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The Fairylands of Mary De Morgan: Seedbeds of Domestic Anarchy

By Marilyn Pemberton


When De Morgan tried to retreat quietly from William Morris’s study when she saw him writing poetry, Morris apparently told her that she was not disturbing him: ‘”Sit down and tell me a tale”’ (Lindsay 145). A great raconteur himself, Morris still enjoyed hearing De Morgan’s fairy tales, which she also told to his children, and those of the Kipling and Burne-Jones families, prior to having them published. Morris was not the only one to appreciate De Morgan’s talents.  One reviewer compared her favourably with Hans Christian Andersen; another reviewer of her second volume of fairy tales, The Necklace of Fiorimonde (1880), said:

To write a good fairy-tale requires a very varied combination of qualities. Delicacy, naivety, and originality of fancy, simplicity of style and freshness of humour, are among the most prominent of the essential gifts, and withal there needs a quality of sympathy which is very difficult to define. That Miss De Morgan possessed all these qualities her former little work had sufficiently proved and the present tasteful volume still further exemplifies them. Though the tales are all such as children delight in, even grown-up people, if they retain the least spark of the childlike in their nature, may be attracted by the freshness, the simplicity, and the pathos of the little stories. (The London Figaro 11)

Indeed, if the name Mary De Morgan (1850 – 1907) 1 is known at all today, it is as a fairy-tale writer. The fairy tales written during the second half of the nineteenth century, the golden age of children’s literature, by authors such as Mary De Morgan, George MacDonald, Evelyn Sharp, E. Nesbit, Jean Ingelow, Juliana Horatia Ewing, Andrew Lang, Oscar Wilde, Laurence Housman, Mary Louisa Molesworth and Anne Thackeray Ritchie, have only relatively recently been seriously analysed. There are some excellent critical anthologies, such as Jack Zipes’s Victorian Fairy Tales: The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves (1991), Alison Lurie’s The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (2002), Jonathan Cott’s Beyond the Looking Glass: Extraordinary Works of Fairy Tale and Fantasy (1973), and Auerbach and Knoepflmacher’s Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers (1992).

Although a small number of her tales are included in these collections, De Morgan has received little academic criticism.  This is despite the fact that Zipes, an authority on fairy and folk tales, enticingly described De Morgan (along with Molesworth and Sharp) as one of those Victorian writers who ‘conceived tales with strong heroines who rebel against convention-ridden societies’ (Don’t Bet on the Prince 13). James Fowler suggests that one of the reasons that De Morgan has been ‘conspicuously absent from most critical surveys of children’s literature’ is that one of the drawbacks to a golden age of literature is ‘the muffling of a strong voice amid the chorus of a period’s production’ (Fowler 224).  Male voices such as George MacDonald’s, Lewis Carroll’s, Oscar Wilde’s and Andrew Lang’s were louder and easier to hear than the female ones. Whatever the reason for disregarding De Morgan in the past, there is now an increasing awareness of her works, and a recognition that the fairy tales she wrote are far from simple and naïve.  They are worthy of academic interest.

The purpose of this essay is to justify my contention that De Morgan can be considered a New Woman who specifically chose to write fairy tales in order to secrete her ideologies within the drapes of fantasy – to utilise the impossible to advocate the possible. I will set the scene by reviewing, first, why the institute of marriage was a particular concern during the second half of the nineteenth century, and what the New Woman’s role as a challenger of that institution was. Secondly, I ask who the implied readers of these fairy tales were and why these texts were a particularly apt genre for critiquing contemporary society.  Finally, I offer short analyses of a few of De Morgan’s fairy tales in more detail in order to demonstrate why De Morgan’s fairylands were a New Woman’s seedbeds of domestic anarchy.

Historical Backdrops: The Institution of Marriage and the Emergence of the New Woman

For many centuries, the principle that ‘the well-ordered family [is] the basis of a well-ordered society’ (Fuchs and Thompson 10) has predominated, with the creation of a stable family unit achieved through the twin institutions of marriage and patriarchy, along with the conception of children. At the same time, however, dissidents argued all along that marriage results not in happiness for all, but in the loss of freedom for women and the creation of an under-class. In Victorian times, many perceived the proponents of changes to the family unit as threatening the stability of the society it supported; therefore they often deemed them anarchical.

Criticism of the institute of marriage and woman’s role within it was not just a Victorian concern, as we know. Mary Astell (1666-1731), for instance, considered to be one of the first feminist writers, wrote in Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700) about the well-publicised separation of the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine in 1675 to air her own thoughts on the prevalence of marriages based purely on money or class, the lack of choices for the woman, and the overwhelming pressure put on women to get married. Nearly a century later, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), similarly expressed her contempt for girls’ and women’s treatment, and in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), bemoaned, ‘how grossly do they insult us who thus advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes!’ (87). Wollstonecraft here paints an ‘abject’ picture of a so-called ‘accomplished woman,’ who assumes a ‘submissive demeanour of dependence […] and is forbearing, because it must silently endure injuries, smiling under the lash at which it does not snarl’ (103). John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was influenced by Wollstonecraft, as can be seen from his use of similar terminology in The Subjection of Women (1869): ‘marriage is the only actual bondage known to our law. There remains no legal slaves, except the mistress of every house’ (86). Mill points out that, contrary to the ideology of the time, a ‘great number of women’ did not ‘accept’ the subjection of the wife to the husband and that ‘ever since there have been women able to make their sentiments known by their writings (the only mode of publicity which society permits to them) an increasing number of them have recorded protests against their present social condition’ (13).

The laws governing marriage, some of them not even written down, were complex, and Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 remained basically unchanged. 2 Despite slight changes in the laws and Mill’s becoming an MP in 1865, the situation did not improve significantly; as late as 1879, Annie Besant (1847–1933) wrote a pamphlet entitled Marriage, As it Was, As it is, and As it Should Be: A Plea for Reform. 3 In this tract, Besant dryly describes the plight of married women: ‘Married women share incapacity to manage property with minors and lunatics; minors, lunatics, and married women are taken care of by trustees; minors become of age, lunatics often recover, married women remain incapable during the whole of their married life’ (22-23).

The arguments by Astell, Wollstonecraft, Leigh Smith, Mill and Besant were articulate, but because they were not mainstream, they were largely unheard by the majority. However, the persistent endorsement that the happiness, prosperity and security of a country depended upon the stability and character of family unit was necessitated perhaps, as Joan Perkin suggests, by the fact that women were not always behaving as they should, nor accepting their allotted place in the domestic sphere (250). It was, however, a long, hard battle against the idealisation of marriage and the glorification of the woman in the home. For most of the nineteenth century, the voices of those supporting marriage were far more numerous and effective than those in opposition. It was still the aim of most Victorian girls to marry and to have a family, to meet the expectations of their family and their peers, to conform to the social conventions imposed upon them, and, as Astell put it, to be ‘for the most part wise enough to love their Chains and to discern how very becomingly they fit’ (xxiii).  Many women wanted affection and companionship, even though they thought romantic love was not likely to last; they wanted a home of their own, children, a husband with a legal obligation to maintain his family, and an acknowledged status in the community as a wife and mother (Perkin 29).

One of the best known proponents of retaining the marital status quo, that of order rather than anarchic freedom, was Sarah Stickney Ellis (1812–1872), who wrote many conduct books, including The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (1839). According to Ellis, she wrote ‘from a high estimate of the importance of this class in upholding the moral worth of our country’ (2) and wanted to ‘warn[] the women of England back to their domestic duties, in order that they may become better wives, more useful daughters, and mothers, who by their example shall bequeath a rich inheritance to those who follow in their steps’ (39).  Ellis’s paragon of virtue was the role model for many during the nineteenth century; Coventry Patmore (1823–1896) believed she was exemplified by his wife Emily, to whom he dedicated the poem ‘The Angel in the House’ (1854-1862). Although not particularly popular to begin with, it became more so as the century proceeded, and what was written originally as a personal poem of the love between two individuals became a template for perfect womanhood. This ‘Angel in the House,’ passive, sweet and virtuous though she may be, was strong and resilient enough to survive well into the twentieth century, so much so that in 1931 Virginia Woolf read an essay to the Women’s Service League in which she explained how it is a dire necessity to kill, or be killed by, the intensely sympathetic, immensely charming, utterly unselfish, self-sacrificial and pure phantom of idealised womanhood. 

The construct of ideal womanhood was used by such as Eliza Lynn Linton (1822–1898), a staunch anti-feminist, who wanted to counter the rise in anarchic females who refused to comply with the ‘norm.’ Linton’s article ‘The Girl of the Period’, printed in the Saturday Review 14 March 1868, posits the description of an imaginary female in order to encourage girls to model themselves on her rather than on one of the emerging ‘shrieking sisterhood’ (qtd. in Heilmann 23). 4 The role model was one

who could be trusted alone if need be, because of the innate purity and dignity of her nature, but who was neither bold in bearing nor masculine in mind; a girl who, when she married, would be her husband’s friend and companion, but never his rival […] who would make his house his true home and place of rest […] a tender mother, an industrious house-keeper, a judicious mistress. (339-340)

Marriage and domesticity were not only idealised by poets, painters, essayists, novelists, critics and self-appointed guardians of the country’s morals. As Sally Mitchell explains, the readership in the 1840s and ‘50s of the penny weekly family magazines, such as The London Journal (1842- 1912) and The Family Herald (1842–1939), grew substantially as the higher working classes and middle classes aspired to better themselves. Mitchell explains that ‘neither magazine proposed any role for woman outside of marriage’ and played an important part in ‘creating the wife-and-mother ideal’ that predominated in the nineteenth century (51). Through such magazines the societal ideologies of the day were promulgated; similarly, magazines for young girls were read avidly for hints on how to be an attractive choice for a prospective suitor, and once married, how to keep the home and family a happy one. 

By the late nineteenth century, the battle lines were quite distinctly drawn. Those who favoured freedom saw those who preferred the old order as offering a life of constraint and oppression, and the latter feared that the result of the former would be anarchy. One of the most notorious challengers was the feminist Mona Caird (1854-1931). In her article ‘Marriage’ (1888) she defines the ideal marriage and advises her readers to be ‘undismayed by what will seem its Utopian impossibility.’ She continues:

The ideal marriage then, despite all dangers and difficulties, should be free. So long as love and trust and friendship remain, no bonds are necessary to bind two people together; life apart will be empty and colourless […] we look forward steadily, hoping and working for the day when men and women shall be comrades and fellow-workers as well as lovers and husbands and wives, when the rich and many-sided happiness which they have the power to bestow one on another shall no longer be enjoyed in tantalizing snatches, but shall gladden and give life to all humanity. (197-198, 201)

In the 1890s, the voice of the ‘Angel in the House’ was still the loudest, but others were going to get louder as the ‘New Woman’ started to make herself heard. Despite encouragement and advice from all quarters on how to be a good wife and mother, it was a recognised fact that by the 1890s there were approximately one million more women than men and, as a consequence, spinsterhood was endemic. According to a contributor to The Girl’s Own Paper in 1891, a spinster had two choices: either to emigrate and find a husband in the Colonies or the United States, where women were in the minority, or to dedicate her life to others. In the article, entitled ‘Some Happy Spinsters’, the male writer G. Holden Pike considers that ‘when all things are as they should be, marriage is no doubt the happiest state for either a man or a woman’ but ‘the world would be much worse off if there were none of these self-denying creatures to carry on its works of mercy’ (775).  Generally, however, the prospect of spinsterhood was ‘a fate to be avoided like the plague’ (Perkin 3). The position of a woman in the ‘single state’ was not made any easier by being ridiculed and termed as ‘odd’ or ‘redundant’, and their plight was best exemplified in 1893 with George Gissing’s The Odd Women, a tale of five women deemed to be ‘odd’ because unmarried, initially at least. The ‘Odd Woman’, later to be labelled the ‘New Woman’, was a term used to categorise all deviant women: those who refused to comply with societal expectations. The term ‘New Woman’ was reportedly first coined in 1865 in an article in the Westminster Review (Heilmann, 22). However, Susan C. Shapiro points out that unconventional and rebellious women had existed for centuries, and so ‘the New Woman was never new; those primarily aristocratic and upper middle-class women who reject traditional roles and strive for equality with men always have been labelled ‘new’ and have been ridiculed as a phenomenon of the moment’ (510).

The ‘New Woman’ was a convenient scapegoat for those who still worshipped the ‘Angel in the House’.  She contradicted the fundamental principles and ideals of Victorian society by threatening the family unit. She was seen as ‘a “mannish”, overeducated bore (frequently a “Girton Girl”), a bad mother (if not an embittered spinster), and [lacked] all the attributes usually associated with ideal Victorian womanhood’ (Ledger and Luckhurst 75). Indeed, the most powerful insult was to be deemed unfeminine.

In conjunction with the apparent loss of femininity, there was a fear that the ‘New Woman’ was no longer interested in, or in need of, men, and consequently, the institution of marriage was under threat, as was the physical and moral purity of the race—some even suggested that using the brain would reduce fertility and result in a ‘puny’ generation. ‘New Women’ were often tainted as sexual deviants due to some of them advocating free love. Prompted by the prevalence of syphilis, however, some of them in fact started to refuse to marry or have any sexual relations with any man whose morals did not meet the woman’s high standards.

The term ‘New Woman’ became part of the common vocabulary, however, when Sarah Grand used it in an essay in 1894. It became the generic term for all non-conformist women. Any woman, therefore, who stepped out of the private sphere into the public in a bid for independence, any woman who questioned her role as dutiful wife or bearer of children, any woman who claimed her body as her own, any woman who demanded equal civil and political rights, any woman, in fact, who did not meet with the Patmorian ideal, was marginalised and deemed ‘unnatural’. 

The New Woman became an easy target for vilification and ridicule, as demonstrated by the numerous Punch cartoons and articles of the period.  Sally Ledger reminds us, however, that naming her also gave her a voice and a space for her own texts (The New Woman 9). Out of this gender conflict arose such writers as Sarah Grand (1854 – 1943), Ouida (1839 – 1908), Mona Caird (1854 – 1932), Olive Schreiner (1855 – 1920), Eleanor Marx (1855 – 1898) and others. 5  The predominant themes in all their ‘New Woman’ writings were those of the institution of marriage, female independence and equality, better education and the need to escape from the ‘open or disguised domestic enslavement’ that was recognised as their lot (Engels 103). 

It is clear, from both fiction and non-fiction ‘New Woman’ texts, that there was no one common aim or opinion. Certainly not all women who believed in a better education for girls, for instance, also necessarily believed in women’s suffrage. 6 Some wanted to see changes to the marriage laws, but still believed in marriage per se, whilst others were completely opposed considered that a woman’s duty was to remain single; the bearing of children and being the ‘”mothers” of the Empire’ were roles they had no intention of fulfilling (Ledger, The New Woman 68). Many of these writers not only agitated via their writing but were also members of women’s movements, striving to change society. 7   Many of the female writers chose essays and realistic novels to articulate their grievances, whilst others took advantage of the popularity of utopian literature in order to create a female-centric world, ‘envisaging new forms of existence for their heroines which decentred and sometimes excluded men altogether’ (Heilmann 53-54). Although Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673) is the first woman known to have written a utopian novel, The Blazing World (1666), and writers such as Sarah Fielding (1710–1768), Mary Astell (1666–1731) and Mary Hamilton (1739–1818) did write utopian texts during the eighteenth century, the end of the nineteenth century saw a surge in utopian literature by women. Such writers as Elizabeth Corbett, Cora Minett, Lady Florence Dixie, and Olive Schreiner envisioned a future where women had access to power and the right to wield it.  The culmination of these utopian texts was Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s Herland (1915), which describes an all-female community that reproduces by parthenogenesis and has no need or desire for men.

The majority of texts currently classified as ‘New Woman’ ones are novels or essays aimed at adults. My argument, however, is that the fairy tale is an equally good genre for critiquing such nineteenth-century concerns as the institution of marriage. Nancy A. Walker suggests that ‘appropriating a literary genre in order to revise or reverse its assumptions, ideologies, or paradigms is one of several ways in which a writer may alter an inherited tradition’ (4). It is my contention that late Victorian writers such as Mary De Morgan took advantage of the morphology and embedded conventions of the fairy tale in order to challenge the mores of contemporary society, to experiment with new possibilities, and to discover their own utopias.

Why Fairy Tales?

Fairy tales have been the object of much critical analysis in recent years, 8 and scholars acknowledge that traditional fairy tales, such as those told by the Grimm brothers and Charles Perrault, were often re-told after much editing in order to ‘sanitise’ them and ensure that the moral fit their ideological agenda. Most traditional fairy tales, however, have a utopian function because they give hope to the underdogs that they too can achieve wealth, power, marital harmony and everlasting happiness; they ‘ferret out deeply rooted wishes, needs, and wants and demonstrate how they all can be realised’ (Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell ix). Fairy tales have a utopian function because of their ‘feel good factor’; in addition, they also play an important part in illustrating that the ‘impulse and critique of “magic” are rooted in an historically explicable desire to overcome oppression and change society’ (Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion 8), which is one of the objectives of a utopian text.

It is perhaps ironic to use the fairy tale, as I suggest De Morgan did, to challenge the conventions of marriage and the woman’s position therein.  After all, twentieth-century critics such as Jack Zipes, Sandra Gilbert, Linda Dégh, Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Maria Tatar and Max Lüthi, amongst others, have shown how traditional fairy tales—those by Charles Perrault, the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, for instance—were used to maintain the patriarchal status quo and to endorse the values and social codes of the time, including those of marriage. The phrase ‘they were married and lived happily ever after’ lets the active, strong, male hero and the passive, beautiful female victim spend the rest of their life together in wedded bliss; although this is the premise, none actually relate what life is like after the wedding. In the story of ‘Patient Griselda’ (which originated in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron’s The Tenth Day, Novel X, and was translated some twenty years later by Francis Petrarch and is retold by Chaucer as The Clerk’s Tale), for instance,Perrault concludes that because of Griselda’s passive acceptance and her constancy in the face of her husband’s outrageous cruelty, ‘people saw in her a model for women everywhere in the world’ (Perrault 112). The literary fairy tale became extremely popular during the nineteenth century, and the traditional fairy tale females such as Griselda, Snow White, and Cinderella became exemplars of Victorian womanhood, veritable ‘Angels in the House’.  Why then, did De Morgan choose to write fairy tales in order to critique marriage – a genre which traditionally celebrates it—rather than essays, realistic novels, or indeed utopian literature, as did her more acknowledged feminist contemporaries? If she wanted to promote different attitudes to marriage, why did she locate her tale in fairyland rather than in the real world?

One reason concerns the morphology of the fairy tale. As Vladimir Propp has shown, the traditional fairy tale has a very definite plot structure, and the reader has certain expectations regarding the characters, plot devices and functions of such a tale. How simple, but how subversive, it was merely to swap the ‘he’ and the ‘she’ or to replace the material gain with the spiritual. In doing this, the writer keeps the intrinsic structure of the fairy tale and meets the readers’ expectations of plot, character and ending, yet challenges core attitudes: the female becomes the active, strong, questing protagonist, the male becomes the passive victim, and the goal becomes independence or spiritual maturity rather than wealth and marriage. In addition, readers expect the fairy tale to present one-dimensional archetypes, which are merely good or bad, beautiful or ugly.  Neither the writer or the reader attempts to analyse actions or motivations; the good are held up as exemplars and the bad as threats. Female readers previously had had only passive, victimised role models to empathise with; now they were being introduced to females who were active, strong-willed, and sometimes downright rebellious. Therefore, it was not the conventional use of the archetype but its nature that changed.

In addition, for ‘many late Victorian authors, the writing of a fairy tale meant a process of creating an other world, from which vantage point they could survey conditions in the real world and compare them to their ideal projections’ (Zipes, The Revolt of the Fairies xxix). Fairyland frees a writer to ‘invent a little world of his own, with its own laws’ (MacDonald 6) and allows him or her to experiment with ideas. In fairyland the presence of magic also allows the writer to break the bounds of literary and social conventions, to be unconstrained by man-made laws, such as the patriarchal laws that perpetuated women’s disempowerment and marginalisation, so to be as anarchic as he or she wishes. 

Fairy tales, then, can be used to condemn rather than condone the society in which the writers lived, and female writers, such as De Morgan, were able to ‘challenge the dominant male discourse’ through them (Zipes, Don’t Bet on the Prince 13). De Morgan was a forebear of such late twentieth-century feminist writers as Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories), Margaret Atwood (Bluebeard’s Egg), Barbara G. Walker  (Feminist Fairy Tales)and Jack Zipes (Don’t Bet on the Prince), who have all written their own versions of the fairy tale, populating them with resourceful, smart, heroic females, for whom marriage is not a necessity but rather one of many possibilities.

Who were the readers?

Tolkien claims that a fairy tale ‘should not be specially associated with children’ (4), but certainly many of the subtleties that I suggest can be found in the fairy tales of De Morgan will not be appreciated by child readers, although they will undoubtedly discover their own level of meaning.  MacDonald claims that any reader of a fairy tale needs to be ‘childlike, whether of five, or fifty or seventy-five’ (7), inferring that he requires fairy-tale readers to have the qualities, not the age, of a child: adaptability, openness, and ingenuity.

More and more people—men and women across all classes—learned to read through the nineteenth century, but despite the improvements in printing technology and the consequent increase in the volume of printed material, the cost was still prohibitive for many people. Consequently, readers borrowed from libraries and shared with friends. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the novel was still very much a family reading affair. Raymond Chapman confirms that ‘for the increasing middle class it was a time for reading aloud by one member of the family as an accompaniment to sewing and embroidery; a time for conversation’ (3). Along with the Bible and other religious texts, fairy tales were now considered ‘safe’ reading, having been disparaged at the beginning of the century as being too fanciful and therefore too dangerous. 9   During the second half of the century, fairy tales was not necessarily assigned only to the nursery, but were written for, and enthusiastically read by, adults. U. C. Knoepflmacher finds himself ‘seriously questioning the label of “children’s literature” that we bestow on a branch of writing that simultaneously appeals to children and adults – a dual audience which the mid-Victorians, who capitalized on that pleasurable appeal, liked to call 'the young of all ages”’ (Ventures into Childland xiii). 

De Morgan wrote three volumes of fairy tales altogether: On a Pincushion (1877), The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde (1880) and The Windfairies (1900). I have selected just a few tales that include the marriage theme but do not handle it in the traditional fairy-tale manner.   I will argue that De Morgan’s tales address the same concerns as the New Women writers did.

‘The Hair Tree’

‘The Hair Tree’, from On a Pincushion, focuses on society’s hostile attitude to those who challenge the prevalent conventions of marriage, and the woman who chooses not to marry - one of the so-called ‘Odd Women’.

The story follows the traditional fairy-tale morphology, with Rupert, a young, impoverished man, going on a quest for a remedy for his Queen’s baldness, facing and overcoming obstacles, being hindered and aided by talking animals, rescuing a female and returning home with his prize and future wife. The story starts, as many fairy tales do, with an already-married couple, a King and his young Queen. Her floor-length, thick, beech-coloured tresses are her crowning glory, and her husband and subjects are as proud of her hair as she is; it would be considered a national disaster if her hair were damaged in any way.


Figure 1 - 'The Hair Tree' from On a Pincushion (1877)

When the Queen does lose her hair, cursed as a result of her own vanity and selfishness, it is like a female castration, and she loses her status, her power, and her will to live; the country even goes into mourning. 10   The glorification of the Queen’s hair, as if it were a sentient being in its own right, is an important aspect of the story, and is addressed later in the tale as a critique of the male idolisation of the fragmented female form.

Rupert goes in search of the mysterious Hair Tree, whose seeds the Queen hopes will restore her hair, and eventually he lands on an island where it purportedly grows. He immediately becomes aware of strange flowers and plants that grow there: sunflowers whose stems are arms, hands that nearly crush him to death, flower heads that are in fact women’s heads, and blades of grass which have tiny grasping fingers. Later on, he comes across flowers that are like ears, others like eyes, and others like lips—doubtless all the better to see, hear and eat him with. This bizarre and nightmarish ‘flora-morphosis’ expands on De Morgan’s earlier critique of the idolisation of the Queen’s hair. In this ‘Queen’s Garden,’ we are presented with the female physical attribute as an individual living organism. This strange terrain is the realisation of Wollstonecraft’s image of a land in which society ‘classes the brown and the fair with the smiling flowers’ (Wollstonecraft 127), but these flowers are not smiling, nor are they passive and gentle. If we put together the descriptions De Morgan gives of the individual parts, we are indeed offered a woman with a ‘beautiful dreamy’ face and ‘bright golden hair’, with a pair of ‘beautiful white hands and arms’, ‘soft red lips folded over the whitest rows of shining teeth’, ‘delicate waxen ears’ and ‘very beautiful bright blue’ eyes (118-137); the epitome, in fact, of female perfection, in the eyes of Victorian society at least. But, De Morgan warns, these fragmented, dehumanised parts have the potential to turn into hands that crush, teeth that bite, eyes that weep floods of tears, and kisses that kill. Unlike the females characterised in Ruskin’s ‘Lilies: Of Queens’ Gardens’ (1864), in which he considers the rightful characteristics of a woman to be steadfast, errorless, faultless, wise, brave, patient, constant, devoted, gentle, angelic, faithful, infallible, incorruptible, just, and pure (52-54), De Morgan’s females have the potential to fight back, a theme which is progressed further in ‘The Story of Trevina’ as told to Rupert by Trevina, a talking tigress whom Rupert chances to meet on the island.


Figure 2 – ‘The Story of Trevina' told in ‘The Hair Tree’

Trevina relates how a repulsive chelonian creature befriends her, the youngest of a miller’s three daughters, and eventually steals her away to his island, where he is king, in order to make her his wife.  This tale, which literalises the idea that men and women are different species, is not, however, of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ provenance. There is no magical transformation of the beast into a handsome Prince, nor does Trevina have any desire to redeem him with her love and understanding; neither is there any chance of Trevina being rescued just in the nick of time as in ‘Bluebeard’. For Trevina, marriage would have been a fate worse than death; indeed, at one point she considers ending her life, which shows how desperate she is to avoid union with a male she does not, and obviously thinks could never, love. (Only in 1891 a man was denied conjugal sexual rights if he did not have his wife’s consent.)

Trevina’s escape through death, however, is thwarted by the mother of the creature, who considers any female who does not want to marry her dear son to be unfeeling, ungrateful and ignoble. The tortoise-king’s grotesqueness and cruelty is magnified in the mother, who not only overthrows her son’s attempts to calm her, but also uses her power to turn Trevina into a tiger and banish her to the island in punishment for her rebellion. The role of the glorified mother as protector of her family against hostile external forces is mocked by De Morgan as the Queen, as in many a fairy tale, is revealed to be spiteful, unforgiving and abusive of her power. Trevina’s transformation into a potentially fierce man-eater is, however, offset by her need to remain vegetarian if she is ever to return to her human form. De Morgan once again literalises a concept – that of the social position of a woman who refuses marriage to a suitor she cannot love, the consequence of which is horrific and bleak; she has indeed become an ‘Odd Woman’—unnatural, unfeminine, and an outcast from society. 

The island is truly dystopian, with its humanised flowers (representing the fragmentation of the female body as a result of the idealisation of its parts only), and its bestialised woman (who suffers from society’s contempt because she has rebelled against the conventions of marriage). The Hair Tree itself, representative of the most idealised part of the female body, is protected according to its worth behind a high wall, on an island-within-an-island, surrounded by the uncanny female eye, ear and mouth flowers, along with an impenetrable fence of phallic, silver-rod-flowers. It is with these rods that Trevina must be beaten by a man in order to recover her human form, and it is significant that they are the only flowers that do not represent a woman’s body part. The straightness, solidity and inflexibility of the rods which surrounds the Hair Tree symbolises the patriarchal attitudes and conventions that not only dehumanise and fragment woman, but also men’s desire to defend this state of affairs. The walled enclosure is a male construction built purely for the further protection of the Hair Tree. It is significant that the sun, which normally illuminates, in fact emits black rays that extinguish the pale green light that would otherwise envelope everything. The uncanniness of the place, with its body-part flowers, its overly protected Hair Tree, and the strange lightless sun, emphasises, I suggest, not only how men’s attitude towards the female body is unnatural, but also how patriarchy, symbolised by the coal black sun, annihilates the more natural, female radiance, that in fact does lighten, if given the chance. It is clear that in this fairy tale De Morgan is critiquing the laws and conventions that result in such an unnatural and unenlightened environment.  

It is important to note that Rupert is never in any danger during his quest, for he is protected by magical Zirbal nuts. He is frequently assisted by talking animals who give him directions and advice, and he has the means to leave the island whenever he wants. The advantageous attributes of being male are obvious: he has power, education and freedom, whereas the female has only oppression, marginalisation and objectification. Despite his advantages, however, Rupert can only break through the silver rods surrounding the idolised Hair Tree, strengthened as they are by their sheer number and inflexibility, with the assistance of the mouth-flowers. Their sharp teeth gnaw at their base, allowing Rupert not only to gather the broken rods—necessary for the emancipation of Trevina rather than their own—but also to access the desired seeds for the perpetuation of the objectification of the Queen.  De Morgan does not quite manage to be truly anarchic and break all the fairy tale rules, for Rupert is still a hero who ‘saves’ the impotent, passive female. He continues with his quest for the hair seeds in order to restore his Queen’s femininity, and he also restores Trevina to her previous beautiful, female form, although sadly there is no attempt to liberate the humanised flowers.  De Morgan suggests, I argue, that because of their inherent access to knowledge and power, men have the opportunity both to liberate and to subject women. Either way, they need the assistance of women themselves, either by their active participation in the struggle against unacceptable conventions, or their silent, passive acquiescence of them. 

Rupert returns to find Trevina near death with starvation, for in true fairy tale fashion he has been away for six months, rather than the perceived two hours. Nevertheless, she demands that he beat her, ‘Harder! Beat harder!’, until eventually she is transformed back into a lovely maiden. This need for violence in order to release herself from the imposed disempowerment and ostracism is an important point; after all, De Morgan could quite easily have used other magical means to have liberated Trevina from her unnatural form. In many fairy tales, of course, it is the female who transforms the male beast into a marriageable prince; in this fairy tale, however, it is the female who is forced to endure the beatings from the silver rods, which represent the attitudes and conventions against which she is rebelling, and is a nice transformation of Wollstonecraft’s dismay at how women smile ‘under the lash.’ Mill suggests that ‘women cannot be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women, until men in considerable numbers are prepared to join with them in the undertaking’ (78). By Rupert’s cooperative action, Trevina is changed back to her female form, beautiful, admittedly, but now stronger, more decisive and able to make her own choices, particularly about whom she marries. Women, De Morgan infers, must be ready and willing to suffer, and must accept the help of supportive men; the New Woman, when she is so named a decade or so later, will not be born out of passivity, gentleness, self-sacrifice and selflessness, she will be born instead out of action, pain and anger: ‘Beat me at once, or I shall eat you!’ (143).

In this multi-threaded story, the strand I wanted to unpack and examine closely was that of the fate of the woman who chooses not to marry a specific suitor. In so doing, inevitably, other threads got unpacked also: the idolisation of the fragmented woman, the misuse of a mother’s power, and the potential of the woman to fight back. Trevina never contemplates marrying her first suitor, despite his being a King, but her small rebellion leads her to being turned into an oddity, something unnatural, having to fend for herself without the necessary skills to survive.  De Morgan’s story is about freedom, that fundamental New Woman demand: freedom for a woman to make her own choices about whom or even whether to marry, without fear of ridicule or marginalisation. It is clear by the traditional ending of the fairy tale that De Morgan is not objecting to marriage as such, but rather the means and reason for the union. De Morgan suggests that it is ‘perhaps’ the Zirbal nut that Rupert and Trevina keep hanging over their door that is the reason for their happy marriage; the more perceptive reader will know that it because they both married each other from choice, so that it has every indication of being a marriage in which there exists ‘the best kind of equality’ (Mill 95). 

‘The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde’

The next tale I want to look at comes for the second volume, The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde (1880), and is the fairy tale of the same name. The story does not end, as so many traditional ones do, with a wedding, and indeed it subverts a number of fairy tale conventions. The story tells of a Princess so very beautiful that she must, according to both fairy tale and societal expectations, also be very good.  In fact, she is very wicked. She learns black magic and sorcery from an old witch – hence her beauty. The time comes when her father, the King, decides that she must marry for the good of the kingdom, but Fiorimonde has no desire to wed, as a husband would stop her visiting the old witch, would stop her practising magic, and she would therefore lose her beauty. The old witch offers her the choice of turning her suitors into dogs, birds, or beads. The Princess claps her hands with joy at the prospect of slinging each bead-Prince on a string and wearing them around her neck. So, by the use of sorcery, each Prince who comes to makes his suit disappears mysteriously and the necklace of Princess Fiorimonde acquires more and more beautiful beads that are ‘clear as crystal, but shining with all colours – green, blue and gold’ (10).

Figure 3 - 'The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde' from The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde (1880)

Princess Fiorimonde, of course, eventually gets her comeuppance.  Having successfully transformed eleven Princes into beads, she is tricked by a friend of the twelfth intended victim.  The bead-Princes are restored to their human form and she herself is transformed forever into a bead as a punishment for her sorcery. No happy ending for this Princess. But this tale condemns far more than the art of black magic. Although a child reader would certainly relish the story for its macabre quality and eventual condemnation of the evil Princess, an adult will recognise De Morgan’s critique on the prevalent idealisation of the female form and the erroneous correlation of beauty with goodness.  De Morgan signals here her contempt of marriages based on financial gain rather than on affection, and her subversive reversal of the ‘practice of wife-taking as personal adornment’ (Fowler 232-233).

‘The Wanderings of Arasmon’

In ‘The Wanderings of Arasmon’, taken from The Princes of Fiorimonde, De Morgan anticipates by almost a decade Caird’s ideology expressed in her article ‘Marriage’. It is a sorrowful and heart-rending tale, certainly not one with a ‘happy ever after’ ending, and it is hard to understand what pleasure a child would find in reading it. It starts with a description of a perfect marriage. Arasmon and Chrysea are wandering musicians: he plays the lute, to which she sings beautifully, and people come from miles around to hear them play. ‘Both were young and lovely, and were happy as the day was long, for they loved each other deeply, and liked wandering about seeing new countries, and people and making sweet music’ (43-44). In this one sentence, De Morgan describes the ingredients of an ideal union: mutual love and respect, a common interest, joint activity and equal contribution and payment. The pair comes across a village where the inhabitants are  ‘forlorn-looking people. They were thin and bent, their faces pale and haggard, also their clothes looked old and threadbare…the houses were ill-built, and seemed to be almost tumbling down. The streets were uneven and badly kept. In the gardens they saw no flowers, but dank dark weeds’ (45-47).

It transpires that the village had been cursed because of an earlier generation’s greed.  The soulless, poverty stricken village is a reflection of many in the late nineteenth century, devastated by urbanisation and industrialisation. Crane’s illustration certainly bears an uncanny similarity to an etching of St. Giles, one of the worst slums in London.


Figure 4 - ' The Wanderings of Arasmon'                Figure 5 - An etching of St. Giles

Unbeknownst to her husband, Chrysea manages to break the curse by repeating faultlessly an elfin tune, but as a result she is turned into a golden harp, which her husband finds the next day, and which he keeps with him for the rest of his life whilst he travels the world desperately searching for his missing wife. Rather than the perfect marriage that was described at the start, we now have an indirect description of many Victorian marriages, in which both partners are performing the stereotypical gender roles prescribed by society. It is as if Chrysea no longer exists; although she is with him all the time, he does not ‘see’ her, nor hear her desperate cries. Arasmon gives up the lute and instead plays the golden harp, and although it is Chrysea who actually makes the beautiful music, it is her husband who is given the credit and the recognition. The wife’s own voice is effectively silenced; she can only make music when her husband plucks her strings, and she is powerless to control her own destiny. It is only his last dying act of repeating a blackbird’s haunting tune, the same tune she had repeated all those years ago, that breaks the spell and releases her back to her human form. There can be no possible happy ending to such a tale, and she dies with her husband, of a broken heart, but the inference is that they will continue their idyllic marriage in heaven, where nothing, be it magic spells or social conventions, can affect them.


L. S. Bevington (1845–1895) explains that ‘freedom, and freedom alone – is the fundamental principle of Anarchism’. The fairy tales I have analysed in this essay have been about freedom: the freedom to refuse marriage to an unsuitable suitor but to still be accepted by society; the freedom to be respected as an imperfect human being rather than as idolised fragments; the freedom to marry and be married for love and not merely to be an adornment; the freedom to be an equal partner in a sharing, caring relationship. These are the same freedoms that New Women cried out for a decade or so later.  Mary De Morgan can be considered to be amongst those emerging New Women artists who painted ‘the strangest frightful picture of anarchy’ (Krauskopf 710), her literary pleas for freedom threatening society’s most important institution, marriage, itself.  She sowed the seeds of domestic anarchy where one would perhaps least expect them – in her fairylands.

Marilyn Pemberton is a full-time IT project manager and gained her BA, MA and PhD as a mature, part-time student at WarwickUniversity. Her PhD explored the use of fairy tales, by Victorian writers, to reveal utopian desires or dystopian fears. She continues her research as an independent scholar and has published a number of articles based on her thesis, along with a book Enchanted Ideologies: A Collection of Rediscovered Nineteenth-Century English Moral Fairy Tales and a chapter in a forthcoming publication to celebrate the centenary of Burnett's A Secret Garden. She is currently working on a book of the life and works of Mary De Morgan, to be published September 2012.


1 De Morgan’s biographical details are not so strictly relevant to this essay, but for those interested, more details can be found in my work in progress on Mary De Morgan’s life and works, to be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing at the end of 2012. De Morgan was born in 1850 into a family of intellectuals, non-conformists and dissenters. Her father, Augustus (1806-1871), was a brilliant mathematician, whose De Morgan Laws are still of relevance to this day. Her mother, Sophia (1809-1892), was keenly interested in spiritualism, phrenology and mesmerism, and was also a fervent campaigner against vivisection and slavery, for the poor, and for children’s playgrounds. De Morgan inherited her mother’s social conscience, and in her thirties and forties ran a mothers’ club in the East End of London.  She was also the secretary of the People’s Concert Society, whose aim was to bring classical music to the working classes. Augustus and Sophia had seven children: Elizabeth Alice (1838-1853), William Frend (1839-1917), George Campbell (1841-1867), Edward Lindsay (1843-1880), Anne Isabella (1845-1904), Helena Christina (1847-1870) and finally Mary Augusta (1850-1907). William Frend is known today for his beautiful tiles, many of which were used by William Morris’s company. Although well respected at the time as a craftsman, it was after he started writing novels, well into his sixties, that he eventually gained world-wide fame and fortune. All the children but William, Anne and Mary died relatively young and before one or both of their parents, which was devastating for the family. Mary went to live in Egypt during the early 1900s for health reasons, but ended up running a girls’ reformatory in Helwan. She died of phthsis in 1907 and is buried in Cairo.

2 Once married, the wife had no legal right to any property, not even her clothes, books or even any money she earned, and her husband had legal custody of the children. Even those rulings which appeared to favour the wife, such as the husband being responsible for his wife’s debts incurred before the marriage, merely emphasised the loss of independence and responsibility of the woman once she was transformed from single to married.

3Besant campaigned for many reforms, including women’s rights, birth control and workers’ rights. She was a leading member of the Fabian Society and instigated the Matchgirls’ strike in 1888.

4 So named by Linton in an article called the ‘Modern Man-Haters’ printed in the Saturday Review 29 April 1871.

5 Critics such as Sally Ledger, Ann Heilmann, Elaine Showalter, Joan Perkin, Martha Vicinus, Jenni Calder, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, to name but a few, have thoroughly analyzed these writers.

6 Lady Randolph Churchill, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Mrs. Lynn Linton, Mrs. Arnold Toynbee, Mrs. Matthew Arnold, and Miss Beatrice Potter, for instance, signed ‘An Appeal Against Female Suffrage’ printed in The Nineteenth Century, June 1889.  These women – there were one hundred and two names printed with the article, twenty nine of them titled and just nine recognisably unmarried - despite desiring ‘the fullest possible development of the powers, energies, and education of women’ and not wanting to ‘seek to depreciate the position or the importance of women’ nevertheless considered that if women were given the suffrage ‘the whole nation would suffer in consequence’.

7 The Women’s Franchise League was founded in 1889 by Emily Pankhurst and its motto was ‘To extend to women, whether married, unmarried, or widowed the right to vote at parliamentary, municipal and local and other elections on the same conditions which qualify men. To establish for all women equal civil and political rights as men’.  By early 1890 there were one hundred and forty members, including Mona Caird, Lady Florence Dixie and Mary de Morgan. In 1908 the Women’s Writers’ Suffrage League was founded, two of the first members being Evelyn Sharp and Olive Schreiner. For an exhaustive analysis of every person and club associated with the women’s movement refer to Crawford’s excellent reference book.

8 For example, see Jack Zipes’s The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: on Fairy Tales and their Tellers, Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales and Elizabeth Wanning Harries’s Twice Upon a Time, Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale.

9 For instance, the term the ‘cursed Barbauld crew’ is now common in any study of the history of children’s literature. It is a quote from a 1802 letter from Charles Lamb to Samuel T. Coleridge, in which Lamb vehemently denounces the likes of Mrs. Barbauld and Mrs. Trimmer, who had a great influence on what was considered appropriate reading material for children (they encouraged rational books that conveyed knowledge rather than fanciful tales).

10 The significance of female hair in a story has been much analysed - see Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde and Gitter’s ‘The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination’.

Sarah Grand: Cross-Dressing at the Fin de Siècle

by Teresa Louro

          To essay a detailed discussion of cross-dressing in relation to fin-de-siècle literary English texts is to enter decisively into an unexplored field. Not only because, as Martha Vicinus suggests, ‘the implications of cross-dressing in fin-de-siècle fiction are less easy to unravel,’ (202) but also because few critics have seen any relationship between ‘the deliberate freakishness of [the] nineties’ (Auerbach, 23) and transvestism itself. Yet dress, particularly female dress and its limitations, was the subject of significant contemporary debates on rational dress, aesthetics and feminism (Harberton, Bloomer, Grand). This article pursues a detailed investigation and careful reconsideration of the figure of the female transvestite represented in Sarah Grand’s ‘Book IV: The Tenor and the Boy – An Interlude’ of the The Heavenly Twins (1893). In focussing  on the examination of a specific literary text, this analysis is not bound up with cultural criticism nor with investigating social aspects of cross-dressing, it is, instead, inextricably linked to the representation of the female cross-dresser in and through literature. I argue that female cross-dressing is not just a deviant performance of sexuality, but essentially an arena for constructing the body and clothing as inherently erotic.

My aim is to chart the concept and the experience of female transvestism in Grand’s narrative, and highlight the way in which the sartorial radicalism of the female cross-dresser almost certainly endangers the credibility of secure sexual norms by frequently showing herself sensitive to adopting the garments, psychological make-up, mannerisms, and tastes of the other sex. The critical force of this analysis will become evident when we consider that the transvestite’s consciousness and behaviour may be best described in relation to  her dress; that is, for the female cross-dresser, desire and clothing interact and influence each other directly.    
In order to situate and establish the ideological significance of Grand’s female cross-dresser we need to bring Grand’s literary narrative into dialogue with the cultural legacy of the closing decades of the nineteenth-century. To Osbert Burdett, the fin de siècle ‘was in its very surface insincerity sincere’ (12, emphasis added). Holbrook Jackson, felt, in the same vein, late nineteenth-century decadence to be ‘a pose as well as a fact’ (19, emphasis added). Moral decadence is almost always contemporaneous with depictions of times of effeminacy, sensuality, and luxury – and gender ambiguity, at the fin de siècle, comes to embody, absorb, and contest the eccentricities and anxieties of the 1880s-90s. Writing at the threshold of the new century, Max Beerbohm believes that ‘the era of rouge is upon us’ and feels that ‘we are ripe for a new epoch of artifice’ (3). In remarkable fashion, fin de siècle transvestism breathes a new kind of life into decadent London.

I want to suggest, more forcefully, the male Decadents’ behaviour, mannerisms, effeminate fashion, and extravagant dress are often set against the New Woman’s bicycle, cigarette, mannish tweed jacket and tie. Talia Schaffer argues that while ‘New Women pulled on man’s trousers, the male aesthetes were gleefully ransacking their sisters’ wardrobes for purple velvets’ (19). Linda Dowling also believes that to ‘most late Victorians the decadent was new and the New Woman decadent’ (48). This already points to a type of curious transvestism in two of the most prominent representative figures of the fin de siècle. If we follow the New Woman and the effeminate dandy through the mazes of aesthetic London, we find them cross-dressing (the effeminate decadent and the mannish New Woman) with unprecedented  power and importance for fin de siècle politics.

Holbrook Jackson, one of the earlier critics of 1890’s Decadence, believes that the fin de siècle was marked by ‘fantastic attenuations of weariness, fantastic anticipations of a new vitality’ (12). There seems to be unanimous agreement amongst critics that the end of the nineteenth century ‘was a cocktail of lamentations for the past and fears of the future’ (Teich and Porter, 1). If the late-nineteenth century is often characterized as a transitional period set in the borderline of two centuries, the cross-dresser at the fin de siècle is also set between conscious and unconscious fantasies, set between the body and dress, between narratives of self-revelation and self-creation. By juxtaposing the cross-dresser’s individuality with his/her desire to dress, we may begin to see how the transvestite mirrors the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Put simply, if we can see the fin de siècle reflecting the paradigmatic in-between identity of the transvestite, we can also look at the volatile subjectivity of the transvestite as reflecting the hybridity of the fin de siècle itself.

While reviewing the main evidence of late-nineteenth century fiction it is clear that the transvestite becomes an invariable feature of the texts of the period. In Vernon Lee’s Ariadne in Mantua, written in the winter of 1899, Diego ‘is fantastically habited as a youth in russet and violet … he is … in his boy’s clothes’ (226) but turns out to be ‘in reality Magdalen, a courtesan of some experience and of more than usual tact’ (227-228). Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Lesbia Brandon (1864) also offers a glimpse of a convincing male-to-female performance. Herbert ‘voted into a leading female part,’ and ‘in his masquerading dress’ (90) becomes a transvestite: his ‘full and curled hair had been eked out with false locks to the due length, and his skin touched up with feminine colours … so that … he was passable as a girl’ (87). First published in The Yellow Book in 1895, Victoria Cross’s short-story Theodora: A Fragment, surprisingly, even if briefly, presents Theodora as ‘quite passable, really,’ in a ‘velvet jacket,’ with a ‘curious masculine shade upon the upper lip,’ and putting on ‘a turban’ (23-33). In Aubrey Beardsley’s The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser or ‘Under the Hill’ (1896-98), the story opens with Tannhäuser worried that a day’s travel ‘should have too cruelly undone the laboured niceness of his dress’ (25), and ends with a ravishing Tannhäuser ‘dressed as a woman’ and looking ‘like a Goddess’ (77). In Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1896), Sue Bridehead takes off her ‘woman’s clothes – sexless cloth and linen’ (120) and puts on Jude’s ‘best dark suit’ (122). Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray ‘appeared at a costume ball as Anne de Joyeuse … in a dress covered with five hundred and sixty pearls’ (102). For Wilde, once a transvestite, always a transvestite: ‘This taste enthralled him [Dorian] for years, and, indeed, may be said never to have left him’ (122).

From this angle of vision, if Vernon Lee, Victoria Cross, Swinburne, Beardsley, Hardy, and Wilde already point to transvestism as a condition or trope that in some sense characteristically defines literary Decadence as  fin de siècle fiction, Sarah Grand allows us to realise, in a both wilder and more daring way, the full implications of the ethics and aesthetics of the transvestite’s body and costume, as she moves on directly from questions of sexuality and politics to issues of self-representation and self-knowledge in the figure of Angelica Hamilton-Wells.

In the decadent milieu of the 1880s-90s, Grand seems to share a general distrust of the realm of aesthetics in its cultivation of the beautiful, its devotion to form, and its separation of ethics from the arts (defended by Swinburne, Pater, and Wilde) and of the core Decadent principles of exaggeration, degeneration, and the subversion of nature through the artificial (defended by Huysmans, Baudelaire, and Beardsley). Marilyn Bonnell suggests Grand rejects the ‘solely aesthetic purpose of literature … to embrace instead literature as an instrument of social concern’ (124). From the outset, Angelica’s own sense of personal agency (her choice and independence) mark her act of cross-dressing as a pleasurable act she successfully turns to her own advantage - not a political act (the rights of women). I situate Angelica not as making a statement about female emancipation but rather as an aesthetic representation of beauty: ‘He had dark eyebrows, peculiarly light luxuriant hair, and, as natural accompaniment, a skin of extreme fairness and delicacy’ (379).

Ann Heilmann suggests that female transvestism, at the end of the nineteenth century, was ‘often linked with the themes of social purity and sexual exploitation’ (85). Cross-dressing enabled politically organised feminists to challenge the patriarchal conflation of biological maleness and hegemonic power since the female transvestite seeks ‘spatial and mental expansion by disguising herself as a man’ (Heilmann, 85). It seems to me that Heilmann overlooks the central premise of late-nineteenth century literary renditions of cross-dressing as a form of play. I would suggest that it is not just that cross-dressing accords women the linguistic and social powers of men, nor that the phenomenon itself registers cultural anxieties about the instability of gender, but also that, at the fin de siècle, the figure of the cross-dresser cannot escape being influenced by the symbolic force of a desire to put on men’s clothing that mark her as a recognizably transitory creature operating according to her own self-interest – as we will see Angelica do.

First, we need to contextualize Grand’s narrative in relation to three key texts which reveal an awareness of the issues at stake for women and their attitudes toward dress: Fanny Douglas’ The Gentlewoman’s Book of Dress, The Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer, and Grand’s article ‘The Morals of Manner and Appearance.’

The significance of female clothing and the attempt to change contemporary forms of dress was expounded by Viscountess Harberton, founder of the Rational Dress Society, who believed that ‘now that women are being … allowed to take their place in Society as rational beings … the question of dress assumes proportions which it did not used to have’ (quoted in Wilson and Taylor, 53). Healthy and practical, the political significance of female clothing, is, to Harberton in marked contrast to ‘a stiff and constricted body, a narrow, corseted waist and a bell-shaped lower half’ (23). It is worth noting in this context that both Oscar Wilde and his wife, Constance, were prominent among those urging the adoption of looser, lighter, healthier garments which acknowledged rather than travestied the needs of the human body.  Wilde, in an article for the Pall Mall Gazette (1884), felt that a ‘corset becomes useless’ and without it the benefit is clear ‘the body is left free and unconfined for respiration and motion’ in the end, ‘there is more health, and consequently more beauty’ (Complete Wilde, 945).

Grand was openly critical of the rights and roles of women and aware of the real conditions in which women’s struggles developed (economic, ideological, political) in her engagement with emergent feminist issues: the marriage question, sexual purity, the militant suffrage movement, and women’s expanding opportunities for education and employment. To Grand the ‘Woman Question is the Marriage Question’ (HT, 146) – she strongly believed in the sacred role of mothers and wives and advocated for men the respect and reverence of the sanctity of marriage. Under the guise of advice, Grand sketched out a pedagogical project designed to ensure man’s and woman’s duties in the moral advancement of the nation. She wrote ‘now woman holds out a strong hand to the child-man, and insists, but with infinite tenderness and pity, upon helping him up’ (143). The key point to remember is that Grand’s polemical and seductive portrayal of fin de siècle transvestitism through the rebellious and mischievous figure of Angelica is in marked contrast to the sacred role of mothers and wives she advocates as advice. Grand argues for women’s political advancement through dress, but she also presents an enigmatic portrayal of female transvestism at odds with Grand’s own feminist concerns.

With Grand there is no blurring of fact and fiction. What she advocates on the feminist platform is paradoxically at odds with her central female character. Put simply, Grand’s representation of a female cross-dresser oversteps the bounds of acceptable conduct in a manner unbecoming to the late-Victorian notion of womanhood Grand has in mind. Angelica, by putting on a man’s suit, by secretly leaving her husband, and by being an eccentric Boy, contradicts Grand’s moral pronouncements and social code she advocates elsewhere. Before considering what it might mean specifically for Grand to affirm (rather than disavow) the romantic, political, and ethical possibilities at the heart of transvestism, it is worth noting, briefly, that Sarah Grand was fond of ‘smart clothes, large hats;’ (Kersley, 64). Grand’s sophisticated elegance and graciousness seems to adhere to a more conventional style of dress that sits well with the respectable conformity and appropriate candour often expected of middle-class, late-Victorian women – but not with a female character (Angelica Hamilton-Wells) who loves to dress in men’s suits.

Appropriate dress for the English Lady is described in minute detail in Fanny Douglas’ The Gentlewoman’s Book of Dress (1895). . Divided into several chapters, the book gives advice on how and what to wear at home, in the country, in town, at Royal Ascot, and offers a full analysis of Dress in Literature (including Milton, Pepys, Carlyle, and Tennyson). In the country, Douglas suggests the gentlewoman should wear ‘a russet-hued dress bound with dim yellow leather’ because it ‘is pleasing to behold, as well as rational to wear’; she adds that a ‘tweed waterproof coat is also advisable’ and recommends both ‘dress and coat should be five inches off the ground to ensure comfort...gaiters may be worn to clothe and keep warm the ankles’ (55-6). It is hard to read Douglas’ prescriptive narrative on female dress without concluding that her ethics of costume are intimately charged with the notion of a passive, receptive, bourgeois femininity. By contrast, Angelica’s studied principle weapon and strategy result in an extravagant transvestite adventure, the antithesis to Douglas’ quiet notion of womanhood. Angelica asks the Tenor: ‘Do you think my moustache will be the colour of my eyebrows when it comes?’ (409).

Douglas’ advice entails a rigorous containment of the body: ‘scalloped round, and with deep embroidered corners of gold, they [shawls] … should all be in perfect harmony with her gown’ (84). By adopting male dress, Angelica’s body is not only liberated but certainly endangers, in large measure, the credibility of Douglas’ rigid sartorial system. To Douglas the final purpose of a rich and sumptuous female dress is decoration since the woman with good taste will match, and eventually, become her drawing-room curtains. Douglas explains ‘the man who chose his wife to match his drawing-room curtains was a man of taste, and a gentlewoman should show her appreciation of home by dressing to suit it’ (47). Angelica, in marked contrast, explains her transvestism as boredom with marriage: ‘when I expressed my objection to being so limited nobody believed … So here I am’ (460).

Grand’s ‘The Morals of Manner and Appearance’ includes the inescapable conclusion that a woman must think seriously about her dress to be able to explain to others her scheme for feminist social reform. Grand opens her article with a question: ‘Is it right that women should aid their influence for good in the world by making themselves as prepossessing as possible in manner and appearance?’ (87). As a strong believer in the sacred duties of wife and mother, Grand proposes that the material advancement of women’s position in society and the elimination of inequality between the sexes can be achieved through pleasing dress: ‘a woman … who selects a costume which shall help her to please by her appearance those whom she hopes to convince by her arguments, and so, to begin with, inclines them to listen favourably to what she has to say, is worthy of admiration’ (91). Angelica, on the other hand, by proudly deciding to leave the marriage bed at midnight, by risking an offence punishable by law, and by flirting explicitly with the Tenor may also be seen to represent a new breed of femininity that ‘acted as a signifier for social disintegration’ (Ledger, Cultural Politics, 5).

In The Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer, the difference between the advice given by Douglas and Bloomer is almost unbridgeable, in their description of female dress and the purposes it may serve. Taking into account ‘the inconvenience, unhealthfulness and discomfort of woman’s dress,’ Amelia Bloomer advocates ‘a change to Turkish pantaloons and a skirt reaching a little below the knee’ (66). Showing not only ‘how ready and anxious women were to throw off the burden of long, heavy skirts’ (68), Bloomer ‘felt that the dress was drawing attention … to the question of woman’s right to better education, to a wider field of employment ... and to the ballot for the protection of her rights’ (70). Women are confined by oppression and clothing is part of that subordination. Bloomer expresses her idea as to how the reform dress should be prepared: ‘we would have the skirt reaching down to nearly half way between the knee and the ankle … Underneath this skirt, trousers made moderately full … with an elastic band’ (74). Although Bloomer was fiercely advocating healthier forms of dress for women while simultaneously pushing and plotting for a ‘woman’s right to better education’ almost two decades before the publication of The Heavenly Twins, Grand also argues for a revision of the ethics of female costume by promoting the central notion that woman’s political advancement is undeniably facilitated by a woman’s careful choice of dress. Grand’s adherence to and promotion of respectable domestic behaviour, through a rigid moral code, is refined and extended through an equally respectable standard in female costume. Grand writes: ‘True womanliness is not in danger, and the sacred duties of wife and mother will be all the more honorably performed when women have a reasonable hope of becoming wives and mothers of men (Grand, ‘New Aspect,’ 145).

In Douglas’, Bloomer’s and Grand’s narratives, the concern with garments is coupled with strategic planning and underlying principles which reveal their fundamental notion of women’s political advancement through dress. It is crucial to remember, for the purposes of this argument, the contrast between their political engagement with women’s clothing and Angelica’s transvestite act. Put simply, Angelica’s cross-dressing represents a fundamental challenge to late-nineteenth century notions of femininity and fashionable dress but divorced from any moral purpose. Moreover, Grand suggests that women would have ‘had the suffrage long ago had not, unfortunately, some of the first fighters for it … been unprepossessing women’ (‘New Aspect,’ 92). It is curious to note that two months after the publication of Grand’s piece, in August 1893, an unsigned article in the Review of Reviews argues the title for Grand’s article should instead have been the ‘Duty that is incumbent upon all advanced women of being as pretty as they know how’ (152-3). By contrast, Angelica’s transvestite misconduct seems, indeed, to reflect no concern at all ‘for being pretty,’ but more on displaying boyish charm, mischievousness, and exquisite beauty: ‘The Boy … laughed, delighted as usual by any jest at his own expense. He … sat stroking his upper lip … there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes’ (408).

Moreover, Angelica’s sometimes ‘irresistibly comic’ (449) transvestite narrative bears the imprint of an alliance of female cross-dressing and erotic pleasure:

But isn’t it surprising the difference dress makes? I should hardly have thought it possible to convert a substantial young woman into such a slender, delicate-looking boy as I make. But it just shows how important dress is (452).

Here, as elsewhere in the text, Angelica’s sophisticated feminist plea is only briefly and remotely connected to her sudden and challenging transvestite adventure since she confesses that ‘I wanted to do as well as to be’ (450). Angelica possesses rare physical beauty, ‘peculiarly light luxuriant hair’ (379) has eccentric musical tastes, calls herself ‘a bright particular spirit’ (393), and is already married when she decides to put on a man’s suit. In all its ideological nakedness, Angelica counteracts her experimental mischief as an extension of her desire to  do as she likes:

I thought I should like to see the market-place by moonlight, and then all at once I thought I would see it by moonlight. That was my first weighty reason for changing my dress. But having once assumed the character, I began to love it; it came naturally; and the freedom from restraint…was delicious. (459)

Angelica’s desire to put on a man’s suit, reveals her wish to pursue her own amusement. For Angelica, it is a question of following up a regular occupation going out at night to meet the Tenor – and there seems to be no other ulterior motive. Angelica thus offers a legitimate self-justification for trafficking in the wrong costume.

Grand raises serious questions about the status of subversion (through Angelica’s transvestism), the position of subordination (through Angelica’s nightly adventures), and the possibility of transgression (through Grand’s ambivalent portrayal of cross-dressing). It is this slipperiness that provides for and marks the chapter’s sexual dramas, political consciousness, and narrative development. At the deepest level of meaning, this narrative focuses on the emergence of a new topography of female subjectivity, which reveals, in its remapping of the body-mind divide, an increasingly complex notion of the fin de siècle transvestite. Angelica repeatedly postulates her sartorial and sexual identity as a fact that needs neither discovery nor justification but as an extension of her desire to ‘let me do as I like’ (321). With Grand, there is not a defence of art for art’s sake but of cross-dressing for cross-dressing’s sake.

Dr Teresa Louro is Assistant Researcher at the University of Porto. She received her doctorate from Birkbeck College, University of London and her MA from Queen Mary, University of London. She is member of the Centre for English, Translation, and Anglo-Portuguese Studies and Associate Member at the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women's Writing, University of London. Her research focuses on feminism, gender and late nineteenth-century English literature.

1 Sarah Grand, The Heavenly Twins, [1893], Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. All subsequent references to this text will be cited as HT

2 Laura Marcus notes ‘there may or may not have been a sexual charge attached to popular representations of the New Woman on her bicycle.’ L. Marcus, ‘Staging the ‘Private Theatre’: Gender and the Auto-Erotics of Reverie,’ in Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis, (eds.), The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siècle Feminism, Palgrave: London, 2002, p. 144.

3 Sally Ledger writes that ‘The New Woman…figured in discourse as a mannish…’type’…severely dressed, wearing college ties, and smoking’, in Sally Ledger, The New Woman, p. 16.

4 Swinburne, Algernon Charles, Lesbia Brandon, [1864], Falcon Press: London, 1952, p. 87.

5 Grand coined the term New Woman in an article published in North American Review and titled ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question,’ [1894], in Carolyn Nelson, (ed.), The New Woman Reader, Broadview: Toronto, 2001.

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