Decorative Initial No matter how female or maternal Barrett Browning's Victorian hero may be, Nancy Armstrong is quick to argue that desires and household practices coded as feminine or womanly have no essential, biological, or innate association to the female sex. Citing Foucault's History of Sexuality, Armstrong argues instead that conduct books and fiction such as Richardson's Pamela construct or "write" the masculine and feminine spheres as we understand them today (14). Fiction, in other words, defines what responsibilities, occupations, desires, and appearances are appropriate to each gender. In fact, to me it seems these markers of femininity are so exterior and constructed that they may even be "written" onto the male body. After all, what is Defoe's Robinson Crusoe but a portrayal of Crusoe's attempts to domesticate nature as one would a household? In other words, male protagonists frequently assume the role of the Victorian woman.

For example, Anthony Trollope's The Warden portrays the competing allegiances of Septimus Harding, a man of sentiment who embodies female domestic heroism just as fully as Marian and Aurora do in Aurora Leigh. A loving father, Harding nonetheless portrays the vulnerability, fealty, and even the mannerisms that Victorian literature coded as female. Contented with his "fine voice and a taste for sacred music" (2), Harding's stature hardly approaches the epic proportions of Classical heroes:

Mr. Harding is a small man, now verging on sixty years, but bearing few of the signs of age; his hair is rather grizzled than grey; his eye is very mild, but clear and bright, though the double glasses which are held swinging from his hand, unless when fixed upon his nose, show that time has told upon his sight; his hands are delicately white, and both hands and feet are small. [8]

Rather than the sonorous masculinity of "Homer's heroes," Mr. Harding's petite physicality suggests frailty, powerlessness, smallness. "A small man," Harding has "delicately white" hands and small feet that tell of a life spent within the household space. Whereas in Jane Eyre, Aurora Leigh, and Gaskell's North and South the central male character is disempowered or disenfranchized only at the close of the story, in The Warden the protagonist begins from a position of physical disempowerment. Indeed, Harding's physical inadequacy extends into a material inadequacy — an urgent economic predicament resulting from Mr. Bold's inquiry into the rumored impropriety of Harding's income. Harding "is never quite at ease in money matters" (9). His cello-playing emphasizes a female-coded penchant for art and music that somewhat compensates for masculine economic ambition and calculation. The "vellum and "gilding" of Harding's church music "cost more than any one knows" (9) and earlier put him in debt despite his eight-hundred pounds a year. Harding's physical, political, economic, and gender status perhaps make most sense in relation to Mr. Bold and Mr. Grantly.

Compare Harding's description to Mr. Bold's below:

He has all those qualities which are likely to touch a girl's heart. He is brave, eager, and amusing; well-made and good-looking; young and enterprising; his character is in all respects good; he has sufficient income to support a wife. [16-17]

As opposed to Harding, Mr. Bold is "well-made and "good-looking" — secure in the physical attributes of masculinity. His "sufficient income" counterpoints Harding's dubious appropriation of John Hiram's proceeds and of course Harding's eventual financial self-sacrifice. Much like the protagonists of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Mr. Bold's name itself is allegorical, punctuating his Dickensian caricature-like political identity as a "strong reformer" (15). Trollope emphasizes Mr. Bold's youth; his "young and enterprising" demeanor suggests the emerging generation those whose "passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses...abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large" (15). Barrett Browning might perhaps uphold Mr. Bold as a contemporary middle-class hero. But Bold is heroic not because of his capacity for political reform but because he abandons his lawsuit against Mr. Harding at Eleanor's request, even though Grantly interprets this move as a mere reticence to finish the unenviable task he had begun. Eleanor domesticates Mr. Bold's attempts at reform, so at least Armstrong might argue. Bold is bold only insofar as he acknowledges Eleanor's dominance within the household space. "They say that faint heart never won fair lady," Trollope jokes, "and it is amazing to me how fair ladies are won, so faint are often men's hearts" (88). And yet Bold's "faint heart" — an effeminized feature — is precisely what wins Eleanor's hand in marriage.

If Trollope sympathizes with Mr. Bold's loyalty to Eleanor, he portrays Dr. Grantly as an old-order, pious, masculine figure who perhaps incapable of being domesticated. "He has all the dignity of an ancient saint with the sleekness of the modern bishop; he is always the same." (17). Whereas Mr. Bold would defend the disenfranchized only until his endeavors threaten the stability of his own household space, Grantly's idea of domesticity inheres in the instutionalized space of the church itself, for all its "authoritative demonstrations and Episcopal ostentation" (37). Whereas Harding enjoys the aesthetics of cello-playing, the archdeacon is "impatient of poetry" — which is to say he is not in touch with his femininity!

Other Sections of "From Violence to Domesticity: Heroism and Gender in Aurora Leigh and The Warden"

Victorian Web Overview

Last modified 2000