My first proposition is that the supernatural functions as a form of liberation, freeing these maids from their circumstances, particularly the repressive sexual morality of the Victorian era.
The supernatural is not bound by taboos or legal considerations, and can, therefore, allow what has been silenced in a culture to be spoken, and let desires that have been suppressed be released and enacted.
It is plausible to read both Mary Reilly and Alias Grace as explorations of the sexual desires of working-class women. Grace Marks is ill-informed on sexual matters until she meets her “ghost” Mary Whitney, who gives her a new, sexualized vocabulary. When Whitney speaks (through Grace) after her death, she reveals in her sexual power, while Marks remains apparently chaste.
Mary Reilly, imprisoned by sexual repression and her class status, can only speculate timidly on whether she is attractive to her master, but the existence of the monstrous Hyde brings maid and master closer together, and binds them with shared secrets.
The supernatural element does not, in either novel, allow the maid’s desires to be enacted in any straightforward way, but this does not prove the two are not associated; the chaos caused by the ghost and the monster suggests the increased force of a desire that has been repressed or displaced and which now resurfaces.
The supernatural is a highly appropriate tool for such explorations; Victorian supernatural fiction has been read as particularly expressive of the sexual urges and anxieties of the societies producing it. The critic Christopher Craft (1984), for example, outlines the temptations and menaces of sexual licence and gender inversion in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897).
The two supernatural novels discussed in this essay are part of a wider celebration of the drama of Victorian repression and liberation. Matthew Sweet argues that Hammer studio horror films (from the 1950s to the 1970s) employed a Victorian setting “to tell parables about the pleasures of the Permissive Society, which it dramatized as a battle between the promiscuous Undead and conservative Victorians” (2001, p. xix).
In the more recent neo-Victorian fiction boom, Sarah Waters’s depiction of Victorian lesbians, Victorian cross-dressing, and Victorian sex toys has found a wide readership. This plot of suppression and liberation derives its pleasure from surprise and contrast. To this end, the Victorian carapace of sexual repression is reinforced so that its underbelly can be exposed. Sweet credits Hammer with acting in this way, and as having done ‘the most to shape the popular perception of Victorian sensibility’ as staid and repressed (2001, p. xix).
The film company created the historical backdrop needed to display the liberation plot to its best advantage. Readers can even seem willing to undergo voluntary amnesia to sustain their enjoyment; Christian Gutleben asks why “contemporary novels go on denouncing Victorian prostitution as if it were an unheard- of scandal” and accuses them of recycling “facts which have become common-place” (2001, pp. 65–6).
I will be using the term “liberation plot” to describe fictions which employ this dynamic, depicting Victorian sexual repression or social oppression, providing plot development and reader satisfaction by ultimately overcoming such constraints.
There may well be a note of self- congratulation in this depiction of Victorian repression and liberation. It fleshes out an underlying modern belief that Michel Foucault refers to as the “repressive hypothesis” (1990, pp. 8–12). He describes how we bolster our modern self- image by asserting that we handle sexual matters far better than “the monotonous nights of the Victorian bourgeoisie” (Foucault, 1990, p. 3).
Victorians are depicted as sexually repressive, with a “triple edict of taboo, non- existence, and silence”, so that we can see ourselves as bold liberators when we speak of sex (Foucault, 1990, pp. 5–7). Neo-Victorian fiction often supports this belief by attributing benign, transformative powers to liberated sexuality; desire is seen as capable of circumventing or breaking down social barriers. Working- class women characters claim the “speaker’s benefit”; this “benefit” is the understanding that to speak of sex is to act in favour of social justice.
There are other forms of restriction at work in Mary Reilly and Alias Grace in which the supernatural might also intervene. Modern awareness of the sexual inequality of the Victorian era has made it a productive ground for fictional engagements with feminist issues. In addition, rigid class distinctions are another area of popularly perceived Victorian oppression. Neo-Victorian fiction fetishizes the elaborate rituals of class, the forms of address, and the vast disparities of income involved in live- in service; they then also celebrate those who escape or transgress these class distinctions.
In these social situations, the supernatural might be precisely the tool to bridge the gap between inner, psychological liberation and outer, social empowerment; the ghost or the monster might be able to rescue the maid. Mary Reilly and Alias Grace are full of pleasurable class and gender transgressions, prompted by supernatural elements. Mary Whitney, the ghost/maid, has an advanced political critique of the landowning classes. Edward Hyde, as I will explore, catalyses the scrutiny of Dr Jekyll’s upper-class philanthropy which is found wanting. Such transgressions have their echoes in the Victorian fiction of the uncanny.
Lloyd Smith uses Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s theory of the ‘phantom’ (1994) to argue that as well as the individual unconscious, the “social unconscious” can be depicted through the uncanny: “the unconscious (that is, the concealed or silenced) knowledge of the larger historical/political culture” (1992, p. 288). This opens up the possibility of a fiction of the uncanny in which unease is created through cultural silences and contradictions. This is particularly appealing for modern authors whose project includes strong social critiques of Victorian culture.
It has become commonplace to assert that we use the Victorians to identify ourselves as contrastingly “modern”. ‘Kucich and Sadoff’ (2000), ‘Gutleben’ (2001), and ‘Sweet’ (2001) all make this point, with different emphases. The liberation plot, therefore, not only characterises the Victorians in a certain way; it contrasts them with the modern world, suggesting a certain model of historical progress, and thus celebrates the victory of sexual liberation in the present day.
There is a particular temptation in neo-Victorian novels to overinvest in the power of sexual liberation, connecting it (conceptually or causally) to the escape of female characters from harmful social situations. These novels often collapse the plots of social and sexual liberation into one another.
Rose Tremain’s ‘The Colour’ (2003) can be read as an example of this problematic collapse. The heroine undertakes arduous travel and manual labour but her final liberation comes through a sexual relationship; the heroine finds gold deposits in the spot where her affair takes place.
Comfortably wealthy, she can bring up her illegitimate mixed-race son alone. One interpretation might be that the affair symbolises how far the heroine has come in terms of personal development. A less subtle inference is that sex brings freedom, and freedom of several kinds simultaneously. As Foucault notes, “[s]omething that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law, slips easily into this discourse on sexual oppression” (1990, p. 7).
The liberation plot is thus a particularly tempting tool for the neo-Victorian author. However, Alias Grace and Mary Reilly are too subtle to allow it to triumph untroubled, or to allow the ghost or the monster to rescue the maid. In both novels, the notion of liberation powers the plot at points, but does not dominate. I will show how these two novels use the liberation plot, and employ supernatural elements to support it, but also demonstrate how it is complicated, undermined and haunted.