HEATHER BRAUN opens her book-length study of the femme fatale in British literature by observing that this figure is “at once everywhere yet difficult to pin down” (1). The indefinable qualities of the literary femme fatale, early on noted and studied in Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony (1951), are largely a matter of consensus among the many critics who have discussed this figure and identified its mythic and religious roots in such characters as Salomé, Cleopatra, and Eve. Read as being both a projection of misogynistic fears and fantasies and an archetype of female subversion and independence, the femme fatale is a site of semantic complexity and uncertainty that continues to beckon scholarly attention.
By studying the emergence, cultural domination, and “fall” of this figure, therefore, Braun joins an already extensive conversation, and one has to consider whether her analysis adds anything new to the field of inquiry. In her introduction, she acknowledges, albeit briefly, the importance of scholarly studies such as Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (1986), Rebecca Stott’s The Fabrication of the Late-Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death (1992), Adriana Craciun’s Fatal Women of Romanticism (2003), and Jennifer Hedgecock’s recent The Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature: The Danger and the Sexual Threat (2008). By focusing only on Romantic or Victorian femmes, Braun contends, these prior studies fail to show how the literary figure has been adapted over time and how these mutations reflect changing “social landscapes, cultural ideologies, and popular forms” (15).
Braun’s attempt to chart the femme fatale’s “less-than-seamless progression from elusive ghost to fraught cliché” spans four chapters (4). In [End Page 277] the opening section, she explores how ethereal seductresses both preserve the “fading principles of the aristocratic” order and resonate with hypnotic rhythms of the ballad form in Coleridge, Keats, and Joanna Baillie’s poetry and Matthew Lewis’s ballad-filled Gothic novel, The Monk (20). The second chapter, which analyzes several mid-Victorian texts including Dickens’s Great Expectations and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, studies the ways in which male protagonists’ yearning for mysterious, socially mobile femme fatales introduces romance plots into the realist novels. In the third chapter, Braun discusses the insinuation of dangerous female characters into the domestic realm in Victorian sensation novels (among them, Collins’s Armadale and Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret) and vampire tales such as Stoker’s Dracula. The final chapter focuses on fin-de-siècle texts including Wilde’s Salome and Mary Coleridge’s poetry and identifies the ultimate demystification and consequent demise of a figure whose power lies in her unknowability.
Braun’s focus on the “varying effects of literary form on ideological construction of the femme fatale”—for instance, her argument about the way in which the interplay between the ballad form and otherworldly enchantresses exposes and constructs romantic thinking about ideals of femininity and the fatality of desire—is certainly refreshing (3). Most influential studies on the topic, such as Dijkstra or Stott’s, present the femme fatale as being primarily a symptom of specific sociohistorical and discursive conditions, without discussing at length how literary conventions affect the varied manifestations of this figure. Nevertheless, in the process of charting the adaptations of the femme fatale throughout the nineteenth century, Braun fails to engage properly with and benefit from the extensive historical research that the above-mentioned scholars have produced. Although she argues that her goal is to relate the femme fatales to their respective social landscapes, she provides only cursory historical context.
In her discussion of femme fatale characters in sensational and vampire tales, for example, Braun reads the unruly female figures as being manifestations of the Victorian fears regarding the insatiability of female sexual desire, but she does not discuss in any significant detail then-contemporary discourses of sexuality, violence, and degeneration that surely shaped these preoccupations. I am referring to the work of criminologists, (pseudo-)scientists, and cultural commentators...