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Peer Reviewed

The Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature

Robin Barrow, University of Tennessee

Jennifer Hedgecock. The Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature: The Danger and the Sexual Threat. Amherst: Cambria Press, 2008. 252 pp. $104.95.

Rev. by Robin Barrow
The femme fatale is a familiar stereotype from myth, literature, and film: the sexy woman who manipulates men, usually by lying and occasionally by committing crimes, to further her own self-interests. Though Maria Praz’s The Romantic Agony (1933) remains the most influential treatment of this archetype as she appears in the nineteenth century, Jennifer Hedgecock’s study is beneficial in that it situates the femme fatale within her mid-Victorian context. Emphasizing examples of dangerous women from the 1840s through the 1860s, Hedgecock notes, “Images of the femme fatale are more pervasive during socially and economically troubled times” (4). Instead of the flat villainess of Rebecca Stott’s The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death (1992), to which her study is heavily indebted, Hedgecock identifies aspects of heroism in the femme fatale, or Fatal Woman. Hedgecock believes the femme fatale offered mid-nineteenth-century women an alternative to the binary thinking that defined a woman as either the domestic angel or the fallen woman. The femme fatale rebels against the limitations placed on Victorian women, and her selfish conniving reveals the economic injustices women are subject to. Despite the book’s weaknesses, The Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature can serve for undergraduates as a general introduction to the topic and to the period.
For Hedgecock, as for Stott, the femme fatale is a sign that enables discussion of a broader range of historical and cultural issues. Where Stott, with her emphasis on the fin-de-siècle, stresses degeneration, a crumbling empire, and pathologization of the abnormal, Hedgecock emphasizes class struggle, Victorian medical discourses about female sexuality, and political debates surrounding divorce and the Contagious Diseases Acts. At mid-century, as women were becoming more active in the public sphere, the dangerous woman was portrayed as a self-serving woman who threatened patriarchal structures rather than as a sexualized siren. While she lacks the respectability of the domestic “angel in the house,” the femme fatale refuses to accept her status as “fallen.” A fallen woman like Li’l Emily in David Copperfield meekly accepts her expulsion from society, but “the femme fatale vehemently refuses to be treated as a pathetic, helpless, fallen woman once her true identity as a seductress is exposed” (45).
The first and second chapters describe the femme fatale and distinguish her from the fallen woman. Using as her examples Lydia Gwilt (Collins), Becky Sharp (Thackeray), and Valerie Marneff (Balzac), as well as historical figures like Victorian prostitutes and the Scottish murderess Madeleine Smith, Hedgecock identifies the concept of masquerade as central to the femme fatale’s identity: she is usually a fallen woman who pretends to be the domestic angel. Masquerade allows her to conceal her identity and separate herself from her infamous past. It also allows her to cross class boundaries at will, controlling the signs of her socioeconomic identity. In this section the author makes her most suggestive insight, that even a traditional, domestic woman might have need for some masquerade to escape patriarchal surveillance; having made the sacrifice, masquerade allows a woman a semblance of freedom.
Hedgecock has chosen to tackle a challenging figure, in that the femme fatale is notoriously difficult to define. Still, I found myself frustrated at times with the book’s ambiguous categorizations. In Chapter Two, the author considers Rosa Dartle (Dickens) as a femme fatale, despite the fact that she is admittedly “neither a seductress nor an object of desire” (50) and offers little danger to Steerforth or David Copperfield; she is most fatal when confronting Li’l Emily. I am willing to grant that a femme fatale’s victims could be female, but Hedgecock defines the femme fatale particularly by her danger to men: “she affects men and must have an effect on them; unless the male protagonist is present, the woman is not fatal” (9). does engage in some limited verbal masquerade, but it is difficult to see what else qualifies her as a femme fatale. Most troubling is Hedgecock’s claim that is a fallen woman masquerading as a respectable domestic lady, a surprising reading that is supported by neither textual evidence nor footnotes. Another problematic claim lies on the other end of the social spectrum, when Hedgecock construes prostitutes as potential femmes fatales: by wearing the clothes of another class they enact a fantasy of crossing class boundaries and gain “agency by setting a market value for their services” (26). If all prostitutes were like Shaw’s Mrs. Warren, this claim would be credible, but scholarship by Judith Walkowitz, Amanda Anderson, and Mary Spongberg (among others) repeatedly depicts prostitutes as victims of market forces rather than as manipulators of them. This moment of romantic idealization is typical of the study.
Hedgecock is at her most convincing when discussing sensation fiction, which I suspect was the original heart of the book. Chapters Four and Five, respectively on Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Collins’s Armadale, offer cogent readings of the novels and critiques of their class dynamics. Lady Audley and Lydia Gwilt are ideal femmes fatales: beautiful women who lie about their pasts, marry for money and status, and attempt murder. These women are truly fatal to the men in their lives. Collins demonstrates the potential complexity of the femme fatale by giving the reader greater access to Lydia Gwilt’s thoughts and by having the villainess recant her fatality: she “falls” by becoming self-sacrificing. While ’s appeal lies in her air of mystery, Hedgecock locates Lady Audley/ Lucy Graham’s appeal in her unattainability: she succeeds with Sir Audley because she does not return his affection. Hedgecock argues that Lady Audley’s case also questions the doctrine of a woman’s value being centered in her reproductive ability. As a wife and mother, Helen Maldon was not appreciated or valued; as Lady Audley, she adds value to Sir Michael’s household and to the community despite her failure to provide an heir. One cavil is that Hedgecock repeatedly refers to the aristocratic Sir Michael’s home as “bourgeois.” More examination of the class fantasy involved in Lady Audley/Lucy Graham/Helen Maldon’s rise from shabby genteel to titled gentry would be welcome.
The final chapter successfully engages with Stott’s reading of Tess Durbeyfield as a femme fatale. Stott’s case, which I agree is not completely convincing, rests on some readers’ tendency to blame Tess for encouraging Alec, for “stalking” Angel, and of course for her murder of Alec. The strength of Stott’s intervention is her textual criticism: Hardy’s emphasis on Tess’s victimhood was added in later revisions, and earlier versions presented her as more active. Hedgecock’s cultural critique by contrast looks to the socioeconomic factors that victimize Tess from the start. She lives in “a world where women are powerless against conventional rules of moral purity constructed by patriarchy” (168). Hedgecock argues that Stott “confuses the consequence of [Tess’s] prominent feminine sexual traits with the use to which they are put. It is fatal use that defines the femme fatale, not fatal consequence” (171). I would be more accepting of this distinction had the author offered a clearer explanation of her use of the term; historically, the rankings of dangerous women have included “unconscious” vessels of male destruction such as Eve and Medusa. That Hedgecock does not supply an unambiguous distinction is not a grave error, but it is worth noting that a woman need not be a vamp to be dangerous. Nevertheless, Hedgecock makes a convincing case that Tess differs from the femme fatale in that she resigns herself to destiny rather than struggling against it.
Hedgecock’s project is to illustrate another option for Victorian women: the femme fatale is a transitional figure between not only the domestic and fallen woman but also between the conventional and the New Woman (193). She believes that “subversive images of women may have led young Victorian female readers to believe that rebelling against social codes is not a moral crime” (5). While this may have been true, it is very difficult to prove, as is evident from recent debates about the subversive potential of Lady Audley’s Secret; Jill Matus, Pamela Gilbert and Anne Cvetkovich have separately argued that the subversive elements are counterbalanced by the novel’s conservative aspects.@ Discussion about the role genre plays in the representation of rebellious women would have been useful: can a female character be “bad” in sensation fiction more readily and with less subversive potential than in the domestic novel? The study is weakened throughout by a tendency to over-generalize about Victorian women readers who identify with the femmes fatales instead of considering that the characters’ rebellion and absence of dedication to family might be repugnant to many women readers of the period. The sacrifices of Lydia Gwilt or Isabel Vane to protect or be near the ones they love may have seemed well worth the cost.
Robin Barrow is a Lecturer in English at the University of Tennessee. Her research interests include M.E. Braddon, sensation fiction, women’s studies, and trauma theory. Her book manuscript, entitled Narratives of Outrage, examines the representation of sexual violence in the Victorian novel.