Love In Victorian Writing Essay, Research Paper
The Victorian period was one of dramatic social and technological change where the City and industrialisation rapidly engulfed the space that was once occupied by countryside and beautiful scenery. Yet, it was common among Victorian writers to associate love and romance with nature and the countryside, such as Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis, Robert Browning’s love poetry in Men and Women, and in some of Tennyson’s poetry also.
“Much of Browning’s verse in Men and Women is devoted to love poetry, to what Victorian readers particularly valued and what Sir Henry Jones called ‘the richest vein of pure ore in his verse’. This vein of ore apparently seems less rich to the present age, probably because Browning’s love poetry, for all its vast variety, is based upon certain personal doctrines, most centrally the belief that the experience of personal love is equivalent to a revelation of the divine nature. Love is indubitable, revelatory, and the climactic experience of life…”(1) Indeed, alot of Browning’s love poetry contains a variety of emotions, sometimes it is sincerely romantic, sometimes it is sexually passionate, sometimes it is shocking and unnerving, but ultimately, it leaves us with the feeling that love is the most climactic experience that we will ever encounter in life.
The conclusion of Porphyria’s Lover, when the demented lover holds the woman he loves in his arms after murdering her is in my opinion, tragically romantic. It is incredibly powerful and illustrates, in a grave way, the destructive sexual obsessiveness that seems to be common in alot of Victorian writing about love. The murderous lover is so in love with Porphyria that his “heart [is] fit to break”, frightened that his love will not “give herself to [him] for ever”; he is driven right to the edge of sexual obsession and in order, even if it is just for a moment, to be in possession of her sole heartfelt affection, he strangles her:
“For love of her, and all in vain;…Be sure I looked up at her eyes Proud, very proud; at last I knew Porphyria worshipped me; surprise Made my heart swell, and still it grew While I debated what to do. That moment she was mine, mine, fair,Perfectly pure and good: I found A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain she felt; I am quite sure she felt no pain.”
It seems quite frightening to me that even in the aftermath of his most heinous deed, his thoughts are of her ‘well-being’ and he almost congratulates himself that “she felt no pain” at his gesture of love.
The feeling that I get from reading Victorian literature, is that in their civilised society it was more acceptable to express one’s love for another through a gesture rather than a passionate out-pouring of one’s feelings. One instance in Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis demonstrates my point: “Phillis… re-appeared with a little nosegay of this same flower, which she was tying up with a blade of grass. She offered it to Holdsworth as he stood with her father on the point of departure. I saw their faces. I saw for the first time a unmistakable look of love in his black eyes;…it was tender and beseeching- passionate.” Phillis and Holdsworth do not need to say a word- the gesture does all the talking for them. Phillis’s simple gesture is the fabrication of her love and inspires a passionate look in response. However, rather like young Stephen Smith’s ear-ring gesture to the love of his life, Elfride Swancourt, in Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, it is ultimately futile.
The Holman family hold Phillis in such esteem, though there is the feeling that it is her father that represses her development. However, their love for her is obvious but they fail to see that she is a young lady that is maturing and blossoming. Her feminine beauty is to be marvelled at: “Now I turned, as Mr Holdsworth had done, to look at her again out of the window… she looked towards the window where we were standing, as if to reassure herself that no one had been disturbed by the noise; and seeing us, coloured all over, and hurried away.” Holdsworth and Paul look at her, or rather stare, as though she was a work of art; but her model pose is broken once she is conscious of her admirers’ gaze. Ultimately, it is Phillis’ heart that is broken by Holdsworth, rather than her poise. Her story is rather typical of the romantic literature of the time; a beautiful young lady is swept away in a sea of passion, only for her object of desire to reject her and leave her with a broken heart.
Browning engages the poetical value of the sea in his companion poems, Meeting at Night, and Parting at Morning. There is a beautiful harmony between nature and love in Meeting at Night, where Browning dramatically presents a climactic rendezvous between two lovers and condenses it into two stanzas:
“The grey sea and the long black land;And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow And quench its speed in the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm-scented beach; Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,Than the two hearts beating each to each!”
Browning follows this romantic and highly sexualised climax with Parting at Morning, a one stanza poem that in its abruptness seems to undercut the passionate embrace that culminated in the poem before it:
“Round the cape of a sudden came the sea, And the sun looked over the mountain’s rim- And straight was a path of gold for him,And the need of a world of men for me.”
The two poems, in their contrasting emotion, create an uncomfortable feeling that love may shift like the tide, or change places like the sun and the moon- a continuous cycle with no apparent beginning or end. This would be a neat analogy for the female heroines of a Pair of Blue Eyes, and Cousin Phillis, whose affections rise, shine brightly, then fall as dusk chills the air and their hearts fall into darkness. Elfride Swancourt and Stephen Smith make “startled little waves” initially and they fall in love; however, as the waves that Stephen stirs up in Elfride’s heart gently lap against the shore, illuminated by a “yellow half-moon large and low”, gradually night becomes day. As “the sun looked over the mountain’s rim”, all of a “sudden”, from “round the cape” comes the sea (Henry Knight), the boundless expanse that is to sweep her away in a current of sexual passion.
Man’s temporal insignificance compared to the landscape and nature is the feeling I get when reading Browning’s Love Among the Ruins. However, the real message to come out of it, is that Man has only one possession that can rival the timeless quality of nature- love:
“Oh, heart! Oh, blood that freezes, blood that burns! Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin! Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest. Love is best!”
The crumbled, decaying remains of a once great city, rather gloomily reminds us that the all-conquering hand of time, reduces all earthly things to ruin and casts a deathly shadow over the Earth. However, time cannot erode true feelings of love; from the ruins comes “a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair”, to take the protagonist’s breath away. As she stands there in the turret (reminding us of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott), she transcends the “King[s]” that conquered all before them for centuries. Yet, all the “centuries of folly, noise and sin” created by the “million fighters”, and a “thousand chariots in full force” (a topical theme considering Men and Women was written in 1855, during the Crimean War), cannot be weighed against an intense feeling of love that doesn’t need “sight and speech” to qualify it. The lovers’ embrace in this poem (probably Browning’s and his wife Elizabeth, as the poem would have been written while they were living in Florence), must have emitted such a strength of feeling, to drown out the fire and passion created by the fighting soldiers and chariots!
The representation of love as timeless is also evident in Browning’s In Three Days. A lover anticipates that in three days he will see his lady again. He is aware that three days is long enough in the scale of time to “change the world”, (this is especially topical in the Victorian period where everything was moving at such a pace. In terms of years, history was getting further away in the light of Darwin’s research, and the future was becoming increasingly closer and attainable.) His fear of all that the future holds for him is absorbed in his anticipation of his lover.
“Browning considers love as a creative and sustaining experience although he realises its contradictions and difficulties. But many of his poems treat of its darker side, of the possessiveness and frustration which can overshadow marriage.”(2)
Browning’s concerns are replicated by Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes; rather than celebrating the delights of sexual love, Hardy emphasises its dangers instead. Elfride Swancourt is ultimately the victim of her lovers’ selfish obsession with her visual image, rather than her mind and soul. Both Stephen Smith and Henry Knight fix her image as an object of desire, almost like an erotic dream, or a beautifully framed oil painting: “Elfride had as her own the thoughtfulness which appears in the face of the Madonna della Sedia… the warmth and spirit of the type of woman’s feature most common to the beauties-…of Rubens…The characteristic expression of the female faces of Correggio”. This classical description reminds us of Browning’s One Word More, where Browning pours out his love for his wife. He desires to give her a part of him, a gift to express his utmost devotion; he offers her his soul’s attention. He: “Boasts two soul-sides: one to face the world with;/ One to show a woman when he loves her!” His wife evokes thoughts of Raphael’s sonnets and exquisite paintings of Madonna’s that adorn the ceilings of Florence’s Cathedrals.
Elfride makes a big impression on the young Stephen; his admiring gaze cannot escape the visual impact of her beauty. She first appears “in the prettiest of feminine guises”, while singing love songs to entertain him. However, “Every woman that makes a permanent impression on a man is usually recalled to his minds eye as she appeared in one particular scene…Miss Elfride’s image chose the form in which she was beheld during these minutes of singing…The profile is seen of a young woman in a pale grey silk dress with trimming’s of swan-down, and opening up from a point in front,…the cool colour contrasting admirably with the warm bloom of her neck and face…Her hands are in their place on the keys, her lips parted…” The description has the feel of a Raphaelite painting of a divine virgin, which is further illustrated in the “nebulous haze of light, surrounding her like an aureole.” It is a highly erotic vision that fixes itself in the “pages of his memory”, and emphasises those moments where an intense erotic feeling steal’s a piece of time and makes it cherishable. This is a sentiment mirrored in, what is widely regarded as Brownings best love poem, The Last Ride Together. True love oozes’ from the page in its dramatic and passionately intense imagery. Browning seems to put love above anything else; there is no violence, no bitterness, just a resignation that even when the woman rejects him, the protagonist doesn’t allow his pride to be wounded. The lady in the poem doesn’t love him but he doesn’t despair, he just wants to grab a moment with her so he can cherish it for the rest of his life. He goes on a final horse-back ride with her, and: “The instant made eternity,-/ And Heaven just prove that I and she/ Ride, ride together, for ever ride?” She may not have “loved” him, she may have “hated” him even, but he reflects that: “all men strive and who succeeds?” Time isn’t on his side and, like the lover in In Three Days, the protagonist exclaims with no fear: “Who knows but the world may end to-night?”
Stephen Smith’s world certainly changed while at Endelstow, he falls in love with Elfride and for a while his life travels along on ‘a crest of a wave’. He is engulfed by the intensity of their love for each other. They try to elope until Elfride’s nerve fails her and she turns her back on the journey, and ultimately Stephen aswell: “The journey from Plymouth to Paddington…allows quite enough leisure for passion of any sort to cool.” In allowing her to return home, Stephen “had done anything but make him[self] shine in her eyes. His very kindness in letting her return was his offence. Elfride had her sex’s love of sheer force in a man, however ill-directed;” These are prophetic words as, while Stephen is in Bombay, Elfride meets Henry Knight, a fastidious London Barrister of whom Stephen had spoken so highly. Here was a “man” who could take the place of the “youthful” Stephen. Again, Elfride’s beauty has a profound impact on a male’s eyes. Indeed, “Knight could not help looking at her”, and Hardy does not hold back in his erotic imagery; the ribbons of her dress “licked like tongues upon [her] parts”. Upon which parts is left to the readers imagination.
However provocative Elfride’s beauty is, Knight’s character is extremely unforthcoming and it takes him a long time to let go of his innermost feelings. He is an icon of the Victorian society in which respectable young men suffered from the repression of sexuality, and were expected to keep their feelings in check. It takes until he is rescued by Elfride and her underwear (sexually ironic), to be fully aware of his affection for her. Similar to Browning’s Love Among the Ruins, an intense feeling of love tames nature’s ruthlessness, as Elfride, in the act of saving him from the cliff-top, she becomes even more erotically desirable: “There is nothing like a thorough drenching for reducing the protuberances of clothes, but Elfride’s seemed to cling to her like a glove.” However, Knight does not kiss her when she rushes into his arms, as his over-sophisticated nature “would not allow him to take advantage” of the situation. Then, on the way home under the pouring rain: “Knight felt uncomfortably wet and chilled, but glowing with fervour nevertheless. He fully appreciated Elfride’s girlish delicacy in refusing his escort in the meagre habiliments she wore, yet felt that necessary abstraction of herself for a short half-hour as a most grievous loss to him.”
Knight’s life had just been saved and he indeed feels uncomfortable, yet his heart has been captured by Elfride’s unselfishly brave act. To illustrate the intense feelings for Elfride that the events render in him, the emotions that he feels when Elfride runs off from him seem more “grievous”, than those he must have felt only minutes before when his life hung in the balance.
Knight’s affection is reciprocated, but I felt that as their romance developed he became quite manipulative and coercive. He disliked her weaknesses, such as her “innocent vanity”; for example, when he catches her looking “long and attentively” at herself in the mirror, he is not happy: “I looked into your eyes”, he complains,” and I thought I saw truth and innocence as pure and perfect as ever embodied by God in the flesh of a women.” Indeed, his affection for her is idealistic, as he did not fall in love with her by just looking at her, but “by ceasing to do so…Not till they had parted and she became sublimated in his memory, could he be said to have ever attentively regarded her…he appeared to himself to have fallen in love with her soul.” His influence on her becomes masterly: “She idolized him, and was proud to be his bond-servant.” Indeed, “under Knight’s kiss”, she was a “different woman” from when she was with Stephen.
Knight’s obsession with being the “first-comer” to Elfride’s “untried lips”, is a coy desire for a virgin. One may suggest that this is for self- preservation reasons, because he too was a virgin and his pride would not take to being the ‘novice’ in their intimate moments. Hardy’s portrayal of Knight is typical of the Victorian male- he has a desire for the woman to be his possession and nobody else’s. Freud in The Taboo of Virginity, explains why: “The demand that a girl shall not bring to her marriage…any memory of sexual relations with another is, indeed, nothing other than a logical confirmation of the right to exclusive possession of a woman”.(3)
However, Elfride has a sexual history, and her “memory of sexual relations” are the crucial issue in her relationship with Knight. As J.I.M. Stewart remarks: “When women are secret they are secret indeed; and more often than not they only begin to be secret with the advent of a second lover.”(4)
Knight’s rigid rejection of Elfride after she tells him of her “secret”, is the surfacing of the underlying dominance which had revealed itself in ways earlier in his relationship with her. He is “stern”, “sharp”, and unrelenting with her, re-enforcing his position of dominance over her. His attraction to Elfride was founded on his assumption that she was ‘untouched’ by any other man; when this assumption was shattered, his pride rather than his heart was hurt. After he had confessed his sexual inexperience to her on the boat, “how she must have laughed at him, inwardly.” Yet, typical of the patriarchal Victorian male, Knight doesn’t allow this to affect his senses and his dignity at all: “Though Knight’s heart had so greatly mastered him, the mastery was not so complete as to be easily maintained in the face of moderate intellectual revival.”
However, Elfride had “become sublimated in his memory” and he could not disregard his innermost feelings for her; and so, after he finds out that it was only Stephen who came before him, he makes a “resolution” to re-claim Elfride, only to find that she has died as a married women. Hardy’s “treatment of Knight is an early indication of his interest in the emotional difficulties which he felt confronted modern people…These difficulties he sees as arising primarily from the effects of education and the loss of traditional beliefs on people’s instinctive, spontaneous response, especially in sexual relationships.”(5) Hardy’s worries may be linked here to the rapid modernisation of the time, highlighted by the Education Act of 1870. Maybe Hardy in A Pair of Blue Eyes, wants to show that in despite of the rapid change in Victorian society, love can still be an “instinctive, spontaneous” part of people’s lives rather than it being repressed by education etc. People should know about love and sex: “Hardy.. wrote in reply to a magazine questionnaire about the desirability of sex education for girls, “Innocent youths should, I think, also receive some information…for it has never struck me that the spider is invariably male and the fly is invariably female.”(6) This is a brilliant analogy of the representation of love in Victorian writing, but I couldn’t find a better description of it’s main themes than William C. DeVane’s comment on Browning, (but this could also be related to Gaskell and Hardy):”In the full scope we see love triumphant, and love rejected; love eager and young, and love satisfied; love a strong support, and love betrayed; love making heroes of men, and love enslaving and corrupting them. The poet’s theme is love in all it’s guises.”(7)