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!
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?
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/