Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Rewriting Gender through Genre: Augusta Webster's Cross-Gendered Dramatic Monologues

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Rewriting Gender through Genre: Augusta Webster's Cross-Gendered Dramatic Monologues

Article excerpt

Comparing women's dramatic monologues to the canonical dramatic monologues by male poets, critics have frequently found key differences between them. Women poets seem to sympathize with their speakers rather than ironizing them the way that Browning and Tennyson do--namely, by "signalling to us from behind the speaker's back" or "distancing]" and "objectifying]" their speakers like Browning and Tennyson. (1) Instead, their irony appears to target "more the systems which produce the speakers than the speakers themselves." (2) As a result, their monologues seem to focus on "social critique" rather than on "questions of epistemology," and rather than adopting the mask to interrogate the nature of the self more generally, as the canonical monologues do, women poets appear to adopt the mask in order to explore the way a specifically "female subject comes into being." (3)

The differences observed between women's and men's dramatic monologues are thus strikingly gendered: women poets seem to be more sympathetic, more concerned with the social, and more interested in the particular and personal rather than the abstract and universal. While these differences might be interpreted as stemming from a gender difference between male and female poets, I suggest that they arise, at least in part, from the critical methodology used to examine the question of gender difference in the genre. Studies of women's dramatic monologues thus far have focused primarily, if not exclusively, on women's monologues with female speakers, read against the backdrop of the canonical men's dramatic monologues--all of which feature male speakers. (4) Through this lens, the differences between women's dramatic monologues with female speakers and the canonical monologues with male speakers appear unmistakable and unmistakably gendered, exactly as critics have described. However, as this essay will demonstrate, when we add women's dramatic monologues with male speakers to the analysis, the distinctions between women's and men's monologues become less clear. For example, Augusta Webster's male speakers reveal that women poets are equally adept at ironizing reprehensible speakers through "signals behind the speaker's back" and equally apt to exploit the genre to examine philosophical questions of the nature of truth, knowledge, and the self. In poems like "With the Dead" and "Too Late," for instance, there is clear irony and objective distance from the speakers. (5) In the former, we have a pagan speaker who remains unrepentant for his role in massacring a group of Christians, including the woman he loves, solely out of jealousy. In the latter, a husband repents too late of his profligacy, which his auditor suggests is the reason for his wife's death. In "A Soul in Prison," "A Dilettante," "A Painter," "A Preacher," "An Inventor," and "Tired," the male speakers all explore epistemological questions and interrogate the nature of the self.

These similarities between Webster's male speakers and the canonical men's thus trouble any account of gender difference between male- and female-authored dramatic monologues. At the same time, however, the dissimilarities between Webster's male and female speakers seem to reinforce contemporary views of the essential difference between men and women--or, more precisely, the gender difference of women. As Glennis Byron observes, "[F]or all her attempts to challenge conventional gender ideology, [Webster] appears to have found it more appropriate to employ male speakers when addressing questions of religious doubt and artistic vocation" (p. 74). And what Byron notes of men's monologues is equally true of Webster's monologues with male speakers: neither focus on gender in the way that women's female speakers do. As Byron observes, "[W]hat constitutes the 'masculine' ... does not seem to become the central focus of men's dramatic monologues as frequently as the feminine does with the women's.... Masculinity is definitely an issue, but rarely the only, or even the primary, issue" (p. …

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