18 Jun Romanticizing the Victorian Woman in Rossetti and Braddon, By Larissa Zhong
Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio” (1856) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) each portray a woman perceived through the male gaze, which imposes upon them the impossible expectations of the Victorian woman and dresses them in romanticized idealizations to satisfy a male fantasy. To the artist in “In an Artist’s Studio,” the model is at once “[a] queen … A nameless girl … A saint, an angel” (Rossetti 5-7), and to Sir Michael in Lady Audley’s Secret, Lady Audley simultaneously embodies queenliness, childlikeness, and otherworldly fairy-likeness. Reflecting gendered Victorian standards, the model and Lady Audley are similarly subjected to romanticized misperceptions through the male gaze, transforming them into idealized objects of desire.
“In an Artist’s Studio,” the speaker first describes the model as “[a] queen in opal or in ruby dress” —she wears “opal [or] ruby dress” (5), indicating that the specific garment or jewel is unimportant. Rather, the importance lies in the image of opulence the description creates. The artist projects his idea of a queenly woman onto the model rather than creating artwork surrounding her, revealing that he cares more about how the model satisfies his fantasy than the model herself. This projection indicates that the rendition is not intended as an accurate or realistic depiction; it is intended to satisfy the artist’s fantasy of the model as a queen, its dedication to appearances serving the artist’s enjoyment and failing to impart queenly power upon the model. Similarly, Lady Audley portrays herself as the pinnacle of the aristocratic woman by playing into the rising commodity culture of the Victorian era (Evans), boasting material luxuries such as “heaps of . . . rustling silk dresses” and “diamonds, rubies, pearls and emeralds . . . glittering on white satin cushions” (Braddon 69-70). In Lady Audley’s instance, the queenly woman is again associated with opulent appearances rather than legitimate power, thereby satisfying the male gaze without threatening its authority. Even as Lady Audley is recognized as “the woman who had reigned in [Audley Court] for nearly two years as queen” at the end of the novel (399), her associations with queenliness lack substance and legitimate power: the estate of Audley Court belongs to Sir Michael, who provides Lady Audley with the affluent lifestyle she desires and who is in turn pleasured by the queenly air she adopts as a product of his wealth. Through the male gaze, even a woman’s queenliness ceases to imply power.
The objectification of women through the male gaze continues as model is painted as “[a] nameless girl in freshest summer-greens” (Rossetti 6). The speaker calls her a girl rather than a woman, which emphasizes childlikeness, and describes her as nameless to suggest that she is yet to take a man’s family name in marriage, creating the ultimate image of feminine innocence. Likewise, Sir Michael idealizes this feminine innocence as he daydreams of marrying Lady Audley, romanticizing her ambiguously young age to satisfy his romantic fantasy:
[H]er life had been most likely one of toil and dependence, and as she was very young nobody exactly knew her age, but she looked little more than twenty, she might never have formed any attachment, and that he, being the first to woo her, might, . . . by a protecting care that should make him necessary to her, win her young heart, and obtain from her fresh and earliest love, the promise of her hand. (Braddon 49)
Like the artist who romanticizes “[a] nameless girl” (Rossetti 6), Sir Michael is attracted to Lady Audley’s youthfulness and seemingly vacant romantic history: he fantasizes being her first, projecting a romanticized love story onto her simply because she appears young and innocent. In marriage, the narrator repeatedly describes Lady Audley as childish and childlike, furthering Sir Michael’s initial romanticization of her young age and the deliberate infantilization of an adult woman. In both texts, the male gaze regards the infantilized portrayal of women and associated childlike characteristics as desirable. For example, in Anne-Marie Beller’s article “Sensational Bildung? Infantilization and Female Maturation in Braddon’s 1860s Novels,” she asserts that “in legal terms the mid-nineteenth century woman’s position was synonymous with that of a child [and] the cult of female dependency … contributed to this infantilization” (Beller 113), thus entitling men to authority over women and cultivating a culture that normalizes the appeal of childlike women. Reflecting Beller’s notion of female dependency, Sir Michael’s tendency to romanticize and infantilize Lady Audley persists throughout their marriage because he willingly provides for her and she exploits this to preserve the affluent lifestyle and aristocratic status she so desires. This infantilization shows male misperception of the model and Lady Audley as children rather than women through the male gaze, which reflects the gendered social standard of the Victorian era and subjects the model and Lady Audley to a romanticized infantilization.
Furthermore, both texts romanticize women’s appearances, expressing feminine beauty in terms of appeal to men, which reduces a woman’s worth to her satisfaction of the male gaze, ultimately empowering the man and objectifying the woman (Rosenman 36). For example, the artist in “In an Artist’s Studio” obsessively paints the model because he admires her physical beauty, capturing her on canvas and “[giving] back all her loveliness” (Rossetti 4). The poem revolves not around the model but around the artist’s perception of her, suggesting that the model’s worth as a woman is defined by her appeal to the artist. In Lady Audley’s instance, she leverages her physical beauty, intentionally subjecting herself to and exploiting Sir Michael’s male gaze to attain aristocracy. Additionally, both texts invoke imagery of blooming nature to illustrate youthful beauty: as the model dresses in “freshest summer-greens” (Rossetti 6), Lady Audley’s “pretty little rosebud of a mouth retained its brightest coloring and cheeriest freshness” (Braddon 168). Such descriptions are preoccupied with freshness, suggesting that their youthful beauty is seasonal and inclined to expire, just as their appeal to men is. This objectifies the model and Lady Audley by implying that their worth is as fleeting as summertime or the blooming season of a rose, reducing them to external appearances that serve to satisfy the male gaze.
The model and Lady Audley are also portrayed as angelic by their narrators, the significance of which is twofold. Firstly, it reveals “the Victorian bifurcation of women as angels or demons” (Felber 472), an ideology that either idealizes or antagonizes women and, in any case, reduces them to one-dimensionality. Secondly, it implies the expectation of women’s domesticity—“angels in Victorian thought were frequently inseparable from the ‘house’” (Auerbach 250). Conforming to the angel-demon conviction Felber describes, the artist in “In an Artist’s Studio” paints the model as “[a] saint, an angel . . . with true kind eyes” (Rossetti 7-10), evoking the image of a pristine, otherworldly creature whose goodness is unquestionable and unconditional, just as Sir Michael perceives Lady Audley to be until the final pages of the novel. The narrator in Lady Audley’s Secret repeatedly and specifically references Lady Audley’s “soft and melting blue eyes” (Braddon 48) and “feathery golden curls” (396) throughout the novel, literally resembling the beautified Christian angel; her hair is once described as “making a pale halo round her head” (49), reinforcing the characterization of Lady Audley as an angel. Furthermore, objects associated with Lady Audley are often described as fairy-like—“fairy-like boudoir” (69), “fairy-like bonnet” (94), “fairy-like note” (100), fairy-like embroideries” (308)—to reflect her deceptively ethereal persona and to show Sir Michael’s misperception of her as pure and otherworldly. This extreme idealization of the model and Lady Audley occurs through the male gaze, effectively reducing each woman to one-dimensionality to fulfill a male fantasy. Conforming to the idea of Victorian women as angels of the house (Auerbach), Lady Audley is deemed the angel of Audley Court and masquerades as the perfect Victorian wife in an exemplary aristocratic marriage. Lady Audley’s domesticity is most clearly represented when making tea, as it is described as “[t]he most feminine and most domestic of all occupations” and she “seems a social fairy, weaving potent spells” (242). The aggrandization of Lady Audley’s power at the tea-table then resembles a performance rather than a trivial task, which she puts on to fulfill the expectation of domesticity (Evans). The role of ‘the angel of the house’ is thus imposed.
At the end of each narrative, the men fail to admit the reality of the subject of their affections, hoping, instead, to preserve a romanticized image of her. For example, the artist sees the model “[n]ot as she is, but was when hope shone bright; / Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (Rossetti 13-14). The anaphora, “[n]ot as she is . . . / Not as she is” (13-14), reinforces the artist’s ignorance to the present reality of the model, and the shifts between past tense and present tense reveal that the artist clings to a bygone memory of the model, painting her as she was rather than as she is. The word ‘dream’ rather than ‘thoughts’ or ‘affections’ connotes fantasy and a sense of detachment from reality, which shapes the artist’s romanticized idealizations of the model. In Sir Michael’s instance, even after Lady Audley’s secrets are revealed, he plays little part in her admission to the Belgian asylum, and Robert decides that “Sir Michael Audley must never learn that the woman he had loved bore the red brand of murder on her soul” (403). This keeps Sir Michael from recognizing Lady Audley’s reality and protects him from the destruction of the illusion of her wifehood.
Thus, similarly imposed upon the model and Lady Audley are roles of the queenly woman, the childish embodiment of feminine innocence, and the angel of the domestic house, each of which serve to satisfy a male fantasy and neither of which truly centers the woman. In this sense, the subjection of women to romanticized misperceptions is consistent throughout “In an Artist’s Studio” and Lady Audley’s Secret, ultimately portraying idealized versions of the women as objects of the male gaze.
Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Harvard UP, 1982.
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Evans, Heather. “Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.” ENGL 357 19th-Century British Literature and Visual Culture, Nov. 2020, Queen’s U. Lecture.
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