Unbinding the Victorian Girl: Corsetry and Neo-Victorian Young Adult Literature
The corset is an item of nineteenth-century women’s clothing that is often contested as antifeminist, problematic, and disfiguring. However, when presented in some neo-Victorian young adult literature, particularly steampunk, the corset is rewritten as offering protection—even functioning as armor—to help shield a young woman from threats to her person and her agency.
In E. K. Johnston’s 2017 novel That Inevitable Victorian Thing, the author imagines a neo-Victorian British Empire that both works with the racial and gender inequities of the actual Victorian era and reimagines what that era’s essentials mean for a contemporary cast of characters. A multiracial princess, Margaret, plans an elaborate disguise for her debut so that she can meet the people on her own terms. Among her preparations are learning the major families of Toronto (an important social scene in this new Empire) and preparing her wardrobe for her trip. Margaret tells us, “And, of course, there was the corset” (7). When she is told that it improves her posture,
“I can feel my kidneys blending,” she had replied, holding the pose—though, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t that bad.
Modern corsets were designed to have all the style of antiquity, but fewer of the medical shortcomings; and Margaret’s was as high-tech as they came. The programmable threads used to stitch the seams would loosen her laces if she became short of breath, and the flexible material allowed her to sit with only minor discomfort. She couldn’t run a marathon in it, but she could eat and dance and sit for tea without any problems.(7–8)
This novel breathes new life into the Victorian era, excavating the nineteenth century for bits and pieces of historical and cultural facts and customs in order to redevelop them. The teenaged princess is given a modicum of freedom over her position, her body, her expectations, and yes, even her fashions. Yet despite the fact that race is blended and the Empire is led by a strong female monarch, corsets, it seems, are still a necessity for Victorian and neo-Victorian girls.
If the corset is still problematic—if Margaret feels as if her kidneys are “blending”—why not just relegate it entirely to history? Why bring the corset into the present day, even supplying it with gears and gadgets that fit it to the [End Page 88] time and the characters? What is it about the corset that has remained so entrenched in our mindset that it defines “Victorian” for both adult and young adult contemporary audiences?
The answer, of course, is not simple; such answers never are. Steampunk and neo-Victorian young adult novels, in particular, have a fascination with the corset not for its erotic connotations, as we sometimes see in adult novels set in Victorian or neo-Victorian times, but rather for what the contemporary audience believes that the corset represents to Victorian girls: propriety, constraint, and femininity. It is a functional garment, providing support and structure, but it can be altered to support necessity as well: pregnancy, for example, or a growing body. Therefore, many of these novels rewrite the corset into another meaning entirely, often one of protection. Why a young Victorian girl would need protection, even armor, might not seem strange in futuristic or steampunk neo-Victorian texts, which typically allow their young female protagonists greater movement in cities and among men. But texts set in a near-historical representation of our own nineteenth century acknowledge the dangers present for young girls who are offered a modicum of freedom, particularly those of the working classes. Y. S. Lee’s The Agency series, for example, presents thief-turned-spy Mary Quinn, who works undercover for Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Young Girls (the front for the titular Agency) as a maid or companion in upper-middle-class homes. On occasion, she dresses as a boy in order to gain the freedom of movement in London that she desires, but when she is working, she still wears “a light corset” (167) because it is a part of her standard wardrobe. Interestingly, while the crinoline is seen as an impediment to walking (10), the corset is never demonized in the novel that inaugurates Lee’s series, A Spy in the House (2009), as it is in so many texts, including those from the Victorian era.
The truth of the matter is that the corset was to the Victorian era what the bra is to modernity: an undergarment that could be comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on how it was made and worn. While some Victorian writers, such as Ada S. Ballin in her 1885 text The Science of Dress in Theory and Practice, call for dress “reform, not revolution. We want in dress to obtain the maximum of health with the maximum of beauty” (3; orig. emphasis), many novelists rarely mention the corset or stays posing a problem for their heroines. This “reform, not revolution,” then, does not defy nineteenth-century standards of beauty for women; rather, it asks them to consider the health risks taken with contemporary fashions, including dyes, fabrics, and, of course, the tight-lacing associated with corsets.
Corsets become a particular problem when they are put on the unformed bodies of girls still going through puberty. Accordingly, Ballin does not limit her discussion to grown women, and her ninth chapter, entitled “Girls’ Clothes,” calls for a reform in fashions for the younger set as well, particularly those aged twelve through sixteen (124). Advocating for breathable fabrics such as wool, Ballin also argues that “Tight, stiff stays are responsible for a great deal of harm, and I am afraid that horrible process called tight-lacing begins but [End Page 89] too frequently earlier than is generally suspected” (124). She further notes that girls’ bodies, because lacing begins at such a young age and continues for several years, are deformed gradually, without the wearer’s understanding of the damage done to her body (149). Ballin continues that she by no means advocates giving up the corset altogether—some girls, she notes, need support—but if “corsets are worn, they should be moulded to the natural figure, and the less stiff they are the better” (166).
I begin by quoting Ballin’s text at length for three interconnected reasons. First, she represents what twenty-first-century audiences understand about the nineteenth-century corset. Current stereotypes surrounding the corset often suggest that it is at best a symbol of Victorian women’s oppression, at worst a sentient entity capable of constraining and confining women for its own purposes. Second, because Ballin discusses corsetry as affecting girls the same age as the heroines of many contemporary young adult texts, she provides an ideal starting point for the conversation that I undertake in this article. My third reason is perhaps a bit more complicated. In her text, Ballin suggests not an abandonment of the corset, but rather an individualized approach to it, one made for individual girls and mindful of their specific needs instead of one made for a generalized totalizing concept of “Girl.” This push for individuality in fashion can be read as a way of preparing young girls for a more active lifestyle and greater agency in their own lives.
Contemporary young adult literature has seen a recent push toward neo-Victorian texts. “Neo-Victorian” will be defined further and more theoretically later in this article, but in short, I am using this term to conflate historical fiction set in the Victorian era, novels with a steampunk influence, and science or speculative fiction that offers Victorian-inspired futures. In these texts, one sees the need for the corset as armor, to protect the bodies of the wearers from external, not internal, threats. That is to say, the corset protects its wearer’s body instead of restricting it, and while many of these young adult neo-Victorian novels discuss the dangers of corsetry, the ones that individualize the wearing of this garment create an experience as unique as the wearer herself, focused especially on self-protection. I argue, therefore, that the corset represents a necessary article of clothing for the neo-Victorian young adult heroine, one that, when augmented in style, in design, or in wearing, becomes a protective cover against the dangers of the world in which she lives. In rewriting the corset as protective rather than formative fashion, the authors of such novels propose a subversive rethinking of the fashionable lives of Victorian girls themselves.
Why Neo-Victorian? The Rewriting of History for Young Adult Audiences
Currently, there are three identifiable subgenres of this current trend of young adult fiction that I am here conflating under the single term “neo-Victorian,” after the definition presented in Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn’s 2010 Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999–2009: historical [End Page 90] fiction, neo-Victorian fiction, and steampunk. Historical fiction, perhaps the closest to our own world, exists within our concept of the nineteenth century; even if it includes fantasy elements such as magic, monsters, and demons, it asks its characters to navigate the concerns of race, class, culture, education, gender, and social mobility typical of our understanding of the Victorian era in England or the US. Neo-Victorianism and steampunk, in contrast, mark the inclusion of seemingly anachronistic technology in a near-Victorian era or Victorian themes and concerns in a far-flung future. Neo-Victorian fiction often portrays a future that has returned, for various reasons, to the ideals and concerns of our historical Victorian era, while steampunk often emphasizes technological advances and science in a near–science fiction world. Historically, steampunk is set in the nineteenth century, most often in England or the US.
The steampunk and neo-Victorian settings, fashions, and concerns trending in contemporary popular fiction have found a home particularly in literature marketed for a young adult audience. Heilmann and Llewellyn define neo-Victorian texts as “more than historical fiction set in the nineteenth century. To be part of the neo-Victorianism we discuss in this book, texts (literary, filmic, audio/visual) must in some respect be self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians” (4; orig. emphasis). Thus, in this formulation, writers of neo-Victorian works must engage actively with the era in what Heilmann and Llewellyn see as “the self-analytic drive that accompanies ‘neo-Victorianism’” (5). In presenting the Victorian era for a young adult audience, writers must also constantly reimagine the nineteenth century with that “self-analytic drive” in mind, to appeal not only to the consuming audience’s desire for stereotypical femininity—the dresses, the parties, the decisions over boys—but also to that audience’s desire for knowledge—the detailing of historically accurate situations, the fetishistic displays of wealth or poverty, the struggle between personal and parental or social desires.
That young adult texts often speak to the specific concerns of their readers is not a point for debate; most would agree that good young adult novels offer readers a mirror through which to see parallels to their own lives. However, good young adult historical novels, as the title of Joanne Brown and Nancy St. Clair’s study suggests, offer readers a distant mirror through which to see parallels (3–4). Most often in neo-Victorian young adult texts, the teenage girls are forward-thinking and desirous of freedom. A member of their family or, more often than not, a male love interest encourages these girls to explore the traditionally masculine fields of science and engineering, to speak for themselves, to rebel against social and governmental authority, or to defy socioeconomic expectations. In many of these novels, the writers fulfill Heilmann and Llewellyn’s call for writers to be “self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians” through the rewriting of social and personal expectations for fashion, particularly the corset. These new ways of thinking about the corset become subversive, a reimagining of what it could represent beyond the confinement with which it is so often associated. [End Page 91]
Corsetry Defined: Why They Wore Them
The corset is uniquely situated in the history of women’s clothing, particularly during the Victorian era: it is both public and private, masculine and feminine, utilitarian and ornamental, necessary and reviled. The amount of public discourse surrounding such a private, intimate item of apparel belies present-day assumptions about the prudishness of the Victorians, who were concerned enough about the corset to discuss it publicly; this open discussion demonstrates what an everyday item of clothing it really was. Designed, manufactured, and sold for the female body—and occasionally the male—by men and women alike, the corset was not an instrument of torture forced upon women by male oppressors but a utilitarian garment necessary for support of the bust and worn, surprisingly, even well into pregnancy. Yet it could also be beautiful, often decorated with lace or manufactured in vibrant colors that only the wearer, her dresser, and perhaps her lover or other women would ever see. As much as contemporary audiences like to despise the corset for what we imagine it represents, we cannot help but love it as well, as we fetishize it and consider it symbolic of the Victorian era. Neo-Victorian literatures, as well as the steampunk subculture, have embraced the corset as the symbol of Victorian femininity, and the mixed reactions to it—its historical role in women’s lives, its perceived role in establishing femininity—argue for a lack of understanding of its actual historical, cultural, and social roles. In no way do I argue that corsets were not deeply problematic; to do so would be to ignore a vast array of information from the Victorian era itself that suggests otherwise. As Ballin and many other writers pointed out at the time, there were health risks associated with extreme tight-lacing and with the young age at which girls began to wear this garment. Nevertheless, it is valuable to look closely at neo-Victorian fiction offering rewritings of the corset that move beyond its symbolic function into an exploration of its usefulness and uselessness to contemporary portrayals of Victorian girls.
I focus here on several novels—Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty (2003), Kady Cross’s The Girl in the Steel Corset (2011), and Anna Godbersen’s Luxe series (2007–09), as well as Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes books (2006–10) and Lia Habel’s Dearly, Departed (2011)—that are marked not only by an interest in, or rewriting of, the nineteenth century, but also by particular attention to the garb of their heroines. Godbersen’s series offers this opening in the jacket front-flap description of the first novel, The Luxe: “Pretty girls in pretty dresses, partying until dawn. Irresistible boys with sly smiles and dangerous intentions. White lies, dark secrets, and scandalous hookups. This is Manhattan, 1899. . . .” Given that the back cover of The Luxe features a blurb from Cecily von Ziegesar, the author of the Gossip Girl books, it is clear that Godbersen’s series is being marketed as a nineteenth-century Gossip Girl. But the promise of the “pretty girls in pretty dresses” is fulfilled even before a reader opens the book. The front cover of the first novel shows a blonde girl in a rose-colored [End Page 92] satin dress whose train winds around the spine and cascades over the back cover. Further, the covers of the rest of the novels in the series—Rumors (2008), Envy (2009), and Splendor (2009)—also feature the promised pretty girls wearing the promised pretty (albeit anachronistic) dresses, each of them almost overwhelmed by the size of their billowing skirts, while their upper bodies are contained by a corset or a fitted bodice. Indeed, the cover of Envy, the third novel in the trilogy, presents a blonde girl whose dress has a corseted top.
Because the Luxe series is set in America, it is only tangentially “neo-Victorian.” But several neo-Victorian novels of a British cast also show girls in visible corsets; for example, Bray’s Gemma Doyle series presents corseted girls on the covers of both A Great and Terrible Beauty and The Sweet Far Thing (2007).1 Both covers show girls from the back, looking over their shoulders, with corset lacing along their spines. These girls, in a state of dishabille, have their private corsets publicly visible. This presentation of the corset offers these girls agency over their sexuality; by exhibiting their corset, that very private underthing, as part of their entire ensemble, these cover models, and the characters whom they represent, explore the power that their sexualized bodies display.
Cross’s The Girl in the Steel Corset also presents a girl viewed from behind, and the image suggests a hybrid of Bray’s undressed girls and Godbersen’s over-dressed teenagers. The girl on Cross’s cover wears a red satin dress that seems almost uncontained on its own, but the back is open, as if unzipped (another anachronism) or ripped to display the titular steel corset underneath. The boning here is exposed steel and meets in a point to emphasize the girl’s nearly bare back. Neo-Victorian novels, particularly those identified as steampunk, often rewrite the corset as a fashionable item to be worn outside rather than inside clothing. By reinterpreting the corset as outerwear rather than underwear, steampunk fulfills the “punk” prediction of its name, defying Victorian social standards of propriety, symbolic femininity, and virtue.
The corset, ideally the most private accoutrement of Victorian femininity, is thus brought to the forefront of twenty-first-century women’s fashions. Yet its purpose is still seemingly the same: to create a beautiful, feminine shape, to offer sex appeal, and to bind young women to an ideal of femininity understood to be the totalizing Victorian purpose. Valerie Steele identifies the purpose of her 2003 cultural history of the corset as an attempt to “challenge the reductiveness of this picture [of corsetry],” because, as she argues, “Corsetry was not one monolithic, unchanging experience that all unfortunate women experienced before being liberated by feminism. It was a situated practice that meant different things to different people at different times,” among them “social status, self-discipline, artistry, respectability, beauty, youth, and erotic allure” (1). As Leigh Summers reminds us in Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset (2001), corset wearing was also an everyday practice, and “Few garments other than the corset could claim such an intimate, influential and popular place in the material culture of Victorian womanhood” (4). Summers and Steele suggest that it is the pervasiveness of the corset in the contemporary [End Page 93] memory of historical women’s clothing that we are most concerned about. And it is “the material culture of Victorian womanhood” to which contemporary retellings of the Victorian era return again and again: whether consciously, through the fetishizing and detailing of the corset, or unconsciously, through fashions that emulate the tight, long bodices of the 1870s and 1880s. Indeed, the styling and shape are as desirable as the material item itself; ultimately, neo-Victorian texts long for the suggestion and implication of the stylized female body common to the nineteenth century.2 Nancy V. Workman argues that the contemporary obsession with the materiality of the Victorian era, including the corset, “deliberately carries the ‘historical memory’ of the nineteenth century,” but that “the blatant commercialism contributes to the victimization of women because it reinforces gender stereotyping and the overall sexual powerlessness of women” (62). Building on arguments set forth by fashion historians such as Steele, Workman suggests that it is the modern reconstruction and remarketing of the corset that becomes particularly problematic in our understanding of its role in Victorian women’s lives.
For steampunk and neo-Victorian adult literatures, then, the corset is displayed on the outside of the clothing as a means of defying the assumptions regarding the private confinement of Victorian women. For steampunk and neo-Victorian young adult literatures, the corset and the femininity that it represents become increasingly problematic for authors and the audience for whom they write. These authors try to justify the corset’s role in women’s lives without seemingly supporting the negative connotations that accompany any discussion of Victorian women and corsetry: the idea of “binding” girls to prohibit movement. Such pushes toward rewriting the corset as something other than a binding of girls become a subversive understanding of Victorian fashion, one that sees young adult readers as burgeoning feminists, suspicious of the controversial corset and its binding.
This suggestion of “binding” is not limited to the corset, but is in fact often used in discussions of teenage girls and their coming of age. In “Little Girls Bound: Costume and Coming of Age in the Sears Catalog 1906–1927,” Rhona Justice-Malloy asks,
Generally, in our culture, the wearing of a brassiere, the binding of the breasts, is a sign of maturity for a girl or young woman, as is binding the abdomen with girdles, control-top panty hose, and [L]ycra panties. While there may be times when such binding is necessary and appropriate, why do we, as women and girls, cherish and anticipate this restriction? What does the binding of the young body mean and what can it tell us about our culture? What is this potency of the young female body and why is it so powerful that it must be contained?(111)
Justice-Malloy’s reiteration of the word “binding” questions the agency of young female bodies in contemporary culture, and her more overt question of “What is this potency of the young female body and why is it so powerful that it must be contained?” is perhaps best answered with the common concern over the [End Page 94] unbound girl body: its sexuality. The rite of passage that she discusses, this “sign of maturity,” coincides with menstruation and other signs of puberty; a young girl’s sexual awakening, depending on the culture in which she exists, must be hidden or carefully controlled and displayed according to the social dictates of her society. Ian Brodie’s ethnography regarding the first purchase of a bra for a preteen or teen girl questions the use and suggestion of “ritual” or “rite of passage” because each girl’s experience is unique (82). Regardless of the terminology or the era, however, the binding that Justice-Malloy notes is a common girlhood experience across the ages: the corset for the nineteenth century, and the bra for the twentieth and twenty-first.
Neo-Victorian young adult texts, however, rewrite the traditional binding experience of Victorian girls by allowing them to author their own bodily restrictions and freedoms in their embrace or rejection of the corset as a daily article of clothing. Therefore, the writing of the corset in these young adult texts becomes an experiment in what lies at the heart of neo-Victorianism as defined by Heilmann and Llewellyn. Rescripting the meaning of the corset for a young adult audience offers these novels a chance to explore how twenty-first-century girls might handle corsetry in a modern age; at the same time, it forces the authors as well as the audience to rethink their assumptions about femininity, corsetry, and a Victorian audience. Often, these assumptions appear in the novels in three distinct discussions: the problems of corsetry, the rejection of traditional corsetry through either cross-dressing or modification, and the use of corsetry as physical and emotional protection.
Both The Luxe and A Great and Terrible Beauty understand corsetry as a physical confinement that restricts the lives of their young female characters. For these characters, the wearing of corsets becomes a social necessity that represents a larger oppression of young girls, up to and including the fact that corsets are items of clothing that cannot be worn fashionably without the help of another person to secure the lacing that has been loosened when undressing.3 In the first chapter of The Luxe, for example, and in the middle of a social gathering, Elizabeth Holland has a panic attack that is largely brought on by the corset that she wears, which in turn becomes symbolic of her own life. Elizabeth’s “corset, which her maid, Lina, had practically sewed her into hours earlier, felt suddenly, horribly constricting. Her life, she realized, had all the charm of a steel trap” (20–21). This corset’s tight lacing is confirmed both by the phrase “practically sewed her into” as well as the “suddenly, horribly constricting” feeling of the boning. Therefore, when Elizabeth realizes that her life “had all the charm of a steel trap,” she sees the corset as standing in for the life that she cannot control, a life that restricts her movement both socially and, because of the corset, physically. Later in the novel, when the same maid laces her into her corset again, “Elizabeth gasp[s] for breath” and experiences “a sharp pain in [her] torso” when Lina gives “a final, cinching pull” (248).
Gemma Doyle also finds the corset restrictive and problematic, especially in terms of social and physical movement, but Bray goes further than Godbersen [End Page 95] in emphasizing the fact that it takes two women to make a corset fully functional. When Gemma tries to dress herself at school, she realizes her dilemma:
There is the problem of the corset. There’s no way I can tighten the laces at my back by myself. And it would seem that there is no maid to help with our dressing. With a sigh, I turn to Ann.
“Would you mind terribly?”
She pulls hard on the laces, pushing the air out of my lungs till I think my ribs will break. “A bit looser, please,” I squeak. She obliges, and I’m now only uncomfortable instead of crippled.(91)
Unlike Elizabeth, Gemma has no maid to help her; she must rely on her friend, who understands that it is the purpose of the corset to be laced as tightly as the wearer can stand. When Ann “pulls hard on the laces,” Gemma finds herself losing breath and feeling physical pain. When she does speak, to ask for the laces to be loosened, she can only do so in a “squeak.” The tight-lacing that she withstands at Ann’s hands causes her to be “crippled” until she settles for merely being “uncomfortable.” This restriction of movement and breath becomes a common image in A Great and Terrible Beauty. When Gemma runs later in the novel, she notes, “I cannot catch my breath and feel as if I will faint. The damned corset” (216–17). When four girls go swimming together, they must do so without corsets because, as Felicity says, “I want to breathe freely for a bit” (174). Both the physical activity of swimming and the necessary activity of breathing deeply require the girls to divest themselves of their corsets, which they can only do because no one else will be able to see them. When Gemma unlaces Felicity, she notes that “soon Felicity’s thin shift and the soft skin beneath it are both exposed. She gleams in the moonlight, a sliver of bone” (175). This exposure is particularly telling to the girls’ understanding of corsets; not only is their skin exposed without the corset, their bones are as well. The “sliver of bone” that represents Felicity is a girl pared down to her barest essentials. With the corset, Felicity is a Victorian girl, but without it, she is just “a sliver of bone,” as anyone would be, pressed deeply enough.
Bray’s novel lays the restriction of female movement at the feet of men, as perceived marriageability is judged to a great extent by a girl’s figure. The girls in Bray’s novel are forced to wear corsets to turn themselves “wasp-thin” because “men are rumored to prefer waists” that small (222). Yet these girls continually reject the expectations of their society both for girlhood and for femininity, including their rejection of socially acceptable marriage partners. Gemma Doyle observes that “Our corsets bind and bend us to this fashionable taste, even though it makes us short of breath and sometimes ill from the pressure” (222), and she thus presents an image of corsetry that moves beyond supporting garments to the stereotypes of nineteenth-century fashionable dress that are dependent on the corset for foundation. When the girls in Bray’s novel reject the corset, they are denying the expectations for girls of their class and status. This constant rejection is not of the garment itself but rather of what the [End Page 96] novel understands it to represent: repressive girlhood dependent on standards of femininity and class, as opposed to the subversive rethinking of the corset and, indeed, the genre of neo-Victorian novels. Texts such as Cross’s The Girl in the Steel Corset present images of girlhood that manipulate fashions, including the corset, for the protagonist’s personal agenda; they also script corsetry as a physical protection, even going so far as to call the corset “armor.”
Why Young Girls Need Armor: Dangers of the Neo-Victorian World
Springer’s Enola Holmes series, which is geared to an audience not yet qualifying as “young adult,” also offers a useful glimpse into the rewriting of the corset for contemporary readers. The main character, the young sister of the famous detective, rebuilds her corset so that it offers her protection (she has been saved from knife wounds more than once by her steel boning), masquerade (she pads her corset and accompanying bustle to make her shape seem more mature), and storage space; in The Case of the Left-Handed Lady (2007), Enola tells the reader that she has substituted a five-inch dagger for her corset’s busk (31). One imagines that this modification occurs after the incidents of The Case of the Missing Marquess (2006), in which she uses her corset, bustle, and bust enhancers to hide various objects on her person. Also of note is that the boning in her corset prevents her from being stabbed (148), leading Sonya Sawyer Fritz to call it “a kind of improvised body armour” (49). These rewritings of the corset are correlated with the horrors of extended and early corset wearing; in The Case of the Gypsy Good-Bye (2010), a woman is rendered immobile when her encasing corset is removed (128–29).
In neo-Victorian novels that are futuristic or steampunk in their setting, corsets offer emotional protection as well, becoming symbols of self-control and strength of will. In Habel’s Dearly, Departed, the main character’s corset directly responds to her emotional state; as she has a passionate argument with the boy she likes, she notes, “My corset suddenly felt oppressively tight, the fabric-covered steel digging into my ribs” (314). This is a physical moment for Nora Dearly, as she is experiencing both emotional and physical sensations. What becomes particularly interesting is that the physical reactions of passion—heated cheeks, flashing eyes, flushed skin—are read almost entirely through the corset. It is “oppressively tight” when it was not before, and the “fabric-covered steel” is suddenly personified, “digging” into her ribs as if on purpose. In contrast, early in The Girl in the Steel Corset the main character, Finley Jayne, is described as “terrified. Were it not for the steel boning of her leather work-corset, she fancied her heart might slam through her ribs[,] it was pounding so hard” (10). In this moment, Finley’s corset works to protect rather than oppress. By containing her body’s emotional response, it seemingly contains her body’s physical parts. Her heart, which Finley fancies threatens to “slam through her ribs[,] it was pounding so hard,” is held in place by the corset that wraps her torso in leather and steel. [End Page 97]
These scenes present the corset as a young woman’s protection, a physical barrier containing and shielding her emotional response. While never denying the problems of tight-lacing, neo-Victorian young adult novels rewrite the corset for contemporary understanding in order to explore new conceptions of Victorian girlhood, particularly in that the corset seems to respond to conceptions of the body out of control. In these two emotion-laden moments, these girls’ bodies act independently of their rational, directed thought, and it is the corset, not their emotional self-control, that helps to clear their minds and allows them to move forward. Nora Dearly is forced to listen to news that she does not want to hear, and she notes, “I held my breath. I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to run away and hide myself in my father’s room and cry my lungs and eyes empty. But I stayed” (315). Finley Jayne stands before her threatening employer a divided woman, with part of her “horribly delighted at the prospect of the violence to come” and part of her “terrified” (10).
Like Enola Holmes’s, Finley Jayne’s corsets throughout the novel become both symbolic and literal protection. When she wears “a cherry-red corset with little silver dragons stitched on,” she notes that the “clothing felt appropriate—like armor for going into battle” (113–14). But it is not until she is given the titular steel corset, with its “thin, shiny bands with embossed flowers and leaves, held together with tiny hinges to allow ease of movement” (209), that we most clearly see how the corset is being rewritten for the twenty-first century. What is primarily obvious in this description is that allowances have been made for “ease of movement”; unlike the corsets that Bray’s characters wear, this one is meant to be lived in. Further, the “embossed flowers and leaves” make it pretty, worth wearing on the outside of a dress rather than underneath, an “industrial metal flower garden” (209). Emily, the inventor who designed the corset for Finley, tells her, “The spaces are small enough that bullets and most blades won’t be able to get through, and if someone hits you the bounder’s going to break a knuckle or two” (210). Later in the novel, when the characters are headed into danger, Emily asks Finley whether she needs “a chest guard” or is “wearing the corset” (436), again directly comparing the steel corset to body armor. Finley admits that the corset is both “a little frightening” and “beautiful,” but ultimately, “It was protection—armor” (210). While the narrative notes that “[a] normal girl shouldn’t need armor,” Finley, who “often courted trouble, who wanted to protect herself and her friends, loved it” (210). Even bodily comfort is considered; while the steel corset is fashioned after a “normal” one, it has instead a “small panel of metal [that] closed over the ribbons to protect exposed flesh. The hammered metal molded to Finley’s torso as though it was made of supple fabric and not unyielding steel. It was snug but allowed her to bend and move as well or better than regular underclothes. Best of all, it was surprisingly light and comfortable” (210). When compared to other neo-Victorian young adult novels, The Girl in the Steel Corset is as pro-corset as a text can be. What represents physical and social confinement in Bray’s or Godbersen’s [End Page 98] novels is instead here made specifically to accommodate the need for freedom of movement and bodily protection of a character who lives a dangerous life.
While Cross’s narrator suggests that a “normal girl shouldn’t need armor,” in fact several of these girls do: emotionally, socially, and physically. The corset’s problematic history cannot be erased from contemporary consciousness, but through the continuing work of neo-Victorian writers, the garment can be reread and rewritten to offer a new understanding of what it represents to twenty-first-century society. Further, we see how these novels offer a new understanding of the corset within its historical context; while Bray’s characters reject the corset and what it symbolizes to them, that they do reject it reminds readers that anti-corset campaigns and dress reforms were alive and well in the Victorian era. Similarly, Mary Quinn’s wearing of the corset in her working-class employment reminds us of just how pervasive and thus how normative corset wearing was in the nineteenth century. And, of course, novels such as Cross’s give us the opportunity to rethink stereotypes about the corset and reexamine the role that they played in girls’ as well as women’s lives in the nineteenth century. Julie Anne Taddeo’s “Corsets of Steel: Steampunk’s Reimagining of Victorian Femininity” argues that “Rather than an instrument of torture and disempowerment, the corset enabled women to manipulate and define their own femininity” (n. pag.). In neo-Victorian texts, this manipulation and definition of “their own femininity,” authored by women, proves to be authored by girls as well. The corset becomes a choice and its manipulation a suggestion that young girls began to have agency over clothing in the nineteenth century, just as they do in the twenty-first. And ultimately, what readers want to see in good young adult literature is young adult agency and subversion, whether regarding fashions, corsets, or what those corsets represent.
Amy L. Montz is associate professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana, where she teaches both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and young adult literature. Her work centers on material culture, particularly fashion, from the eighteenth century to the present.
I am grateful to the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Southern Indiana for their support of this project in the form of a Liberal Arts Research Award (LARA), which is a course release to work on a project. This article was born from that semester’s work.
1. Rebel Angels, the other novel in the trilogy, depicts a girl in what appears to be a chemise, which would be worn underneath a corset.
2. For example, adult neo-Victorian novels such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995) emphasize fashions and beauty standards that are best identified with the latter half of the nineteenth century. The neo-Victorians in Stephenson’s novel consider the ideal body shape to be “twenty-two-inch waist, no more than 17% body fat” (35), but they manage to get around the issue of the corset through reconstructing social expectations for women while still maintaining the image of the stylized female body. The Diamond Age notes, “That kind of body couldn’t be faked with undergarments, never mind what the ads in the women’s magazines claimed; the long tight bodices of the current mode, and modern fabrics thinner than soap bubbles, made everything obvious” (35). Female exercise rather than the corset makes such body types possible, and Nell wears “a bodice that took advantage of her fashionably narrow waist, so carefully honed on the Academy’s exercise machines that it might have been turned on a lathe from walnut” (331). Even Queen Victoria II accepts a helping hand “graciously but perfunctorily, as if to remind everyone that she’d done crew at Oxford and had blown off tension during her studies at Stanford B-School with lap-swimming, rollerblading, and jeet kune do” (17).
3. Interestingly, Summers’s “Yes, They Did Wear Them: Working-Class Women and Corsetry in the Nineteenth Century” informs us that nineteenth-century middle- and upper-class women were not the only ones to wear corsets. Working-class women wore them more loosely to accommodate the physical labor that they would perform in the household and elsewhere (65). Further, women could also lace their corsets loosely enough so that they offered support but did not need to be re-laced every day; the wearer could unhook the corset from the busk and slip it on and off when dressing and undressing.