In my first post on this blog, I discussed the idea of hidden representations of homosexuality in strict Victorian society. I neglected to mention, however, one of the key authors of the 19th Century – Oscar Wilde. An Irish, queer, outspoken playwright and embodiment of all things Aesthetic, Wilde is truly an icon. He is the most famous queer writer that I’ve ever heard about, and shockingly, he was Victorian.
Wilde (pictured above) was a follower of the Aesthetic Movement, which can essentially be summarised with the idea of “art for art’s sake”. One of the ways he may have represented this was in his Dandy character. As a fashionable socialite, a Dandy was a man who cared about his appearance. This reputation was built on “beauty for beauty’s sake”, and in the Victorian period it took London by storm. Wilde himself helped popularise the fashion by writing witty, fantastical Dandies such as Algernon in The Importance of Being Ernest. While more rigid Victorian’s may have associated Dandy-ism with the undesirable trait of decadence, trendy socialites of the time used the aesthetic to defy convention.
The Dandy may be based on shallow notions of appearance, but it also has a rich history. Edwardian Promenade has an article detailing the rise and fall of the Dandy character, noting that Oscar Wilde was “the most notorious Dandy”; http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/fashion/the-dandy/. While Oscar Wilde may be known for his outspoken lifestyle and eccentric style, he was also much more than that. I would encourage you to watch Sabrina Cruz’s video on his life; https://www.youtube.com/user/NerdyAndQuirky/about. In it, she goes into detail on Wilde as a Dandy, but also as a gay man living in a time when homosexuality was illegal.
Oscar Wilde is definitely one of my all-time inspirations. Do you have any period icons that I should know more about? Let me know in the comments down below!
You can’t study women in 20th century Irish literature without examining the sexist values perpetuated by DeValera’s 1937 Irish Constitution. Amid detailing what would be DeValera’s ideal Independent Ireland, it is made clear what role women were seen to occupy in society at the time. Specifying the desire to protect the family-unit as the basis of society, the constitution recognises women’s contribution to the State through her position in the household. While I do believe it’s important to value the work many women have undertaken in running a household throughout history, an issue lies here in the relegation of women purely to the home.
The 1937 Constitution creates no space for women outside of the home. This need to ‘protect’ women as mothers and wives could be seen in Irish society throughout the nineteen-hundreds. Not only did it perpetuate the societal norm of a nuclear family with a patriarchal head, but laws which banned women from working in the civil service after marriage stood until the 1970s.
These issues did not come unchallenged. Before the creation of the Irish Free-State, many women fought in the battle for Independence. These women, who were integral to the republican movement, were suddenly being limited to housewives. Many people outwardly opposed DeValera’s constitution, including author Dorothy Macardle. The change Macardle and others requested was simple: include a place for women both within and outside of the home in the Irish Constitution.
The State would not comply. The women of Ireland had their role and that was it. Much of the literature of the time reflects the ideal of a ‘woman’s place’, with female characters existing only in the kitchen. Feminist authors, however, continued their fight – producing works which challenged the perceived place of women in Irish society at the time. Do you, reader, think these discussions still have merit today? I invite you to comment on whether or not you believe the values upheld in the 1937 Constitution still hold influence on Irish society.
If you’d like to learn more about the 1937 constitution, History Ireland has a comprehensive article on the subject: https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/the-catholic-church-and-the-writing-of-the-1937-constitution/. It details the creation of the new Free State document, paying particular regard to the influence of the Catholic Church on Irish values at the time.
H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has arguably been one of the most influential works in the science-fiction genre to date. Considered to be the first popular alien-invasion novel, The War of The Worlds was a piece ahead of its time. Not only inspiring many adaptions of the original piece, Wells’ work served to be a core text from which many sci-fi authors have since drawn.
Personally, I was surprised by how contemporary the writing felt when I first read War of the Worlds, especially considering it was published in 1898 – over 120 years ago. Bar the Victorian setting, it almost felt like the novel could have been written today. The image on the above cover looks like it could be set in any time period. Not only does the writing feel fresh, but the lessons one can take from the piece remain valuable. We need to be aware that our place in the universe is no more stable or important than any other creature’s. In today’s world, the value of one life over another is still something which needs to be called into question. What can this message tell you, for example, about the climate crisis we’re currently experiencing? As humans, we may see ourselves as the dominant race on earth, but that doesn’t mean we are right in assuming any power over nature. Our current position in the world is not something to be taken for granted; we are as likely to be taken over by extra-terrestrials as we are to be taken down by the natural world we assume to be ruling over.
I invite you, reader, to comment on these thoughts. Do you think period texts still have value today? Do Victorian novels still have things to teach us about the world in which we live, or should we merely examine them as relics of a time passed?
In this week’s Irish Literature class, we examined the life and work of Seamus Heaney. Arguably Ireland’s most prolific contemporary poet, Heaney addressed a range of topical themes, these include:
- Irish Identity
- The Turbulence of the Northern Irish Troubles
Expertly interweaving these themes into his body of work; Heaney maintained a balance between his desire to write poetry of enlightenment, and his sense of obligation to represent the feelings of his community during a time of political turmoil.
This need to reflect upon the violence of The Troubles can be seen in poems such as ‘Funeral Rights’, which deals directly with the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Irish Times covers this in an interesting piece by Conor McClosky entitled ‘How Writers Sought to Make Sense of the Troubles’: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/how-writers-sought-to-make-sense-of-the-troubles-1.2889316. In the piece McClosky discusses how Heaney made sense of the effects of The Troubles through connecting key events to the past.
The attitudes of his nationalist, Catholic community can also be felt more generally in pieces such as ‘Broagh’. Here, Heaney reflects upon the feeling of belonging as being connected to physical places. In the poem, he notes that the place-name ‘Broagh’ is intrinsically Irish; belonging to Broagh is belonging to Ireland – something which can be felt in the fact that outsiders can’t pronounce the name. The poem takes on a more ethereal, transcendent quality then his other, more political work. Yet even though it feels less politically motivated, you can still see the effect the turbulence of the political and social sphere in Northern Ireland at the time had on Heaney and his writing.
Heaney’s expressions of what it was to be Irish in a time and place where Irish identity was in question are incredibly important. All of his work can be looked at as being influenced by his environment, providing readers with nuanced expressions of Catholic life in Northern Ireland during a time of incredible turbulence.
I recently did a presentation on Dorothy Macardle’s Dark Enchantment for my Irish Literature class. To be honest, I chose the novel because it sounded cool and mysterious. When I finished the novel, I was worried I chose wrong. Not only was it not the seductive story of my imagination, but it was actually virtually impossible to find academic sources which discussed the novel directly. This was because the book had been out of print until 2019, when it was picked up by Tramp Press in their Recovered Voices Series.
While I was frustrated at the complication this fact added to my assignment, I was more interested in the work Tramp Press were doing to revive voices lost in the Irish canon. I had heard of the publishing house before but wasn’t aware of this particular project. I’m glad I chose this awkward novel, because it allowed me to come across the work that Tramp are doing. Marcardle was a voice that was lost to time. She was removed from the literary canon because of her gender and experimental take on storytelling. These features do not make her irrelevant in Irish literature, but rather a refreshing contrast to the more popular, mostly male, authors highlighted in the 20th Century Irish period.
You can read more about the work Tramp press do on their website: https://www.tramppress.com/about/. The guardian did a piece on the women who run the company, and their stance on sexism in the publishing industry: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/28/sexists-need-not-apply-publisher-refuses-to-look-at-manuscripts-addressed-to-dear-sirs. I commend the work these women are doing in diversifying the Irish canon, and look forward to seeing what they come out with in the future.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is often critically interpreted as a commentary on repressive Victorian society. The ‘good’ Jekyll feels the pressure to conform to rigid social expectations, and proceeds to ‘act out’ in the form of Hyde – the beastly, murderous alternative personality who begins to take over Jekyll’s life.
Another, perhaps more literal reading of the text explores the idea of Jekyll and Hyde as an early interpretation of someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Here, we see two or more alternative identities existing in one body. The study of this condition began in the Victorian period; Stevenson is known to have had in interest in it. April Edwards goes into further detail on this in her blog Victorian Science Fiction: https://blog.uvm.edu/scalexan-vsf/the-strange-case-of-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde/our-critical-review/
The problem with this interpretation is that it feeds into the negative stigma already surrounding DID. Representation of DID in literature and media is welcome (about 1-3% of the population live with it, which is a substantial amount). Issues, however, arise in the tendency to misrepresent the disorder, especially in a Horror and Science-Fiction context.
The idea of the evil alternative identity spawned in Jekyll and Hyde has permeated many popular culture representations of DID since, the most well known example being that of the 2016 movie Split. The un-tameable beast often depicted in media has become a trope that many assume actually exists in people with DID. This unfounded fear represented onscreen leads to the stigmatization and ostracisation of real people living within the DID community.
While I can accept that the Victorian’s may have been ignorant to the psychological roots of the disorder, I do not agree that modern artists have the right to perpetuate the stigmatization of DID for the sake of a horror trope. Robert Louis Stevenson may not have known better, but after 130 years you would think we should.
If you’d like the learn more about reactions to Split from the DID community, I’d recommend checking out the DissociaDID System’s video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7InIpe88eoQ
“She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth,
Her lips began to scorch,
That juice was wormwood to her tongue
She loathed the feast”-Christina Rosetti, ‘Goblin Market’.
Examine the above quote. What would you assume of the nature of relationship between these two women? If you imagined it to be romantic you would not be the first
While many different readings may be present in Rosetti’s Goblin market, the first impression I personally got of the poem was that Rosetti was possibly describing the temptations surrounding the then ‘taboo’ notion of homosexual desire. Other interpretations see the characters as representative of religious allegories – Rosetti was a practising Christian. This made sense, but my feeling that there must be a deeper, hidden meaning to the piece led me to question the extent of which we can apply a modern reading to a period text.
The Victorians as we know them were a rigid, ‘moral’ people – the British ‘stiff upper lip’ ideology came from them. If this was the case, how could Rosetti even think to write about sexuality, let alone ‘abominable’ homosexuality, when she lived in a world where such things must not be discussed? Surely any intimacy she described in her work had to be purely innocent, right?
Maybe not. While I don’t know everything there is to know about the Victorians just yet, I do know this: they were human. That is something that the Victorians and us have in common. My question, therefore, is this: am I looking at ‘Goblin Market’ through the bias of modern perspective, or does the fact that we live in a modern society make these possibly ‘taboo’ messages more obvious?
If you’re interested in learning more about Victorian sexuality and sexual repression, Jan Marsh wrote an interesting article on the subject for the Victoria and Albert Museum website: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/sex-and-sexuality-19th-century/