Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Sacrilegious Heroics: Biblical and Byronic Archetypes of the Vengeful Feminine

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Sacrilegious Heroics: Biblical and Byronic Archetypes of the Vengeful Feminine

Article excerpt

'Sweet is revenge-especially to women' (DJ, I, 124).

Although the Byronic heroine has attracted significant critical attention, she has largely been read as a figuration of Byron's response to his immediate cultural context.1 This essay will read these protagonists not so much as personifications of a socio-political Zeitgeist, but rather as revealing Byron's complex engagement with literary instances of female autonomy and fortitude. Specifically, how Byron's reading of the Bible might influence his construction of an active-and even heroic-model of femininity. Next to the heroines of Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare, Biblical female exploits provide a powerful catalogue of heroic endeavour-with which Byron was undoubtedly familiar, and from which he likely drew. Whilst the Bible provides us with instances of active femininity too numerous to list, there are just three books named after principal female figures: Ruth, Esther, and Judith. My interest lies with the last, the murderess of Nebuchadnezzar's tyrannical dispatch Holofernes, and the saviour of the Children of Israel. The essay will argue that The Book of Judith provides a source through which we might read the bloody machinations of Gulnare of The Corsair (1814), and a means by which we might further contemplate the complex construction (and deconstruction) of various archetypes of gender and heroism in Byron's poetry. Specifically, the gendered dynamics of vengeance and its accompanying motif of blood offer two aspects via which we might contemplate the parallels between these two femmes fortes.

Gulnare provides the most notable example of female vengeance in Byron's oeuvre, but she is neither the earliest of Byron's heroic women, nor the first to engage in acts of violence-that distinction is reserved for the indomitable Maid of Saragossa who has several stanzas devoted to her battlefield heroics in the Spanish peninsula war (CHP, I, 54-59). Unlike the Maid of Saragossa, Gulnare is not based on any specific historical figure. There are two particularly persuasive readings of her contextual emergence, however. Matthew Bevis observes the possible influence of Burke's 1792 House of Commons speech on the French Revolution, during which he drew a dagger he had concealed:

It is my object, said he, to keep the French infection from this country; their principles from our minds, and their daggers from our hearts [. . .]. When they smile, I see blood trickling down their faces; I see their insidious purposes; I see that the object of all their cajoling is-blood!2

Similarly, Nicola Trott has written on the likely influence of 'the dagger-sporting monster' of anti-French propaganda.3 The frontispiece to the first volume of The Anti- Jacobin Review (1798), entitled 'A peep into the Cave of Jacobinism', shows a serpentine, gorgon-esque figure, a dagger held by her belt, which proclaims 'Égalité'. It is of course liberté rather than égalité or fraternité that motivates the impassioned Gulnare ('I felt-I feel-Love dwells with-with the free' [The Corsair, II, 1108]), but the connection between the dagger-wielding woman and threats of revolutionary disorder is evident.

Gulnare can equally be read as Shakespearean (her blood-stained face following her murder of Seyd is reminiscent of Lady Macbeth's blood-stained hands) and as Orientalist (her name is taken from The Arabian Nights' Entertainments).4 Without wanting to deny any of these readings of probable historical and literary influence on Byron's construction of Gulnare, I would like to suggest a further parallel with Judith. To offer a brief précis of the narrative action of The Book of Judith, Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Assyria, has sent Holofernes to conquer the West. He remains unchecked as far as the plains of Damascus, where he lays siege to the Children of Israel in the city of Bethulia. The City's elders see little hope of liberation, until Judith, a beautiful, goodly, and devout widow, asks for five days to deliver her people from Holofernes and his army. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.