- In "the Sumptuous Rank of the Signifier":The Gendered Tattoo in Mr. Meeson's Will
In an 1888 Fortnightly Review essay ominously titled "The Fall of Fiction," an anonymous critic complained that H. Rider Haggard's recent "minor" novels "raise alternately the eyebrows and the gorge of his readers" (335).1 Uttering a similar sentiment, the Boston Literary World contended that "delicacy is something we have no right to expect from Mr. Haggard," yet the reviewer cited the novelist's latest offering, Mr. Meeson's Will, as evidence that when the writer "gets away from the raw beef and bloody bones business, Mr. Rider Haggard is actually capable of an amusing story" (275). The novel did garner a more positive reading from the Athenaeum, which announced that the tale is "told with a vigour" and, "as a mere story[, was] excellent," despite Haggard's "noble disregard of accuracy in details" (660). The remarkable point about the reviews of the novel is that none of them gave more than a passing reference to the novel's astonishing definitive episode, the tattooing of a will on a woman's body to convert her into a legal document. Indeed, only the Dublin Review made note of the event, dismissing it as a "somewhat bizarre incident (175)."2 Yet the strange occurrence initiates compelling hermeneutic trajectories that offer unsettling insights into the gender inflections of this 1888 novel. The tattoo inhabits "the sumptuous rank of the signifier," to borrow Roland Barthes's terminology (65), in its multiple permutations that reinforce Victorian perceptions of male superiority. Through a complex web of linkages, the tattoo marginalizes, controls, and punishes the novel's main character, a successful woman writer, for appropriating male privilege; by this means, the narrative seeks to bind her to the conventional association of femininity with the body rather than the mind. Language becomes not a tool under her control, but a weapon wielded against her.
In this essay, I examine three key paths emanating from the pivotal tattooing incident to explore its gender implications. First, I contextualize the tattoo within its cultural framework, investigating connections to empire and otherness, along with vague hints of unlawful and dangerous behavior. Second, I examine the ways in which the tattoo acts as a means of control over the transgressive quasi-heroine, evaluating the tattoo as a marker of both sexuality and desexualization, as well as literal and figurative evidence of female commodification. Third, I explore the tattoo's gendered relationship to the processes [End Page 229] of cultural inscription. My objective here is not to provide an exhaustive analysis of the Victorian tattoo but to examine the multifarious ramifications of one such manifestation, the utterly intriguing one offered by Mr. Meeson's Will. Before proceeding to this analysis, though, it is necessary to address the narrative's assumption that the central figure indeed requires control.
Mr. Meeson's Will follows the travails of Augusta Smithers, who is a paradoxically simplistic and complex character in that she embodies elements of both the conventional woman and the threatening New Woman.3 On first regard, Augusta seems to conform to the paradigmatic Victorian heroine through both physical attributes and personality traits. The "exceedingly pretty" (69) Augusta is a "well-formed young lady of about twenty-four" who boasts "pretty golden hair, deep grey eyes, a fine forehead, and a delicate mouth" (5). With her "sweet face" (257), Augusta acts traditionally through her maidenly blushes, determined modesty, tearful response to tribulation, and humble self-effacement designated by such remarks as "I am very silly" (13). "A good and religious girl" (142), Augusta is portrayed approvingly as a woman with a highly developed sense of duty who puts the interests of others above her own and even "rejoice[s]" at the chance of sacrifice (128). Indeed, that sacrificial tendency leads her to undertake the painful tattooing that is so crucial to the novel, and the term "sacrifice" and its variants are repeatedly invoked in describing the episode. Even the protagonist of Augusta's novel Jemima's Vow seems to have a sacrificial nature, as she dies at the end of the narrative happy that "she had now kept...