- “She is Not a Lady, But a Legal Document”:The Tattoo as Contract in Mr. Meeson’s Will
“Oh, it isn’t quite so bad as that,” said Augusta with a sigh, as she began to remove her jacket.
“Dear me!” he said, observing her movement with alarm. “I suppose she is hardened,” he continued to himself; “but I dare say that one gets used to this sort of thing upon desert islands.”—H. Rider Haggard, Mr. Meeson’s Will (212)
Given the title of H. Rider Haggard’s novel Mr. Meeson’s Will (1888), one would assume that the text’s central events concern a will and not a woman. And yet, the novel’s plot turns on precisely this inability to distinguish between the woman and the will. After being shipwrecked somewhere off the coast of New Zealand, our heroine, Augusta Smithers, has her publisher’s will tattooed upon her back; the fortune of Mr. Meeson’s nephew and Augusta’s love interest, Eustace Meeson, depends entirely upon how one reads this will and, thus, Augusta’s body. Is this tattooed will a text that can stand on its own, or must the will be complemented by Augusta’s testimony? I am interested precisely in this slippage between reading the woman as a subject with a voice or as an object and, therefore, legible body. As I will show, a tattoo would have certainly confused Victorians as to a woman’s claim to Englishness, let alone the title of “lady,” with all of its connotations of upper-class propriety and privilege. Indeed, the doctor’s “alarm” at Augusta’s spontaneous disrobing—as described in the above epigraph—immediately aligns Augusta’s bared tattoo with a kind of sexual immodesty many readers would have considered inappropriate within English civil society. As the doctor speculates, she has clearly been “hardened” by those “desert islands” beyond England’s perimeter. [End Page 178] The obvious problem, of course, is that Augusta is English and that she has made her way back to England.
As the doctor’s response makes clear, Augusta’s tattooed body reads as an abnormal or excessive variation of femininity. Most critics have tended to read this excess as code for the late-Victorian New Woman; Augusta’s tattoo, they add, represents the means by which the threat of this unruly feminist is contained. For example, Patricia Murphy’s “In the Sumptuous Rank of the Signifier” argues that Augusta’s “tattoo acts as a means of control over the transgressive quasi-heroine” by stabilizing and thus controlling the meaning of this feminist figure and the threat she poses to patriarchal structures of sexual and economic exchange (229; see also Murphy’s analysis of Haggard’s She ). Similarly, LeeAnn Richardson’s New Woman and Colonial Adventure Fiction in Victorian Britain reads Haggard’s novel as representative of the late-Victorian tendency to combine novel genres of quest romance and New Woman fiction in a way that “illuminates both the development and interdependence of gender politics and imperialism in late-Victorian Britain” (Richardson 2; see also Fraser 42 on She). The result, she adds, is an adventure romance that tells of colonial quests that revitalize masculine authority over feminized others, including those unruly women who transgress masculine authority (see also Murphy, “Gendering of History” 751).
However, the general tendency within such readings is to frame Augusta as a victim, as written upon and therein transformed into a passive object of male consumption; I instead want to shift the focus and ask what Haggard’s novel tells us about women’s agency, particularly in terms of Augusta’s own will to be tattooed. For inspiration, I look to Cathrine O. Frank’s article “Of Testaments and Tattoos,” which frames Haggard’s novel as a response to the Victorian Wills Act of 1837, as well as her recent book Law, Literature, and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925, which provides an in-depth analysis of Victorian fiction and legal discourse on wills and contracts. Like Frank, I view Haggard’s novel as a meditation on Victorian legal discourses on the will and, particularly, women’s changing rights...