The Depiction of Violence Against Women in Early London Literature

Violence against women is a prevalent theme in numerous works of literature, therefore an understanding of what this type of violence consists of is needed to determine the implications it proposes. In their article “Prevalence of Violence against Immigrant Women: A Systematic Review of the Literature”, Gonçalves and Matos, two Latin American Feminist scholars, offer their definition of what violence against women is, explaining it to be a:

… Global phenomenon that assumes several shapes and involves a large number of controlling, threatening, aggressive, and abusive actions, which can be physical, sexual, or psychological in nature. (697)

Violence against women is a theme that exists within different texts situated in the early history of London, England, and it is important to consider how the occurrence of violence against females in these texts generates a normalized attitude towards this type of abuse. This paper will argue that Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “The Leper”, Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover”, Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight and Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago all contain evidence of violence against women, however the depiction of this type of violence differs in each text. The portrayal of violence against women in these works ultimately promotes a societal normalization of this type of violence and perpetuates stereotypical examples of aggressive and harmful behavior being issued towards submissive females.

Swinburne’s “The Leper” depicts a narrator who is obsessed with a woman. The poem describes how the woman becomes infected by Leprosy and as a result encounters societal rejection and a loss of her former beauty. The woman eventually succumbs to the disease and dies, however the speaker is unable to comprehend her death and comes to the conclusion that God is responsible for her death as a means to punish him for his overwhelming lust for the woman: “I vex my head with thinking this. / Yea, though God always hated me” (13-14). The speaker convinces himself that his lover has died because of a divine intervention as a way to punish him, and the lust he believes he is being punished for is apparent when he describes his obsession with the woman even after she is dead: “Yet am I glad to have her dead / Here in this wretched wattled house / Where I can kiss her eyes and head” (17-18). The speaker admits to being pleased that his lover has succumbed to her disease because he is able to have utmost control over her. Her inability to object to his lust and desire suggests that the speaker takes advantage of her body and in doing so exhibits authority over her mind and body, two characteristics that are affiliated with the scholarly definition of what violence against women consists of. The speaker states: “I hid her in this wattled house” (72) and his choosing to hide her corpse in his home for his personal benefit reveals his obsessive and disturbed personality. Swinburne’s poem contains evidence of violence against women in the sense that it depicts a woman who is violated psychologically and physically and it is therefore a poem that fails to challenge stereotypical examples of gendered violence – it portrays a woman who is violated in different ways and therefore perpetuates an occurrence of violence against women that is socially normalized. The male is not held accountable for his actions, and because the male fails to be punished for the ways in which he violates the woman this poem suggests that his obsession and overwhelming lust for the woman, even after her passing, is acceptable. The normalization of the violence the male subjects the woman to is problematic because this poem fails to question the literary theme of violence against women. Swinburne’s poem reiterates the normalcy of violence against women because of the speaker’s ability to abuse the woman and avoid being punished for his actions.

Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” are two examples of poetry that contain blatant evidence of violence against women. “My Last Duchess” depicts the relationship between a Duchess and her husband, the Duke, with the Duke ultimately murdering the Duchess because of his frustrations with his inability to control her. The Duke suggests he is jealous of his wife’s beauty when he explains that: “Sir, ‘twas not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek” (13-15) and it becomes apparent that he is suspicious of his wife and believes she is being disloyal to him. The Duke explains that his wife: “Had / A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (22-24) and reveals his annoyance with her because her attention fails to be entirely dedicated to him. The poem suggests that the Duchess, prior to her murder, was simply being friendly and sociable with other males, however the Duke fails to see her kindness as innocent. The woman the speaker describes in the poem is no longer alive therefore the Duke is speaking to an image of her: “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive” (1-2). Browning suggests that the Duke murdered his wife because of his inability to control her and he refers to her painting as a gift: “… She ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” (32-33). The speaker reveals his true intentions behind his wife’s murder as referring to her as a gift, and it is evident that he is content with her portrait on the wall because he now has complete control over her as an object.

“Porphyria’s Lover” is similar to “My Last Duchess” in the sense both poems depict women who do not abide by conventional female behavior in Victorian London. The Duchess in “My Last Duchess” angers her husband because she does not provide him with her utmost attention, challenging traditional female conventions in this era in doing so because of her choosing to disobey her husband’s expectations of her, and Porphyria in “Porphyria’s Lover” is described to be passionate and sexual, characteristics that also challenge traditional female conventions in this era. The Speaker in “Porphyria’s Lover” is obsessed with Porphyria’s attention and intimacy, and in an attempt to prevent her from satisfying another man he murders her: “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” (38-41). The speaker is consumed by his infatuation with Porphyria and kills her to avoid the possibility of her satisfying another man with her sexuality. Just before the speaker strangles her he states: “That moment she was mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good” (37-8) and his fixation with Porphyria and his desire of ownership over her is apparent. The similarities between the depictions of female characters in “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” are evident when examining how the men they interact with yearn to control them to a severe degree, however both the Duchess and Porphyria are ultimately victims of stereotypical violent behavior against women. Similar to the speaker in Swinburne’s poem, both men in Browning’s poems perpetuate normalized violence against two women and fail to face repercussions for their behavior. This perpetuation fails to recognize violence against women as something that requires punishment, therefore both poems by Browning reiterate the literary theme of violence against women and furthermore normalize this type of violence because of the male characters being able to harm women without being punished or held accountable for their behavior.

Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight discusses the gruesome murders of female prostitutes in Whitechapel at the hands of Jack the Ripper. It emphasizes the violence of these murders and the grotesque strategies and techniques The Ripper used when murdering his victims:

… Most of the murders were accompanied by acts of sexual mutilation… contemporaries disputed whether the murders evidenced anatomical skill and knowledge of the female body. Some believed that the principal objective of the murderer was evisceration of the body after the woman has been strangled and had her throat cut.        (198)

This excerpt reveals the extent of violence and abuse involved in the murders that occurred in Whitechapel. The Ripper’s victims were forced to endure physical mutilation in an incredibly malicious way, and because all of The Ripper’s victims were female and he was male it is arguable that he was able to conduct these acts of violence against women because of his male gender and therefore his social superiority to women. Walkowitz goes on to explain how when The Ripper “Had enough time, observers committed to the ‘medical theory’ believed, the uterus and other internal organs were deliberately removed, while the woman’s insides were often strewn about” (198) and therefore reinforces the violence of his killings. This text compares to Swinburne’s and Browning’s poetry because it, too, contains evidence of violence against women, but it furthermore compares to Browning’s poems because The Ripper’s victims were prostitutes – women, who like the Duchess and Porphyria, failed to conform to socially dictated norms of feminine behavior. Walkowitz explains how “Negative body images included the prostitute as putrid body, as sewer, as syphilitic carries, as corpse, and as link in a chain of resigned female bodies ‘at the beck and call of the bourgeois body’” (199) and her discussion of how female prostitutes were perceived in the Victorian period suggests that The Ripper targeted them because of their failure to abide by feminine norms. The Ripper symbolizes the stereotypical example of gender norms with males being aggressive towards submissive females. His murdering of female prostitutes suggests the conventional gender dynamic of a dominant male exhibiting abuse over a submissive female and is therefore an example of how violence against women is a normalized occurrence of abuse in this particular text. Walkowitz’s text and the figure of Jack the Ripper are comparable to the death of Nancy in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Nancy is murdered by Sikes because of a miscommunication between Sikes and Fagin, and her murder is violent and barbaric, similar to the murders that were carried out by the Ripper in Whitechapel:

The robber sat regarding her, for a few seconds, with dilated nostrils and heaving breast; and then, grasping her by the head and throat, dragged her into the middle of the room, and looking once towards the door, placed his heavy hand upon her mouth… [He] grasped his pistol… and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the up- turned face that almost touched his own… shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down. (Dickens 560-61)

Nancy’s murder in Dickens’ text is yet another textual example of how violence against women is normalized in the early history of London. Her tragic death reiterates how female violence is gruesome yet socially normalized and therefore contributes to stereotypical depictions of violence against women. Nancy’s character contrasts the victim of the Ripper in the sense that she is not a sex worker, however she and the female victims of Whitechapel were forced to endure abuse and violence at the hands of male and were murdered in the process.

Morrison’s A Child of the Jago depicts the life of Dicky Perrot and his life in Old Jago, a ghetto in East London. The text contains numerous violent situations because of the prevalence of violence in Old Jago, though a brawl between Norah Walsh and Sally Green is important to consider when analyzing the occurrence of violence against women:

Norah Walsh… ran out armed with a bottle. She stopped at the kerb to knock the bottom off the bottle, and then, with an exultant shout, seized Sally Green by the hair and stabbed her about the face with the jagged points. Blinded with blood, Sally released her hold on Mrs. Perrott and rolled on her back, struggling fiercely; but to no end, for Norah Walsh, kneeling on her breast, stabbed and stabbed again, till pieces of the bottle broke away. (Morrison n.p)

Morrisons’s text contains evidence of violence against women and is therefore comparable to Swinburne’s poem, Browning’s poems and Walkowitz’s text, however it differs in the sense it depicts a scene of extreme violence between two women. This particular scene describes a physical encounter between Norah and Sally and the type of violence described is one that is typically associated with males and masculinity. Violence between women is not an overtly prominent literary trope and is not used in texts to the same extent as violence between men, therefore Morrison’s text and this particular excerpt challenges stereotypical occurrences of violence between men and women. It does not reiterate the stereotypical relational dynamic of a dominant male and inferior female and instead depicts a situation between two dominant females. While the brawl between Norah and Sally strays from stereotypical depictions of violence against women, it still supports the normalization of this type of violence and therefore contributes to the societal acceptance of female violence.

Violence against women is a prevailing theme in many works of literature and is a theme that exists within several texts situated in the early history of London, England. The occurrence of violence against females in these texts generates a normalized attitude towards this type of abuse and is problematic because the perpetrators of the violence are typically not punished for their actions. This paper has argued that Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “The Leper”, Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover”, Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight and Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago all contain evidence of violence against women though depict said violence in different ways, a depiction that ultimately promotes a societal normalization of this type of violence and perpetuates stereotypical examples of gender norms with males being aggressive towards submissive females. The works by Swinburne, Browning, Walkowitz and Morrison are comparable in the sense that they all include situations that depict violence against women, however the ways in which women experience violence differs in each text. The poems by Swinburne and Browning and also Walkowitz’s text describe situations in which male characters yearn to have complete control over women and the relationships described perpetuate stereotypical occurrences of violence against submissive women by dominant males. Morrison’s text, however, does not reiterate this stereotypical relationship dynamic between a superior male and an inferior female and instead depicts a scene of violence between two dominant females. The inclusion of violence against women in these texts is problematic because it is used as a trope and normalizes the occurrence of this type of violence. The widespread inclusion of violence against women in literary texts and the absence of punishment for this type of violence ultimately suggests that it is not problematic and encourages the normalization of female abuse.

 

Works Cited

Browning, Robert. “Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”.” Robert Browning’s

“My Last Duchess”, http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/rb/duchess/duchess.html. Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Browning, Robert. “”Porphyria’s Lover” (Text of poem).” “Porphyria’s Lover” (Text of poem), http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/rb/porphyria/porphyria.html. Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Dickens, Charles, et al. Oliver Twist. Franklin, TN, Dalmatian Press, 2004.

Gonçalves, Mariana, and Marlene Matos. “Prevalence of Violence against Immigrant Women: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Journal of Family Violence, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016, pp. 697–710., doi:10.1007/s10896-016-9820-4.

“A Child of the Jago.” A Child of the Jago, gutenberg.net.au/eBooks/x00001.html#ch5. Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “The Leper.” PoemHunter.com, 12 Apr. 2010, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-leper/comments.asp. Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Walkowitz, Judith R. “City of Dreadful Delight.” 1992, doi: 10.7208/Chicago/9780226081014.001.0001.

 

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