A Student Response to Queer Victorians

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.

Works Cited

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.

9 thoughts on “A Student Response to Queer Victorians

  1. I really enjoyed this! Especially the parallels between Lady Audley and Dorian Gray’s descriptions. It didn’t occur to me how similar these characters were before, but it’s quite clear! Both are quite narcissistic and out for their own interests, as well as the focus on their youth and beauty.

    The relationship between Dorian and Basil in undeniably that of an artist and a muse. But also, the relationship between Dorian and Lord Henry is a fascinating one too. It reminds me of the Greek homosexual relationships between the intellectuals and the boys they ‘enlightened’. Lord Henry teaches Dorian the ways of the world, shows him the Yellow Book that inspires his dark ways, and completely changes him as a person. Of course it must be understood that there was a sexual relationship between them as well. Dorian looks up to Henry and resolves to be like him, not unlike Socrates and the boys of Athens.


  2. Way to bring in other texts we’ve read this semester. I really enjoyed your analysis of the texts through a queer lens. Excellent job identifying the break downs in gender roles, such as Alicia.

    I’m glad that verse from Amy Levy stood out to you too. It’s interesting how it can work in a hetro-normative sense (there being other reasons one might keep a relationship a secret) but the autobiographical sense of Amy’s sexual orientation made that line pack a punch.

    You could remove “all things” from this sentence to make the sentence less clunky: “Lady Audley is all stereotype, all things Alicia is not.”

    Otherwise your prose was easy to read, structured, and correctly not too formal. This was incredibly well argued and cited!


  3. Thank you for this thorough and compelling exploration of the queer intimacies and longings present in several of the texts we have examined this semester. I, too, was immediately struck by the similarities between Lady Audley and Dorian Gray. Their descriptions are oddly similar, as you have pointed out, and there exists a similar fascination with each of their portraits.

    That Amy Levy line about it being “our secret, only ours” ties very well into your discussion. I immediately thought of Christina Rossetti’s “Winter: My Secret” in which Rossetti has power over her secret and possesses the agency to share it or not. That teasing of the secret parallels the teasing of the ideas of queer intimacies we are offered in Lady Audley’s Secret and Dorian Gray, which you have described.

    Thanks for your insights.


  4. Great post! I’m also wondering about the queerness at the heart of Richard Marsh’s The Beetle. I wonder if the instructor for this course was aware of the slipperiness of gender norms and expectations in all of these works? In previous iterations of this course, I’ve also taught Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which ruminates extensively on Alice’s “queer” experiences in Wonderland. Given the positive reception in this string of comments, I might consider reintroducing Alice in future versions of this course.


    • Daniel,
      Reading Louis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland within a queer framework sounds absolutely amazing.

      Whether the prof was aware of the slipperiness of gender norms and expectations in all of these works or not (grin) I am grateful for the fascinating discussions of these frameworks in the works that we have read throughout the semester. It is great to see that queerness is unquestionably present in Victorian writing.


  5. Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful insights.

    Sapphire, I never considered Dorian and Lord Henry’s relationship in that way, but the parallel you’ve pointed out is fascinating. Lord Henry influences Dorian’s way of thinking, almost philosophically, and undeniably morally and sexually. Thank you for providing me with a new framework to read their interactions and relationship.

    Melissa, it’s interesting that Levy’s poetry brought Christina Rossetti’s poetry to your mind. This comparison was not an immediate reaction of mine, but now that you’ve likened the two, I totally see it. The sensation both poets gave me is quite similar, in retrospect — an unplaceable heaviness, a profound sadness, a sense of longing that will decidedly, definitively never be fulfilled in the speaker. Thank you for this insight.

    Daniel, the inclusion of Carroll sounds splendid! It probably isn’t a book that many courses could/would include on the reading list, and to read it within a queer framework would be so exciting and out-of-the-box.


  6. Loved this. Typical scholarly research I see concerning itself with Queer Theory tends to focus on the sexuality of the characters, so it is refreshing to see further explorations into performative gender. Likewise, many perceptions of homosexual/homosocial relations equate femininity with male homosexuality, which leaves many interesting, typically masculine characters without as much attention. I enjoyed Sapphire’s notes about Henry above, and also that you note that Alice is not heteronormative.

    I really enjoyed the comparison of Alice and Lady Audley. Alice’s masculinity in her actions and independence was one of my favorite things in the novel, as the typical woman longing after the typical male protagonist in a novel like this is (typically) feminine. This makes Lady Audley seem especially feminine in comparison, emphasizing the traits that she uses as weapons. It could be interesting to further investigate Robert’s apparent femininity with Alice’s masculinity, and her role in pursuer in their one-way romance.

    I would also like to note that the idea of reading Carroll within a queer framework sounds absolutely fascinating.


  7. I have to echo Kit’s comment; it’s refreshing to see commentary that focuses on how these novels play not only upon sexuality expectations, but also gender roles and expectations.

    I wanna take a chance to expand on Robert a little bit more, because I also found myself noting how queer his relationship with George can be read as. In particular, I find it interesting that Braddon also takes a moment to write Robert as actively rejecting gender expectations upon him. Robert is well aware that he’s “heir-presumptive to [his] uncle’s title” and “[knows] of a certain dear little girl… who would do her best to make [him] happy” (Braddon 187). And yet he “would freely give up all and stand penniless” if “George Talboys could stand by [his] side” (187). Your commentary and this scene both highlight how in queer studies gender and sexuality should be considered together as they interact closely and congruently with each other. Robert’s actively rejecting his gender roles, and at this same time he seems to be rejecting these gender roles because of longing for what can be termed a queer relationship with George.

    The comparisons between Alicia and Lady Audley, and Lady Audley and Dorian Gray are well done. This was a very enjoyable read!


  8. This commentary really stood out to me as I had never really thought to focus on sexuality of past times. I’m really glad you focused on gender roles and not just how sexuality was perceived, so I agree with Kit and Casey. This was an enjoyable and refreshing take on both Lady Audley’s Secret and The Picture of Dorian Gray! Thanks for opening my eyes a little bit more!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s