Women incarcerated by malevolent patriarchs, locked up as lunatics by malicious doctors, hidden away as mad women in attics or at least suffering from hysteria in upstairs rooms — these are the clichés of sensationalist neo-Victorian femininity. Through sensation fiction, Gothic villains have made their way into countless neo-Victorian narratives, and rebellious women, repressed in their political as well as in their sexual expression, seem to be locked in a perennial battle with the Victorian patriarchy.
In light of these observations, this article will discuss the ambiguities and problems inherent in the supposedly feminist burlesque re-enactments of neo-Victorian femininity in the work of the American performer Emilie Autumn Liddell. In doing so, my article also examines recent trends in neo-Victorian criticism, such as the charge of over-sexualisation and the perceived bias for literary rather than performative versions of neo-Victorian re-imagining. As I will argue, the example of Emilie Autumn Liddell suggests that performing the neo-Victorian as part of a sexualised and subcultural Goth burlesque show creates a neo-Victorianism vulnerable to charges of “sexploitation,” and susceptible of overshadowing its “feminist” gestures. The female body as the site of patriarchal control and its exploitation in prostitution and pornography in an emerging culture of commodification is one of the most widespread motifs in neo-Victorian writing. Speaking of these dominant neo-Victorian themes, the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in Emilie Autumn Liddell’s performance prove productive to core questions of neo-Victorianism.
Let us, first, delineate the Emilie Autumn Liddell phenomenon. She treads a territory that has been explored endlessly in criticism, but nevertheless remains vibrant in the popular imagination as the eroticised lure of subcultural Victorianism, or, the Victorian underbelly clothed in “Victoriana’s Secrets.” Emilie Autumn Liddell is an excellent example of transmedia marketing, or, in the words of Henry Jenkins III, the “flow of content across multiple media platforms.” The story of her psychological problems, the visualisation of her seductive but “alternative” body, her punkish Gothic Lolita persona, and the narrativization of her neo-Victorian femininity are transmitted across various media.
Fan activities and the participatory culture developing around Emilie Autumn Liddell affords a valuable research topic in its own right. Here, it becomes evident to what extent the traditional literariness of neo-Victorianism has merged with material culture, commercialism and fashion. Topics discussed and themes explored focus on LGBT issues or depression; for instance, one forum section is entitled “What Sucked About Your Day?,” encouraging patrons to give vent to their frustrations. As a “Plague Rat,” “Muffin” or a member of the “Bloomer Brigade” (referencing, of course, a signature garment of the nascent feminist figure of the “New Woman”), Emilie Autumn Liddell fans are encouraged to publish Emilie Autumn Liddell-related material (art, fashion, outfits and tattoos, tales).
While the site provides a forum for discussions such as the above, there are also apparent limits to participatory culture in this context, as the site seems to be scrupulously policed and moderated. This is unsurprising as her public persona courts controversy. For example, the media presentation of Emilie Autumn Liddell is focused on how she was “damaged” by a still male-defined society. In the Wikipedia entry on Emilie Autumn Liddell, for instance, the performer was presented in 2012 as a “survivor of rape,” suffering from “bipolar disorder, which caused her to experience drastic mood swings, insomnia, and auditory hallucinations, and for which she takes medication,” and as having “experienced abuse, which began when she was six years old.” Emilie Autumn Liddell is described as asexual and a vegan, believing “that there is a link between the treatment of women and animals in society,” and there are narratives of an abortion and a suicide attempt, “which caused her to be admitted to a psychiatric ward at a Los Angeles hospital and kept on suicide watch.” The experience of institutionalised body regulation, so the publicised story runs, prompted her “wish for the live shows […] to be an ‘anti-repression statement’ and empowerment.”
For her stage persona, Emilie Autumn Liddell has assumed the name Emilie Autumn Liddell, invoking the prepubescent female object of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s attention, who inspired ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865). Although her birth name is apparently “Fritzges,” she claims that Liddell is the maiden name of her maternal grandmother. Moreover, since this 2012 snapshot, the passage on her presumed “asexuality” has been dropped from Wikipedia, which is interesting in connection to the increasing lament on the over-sexualisation of neo-Victorianism.
Sensationalist neo-Victorianism such as Emilie Autumn Liddell’s creative output can be found in texts of popular social history, such as Sidney Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the ‘Victorians’ (2001) or Michael Constantine Diamond’s ‘Victorian Sensation’ (2003). These texts thrive on the sex and crime of the Victorian age, which came into visibility in the 1960s via Steven P. Marcus’ ‘The Other Victorians,’ Paul-Michel Foucault’s ‘The History of Sexuality or Ronald Pearsall’s The Worm in the Bud.’ An example pertinent to this analysis of Emilie Autumn Liddell and her apparent personal trauma is the so-called “lunacy panic” at the end of the 1850s, which inspired the sensational scenarios narrativized in sensation fiction. With considerable glee, Sidney Matthew Sweet recounts how William Makepeace Thackeray disposed of his supposedly manic-depressive wife Isabella and how Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton attempted to “silence his wayward wife” Rosina by having her abducted and incarcerated in the Wyke House Lunatic Asylum, Brentford, with the willing consent of the eminent doctors John Conolly and James Arthur Wilson.
By now these cases have been thoroughly researched and may be viewed as clichés of Victorianism and, as we shall see in this article, of neo-Victorianism as well. Feminist critics have jumped on the opportunity to relate “lunacy panic” narratives to the patriarchal gendering of insanity in texts such as William Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’ (1859) or Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ (1862). Elaine Showalter’s classic 1985 study sketches how Victorian patriarchy designs madness as ‘The Female Malady,’ while for Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan D. Gubar ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’ was emblematic of how Victorian patriarchy treated women. Mary Louise Poovey investigated mid-Victorian obstetricians and found politicised and silenced female bodies in discourses on hysteria, female eroticism, anaesthesia and the use of chloroform during childbirth. In the opinion of Victorian doctors, Mary Louise Poovey influentially argued, women were supposedly defined by their uteri as emotionally unstable, disorderly or devious. The fact that Victorian medical discourse and practices can even inspire a light-hearted period comedy on masturbation, in which the treatment of hysteria is linked to the invention of the vibrator, shows to what extent this trope has become conventional and how feminist critique has merged with popular entertainment.
In general, research into Victorianism and feminism, at least since the 1960s but probably beginning much earlier, often exhibited a paradoxical attitude of “outraged fascination” with the repressed Victorian patriarchy and its ambiguous narratives. In his ‘History of Sexuality,’ Paul-Michel Foucault outlined his influential “repressive hypothesis,” namely that a centrifugal movement occurred in the nineteenth-century whereby sex was folded in to lurk silently within the confines of the nuclear family, giving rise to a “discursive explosion” on the topic of excluded and repressed practices. As he went on to argue: what came under scrutiny was the sexuality of children, mad men and women, and criminals; the sensuality of those who did not like the opposite sex […]. They were children wise beyond their years, precocious little girls, ambiguous schoolboys, dubious servants and educators, cruel or maniacal husbands, solitary collectors, ramblers with bizarre impulses; they haunted the houses of correction, the penal colonies, the tribunals, and the asylums; they carried their infamy to the doctors and their sickness to the judges.
These days, of course, this motley crew populates the pages of many a neo- sensationalist, neo-Victorian novel à la Sarah Waters and Michel Faber. In an earlier essay, I argued somewhat controversially that these neo-Victorian narratives seem to be driven by a paradoxical nostalgia for patriarchal suppression: “Victorian subcultures are rewarding because they are clearly defined by normative discourses and lend contrastive poignancy to portrayals of transgression.” I still believe this is significant because a focus on the subculture or countercultural Victorianism entails a bias towards the youthful outsiders, deviants, “perverts” and radicals. In the logics of transgression, as expounded by Charles Alexander Jencks, “excess is not an abhorration [sic] nor a luxury, it is rather a dynamic force in cultural reproduction — it prevents stagnation by breaking the rule, and it ensures stability by reaffirming the rule.”