- The Victorian Male Body ed. by Joanne E. Parsons, Ruth Heholt
The Victorian Male Body, edited by Joanne E. Parsons and Ruth Heholt, is a three-part collection of essays focusing on the role of the white, male body in Victorian England. The introduction to the anthology states that during this period, there were numerous limitations, restrictions, and contradictions placed on the white, middle-class male body. This anthology poses a few key questions regarding Victorian manhood and masculinity, specifically regarding the claim that masculinity is a myth that needs to be demystified. Men seem to fall into two categories: visibly present, powerful men of Christian morality and obscure, fragmented, almost invisible men. One point is clear, however: there is no perfect male body and notions of masculinity constantly change, adapt, shift, and survive [End Page 697] as do societal expectations and ideals. Masculinity is an ever- changing and evolving social construct that cannot be seen as a single unified concept.
The editors of the anthology, Heholt and Parsons, demonstrate the ways in which Victorian masculinity was not limited to “rigid prescription[s] of manliness” but could include, by the end of the century, “flamboyant and extrovert celebrations of otherness.” Their survey of masculinity studies, emerging in the 1980s, suggests that “historically masculinity has not been a spectacle: everyone else formed the spectacle and white men have been the invisible, or at least less visible, powerful surveyors.” The editors note that white masculinity has remained “concealed” as a ruse of power: invisibility here is ideological, but it masquerades as universality, obscuring and at the same time normalizing itself (2). The male is estranged from a collective identity and suffers in solitude in an attempt to achieve a meaningful masculine identity, having to come to terms with the notion of what men are and what they should be. A few scholars suggest that, in many cases, within that invisibility lies the greater power; the body is a cultural discourse marker for a number of practices. Where white men have been associated with mind and spirit, and gross physicality allocated to other, usually racialized bodies, the Victorian male body is granted a “new physicality” (5) understood to be “chosen” rather than natural, displaying “strength of will and a negation of pain” and therefore in control of itself and its image: a “muscular body” that is both self-protective and seemingly impenetrable “to otherness” and to “the world” (6). H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) showcases the paradoxes of a “colonial world of men” (6) in which the whiteness and physicality of Allan Quatermain’s “colonial body matters and does not at the same time” (7). The white colonial male body is juxtaposed to the dark native body, yet it is also rooted in nature. Success in the colonies (and at home) came to depend on codes of masculinity that idealized a British combination of “virility, morality and civility” (12), or, in C. L. R. James’s words, “the British reticence, the British self-discipline, [and] the stiff upper-lips” that epitomized Muscular Christianity (qtd. in Heholt and Parsons 12). The white body is a norm that opposes the other; as a result, the authors wish to deconstruct the notion of a perfect male body because it simply did not exist.
The anthology is thematically divided into three parts. Part 1 contains three essays and focuses on traditional masculinity. The first essay, “Violent Play and Regular Discipline: The Abuses of the Schoolboy Body in Victorian Fiction” by Alice Crossley, looks at the abused body of a boy and its aspects. Crossley does not focus on psychological or moral abuse but on physical pain and the body’s lack of agency. She claims that many boys had to endure physical pain and abuse in order to develop their character, using examples from such writers as Charles Dickens and George Meredith. The second essay, “Punishing the Unregulated Manly Body and Emotions in Early Victorian England” by Joanne...