Tag Archives: Gender Studies

Wilkie Collins and Trans Studies

by Jolene Zigarovich

Collins, Wilkie. The Law and the LadyThe Graphic, 26 September 1874-13 March 1875; Harper’s Weekly, 10 October 1874-27 March 1875.  

The currently unprecedented visibility of trans characters, issues, and lives seems to be part of a larger political conversation and movement, especially in the United States. While issues such as bathroom bans, workplace discrimination against the trans-identified, housing discrimination, lack of access to health care and social services, and other legal and political debates abound, the intersex and transgender community has received sustained national, and now global, attention. As Stephen Whittle puts it, “a trans identity is now accessible almost anywhere.” Third-gender (or gender variant option) categories are emerging on government documents and applications in Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The familiar woman/man binary in global bureaucratic and administrative structures is seeing a distinct shift and reassessment. However much transgender, like other contemporary categories of identity, “operates within neoliberal conditions,” Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura recognize that it has also offered powerful critiques of both homo- and hetero- nationalisms and normativities, as well as critiques of gender regulation itself as a tool of biopolitical governmentality.”  With this political context, formulating an approach with which to interpret literature and culture with the trans prefix has added cultural weight and understanding to utilize and deploy. Thus my essay, and this special issue of “Trans Victorians” curated by Ardel Haefle-Thomas, seeks to illuminate the productive ways transgothic bodies, identities, and rhetorics contribute to a wide variety of critical and necessary interpretations.

In taking up the gender nonbinary and transgender characters in The Law and the Lady I’m not suggesting Collins was directly aware of his culture’s medical and scientific approaches to what we would now term the transgender and intersex populations, but his novel seeks to subvert gender norms through nonbinary characters. In part, my essay shows that the sensation genre allows for and celebrates these subversions and creates spaces for sympathizing with non-normative characters. As the essay examines proto-trans characters and transgender potentialities in The Law and the Lady, we can better understand Collins’s overt and covert rejection of rigid gender binaries, noting that sensation fiction often portrayed a society in which secure gender identity was being questioned. Specifically, I’m claiming that these trans possibilities are dramatically developed in this text as the medical investigation of genderqueer and transgender people was growing in social interest. The Law and the Lady exploits and fetishizes trans characters, and in several instances institutionalizes or punishes them for their difference. For example, Dexter and Ariel are mutually coupled in their disabilities, gender variance, and sadomasochistic tendencies. Caregiver and devoted servant and partner, Ariel cannot exist without her mutually “strange” counterpart, and both she and Dexter are ultimately victimized by and sacrificed to the prevailing heteronormative social structure. Yes, their violent love is erotic and interdependent; yet Dexter and Ariel have created a private world where their nonconforming gender identities are accepted and mutually supported. Acknowledging the benefit of disability studies and crip readings of the novel, my approach seeks to illuminate the novel’s transgender characterization, showing how Collins’s non-normative characters are (if only temporarily) provided trans spaces, lives, and families.

For more, see Jolene Zigarovich, “A Strange and Startling Creature” Transgender Possibilities in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady.” Victorian Review, vol 44, no 1, 2018, pp. 99-111.J

A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies

by Lisa Hager

Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. “Portrait of Abigail Allen. Portrait of the female husband!” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1829. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/7a0064ce-e99e-060b-e040-e00a180672b8

As someone who is both a Victorian studies academic and a partner to a trans masculine person, I see my recent article on “A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies,” as in many ways, a love letter to both the academic and trans communities that occupy such important places in my life. It began with a seemingly simple question that Joseph Bristow asked me many years ago as I was telling him what I was currently working on: “Where is the trans studies work in all of this?” In the moment, I brushed aside the question, telling him that my current Victorian studies work didn’t intersect with trans-focused activism and communities of my personal life. Fortunately, like many important questions, the question wouldn’t go away, and I kept hearing it in my head as I continued to work on other projects.

As I went about the usual business of my academic life—attending conferences, writing articles,  teaching classes—I couldn’t help but notice how Victorian studies as a discipline had yet to deeply engage with the core trans studies idea that assigned-at-birth-gender does not equal a person’s (or a character’s!) gender. In short, Victorian studies had yet to fully grapple with the existence of transgender people in our time and throughout history since gender itself has existed.

In particular, this absence of a trans-inclusive conception of gender was made especially clear to me when I came across scholarly discussions of nineteenth-century “female husbands” that assumed without question that such people were women who masqueraded as men in order to marry other women. Instead, as my article argues at length, we must parse out relationship between the gender identities and sexualities of these people to better understand the highly mediated narratives about them. In doing so, the persistence with which the men whom the periodical press termed “female husbands” (usually after the so-called “discovery” of their designated at birth gender) insisted on and fought for their gender identities as men, even the absence of a partner, calls on present-day academics to honor their identities as men and to situate them within transgender literary history. Moreover, this approach enables us to see how the commonalities and connections between the narratives created around such men not only shape modern-day discourses around trans identities but also our understanding of gender itself.


To read more see Lisa Hager, “A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies: “Female Husbands” of the Nineteenth Century,” Victorian Review, vol 44, no 1, pp. 37-54.

Fanny and Stella

by Simon Joyce

“A Retrospect of the Boulton and Park Case: From Bow Street Station to the Van, April 10th 1870.” From Illustrated London News (9 April 1870), p. 147.

I’m finishing a book called LGBT Victorians which presents a larger body of evidence of non-normative genders and sexualities and more tolerant attitudes than the Wilde trials might suggest. I’ve been considering whether there were Victorians that we might now call transgender, and how to identify them in the archives given that no such term existed then. I became interested in a trial a quarter century before Wilde’s of two people that historians always refer to as “crossdressers,” who were arrested in women’s clothing at a London theater in 1870, charged with conspiracy to commit sodomy, and ultimately exonerated. Based on images of the pair, who called each other “Fanny” and “Stella,” I wondered if they might qualify as transgender Victorians. We now make a distinction, after all, between cross-dressing and being transgender, and I knew that they used female pronouns in letters, had supportive parents who bought them dresses, and were frequently photographed in them.

They came from privileged backgrounds and could pay for lawyers and medical experts to help defend themselves. Because it was a jury trial, transcripts were taken down by hand in massive volumes that are housed in the Public Records Office in London, near the Kew botanical gardens. I visited in January 2016, a strange time because it was the week that Bowie died. Fanny and Stella’s case has been pored over by many scholars interested in the history of sexuality and I recognized pencil marks in the margins as the groundwork for various accounts. I was looking to make another argument, however, and was drawn to information that had been overlooked by historians who assumed they were crossdressers, gay men, and therefore actually guilty. The transcripts gave me significant insights I couldn’t have known otherwise. Even though Fanny and Stella appeared, after their initial arraignment, in clothing we associate with men, witnesses and court personnel kept using female pronouns even when they were trying not to—so the transcripts are dotted with misstatements and self-corrections. Here’s an inadvertently funny piece of testimony as transcribed:

What was it that excited your suspicion about Mr. Boulton being a woman?

It was because she appeared so effeminate.

Anything else?

No

Transcript excerpt from Fanny and Stella trial.  U.K. Public Records Office (Queen v. Boulton and Others), DPP 4/2: 171.

In these moments, what people thought they knew was at odds with what they saw in front of them, so they misspoke in what we might now recognize as Freudian slips.

Other information confirmed my research instincts. Fanny and Stella had been under police observation for over a year, and scholars have wondered why they were finally arrested; in an eerie foreshadowing of the current obsession with transgender people’s access to bathrooms, what precipitated it was that Fanny went to a women’s cloakroom to fix her dress. Prosecutors thought this important enough to track down the cloakroom attendant, although it was hard to see how it helped their case: as Fanny’s lawyer sensibly put it, “does a man go into a Ladies Retiring Room for the purpose of committing the detestable crime charged here?” Moments like this bring the past into an immediate and shocking dialogue with our present, which is one of the effects I hope to accomplish with my research.

To read more, see Simon Joyce, “Two Women Walk into a Theatre Bathroom: The Fanny and Stella Trials as Trans Narrative,” Victorian Review, vol 44, no 1, pp. 83-98.

Interview with Chris Kent at VSAWC 2015

Dr. Chris Kent, one of the founding members of Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada (VSAWC), met with us at the 2015 conference of VSAWC to talk about his current and past research as a historian and Victorianist.  At this conference, his paper discussed a topic from his latest project, which focuses on the Anglo-American artist Matthew Somerville “Matt” Morgan. Dr. Kent explained to us that Morgan’s work as an artist was in fields often neglected by historians: commercial art, poster art, and theatrical scene painting. In the video below, Dr. Kent comments on the source of interdisciplinarity in his historical research.

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Dr. Kent also mentioned how the development of women’s and gender studies has been one of the most productive avenues in Victorian studies and described how they have fundamentally influenced his research.

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