Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

A Man's Work Must She Do: Female Manliness in Tennyson's Gareth and Lynette

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

A Man's Work Must She Do: Female Manliness in Tennyson's Gareth and Lynette

Article excerpt

   While man and woman still are incomplete,    I prize that soul where man and woman meet,    Which types all Nature's male and female plan,    But friend, man-woman is not woman-man. (1) 

This 1889 poem by Alfred Tennyson, "On One who Affected an Effeminate Manner," articulates an idea about gender the complexity of which belies the verse's brevity--the best people combine the virtues associated with both genders, but those who fail to live up to the standards of their sex cannot hope to compensate by evincing the virtues of the opposite one. A manuscript version of the second line reads, "In earth's best man, the men and women meet" (Ricks, 3:217): Tennyson's change from "earth's best man" to the gender-neutral "soul" indicates how important it was to him that women who combine masculine and feminine virtues should be just as much admired as men who do so. The manuscript for "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After" puts this even more clearly: "As our greatest is man-woman, so was she the woman-man" (3:217-218). But a much more extensive exploration of this idea is embedded in Gareth and Lynette, the second poem in Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The idyll's opening, including Gareth's declaration that "Man am I grown, a man's work must I do" (l. 115), seems to focus on a boy's growth into manhood. However, I argue that the text as a whole is more concerned with a woman's development of virtues that characters in the poem designate as manly, and which middle-class Victorians would have regarded similarly.

Existing scholarship on Idylls has explored sexual role-reversal, but almost exclusively from the perspective of male characters assuming female qualities. In "The Female King: Tennyson's Arthurian Apocalypse," Elliot L. Gilbert considers the cycle in the context of a Victorian culture in which often "men and women [were unwilling] to play their traditional social and sexual roles," one that witnessed the "growing assertion of female authority" through the "reversal of the usual male-female roles" that was occasioned by the condition of having a female monarch and a male consort; Gilbert concludes that Idylls "can be read as an elaborate examination of the advantages and dangers of sexual role reversal" (emphasis mine). (2) Yet despite his sensitivity to sexual role reversal in general--as opposed simply to male appropriation of female roles--in Victorian society, Gilbert focuses his argument on King Arthur's femaleness and does not consider the maleness of any of the female characters in the cycle. Even though Gilbert asserts that the "hopeful invocation of female energy" is one of the most striking features of the cycle, he confines his study to the manifestation of that energy in a male character, as opposed to a female character playing a male role (241). The character of the womanly King in Idylls is explored in great depth, but that of the manly lady is not--neither in Gilbert's essay nor elsewhere. My study aims to address this lack.

My argument derives inspiration from Judith Halberstam's 1998 book Female Masculinities, which disconnects masculinity from men and surveys the variety of techniques by which masculine women create and express masculine identities through the ways they dress, the ways they act, the art they produce, and so forth. (3) Although Halberstam understands masculinity primarily as styles of self-presentation rather than a set of virtues to be acquired, her understanding of male masculinities as unoriginal and thus not very entertaining performances is relevant to my analysis of Tennyson's poem, which reveals how Gareth's manliness, and in particular the way he achieves and asserts his manliness, is predictable and lacking in dramatic suspense.

In recent years, scholars from various disciplines have constructed several useful theoretical frameworks for Victorian masculinities. Like Halberstam, James Eli Adams considers gender largely in terms of performance, emphasizing that masculinity always requires an audience. …

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