Tag Archives: Trans Studies

Doubles and Doubling Back: On (Re)Reading Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf

by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra

Figure 1. “The Race.” Wood engraving by Clemence Housman after Laurence Housman’s Drawing for The Were-Wolf (1896)

Some Victorian narratives seem to get under your skin, compelling you to read them over and over. In my experience, the ones that never let you go are by women writers who explore embodiment and transformation through the overlapping discourses of Victorian sexuality and religion. Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1862) is one such text. Clemence Housman’s less well-known novella The Were-Wolf (1896) is another. I first engaged with these complex narratives as a doctoral student. Over the years I have taught both works as image/text collaborations between siblings. In each case, a brother illustrated his sister’s fantastic narrative by calling attention to the uncanny doublings at the heart of the tale. The collaborative production of The Were-Wolf was even more intense than that of Goblin Market, as Clemence Housman, an expert facsimile wood engraver, engraved her brother Laurence Housman’s pen-and-ink designs for the book edition of her gothic story (fig. 1). Recently, I co-edited annotated editions of these collaborative works for COVE Electronic Editions.  Goblin Marketand The Were-Wolfare now widely available for classroom use in online versions supported by textual histories, contextual essays, and a wide array of visual materials. The Were-Wolf is sure to provoke multiple readings and re-readings by students and teachers alike.

Like all editions, my electronic re-mediation of Housman’s The Were-Wolf was an act of collaboration and interpretation. As a collaborator, I was participating in Clemence Housman’s own career-long doubling back on her gothic narrative to shape it in various forms. What did the story come to mean to her over 40 years of retelling it? And why was she compelled to do so?

In returning to The Were-Wolf after twenty-five years in the profession, what strikes me most is the urgent way in which transformation emerges in the overlapping narratives of conversion and change evoked by its religious and pagan discourses. The trope of transformation, moreover, is crucial not only to the story itself, but also to the various technologies of representation through which Housman communicated it to specific audiences in different times, places, and media. First, as an oral tale for female artisans—fellow students in her wood-engraving class in South Lambeth in 1884. Next, as the Christmas number for Atalanta (1890), a magazine for progressive girls and women, with illustrations by Everard Hopkins. Then as an illustrated gift book designed by Laurence Housman, with six laboriously carved full-page wood engravings by Clemence herself, for the lovers of beautiful things who bought John Lane’s list of belles lettres at The Bodley Head (1896). Finally, for the post-war period of mass media, a script for a silent film (1924). Throughout these transmedia changes, the constancy of the title, The Were-Wolf, calls attention to the ongoing embodied experience of transition, of always-becoming, of multiple, hybrid identity. In seeking transformation, The Were-Wolf queries transgression, asking to be read, not from constructed cultural binaries—male/female, animal/human, pagan/Christian, normative/Other— but from the fluidity of trans theory. Having no authentic body, how can the werewolf transgress?

To read more, see Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, “Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf: Querying Transgression, Seeking Trans/formation.” Victorian Review, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 51-64.

To read the COVE edition of Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf, go to https://editions.covecollective.org/edition/were-wolf

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.