Sunday, 6 December 2015

Victorian Masculinity

Masculinity is something that is often at the forefront of literary culture, especially for the Victorians, who despite living under a Queen, still held the view that men were superior. The ideals a man was held to fluctuated and changed a great deal over this time period, and what made a man appear ‘Manly’ frequently contradicted some of the other desired tropes on more than one occasion. If we look at Edgar Linton and Heathcliff from Wuthering heights, they both show different aspects of the Victorian masculine figure, both were decisive, and strong in their own way, though Heathcliff was physically powerful, emotionally aloof a good portion of the time and is romanticized by Isabella Linton for his self-made man-of-mystery persona. Edgar however is more sensitive, which is also a trait desired in the Victorian man. In these two characters alone, we can see the contradictions, and how there isn’t really a solid picture of masculinity.

John Barton as portrayed in Gaskell’s Mary Barton seems to bridge the gap between the feminine and the masculine, as in the first chapter of the book, he is cradling a baby in his arms while his wife rests. Again, feminine qualities seem to be the ideal for a ‘modern’ Victorian man. Similar to Heathcliff, John is a strong self-made man (though he is not is as good a position). Unlike this other ‘template’ and other tropes we have seen already courtesy of Wuthering Heights John Barton is also a key contributor to his own community (if we put a flowery spin on political activist) and even prior to allying with the chartists, is still portrayed as eager to share what he has with his friends “Say two pounds missus and don’t be stingy”. Kind, paternal and dependable, another three traits, some of which do not align with other masculine ideals that have cropped up already, making it even more painfully clear that the picture f masculinity for the Victorians would differ depending on who you asked.

Stefan Collini perhaps phrases it best in his critical analysis of Victorian literature, which reads as follows:

“For, if the supposedly "normative" is in fact much more diverse, flexible and just plain ragged than that imperious and tidy term suggests, then the self-generated drama of challenges to and subversions of that allegedly controlling power largely loses its frisson. It is, of course, true that we need organizing concepts, and at present concepts such as "hegemonic masculinities" offer to help us to order our perceptions of the past in telling ways.”

Thereby stating that there is no solid norm in terms of Victorian masculinity and thus making it impossible to pin down what exactly was considered masculine for the Victorians.

Charles Darwin is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest scientific minds of his time, ground-breaking zoologist and overall visionary. Though it’s true that he is a good portion of these things, he is also the man who gained the most from poking weird looking animals with sticks, similar to every seven year old child in their parent’s back garden “This slug, when disturbed, emits a very fine purplish-red fluid which stains the water for the space of a foot around” though it’s possible Darwin merely observed his process occurring naturally, it is more than likely that he himself was the cause, as he later states that the secretion “causes a sharp, stinging sensation” bravo Charlie, bravo. Childishness is another trope that falls into the category of ‘emasculating’. In fact his own journal undermines his own masculinity multiple times. When meeting with Gouchos, Darwin manages to lasso his own horse and is sent flying, hardly the strong, man-of-action we see in John Barton and Heathcliff, in fact Darwin also defers from Edgar Linton’s Masculine template, as comparatively, there is little duty involved here. Not only this, but Darwin later went on to produce The Origen of the Species something that caused immense civil unrest and questioned the existence of God himself, hardly meeting any Victorian ideals, let alone what a man should or should not be doing.

Oddly enough though, in terms of ideals and masculinity, Darwin would be more at home in the 21st century, where young men are encouraged to ‘find themselves’ and their place in society, usually through exploration, and the childish ‘try anything’ nature Darwin adopts is more in line with the modern day ‘Lads on tour’ mentality as opposed to that of a Victorian gentleman.

Financial stability seems to be the only trope of masculinity that connects a number of the candidates, even John Barton, though poor, is able to care for his family, as indicated by his house’s description “The fire-light danced merrily on this and really… it gave a richness of colouring” coupled with a description of their prized china, it becomes clear that even though they are poor, they are financially stable enough to live comfortably. In fact out of all the common masculinity tropes that the Victorians consider desirable, this seems to be the predominant one, the man must earn a living and be able to support the family. Other than that, there is really little else he is required to do. Out of the men I have listed, only one does not fit this ideal (looking at you Charles) though the others might because they are for the most part, fictitious, therefore more likely to meet the ideals set out by the writers, and what they consider to be masculine.

Darwin, Charles. Voyage of the Beagle. 1839. Ed. Janet Brown and Michael Neve. London: Penguin, 1989. Print.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Ed. David Daiches. London: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Gaskell Elizibeth, Mary Barton, London: Penguin, 1996, print

Collini, Stefan. "Having Emotions the Manly Way," Times Literary Supplement June 4 1999, p. 6. [A review of Trev Lynn Broughton, Men of Letters, Writing Lives: Masculinity and literary autobiography in the late Victorian period.

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