved one, (d) the event of being classed as ‘mad’ and then admitted to the asylum. In all these cases, it must be noted that madness is a bodily or mental condition which is simulated in an individual due to some external circumstance not within his/her control. Lathrop finds it inconsequential to comment on madness which is internally produced even in a rational and intellectually capable individual. Is this act of omission deliberate, or is it a harmless oversight?


Am I insane?’ I questioned. ‘If so, how am I insane? In what do I differ from what I have always been?[38]


This remarkably introspective comment on her own state of mind is smoothed over as soon as it is raised:


Why have I not a right to suspect that I was poisoned when I had as good reason for believing it as the friends who had taken care of me, and who believed it?[39]

But inherent in her mental reasoning is the fact that she does not know whether or not she was actually poisoned, and can ‘believe’ it only so far as the ‘friends who had taken care of [her]’ had believed it. More than the apathy of the attending doctors and staff of the asylum, and the social aversion of her family to her condition, is her own sense of revulsion to the idea of being mad, seeing as she entertained classical Enlightenment notions of what it means to be mad, and thus presented it with the bulwark of reason. Underlying this conclusion is the doubt that had she really been ‘mad’, and wished to conceal it, would she have drawn attention to the slips, errors, gaps and lacunae in her narrative as she did?



Lathrop’s narrative occupies a slippery terrain which is not easy to locate; indeed the problem of spatialising madness that the concepts of inside/outside hinted at, have already established that no easy resolutions are possible and that also maybe an endeavour to delineate exactly what madness is, and what place it occupies vis-à-vis the rest of society, should be suspended in favour of a critical engagement with the kinds of ‘common place’ madness that are propagated through narratives, both fictional and real.


It may be claimed that the madness described in Lathrop’s text is its own model and its own example, incapable of being separated into ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, but more importantly, the representations of madness follow a particular trope and a particular rhetoric, and it should be our place to ask what it is and why it is followed. Firstly, as Mary Elene Wood points out, ‘the autobiographies of Smith and Lathrop subordinate any divergences to the development of a central story,’ meaning thereby that there is a conscious attempt at modelling the narratives as per generic demands. Secondly, this act of self-conscious editing would necessarily include a reimagining of the depictions of madness in the text, by either dressing up or dressing down the ‘true facts’ as they were experienced.


However, the problem of madness is almost never discussed except as a lack or a dubious by-product of its corollary, reason. And any discussion of the tenuous relationship between reason and madness will have to take into account Descartes’ use of the principle of madness as an example of radical doubt, which in turn sparked off a debate between Foucault and Derrida regarding how Descartes considered/ did not consider madness in his text. Foucault’s reply to Derrida’s essay, ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’, opens with a close textual scrutiny of Descartes’ text (an exercise prompted by Derrida’s own close reading in his essay) which eventually establishes the paradox that the meditating subject cannot be at one and at the same time, a doubting subject. Madness is one of the examples that he uses in order to demonstrate that it is not possible to doubt the actuality of his sense perceptions like madmen do (they think they are naked when they are dressed, etc.), and that madness is always anterior to thought, external to experience, and if seriously considered as one’s own state of mind, would disqualify the meditating subject from the object of his rational enterprise.[40]


To come back to Lathrop’s text, such a proposition would seem suited to her argument, ‘since I am presenting what I know about my experience of madness in a rational and coherent manner, I am therefore not mad myself.’ If she were really mad, she would no longer be deemed as a subject qualified to make rational enquiry, and hence her narrative would fail to be a legitimate testimony of incarceration and escape. The question of legitimacy would seem to imply that the grounds for discriminating against the text lay in the person of the author. This brings us to two variant readings of the text which explore the claims of rationality and irrationality respectively, in the context of author and genre. While the claim of rationality would include an investigation into the mental state of the author, i.e., whether the author was actually a sane woman who was persecuted unjustly by the machinations of her family members, or whether her narrative of rational explication of life events is a delusion that she alone entertains, or whether this reasonable doubt regarding her condition is a calculated effect of the narrative that she engineers, the displacement from author to author-function would indicate that such enquiry is, in a sense, invalid. The legitimacy of the text cannot be predicated upon the ‘reality’ of the author-person, but should instead be deduced from its internal complexities and allusiveness.


With that in mind, the claim of irrationality would demand that the text fit in with existing generic boundaries of speculative fiction and the sensation novel in particular. There are enough examples in the text to support the reading of it as sensation fiction: the piling of coincidences; the use of tropes – the shadowy object of desire (Mr. Zell), the vamp/ antagonist (Miss Hamlo), the unscrupulous asylum doctors, the unsympathetic family, the slow reintegration into society; and the use of supernatural, if not macabre rhetoric:


She was like my shadow. She always seemed to know whether I was feeling better or worse, and as she was the only one in the household who did, I could not help but observe it.[41]


As ‘autobiographical’ sensation fiction, then, Lathrop’s text is a coherent articulation of narrative demands and would seem to adhere to existing representations of ‘common place’ madness without any special divergences. It can be argued that this makes Lathrop’s A Secret Institution a rational account of the irrational (madness) and it is its wresting out the ‘secret-less secret’ that formally inaugurates the text as a narrative that services a demand: for narrative representations of madness, and these representations in turn create the ‘common place’ madness that is the only model of madness available for rational consumption.







[1] Clarissa Caldwell Lathrop, A Secret Institution, (New York: Bryant Publishing Co., 1890), p. 123.

[2] Shoshana Felman, Writing and Madness: Literature/Philosophy/Psychoanalysis, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 13.
[3] Michel de Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life, ‘In the framework of enunciation, the walker constitutes, in relation to this position, both a near and a far, a here and a there. To the fact that the adverbs here and there are the indicators of the locutionary seat in verbal communication – a coincidence that reinforces the parallelism between linguistic and pedestrian enunciation…’ (99)
[4] Michel Foucault, ‘Preface to the 1961 Edition’, History of Madness, trans., Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa, ed., Jean Khalfa, (Abingdon Oxon: Routledge, 2006), xxviii.
[5] Foucault, ‘The Preface to the 1961 Edition’, in The History of Madness: ‘The plenitude of history is only possible in the space, both empty and peopled at the same time, of all the words without language that appear to anyone who lends an ear, as a dull sound from beneath history, the obstinate murmur of a language talking to itself…’ and ‘The necessity of madness throughout the history of the West is linked to that decisive action that extracts a significant language from the background noise and its continuous monotony, a language which is transmitted and culminates in time; it is, in short, linked to the possibility of history.’

[6] Shoshana Felman, Writing and Madness, p.13.

[7] Michel Foucault, ‘Preface to the 1961 Edition’, History of Madness, xxviii.

[8] Philippe Lejeune, ‘The Autobiographical Pact (Bis.)’, On Autobiography, ed., Paul John Eakin, trans., Katherine Leary, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), pp. 119-37.


[9] Lejeune, On Autobiography, p.120.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Michel Foucault, ‘Preface to the 1961 Edition’, in History of Madness, xxviii.

[12] Bachelard, Poetics of Space: ‘Outside and inside are both intimate – they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility. If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides.’


[13] Lathrop, A Secret Institution, pp. 124-5.

[14] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans., Maria Jolas, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 214.

[15] Ibid., p. 218.

[16] Jacques Derrida, ‘Living On’, trans., James Hulbert, Deconstruction and Criticism, Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, et al, (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 97.


[17] Shoshana Felman, Writing and Madness, p. 13.

[18] The term ‘defamiliarisation’ was first coined in 1917 by Viktor Shklovsky in his essay ‘Art as Device.’

[19] Elizabeth Langland, ‘The Woman in White and the New Sensation’, in A Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed., Pamela K. Gilbert, (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2011)
[20] Lathrop, A Secret Institution, p. 88.

[21] Mary Elene Wood, ‘Lydia Smith and Clarissa Lathrop: Whose Paranoia is it Anyway?’ in The Writing on the Wall: Women’s Autobiography and the Asylum, (Champaign: University of Illinois, 1994), pp. 69-70Top of Form.Bottom of Form
[22] Lathrop, A Secret Institution, p. 28.

[23] Ibid. p.32.

[24] Derrida, ‘Living On’, Deconstruction and Criticism, p. 87.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Lathrop, A Secret Institution, p. 89

[27] Ibid., pp. 100-101.

[28] Ibid., p. 131.

[29] Barbara J. Shapiro elaborates on the topic in her book, A Culture of Fact: England, 1550-1720.

[30] Lathrop, A Secret Institution, p. 160.

[31] Madaline Reeder Walter, ‘Insanity, Rhetoric, And Women: Nineteenth-Century Women’s Asylum Narratives’, (PhD diss., University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2008).


[32] Lathrop, A Secret Institution, p. 77.

[33]Ibid., p. 171.

[34]Ibid., p. 4.

[35] Ibid., p. 172.

[36] Ibid., p. 110.

[37] Ibid., p. 120.

[38] Ibid., p. 120.

[39] Ibid., pp. 120-21.

[40] Michel Foucault, ‘My Body, this Paper, this Fire,’ History of Madness, p. 558, 566.

[41] Foucault, History of Madness, p. 43.

Aishani Roy is an M.Phil student at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. She has obtained her Bachelors and Masters Degree from the same department. My research interests include the uncanny, eroticism, obscenity, and early modern Bengal.


By Pooja Sanyal

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in “The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe: Villette”, introduce the concept of the “ghostly” intimate in Bronte’s text: “‘When We Dead Awaken,’ Adrienne Rich explains, ‘everything outside our skins is an image of this affliction.’” Indeed, within the passive, silent Lucy Snowe of Villette, the “dead awakens”, through a growing association with the supernatural. Is this an extension of her inert fantasies of attaining an independent selfhood? For Bronte, who was writing in an age of patriarchal dogmas, intimacy with this dark, mysterious “other” world is a direct suggestion of the breaking away tendencies rising within the initially cold and accepting exterior of women. As her heroine, Lucy, increasingly feels the supernatural penetrating her being, sometimes through the terrifying “hag-raven” body of Madame Walravens, sometimes through a sick, invalid cretin or sometimes through the nun “buried alive” in the garden, the whole experience becomes a fitful, nightmarish experience. Intimacy with the deathly becomes a way of raising her own “dead” self; of resurrecting her own voice and stifled desires. Her supernatural dreams are her very own, personal necromancy; achieved by an acute, sensitive connection with the depths of her soul. The question which this paper seeks to ask is, in what ways does Bronte use intimacy with the “ghostly” as a language for Lucy’s own death-in-life? Moreover, how does this intense, enigmatic and uncanny fantasy become a thought-provoking representation of gender politics, sexuality and the figure of the shrouded woman of that era?   



The Victorian era is a time when the Gothic world is still explored and experimented upon, although Gothic literature had already come into existence from the mid-eighteenth century when works like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto or Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest were produced. Critics have questioned as to why the Gothic genre is studied so intensively in the Victorian age and also, to some extent, consciously, like never before.[1] Stephanie Craig identifies two major themes which led to the creation of Gothic literature: the supernatural and madness. A review of Gothic texts has shown that inexplicable events, ghosts, apparitions and eerie feelings are as much important as hallucinations, anxiety attacks and mental breakdowns.[2]


The question to be asked here is what are the cultural implications of the Gothic works that were being produced at this time? Also, how do they become voices of criticism against certain aspects of society? Written in an age when theories on psychoanalysis and the nature of the human mind were gradually coming into existence, works bearing intimate connections to the supernatural suggest something more, something beyond the apparent—the oppressed, domesticated condition of women—a state capable of inducing claustrophobia, suffocation, hallucination, insanity—all forms of desire to escape the reality in which they had been placed.[3] In this context, a text like Villette by Charlotte Brontë becomes important, in which the heroine, Lucy Snowe, struggling under the pressure of her own death-in-life existence, finds herself increasingly fascinated by the ‘other world.’ Her awareness of the supernatural around herself and sometimes, even within herself, is her own, personal resurrection; a tendency to cross the stifling boundaries of ‘this’ world by a movement into an ‘other’ realm of emancipation.


The narrative begins with Lucy at the home of the Brettons: a cold, detached, young girl, what she likes most about this house is its calm, settled exterior: ‘The large, peaceful rooms, the well-arranged furniture, the clear wide windows, the balcony outside, looking down on a fine antique street . . . so quiet was atmosphere, so clean it’s pavement –these things please me well.’[4] She is aware of silence, conscious of shadows; there lurks a deep desire to connect with the world which is not a part of daily, active life. It could be a sign of her melancholic disposition, dissociation from the external world of reality and a retreat into the self.[5] This kind of withdrawal was increasingly being noticed in women of that time, the cause of which was identified as a range of complex physiological processes; however, medical doctors would later begin to distinguish the causes separately as physiological and psychological.[6] Psychology becomes important here as the narrow world of household life to which women were subjected often resulted in mental breakdown; Lucy, in her melancholia, represents these women of her time, who, tired of an absence of active life, would wither away; would gradually die within themselves.


This silent revolt against all things rational leads to the formation of Lucy’s Gothic world, a world which represents everything ‘other’ than the present reality surrounding her. She can sense this dark, unknown realm she is about to enter from an early stage when she is living with the Brettons: ‘In the autumn of the year—I was staying at Bretton; my Godmother having come in person to claim me of the kinsfolk with whom was at that time fixed my permanent residence. I believe she plainly saw events coming, whose very shadow I scarcely guessed; yet of which the faint suspicion sufficed to impart unsettled sadness . . .’ This is perhaps, a foreboding not only of her moving away from the Brettons but also, perhaps, of the turns that her mind is about to take; towards hallucinations, away from the world of common sense as defined by the orthodox, patriarchal order of her time.[7] This surreal, Gothic world of her fantasies receives its most explicit, physical expression when she is journeying towards Villette and her voyage becomes a nightmarish blackness: ‘Black was the river, as a torrent of ink: lights glanced on it from piles of buildings round, ships rocked on its bosom . . . Down the sable flood we glided.’ Evoking the aura surrounding a Gothic fiction, Lucy’s trip builds the supernatural space in which her narrative will be situated; where the controlled roots of her reality will drown under the irrepressible supernatural world unleashed within her.


After this misty, enigmatic journey, Lucy steps into the darkness of a new city; her imaginary Gothic now thickens as she comes across dark alleyways, unknown faces and an unknown language; in short, for Lucy, it is like a phase between death and eternity; she does not know whether this strange place where she is trapped is heaven or hell. Wandering like an invisible apparition, she arrives at the gate of Villette; a large house with ‘light burning over the door’ and with a brass plate over it, a Gothic mansion full of dark secrets and also, perhaps the ideal home for Lucy’s other-worldly imagination. Why create such a strong and tangible supernatural realm for Lucy? Is Brontë, then experimenting with her heroine’s imaginative power? Imagination, in the Victorian context, has a socio-political significance: the female mind and its imaginative capacities were considered as dangerous to social order.[8] Therefore, clearly, Brontë is challenging this notion; her heroine’s imagination can reach any extent. It can defy conventions and enter a world of ghosts, witches and hags, all of which were considered subversive aspects of a woman’s identity.


In ‘The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe,’ Gilbert and Gubar talk about how the different female characters represent Lucy’s buried self.[9] Out of all these characters, the two most interesting representations are probably that of Vashti and Madame Walravens or Malevola: both symbols of violence, rage, disorder and destruction. Vashti, in her fiery performance, represents the seething fury within the suppressed female mind, evident from Lucy’s description of her: ‘I found something upon her neither of woman nor of man: in each of her eyes sat a devil. These evil forces bore her through the tragedy, kept up her feeble strength . . . Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate, she stood.’ Lucy can immediately connect her own desires and longings to this radical figure of the Biblical queen. Walravens, however, is the old witch figure evoking a sense of the terrifying in Lucy: ‘She might be three feet high, but she had no shape; her skinny hands rested upon each other . . . Her face was large set, not upon her shoulders, but before her breast; she seemed to have no neck: I should have said there were a hundred years in her features. And more perhaps in her eyes—her malign, unfriendly eyes, with thick gray brows above and livid lids all round.’ The striking feature of two female figures is that they inspire an overwhelming horror, best expressed, perhaps, in her vivid observation of the revolutionary zeal of the actress portraying Vashti: ‘. . . she rends her woes, shivers them in convulsed abhorrence . . . Wicked, perhaps, she is, but also she is strong . . . Fallen, insurgent, banished, she remembers the heaven where she rebelled. Heaven’s light, piercing its confines, and discloses their forlorn remoteness.’ This horror is a figment of the dark world within Lucy; her own ghost; rising from her suppressed anger, desires and passions.


Throughout the narrative, Lucy describes other characters; however, she never describes herself; never gives the reader an insight into her thoughts. ‘Who are you?’ Ginevra Fanshawe asks her, and reflecting upon the question, she realizes that she herself does not know who she is: ‘Who am I indeed? Perhaps a personage in disguise.’ What lies underneath this disguise is a mystery; her true self is one which is never unmasked. Perhaps, the ghostliness she experiences, the hallucinatory phases she passes through are parts of her uncanny, puzzling inner self: when she looks at herself in the mirror, it is as if she is glancing at the reflection of a stranger, as if the mirror is a gateway for her to reach out to some other world where her soul is trapped. Therefore, although she lives her life through other women around her, they are not her path to freedom; in fact, they may just be yet another disguise for her.  Lucy’s soul, imprisoned in a netherworld, can only be freed when she is raised from her death-in-life existence; when the nun, buried alive in the garden and inside her, is finally released.


With the passage of time, the supernatural starts moving from the outside to the body of Lucy; it is observed when she feels disgust and fear towards the body of an invalid with whom she is left during the holidays; the room becomes a death-bed for her: ‘The coronal of each became a deathshead, huge and sun-bleached—dead dreams of an earlier world and mightier race lay frozen in their wide gaping eyeholes.’ This is her own death that she visualises: while still alive, she imagines herself as a dead body, filled with stench, gloom and an awful stillness. In an age when women were turned into vessels of chastity, when their sexuality was curbed in the name of religion, when their desires faded away into the walls of domesticity, they perished under the burden of their physical non-existence; much like Lucy, they were living, walking dead bodies.[10] The body becomes a site of agony, privation and oppression; the world of Lucy’s horror is now a part of her body, as it were, ‘crushing’ her like the ‘slab of a tomb.’


What is the mode of Lucy’s exorcism? Will she ever rise to life again from her prolonged death? She herself seems hopeful: ‘I believe in some blending of hope and sunshine sweetening the worst lot . . . I believe while I tremble, I trust while I weep.’ However, the death of her old ghost and the birth of her new self, her re-incarnation, are not in romantic love for a man as was the expected destiny of a woman at that time.[11] Her love for Dr. John Bretton is a lost cause; she buries his letters, lays her love to rest and realises that she was never ready to be a part of this ‘love drama’ since she feels that in lovers, ‘there is a certain infatuation of egotism.’ Her resurrection would not be into a conventional domestic role but rather into freedom, as she says: ‘I believe that this life is not all; neither the beginning, nor the end.’ She desires a space beyond the ordinary space reserved for women of her time; her rebirth requires a larger realm, away from social dogmas, into infinite possibilities, manifested best in her inner supernatural – the unknown territory of her dreams.


The narrative does provide a romantic resolution in the life of Lucy through her engagement to Paul Emmanuel, but if she is a Gothic heroine of the ‘other’ world, she could have an alternative ending to her story. This hint of ending is hidden in the text, not given as the final episode but present towards the finale: this is, the scene at the park where Lucy, under the effect of a sleeping potion, has a hallucinatory vision of the world around her: ‘every shape was wavering, every movement floating, every voice echo-like—half-mocking, half-uncertain.’ It is almost like a night of conjuring for her, when every character, every image rises like the dead before her: ‘the whole conjuration . . . they outnumbered me and I was worsted and under their feet; but, as yet, I was not dead.’ Although it is a strange world for Lucy, she does not want to return to the narrow spaces of her real life: ‘Surely the spirit of restlessness was by this time appeased? Had I not enough of adventure? Did I not begin to flag, quail, and wish for safety under a roof? Not so. I still loathed my bed in the school dormitory more than words can express: I clung to whatever could distract thought.’ Roused from her dead self not into reality but into yet another hallucination, she has been transported from the frightening world of death to one of lively enchantment: ‘In the land of enchantment, a garden most gorgeous, a plain sprinkled with coloured meteors, a forest with sparks of purple and ruby and golden fire gemming the foliage.’


Interestingly, Lucy’s fantasy, starting with that of the dark ghostly world, has ended up with that of a happier fairy realm. Here, Brontë is testing the stretches of female imagination which was a forbidden forest for conservative Victorians; if Lucy Snowe’s narrative had ended here, the narrative would have become an open rebellion against women’s status in contemporary society. Lucy’s life would have been a cycle of un-reality formed by her unhindered fancies. However, a reason behind not ending the novel with this fantasy realm could be that this desired world has not yet been created in the author’s time. By keeping it submerged as a possible ending but not the real one, Brontë suggests that maybe not at present, but in future, the female mind will become free – soaring high with its fantasies and desires – as foreseen by the half-asleep half-awake Lucy at the moonlit park: ‘Somehow I felt, that the night’s drama was but begun, that the prologue was scarce spoken: throughout this woody and turfy theatre reigned a shadow of mystery; actors and incidents unlooked for, waited behind the scenes: I thought so foreboding told me much.’







[1] Stephanie F. Craig, Ghosts of the Mind: The Supernatural and Madness in Victorian Gothic Literature (Honours Theses, The University of Southern Mississippi, 2012), p. 7.


[2] Ibid., p. 8.


[3] Julianne E. Fleenor, The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), p. 15.


[4]Charlotte Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 7.


[5]Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology  and Other Works, trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, vol. XIV, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1914-1916), p. 244.


[6] Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace, ‘The Female Gothic: Then and Now’ (University of Glamorgan, 2004), pp. 1-2.


[7] Ibid., p. 4.


[8] Craig, Ghosts of the Mind, p. 3.


[9] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe,’ The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 400.


[10] Smith and Wallace, ‘The Female Gothic: Then and Now,’ p. 5.


[11] Ibid., p. 5.



Pooja Sanyal is currently in the second year of her Masters in English Literature from the Department of English, Jadavpur University. Her interest area spans nineteenth century literature, gender studies, post colonialism and popular culture. Her specific interest lies in the field of Victorianism and gender and how the two have interacted throughout history; gender politics, sexuality and subversions in nineteenth century literature. She is interested in looking at women writers of the period, the construction of “modernities” through their works, and a comparison of Oriental women characters with that of the overarching Victorian New Woman. She is also interested in studying gender from the perspective of popular culture, mainly cinema; her focus broadly lies upon Indian films and the field of performativity and gender.










By Arkaprabha Chakraborty

The Picture of Dorian Gray is perhaps the most important work to come out of fin-de-siecle Britain and, much like its author, it caused multiple scandals in myriad ways. In terms of structure, representation and incessant – insistent even – references, however, the text politely but firmly requests comparative analysis to Classical Greek philosophy, holding it up as an ideal several times. Wilde looks particularly and repeatedly to Plato in the text of Dorian Gray. It becomes clear then that with much of Wilde’s discourse being on love, hedonism and sensual indulgence, the text to be examined measure for measure against Dorian Gray would be Plato’s dialectic on love in its several forms, Symposium. This paper not only wishes to examine where Wilde and Plato concur and diverge in terms of homosexual love, heterosexual lovelessness and the idea of intimacy, but it also seeks to crucially establish a similarity between Hellenic dishonour and Christian shame, and will go so far as to argue that Dorian Gray is Wilde’s (possibly successful) attempt to re-create, or perhaps imitate, Plato’s Symposium in accordance with his idea of Victorian London.


The Picture of Dorian Gray is perhaps the most important work to come out of fin-de-siecle Britain and, much like its author, it caused multiple scandals in myriad ways. In terms of structure, representation and insistent references, however, the text politely but firmly requests comparative analysis to Classical Greek philosophy, holding it up as an ideal several times. Wilde looks particularly and repeatedly to Plato in the text of Dorian Gray. It becomes clear then that with much of Wilde’s discourse being on love, hedonism and sensual indulgence, the text to be examined measure for measure against Dorian Gray would be Plato’s dialectic on love in its several forms, Symposium. This paper not only wishes to examine where Wilde and Plato concur and diverge in terms of homosexual love, heterosexual lovelessness and the idea of intimacy, it also seeks to crucially establish a similarity between Hellenic dishonour and Christian shame, and will go so far as to argue that Dorian Gray is Wilde’s (possibly successful) attempt to re-create, or perhaps imitate, Plato’s Symposium in accordance with his idea of Victorian London.

Given his background in Classical studies and his propensity to imitate certain formal traits of surviving Hellenic texts, perhaps best exemplified in his essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ and again in ‘The Critic as Artist’, it is impossible to discount Wilde’s acquaintance with Plato. Indeed, he has set up the aforementioned essays as a perfect imitation of the kind of Socratic dialogue Plato had made famous, with a wise master and a naïve student in conversation. But that is only in form. In content, he sets up a curious strategy of acquiescence with Plato and mentions him by name in both ‘The Decay of Lying’ as well as in Dorian Gray. Both times, he speaks only about the interrelated ideas of poets as liars (‘Lying and poetry are arts – arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other’[1]) and the Allegory of the Cave (‘the mere shapes and patterns of things becoming, as it were, refined … as though they were themselves patterns of some other and more perfect form whose shadow they made real … Was it not Plato, that artist in thought, who had first analysed it?’[2]). However, there is little direct archival evidence definitively showing Wilde’s reading of Symposium. Yet one can put forward the thought that it does a disservice to the Classics curricula at Trinity College, Dublin (where Wilde won the Berkeley Gold Medal, the highest award in Greek Studies), and also Magdalen College, Oxford (where he won a demyship to study Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores, ending with a double first-class honours in them) as well as his own voracious interest in the Classics to believe that he had not read Symposium in the course of his studies.

            The idea that Dorian Gray may be read as a philosophical dialectic is not very difficult to embrace from structure of the text itself. Large tracts in the novel are dedicated to discourse on varying ideas on love, society and the pursuit of pleasure, mostly by Lord Henry Wotton, unevenly and often weakly countered by the morally upright Basil Hallward and the morally fearful Dorian Gray before he changes completely and propagates rather than subjugates Lord Henry’s ideas. Indeed, much of the ‘plot’ is unapologetically straightforward, often serving as an excuse for either discourse or witticisms, much like the text of Symposium, which one does well to not forget is in the form of a dramatic dialogue with certain definite instances of action. Dialogue and discourse are often indistinguishable and there are very few instances of the plot being taken forward in either Dorian Gray or Symposium. Indeed, most chapters of the novel involve very little motion, very little displacement but great amounts of speech. Greater, in fact, than any notable Victorian novel or common sense, for that matter, would suggest as normal conversational standard.

            If we do then accept Dorian Gray as a discursive text where we are granted access to Wilde’s philosophy of love instead of solely considering it a novel, we find it easier to weigh philosophy against philosophy. Often Wilde subtly encourages us to do this within the text itself, reminding us of a potential comparability through both Basil and Lord Henry, littering their words with references to Classical texts or, at the very least, the Idea of Classical Greece in the Victorian imagination. As to Wilde’s ideas themselves, they are multifaceted and often hidden in reference. His discourse on homosexual love is suppressed by modern standards but capable of outraging society into an almost Ciceronian lament about the times and the morals. Take, for example, this review in The Scots Observer, dated July 3, 1890, as found in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage:

it is false art – for its interest is medico-legal; it is false to human nature – for its hero is a devil; it is false to morality – for it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health and sanity.[3]

Ironically enough, if Symposium be taken as the discursive standard, several of Wilde’s ideas would be perfectly comfortable in ancient Greece. Let us then structurally consider the several aspects of the Socratic dialogue in Symposium as brought to light by its various characters one after the other, and compare it with relevant sections of Dorian Gray, whose discourse is much more embedded and less ordered.

What we then see is that Wilde making a consistent mockery of Phaedrus’ claims who believes that:

‘A lover who is detected in doing any dishonourable act, or submitting through cowardice when any dishonour is done to him by another, will be more pained at being detected by his beloved than at being seen by his father, or by his companions, or by anyone else’[4]

through Dorian’s complete disregard for his ‘lovers,’ here loosely defined as those people who see Dorian as his beloved. This would include Basil Hallward, Alan Campbell and Sibyl Vane. He then powerfully perverts Phaedrus’ next statement where he claims that ‘Love will make men dare to die for their beloved – love alone; and women as well as men.’[5] All three of them end up losing their life through their interactions with their ‘beloved’ Dorian in greater or lesser capacities: Basil through Dorian’s anger, Alan through his indifference and Sibyl through his vanity. Basil here is the only one who dies ‘unwillingly,’ murdered by Dorian. On the other hand, Alan and Sibyl commit suicide, implying a sense of ‘willingness’ to die for their beloved, though their motivator was despair. Thus, while Wilde might agree with Phaedrus’ conclusion that Love was the ‘eldest’ and the ‘mightiest’ of the gods, he reserves some scepticism towards believing him to be the ‘noblest’; or for that matter ‘the chiefest author and giver of virtue in life, and of happiness after death.’[6]

Wilde further debates Phaedrus’ claim that

‘open loves are held to be more honourable than secret ones, and that the love of the noblest and highest, even if their persons are less beautiful than others, is especially honourable’[7]

from the very beginning when Basil Hallward confides in Lord Henry that

“When I like people immensely, I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvellous to us.”[8]

Perhaps more than a clash of ideologies, these contrasting statements can and should be seen in their social contexts. The proclamation that an ‘open’ (as opposed to ‘secret’) love is the admirable, possibly even the ideal state of a relationship for Phaedrus and Basil’s declaration of almost the exact opposite requires to be read in terms of communicative possibility more than ability.

In the Greek polis where writing had barely taken root, although there is evidence of letter-writing in The Iliad (when Proteus sends Bellerophon to Lycia with ‘a fatal message, a folded tablet on which he had written signs with a deadly meaning’[9]), there was little possibility of keeping record. The systems of communication that we can only infer were of (relatively) primitive uniformity. Taking instances from epics and histories and plays (as we have no historical tracts that can be corroborated in the modern sense of the term), we can roughly establish the presence of signal fires from the Iliad:

all day long the men fight a desperate battle from their town walls, but at sunset beacon-fires blaze up one after the other, and the light shoots up into the sky for neighbours to see and come to the rescue in their ships[10]

and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where Clytemnestra describes how it was understood that Troy had been captured:

Ida first launched his blazing beam; thence to this place/ Beacon lit beacon in relays of flame. From Ida/ To Hermes’ crag on Lemnos; from that island, third/ To receive the towering torch was Athos, rock of Zeus; … Thence on this Atreid palace the triumphant fire/ Flashed, lineal descendant of the flame of Ida.[11]

or by messenger, as in the famous story of Pheippides or Philippides as described by Herodotus and later, Lucian. It was a simple visual messaging, as attested in Book II of Xenophon’s Hellenica:

Lysander’s orders to the vessels so sent in pursuit were, that as soon as they saw the enemy’s crew fairly disembarked and dispersed along the shores of the Chersonesus … they were to begin their return voyage, and when in mid-channel to hoist a shield. The orders were punctually carried out, and Lysander at once signalled to his whole squadron to put across with all speed[12].

Considering the primitive slowness of the ancient Greek systems of gaining knowledge through information, we can interpret the desire for openness as an offshoot of the desire for knowledge, as they can only understand what has been seen. Their suspicion of the hidden in any field would then appear to be a natural one.

On the other hand, by 1890, we see several modes of immediate communication emerging – notably the telegraph (which we can be certain was well established by 1890) exemplified by its mention in the novel itself,  when Lord Henry finds out about Dorian’s engagement to Sibyl Vane via ‘a telegram lying on the hall table’[13]; the telephone, considering that by 1890, telephony had gone so far in Britain as to have rudimentary public telephone kiosks and long distance calling between London and Liverpool, seven telephone companies covering the various regions of England, a Central Telephone Exchange in Oxford Street, London, and enough subscribers by 1876 for the Telephone Company of London (begun by Alexander Graham Bell himself) to bring out the first telephone directory on January 15 of the same year.[14] It was also only two decades away from the television (although Wilde wasn’t to know that). The written text was just beginning to go into mass market production, thanks to the drastic fall in production costs brought about by steam-powered machinery and chemical advances that created cheap paper pulp. The postal reforms for cheaper mailing rates spearheaded by Rowland Hill, combined with increased literacy, caused an explosion in letter-writing and sending and this was assisted by emerging modes of transport (the railways, steam powered vessels). According to the British Postal Museum and Archive, ‘The number of chargeable letters in 1839 had been only about 76 million. By 1850 this had increased to almost 350 million and continued to grow dramatically.’[15] Newspapers were increasing in circulation, and the number of literary magazines/periodicals was expanding, to say nothing of specialized journals. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in 1890, it was becoming quite easy for people to get published, with no worries about simple recording. The entry titled ‘Magazines for Women’ in the British Library’s Aspects of the Victorian Book section states that

[…] the Waterloo Directory of English Periodicals and Newspapers, 1800-1900 estimates a total output for the period of 125000 titles.[16]

This is this context which we must contrast in the binaries of Basil and Phaedrus. The Victorian era, we might argue, was suffering from a surfeit of information, in contrast to ancient Greek society where simple recording was a matter of great investment, of time if not money. Recalling this, it is perhaps easy to sympathise with Basil – considering the even more obscene informational excess the 21st century suffers from – when he feels a greater thrill in secrecy rather than in revelation. Nevertheless, we must cast a neutral eye to contextualize Phaedrus’ argument as well.

Pausanias’ discourse Wilde is more comfortable in agreeing with. It is apparent that Wilde agrees with the idea that there are two kinds of love – implicitly through his narrative and the aesthetic discourse for the love of Aphrodite Ourania, the heavenly Aphrodite of homosexual love between two men (and not between a man and a child), which Pausanias believes to be solely intellectual, and explicitly for the love of Aphrodite Pandemos, the common Aphrodite of heterosexual (or just sexual) love, devalued by Lord Henry’s disparaging comments on women when he calls them ‘a decorative sex’[17] or sees them as obstacles in the achievement of some unknown ideal, saying, ‘Women, as some witty Frenchman once put it, inspire us with the desire to do masterpieces and always prevent us from carrying them out.’[18] What does remain common in this disparagement is the valorizing of homosexuality which can even go to the point of sexism. But given the context of enforced public repression on homosexuality in Victorian society, one can understand, if not forgive, a statement probably made in (tangible and yet not very apparent) frustration.

Pausanias then launches into a statement about, and sometimes against, the common laws regarding homosexuality in several States, not leaving out the Athenian polis. He speaks of the complicated double standard of homosexual pursuit in the eyes of the Athenian state and of society, which allows – even encourages – such pursuit as long as it is openly avowed and not driven by material or sexual interests. He also fears for the bad influence a lover might have on a younger beloved, a view vindicated through Lord Henry’s influence on Dorian Gray whom one might have called ‘good’ or, if not good, then at least ‘innocent’ at the beginning of the novel. He clearly shows preference towards commitment and faithfulness in the lover, which Lord Henry is much more dismissive of. Henry casually tosses the idea that ‘the faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies,’[19] and further,

What a fuss people make about fidelity … even in love it is purely a question for physiology … young men want to be faithful, and are not; old men want to be faithless and cannot.[20]

Thus Wilde argues, with a satirical inversion, for an epistemic standpoint towards love and not, like Phaedrus and Pausanias, for a dissection of its effects.

However, in terms of the complexity of homosexual pursuit, the Victorian era had its own crosses to bear when it forced homosexuality into hiding. We must then ask where the differential factor between the two forms of love lies. Perhaps it is best ascribed to Christian shame. We cannot for certain say if there was an idea of shame as the intricately linked (and possibly unfortunate) corollary of intimacy in ancient Greece. However, there seems to be an ideological equivalent in honour, or rather, in this case, dishonour. And here I will pause in my direct comparison of discourses on love to compare the ideas of shame and dishonour in the respective texts. My subsequent argument posits that both ‘shame’ and ‘dishonour’ should contextually be taken to mean the same thing (namely, the opposite for the word honour) across differences in time and space – 19th century England and Ancient Greece in this case. I will then proceed to try and substantiate these observations with textual examples.

To assist this exploration, I will, in brief, discuss Michael Lewis’ book Shame: The Exposed Self and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Discussing shame, Lewis posits that the socialization of certain general human goals is what leads to setting an ‘attributional’ standard for shame – a flawed, subjective Other-based evaluation like the grading system, for example. He states,

Now it is not just the other who rewards or punishes the child. By incorporating the other’s standards, the child becomes capable of rewarding or punishing herself.[21]

But let us juxtapose this idea of private evaluation as ‘shame’ against Montesquieu’s idea of how ‘virtue’ (which is ideal end that shame should bring in Christian society) is instilled through ‘honour’ in a Monarchy. In The Spirit of the Laws, he states:

Honour, that is, the prejudice of every persona and every rank supplieth the place of virtue … Hence, in well-regulated monarchies, they are almost all good subjects, and very few good men.[22]

and then again ‘It is the nature of honour to aspire to preferments and distinguishing titles’[23]. While this was almost an inevitability in the pre-Revolution Europe of Montesquieu, by the end of the 19th century and indeed, by the time the monarchical power structure was irreparably compromised, the honour system seems to have distilled itself. While there were still external honours handed out by still-significant monarchs, a new social sense of honour seems to have emerged, where individuals aspired to ‘outrank’ each other in certain societal criteria which evaluated aspects of their education and magnanimity in the public sphere. The reward was being acclaimed as an honourable man; the punishment – the standard of shame, as Lewis might have proposed in this context – was to remain publicly dishonourable. An interesting point to note in this instance is Lewis’ statement that ‘All systems, from the simplest to the most complicated, regulate themselves. Regulation requires that a system be aware of itself, at least at some level. Thus, awareness in a property inherent in life … However, not all human beings possess what we adults refer to as “consciousness of ourselves”.’[24] What Lewis implies is that while awareness is an inherent factor, the consciousness of being aware is a developmental trait, exposed as a being grows older. Recontextualizing this argument on a more structural (as opposed to individual) basis and applying it to a more era-centric chronology (as opposed to basing it on an individual’s age), we could perhaps posit that the idea of ‘shame’ in Ancient Greece was a very problematic one. This is almost wholly down to the fact that ‘shame’ as we understand it in a society post the advent of Christianity had not yet been extricated from the idea of ‘dishonour,’ a far more prevalent ideal in an honour-based society. This becomes most pertinent when we consider that while the Greeks ostensibly had a personification of shame, Aidos, in the works of Hesiod, Pindar, Aesop and Pausanias, most translators have preferred to contextualize her function as ‘modesty’, or ‘reverence,’ or ‘honour’.[25] The last translation in particular seems a decisive point in the understanding of shame in Ancient Greece as fear of dishonour is what most often seems to have guided and protected principles of honour instead of any desire for the gaining of honour, in the same way that the modern notion of shame, or more precisely, the fear of being (a)shamed is what protects more current notions of honour. What we are left with, then is the notion of dishonour as one which does not completely resist equation with shame. Yet we must contextualize ‘dishonour’ in Ancient Greece and modern ‘shame’ in the way we understand them today as being public and private notions of essentially similar structures. Having concluded this exposition, let us then continue with the two texts at hand.

In Dorian Gray, the idea of shame is recurrent and often mentioned as love’s antipode. Consider, for example, Dorian telling Lord Henry (referring to Sibyl Vane) that ‘I cannot understand how any one can wish to shame the thing he loves.’[26] Beyond the eventual irony in Dorian’s naïve statement, we come to a point when his portrait has begun to show changes as the terms of his Faustian tragedy take shape. When Dorian first notices this, this is how he reacts: ‘He got up and locked both doors. At least he would be alone when he looked upon the mask of his shame.’[27] Let us pause here and consider our previous statement on shame which stipulates that it somehow intrinsically necessitates the need to be alone, or to face it in private if it has to be gazed upon. There is a necessary intimacy with a single subject and the corpus which constitutes their shame or with two subjects and each individual’s corpus or with several subjects and their individual corpora if a person, or two persons, or several persons will engage in a shameful act. Every time, every corpus will be a different engagement with a subjective shame and two people may not experience the same shame and indeed, several may not find a certain act shameful at all. Further, the idea of intimacy with the act of shame itself need not apply to only a sexualized scenario. This portrait of Dorian Gray then becomes interesting as a private detachment of Dorian’s shame, almost insisting as a corollary that he needs to feel none himself. He had already been convinced by Lord Henry that the beautiful are always forgiven their transgressions and that only the young are beautiful. We see that the crux of this statement is the idea that because the beautiful were forgiven everything, shame served no purpose for them. Yet Dorian could only completely abandon his moral fears when he realized the full import of his mutating painting, culminating in this realization:

Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins—he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all.[28]

In this context, then, ‘Chapter X’ of the novel becomes a symbolic hiding away of this shame, which had until then been apparent, if not accessible. Dorian decides that if there must be any intimate interaction with his now-detached sense of shame, it would have to be with him, privately and without it engaging anyone else at any point until he decided otherwise. And we do know that he recognizes this painting as that detachment. The idea of shame is referred to thrice in Dorian’s thoughts in a short span of time. Variously, he realizes that ‘What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas … They would defile it and make it shameful.’ implying that he understood his sinfulness would not impinge upon his being, and that ‘There was no reason that the future should be so full of shame. Some love might come across his life, and purify him,’ re-establishing the love/shame binary. This culminates in the thought, ‘No one would ever look upon the horrible thing. No eye but his would ever see his shame.’[29]

An interesting idea of this implied binary between love and shame comes from Basil when he speaks to Dorian about his notoriety,

They say that you corrupt every one with whom you become intimate, and that it is quite sufficient for you to enter a house for shame of some kind to follow after.[30]

 This is an extraordinary statement in context, because while the world finds people establishing intimacy and shame as binaries, where one cannot be the other, this statement suggests that in his literal ‘shamelessness,’ Dorian has taken the position of the conduit between the two. The idea seems almost physical in nature because Dorian finds his shame detached from his self; where there should be a binary, there exists intimacy and a vacuum. Shame then rushes in to fill the void when his intimacy is activated.

But while such an idea is interesting in itself, it does not lead anywhere in this particular comparison and it is necessary to establish now the other half of the discourse – the binaries of honour and dishonour. It is Phaedrus, whose ideals clash with Wilde’s so thoroughly, who first brings up the issue of honour and dishonour in terms of love, saying

the guide of men who would nobly live at principle … [not] any other motive is able to implant so well as love. Of what am I speaking? Of the sense of honour and dishonour, without which neither states nor individuals ever do any good or great work.[31]

Of these two, we will be led to understand that love and honour are superimposed in his discourse with dishonour forming the obvious binary. He then implies that if all citizens comprised lovers and their loves, that government would be self-sufficient and virtuous as no one would want to be dishonoured in front of their lovers.

The next discourse on love and (dis)honour comes from Pausanias who speaks about the shifting nature of these concepts of honour in different societies. Despite the eulogical nature of his discourse, it is perhaps he who comes closest to warning us about love’s treacheries – even before Socrates speaks – and if ‘treacheries’ is too strong a word, love’s generally duplicitous nature. We have mentioned before how Pausanias’s discourse makes known the complexity of homosexual pursuit, but it becomes worth its while to study the language of it where he says that,

[…] great is the encouragement which all the world gives to the lover; neither is he supposed to be doing anything dishonourable; but if he succeeds he is praised, and if he fail he is blamed. And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest.[32]

Pausanias wonders further about how homosexual love is seen as honourable, but when forbidden by parents, gets such lovers castigated. His problematic conclusion is that the principles of love are ‘honourable to him who follows them honourably, dishonourable to him who follows them dishonourably.’[33] Through his discourse, where he talks about selfish and unselfish service as well as the various modes and motivations of love, enumerating several possible cases, we come closest to a Dorian-like exposition of ‘linking’ together honour (love) and dishonour (shame).

Concluding this sub-argument, it becomes plainly visible that for all practical purposes the ancient Greek conception of dishonour is not more than a much more public (necessarily public, keeping in mind what has been posited about the difference in the communicative aspect of the two societies) aspect of Victorian shame. This becomes even more apparent when we consider individual meanings of dishonour with shame which we can, by now, consider linked. If we look at honour, or in this case dishonour, we may define it as a negative qualifier which results from the self’s actions weighed against the public’s standards, while Lewis in Shame, defines the word as being the negative qualifier achieved by ‘the self’s actions when weighed against the self’s standards.’[34] The difference, once again, becomes a question of publicity versus privacy.

Returning to the textual comparison, we find that it is Eryximachus who speaks next and he speaks of Love as governing all binaries of good and bad in health and in nature, extending to its breaking point Pausanias’ idea of two forms of love. In contrast, Lord Henry sees love and its surrounding effects as largely illusory. At one point he predicts that Dorian, who has now begun showing the tendencies of an Aesthete, would always ‘be in love with love’.[35] This statement is enigmatic whichever way we choose to look at it, but it becomes especially significant in the context of studying intimacy and its assumed corollary, love. Wilde once again asks ‘What is love?’ as opposed to ‘What does love do?’ without leaving us with any proper explanation, except perhaps an idea that love is more selfish than selfless by the turn of the century, if it had not always been so.

Wilde also manages to mirror the idea of meaninglessly beautiful rhetoric (here meaningless implying devoid of critical content) as delivered by Agathon in his earnest encomium or by most of Aristophanes’ satirical diversion, in his descriptions of fantasy which serve as a screen (a surprising censor) for the exposition of – if I may call it such – a love that dare not speak its name, as evinced by Lord Henry’s exposition in Lady Agatha’s home. It runs thus,

He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, her wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts fled before her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the huge press at which wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose round her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam over the vat’s black, dripping, sloping sides. It was an extraordinary improvisation.[36]

Indeed it was, on Wilde’s part as much as Lord Henry’s, no doubt; the Decadent’s equivalent of censoring a word out.

But the two ideas Wilde seems most in tune with are, in fact, a part of Agathon’s discourse and thus of the central Socratic narrative which repeatedly insists not to deal with love in absolutes and tries to be rational in his praise instead of attempting ‘to attribute to love every species of greatness and glory, whether really belonging to him or not, without regard to truth or falsehood.’[37] The idealization of Love turns it into an idea no longer inspiring admiration but rather, fear. It is Socrates at the end of Symposium and Lord Henry throughout Dorian Gray who then seek to take on such a monster and not slay it so much as shear it down to a form upon which one can cast a cold, critical eye. It is the monstrosity of perfection that Dorian’s portrait so aptly captures among its several aspects. I would like to observe here that it was the fact that Dorian had loved and been intimate with so many which ended most of their lives, just as it also attempts to destroy Victorian notions of repressive Love, in the hope of releasing society into a new century with a critical perspective instead of blind adulation toward love.

Wilde mostly agrees with Agathon when he posits that love is best found in the heart of the youth and cannot settle where there is ‘no bud to bloom.’[38] This sentiment is mirrored by Lord Henry when he suggests right at the beginning to a very malleable Dorian that ‘youth is the one thing worth having’[39]seeing (as he believes) that Dorian has beauty in his youth – an idea which Dorian repeats even before their first meeting is over. Lord Henry further says that ‘Beauty is a form of Genius – is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation,’[40] conforming to a very Platonic theory of Form. But there is little else intersecting in Agathon’s alternatively obfuscating or straightforward rhetoric.

Following Symposium, with Socrates’ examination of Agathon, we find that Love as defined by everyone until Socrates was, indeed Love of Beauty, which we could argue as being the central motif of the events of Dorian Gray as a whole. The kind of love that Wilde suggests is a far darker form than the one Socrates reveals. It was made known to him by Diotima (the only woman’s voice in this discourse), which was ‘a great daimon, and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal.’ and is ‘the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them [gods and man], and therefore in him all is bound together.’ She calls Love the son of Plenty and Poverty, and hence is ‘always poor, and anything but tender and fair … and he is rough and squalid.’ from his mother’s side, while ‘always plotting against the fair and good … bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in his pursuit of wisdom, fertile in resources.’ and is ‘a mean between ignorance and knowledge.’[41] Socrates ends by declaring that love consists in being aware of the desire of a ‘good’ that is not yet possessed. Lord Henry plays with the idea of ‘good’ in his own hedonistic world view, but essentially agrees with this answer to what is love, as evinced by the statement, ‘A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her.’[42] Because if he does, he must then be conscious of a good that he does not yet possess reflected by the woman. This for Lord Henry is the least tolerable thing he can think of about Love.

But for Dorian it is quite a different matter. If love does, as Diotima claims, span the chasm between gods and men, then it is love as a narcissistic love of the self, which spans the chasm between body and soul, awareness and ignorance, reality and his painting. It is because he loves himself that this divide comes about in the first place. Basil Hallward’s masterpiece becomes the receptacle for Dorian Gray’s Faustian pact through which he could observe the degeneration of his soul up till the very end, as until then, Dorian Gray had never lost the love for himself which fuelled his desire for eternal youth.

Oscar Wilde, like Socrates in Symposium, is not moral in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but far from it. Indeed, the ‘immoral’ ideas of artifice and debauchery are upheld rhetorically and Dorian’s death serves as a warning to not let passions overwhelm us, nor avoid them altogether; just as Love is disrobed till the revelation of the stark reality of desire is presented through the tale of Socrates and Diotima. Wilde is acutely aware of his actions, quietly reminding us that ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’[43]







[1]          Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’, Plays, Prose Writings and Poems, ed. Anthony Fothergill (Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2010)

[2]          Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (New Delhi: Penguin Group, 1994), p. 46

[3]          Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, ed. Karl E. Beckson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1970), p. 75

[4]          Plato, Symposium, The Internet Classics Archive (, accessed October 27, 2014)

[5]          Plato, Symposium, (, accessed October 27, 2014)

[6]          Ibid.

[7]          Ibid.

[8]          Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 10

[9]          Homer, The Iliad, trans. E.V. Rieu (London: Penguin Group, 2003) bk. 6, p. 104, l. 169-170

[10]        Ibid., bk. 18 p. 325 l. 209-214

[11]        Aeschylus, ‘Agamemnon’, The Oresteian Trilogy, trans. Philip Vellacott (London: Penguin Group, 1973), pp. 52-53; 52, 53 ln. 282-311

[12]        Xenophon, Book II, Hellenica, trans. H.G. Dakyns (Project Gutenberg,, accessed December 29, 2014)

[13]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 71

[14]        UK TELEPHONE HISTORY, THE TELEPHONE FILE (, accessed 29 December, 2014)

[15]        ‘Outcomes of the Reform,’ Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms, The British Postal Museum and Archive, (, accessed 29 December, 2014)

[16]        ‘Magazines for Women’, Aspects of the Victorian Book (British Library Collection,, accessed 29 December, 2014)

[17]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 58

[18]        Ibid., p. 96

[19]        Ibid., p. 20.

[20]        Ibid., p. 38.

[21]        Michael Lewis, Shame: The Exposed Self  (New York: Free Press, 1992), p. 92.

[22]        Montesquieu, Baron de (Charles de Secondat), ‘In what Manner Virtue is supplied in a Monarchical Government’, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Unknown, (London: for P. Dodesley, R. Owen and other booksellers, 1794), vol. I, bk. III, Ch. VI, p. 25.

[23]        Montesquieu, Baron de (Charles de Secondat), ‘Of the Principle of a Monarchy’, The Spirit of the Laws,vol. I, bk. III Ch. VII, p. 26.

[24]        Lewis, Shame, p. 9.

[25]        ‘Aedos’, Theoi Greek Mythology (, accessed December 29, 2014)

[26]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 91

[27]        Ibid., p. 111.

[28]  Ibid., pp. 122-123; 122, 123.

[29]        Ibid., pp. 138-145; 138,142, 145.

[30]        Ibid., p. 174.

[31]        Plato, Symposium, (, accessed October 27, 2014)

[32]        Ibid.

[33]        Ibid.

[34]        Lewis, Shame, p. 10

[35]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 50.

[36]        Ibid., pp. 51-52; 51, 52.

[37]        Plato, Symposium, (, accessed October 27, 2014)

[38]  Ibid.

[39]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 29.

[40]        Ibid., p. 29

[41]        Plato, Symposium, (, accessed October 27, 2014)

[42]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 206.

[43]        Wilde, ‘The Preface’, Dorian Gray, p. 5.

Arkaprabha Chakraborty is a postgraduate student pursuing his Master’s degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University after receiving his Bachelor’s degree from the same institution. While he is partial to Victorian literary and culture studies, Literature and Psychoanalysis, and Fantasy Literature, he is also deeply interested in European Modernism, American literary and culture studies, Impressionism and beyond, the study of culture through objects, Manga studies, Sports literature and the narrative of sports as event, and the works of R.K. Narayan, among others.


By Mayurakshi Dev


Through the course of Oscar Wilde’s novel, Dorian Gray’s portrayal as a self-satisfying hedonist is established through the character’s persistent obsession with the idea of the self and the immoral. Gray indulges in moral corruptions, experiments with all the vices and leads a life of debauchery and decadence. The character’s repeated forays into the life of sin introduces him to all aspects of human vices. Gray’s love for his body, sensuality and the material beauties are exemplified in the story by showcasing his continued trysts with sinful experiments: some highlight the obvious intimacy between Gray and his idea of his ideal self, the rest accentuate the intimacy present between Gray and the life of sin. The strong intimacy that Gray creates between himself and his idea of the ideal self is made prominent at the very beginning of the novel through his unnatural attraction towards his own portrait (painted by Basil Hallward), indicating to his self-obsessed personality; his subsequent demands for the eternal preservation of his own youth at the expense of his soul also point to his desire for an ideal self or body.
Gray’s intimacy with the life of sin also is a central theme in the novel. His continued experiments with immoral activities, including murder, bring about the establishment of a close relationship between him and a world of corruption. Dorian Gray’s sinful becomes an intimate relationship with sin owing to his deliberate forays into the many vices under the influence of his friend Lord Wotton.


Intimacy in The Picture of Dorian Gray thus explores intimacy through the character of Dorian Gray; intimacy with the construct of an ideal self, and intimacy with the world of sin occur parallel in the novel and in the person of Dorian Gray. This paper will attempt to examine these two mores of intimacies of the character of Dorian Gray in light of Victorian sensibilities and moralities and contemporary ideas of Aestheticism – against the backdrop of degenerating human relationships and intimacies in the novel.


Contemporary critics and readers condemned The Picture of Dorian Gray for its ‘vulgarity’, its ‘studied insincerity’, for being a piece of ‘obtrusively cheap scholarship’ and for being ‘unnatural.’[1] Wilde’s novel, in its frank and unapologetic championing of a self-indulgent lifestyle, was understood by its readers to be a rejection of Victorian-Christian sensibilities. Through the character of Dorian Gray, Wilde brings to light the relationship between a self-absorbed hedonist and the life of sensual indulgences; he highlights the intimate connections between Dorian Gray’s perceived notion of the ideal self and a life of unbridled debauchery.

Gray’s developing intimacies with the sensual, material world remains the novel’s central narrative. Much of the story centres on Gray’s unnatural attraction for his body and his desperate desire for the preservation of youth and beauty. This indicates his obsessive love for the ‘ideal self’, which he creates and protects at the expense of his soul. The iconic, almost Faustian, barter made by Dorian Gray – where his temporal human body assumes the imperishable qualities of his portrait — is a confirmation of Lord Henry Wotton’s observation on ‘new Hedonism’ when he says, ‘… the aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here to do …’[2].Gray’s obsession rests with the body and the ideal self, where the ideal self retains beauty and sensual glamour. His desire for eternal beauty stems from the peculiar desire to conserve in his person the beauty of youth, his narcissism thus becoming a practice in self-indulgence as well as an effort to experience the sensual. The perfect beauty of his own body symbolises and thereby aids him in accessing material beauty. Intimacy with the self, for Gray, therefore becomes intimacy with his construction of the ideal self.

Gray’s obsessive investment with beauty and youth arises from his friend Lord Wotton’s observations on life. Lord Wotton’s ideas, interestingly, echo the Paterian sensibility which sanctioned and celebrated the cultivation of the self as an egoistic isolate. Walter Pater’s construction of the ‘amorphous, unstable’ individual ego that experiences life as momentary transitory sensory impressions finds expression in Lord Wotton’s philosophy (which remains a close reflection on Pater’s ‘Conclusion’ to Studies in the Renaissance): ‘Every one of those impressions is the impression of an individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world’[3].

Pater’s influence on Wilde becomes evident when one realises the similarity between Lord Wotton’s philosophy and the aestheticist orientation. Consider the espousal of the life of infidelity made by Lord Henry:

The people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custorm or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect – imply a confession of failure…[4]


This comment, alongside the overwhelming emphasis on momentary sensual experiences, resonates with Pater’s suggestions, ‘[one must] get as many pulsations as possible into the given time …’ and ‘our failure is to form habits’[5].

Such an ideology may be seen as the basis for Dorian Gray’s continued trysts with sin and debauchery throughout the novel. The narrative finds Gray indulging in increasingly depraved atrocities, including murder, without any accompanying remorse. Gray’s repeated forays into immoral behaviour and even cruelty, however, remain acts of self-indulgence; this is made possible through his identification of life with pure aesthetic sensations. Gray’s intimacy with the world of sin at once brings him closer to the realisation of life in terms of purely sensual impressions and also highlights his deviation from the general Victorian moral conventions. Joseph Carroll’s essay ‘Aestheticism, Homoeroticism, and Christian Guilt in The Picture of Dorian Gray’ brings to light the ways in which the Victorian population, aware of Darwinian concepts of life and the self, viewed morality:

A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them … Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection: past impressions and images are incessantly passing through his mind with distinctness. […] A man who possessed no trace of such feeling would be an unnatural monster […] Conscience looks backwards and judges past actions, inducing that kind of dissatisfaction, which if weak we call regret, and if severe remorse.[6]

This consciousness of regret and remorse formed the cornerstone of Victorian-Christian morality; and this consciousness of guilt and anguish is dismissed by both Lord Wotton and Gray as not worth preserving. The obvious homoerotic overtones in the narrative that undermined contemporary familial, conjugal and gender binaries further aggravated the Victorian bourgeois identity.

By identifying life’s experience as singular sensual impressions, Wilde makes Gray interact with and perceive sin in a singularly intimate manner. Gray undermines the ‘continuous’ process of the human consciousness by refusing guilt and remorse, and partially celebrates Pater’s expression ‘not the fruit of experience, but the experience itself is the end’[7]. His intimacy with the life of sin and depravity, much like his intimacy with the ideal self, is a result of his desire for the sensual and material. His abrupt loss of interest in Sybil, his secret life of immorality and his keen interest in the infamous French decadent novel borrowed from his friend, all show his intimate and necessarily dependent relationship with a life of sin as one based purely on gratification.

Gray’s construction of intimacy thus remains subject to his ideas of sensual experience and bodily beauty. His concept of the ideal self enables him to refuse the Victorian moral identity and also exempts him from being an active participant in guilt regarding his sins. The slow deformation of Basil’s portrait may be taken to be a result of Gray’s refusal to acknowledge a life of continuous moral identity, which forms the cornerstone of Victorian sensibilities. Wilde’s rejection of contemporary Victorian identities through (what may be considered) Wotton’s reductionist Pater philosophy is at once an espousal of the aestheticist orientation and also a possible demonstration of the consequences of rejecting contemporary ethics.

Wilde’s novel emphasises the simultaneous growth of Gray’s intimacy with his bodily sensual love and his attachment to the world of sin – every lapse of judgement caused by his uninhibited lifestyle finding expression in his portrait. Material gratification leading to a confused and heightened sense of self-love, and an aggravated desire for sin in order to experience sensual pleasure thus forms an intimate and simultaneous relationship in Gray’s person and Basil’s portrait. The construction of intimacies in The Picture of Dorian Gray problematizes the prevalent concepts of Victorian morality and also shows the growing relationship between sensual gratification and a life of sin through the protagonist. The various mores of intimacies explored and hinted at develop the idea of the demise of Victorian sensibilities and charts the consequences of such a demise as well.







[1]Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986), p.156.


[2]Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2001), p. 19.


[3]Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, ed. Donald Hall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 187–88.


[4]Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 48.


[5]Pater, The Renaissance.


[6]Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, ed. John Tyler Bonner and Robert M. May (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 88–91.


[7]Pater, The Renaissance.


Mayurakshi Dev is a student of English Literature, currently completing her post-graduation degree from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her research interests include Gender Studies, South-East Asian Feminism, Indian Writing in English and 19th century literature.





By Oishani Sengupta

This paper aims to explore the problem of friendship in Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel, Shirley by taking a more detailed look at the relationship between the novel’s two young female protagonists, Caroline and Shirley.


Somewhere in the middle of Charlotte Brontë’s novel the two female protagonists, Caroline and Shirley, decide to forego an evening in church in favour of Nature-worship. One thing leads to another, and soon they fall upon the subject of Eve, when suddenly Shirley explodes with a burst of powerful feeling:

Milton tried to see the first woman; but, Cary, he saw her not…  It was his cook that he saw; or it was Mrs. Gill, as I have seen her, making custards, in the heat of summer, in the cool dairy, with rose-trees and nasturtiums about the latticed window, preparing a cold collation for the Rectors,–– preserves, and ‘dulcet creams’––puzzled ‘what choice to choose for delicacy best; what order so contrived as not to mix tastes, not well-joined, inelegant; but bring taste after taste, upheld with kindliest change.[1]


Shirley’s outburst underlines concepts with which the novel engages – the inherent frailty of woman and her subsequent confinement within the home. The Victorian era saw the gradual replacement of the Pauline conception of woman as positively pernicious by an image of gentle virtuousness, full of spirituality but bereft of agency, designed entirely to provide comfort and succor to all. Francoise Basch differentiates between the notions of woman as the ‘soul’ of the house and man as its ‘architect’.[2] The home was a protected space, specifically suited to woman’s natural aptitudes, as opposed to the troublesome, materialistic outdoors, where man was meant to exercise his strength and intellect. Contemporary best-selling advice-books and manuals of etiquette, such as Sarah Ellis’ The Women of England[3], described the role of the wife as being the centre of emotion and influence within the Victorian family.


Shirley’s critique of this ideology is not new. Harriet Martineau, George Eliot and others considered it preposterous to speak of woman’s narrow domestic sphere while depriving her of social and political rights. In fact, there was ample evidence of women financially supporting themselves and even entire families, turning this notion on its head. Shirley not only asserts the inadequacy of Milton’s ability to envision the first woman, but claims validity for her own interpretation of Eve. Men, in her opinion, are singularly incapable of understanding the nature of women, whether in fiction or in reality. ‘Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.’[4] Women are able to understand each other better, and consequently they influence each other’s identities in ways that either subvert or reinforce the existing paradigm of patriarchy. In this paper, I intend to investigate Shirley’s influence on her social circumstances and how it relates to the novel’s abrupt and much dissected end.


The Victorian period saw a rise in the readership of historical narratives. Historical writing and fiction negotiated between themselves the terrain of past events, contesting to claim the right of providing reassuring explanations of the course of human life in terms that the reading public of the Victorian age would comprehend and trust. Although the traditional historian had the support of authority, the fiction writer was often able to impress deeply upon the reader certain scenes, moments and feelings from the past that created a much more immediate impact than factual accounts. Since contemporary historiography prioritized the representation of wars, courts and kings over the experiences of domestic life among common people, the struggle between history and fiction for representational supremacy over important social and political events became a gendered one. History required training in classical language and history, disciplines traditionally denied to women, whereas fiction was linked with births and deaths of children, marriages, domestic conflicts and alliances between families and social classes, all of which was located in the interior. The popularity of these fictional interpretations of the past led to a revaluation of the role of women in shaping the course of human civilization, as central characters in the drama, rather than mere embellishments that rendered palatable the lives of men.


According to Rohan Amanda Maitzen, the predominance of male historiography was challenged in the Victorian period by the publication of innumerable biographies of women, whose authors contested the proposition that men were the sole determinants in the historical process and offered a revision of the biased narratives that had hitherto excluded the lives and efforts of women[5]. Through the representation of powerful and tremendously popular women-figures such as Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, the female historiography of the Victorian age attempted to reconstruct the traditional approach to gender and power in terms of the notion of ‘queenliness’[6], the property of certain egregious women who participated in the affairs of both the interior and the exterior space, combining the power of political action with the domestic virtues of kindness and generosity. Maitzen adds that Victorian women often considered aristocratic, ‘queenly’ women as idealized versions of themselves, and translated their relative independence into middle-class conceptions of virtue and femininity, thus creating a conflicted space where the possibility of political freedom of women was continuously subverted by the repressive stereotype of the ‘angel in the house’. But in Shirley the two female protagonists, whose friendship is the theme of the novel, are redeemed from falling into either of these stereotypes even though the men around them are much more true to their historical type.

Shirley is set during the Luddite riots of 1811-12; working-class unrest, combined with the widespread economic depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars, forms the anxious background of the novel. The deadly competition of the market percolates into the interior of the home, infecting the natural warmth of friendship and affection. The three curates of the opening scene continually drink, eat and chat in each other’s company, all the while insulting one and competing for the same women. Reverend Helstone is unwilling to partake of food at Hiram Yorke’s house, in case that implies cordiality, and Roger Moore pronounces the last word – the very mention of friendship irritates him.


The crisis of men is the absence of work, the complete stagnation of the means to exercise their agency; that of women is entirely different. Unable to do anything but grace the domestic hearth, the women in the novel face the same condition as the cloth that is uselessly stored in Moore’s warehouse and the hundreds of hands that are ‘famished and furious’ – they cannot find a buyer in the market. In fact, Brontë herself states the problem in these exact terms

The matrimonial market is overstocked.[7]

This statement not only begs a comparison between women and commodities, but also indicates a problem of women peculiar to Victorian society. The women who function as anything other than mothers and wives are considered defective goods, like Miss Ainley or Miss Mann, whose unattractive features or temper have rendered them undesirable to men. Hortense Moore, who remains outside the system, serves only to reinforce it in her attempts to model Caroline into someone ‘sufficiently girlish and submissive’[8].


Caroline, though generally timid and compliant, has a firm opinion about everything. She prefers Shakespeare to Corneille, reading to sewing and Robert’s intelligent conversation to Hortense’s gendered moralizing. Standing between the mystical realm of Elf-land and the harsh, yet inviting shores of Reality, she feels dissatisfied with her vocation as niece and housekeeper to her uncle, and wishes to enter a new life. Her briefly reciprocated attraction to Robert Moore affords her such a dream. The existing Victorian ideal of the companionate marriage allows Caroline to imagine for herself an exclusive identity – to be the sole partner of her beloved. Yet unfortunately, this identity is not available to her, since Robert is too absorbed in his ambition of bettering his financial position to entertain romantic thoughts. All her hopes of future dashed in an instant, Caroline realizes that she cannot inhabit the roles that society encourages her to imagine for herself.


Caroline cannot entirely bury her subjectivity, nor can she pretend to assimilate herself with all the young women around her, whose aggressively normative behavior alienates her completely. The Misses Sykes are models of provincial propriety – they castigate Caroline for not being sufficiently religious or knowledgeable in country gossip. The men around her, who demonstrate their good sense in practical and political matters, cherish such notions of the feminine that exclude an intelligent woman who questions, if not disobeys, accepted social codes. Reverend Helstone and Hiram Yorke, who are both affectionate towards her, prefer women to be silly and frivolous, or silent and pale, or even tyrannical and gloomy, but they cannot abide sense in women.


Susan Gubar states that Caroline finds no succour in her arid environment, and thus she slowly begins to wither. Undesired as her thoughts are, they exist nonetheless, and due to her restricted condition, they turn against her, converting the lonely interior into a space of dread[9]. Freud, in his essay ‘The Uncanny’, explores the mystery of things that are both familiar and terrifying to us[10]. The home, which is comfortable and safe, is paradoxically also the tomb where the woman is buried alive, and thus becomes the source of terror and apathy for its prisoners. The interiority of the hearth, which is traditionally the woman’s place, thus becomes the most threatening realm where she may be immolated in silence – without the knowledge of anyone in the outside world. Shirley explores that moment of terror when all connection between the domestic world and outside is severed, and thus the relationship of support and succor between the two ceases to exist. Lyn Pykett argues that in locating the supernatural experiences of heroines within middle-class English homes rather than faraway Italian castles like Udolpho, the Brontës create a powerful, psychological version of gothic fiction[11].


Charlotte Brontë explores the intertwining of this feeling of imprisonment with the impression of the supernatural in almost all her major works. Jane feels the presence of her uncle’s ghost when Mrs. Reed locks her in the Red Room, and Lucy Snowe conjures up a ghostly nun, buried alive in the medieval times, as her repressed double. In Shirley, we have the imaginary ghost of Mary Cave, an example of the Victorian ‘angel in the house’ who has been buried within the four walls by persistent indifference. In fact, Caroline, seeking an appropriate feminine role model, unconsciously toys with the idea of becoming a silent haunting presence, keeping vigil over Hollow’s Mill from afar, but never expressing her indescribable suffering.


The character of Shirley completely contrasts with the lives of the other women in novel. Armed with a good education, money and property of her own, and with no hindrance of a legal guardian, she creates formidable ripples in the societies of Whinbury, Briarfield and Nunnely. She flaunts her masculine position, delighting in the nickname of Captain Keeldar. Through her enterprise, Robert is able to improve his situation, and the poor of Yorkshire receive well-deserved financial aid. Instead of suffering in seclusion, Shirley enjoys traveling and she even prefers worshipping Nature outdoors than imprisoning herself in a claustrophobic church.  The narrative links her exceptional character to the unconventional nature of her upbringing. In the absence of a son, her parents gave her a man’s name and allowed her to hold a man’s social position. Once in possession of them, Shirley uses them not only to secure her own happiness, but others’ as well. Unlike Dorothea Casaubon, whose potential is continuously restricted by the norms and expectations of society, Shirley’s fortunate circumstance allows her to realize her potential of ‘queenliness’ in an unrestricted manner, like a Theresa or an Antigone of the past.

Shirley provides a brilliant infusion of imperious energy into the narrative. Achieving what men cannot, she refashions Caroline’s life and self in unexpected ways. Despite Caroline’s belief that it is not a woman’s place to force a man into anything, Shirley drags her along in a mad chase to demand a good-night from the forgetful Robert. Her imperious nature counteracts Caroline’s timidity and adjusts circumstances to grant her friend’s wishes. It is she who solves the mystery of Robert’s secretive behavior and takes Caroline to witness the attack of the rioters on Hollow’s Mill in the middle of the night. In her company, Caroline becomes an active, creative self- exploring, arguing, challenging and sharing woman – compared to her silent, haunting presence in the Rectory. Furthermore, Shirley is instrumental in reuniting Caroline with her mother, thus fulfilling her desire of a loving, maternal figure in her life.


Sarah Ellis considers female intimacy fundamental to a heteronormative social organization because it creates marriageable women by reinforcing the difference between the sexes[12]. Through extensive interaction with each other, women learn their difference from men, and are better equipped to deal with the hierarchical institution of marriage. Even though female intimacy in Shirley does facilitate the marriage plot, the interaction between the two friends opens up a space for free interaction for Caroline, which would clearly be impossible in her relationship with the much older and more authoritative Robert Moore.


In Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England, Sharon Marcus writes about the intense and elastic homosocial relationships that, in the Victorian period, allowed women to take part in activities that were forbidden to them in heterosexual interaction. Apart from debating about their unorthodox beliefs or exploring their sexuality, women also engaged in competitive or aggressive behavior with their intimate companions, free from the control exercised by figures of authority. Marcus points out that the vast amount of written material that exists from the 19th Century onwards shows us that Victorian women were not like the submissive and idealized images that are thrust on us by many contemporary accounts of feminine behavior, but active and vigorous participants in the ‘masculine’ discourses of religion, politics and sexual enjoyment[13].

Marcus also examines the writings by women on matters of fashion, social behavior and the rearing of children, which render these topics the site of intense involvement and interest for the women of the time. Relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters, friends, governesses and students, which are considered by Ellis to be a way of reinforcing the divide between men and women as well as nurturing marriageable women, are often openly sexualized, revealing a realm of intimate activity within the home that defies any notion of simplistic confinement and deprivation. In Shirley, the change in the environment inhabited by the two women is not just due to Shirley’s efficient handling of her property, but also due to her deep involvement in Caroline’s life and her identification with a girl apparently so different from herself. Shirley helps Robert not only because he is her tenant, but because Caroline is deeply in love with him and troubled by his unhappiness. Their friendship fulfills another intimate relationship that had seemed impossible – the meeting of Caroline and her long-lost mother. In the narrative, then, it is the imperiled interior that is reclaimed as a site of enjoyment, solidarity and power – an exclusive space in which women can act together and implement their choice. This choice does not have consequences for them alone, but for the society as a whole.


The intimacy between women does not only further their ambitions and allow them the freedom to express themselves, but changes both of them fundamentally. While Caroline gains confidence in herself and her abilities through her proximity with Shirley’s independent nature, Shirley becomes more accustomed to the social behavior considered proper to a woman rather than that of a wealthy young squire. Men are not worth competing between the two friends; in fact, their intrusion is unwanted. Referring to Robert, Shirley says that she prefers Caroline’s company without the ‘six feet of puppyhood’. Instead of being a bone of contention, Robert is a topic of discussion that binds the two even closer by allowing Caroline to talk discreetly of her affections and Shirley to encourage her. Friendship, as well as pride, leads Shirley to reject Robert’s proposal. Though she disdains the idea of being courted for money, she equally despises the idea of being ‘a traitor to all my sisters’. Her refusal opens up the arena for Robert’s acknowledgement of the narrowness of his ambitions, and the eventual resolution of the Robert-Caroline marriage plot. Marcus draws our attention to the ‘reciprocity’ that is repeatedly foregrounded in the novel – the existence of Robert cements the friendship of the two women, just as the friendship acts as a catalyst in the romantic relationship[14].


The problems of industrial management that cripple the novel at the beginning are slowly resolved at the end, not only through the sudden, almost fairy tale ending of the Napoleonic wars, but also the change in Robert’s views about the welfare of his workers – a change that is possible only due to the tireless efforts of both Caroline and Shirley. The fictional narrative of the novel reveals to us the hidden spaces of everyday life that the masterful discourse of history ignores, spaces that are witness to the decisions that define an age. Shirley’s rejection of the depiction of Eve as a mere cook is important again in this context. She contends that masculine historiography has effaced the efforts of ‘queenly’ women in order to deny them their fair share in the historical process and depict them as pretty ornaments that play only a decorative role in social and political events. By linking the political fates of the mill-owners with their emotional relationships, and drawing attention to the way in which female friendships channeled the agency of women at a time when they were disallowed active participation in civic matters, Brontë emphasizes the role of fiction in exploring the intertwined lives of women, children and the poor which contemporary historical writings rarely paid attention to.

In this context, the problem that Shirley poses is that of its violent end, which the author self-consciously titles ‘The Winding-Up’. Most critics believe that the sudden arrival of Louis Moore, leading to the effacement of Shirley’s powerful, subversive voice from the tale and its replacement by Louis’ assumption of authority, as well as her final acknowledgement of him as her unquestionable superior – her lord and master, suggest that neither the novel, nor the society, can finally accommodate Shirley as she is. The author has to dispatch her off in a sudden and unceremonious manner. The idea that Shirley’s queenliness is repressed by a patriarchal narrative of history arises, to a certain extent, from the suggestion that Caroline and Shirley hope to maintain an exclusive friendship that rivals marriage, outside of those narrative constraints.


In her conclusion to Middlemarch, George Eliot differentiates between the heroines of the past and her protagonist, Dorothea Casaubon. Eliot writes that Dorothea cannot become like her predecessors mainly because her circumstances do not afford her the opportunity of expressing herself through grand acts of political or religious significance. The queenliness of Dorothea, finding no way of expressing itself untrammeled by society’s repressive rules and regulations, finally expends itself in providing a comfortable home for a man who rises high in political affairs. Shirley on the other hand has enjoyed too much freedom in her early life, and thus the effective transplantation of her independent persona from the sphere of public affairs into the home is not quite as smooth. The difficulty that she experiences in accepting the change in her role is evident in the fact that Brontë does not instantaneously convert Shirley into the compliant and submissive wife, but shows her depressed at her ‘vanquished and restricted’[15] state. By openly removing Shirley from her authoritative position in the narrative, the narrator returns our attention to acts of appropriation by patriarchal history, which the novelist attempt to reverse  through different strategies, up to the point of the protagonists’ marriage.







[1] Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 270.


[2] Francoise Basch, Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel (New York: Schocken
Books, 1974), p. 5.


[3] Sarah Ellis, The Women of England: Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (London: Fisher, Son & Co.,
1839), p.47.


[4]Brontë , Shirley, p. 296.


[5] Rohan Amanda Maitzen, Gender, Genre and Victorian Historical Writing (New York: Garland Pub., 1998), p.


[6] Maitzen, Gender, Genre and Victorian Historical Writing, p. 157.


[7]Brontë , Shirley, p. 329.


[8]Ibid., p. 58.


[9] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth
Century Literary Imagination,
2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 376.


[10] Sigmund Freud, David McLintock and Hugh Haughton, The Uncanny (New York: Penguin, 2003).


[11] Lyn Pykett, ‘Sensation and the Fantastic in the Victorian Novel’, The Cambridge Companion to the
Victorian Novel
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 198.


[12] Ellis, The Women of England, p.75.


[13] Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 26.


[14] Marcus, Between Women, p. 98.


[15]Brontë , Shirley, p. 534.

Oishani Sengupta is presently in the final year of her postgraduate degree at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. She has previously received her Bachelor’s degree from the same department.


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, (, 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 (, 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,, 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), (, 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 (, accessed October 9, 2014)

[24] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Back Bedroom’, Flush (Project Gutenberg Australia edition,, 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.