October 2009 Entries
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Exquisite Corpse: Or, if I said you had a Gothic body, would you hold it against me?(20 Aug 2014)
By Ms Rachael Taylor
Greetings once again! Many thanks to you all for such positive responses to my first post. Your kindness certainly didn't make me want to run screaming to the hills, vowing never to share my thoughts about anything in public again. Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen.
Today's post is dedicated to my Gothic double, whom I had the pleasure of meeting while at the day job earlier this week. We share the same name and a mutual love of Gothic fiction. So, if you're reading this, Rachey Taylor, this one's for you!
The Late Victorian period is such a rich epoch for examining gender and sexuality with its advent of the New Woman and the burgeoning field of sexology. This has always been my favourite aspect of literary criticism because, as the old adage goes, you can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats its women. Consequently, feminine beauty plays a massive role in my thesis, as the monsters with which it is concerned are often depicted as having a kind of luscious, feminine beauty. This is even the case when the monstrous creatures are male characters such as Dorian Gray in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890-1891) and Prince Lucio Rimanez in Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan (1895).
So, this explains the ‘exquisite’ part of the title. Now, what about the corpses? For those who are hoping it’s a reference to the surrealist parlour game, I am sorry to disappoint you. However, this wouldn’t be a Gothic piece without at least a smattering of death. And the case in point for this post is going to be the death of my beloved Lucy Westenra and her beautifully monstrous Gothic body.
Is it too much of a coincidence to remark that it is when Lucy is dead and consequently at her least autonomous that she is at her most beautiful according to the men and the woman who behold her? That will be the crux of the matter in this post.
Following Lucy’s death, the undertaker swiftly turns her bed chamber into a ‘chappelle-ardente [author’s italics]’ with ‘a wilderness of beautiful white flowers, and death was made as little repulsive as might be.’ The white flowers suggest a certain docility and purity as was becoming for stereotypical Victorian femininity. The body that once was Lucy Westenra lies almost in state, solely a helpless object incapable of any autonomy… Or so the male custodians of her body are made to think. For those male characters, representing the diverse facets of Late Victorian masculinity, Lucy is finally their shared property. Her body is totally theirs to observe and judge:
‘Even the woman who performed the last offices for the dead remarked to me, in a confidential, brother-professional way, when she had come out from the death chamber: --
“She makes a very beautiful corpse, sir. It’s quite a privilege to attend on her. It’s not too much to say that she will do credit to our establishment!”’ (Stoker, 2011: 152)
Perhaps, had Lucy lived, she would also have done ‘credit’ to a different kind of ‘establishment’ upon her marriage to Arthur and subsequent accession to the position of Lady Godalming. This idea suggests that the female, especially the beautiful female, is just as much a commodity in death as she is in life. She is an accessory to decorate any situation, defined solely by her body.
However, although the exquisite corpse is Lucy at her most beautiful, contrary to the underestimation of her by her patriarchal suitors, it is also Lucy at her most dangerous. Thus, it is when she is ‘Un-dead’ that her sexuality is no longer bound by ‘mortal’ convention. Now is the time that she can advance ‘with outstretched arms and a wanton smile’ and beckon her ‘husband’ Arthur to his ruin with her monstrous desires to seduce and destroy. She comes dangerously close to succeeding when Arthur ‘moving his hands from his face… opened wide his arms.’ However, when she displays her sexual autonomy, it is then that the men start to despise her and, following a scene that can easily be interpreted as a gang rape, restore her to her original passivity, but not before they have ‘staked’ her en groupe.
This is what I find most compelling about beautiful monsters in fin-de-siècle Gothic fiction. Their beauty is what tricks their prey and lures them to their tragic demise. It is also their way of cleverly concealing their true nature, but in plain sight. This is encapsulated when Basil Hallward points out in The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face’, so if the victims cannot ‘see’ the ugliness of sin, then they are unable to defend themselves from the monstrous sinner.