Exclusion of Femininity in Victorian Adventure Novels Essay

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Females in Victorian Adventure Literature

This paper analyzes the tendency among Victorian adventure novel authors to exclude women by exploring three novels: H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, and John Buchanan's Greenmantle. Through close readings of the texts and comparisons to the authors' other works, as well as a survey of the secondary literature, it becomes clear that, while Victorian adventure authors did create areas of sex-segregated action in their novels, they did so for very different reasons. In Greenmantle and The Lost World, Buchanan and Conan Doyle sought to strengthen the eroding social structure by reinforcing the gender binary that formed the basis (in their minds) of civilized society. Conan Doyle and Buchanan believed that real men were those who were naturally impelled to heroic action and that women should be the passive audience, appreciating male action but not taking part. By contrast, Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau criticized these values by questioning whether man was truly civilized; Wells excluded women because, from his perspective, they were not indicted in man's crimes. Thus, while all three authors excluded women from these particular adventure novels, they did so for radically different reasons.

The Exclusion of Feminity in Victorian Adventure Novels

Even a casual reader of Victorian adventure novels must arrive at the inescapable conclusion that their authors intended to create enclaves of male exclusivity, places where the novels' protagonists could express their misogynist impulses and fears far from the judgmental gaze of mixed gender society. Male exclusivity courses through Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, John Buchanan's Greenmantle, and H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. Clearly, Robert Louis Stevenson's statement about his own book, Treasure Island -- "women were to be excluded" -- applies equally well to the books named in the previous sentence, yet each author excludes women for radically different reasons. In other words, the exclusion of femininity from Victorian novels was clearly a trope that many authors employed, but the employed it for radically different reasons and to achieve very different purposes.

To fully appreciate the significance of the exclusion of females from The Lost World, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Greenmantle, it is necessary to make some introductory observations about the role of women in Victorian Great Britain. By the end of the nineteenth-century, women's roles in Britain were changing very rapidly, due to a number of factors including national wealth, and the emergence of a women's rights movement. Anxiety over these changes and about the reputed "degradation" of the "white race" due to intermarriage with none whites manifested itself in an aggressive promotion of various forms of masculinity, which historians James A. Mangan and James Walvin explained as, "… an obsessive commitment to physical activity (3). According to Mangan and Walvin, the concept of manliness generated its own opposite in the category of femininity, which the historians described as "… docility, [and a] commitment to domesticity and subservience" (4). In other words, gender relations in Victorian England were dominated by two binary categories that were increasingly idealized representations of a reality that was rapidly disintegrating (if it had ever existed at all). Thus, the books explored in this paper should be understood as the authors' implicitly (and sometimes explicit) engagement with the culture that was rapidly changing around them.

Not surprisingly, this misogyny was expressed throughout the novels of the time. According to professor of English Richard F. Patteson, "imperialist romances," or those novels where "…white men enter a primitive region and ultimately establish a degree of influence among the natives" are "… perhaps more revealing than any [other types of contemporary literature] in [their] portrayal of women" (3). Certainly, The Lost World (white men descend into South America and encounter tribal humans feuding with ape-men), The Island of Dr. Moreau (white man marooned on an island with half-animal, half-men creatures), and Greenmantle (white men live among the Turks) fit Patteson's description of "imperialist romances," so it seems useful to apply his analysis as a broad framework for understanding the genre. According to Patteson, women are typically described as weak, cowardly, treacherous, and lascivious; at best they are helpless but harmless encumbrances but at worst they are villains. As Patteson notes, "One of the worst dangers frequently faced by the explorers is power in the hands of a woman" (Patteson, 5). As a group, Patteson concludes that "… fear and hatred of women [is] evident everywhere in the imperialist romance" (5).

Misogyny is a repeated theme in Arthur Conan Doyle's work; though it appears in The Lost World, it is worthwhile to consider the misogynist elements in Doyle's most famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is a confirmed bachelor with an unusually negative opinion of women. For instance, in the "Adventure of the Second Stain," one of the Holmes stories collected in The Return of the Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective tells his faithful friend, Dr. John Watson, that "…the motives of women are inscrutable" (Doyle, 1045). Doyle further expanded on his low opinion of women in the novel The Sign of the Four, in which Holmes declares to Watson that, "Women are never to entirely trusted, -- not the best of them" (Doyle, 149). Professor of English Lawrence Frank asserts that Holmes' misogyny - a reflection of Doyle's misogynistic impulses -- was related to the historical moment in which the character was created. According to Lawrence, Victorian England was embroiled in various controversies over the proper status of women; battles over issues regarding divorce law and the right of married women to control their property provoked debates about gender roles which in turn appeared in Victorian fiction (Frank, 54).

Just as in Sherlock Holmes stories, where women appear primarily to introduce the mystery and then recede into the background so the men can work, the action of The Lost World is sparked (indirectly) by a woman, Gladys Hungerton. The novel's protagonist, Daily Gazette reported Edward Malone, is passionately in love with Gladys and agrees to go on Professor Challenger's exploration. Malone's pursuit of Gladys, who Doyle described as "…full of every womanly quality" -- was largely unfulfilling; she refused his advances, implying that his love feelings are bestial or primitive (6). She goes onto imply that Malone is not truly a man because he has not looked "Death in the face" without fear (8). Gladys also criticizes Malone for trying too hard to please her because, according to Gladys, men should be heroic because it is natural and unavoidable, not to satisfy a "silly girl's whim" (7). In other words, Gladys -- the embodiment of all womanly qualities -- demands that Malone be a "true" man, which involves repeated, physically heroic actions. Here, Doyle was making a number of important statements about gender relations and gender identity in the early twentieth century. The first is that "true" women (like Gladys) desire "real" men, or individuals who regularly perform heroic actions. The second point is that a woman's appropriate role is support her man and push him to engage in every greater heroic acts. Finally, in denigrating Gladys' opinion as a "silly girl's whim," and telling Malone that he should follow his own instincts regardless of her desires, Doyle is explicitly stating that women's ideas are to be ignored. Edward Malone and Gladys Hungerton clearly embody the binaries described by Mangan and Walvin in Manliness and Morality, which was surely Doyle's intention. Put another way, Doyle constructs a vision of the perfect world as one populated by heroic men driven by natural inclinations to ever-greater feats and by the adoring women whose only role is providing silent adulation and generating future heroes. This was clearly not the world Doyle inhabited because, by 1912, women were agitating for the vote and for greater economic, political and social freedom. The disconnect between Doyle's vision and the world he inhabited underlines another, unintended meaning of the novel's title, for by 1912, his utopia clearly was The Lost World.

This reading of The Lost World may appear somewhat incongruous with Doyle's more nuanced approach to the issue of women's rights, but is in fact fully reconcilable with his history on these issues. On the one hand, Doyle campaigned "vigorously" for divorce reform in Great Britain while at the same time uttering some fairly intemperate remarks regarding the issue of women's suffrage. To appreciate the significance of the exclusion of females from The Lost World, it is crucial to understand the distinction that Doyle drew between these two issues. The divorce laws in Great Britain made it easy for men to divorce their wives but very difficult for wives to divorce their husbands. According to journalist and biographer Russell Miller:

With his high regard for social justice, Conan Doyle recognized that [the divorce laws were] manifestly unfair. He drew a characteristic analogy with the old days of chivalry, when young knights came to the rescue of damsels in distress. By supporting divorce law reform, he said, modern-day knights had the…[continue]

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