- Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels
During one of her startling growth spurts, Alice exclaims, “When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!” Talairach-Vielmas represents Victorian heroines, whether of fairy tales or of sensation novels, as willy-nilly “in the middle” of fairy-tale patterns and expectations. Although their shape-shifting is rarely as radical as Alice’s, the central subject of her book is the female body and the nineteenth-century forces that she thinks conspire to change, reshape, or obliterate it. She argues that “while Victorian fairy tales and fantasies seek to erase woman’s physicality, sensation novels, on the other hand, propose a new version of the construction of femininity to show the subversive potential that inheres in the turning of woman into a commodity” (87).
Talairach-Vielmas deals with both kinds of fiction, all published between 1853 and 1875, with emphasis on the 1860s. She begins with four chapters on fairy tales and fantasies: Jean Ingelow’s Mopsa the Fairy, George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess,” Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Juliana Ewing’s “Amelia and the Dwarfs,” and Christina Rossetti’s Speaking Likenesses. One might wonder why she begins with Mopsa the Fairy, published after MacDonald’s and Carroll’s fantasies and full of references to them—perhaps because we follow the adventures of Jack, a thoroughly ordinary little boy in a mysterious world ruled by a fairy queen. As Nina Auerbach and U. C. Knoepflmacher suggest in their anthology Forbidden Journeys, Ingelow’s tale is really a reversal of “Sleeping Beauty.” Though the tiny fairy Mopsa sleeps in Jack’s pocket throughout the first two-thirds of the tale, she eventually begins to grow or grow up. And Jack eventually leaves her in her castle, separated by some grass with “long spear-like leaves,” and returns to his familiar home. In her analysis, however, Talairach-Vielmas focuses on the tales that female characters tell in Fairyland, stories of female confinement and even enslavement in the real world, emphasizing “the crippling potential of precast stories incarcerating heroines linguistically and literally” (31). [End Page 341]
In the following three chapters she claims that the fantasy heroines, all little girls, are being domesticated, trained to be well-behaved young women. This is certainly not a new argument; what is new, however, are the tactics Talairach-Vielmas uses to support it. She argues that all of the heroines become both commodities and the “target” (80) of commodity culture. They can only escape this fate by conforming rigidly to Victorian standards for women. Or is it their Victorian education that makes them target themselves, creating “the self-destructive forces which education into female propriety have instilled in” them (81)? Talairach-Vielmas even turns the sadistic games in the first part of Rossetti’s Speaking Likenesses into a form of self-mutilation, reflecting Flora’s supposed desire to annihilate her own body. Though she mentions Rossetti’s sardonic sentence “the boys were players, the girls were played,” she casts Flora and her fellow fantasy heroines like Ewing’s Amelia as their own enemies.
The five later chapters deal with sensation novels, from Rhoda Broughton’s Not Wisely but Too Well, Dickens’s Bleak House, and M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret to three of Wilkie Collins’s lesser-known novels: No Name, Armadale, and The Law and the Lady. (In the introduction she summarizes The Woman in White and The Moonstone, as well as other novels like Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne, but does little with them later.) Talairach-Vielmas dwells on their mid-Victorian cultural background, from sensational murder trials of the time to advertising and cosmetics, but readers of Marvels & Tales will probably be most interested in what she does with the fairy-tale elements in the novels. Though images from “Bluebeard” or “Cinderella” or “Little Red Riding Hood” occasionally surface...