Queer Others in Victorian Gothic: Transgressing Monstrosity

May 11, 2014 | Reviews

Strangeness and monstrosity are two of the chief attractions for present-day readers of the stories and novels of Victorian Gothic authors, from Wilkie Collins to Vernon Lee. Ardel Haefele-Thomas showcases these attractions in her intriguing study of queerness in Victorian Gothic fiction. Haefele-Thomas is interested in queerness broadly conceived, so she examines numerous instances where Victorian Gothic writers transgress boundaries in their depictions of the monstrous. The monsters she considers are not horrifying ‘Others’ meant to generate panic but figures of sympathy through which authors call into question social boundaries and categories. These boundaries include those related to gender and sexuality, and those of race, class, and nation. Through much of this study, she analyzes how and why authors of the Victorian period imagined potentially queer and transgressive characters, from Collins’s Marian Halcombe and Ezra Jennings to Vernon Lee’s Prince Alberic (from her 1896 “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”). Yet she also explores the ways that present-day queer or queer-minded readers might understand these characters. In the case of Marian Halcombe, readers not only come to understand how Collins made a case for the independence and viability of spinsters in mid-Victorian England but they also grasp how Collins features a shrewd female detective who transgresses boundaries relating to gender and sexuality.

Of the book’s five main chapters, chapters 2 and 3 are the most engaging. Chapter 2 brings together Marian Halcombe and Ezra Jennings to explore the prominence of these individuals in The Woman in White and The Moonstone, respectively. Haefele-Thomas contends, “Collins, it seems, understands that queer people (as exemplified in his creation of Halcombe and Jennings) can have a crucial role in society” (p. 12). She discusses how both figures prove indispensible to the unraveling of the heterosexual marriage plots in their respective novels, while Jennings and Halcombe are privileged to provide some of the only “factual records of exact time” among the compiled narratives of the two novels (p. 13). While she notes previous studies that examined Marian as a spinster and a “bearded lady,” she breaks new ground by considering how we might understand Jennings as a hijra, a castrated Indian ceremonial figure who is categorized neither as a man nor as a woman. The hijra could play an important role in the blessing of an Indian marriage ceremony, just as Jennings’s own studies and efforts bring about the final union of Franklin Blake and Rachel Verinder.

Chapter 3 is equally productive in its exploration of two works of Gothic fiction by Elizabeth Gaskell, an author that Haefele-Thomas notes is frequently discussed for her portrayals of domesticity. Just as The Moonstone generates sympathy for Ezra Jennings, Gaskell’s Gothic tales generate sympathy for outsiders who readers might be inclined to view as monstrous. Lois the Witch (1859) asks readers to identify with Native Americans accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of the late seventeenth century. Gaskell’s novella also places English readers in the position of Lois, a clergyman’s daughter who, finding herself orphaned and residing with American puritan relatives in Salem, is accused of witchcraft and executed in part because of her reliance on Anglican texts and worship practices. Equally compelling is Haefele-Thomas’s discussion of “The Grey Woman” (1861), a lesser-known story by Gaskell that returns to the roots of the Gothic. Perhaps the most surprising of the works discussed in this book, “The Grey Woman” follows Anna, the protagonist, as she is pressured into a marriage with the criminal and effeminate Monsieur de la Tourelle, only to be rescued by her servant, Amante, who subsequently disguises herself as a tailor with Anna posing as her wife. “The Grey Woman” echoes The Woman in White in its sensational turns of events and proves a notable critique of compulsory heterosexuality for mid-Victorian women.

The book’s remaining chapters treat H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886-87), J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871-72), and Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire (1897), as well as a selection of decadent, supernatural tales by Vernon Lee. In the chapters on Haggard, Le Fanu, and Marryat, Haefele-Thomas examines the “deep ambivalence about how to read the multiple and changing faces of the monstrous ‘Other’ in the nineteenth century” (p. 2). Of all the texts treated in the volume, Haggard’s She is perhaps the most notable for this ambivalence, since Ayesha, She’s eponymous character, crosses almost every possible boundary that we might put in place to understand her. She can “simultaneously embody multiple racial, gender, sexual and species categories” (p. 91). This is certainly a valid assessment of “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” though at times the chapter could make a clearer case for the uniqueness and insight of the overarching argument. Haefele-Thomas argues persuasively that Haggard’s work with Theophilus Shepstone, the British secretary of native affairs in Natal, informed the creation of Ayesha. But other sections of the chapter, specifically those that focus on anxieties about a declining British Empire and Ayesha’s connections to Queen Victoria, could be reframed to highlight how the book adds to already established readings of She.

Because scholars have only recently recovered The Blood of the Vampire, the chapter on vampirism in Le Fanu and Marryat may prove more interesting to readers than the chapter on Haggard. Haefele-Thomas effectively draws attention to the ambiguities and perplexities of reading Marryat’s novel. She juxtaposes Le Fanu’s vampire Carmilla and Marryat’s Harriet Brandt to emphasize the multiple forms of ambivalence and miscegenation surrounding the representation of these women. Her final assessment of The Blood of the Vampire, that “Marryat’s ambivalence…gives us room for sympathy as well as space to wonder about the author’s ultimate intent” (p. 119), shows an impressive sensitivity to the opacity of the tragic events that both conclude Marryat’s novel and bring about the vampiric Harriet’s demise. By turning from vampires to decadents, Haefele-Thomas’s final chapter does justice to a number of uncanny tales by Vernon Lee, most notably her gleefully perverse tale of gender transgression and queer obsession, “A Wicked Voice” (1890). Unlike the other chapters, this concluding engagement with Lee argues that the author wrote self-consciously for a community of queer readers, a community embattled due to homosexual scandals such as the 1889 Cleveland Street affair and, later, Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial for “gross indecency.” The chapter ties together Lee’s biography, evidence about late-Victorian queer subcultures, and an engaging reading of Lee’s review of the English translation of Max Nordau’s 1895 treatise Degeneration.

Queer Others in Victorian Gothic will be of interest to scholars of both queer studies and Victorian literature. At times, additional scholarship and research would have enhanced the arguments, most notably in relation to the history of Gothic fiction before 1859. Given that Haefele-Thomas argues for the unique, queer ways that the works she analyzes treat monstrosity, readers would benefit from learning how these works are distinctive from prior Gothic works in their depictions of gender and sexuality. I would also like to see Haefele-Thomas engage with a novel that does not transgress the terms of the monstrous in the way that she describes. According to the author, Richard Marsh’s 1897 Gothic mummy novel The Beetle, which does not receive its own chapter, contains “a monster who could unify a British reading public through a nationalist insistence on heterosexuality, gender binaries and racial and national ‘purity’” (98). A full account of this work in relation to the other novels and stories would be a welcome addition to the volume.

Yet this book does not set out only to ground its literary works in the historical, textual, and cultural worlds they inhabited. The study also concerns readers of the twenty-first century and how they sympathize with the monstrous figures created by Collins, Marryat, and others. At points, Haefele-Thomas connects the Victorian Gothic to possible experiences of today’s queer-identified readers. While discussing the bevy of attractive women who are offered to Vernon Lee’s Prince Alberic as an alternative to his beloved snake lady, Haefele-Thomas slyly observes, “How often have queer people had to endure this inane sort of heterosexist ‘hook up’?” (145). Through this project, Haefele-Thomas does not simply bring out the queerness of Victorian monsters and the Gothic works they inhabit; she queers the very practices of historicist literary criticism and scholarship.