ven before Sarah Grand coined the term in 1894, the New Woman inspired strong reactions, both supportive and derisive. More than a century on, she still draws attention to herself and figures in many critical studies, such as Ann Heilmann’s New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First-Wave Feminism (Macmillan, 2000); Martha H. Patterson’s Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915 (University of Illinois Press, 2005); and Elizabeth Carolyn Miller’s Framed: The New Woman Criminal in British Culture at the Fin de Siècle (University of Michigan Press, 2008). One possible reason for both initial and continuing interest is that the New Woman herself is founded on spectacle: from the outset, she affronted traditional constructions of femininity and therefore was frequently regarded as monstrous. In her willingness to be seen—and heard—in public, she evoked responses that ranged from heroic iconography all the way to parodic caricature. Elizabeth D. Macaluso’s Gender, the New Woman, and the Monster offers a thoughtful contribution to studies of this subject, focusing on the figure of the monster and its relation to the New Woman in three novels, all published in 1897: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, and Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire.
In her introduction, which serves as Chapter 1, Macaluso notes that the fin de siècle in Britain was fraught with anxieties about “complex social issues” (1). In this opening chapter, she adumbrates a wide range of topics: imperialism and colonialism, poverty, gender, and attitudes towards homosexuality; and she discusses responses to the New Woman within this broad context. Her critical stance is primarily based on Judith Butler’s theory that gender is “an indeterminate social construct that resists categories and boundaries” (Macaluso 2). Macaluso’s focus is further refined by being specifically on the relation of the monster figure to questions of gender as they appear in female characters in fin de siècle fiction (2). She parallels what she terms the “liminal” figure of the monster, who collapses divisions between nations and between species, with the disruptive figure of the New Woman, who effectively collapses boundaries between genders. The chapters that follow concern the role of the New Woman to challenge conservative views on sexuality, colonialism, and racism.
Chapter 2, “ ‘I Love You with All the Moods and Tenses of the Verb’: Lucy and Mina’s Love in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” suggests that Stoker represents lesbian relationships as “an antidote to a loveless society” (23). In this chapter, Macaluso presents a detailed and thoughtful reading of Lucy’s rejections of her suitors in the novel and situates her argument amidst earlier work (24). Alluding to Martha Vicinus’s writings, for example, Macaluso describes the “creation of a family” that lesbians would occasionally undertake in the later nineteenth century (Macaluso 25). She avers that the novel “demonstrates the queer nature of Lucy and Mina’s friendship” (27). In other words, Stoker intended to show lesbian relationships (29). The ending of the novel, she says, “suggests that same-sex love does not bring about violence” (32). Instead, Dracularesists the prevalent demonization of queer love at the fin de siècle in favor of showing its positive, regenerative potentiality.
In Chapter 3, “The Monstrous Power of Uncertainty: Social and Cultural Conflict in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle,” Macaluso outlines the debates at the end of the century between conservatives and progressives, on gender and politics, sexuality, culture, and social reform (37-38). She notes that as the Empire changed these debates became more acute, and she links traditional versus progressive attitudes towards British colonialism with divided attitudes towards the New Woman (38-39). This chapter argues that The Beetle depicts both conservative and liberal responses to these questions, thereby reflecting the cultural complexity of the fin de siècle (39). It’s in this third chapter that Macaluso notes that the New Woman appears in late Victorian popular culture as either a monstrous threat or an admirable role model (40). She draws an analogy here between R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and The Beetle and asserts that Stevenson’s novella “perfectly captures the dual consciousness, or social and cultural conflict, of the British fin de siècle” (41). For Macaluso, the connection between the two works of fiction is the way in which the multiple perspectives in Marsh’s novel exemplify the complex culture of the end of the century (65). In this sense, Macaluso places the female characters in The Beetle within the feminist movement of the 1890s, and she asserts that the novel’s “uncertainty” is its main source of power (65).
Chapter 4 is “The Rise of Harriet Brandt: A Critique of the British Aristocracy in Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire.” This chapter (the only one to deal with a female author), begins by discussing Charles Darwin’s theory of pangenesis, as well as Francis Galton’s eugenics, and registering the British public’s “fascination” with these ideas at the end of the century (71). She then suggests that anxieties over race, gender, and sex are the main subjects of Marryat’s novel, which tells the story of Harriet Brandt, a Creole woman from Jamaica (72). The Blood of the Vampire depicts Harriet as a “monster” from the time of her birth when she is infected with vampire blood (72). Macaluso argues that this novel uncovers xenophobia, racism, and misogyny by highlighting these prejudices towards Harriet in the other characters (73). As in the earlier chapters, here Macaluso focuses on the complexity of late Victorian attitudes towards questions of race, gender, and biological humanness.
In Chapter 5, the book’s conclusion, Macaluso reiterates her position that
the liminal figure of the monster serves three important functions in the novels by Bram Stoker, Richard Marsh, and Florence Marryat: (1) the monster enables readers to see both sides of the conflict at the British fin de siècle provoked by issues of gender and the figure of the New Woman; (2) the monster demonstrates that the social categories and movements, the characters in these novels hold dear, are unstable and more complex than they imagined; and (3) the monster sets into sharp relief the challenges to received constructions of gender posed by the New Woman. (99)
As this passage shows, the book is well organized, and it presents thoughtful and thorough readings of these three novels. Macaluso clearly traces connections among monstrosity and xenophobia, fear of the New Woman, homophobia, and racism in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Gender, the New Woman, and the Monster is an insightful and readable analysis of three significant novels of 1897 and their historical moment, and in it, Macaluso points the way for more such valuable studies of the important and enduring figure of the New Woman.
- The New Woman Fiction
- Slum Fiction
- The New Woman Fiction — Primary Sources
- The New Woman Fiction — Secondary Sources
[Book under review] Macaluso, Elizabeth D. Gender,the New Woman, and the Monster. London: Palgrave, 2019.
Created 6 November 2020