Neo-Victorian Female Philanthropist in Literature and Freakishness

Lin Elinor Pettersson
Lin Elinor Pettersson

In the introduction to the special issue of the Journal Neo-Victorian Studies, entitled ‘Neo-Victorianism and Feminism: New Approaches’, the editors Tara MacDonald and Joyce Goggin emphasise how “it is striking that neo-Victorian narratives typically contain little in the way of feminist collectives and communities”.

Neo-Victorianism is a historical genre that is highly preoccupied with gender issues, and its revisionary enterprise stretches far beyond a mere rescue of lost voices and the re-imagination of the fates of marginalised people to retrieve them from historical oblivion. Certainly, this sub-genre of modern historical fiction is used as a vehicle to criticise ideals, politics and cultural beliefs and prove a fruitful ground for contemporary authors to explore present-day issues and how they stand in relation to the past. As Marie-Luise Kohlke affirms the neo-Victorian novel has been engaged in feminist consciousness-raising, whether directly or indirectly, both of its audience and it is often outcast, persecuted, and exploited female character”.

In recent years, several scholars have made an effort in establishing a link between first, second and third wave feminisms to explore the interface between feminist politics in the Victorian period and twenty- and twenty-first-century feminist agendas in neo-Victorian literature. Yet, as Tara MacDonald and Joyce Goggin have noted, “neo-Victorian texts do not always perform in the ways that critics want them to, and the neo-Victorian media are not consistently as self-reflexive and radically feminist as academics may hope”. This article explores Victorian philanthropy as a potential feminist community and singles out the female philanthropist in neo-Victorian literature in an attempt to disclose why contemporary authors insist on focusing on her body.

Although Victorian feminist communities have been scarce in the neo-Victorian novels, the female philanthropist has appeared as an urban female character in at least four novels up to this moment, namely: Florence Banner in Sarah Waters’ ‘Tipping the Velvet’ (1998), Emmeline Fox in Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ (2002), Lady Jocelyn in Belinda Starling’s ‘The Journal of Dora Damage’ (2007) and Fido Faithfull in Emma Donoghue’s ‘The Sealed Letter’ (2008). In these works, the female philanthropist is mainly a supporting character to the female protagonist with the exception of ‘The Sealed Letter’. The main character in Emma Donoghue’s novel is the social activist, writer and philanthropist Emily Faithfull (1835-1995) and the narrative is set in the mid-Victorian period against the backdrop of the early stages of the women’s movement. Notwithstanding, one common feature of the afore-mentioned novels is that all situate philanthropy on the axis of sexuality.

In general, neo-Victorian literature infers contemporary gender theories onto the Victorian discourse on female sexual desire. Specifically, Sarah Waters incorporates Judith Butler’s notion of gender performance into ‘Tipping the Velvet’ where the early feminist movement is contextualised within lesbian sisterhoods and Victorian Sapphic Erotica. Similarly, in ‘The Journal of Dora Damage’, Lady Jocelyn’s engagement in the “Ladies’ Society for the Assistance of Fugitives from Slavery” is rather libidinous than altruistic. As Caterina Novák points out, Lady Jocelyn is portrayed as “a caricature rather than an accurate depiction of a Victorian society woman that appears deliberately designed to deflect the reader’s sympathies and serves as a foil for Dora”. Thus, the novel limits the philanthropist to an eroticized context in which the sisterhood objectifies the male racial “Other” by targeting liberated slaves as objects of sexual curiosity and erotic explorations. Marie-Luise Kohlke links this literary sexualisation of the Victorians to the reader perspective and holds that “by projecting illicit and unmentionable desires onto the past, we conveniently reassert our own supposedly enlightened stance towards sexuality and social progress”. Although the scholar addresses neo-Victorianism in terms of “the new Orientalism”, her statement also brings issues regarding sexuality and gender equality to the forefront, which, I find, questions our own knowingness about the Victorians as well as it provides insight into contemporary society.

The scope of this article is to explore why the neo-Victorian philanthropist is situated on the basic premise of women’s sexuality and for what purpose. The ensuing analysis focuses on contemporary constructions and contestations of the concept of gender inversion by taking a closer look at the philanthropists in two neo-Victorian novels: Emmeline Fox as characterised by Michel Faber in ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ and Emily Faithfull as re-imagined by Emma Donoghue in ‘The Sealed Letter’.

Both novels are set in the aftermath of William Rathbone Greg’s seminal essay on the surplus of unmarried women in England, ‘Why Are Women Redundant’ (1862). This text testifies to the anxiety aroused by the excess of single women who would not be able to fulfil their roles as mothers and wives. Thus, Michel Faber and Emma Donoghue arguably hark back to a period imbued with social anxiety regarding gender roles and women’s social position.

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