“Penny Dreadful” still.
“It would not be too much to say that Anglo-American feminist criticism barely existed before [Gilbert and Gubar] rocked literary studies.”
Deborah D. Rogers, The Times Higher Education.
In 1979, Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert published The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a hallmark of second-wave feminist criticism. Over 700 pages long, The Madwoman in the Attic presents an analysis of a trope found in 19th-century literature. Gilbert and Gubar proposed that all female characters in male-authored novels can be categorised as either an angel or a monster; women in fiction were either pure and submissive or sensual, rebellious, and uncontrollable (very undesirable qualities in a Victorian daughter/mother/wife).
“Ophelia” (1852), John Everett Millais.
Victorians were obsessed with death in general and suicide in particular. For women who wanted to take their own lives, drowning was a common choice and the image of a female body floating in the water became a popular one in the Victorian imagination. This idea was heavily romanticised: it was like these women (especially “fallen women”) had been cleansed of their former sins and had found a quiet beauty in the (imagined) quiet serenity of their demise.
Artists and writers depicted women falling out of windows, jumping off bridges, and walking into lakes. Performances of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were very popular, the painting of Ophelia by Millais (see above) was painted and exhibited in 1852, and in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Lord Henry asks Dorian how he knows that “Hetty isn’t floating at the present moment in some starlit mill-pond, with lovely water-lilies around her, like Ophelia?”
As Foucault noted in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1988),
when civilization, life in society, the imaginary desires aroused by novel reading and theatergoing [sic] provoke nervous ailments, the return to water’s limpidity assumes the meaning of a ritual of purification; in that transparent coolness, one is reborn to one’s first innocence.
“A New Vice: Opium Dens in France”, cover of Le Petit Journal, 5 July 1903.
In nineteenth-century England, opium was both a popular recreational drug and pharmaceutical (in the form of laudanum or poppy tea). The mysterious effect of the narcotic and the gloom of the “Oriental” opium dens spread across London appealed to many Victorian authors, and some Romantics claimed that the drug fueled dreams were a great source of creative inspiration.
Gemma Arterton in the 2008 BBC adaptation.
When I first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I was nineteen years old; every fifty pages or so I would let out a sound of frustration, slam the book shut, and fume silently with my arms crossed for a few minutes before sighing and picking it up again. Tess made me angry. Six years and a whole lot of gender studies later, this book makes me furious.
And that is a good thing.
I bought this book over two years ago, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently. The cover design of my edition, bright purple with a pink swirly font, combined with a title that sounds like it was ripped straight from the headlines of a gossip glossy really put me off initially (although come to think of it, the gossip columns played an important part in the lives of the Wildes). Still, curiosity got the best of me in the end, and I’m glad it did. We all know what happened to Oscar Wilde, but the story of Constance is one that is seldom told and deserves to be heard.