Queer Others in Victorian Gothic
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Queer Others in Victorian Gothic

Transgressing Monstrosity

Ardel Haefele-Thomas

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Queer Others in Victorian Gothic

Transgressing Monstrosity

Ardel Haefele-Thomas

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1
Introduction
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The intersections of queer, postcolonial and Gothic theories
A missing Indian diamond. A scaffold in New England. A map of the African interior written on a potsherd. A Jamaican vampire bat. A portrait of an Italian castrato. These are some of the props I have chosen to analyse in Queer Others in Victorian Gothic: Transgressing Monstrosity. The props themselves are only pieces of a larger tropology where queer sexuality, transgender bodies, racial otherness and Gothic horror intersect. Each item signifies a site of crisis as well as a site of transgression in Victorian culture. The Western authorities who search for the unusual Indian diamond cannot find it; rather, it is the biracial, genderqueer ‘anti-authority’ figure who solves the mystery of the stolen yellow jewel. The New England scaffold becomes a murder site where an American Indian woman and an English woman, clinging to one another as they are conducted out of their dank prison cell, are hung as witches by the power hungry Puritan authorities. The map on the potsherd sends three Britons to the heart of Africa where they discover a ‘savage’ monarch who appears hauntingly similar to Queen Victoria. The vampire bat represents a conflation of racist and imperialist stereotypes about the Jamaican spiritual practice of obeah, fin-de-siècle worries about hereditary taint and the possibility of queer contagion. And the portrait of the genderqueer, beautiful and ‘wicked’ Italian castrato seduces and then haunts men and women until they wither and die for want of hearing his decadent voice sing yet another song. In some cases, these props signal the author’s use of Gothic to interrogate and subvert Victorian hegemonic ideals regarding sexuality, gender identity, race, empire and nation. In some other instances, the props signify the author’s deep ambivalence about how to read the multiple and changing faces of the monstrous ‘Other’ in the nineteenth century.
This project aims to explore the intersections of Gothic, cultural, gender, queer, socio-economic and postcolonial theories in nineteenth-century British representations of sexuality, gender, class and race. Broadly, Michel Foucault’s writings about the violence of the ‘Victorian regime’ – one that forced anyone who was not bourgeois, white and heterosexual into closeted silence – help set up the framework for understanding the ways that the ‘other Victorians’ were portrayed.1 These ‘other Victorians’ included working-class people, imperial subjects, prostitutes, homosexuals and anyone else who did not fall into the prudish and rigidly structured identity deemed appropriate in the Victorian age. At the same time, this project looks to interrogate some of our current assumptions in Victorian studies, especially the idea that Victorian culture was monolithic in its disdain for those who were ‘other’. Throughout the course of this project, I have found that some authors employed Gothic frameworks to defend queer and other marginalized characters in ways that were quite subversive. For other authors, Gothic as a genre allows them to express their ambivalence regarding ‘others’ in society; this exemplifies their willingness to approach these subjects in a complex way.
What is queer about Gothic? And what is Gothic about queer?
In the introduction to their anthology, Queering the Gothic, William Hughes and Andrew Smith explain that ‘Gothic has, in a sense, always been “queer”. The genre . . . has been characteristically perceived in criticism as being poised astride the uneasy cultural boundary that separates the acceptable and familiar from the troubling and different.’2 ‘Gothic’ and‘queer’ are aligned in that they both transgress boundaries and occupy liminal spaces, and in so doing, they each consistently interrogate ideas of what is ‘respectable’ and what is ‘normal’. As Hughes and Smith argue, ‘to be queer is to be different, yet it is also to be unavoidably associated with the non-queer, the normative . . . The two states exist in reciprocal tension.’3 ‘The queer’ is bound to function within heteronormative culture while at the same time this figure calls the idea of ‘the norm’ into question. Gothic is also ‘different’ because it, like ‘the queer’, straddles the boundary between ‘acceptable’ and ‘troubling’. As a genre, Gothic often gets defined against other more ‘normative’ types of fiction; it is often not taken as seriously as, say, Realism. George Haggerty points out that ‘the cult of Gothic fiction reached its apex at the very moment when gender and sexuality were beginning to be codified for modern culture . . . Gothic fiction offered a testing ground for many unauthorized genders and sexualities.’4 While Gothic became a place to explore the terrain of taboo sexual desires and gender identities, I would also argue that it became a safe location in which to explore ideas about race, interracial desire, cross-class relations, ethnicity, empire, nation and ‘foreignness’ during the nineteenth century. Gothic writers would often simultaneously explore many if not all of these issues within one story or one novel. The strength of Gothic rests upon its being a liminal genre; it allowed many nineteenth-century authors to look at social and cultural worries consistently haunting Victorian Britain even as the official discourse worked tirelessly to silence those concerns.
Through a queer, postcolonial and historical lens, Queer Others in Victorian Gothic: Transgressing Monstrosity explores the ways that various Victorian Gothic authors give voice to complex issues concerning queer sexuality, gender identity, racial and ethnic subjectivity, national affiliation and socio-economic status. In most of the works examined, the authors explore anxieties about ‘foreigners’, racial miscegenation and/or empire alongside anxieties about gender ambiguity and ‘perverse’ sexuality. I utilize the term ‘queer’ on numerous levels: in its nineteenth-century historical context to point to the generally weird, odd or ill, as well as in the early twentieth-century evolution of the term as it was applied (quite negatively) to homosexuality. In my theoretical framework, I also employ the term ‘queer’ in the complex, politically charged late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century reclamation of the term. Unlike the gender specificity found in gay and lesbian theories and historiographies, queer theory – especially given the historical definitions of ‘queer’ – supplies room for multiple, potentially polyvalent positions, conveying gender, sexuality, race, class and familial structures beyond heteronormative (and often bourgeois) social constructs. I read gender ambiguity as transgender or genderqueer when it challenges the gender binary.5 In many cases, looking beyond the gender binary produces a sort of ‘transness’ that actually gets mapped back onto the ‘foreign’ or the colonial situation. This crossing of boundaries can offer new ways of looking at the liminality of the figure of the ‘go-between’, a person who often challenges racial or national paradigms, much like the gender-queer who challenges the gender binary as well as the gender specificity of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ narratives. In Queer Gothic, then, we encounter all manner of ‘different’ and ‘transgressive’ characters.
When I originally began this project, I had intended to look at the ways in which various authors wrote their Gothic monsters as queer and quite often as racially miscegenated. Certainly, Gothic theorists like Judith Halberstam and Kelly Hurley (who focus on issues of gender and the body) as well as Patrick Brantlinger and H. L. Malchow (who explore race and empire) have all argued insightfully that – for a fin-de-siècle British audience struggling to uphold a unified British identity against the changing force of rapid imperial expansions and the constant influx of foreigners into London – many of the Gothic monsters cause fear and panic because of their uncanny ability simultaneously to embody multiple subject positions.6 As the project progressed, however, I was haunted by the ways that many Victorian authors, including solidly mid-century writers like Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell, approached subjectivities deemed ‘degenerate’, ‘perverse’ and/or racially ‘other’ sympathetically through the complex mechanism of Gothic and their radical reconfigurations of monstrosity.
In some cases, the precise characters who ‘should’ be monstrous within typical Victorian Gothic frameworks are given great sympathy as well as crucial roles within the narrative. For other authors, there is a palpable ambivalence in their approach to Gothic as they struggle with ‘normative’ ideas about sexuality, gender identity, race, class and nation. The Gothic genre seems to have enabled them to explore the complex issues of the day more honestly and thoroughly. Now, in the twenty-first century, their Gothic narratives can help us call into question monolithic ideas we might have about Victorian culture and Victorian attitudes. Taken together, these texts transgress monstrosity in the sense that they help interrogate the very idea of what is monstrous, opening up spaces where we can read sympathy for others who are queer, who are multiracial, who live outside of the heteronormative economy, or who choose their own family constructs that offer alternatives to the heteronormative paradigm. These queers and others exist outside (and in their existence challenge) a hegemonic Victorian construction of the patriarchal British family as upholder of gender, sexual, national and racial purity.
Chapters 1 and 2 of this book examine two popular mid-century authors – Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell – who were both publishing with Charles Dickens in All The Year Round. Through a Gothic framework, Wilkie Collins explores a crisis in the heterosexual marriage plot in his two most famous novels, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). In both cases, the solution to the crisis does not rest with the usual socially acceptable authorities – the solicitor, the detective or the doctor – but rather with the ingenuity of a queer character. Both Marian Halcombe and Ezra Jennings exhibit genderqueer possibilities, swarthy complexions and homoerotic tendencies. A Victorian audience would have read these signs and been prepared to recognize Halcombe and Jennings as queer monstrosities. Collins, however, does not deliver what we might expect from such characterizations. Through their marginalized positions, these two queer characters are given special insight into the facades of ‘normal’ and ‘reality’, and through their abilities, Halcombe and Jennings, interestingly, come to facilitate the ritual of heterosexual marriage and the resolution of the marriage plot. It is not a leap to claim that without these queer characters, there would be no marriage to resolve the crisis and to conclude these two Gothic novels. By giving Marian Halcombe and Ezra Jennings such important roles, Collins calls into question the ‘acceptable’ notion that queer people and in the case of Jennings in particular, queer, multiracial people are unimportant to culture and society.
While Elizabeth Gaskell is still best known for her industrial novels (Mary Barton and North and South) and her depiction of village life in Cranford, this chapter explores her Gothic tales in which gender, race, class and subversions of ‘normative’ heterosexual family structures can function together to create transgressive critiques and narratives. Within her intricate and menacing landscapes found in Lois the Witch (1859) and ‘The Grey Woman’ (1861), Gaskell employs the Gothic to create a space for her radical family restructurings.
Gaskell’s Lois the Witch is a cautionary tale about Puritan fanaticism and the tragedy of what happens when an entire society decides to eliminate all of the people it deems to be ‘different’. Although it is Gothic fiction, it is a story deeply rooted in historical fact: the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. While Gaskell experiments with the elision of the real and the Gothic in her subject matter, she also finds a means to critique the ways in which women are often forced into the heteronormative economy and, subsequently, what happens when a woman rebels. While the novella focuses on seventeenth-century New England and the ways that American Indians were treated there, Lois the Witch also covertly questions nationalist sentiment in the aftermath of the 1857 Indian uprising.
In an even more daring story, ‘The Grey Woman’, Gaskell revisits the ideas of constructing a ‘chosen’ family. Set in Germany and France, the tale involves a young lady, Anna, who has to be saved from an abusive, murderous husband by her servant, Amante, who cross-dresses as her husband. Even before their escape into the Gothic European landscape, Amante throws off ‘feminine’ conventions to save Anna. Here, Gaskell points to the greater flexibility of gender roles found in the working classes. Not only do the aristocratic Anna and servant Amante ‘pass’ as a heterosexual couple, but they also pass as a tailor and his wife, so there are multiple layers of cross-dressing taking place within the story. What is perhaps most striking about this particular piece is that Gaskell makes it clear what a loving couple Anna and Amante are, and she leaves them in drag long after they need to be.
Chapters 3 and 4 focus on three authors who utilize Gothic to explore their ambivalence about sexuality, gender, empire, race and nationalism. Henry Rider Haggard’s She (1886–7) echoes Britain’s desire to colonize unknown, ‘virginal’ terrain. By 1885, however, most of Africa had already been penetrated by Britain, making it necessary for Haggard to create a mythic land at the heart of the ‘Dark Continent’.
Haggard’s heroes, Horace and Leo, have come from the homosocial (and homoerotically charged) world of Cambridge, which ultimately proves to be a world far preferable to the bizarre heteronormative one offered by Ayesha. The men cautiously proceed to the interior of Africa in search of Leo’s ancestry – one that links Britain to Africa. The text is fraught with their fears of cannibalism, tinged with their worry over the possibility of queer rape at the hands of the ‘natives’. And if that were not enough, the men quake at the prospect of their meeting with the powerful and enigmatic She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Ayesha embodies multiple ethnicities and liminal sexual, gender and even species categories. Ultimately, at the centre of Africa, Horace and Leo discover a conflation of monarchs: Ayesha’s imagined empire mirrors Queen Victoria’s actual one.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Florence Marryat each created ambivalent tales of queer women vampires. Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871–2) has become the classic vampire tale, and is perhaps more popular today than it was when it was published. Florence Marryat’s vampire, Harriet Brandt, however, was overshadowed by Count Dracula. Only recently available in reprint, The Blood of the Vampire (1897) offers up a tale about hereditary taint, queer sexuality and the monstrosity of the ‘half-breed’. Beneath their surfaces, however, both Carmilla and The Blood of the Vampire interrogate the presumptions of Western medical authority as it casts its gaze onto women who are deemed ‘monstrous’ because of their ethnic identity and their sexual orientation. While they may seem to offer mere cautionary tales of queer women vampires, these texts also explore the much more complex terrain of ambivalence toward empire and nation.
The final chapter examines three of Vernon Lee’s decadent Gothic short stories, ‘A Wicked Voice’ (1890), ‘The Image’ (aka ‘The Doll’, 1896) and ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’ (1896) as coded defences of her queer comrades who were being systematically oppressed and imprisoned by a fin-de-siècle culture of homophobic sexual panic. In the decade Lee penned these stories, the Labouchère Amendment outlawing male homosexual acts in public and private was passed, the Cleveland Street scandal created public panic about a cross-class male brothel, and Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labour under the Labouchère Amendment. Lee’s decadent queer Gothic represents a final transgressing of the category of queer monstrosity, revealing the real monstrosity haunting late Victorian Britain: the triumvirate of homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia.
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The Spinster and the Hijra: How Queers Save Heterosexual Marriage in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and The Moonstone
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Freak shows and imperial woes
An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction.1
Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White was first published in serial form between November 1859 and August 1860 in Charles Dickens’s All The Year Round. The action of the novel takes place in and around 1848 leading up to 1851. Eight years later, Collins once again employed his extremely popular split narrative form for The Moonstone, serialized from January–August 1868. Here, as well, Collins places the action of the novel in a previous time: 1799 and 1848–9. The stories take place within two years of one another, but they are haunted by two particular events that occ...

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