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Sexuality, Gender, and Space in the Neo-Victorian Novels

Sexuality, Gender, and Space in the Neo-Victorian Novels
© Photograph by Magdalena Russocka

Although the Victorians were categorically pioneering in the implication of many radical developments, industrially, socially, and even globally; one area in which variety was rarely seen was in the discourse of sexuality.

Critics such as Steven Paul Marcus have acknowledged the existence of sexual “others” within Victorian England, but show how in traditional texts from the period, these “others” have always been enclosed within deviant spaces.

Terry Castle, in her insightful and challenging book, ‘The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (Gender and Culture Series)’; discusses the presence of lesbians in literature, and argues that “The literary history of lesbianism […] is, first of all, a history of derealization” (Castle 34).

Although Terry Castle shows that female homosexuality does occur in Victorian texts, she also provides evidence that any suggestion of lesbianism had to be “derealized”. Over the past twenty years or so, a new form of historical text has emerged, which has come to be known as the Neo-Victorian novel.

In these novels, writers have been able to reimagine the nineteenth-century, with the inclusion of previously marginalised “otherness”. One of these authors is the critically acclaimed and highly successful novelist; Sarah Waters, and the “other Victorians” that Sarah Waters includes in her stories are lesbians.

This article will examine Sarah Waters three Neo-Victorian texts; ‘Tipping the Velvet’, ‘Affinity’, and ‘Fingersmith’, assessing the treatment of both sexuality and gender, and the relationship they have with space.

In ‘Tipping the Velvet’, the study will look at how the protagonist journeys through a number of different spaces, and assess her sexual development within each space, discussing how theatricality is used to conceal identity. It will also analyse how Sarah Waters imagines the male gaze, and look at the treatment of Victorian ideals surrounding masculinity and femininity.

In ‘Affinity’, the essay will examine the notion of the “apparitional lesbian”, and how Sarah Waters utilizes this concept to uncover the truths it hides. It will also assess Sarah Waters’ use of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, and the way in which the author portrays the entrapment of the Victorian woman.

In ‘Fingersmith’, the study will discuss the dubiety of the novel’s spaces and how this is significant to the study of sexuality. It will also show how Waters uses intertextuality to convey her own transgressions. The main point of concern will be to judge just how progressive these novels are in their portrayal of lesbianism, and whether Sarah Waters succeeds in finding a conceivable space for lesbians within an authentic historical novel.

When speaking of those whom Steven Marcus has deemed ‘Other Victorians’ (Marcus), Paul-Michel Foucault wrote; “if it was truly necessary to make room for illegitimate sexualities, it was reasoned, let them take their infernal mischief elsewhere” (Foucault 4). Of course, Paul-Michel Foucault’s “elsewhere” was the brothel, or the psychiatrist’s office, but this notion can also be stretched to other spaces of obscurity within Victorian England, and is effectively done so by Sarah Waters in ‘Tipping the Velvet’.

A place that Michelle Liu Carriger calls; “both part of the status quo and a haven for a disturbing doubleness” (Carriger), the London theatre is the perfect setting for the novel’s exploration of sexuality and the performativity of gender. It is in the Canterbury Palace that Nancy Astley first begins to recognise her sexuality. Nancy Astley tells us; “Piercing the shadows of the naked stage was a single shaft of rosy limelight, and in the centre of this there was a girl: the most marvellous girl — I knew it at once — that I had ever seen.” (Waters TTV 12)

Although the sexual language of the sentence appears to imitate a heterosexual encounter, Sarah Waters places a “marvellous girl” at the centre of the experience, immediately letting on that this novel is going to challenge conventional ideas. The theatre provides a space in which gender can be openly performed. When dressed as a boy, Nancy Astley discovers a new admiration for herself, stating; “I fell in love a little with myself. I admired my hair, so neat and so sleek. I adored my legs — my legs which, while they had skirts about them, I had scarcely had a thought for; but which were, I discovered, rather long and lean and shapely” (TTV 126).

For Nancy Astley, dressing as a boy is finding a new part of her identity, and also proves significant sexually. As a boy, Nancy Astley not only discovers a new love for her own body, but also tells us “Indeed I seemed to want [Kitty]more and more, the further into boyishness I ventured” (124). Whilst Nancy Astley feels sexual in her boyish attire, Kitty declares; “I have worn sillier costumes” (114). For Kitty, the male clothes are a costume; part of her act.

Outside of the theatre space, Kitty prefers to wear a hairpiece and a dress, hiding her boyishness. Furthermore, when Nancy Astley first has her hair cut like a boy, she states that her new “shorn head” makes her feel “saucy” (124), but Kitty tells Nancy Astley “What a fright you looked in short hair and a frock” (124). While Nancy Astley is excited by her look, Kitty is made uncomfortable by it. Kitty cannot accept that Nancy Astley wear a dress and have hair like a boy. For Kitty, the two spheres are separate, and must be kept that way.

In the theatre space, Kitty “performs” as a boy, but outside of this space, she must disguise her boyishness. Although Nancy Astley is not initially made awkward by this new part of her identity, Kitty’s reaction discourages her, and she is made to feel as if she cannot be both female and boyish at the same time. Through Kitty, Sarah Waters portrays an idea of female homosexuality that fits in with Paul-Michel Foucault’s theory. Kitty’s “infernal mischief” is enclosed within the “other” space set out for it. In the theatre, Nancy Astley takes on the role of a masher competently, declaring; “I had passed perhaps seven minutes before that gay and shouting crowd; but in those few minutes I had glimpsed a truth about myself, and it had left me awed and quite transformed. The truth was this: that whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I should enjoy clad, however girlishly, as a boy. I had, in short, found my vocation.” (123)

Through theatricality, Nancy Astley finds a place for herself; in the “other” space of the theatre, Kitty and Nancy Astley are able to be whom they want to be. However, their otherness does not extend beyond the stage any further than their own private chambers at Mrs Dendy’s boarding house, which Demelza Hall has stated is also an “overtly theatrical” space (Hall 32), due to its lodgers being actors and music-hall performers. Kitty’s fears of “giving up the stage” (131) mean that as a couple, the pair’s “infernal mischief” is housed within the other space set out for it. When Nancy Astley discovers that Kitty is to marry Sarah Walter, she goes to their dressing rooms at the theatre to look for her money. Once she has found it she spots the rail of costumes containing their male clothes. Nancy Astley states that she “couldn’t leave them” (176), and takes a bag full of her own suits. This move signifies that although for Kitty these are only costumes for the stage, for Nancy Astley the male attire is part of who she is.

Although Nancy Astley clearly sees things differently to Kitty, she is not yet sure of her own identity. We hear; “The theatre, of course, was still shut up” (175), which acts as a metaphor for the pair’s sexuality. Kitty, the performer, has made the decision to “shut up” her feelings for Nancy Astley, and engage in a more traditional relationship with Walter, and Nancy Astley now searches for a new space in which she can be “invisible” (181). Her desire for invisibility positions Nancy Astley in the textual space that Terry Castle has distinguished; the “decarnalized” space of the “apparitional lesbian” (Castle 34). Nancy Astley tells us; “I wanted a room — a small room, a mean room, a room that would prove invisible to any pursuing eye. I saw myself entering it and covering my head, like some burrowing or hibernating creature, a wood-louse or a rat. So I kept to the streets where I should find it, the grim and uninviting streets where there were lodging-houses, doss-houses, houses with cards in the window saying Beds-to-Rent.” (181)

Nancy Astley retreats to a place that resonates Paul-Michel Foucault’s “elsewhere”, and the language of the paragraph sees Nancy Astley move into a hidden state, she becomes closeted.

While at Mrs Best’s house, Nancy Astley stays “shut up” in the closeted space until she hears of Walter and Kitty’s marriage, and is spurred to enter the streets of London. However, when alone as a girl, Nancy Astley feels as if she were wearing “no clothes at all” (191), she tells us; “I was a solitary girl, in a city that favoured sweethearts and gentlemen; a girl in a city where girls walked only to be gazed at.” (191). In her female dress, Nancy Astley feels naked and on the show, and although she is used to being watched, she does not like to be gazed at as a woman. Upon her return to Mrs Best’s, Nancy Astley weeps while wishing to herself “If only I were really a boy” (191), and makes the decision to re-enter the streets of London in male clothing. However, Nancy Astley is still unsure of her identity stating; I did not want to live as a boy full-time; nor did I want, just yet, to give up my room at Mrs Best’s.” (193). This signifies that although Nancy Astley does not want to perform full-time, she is not yet fully ready to leave the closet. She is not able to be a woman in trousers, but continues to act out the role of a male, and in doing so conceals her true lesbian identity.

During her time performing as a rent-boy, although she is physically outside, Nancy Astley’s career choice places her within a metaphorical “other” space. Waters does not yet allow Nancy Astley to be lesbian within a normal setting, but instead places her alongside other deviants of London; prostitutes. Although Nancy Astley gains independence through her vocation, she longs for an audience, stating; “My one regret was that, though I was daily giving such performances; they had no audience. I would gaze about me at the dim and dreary place in which my gentleman and I leaned panting, and wish the cobbles were a stage, the pricks a curtain, the scuttling rats a set of blazing footlights. I would long for one eye — just one! — to be fixed upon our couplings: a bold and knowing eye that saw how well I played my part, how gulled and humbled was my foolish, trustful partner.” (206)

As Stefania Ciocia has noted; “Waters’s choice of the theatrical scene, with its emphasis on the notions of performance and spectacle, also draws immediate attention to the discrepancy between men’s and women’s positions in relation to the urban show” (Ciocia).

Traditional Victorian ideals meant that “women was to wield her influence in the domestic sphere, while man exercised his power in the hazardous, hostile, public domain” (Pykett 12). Sarah Waters abolishes any notion of separate spheres at the very beginning of this tale, by having Nancy Astley’s home environment coupled as a masculine place of work, straight away placing her outside of this tradition. However, when Nancy Astley finds herself alone on the streets of London, the only way she can gain independence is to become a prostitute; “the one female figure who is granted unquestioned access to the streets and freedom of movement and observation in the city” (Ciocia).

When she walks the London streets as a woman, Nancy Astley feels vulnerable and does not enjoy the male gaze. However, as a boy, Nancy Astley wishes to be gazed at. This discrepancy is shown at various points throughout the novel, most predominantly in the early scenes at the Canterbury palace. Although it is Kitty who is acting as a boy, and Nancy Astley is clad in her best frock and bonnet, it is Nancy Astley that is the gazer, and Kitty that is the object of her gaze. As well as this, Nancy Astley is gazing at Kitty from a box at the side of the stage. The box in which Nancy Astley sits, signifies not only the metaphorical closet she inhabits, but also the small social space in which women were traditionally allowed to occupy. From her little space, Nancy Astley “gazes” at Kitty with a view that is “side on and rather queer” (17).

Putting all historiographical thoughts about the word “queer” aside, Sarah Waters is presenting us with a sideways version of the usually male gaze, and in doing so challenges conventional ideas about femininity and masculinity. Once Nancy Astley joins Kitty on stage in London, she becomes not only a gazer, but someone who is gazed at. She tells of her many female admirers and requests for photographs, and thinks it odd to imagine a girl “gazing at her picture” (129).

Nancy Astley is both gazer and gazed at, but Kitty, however, despite being often clad as a boy, remains only an object of the gaze. In placing each character in these positions, Sarah Waters both portrays convention and challenges it. Kitty’s position as the object of the gaze stands for the fact that she is unable to fully acknowledge her other self, or break free from gender ideals, which is further established when she marries Walter. Although Kitty is, in Victorian sensation style, a “lady with a secret”, she still conforms almost fully to a patriarchal society. Despite the fact she is a working woman; she relies entirely on Walter as her manager, and then her husband, in fact, once the plan is made for she and Walter to be married, Kitty tells Nan; “Walter has a plan. For a new act. He wants to return to the halls […]. With just me.” (171-172). Although Kitty has previously had the freedom to work on her own, or alongside Nancy Astley, once she is married she will be working alongside Walter, and any free movement she has previously been allowed will now be at the will of her husband.

Nancy Astley, however, breaks convention by being both an object of the gaze and a gazer herself. Through Nancy Astley, Sarah Waters challenges patriarchal society by giving her both feminine and masculine ability, and allowing her the independence of finding her own work.

The fact that Nancy Astley longs for an audience while she is “giving [her] daily performances”, means that truly she does not want to be mistaken for a real boy, but known to be a girl acting out a masculine role. Through Nancy Astley, Sarah Waters shows that gender roles are fully performable, and masculinity is nothing more than a part to play.

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