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Moulding the Female Body
in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels

Laurence Talairach-Vielmas

Aldershot†: Ashgate, 2007.
£50, 198 pp., ISBN 978-0-7546-6034-7.

Reviewed by Fabienne Moine


The title of Laurence Talairach-Vielmas’s study of the female body in Victorian fiction—fairy tales in the first section and sensation novels in the second—raises expectations of a new approach to Mid-Victorian heroines. Firstly, the author’s exploration of the female body in Victorian fairy tales is a fascinating entry into the study of women’s bodies in Victorian literature. Secondly, the notion of “moulding” the female body is innovative in Victorian literary criticism and announces that the book will endeavour to circumvent a subject that has too often been explored in antagonistic or even simplistic terms. By moulding her own book, Talairach-Vielmas manages to shape her analysis, avoiding to fall into the trap of considering Mid-Victorian heroines as either demons or domestic angels. Indeed, Talairach-Vielmas’s exploration insists on the persistent double-bind surrounding Victorian heroines, thus preventing too fast and sterile categorizations, and infusing dynamism and insight into the study of a rather traditional theme in Victorian studies.

The purpose of Moulding the Female Body is to analyse how femininity is represented both in Mid-Victorian fairy tales and in sensation novels. By selecting tales—and thus allowing the dissemination of lesser-known texts by lesser-known women writers such as Juliana Horatia Ewing or Jean Ingelow—or sensation novels by men or women writers spanning the period 1853 to 1875, Talairach-Vielmas chooses to explore the way the female body and femininity become literary constructs which links women to Mid-Victorian consumer culture. Fairy tales and sensation novels, which often revisit traditional fairy tales, investigate how women are moulded, recreated through fiction but also how they remould themselves in order to meet Victorian patriarchal expectations. Women’s artificiality, as a Victorian commonplace, is questioned in this book since it springs from the double bind that both considers and expects women to be artificial.

In her introduction, Talairach-Vielmas explains that there are various common points between Mid-Victorian fairy tales and sensation novels: both reject realism; both retool social and cultural issues in order to expose contemporary practices; and both construct femininity within consumer culture. In both genres, women’s bodies are moulded in order to meet male expectations and attract the male gaze, thus becoming genuine commodities; but this aestheticization of the female body also allows women to wear a mask and expose their duplicity. Consumer culture enables these heroines to construct their own femininity through consumption, be it cosmetics or advertising for example, and thus gain more autonomy. However, it subordinates them to the male market. Women as artefacts entrap gullible men but are also prisoners of their own artificiality. Ideal femininity as a social construct also plays down this notion of femininity.

The first section concerning Victorian fairy tales starts with the study of a tale by Jean Ingelow, a prolific Mid-Victorian novelist and poet. Talairach-Vielmas first sums up the history of the fairy tale from the 18th century and shows that this female territory of writing—from Mother Goose to tales told in salons—allows women to debunk the traditional male-defined image of female passivity. In Mopsa the Fairy (1869), Jean Ingelow revisits both linguistic clichés and metaphorical stereotypes traditionally associated with women such as signs, letters, skeins or threads, and shows how women are entrapped in material culture and become commodities. Mopsa’s journey leads her to discover femininity and to understand that the latter is always encompassed in a male-centred economy. Mopsa’s fate cannot be contradicted as Talairach-Vielmas shows that women cannot escape the prison of “mesmerizing” words and stories that only lure them into believing in “false promises of freedom” [31]. Letters construct femininity, thus binding women to textual representation.

Chapter Two analyses George McDonald’s The Light Princess (1864), a tale that literally works as medicine. The heroine  of the novel is young Adela, fed and cured by tales. Being cursed by her aunt, the light princess becomes “light”, both literally and medically speaking and must learn how to control her body lightness/femininity as well as master her desire. McDonald’s tale insists on the paradox that shows how female bodies are erased through synecdoches and metonymies. The body is turned into a text. Adela’s quest leads her “from good and agency to starvation, passivity and insanity simultaneously trac[ing] her awakening to her own desires and urges as well as the need to control them” [47]. Figures of speech, literary clichés and the medical discourse frame the heroine, “giv[ing] flesh to a rhetorical image” [9].

The study of Alice’s journey in Wonderland (1865) in the third chapter, also matches the Victorian attempt to recreate the female body in order to make it meet contemporary expectations. Talairach-Vielmas considers that Alice corresponds to the “ambulatory figure of the modern female consumer walking the fashionable districts of the capital and being lured by the dazzling commodities exhibited in shop windows” [49]. Alice learns in her journey that there is a distance between words and their representation as her “iconophilia” makes her consider objects as commodities and her own body, fragmented into parts, as a sign that can be bought or consumed. As her body is turned into signs, Alice transforms into the representation of the perfect sweet little girl. Disagreeing with feminist theories arguing that Alice constructs her own identity, Talairach-Vielmas contends that Alice remains bound to male politics as her body is constantly maimed or wounded by medical experiments as well as discourse. Her changing body is no proof of control and autonomy but of female powerlessness. Indeed, in Wonderland power doesn’t stem “from size but from codes” [58]. The creatures she encounters are reflections of her own self, allowing her to understand that femininity is representation, composed of artefacts and that it is only two-dimensional like the pack of cards. Her body is controlled, moulded, “shaped by the lens of ideology” [63]. Her self is reproduced “into copies likely to tame, incarcerate and erase the female body” [64].

The first section ends with the double study of two contemporary tales by Juliana Horatia Ewing and by Christina Rossetti, respectively Amelia and the Dwarves (1870) and Speaking Likenesses (1874). Talairach-Vielmas starts by explaining that 1870s women writers of fairy tales construct sarcastic representations of woman and ideal femininity. Their heroines visit fairylands where they learn how to repress their desires and become feminine models. The history of the representation of fairylands evoked by contemporary expeditions and exhibitions is stimulating. ‘Taming the Female Body’ includes the analysis of these two tales but each tale could have occupied a whole chapter since the representation and construction of femininity is so different for Ewing and for Rossetti. As a punishment, naughty Amelia is sent underground to the realm of the dwarves while her stock—her empty image—remains above ground. This certainly alludes to the contradictory representations of the female figure, either consumptive or femme fatale, but Amelia’s journey also pinpoints her own rebellious attitude as regards Victorian conventions. Her journeys under and above ground teach her how to manipulate her own body by “cloak[ing] it beneath layers of codes of conduct” [72]. Dealing with Rossetti’s tale, Talairach-Vielmas mostly concentrates on one heroine, Flora, who resembles Alice, being shaped as a sign and as a cliché. She also carefully examines some of A. Hughes’s illustrations, which stress Flora’s urges to express her anger at bearing the weight of education. However, Flora’s body is objectified by others, turning her into the ideal ethereal heroine. Rossetti’s tale shows how female bodies are erased by discourse, which converts them into commodities. In comparing these two tales, Talairach-Vielmas proves that there is not one sole answer to the construction of femininity challenged by male discourse even if both heroines are maimed by language and victimized by male discourse.

The second section of the book concerns sensation novels. It tries to enhance the Victorian connection between women and the consumer society, which commonly turns them into genuine commodities. The first novel that Talairach-Vielmas discusses is Rhoda Broughton’s Not Wisely but Too Well (1867) which draws upon the Crystal Palace—the epitome of a consumer culture founded on illusion. Broughton’s novel insists on the link between femininity and illusion/crystallization, making women artefacts and challenging the relationship between women and their representation: “Because the sensation novel was linked to a new form of transparency, suddenly uncovering the secrets of the middle-classes and laying bare illicit practices, it undermined the so-called transparency of realism, rending opaque what was so far deemed to be the truth” [98]. Talairach-Vielmas demonstrates that the sensation novel stemming for Mid-Victorian consumer culture both considers women as exhibited commodities and constructs them as desiring subjects. Talairach-Vielmas goes further by showing that the London journey of Kate Chester, the heroine of the novel, from the glass house and its exotic plants alluding to the contemporary Orientalist fashion, to the East End slums where she works as a charity worker, and then finally to the 1851 Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace only reveals how she is constructed as a commodity depending upon the market economy.

Chapter 6 is a comparative study of two major Mid-Victorian novels constructing femininity as a series of visual codes in rapport with the emergence of mass consumer culture. Both Dickens’s and Braddon’s constructions of their heroines in Bleak House (1853) and Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) respectively stress how they are mere artefacts subjected to male gaze and to its inspection and how close they are to prints, copies and images. Although they are displayed like commodities and seem to gain independence, they are however controlled by the “policing gaze of Victorian authorities” [115]. Their beauty betrays their crimes. Lady Dedlock being linked to two-dimensional images is made suspicious: “Once fixed by the photographic pages, identity is, thus, open to public surveillance” [117]. Hence women resemble circulating commodities or images revealing their sexual and criminal identities and showing their spectacle of femininity through the Victorian panoptical surveillance: “Women who have attempted to deceive the policing gaze to conceal their past are hung upon the walls of shame” [120]. Lady Audley’s Secret underlines the overproduction of visual signs associating women with chimeras. Woman’s nature is exposed as artificial, being mere aesthetic composition. The woman’s body is decomposed into parts, revealing the fact that women are subjected to male gaze that reconstructs bodies and turns them into a “decorative curio” [129]. However the heroine herself constructs the copies of her own identity in order to meet Victorian male expectations. Talairach-Vielmas concludes by saying that the spectacle of femininity only shows that constructing ideological codes of womanhood is impossible to complete.

The last three chapters deal with three sensational novels by Wilkie Collins, No Name (1862), Armadale (1864) and The Law and the Lady (1875) which highlight the Victorian double bind surrounding femininity. In No Name, female beauty and fashion are explored so as to show that the construction of femininity only contributes to making women a commodity or a spectacle. On the one hand, women construct the way they match Victorian male construction of womanhood and on the other they dangerously step onto the public stage. As actresses or consumers, women turn down the elaboration of the domestic angel even if they also blend with the standard conception of loveliness. Women falling prey to cosmetics or to shop-addiction express their autonomy and their denial of patriarchal inscription. Yet they cannot but construct themselves as commodities. At the end of the novel, male supremacy manages to tame female transgressiveness and nonconformity again and to frame the female body.

In Chapter 8, Talairach-Vielmas carries on her study of duplicitous cosmetics such as arsenic as an ambiguous tool. “The domestic boudoir [becomes] a secret room behind the scenes or a perverse beauty parlour designed to fashion femmes fatales” [148]. Femininity and crime are thus defined against the backdrop of consumer discourse since cosmetics are weapons to kill as well as tools to mould femininity. Along with lethal cosmetics, mirrors also enable the construction of a duplicitous and sham femininity. Revisiting Snow White in Armadale and using the fairy tale as a means to analyse contemporary issues and to construct Victorian femininity, Collins shows that mirrors both frame and free women since they contribute to the elaboration of another femininity and other criminal plots. As in No Name, the male gaze to which beauty is subjected and which contributes to women’s aestheticization eventually manages to control the female body.

The final chapter starts by investigating the adaptation of the recurring motifs of Gothic and fairy tales in Collins’s The Law and the Lady. This sensational novel revisits the tales of Bluebeard and Snow White and is redolent of some Radcliffean episodes. Talairach-Vielmas shows how the reader has to decode the signs of femininity behind obsessive images of the woman. The heroine, Valeria, loses her own identity as she is trapped in the maze of the law and “must learn to read images of alternative selves which have been embedded in stories, themselves carefully intertwined within buildings, hidden in drawers and secret rooms, which all contain the secret of femininity” [163]. Woman’s curiosity which leads to the discovery of the secret is doubled by another conventionally feminine attribute: beauty. Valeria is caught once again in the traditional double-bind as she falls prey to the ideology of the beauty culture because of her curiosity and vanity, and she becomes objectified as a work of art. As an “alienated and reified” woman, she has to discover dark secrets, as Bluebeard’s seventh wife once did. This Gothic tale embedded within the narrative both empowers and victimizes Valeria as it allows her to construct her own identity. Talairach-Vielmas also explores how the myth of Psyche, obviously a subtext in the novel, enhances the double-edged question of appearance, showing how secrets, beauty, forgery and cosmetics can intertwine.
In her conclusion, Talairach-Vielmas refers to a late-Victorian novel, George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), which still investigates the way femininity is grounded in artificiality and revolves around the tensions between convention and rebellion. Fairy tales and sensation novels construct femininity as illusory and always relate it to death when women try to counteract male definitions of femininity.

Talairach-Vielmas’s book includes extensive and relevant footnotes and offers an intriguing approach to Victorian heroines through thorough textual analyses. The book provides a dynamic approach to the question of the double bind that both empowers and victimizes Victorian women and gauges, in a very convincing manner, the Victorian cross-fertilization of femininity and consumer culture.


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