Victorian Men and the Critique of Heteronormative Marriage

Something I learn as I keep reading Victorian literature is that many really interesting critiques of heteronormativity come from people who were or who appeared to be its beneficiaries: straight, white, middle- and upper- class, property-owning men.

I used to think of the critique of marriage as a queer/feminist province, or at least a leaning in that direction. In spite of their greater social, economic, and sexual freedom, the ways that marriage laws allowed them full property and impunity at their wives’ expense, Victorian men felt unhappy in their marriages, and, what’s more, some of them, rather than blaming their wives, understood their misery as caused by the institution and the norms that governed it.

In the best case scenario, this awareness on their part meant openly negotiating a means of both partners having their needs met, as equals. Experiments with open marriage, as well as and often overlapping with queer relationships, took place within the utopian socialist circles of the later part of the nineteenth century. For example, Havelock Ellis, sex researcher and coauthor of the influential study Sexual Inversion, wrote in his memoirs of his open marriage to his wife Edith Lees Ellis, and of her lesbian relationships throughout their partnership.

Edith Lees as a young woman. I’m in full swoon over those brows and sideburns…

In a less utopian context, men who were unhappy with the rigidity of the existing marriage laws rallied around strange political causes that in many ways reaffirmed patriarchal structures, such as the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill, which would allow a widower to, you guessed it, marry his dead wife’s sister. This controversial act circulated for the second half of the nineteenth century — wreaking all kinds of havoc on Matthew Arnold’s blood pressure, who used it in his 1867 Culture and Anarchy as an example of liberalism (“doing as one likes”) run amok — before finally passing in 1907. In the meantime, lots of men, including the Pre-Raphaelite John Collier, lived in sin with the sisters of their deceased wives — not a queer arrangement, exactly, but one that could cause the wives especially to lose their social prestige. The persistence of the desire to marry sisters probably speaks in part to these men’s limited options, in other words to the limitations of intraclass heterosocial contact in the Victorian world. It also speaks to a desire to make marriage run more smoothly: if a widower could keep it (and by it I mean property, as well as love) within the family, he could carry out marriage’s purest function as contract governing the transmission of wealth and ideology in a narrow channel from one generation to the next.

Sometimes men’s miserable marriages inspired them toward a feminist critique of the way in which the property relations governed by marriage maintained women’s suffering and men’s violence. I’d forward that the novelist Wilkie Collins was someone whose dislike of marriage prompted a deeper analysis, for example, with his depiction of the abortive marriage at the center of The Woman in White. Collins was never married, but he maintained two long-term partners along with their respective children within a couple of blocks of one another in London. This arrangement was not initially consensual, certainly not what we’d call good poly praxis, and the level of scheming it took — he took on a fake surname, Dawson, for his family with his second partner — must’ve been on the level of one of his sensational villains. Nevertheless, he was incredibly devoted to both families. In The Woman in White, Collins represents the marriage of the heiress Laura Fairlie to the scheming Lord Percival Glyde, a mustache-twirling aristocrat with hidden gambling debts and a history of treating women really badly. Glyde is an abuser and a con-man who, because of his wealth, power, and the privacy afforded by his stately if rundown mansion, Blackwater Park, is able to keep Laura as a prisoner while he siphons her inheritance into his own coffers. Glyde’s exceptional badness does make this appear an exceptional situation, and an illegal one, as opposed to a depiction of, say, the more ordinary miseries of marriage in a Virginia Woolf novel. In fact, in trying to keep her sister from further abuse, Laura’s undeniably butch cousin Marian makes reference to marital protections for women — specifically, new divorce laws — that did not yet exist at the time at which the novel is set, suggesting that Collins thought rather too highly of the legal system as a means of protecting women from men. But its clear that Laura’s miseries stem from a larger pool: that she is one of many women in the novel who is nearly destroyed by her husband. Laura’s aunt Eleanor, a formerly outspoken suffragette, has been noticeably “tamed” by her marriage to Count Fosco: her only past times are silently agreeing with her husband, and rolling his cigarettes (192). The generalizability and, at the same time, the awful specificity of Laura’s bad marriage is made clear when, fresh from her honeymoon, Laura first begs Marian not to ask any questions about married life. Then, getting down on her knees, she cries out to Marian:

“Oh Marian! promise you will never marry and leave me. It is selfish to say so, but you are so much better off as a single woman — unless — unless you are very fond of your husband — but you won’t be very fond of anyone but me, will you?” (188).

In this rather complicated passage, Laura makes room for her own marital misery to extend to a range of other women’s experience. She divulges her own unhappiness to Marian, while also suggesting the sentiment that, unless she is “fond” of her husband — as, evidently, Laura is not — Marian, or perhaps any woman, would be “better off” single; the capacity of the “you” here can expand infinitely beyond Marian. Yet, with her caveat ( her “— unless —” ) Laura also attends to Marian’s specificity as an agent of her own desire. This caveat raises the specter of fondness for a man, only to retract it: in expressing her Marian’s specific “fondness” for her, she insinuates that she knows Marian will chose a lifelong union with her cousin over the more conventional union of marriage. In fact, Marian does choose never to be married, and enters into a series of interesting queer domestic situations with her cousin throughout the novel. The point in the novel when Marian, Laura, and Laura’s lover, Walter, are all sharing a small flat in London while living as three siblings under a false name, becomes slightly reminiscent of, if askance from, Collins’ own unconventional domestic life.

Frontispiece from the 1861 book edition of The Woman in White. Laura embraces Marian in the foreground while Glyde and Fosco scheme on behind them.

The final Victorian man I want to mention is the Scottish painter, Sir William Quiller Orchardson, a well-respected portraitist who also produced a number of narrative “problem paintings.”

While most narrative painting of the Victorian period was concerned with historical, religious, or mythological stories, the problem picture was unique in that it depicted a narrative of modern life, frozen in a moment in which it was not entirely clear what was going on. While the puzzle of the mythological painting, for example, was in discovering the myth that was being referenced — usually this knowledge was only available to the educated elite— the problem painting was less determinate, in that the painter usually offered no single “correct” backstory to explain the events leading up to this moment, and more democratic and interactive, in that it allowed anyone familiar with the contemporary world to hazard their own guess at its meaning, and insodoing, to participate in the creation of the work’s meaning as a collective social body of viewers. In the interest of engaging the public, problem pictures often indexed social problems. Gambling and prostitution were the most titillating social problems, and made for both an exciting narrative progression of the downward spiral, and the possibility for a moral lesson somewhere amidst the viewer’s sensationalist schadenfreude. The problem painting The Prodigal Daughter, by the same sister-marrying John Collier, insinuates gender and class transgression, but its narrative arc is open to interpretation. Is she coming or going? Why is she wearing finer clothes than the older couple, who are presumably her parents? Who has the power in this situation?

John Collier, The Prodigal Daughter (1903)

Orchardson’s paintings are fantastic for so many reasons, but mostly because they draw out the awkwardness of heterosexual courtship and marriage. Painting in a muted pallet and often depicting regency-era scenes of courtship, he takes on the style and subject-matter of the eighteenth-century painters Watteau and Gainsborough, but stripped of their pastoral pleasure and their nostalgia. Watteau’s paintings of young men and women talking, flirting, lounging, and swinging (take that last one as you will), come laden with social complexity, interconnectedness, and interest. Watteau’s swinger, despite her spot at the center of one of his more restrained compositions, is nevertheless engulfed by her verdant forest backdrop. Her two naughty admirers, bonding over the opportunistic spectacle of her upskirt view, emerge in stony greens and blues almost as if they are an outgrowth of this fertile, pagan landscape.

Watteau, The Swing (1767)

Orchardson’s depictions of courtship, in contrast to Watteau’s fullness, show his fascination with lull, boredom, disdain, mismatchedness, miscommunication, and, above all, distance. Eschewing the overgrown garden of eighteenth-century narrative painting, and the fashionable clutter of the late-Victorian home, Orchardson makes use of wide open eighteenth-century interior space to illustrate just the yawning gulf between his subjects of courtship. The placement of the objects that do exist within these vast spaces is just slightly odd — What is that footstool doing in the middle of the floor, worlds away from anyone’s foot? Why do the paintings refuse to hang flat on the walls?—indicating that things, within this extraordinarily ordinary straight world, just don’t quite fit together. Enigma’s title and subject matter would seem to suggest that the painting’s puzzle is its aloof damsel, prettily perched as far away as possible from the man on her left, who, true to his role, looks as if he is trying to figure her out. Is she hiding a secret? Following Oscar Wilde’s maxim that a woman is a “sphinx without a secret,” is her enigma, like the intriguing yet merely decorative shapes on the wallpaper behind her, no more than an alluring pose? Or does she just, in fact, not care? His body language suggests that he’s not really invested enough in the answer to stick around and find out.

W. Orchardson, Enigma (1891).
W Orchardson, Her First Dance (1884)

Her First Dance is even more exaggerated in its depiction of distance, creating, with its two prospective dancers, a composition as neatly bifurcated as the men’s and women’s sections of a Nordstrom store. The dandy on the left, keen to show off his fancy dancing skills, seems to either frighten, shame, or just terrify the modest first-time dancer on the right. Everyone else looks on or talks amongst themselves, in varying states of interest. How can a room full of people feel so very empty?

William Quiller Orchardson, The First Cloud (1887)

Finally, this gets me to the last painting, Orchardson’s final in a series of three paintings. The series depicts a marriage of convenience: in the first painting, a young woman cries inconsolably as she learns the news that she is to marry a much older man. In the second, the two sit across an impossibly long dinner table from one another, the husband interested in his young wife only insofar as her disinterest in him provides him with a frustrating puzzle to solve. The final painting in the series gives us an interior much like that of Enigma, with the curtained recess on the left seeming to offer its miserable subjects some kind of escape from their present situation. The escape is, in both cases, not a door: in the courtship painting, it is a window that offers a dreary daylit view, an escape into fantasy if not into the actual outside world. In The First Cloud, it is unclear whether the wife, facing away toward the darkened recess as if to reject the husband’s as well as the viewer’s interpretive gaze, is walking over to gaze into a mirror or a darkened window at night. Given the shape of the decorative table under it, laden with plants and knick-nacks, it looks more like a mirror than a window; if it is a window, the darkness renders it a mostly reflective, rather than translucent, surface. The painting’s title indicates that it depicts the first moment of unhappiness (“cloud”) in the marriage, but we know from the first two in the series that the unhappiness has been long-established. The cloud may be over his vision of her, and over her morality: as she walks toward the mirror and toward her own cloudy self-awareness, she may be telling him of her indiscretions.

Orchardson’s women are faceless, enigmatic: they tease us, the viewer and therefore the interpreter of puzzles, with their inscrutability. His men are frustrated, overcompensating, alternately fluffing their feathers and throwing up their hands. The heterosexual dynamic Orchardson explores in his portraits of lonely bourgeois space may express a rather banal story of male sexual frustration; or, to a different problem-solver, it might be read as a scene that’s more about depicting the empty gulf at the center of heteronormative union. It’s up to you, viewer, to choose your own miserable adventure.