Seven Veils and Umpteen Versions

Maria Tippett

  • Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle by Elaine Showalter
    Bloomsbury, 242 pp, £15.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0827 5
  • Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing by Elaine Showalter
    Oxford, 193 pp, £22.50, September 1991, ISBN 0 19 812383 3

I recently attended a lavish production of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome at the Staatsoper in Vienna. Directed by Boleslav Barlog, sung by the diva Mara Zampieri, and staged, in keeping with Beardsley’s erotic drawings, by Jürgen Rose, it was a feast for eye and ear. And yet as I crossed the road to the Cafè Sacher afterwards I wondered how successful the performance had really been. Was it Barlog’s intention to provide Herod with a richly-textured personality and leave his daughter with the one-dimensional cardboard cut-out character of the evil temptress? Salome’s efforts to fill her audience with revulsion knew no limits. During her last aria she lies spreadeagled before the severed head of John the Baptist which between deep breaths she kisses and caresses with great theatrical gusto. I’m not suggesting that the director should have turned Salome into a Pollyanna – as Hollywood did in the 1953 film which had Rita Hayworth dance in order to save the life of the saint. Yet the Vienna production left me wondering uneasily about alternative portrayals. Would I have been happier with Ken Russell’s 1987 film Salome’s Last Dance, which set the tale in a homosexual brothel; or Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s equally controversial production at the Metropolitan Opera in 1989, with its explicit reference to the Aids crisis? The Mark Morris Dance Company’s version, Striptease, taking its cue from Roland Barthes’s notion that unveiling re-veils rather than reveals, sets out to break down this strongly gendered act by having both male and female dancers strip in an awkward rather than erotic manner. And Lindsay Kemp’s version, first staged at the Roundhouse in 1977, has a transvestite perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. Would any of these productions have spoken to me in a way that the Vienna Staatsoper performance did not?

As Ravel’s La Valse does in Carl Schorske’s book Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (1980) and Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring in Modris Eksten’s book (1989) of the same name, the discordant high-pitched tones of Strauss’s Salome resonate throughout Elaine Showaltcr’s Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle. The discordant notes are apt because all three works point to a breaking-up, to a fragmentation and dislocation of cultural traditions and values during the last part of the 19th and the first years of the 20th centuries. But only Showalter is bold enough – some might say reckless enough – to suggest that sexual crises and apocalyptic notions are to be found in our own fin de siècle as well as in that of the preceding century.

Showalter believes that the closing of centuries can be ‘more intensely experienced, more emotionally fraught, more weighted with symbolic and historical meaning, because we invest them with the metaphors of death or rebirth that we project onto the final decades and years of the century’. Recent productions of Salome, she argues, deal with the same issues as those of a century ago – except that the issues now have different names. Gays have replaced dandies, the Aids crisis the syphilis epidemic, the feminist the New Woman, and endism the fin de siècle. Wilde’s version of Salome, and Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations accompanying the publication of the play, are given a gay sexual sub-text. Showalter claims that Beardsley’s drawing, The Woman in the Moon (1894), does not, as popular belief has it, depict John and Salome, but ‘Narraboth, the young Syrian’, who ‘loves Salome and kills himself out of jealousy; and his homosexual admirer, the Page of Herodias ... who urges Narraboth to look at the moon’ – the face of Wilde – ‘rather than at Salome’. She underscores the sexual ambiguity inherent in the play by exhibiting a photograph of a bejewelled and wigged Wilde performing the part of Salome, a character with whom he identified more strongly than with any other. At the opposite end of the sexual spectrum Showalter finds Salome portrayed as the New Woman. Ella Ferris Pell’s remarkable portrait, painted by the American artist in 1890, depicts an independent, self-contained and far from lustful woman. The performance Vision of Salome by the Canadian dancer Maud Allan shocked audiences in music halls throughout Europe a decade later with its ‘feminist and subversive’ mood. Much closer to the current Viennese version and, as Showalter notes, certainly more in line with the dominant view of the day, were Flaubert’s presentation of Salome as the ‘icon of female sexuality’ and Gustave Moreau’s drawing depicting the princess as the incarnation of evil.

Do both epochs’ versions of Salome share a concern with changing gender values, sexual ‘deviance’ and whatever else allowed George Gissing to describe the late 19th century as a time of sexual anarchy? Or has Showalter merely been able to present similar myths und images by cleverly shuffling the information – and there is plenty of it – that her research assistant has gathered for her? She devotes much of her book to British, American and (to a lesser extent) French art, literature and thought during the last fin de siècle indeed the core of two of the ten essays initially focused exclusively on that era. Was the end-of-century comparison an afterthought?

Showalter is most at home in the art and literature of the last century, and when she chooses to stay on her own turf the results are stunning. She recognises the importance of maintaining a balance between explaining everything in terms of gender and ignoring gender ascriptions altogether. She successfully locates her selected books, articles and pictures within the social, cultural and economic milieu from which they have emerged. And finally, she avoids considering culture within a narrow nationalist context, and is sensitive to differences of class, gender and race. This sort of contextual awareness allows Showalter to make a strong case for the claim that sexual antagonism existed not only between the sexes but within each of them. Throughout Sexual Anarchy we get a fascinating overview of anti-female art and literature – ranging from J.H. Hasselhorst’s 1864 painting J.C.G. Lucae and his Assistants dissecting a Female Cadaver to Walter Besant’s novel The Revolt of Man (1882); and of anti-male writing by female authors – Mary Cholmondeley’s futuristic play Votes for Men (1909) is one example – which used the device of role reversal to create a world in which women were the queen bees and men the drones. We are treated to the kinds of literature and art which attempted to solve social and sexual problems by offering an alternative that was antagonistic to the conventional gender stereotypes. Within the range of male Fin-de-Siècle writing, established icons such as Salome were given a homosexual sub-text. New icons, most notably Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde dealt with the myth of men’s double lives. This heralded the beginning of what Showalter calls the Gay Gothic. Finally ‘the masculine and homosocial “romance” of adventure and quest’ offered as a vehicle whereby the reader could escape – if only in his armchair and for a few hours – from the narrow roles that societv had prescribed. It was form, Showalter tells us, that arose as much as a reaction against the feminisation of the novel as against the strictures of Late Victorian life.

The romance novel of marriage, manners and courtship was seen as a female genre, dominated by George Eliot in the 1860s, then popularised by a host of women writers during the next two decades. The extent to which female literature flooded the marketplace caused monthly magazines to become so ‘lady-like’ that the American novelist and psychiatrist Silas Weir Mitchell felt ‘that naturally they will soon menstruate.’ Unable to procreate themselves, male writers were thus compelled to construct what Showalter calls ‘a new myth of creativity in which the work of art was the product of male mating and male inspiration, totally independent of even metaphorically feminine cross-fertilisation’. But there was more to the quest novel than a reaction against women’s writing. The adventure novels of Haggard, Henty and Conrad, with their all-male casts, their celibate heroes, their exotic locations, bonded and rejuvenated their male audience: ‘They make one a boy again,’ rejoiced one reader. They helped shape attitudes befitting future empire-builders. As Showalter succinctly puts it, ‘little boys who read will become big boys who rule, and adventure fiction is thus important training.’ This kind of writing was so successful that by the end of the 19th century it had supplanted the heterosexual romance novel.

Just as male adventure novelists wrote fiction for, in the words of Conan Doyle, ‘the boy who is half a man/And the man who’s half a boy’, New Women novelists produced books for their own gender. If quest fiction was a reaction against George Eliot, so were the writings of the New Women. ‘No human creature’s feelings could possibly be further removed with regard to artistic work,’ remarked Olive Schreiner in response to the writings of George Eliot. Just as Conrad, Kipling and Conan Doyle denied their leading characters a ‘normal’ sexual life, so did most New Women writers. They resembled their male counterparts but they differed from them too. While the women who appear in the quest novels are treated as of little significance when they are not the source of the hero’s downfall – as exemplified by the Kafiristani maiden in Kipling’s The Man who would be King – the male characters in New Women writing frequently play a positive role. This was because New Women authors were concerned as much with creating New Men – see Sara Grand’s The Beth Book – as with creating New Women. While some New Women writers like Schreiner invented fictive worlds where both sexes could realise their intellectual and social potential, others – Rhoda Broughton in A Beginner (1894) and Mona Caird in The Daughters of Danaus (1894) – showed how isolation, pregnancy, abandonment and suicide awaited those who sought to lead independent lives.

That society was not yet prepared to accommodate this new kind of female was evident not only in fiction but in the personal tragedies of New Women writers like Eleanor Marx, who committed suicide after discovering that the man, Edward Aveling, with whom she was living in free association and with whom she had written The Woman Question in 1886, had secretly married another woman. More might have been made here out of the gulf that appeared, tune and again, between the alternatives that many Fin-de-Siècle writers were proposing in their fiction and the way in which they actually lived.

Showalter is right to say that the processes she describes were not confined to the last decade of the 19th century and that suggestive parallels can be found today, in the senescence of the 20th. She has, in fact, identified a problem which is bigger than this question of fins de siècle. This thing is bigger than both the present one and the one before. Re-veiling can be seen in protean forms during other decades, not only at the end of this century but in its salad days and mid-life crisis.