Neo-Victorian Review – The Living and the Dead: a Victorian language of flowers, ‘invisible’ lesbians and the New Woman

Emily Turner is a first year doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, where she is studying the medical humanities with a specific focus on locating archives of patient publications produced in mental health institutions between 1850 and 1950. You can find out more by following her at https://twitter.com/emilyjessturner, or read more of her journalism and academic writing at https://emilyjessicaturner.wordpress.com.

It is autumn, 1894. A woman with a red dress and black hair stumbles through the misty forests of Shepzoy in Somerset. Attacked suddenly by an unseen force before the daguerreotype-style opening credits of The Living and the Dead roll, she is later found stumbling back into town with no memory of what has happened to her.

She is Martha Enderby, the village schoolteacher. Just as Harriet Denning, Shepzoy’s spirit conduit and troubled teenager, is poised between worlds, the character of Martha has been coded as the Victorian woman torn between her role as demure ‘spinster’ and her inner yearning for a liberated life.

Martha’s quiet and thoughtful characterisation aligns with her assigned role of the polite, well-spoken and demure schoolteacher. She is also a lesbian, and has fallen in love with a local farmhand, a young woman named Alice. ‘I loved her’, she tells Charlotte Appleby, ‘the way you love your husband […] all my life I’ve felt different in here [indicates head] and in here [indicates heart]. Alone. Always alone. Until I found Alice and I loved her with all my heart and soul.’ Ethereal Alice, blonde and ghostly, later leads Nathan to the site of her death before the story of her untimely demise plays out in the hunt for her killer.

Martha and Alice. Picture credit: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03zbrdv/p03zbp6x

Martha and Alice. Picture credit: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03zbrdv/p03zbp6x

Just as the other women in The Living and the Dead often represent the liminal spaces between worlds (as explored in previous posts), Martha is caught between two conflicting universes. Despite fulfilling the criteria of the educated schoolteacher, emancipated from the confines of the domestic sphere, Martha still suffers repression – both due her femaleness, and as a result of her sexuality.

Although later in the nineteenth century, romantic female relationships, known as ‘Boston marriages’, were encouraged in some areas, Shepzoy is a world stuck in the past. ‘People in the village couldn’t understand that a schoolteacher might form a friendship with someone of Alice’s supposedly lowly situation. But this place, Shepzoy, this whole country, it’s so medieval, so provincial’, frets Martha.

This tension between Martha’s dual lives is explored in The Living and the Dead through the theme of botany, a topic abundant in Shepzoy’s rural environment. As Martha leads Nathan through the forest to the scene of the earlier crime, the schoolteacher points out the Latin names of the plants which grow in the moss and tree roots of the forest floor. The amateur botanist, her hobby is that of choice for the scientifically minded Victorian woman, keen to explore the world around her, beyond the confines of the domestic sphere. This interest delineates the character as a woman who is taking advantage of a universe becoming slowly more available to nineteenth century women – that of world of the ‘softer’ sciences. As the study of the natural world became accessible to the layman, outside of the realms of academia, it also became a practice which women were able to access, collecting specimens and reading botanical texts. Although women were still deterred from practicing ‘serious sciences’, such as biology, physics or astronomy, the study of geology or botany were generally seen as exceptions to the rule. Botany, therefore, became a practice through which women could access the outside world, beyond the domestic sphere, and experience a sense of liberation – even if their access to or graduation from higher education was not permitted.

The Language of Flowers (1900), by Alphonse Mucha

The Language of Flowers (1900), by Alphonse Mucha

The Living and the Dead’s casual nod to the Victorian era’s growing interest in botany does not only serve the purpose of demonstrating Martha’s reach for intellectual emancipation. The floriographic connection the Victorian ‘language of flowers’ is utilised to illustrate the secrecy necessary for Martha and Alice’s relationship. This highly symbolic ‘language’ was often used as a covert way of communicating, and this is illustrated by the programme through the small book, The Language of Flowers, which passes from Martha to Alice to Jack. Inside, Martha has inscribed ‘to my secret flower of the forest – my love is like a red red rose’ on the flyleaf, addressing Alice. Throughout history, Sapphic relationships have often been hidden behind a floral language. Queer communities in the nineteenth century co-opted the secrecy of the language of flowers to communicate with each other – the slur ‘pansy’, in fact, originates from the green carnations or pansies that gay men of the era would wear in their lapels. Martha and Alice identify each other through this language of flowers to the extent that the plants that Martha names to Nathan are the visual cue she needs to remember half of her story: ‘One day, I hope to discover a new native subspecies and…Alice. Alice Wharton’. ‘She’s a flower of the forest’, says Martha of Alice, ‘a secret flower. I truly believed she would bloom into a woman of true substance’. Since the days of Sappho, the Ancient Greek poet of the isle of Lesbos, the violet has been a symbol of Sapphic affection. It could perhaps be argued that Martha, who wears a surprisingly bright red dress, and Alice, who materialises in blue, represent this queer affection torn asunder.

Sappho and Erinna in a garden at Mytilene.

Sappho and Erinna in a garden at Mytilene.

When considering Martha, as floriography expert and as fluent in flower-language, it might be worth noting that the term ‘an evening botanist’ is an antiquated euphemism for a gay character. These dual components of her personality, botanist and lesbian, symbolise her liminal position – striving for a greater freedom, yet constrained by the social expectations of her time and location. As with the characters of Harriet Denning and Charlotte Appleby, Martha’s experience of being female allows her to serve as a conduit through which The Living and the Dead can explore tensions between the old world and the new.

As a literary device, therefore, it can be argued that Martha represents multiple Victorian theories about female queerness, and its evolving position in late nineteenth century society. As suggested, the botany context allows The Living and the Dead to invoke the secrecy of the language of flowers, as well as the theme of female emancipation through the study of the natural world – the old and the new colliding through the theme of female experience. However, this concept of Martha as the representative of the liminal (and by extension, the space in which old, new and opposing ideas interact) plays out in several other ways through The Living and the Dead. Shepzoy is the perfect environment for this dynamic to be explored; it is a space which contains multiple timeframes and is poised chronologically just as the old century gives way to the new. Or, as Elaine Showalter describes it, ‘the crises of the fin de siècle [and its] metaphors of death and rebirth’[1].

Sexologist Havelock Ellis

Sexologist Havelock Ellis

A significant part of this nineteenth century ‘crisis’ was what Showalter deems ‘sexual anarchy’, societal concerns about female sexuality, homosexuality, and changes to women’s roles in society. Indeed, Martha as queer New Woman represents the culmination of these fears. Female sexuality, of course, was highly monitored, restricted and determined within the boundaries of patriarchy throughout the nineteenth century. Sexual women were depicted as vampiric, and deviance from the sexual norm was often seen as a medical issue. The Victorian pathologization of female sexuality coincides with the era’s rise in scientific exploration of sexuality. The subject of ‘sexology’ emerged, and this led to a pseudo-medical reading of homosexuality. The writer Havelock Ellis attempted to create a detailed classification of ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ sexualities, which led to the identification of a third or ‘intermediate’ sex, identified by Ellis as ‘sexual inversion’. The word ‘Uranian’ was used by Edward Carpenter to denote both male and female homosexuality, and, of course, the terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘Sapphic’ came into use during the nineteenth century.  This demonising of female sexual emancipation and the pathologising of queer female relationships is explored in The Living and the Dead through the character of Martha, who neatly fits the popular Victorian image of the ‘odd woman’, a trope which ‘conflated elements of the lesbian, the angular spinster, and the hysterical feminist’[2]. The emancipated New Woman was treated with patriarchal suspicion as ‘making redundant’ the male sex. Lesbianism, which was often ‘linked with feminism’[3], was seen as exemplary of this – as Catherine Lavender suggests, for gay New Women, ‘loving other women became a way to escape what they saw as the probabilities of male domination’.

Naturally, that which is feared is demonised, and Martha’s breakdown and murder of Alice illustrates a Victorian fear of the ‘odd woman’. Nathan Appleby, the head doctor, pathologizes Martha while subtly referencing her sexuality as the crux of her issues: ‘fragmented recollection, extreme agitation, confusion – I think her mind’s endeavouring to blank out something unspeakable’. The ‘love which dare not speak its name’, of course, is a euphemism for homosexuality and originates from the poem Two Loves by Lord Alfred Douglas, published in the same year that The Living and the Dead has been set.

Martha therefore contains multitudes, representing antiquated Victorian views of the demonic lesbian murderess as well as the emancipated New Woman, presenting a fin de siècle challenge to the patriarchal system. Her liminality allows these notions to interact with each other, ultimately indicating the changing times.

This liminality, interestingly, contains a multiplicity within itself. It enables The Living and the Dead to explore changing and complex ideas of the Victorian female experience, but also means that Martha becomes a ‘ghostly’ character within the programme. She is visible, but yet not quite fully present – she is (necessarily) secretive about her affection and her actions, she is nervous and taciturn, and she is psychologically troubled (the divisions between trauma and haunting are, as I’ve explored before, rather blurred in Shepzoy) by her experiences in the woods. Depicted as the manifestation of Victorian theories of female homosexuality, Martha is never fully permitted to become her own person; a factor of which The Living and the Dead is aware, communicating this sentiment through Martha’s own voice: ‘they made me invisible, because I was different’.

This idea of Martha’s ‘invisibility’ echoes the ghosts which haunt Shepzoy – including that of her beloved Alice. Interestingly, this concept of invisibility further aligns Martha within contemporary medical discourse surrounding female homosexuality, as ‘Kraft-Ebing included lesbianism among the sexual perversions he discussed in Psychopathia Sexualis (1889), placing homosexual women along a scale from “invisible” to highly maculinized’[4].

Ghostly Martha. Picture credit:  bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03zbrdv/p03zbnv3

Ghostly Martha. Picture credit:  bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03zbrdv/p03zbnv3

An invisible queer woman, situated between the confines of Victorian society and an emancipated womanhood, Martha fits neatly within Terry Castle’s category of the ‘Apparitional Lesbian’. In her text, Castle illustrates that ‘to try to write the literary history of lesbianism is to confront, from the start, something ghostly: an impalpability, a misting over, an evaporation, or “whiting out” out of possibility’[5].

Further to this, ‘An irrational yet potent symbolic logic is at work here: to be taken for a ghost is to be “credited” with unnatural desires […] to “be a ghost” is to long, unspeakably, after one’s own sex. At the same time […] the demonic opposite is also true: to love another woman is to lose one’s solidity in the world, to evanesce, and fade into the spectral’[6].

By making the thwarted lesbian love story a tale of a haunting, The Living and the Dead inverts the theory of the Apparitional Lesbian by making Martha both queer and literally haunted. Martha ‘loses her solidity in the world’. As conduit for the struggles between the old world and the new, she is pale, ghostly, and peripheralised. At the same time, she is a ghost, longing as she does after her own sex. Therefore, as Castle suggests, she is both brought into the world and out of it by her sexuality.

Alice. Picture credit: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03zbrdv/p03zbn2d

Alice. Picture credit: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03zbrdv/p03zbn2d

At the same time, however, she is also haunted by the spectre of lesbianism through the ghostly manifestation of Alice, who represents a sexuality deemed threatening by her patriarchal society. ‘What better way’, asks Castle, ‘to exorcise the threat of female homosexuality than by treating it as ghostly?’[7]. In this sense, Martha is a revisionist Apparitional Lesbian – conjured into the sphere of Shepzoy to illuminate the complexities of Victorian attitudes towards her gender and her sexuality.

As Harriet and Charlotte are conduits for the spirit world, Martha as liminal space is a channel through which the programme can explore the nineteenth century’s perceptions of lesbian sexuality. By encapsulating both the old world role of the ‘schoolteacher spinster’, cut off from desire and confined within a delineated role, and the new age emancipated woman and Sapphic botanist, the character of Martha enables the programme to illustrate and explore Victorian theories of female sexuality and queerness. For a woman who represents multiple timeframes, Shepzoy is a natural environment for Martha to inhabit: this idea of the village as a space in which multiple chronologies exist simultaneously will be explored in next week’s final blog post on The Living and the Dead.

______________________

[1] Showalter, Elaine, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, (Virago Press, Great Britain: 1992), 2.

[2] Ibid, 23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Castle, Terry, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture, (Columbia University Press, New York: 1993), 28.

[6] Ibid, 32.

[7] Ibid, 34.

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One response to “Neo-Victorian Review – The Living and the Dead: a Victorian language of flowers, ‘invisible’ lesbians and the New Woman

  1. Pingback: The Living and the Dead: A Victorian Language of Flowers, ‘invisible’ lesbians and the New Woman – Emily Turner·

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