Queer Intimacies and Longings in Victorian Lit:
Lady Audley’s Secret and The Picture of Dorian Gray
Queerness, as I understand it, is an all encapsulating term for any behavior that does not subscribe to the social construct of heteronormativity. Queer intimacies and longings probably aren’t the first motifs that pop into the heads of undergraduate students new to Victorian literature – but queerness is an undeniable undercurrent in many of the texts we’ve read this semester, and it’s an important undercurrent to bring to the surface. Why? Amy Levy’s loaded final line in her poem “At a Dinner Party” says it best – “It is our secret, only ours, / Since all the world is blind” (lines 8-9). “All the world is blind” (line 9) – you can read this line as nobody at the dinner party noticing the glances the speaker is sharing with her lover across the table, sure. But you can also read it as the world shunning their love as legal love, as viable love, as love by any definition of the word. Too often society hushes, disregards, and condemns queerness. Let’s recognize it, talk about it, embrace it.
First, I’ll turn to gender-bending in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. The character of Alicia, for her time, is quite physical, forward, and assertive. Braddon describes Alicia as “an excellent horsewoman” who spends “most of her time outdoors, riding about the green lanes” (Braddon 46). Braddon never describes Alicia as being fragile, but rather vigorous and active. Now compare that with Braddon’s never-ending descriptions of Lady Audley as “delicate,” “fragile,” “girlish,” and having the “the innocence and candor of an infant” (90) – she’s stereotypically pleasing to look at on the outside, so naturally she’s a scheming woman on the inside (please read this with heavy sarcasm). Alicia and Lady Audley even fight differently. Alicia prefers “a hearty pitched battle” (305), which conjures up the gendered colloquialism that “boys fight with their fists.” Lady Audley, on the other hand, prefers “armed neutrality, broken every now and then by brief feminine skirmishes and transient wordy tempests” (305). In other words, Lady Audley is catty – something our heteronormative society often associates with and attributes to women. Alicia and Lady Audley are almost foils of one another – Lady Audley is all stereotype, all things Alicia is not. Even though Alicia is heterosexual, I wouldn’t categorize her as heteronormative because she does not perform her gender as typically feminine like Lady Audley does.
Robert Audley and George Talboys are also not normative in terms of gender, and perhaps even experience queer longings for each other. Robert lives a life of “lazy monotony,” and Braddon characterizes him as generally apathetic and passive (129) – characteristics society doesn’t usually associate with the masculine. Braddon even takes care to note that Robert would never be “considered seriously by a sensible man” (98). George, after the death (air quotes) of his wife, yields to Robert’s every whim with “passive submission,” and the two spend months together before George’s disappearance (99). During this time they live, dine, and travel together – they basically settle into a domestic relationship. Upon George’s disappearance, Robert behaves more heteronormatively by engaging in vigorous detective work. We must not forget though, that it’s the desire to find George that triggers this change in Robert, for Robert “could [not] possibly feel a strong[er] attachment to any creature breathing” than he does George (117). Robert’s love for George is self-sacrificing. He forgoes his own comfort and health for George, and by the end of the novel he’s “worn out with the fatigue of hurrying from place to place” (263). Neither Robert nor George have typically masculine dispositions, and their relationship is arguably more than friendship.
But Lady Audley’s Secret isn’t the only novel we’ve read that contains queer longings and unorthodox depictions of masculinity. Think back to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde describes Dorian quite like Braddon describes Lady Audley – as having “finely-curved scarlet lips,” and “all the candour of youth […] as well as youth’s passionate purity” (Wilde 57). Both Lady Audley and Dorian are infantilized figures. Where Lady Audley is the innocent-looking scheming woman, Dorian is the innocent-looking scheming man. Even though Dorian is male, he embodies the archetype of the scheming woman quite perfectly. Wilde doesn’t explicitly state much of Dorian’s immoral behavior, but rather treats it as something unspeakably bad. Despite this, Dorian remains unmarred in Basil’s eyes. Basil tells Dorian, “with your pure, bright, innocent face, and your marvellous untroubled youth – I can’t believe anything against you” (181). Dorian’s effeminate good looks and undying youth are in stark contrast to his ugly inner self, and his appearance largely protects him from ridicule, just as Lady Audley’s appearance protects her from suspicion.
Another parallel the texts share is queer longings. However, the queer longings in The Picture of Dorian Gray are much more explicit than those in Lady Audley’s Secret. From the start of the novel, Basil’s infatuation with Dorian seems of a romantic nature. Describing his first encounter with Dorian to Lord Henry, he says “When our eyes first met, I felt myself growing pale” (48) – to modern eyes this sentence reads as a bad romantic cliché. Basil goes on to say, “We were quite close, almost touching. Our eyes met again” (49). Basil’s descriptions of his first meeting with Dorian doesn’t at all read heteronormatively. Another dynamic that Dorian and Basil share is that of artist and muse – a relationship in which, typically, the artist is male and the muse is female. Dorian is Basil’s muse, and to me, someone who Basil loves and desires. Remember, this version of the novel is less explicitly queer than the first – in this way, Wilde is truly a revolutionary.
Both Lady Audley’s Secret and The Picture of Dorian Gray contain gender-bending and queer longings. Alicia, Robert, and George are all non-normative renderings of their genders, as are Dorian and Basil. Robert and George’s relationship – though more companionable, sweet, and subtle – has the same overtones of queer desire that manifests more obviously in Basil and Dorian’s relationship. To me, this isn’t a modern reading – it’s just reading what is there, but perhaps reading it with less heteronormative anxieties than the Victorians did. What I hope I’ve shown here is that queerness is undeniably in Victorian writing, and not by accident.
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret. 1862. Edited by Natalie M. Houston, Broadview, 2003.
Levy, Amy. “At a Dinner Party.” 1884. www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/dinner-party. Accessed April 2, 2018.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1891. Edited by Norman Page, Broadview, 1998.