The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name?: Queer Desire in The Mid-Victorian Novel

Clare is a postgraduate student at Selwyn College, Cambridge. She has recently submitted her PhD thesis, which explores disability in the Victorian novel. When she isn’t making grand plans for her next project on life-writing and disability in the nineteenth century, she is mostly to be found knitting and novel-reading. You can find her page here and on twitter here.

If you’re looking for a way to escape the oncoming juggernaut of heteronormativity otherwise known as Valentine’s Day, Victorian novels might be the last place you would think to look. Victorian novels are known, perhaps above all else, for their over-arching marriage plots, for being structured around their heroines’ progress towards the aisle, altar and marriage bed, and for their reticence on the subject of any desire not leading her in that direction. The reader in search of respite from the relentlessly heterosexual script of the season is more likely to turn to novels of the early twentieth century, to E.M. Forster’s Maurice and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, or at the very least to the homoerotic fiction of the fin-de-siècle, in which men from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr Watson to Oscar Wilde’s Basil Hallward are falling over themselves to express their love for other men.

But the mid-Victorian novel has much more to offer the reader seeking representations of same-sex love than you might expect. Beyond the sublimated passions and repressed desires so brilliantly explored in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s seminal study of homosexual love in the Victorian literature, Between Men (1985), it is actually quite easy to find explicit declarations of passionate devotion between characters of the same sex, if you know where to look.

In Dinah Mulock Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman (1856), for example, the narrator Phineas Fletcher is unmistakably in love with the protagonist John Halifax. While the novel is ostensibly a paean to the virtue of the self-made man, who raises himself from pauperism to prosperity with nothing but a sound moral code and a ready pair of hands, it is also an extended celebration of a life-long love between two men. The chance meeting between Phineas and John in the street when they are boys, divided by material circumstances and class but drawn together by mutual attraction, could hardly be more romantic. Phineas is charmed by John’s beautiful body, “his muscular limbs, his square, broad shoulders […] his crisp curls of bright, thick hair.”[i] Things soon take a physical turn, when John offers to carry the frail Phineas up the stairs:

Still from the 1910 film adaptation of John Halifax, Gentleman by the Thanhouser company

Still from the 1910 film adaptation of John Halifax, Gentleman by the Thanhouser company

‘Suppose you let me carry you. I could – and – and it would be great fun, you know.’ He tried to turn it into a jest, so as not to hurt me; but the tremble in his voice was as tender as any woman’s – tenderer than any woman’s I ever was used to hear. I put my arms round his neck; he lifted me safely and carefully, and set me at my own door. Then with another good-bye he again turned to go. My heart cried after him with an irrepressible cry. What I said I do not remember, but it caused him to return.[ii]

In case the reader has somehow missed what has happened in this scene, Phineas makes it explicit for us in the next chapter, drawing on a biblical parallel to explain his relationship with John:

I do not attempt to account for [my sudden liking]: I know not why ‘the soul of Jonathan clave to the soul of David.’ I only knew that it was so, and that the first day I beheld the lad John Halifax, I, Phineas Fletcher, ‘loved him as my own soul.’[iii]

Passages such as this make it easy to see why the reviewer R.H. Hutton wrote that it was “difficult to suppress the fear that Phineas will fall hopelessly in love with John Halifax”; the surprising thing is that Hutton could suppress it at all.[iv] When John falls in love with a woman and declares that he wants to be married, Phineas is broken-hearted: “I forgot my manhood, or else it slipped from me unawares. In the old Bible language, ‘I fell on his neck and wept.’” Strikingly, John does not react to Phineas’s outburst with rejection or even with puzzlement, just as he answers Phineas’s “irrepressible cry” at their first meeting, so he meets Phineas’s grief here with tenderness, reassuring him that “‘you must not think I could ever think less, or feel less, about my brother.’”[v]

John’s fraternal language casts their relationship in a non-sexual light and insists on the difference between this relationship, and his relationship with his future wife Ursula, but Phineas continues to express himself in lover-like terms. As he tells Ursula when pleading John’s case: “while John does not love me best, he to me is more than any one else in the world.’”[vi] Unsurprisingly, Phineas struggles to adapt to what he feels is his exclusion from John and Ursula’s relationship when they set up house together as a married couple, but his sufferings are short-lived. John soon “demands” that Phineas join his household as a permanent resident, and Phineas lives with the Halifaxes for the rest of his life. He may never enjoy John’s exclusive devotion after his marriage, but he does get to spend his life with the man he loves, who lives and dies quite literally beside him, slipping away as he lies beside Phineas in a tear-jerking finale.

How did Craik’s contemporaries understand such a relationship? A clue can be found in R.H. Hutton’s puzzled – although far from disapproving – review, in which he qualifies his remarks about Phineas’s relationship with John by adding “so hard is it to remember that Phineas is of the male sex.”[vii] Hutton understands Phineas’s passion for John as arising from the femininity of his character, clearly taking his cue from Phineas himself, who tells the reader that his “character is too feeble and womanish to be likely to win any woman’s reverence or love.”[viii] Phineas links his “womanish” character to his disability: it is because he is “a cripple” that he cannot inherit his father’s tannery business, and is forced to take up a daughter’s place in his family, ceding the son’s role to John.

While this is clearly a painful state of affairs for Phineas, his disability opens up opportunities for tenderness and even physical contact between John and himself that they could not otherwise have enjoyed; it is in carrying him up and downstairs, nursing him in his illnesses, and comforting him in his periods of depression, that John is able to show his care for Phineas: “If I had been a woman, and the woman that he loved, he could not have been more tender over my weakness.”[ix]

The idea that physical weakness or disability puts a man in a woman’s position reflects a rigidly binary view of gender and sexuality, but it also demonstrates how disability can queer this binary, and open up possibilities for tender touch between men. This pattern can be traced across Victorian fiction: it is, after all, when Watson is wounded that Holmes finally shows his true feelings for him:

It was worth a wound – it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.[x]

It is only when one partner is permanently disabled, it seems, that such “moments of revelation” can be extended, and allowed to shape a whole relationship.

It is not only love between men that is enabled by disability. Wilkie Collins allows one of his disabled female characters to declare her love for another disabled woman in unmistakeably passionate terms in The Moonstone (1868). Heartbroken by her beloved Rosanna’s death, Limping Lucy tells our narrator:

‘I loved her,’ the girl said softly. ‘She had lived a miserable life, Mr Betteredge – vile people had ill-treated her and led her wrong – and it hadn’t spoiled her sweet temper. She was an angel. She might have been happy with me. I had a plan for our going to London together like sisters, and living by our needles. That man came here, and spoilt it all. He bewitched her. Don’t tell me he didn’t mean it, and didn’t know it. He ought to have known it. He ought to have taken pity on her. “I can’t live without him – and, oh, Lucy, he never even looks at me.” That’s what she said. Cruel, cruel, cruel. […] Where is he?’ cries the girl, lifting her head from the crutch, and flaming out again through her tears. ‘Where’s this gentleman that I mustn’t speak of, except with respect? Ha, Mr Betteredge, the day is not far off when the poor will rise against the rich. I pray Heaven they may begin with him. I pray Heaven they may begin with him.’[xi]

Given that the story is set in 1848 – the year of Revolution – Lucy’s words are truly incendiary. Her love for Rosanna leads her not only to resent the gentleman Franklin Blake’s treatment of her, but to imagine a revolutionary future in which men like him will be punished for the wrongs they have done women like her. She is also – perhaps most radically of all – able to imagine a situation in which her love for Rosanna need not have been tragic, in which two marginalised women could have “been happy” together, “living by [their] needles” in London. Although she uses sororal terms to express this future – they would have lived “like sisters” – the sheer venom of her attitude to Franklin, and the jealousy with which she speaks of him, makes it difficult to accept that her feelings are familial rather than romantic. When Franklin finds himself confronted with this “wan, wild, haggard girl”, he feels himself to be “an object of mingled interest and horror”, as she exclaims, “in the first soft tones which had fallen from her, in my hearing. ‘Oh, my lost darling! what could you see in this man?’”[xii]

While Collins arguably conforms to what would become the pattern for homosexual relationships in twentieth century fiction and film, by having Lucy and Rosanna’s story end in tragedy, it is telling that it is Rosanna’s heterosexual desire for Franklin, not Lucy’s homosexual desire for her, that leads to disaster. Whereas lesbians in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction tend to be depicted as vampiric, destructive figures, thwarting marriage plots and sowing discord wherever they go, in the mid-Victorian novel, characters whose passions are directed towards ‘sisters’ rather than husbands, and ‘brothers’ rather than wives, tend to be sympathetically drawn. Fitting them into a fundamentally heterosexist world-view involves depicting them as in some way re-sexed – which is where disability comes in – but even when their deviation from normative gender roles is pathologised, it is rarely demonised.

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly serialisation of The Moonstone (1868)

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly serialisation of The Moonstone (1868)

In the same novel, Collins has the terminally ill opium addict Ezra Jennings admit that he has a “female constitution” before confessing the “attraction” he feels for Franklin Blake – who in turn finds it “impossible to resist” Ezra’s “inscrutable appeal to [his] sympathies.”[xiii] Yet Ezra is depicted as an honourable man who does not deserve the suspicion that constantly attaches to him; his role in the novel’s plot is wholly helpful, as he successfully establishes Franklin’s innocence and enables his marriage plot with Rachel to be brought to a happy conclusion. Like Phineas, Ezra has not only to endure his beloved’s marriage to someone else, but has to actively assist in this conclusion. Just as Phineas wooed Ursula on John’s behalf, so Ezra has to lay the groundwork for Franklin and Rachel’s romance to be resumed. But at the moment of their reunion, Rachel invites the reader to imagine a different conclusion:

I found her at the head of the sofa, when I returned. She was just touching his forehead with her lips. I shook my head as soberly as I could, and pointed to her chair. She looked back at me with a bright smile, and a charming colour in her face. ‘You would have done it,’ she whispered, ‘in my place.’[xiv]

We may never get to see Ezra in Rachel’s place, or Rosanna and Lucy dancing on the shivering sands together as in this picture, but Collins encourages us to imagine these things. In doing so, he opens up a space for queer desire right at the heart of this seminal work of Victorian fiction, just as Dinah Mulock Craik brings same-sex love into the most respectable of households in her mid-century bestseller. Perhaps Victorian novels offer the perfect anti-dote to the narrow definition of love on display (and on sale) this Valentine’s Day, after all.

Winslow Homer, 'A Summer Night' (1890)

Winslow Homer, ‘A Summer Night’ (1890)

[i] Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) (Stroud: Nonsuch, 2005), pp. 9–10.

[ii] Craik, p. 15.

[iii] Craik, p. 18.

[iv] Richard Holt Hutton, ‘Novels by the Authoress of “John Halifax, Gentleman”’, North British Review, 29.58 (1858), 466–81 (p. 475).

[v] Craik, pp. 152–3.

[vi] Craik, p. 184

[vii] Hutton, p. 475

[viii] Craik, p. 53.

[ix] Craik, p. 65.

[x] Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Three Garridebs’, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes (1924), in The Complete Sherlock Holmes (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2009), p.1010.

[xi] Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 183-4.

[xii] Collins, pp. 300–301.

[xiii] Collins, p. 369, p.393, p.364.

[xiv] Collins, p. 426.


3 responses to “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name?: Queer Desire in The Mid-Victorian Novel

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