A man's work must she do: female manliness in Tennyson's Gareth and Lynette.
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. (4) John Tosh shows that the Victorian middle-class home was not an exclusively or even primarily feminine place, that domesticity was an important part of manhood even though Victorians feared that spending too long at home could feminize men. (5) Herbert Sussman's Victorian Masculinities is especially foundational for the way it shows how middle-class Victorians understood masculinity, or manliness (a term more popular at the time), not as an essential quality possessed by all men, but rather as a set of often-conflicting qualities that were difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain and balance. (6) My examination of Gareth and Lynette reveals how, according to this definition, Gareth's masculinity is strangely un-Victorian, a seemingly inborn quality that only needs an opportunity to be expressed; in contrast, Lynette's development of manly virtues is tortuously slow, and thus would have resonated much more strongly with contemporary understandings of manliness. In this respect, Lynette is much more important to Tennyson's engagement with his culture's understandings of gender: Gareth, with his essential masculinity, seems like a relic from an age gone by; in contrast, Lynette, who must struggle to achieve manliness, can be recognized as a much more relevant character--a model for the Victorians' image of the Modern Man.
Lynette's relevance to the Victorian period is even more important given that the narrative is set in an imagined medieval world and the story based on one from a medieval text (Malory's Morte d'Arthur). Despite the Victorians' diverse fascinations with many things medieval, poets who were perceived to be simply retelling medieval stories faced accusations of hiding "from the horrors of the Industrial Revolution" or indulging in "a mere ingenious exercise in fancy." (7) As Debra N. Mancoff points out, Tennyson's sensitivity to such criticism is evident in his 1842 poem "The Epic," which the poet added to his "Morte d'Arthur" as a narrative frame: (8) the narrator, having "sat rapt" through a reading of "Morte," tentatively suggests that "Perhaps some modern touches here and there / Redeemed it from the charge of nothingness" (ll. 278-279). But it is only in the narrator's dream following the reading that the relevance of Arthurian material is more confidently asserted, as the narrator describes how he dreamed of Arthur returning to the present "like a modern gentleman" (l. 294). Mancoff argues that "the recognition of the heroic in Tennyson's newly forged Arthur succeeded on his audience's identification with this incarnation of the king" (261); I argue that the more astute among Tennyson's audience would have been able to identify with the modern manliness, and indeed modern gentlemanliness, of Lynette, with no need for a narrative frame asserting that modernity explicitly. Lynette's characteristically Victorian manliness makes Gareth and Lynette (and Idylls as a whole) very much a poem (and epic) of its time.
Part One of my study argues that the first episode of Gareth and Lynette presents Gareth's childhood home and Arthur's court as ridiculously exaggerated analogs for the Victorian images of the feminine home and the masculine workplace: the poem pushes to its limits the idea of gendered separate spheres that middle-class Victorians employed to understand their social world. Part Two examines how Gareth's quest, or rather Lynette and Gareth's quest, a task that mostly fits Gareth's definition of "man's work" but is actually a much less gendered endeavor, is set in a third "sphere" where Gareth's manly performance depends upon Lynette's influence. Part Three argues that, although the idyll may initially appear to be a kind of bildungsroman with Gareth as the hero of a masculinity plot, his progress is limited and his triumphs anticlimactic, whereas Lynette is a much more satisfying hero who undergoes more profound changes in her development of manly virtues. Finally, Part Four examines Gareth and Lynette in the context of Idylls as a whole and argues that Lynette's significance in the cycle is far greater than has been acknowledged: in particular, she represents the model of manhood that Lancelot at first seems to embody but ultimately shatters with his failures to love faithfully.
Part One: home and court as gendered opposites
In middle-class Victorian culture, manhood was not simply male physical maturity--it was a social status that was difficult to achieve and just as difficult to maintain (Sussman, 13). It encompassed a range of virtues, not all of which could be expected to comfortably coexist. Women were assigned an equally contradictory set of characteristics: they were often idealized as morally superior to men (as attested in Coventry Patmore's "The Angel in the House"), but, as Mary Poovey has pointed out, the older view of women as sexualized and in need of being controlled by men endured. (9)
Manhood was defined most of all by professional work, which therefore--to the binary way of thinking about gender prevalent among the Victorians--was required to separate men from women. Filling the roles of husband and father was important to manhood, but for the middle-class man, supporting a family depended upon professional success: being a pater familias required first being a breadwinner. Gareth thus articulates a very Victorian notion when he declares, "Man am I grown, a man's work must I do" (l. 115). (10) The centrality of professional work to middle-class masculine identity supported the notion of separate spheres--a competitive, masculine, professional sphere and a domestic sphere inhabited mostly by women during the day, but where at night men could recover from their professional exertions. (11)
Yet precisely because the home was imagined as so comfortable and safe, and was for much of the day inhabited mostly by women and children, it was feared that men who tarried there too long ran the risk of emasculation (Tosh, 51). Even though motherhood gained in prestige throughout the mid-Victorian period, enrollment at boarding schools reached levels unparalleled in the rest of Europe as concerns mounted that the feminine home could not prepare boys for the demands awaiting them in adulthood (Adams, 5, 9-10). And even if the home was not in itself emasculating, simply being away from work was seen as potentially so--Sussman interprets Thomas Carlyle's valorization of the hardworking monastic life in Past and Present as a Victorian male longing for escape from domesticity into an all-male social world dedicated to labor (5).
While the perceived binary opposition of the professional and domestic spheres made the home a potentially dangerous place for men, it made it something of a prison for women, a prison where the walls were mortared with the limitations not only of gender but also of class. As Bronwyn Rivers has shown, middle-class women who sought paid employment not only risked being considered unfeminine but also jeopardized their status as middle-class, since the need for married women to earn money was something that marked the working-class family. (12)
But however clear-cut the Victorians' conceptualization of the work-home binary, in real life this division was far from absolute; and even if the spheres were understood as separate entities, gendering them masculine and feminine is not a simple process. Men regarded it as their responsibility to provide discipline and moral guidance for their families (see Tosh for more detail). Conversely, even while the professional sphere was considered by most to be exclusively masculine, some middle-class women sought work outside the home as an essential part of a fulfilling life (Rivers, 5).
Nevertheless, even though the second half of Gareth and Lynette asserts the importance of women's role in "man's work" as well as the possibility of women's achievement of manly virtues, the first half does nothing to blur the distinction between masculine and feminine spaces. Quite the opposite, in fact: before removing the characters to a third sphere, the location in which "man's work" actually takes place (with contributions from both men and women), Gareth, and Lynette presents the home and the royal court as such extreme opposites that they seem like caricatures of femininity and masculinity respectively.
Before he can begin to do "man's work" and so fulfill his duty as a man, Gareth must first escape the prison of his home, a place of exaggerated femininity, even judging by the standards of the Victorian domestic ideal. (13) The father, Lot, lies silent beside the hearth, "like a log, and all but smouldered out," seemingly expressing the Victorian anxiety that males could be emasculated if they tarried too long in the comforts of the home (ll. 73-74). (14) This leaves the mother, Bellicent, in charge, and she seems intent on doing everything she can to prevent Gareth from leaving home to pursue life as a man: she calls him a "wild goose," suggesting that he is not only not masculine but also not human, and she asserts that he is "yet more boy than man" (ll. 36, 97). Both these remarks constitute attacks on her son's manliness that go beyond a mere assault on his gender--to the Victorians, manhood was defined in contradistinction to immaturity at least as much as to femininity, (15) and in Tennyson's Balin and Balan (the fourth idyll in the cycle, but written around the same time as Gareth and Lynette), the opposite of manliness is beastliness. Bellicent emasculates Gareth further by assuring her son that she will find a bride for him (ll. 92-93). Far from being a home that Victorians would have recognized as ideal, with the feminine functioning to support the masculine, Bellicent's castle creates the impression of femininity as something that either incinerates (in the case of the husband) or smothers (in the case of the son) masculinity when the two are cooped up together in the home.
From the emasculating realm of Bellicent's castle, Gareth finally escapes to Arthur's court. One might expect the royal court, the seat of patriarchal power, to seem masculine-dominant, hut the poetry raises this sphere's masculinity to an extreme that is surprising even so. The contrast between feminine home and masculine court is first emphasized by a sensory shift. In the preceding passage, set in and around Bellicent's castle, the characters (both male and female) seem focused on the visual, almost to the exclusion of the aural. From Gareth gazing at the sight of the falling sapling, to Bellicent directing Gareth's attention to the sight of Lot as he smolders by the fire, to the varied images with which mother and son both enrich their stories, apart from following the conversation (from which the voice of the father is of course conspicuously absent), the characters seem preoccupied with images and insensitive to sounds--we are told that Gareth "stared at the spate" when he saw the sapling fall in, but there is no indication as to whether he heard the splash (l. 3); (16) Gareth sees Lot smoldering by the fire, but there is no suggestion that he hears the fire crackling. The verse even gives the impression that Gareth speaks with his visual organs when it twice describes how he answers his mother "with kindling eyes" (ll. 41, 61).
As soon as Gareth enters Camelot, however, sounds clearly prevail over images in the minds of the characters, and the verse makes it clear that men produce and listen to sounds, whereas women are silent images who gaze out at the world:
ever and anon a knight would pass Outward, or inward to the hall: his arms Clashed; and the sound was good to Gareth's ear. And out of bower and casement shyly glanced Eyes of pure women; wholesome stars of love Then into the hall Gareth ascending heard A voice, the voice of Arthur, and beheld Far over heads in that long-vaulted hall The splendor of the presence of the King Throned, and delivering doom--and looked no more But felt his young heart hammering in his ears. (ll. 303-315; emphasis added)
Knights make a racket with their weapons, Arthur's voice booms out to the corners of the hall--the quick repetition of voice evoking echoes, and Gareth uses his ears not only to listen but also to feel his emotions through the pounding of his heartbeat; this synesthesia continues when the verse describes how the knights attend to Arthur with "listening eyes" (l. 320: a striking contrast to the "kindling eyes" with which Gareth seemed to speak to his mother in her castle). Meanwhile, women are associated with the visual, which (unusually for the Idylls, and for Tennyson's poetry in general) is greatly under-represented in this section. The passage even reduces women to their eyes, comparing these to stars--pretty objects that are seen but not heard.
And the dominance of the masculine over the feminine at court does not only exist at a sensory level. In this scene, Arthur, who elsewhere in the epic behaves in ways that have led to him being characterized as effeminate, even female (see Gilbert), emphasizes the patriarchal basis of his authority by comparing his rulings to the ones meted out by his supposed father, Uther, and his earlier predecessors (ll. 366-368). But what perhaps does most to make the court a masculine place is the conspicuous absence of the Queen--Guinevere is not mentioned once in all of Gareth and Lynette, even though the preceding idyll, The Coming of Arthur, culminates with her and Arthur's wedding.
In all, the first seven hundred or so lines of Gareth and Lynette construct two separate spheres that exaggerate the gendered division of their society imagined by many Victorians: one private and feminine, even emasculating--Bellicent's home; the other public and masculine--Arthur's court. Yet despite the overwhelming masculinity of the court, it does not give Gareth the opportunity to fulfill his duty as a man and do "man's work." He does perform labor, but of a degrading, and in the context of the poem, emasculating variety: bound by a promise to his mother to pose as a kitchen-knave, his already humiliating position near the hearth is reminiscent of his father's unmanly situation at the beginning of the story. And Gareth's own comparison of his situation to that of Cinderella--"and thou wilt find / My fortunes all as fair as hers who lay / Among the ashes and wedded the King's son" (ll. 880-882)--makes his job as a kitchen-knave seem downright effeminate. Even once he is freed from this degrading situation, Gareth still cannot do "man's work" as he had earlier defined it. In the King's role as arbitrator of disputes, Arthur is able to "right wrong" at court and so do "man's work" (see Gareth's definitions of "man's work": l. 117). His knights, however, can take no part in this work: Arthur seeks no counsel from them, Kay is the only one to offer any, and the King is quick to dismiss his seneschal's typically spiteful suggestion to deny aid to a desperate widow (ll. 341-373). Arthur's uncharacteristic assertion of his patriarchal authority is so autocratic that the masculine court offers no more opportunity for other people to do "man's work" than does Bellicent's feminine home.
If anyone other than the King intends to do manly work, he--or she--must do it in a third sphere, not part of the usual masculine-feminine binary. The idyll suggests that the contemporary notion of society being divided into gendered spheres is not only a reality but that the reality is, unfortunately, an inevitability; yet it also presents the possibility of finding a less gendered third sphere where men and women can work together toward the same goals. (17)
Part Two: Lynette's presence and influence in the sphere of "man's work"
In Idylls of the King, this third sphere where "man's work" takes place is the sphere of the quest, and in Gareth and Lynette, it cannot easily be said to be either masculine or feminine. It is here that Gareth finally gets the opportunity to "follow the king" and "right wrong," but his definition of these things as "man's work" seems inaccurate in light of the essential roles played by his female companion. The first part of the poem has exploded the image of the home as a supportive environment for men, but Lynette, sometimes unwittingly, creates of herself a supportive environment that is never far from Gareth's side. (18)
Gareth is granted his first quest after revealing his true identity to Arthur and being made a knight in secret. However, he does not ride out of court either on his own initiative or alone; rather, he does so in the service and the company of Lynette, the noblewoman who recently arrived at court seeking a champion to free her sister, Lyonors. And once they leave Camelot, Lynette physically leads the way. While this might be read as simple courtesy on Gareth's part or even simpler necessity (Lynette obviously knows the way; Gareth, given his inexperience and sheltered youth, probably does not), the young knight's repeated request that Lynette ride ahead of him--"Lead, and I follow" almost becomes a mantra for Gareth--creates the impression that the woman really is in charge of the so-called man's work.
Lynette's most noticeable effect on Gareth is to inspire him with greater vigor during battle. Of course, the idea of a man being inspired to accomplish great things by a woman is a commonplace in the Victorian imagination, and in particular in the notion of the Angel in the House providing comfort and moral guidance to help her husband face the harrowing work place. However, in this situation, rather than being inspired by thoughts of a wife waiting at home, Gareth is encouraged by actually hearing the words spoken by a woman right by his side.
During Gareth's battle with the first of Lyonors's captors (ll. 917-920), Lynette suggests that it would be natural for a knave like him to flee in fear; Gareth initially protests that "Fair words were best for him who fights for thee," but quickly reverses his position to claim that Lynette's insults "send / That strength of anger through my arms" and advances on his enemy like a man possessed, securing victory in a few short strokes (ll. 924-926). In Malory's Morte d'Arthur Lynette's medieval analog, Lynet, also hurls insults during battles; however, she directs them at Gareth's opponents, whom she mocks for struggling to keep pace with a mere kitchen-knave. (19) In the first instance, Gareth intensifies his attacks--in part because of what he hears Lynet say about him, but also out of the need to match the increased ferocity of his opponent (who has also been inspired by Lynet); in the second, he does not appear to be affected at all. The Victorian idyll retains the medieval text's idea that a lady's insults might shame a knight into fighting harder; however, by changing the story so that the hero (rather than some minor villain) is both the intended target of Lynette's insults and the only one inspired by them, and by removing the second, ambiguous incident, the Victorian poem makes it much clearer that the lady riding alongside the hero will specifically inspire his performance of "man's work."
While Lynette's insults inspire Gareth to victory, her eventual praise seems to push him to greatness. During Gareth's battle with the third captor Lynette, who by this point has seen enough of Gareth's prowess to realize he is no ordinary kitchen-knave, calls out to him that he is as worthy as any of the Round Table knights, "And Gareth hearing ever stronglier smote" (ll. 1110-13). Once this battle is won, Gareth again acknowledges the benefit he derived from Lynette's abuse but indicates that yet greater benefits now derive from her praise:
thy foul sayings fought for me And seeing now thy words are fair, methinks There rides no knight, not Lancelot, his great self, Hath force to quell me. (ll. 1151-54)
The fact that Lynette inspires Gareth's martial prowess (and thereby makes him a better follower of Arthur, and by extension a better man) with words both foul and fair suggests that women inspire men to excel at "man's work" when they recognize men's virtues, and that they are still a positive influence even when they insult men.
Again, the Victorian idyll draws some of these details from Malory's text, in which Lynet also comes to recognize Gareth's service with praise; much like Tennyson's knight, Malory's responds by declaring himself equal to the best in the world (252). However, in Malory's text, Lynet never praises Gareth while he is fighting, and it is not clear whether his performance is actually enhanced as a result of her compliments. Malory's Gareth does seem to be inspired by Lynet's sister, Lyonesse (the medieval analog of the Victorian Lyonors); however, even after declaring that he loves Lyonesse and will rescue her or die in the attempt, Malory's Gareth attributes the increase in his courage and hardiness to the sight of all the other knights his opponent has hanged (261). Moreover, the inspiring image of Lyonesse sobbing and weeping while imprisoned in her tower, which comes to Gareth indirectly through Lynet's description, bears more in common with the Victorian ideal of the Angel in the House (263); Tennyson's poem takes an idea from the medieval text that its Victorian readers would have found familiar and transforms it into something more challenging, in that Lynette, the more active and immediately present woman, is made the source of inspiration.
But doing "man's work" by following the King requires more than defeating enemies in battle. When Gareth first reveals to Arthur his true identity and his wish to become a knight, the King cautions him by describing the vows he imposes upon those who wish to join the ranks of the Round Table, thereby giving a definition of manliness that depends upon four standards of behavior:
utter hardihood, utter gentleness, And, loving, utter faithfulness in love, And uttermost obedience to the King. (ll. 542-544)
Once he is put to the test, however, Gareth lives up to Arthur's standards so well that, in retrospect, the king's warning seems unnecessary. But Gareth's moral achievements are no more his own than his achievements on the battlefield: to a great extent, they depend upon Lynette's help.
That a relationship with a woman would be needed for Gareth to fulfill Arthur's requirement of faithfulness in love might seem unsurprising in the largely (though not exclusively) heterosexual world of Idylls, but Tennyson's choice for Gareth's love interest is significant. In Malory's text, it is the damsel in distress-- Lyonesse--who stirs up Gareth's amorous feelings. If Tennyson had followed the medieval version, faithfulness in love would be enacted quite conventionally through a relationship with a woman resembling the Angel in the House. But in one of his most self-conscious deviations from his source, the Victorian poet substitutes Lynette as Gareth's eventual mate:
And he that told the tale in older times Says that Sir Gareth wedded Lyonors, But he, that told it later, says Lynette. (ll. 1392-94)
So the "faithfulness in love" aspect of manliness--like success on the battlefield--is achieved through a relationship with a far more independent woman, one who accompanies and assists the knight as he is doing his so-called man's work. Changing the story so that the active, mobile Lynette rather than the passive, imprisoned Lyonors marries Gareth is perhaps an even more significant deviation from the source than the substitution of Lynette for Lyonors as the inspiration of Gareth's martial victories: it suggests that an active, independent nature does not preclude women from marriage.
In a sense, Lynette gives Gareth an opportunity to live up to Arthur's standard of obedience just by requesting a champion for her quest--Gareth can then obey the King's command to fight for Lynette's cause. But anyone, man or woman, in need of help could have done the same. However, fighting for Lynette in particular allows Gareth to deliver on his implied promise that, while serving Arthur as a knight, he will still act with that same type of obedience that allowed him to serve in Arthur's kitchen--the willingness to take orders even from such an abusive and ungrateful master as Kay (ll. 547-549). For most of the narrative, Lynette matches Gareth's description of Kay as "no mellow master"; more specifically, her tirades against Gareth echo those dished out by the seneschal in their preoccupation with Gareth's (supposedly) lowly status. But Gareth takes them in stride (even using them as inspiration, as previously noted), and thus lives up to what he promised the King.
However, serving Lynette also makes Gareth realize that behaving with "uttermost obedience to the King" can require being in some way disobedient when one of the King's commands conflicts with another. When Gareth spots a man in danger of being drowned by a gang of ruffians, his impulse is to go to the rescue and thus obey the King's general order to "right wrong." However, he quickly realizes that above all he must obey the King's specific command to stay by Lynette's side: "Bound am I to right the wronged, / But straightlier bound am I to bide with thee" (ll. 784-785). Fortunately Lynette, breaking from the patterns of impatience and general ill temper she established previously, agrees to the detour and thus resolves the conflict. (20)
Similarly, Lynette's response when Lyonors's third captor begs Gareth for mercy ("'Be not so hardy, scullion, as to slay / One nobler than thyself,'" ll. 956-957) puts two more of Arthur's manly standards--hardihood and gentleness--into a relationship fraught with tension: the contradictions at work within this poem's construction of manliness are typical of those Sussman traces in Victorian definitions of manhood, and Lynette is the character that brings those contradictions into sharpest focus. Hardihood--boldness, audacity--is clearly something Gareth has possessed to some degree since the beginning of the narrative: presenting himself to Arthur as a pauper and later asking the King to make him a knight in secret proves the extent of Gareth's audacity, as of course does his fearlessness in battle. But Lynette's use of the word "hardy" in the context of a plea for mercy shows how much Arthur's various standards can conflict. To slay an enemy requires hardihood, but to do so after the enemy has been defeated and has begged for quarter would show a deficit of gentleness. By cautioning Gareth in this manner, Lynette exposes this potential contradiction between hardihood and gentleness, but she also resolves it and brings both into accord with obedience--Gareth, having shown his hardihood by engaging in the battle in the first place, is now able to avoid excessive hardihood and act with gentleness by obeying Lynette's command to stay the fatal stroke. (21) In this poem, the female hero not only catalyzes the male hero's manly virtues, but she also exposes and then resolves the contradictions between them, and all in a speech less than a dozen words long.
Part Three: Lynette as the manly hero of the masculinity plot
Adams characterizes Victorian manliness as fundamentally theatrical, asserting that "all masculine self-fashioning ... makes appeal to an audience" (11). This is true with regard to Gareth in that he feels the need to prove his "name" (his reputation as a knight, and by the logic of the poem his status as a man) to Arthur and the other knights with his deeds (ll. 562-563). Halberstam also sees masculinity as theatrical, but only in the sense of it being performative; that is, she does not believe that it can be entertaining since it involves no originality, only endless imitation. Gareth's performances are certainly disappointingly unentertaining, though not simply because they are imitative.
Thanks to Lynette, Gareth's performance of manliness as defined by the King might seem almost perfect: Lynette inspires Gareth to victories in battle; gives him an opportunity to prove his obedience; teaches him that even while hardiness is a manly virtue, too much of it can be ungentle and thus unmanly; and, in the future described at the poem's end, will apparently inspire his faithful love. And in one sense, Lynette is the audience whose presence makes Gareth's actions into a performance in the first place: Gareth may be concerned with proving himself to Arthur, but Lynette is the only character who is there to witness every one of Gareth's manly displays. However, the reader is also an audience, but one that is liable to be disappointed by the performance if they take Gareth to be the star of the show. Even though Gareth begins the story as a youth almost literally tied to his mother's apron strings and ends it as a seemingly perfect embodiment of manhood, any reading of the idyll that takes it to be a traditional masculinity plot--a story about a boy growing into a man--must prove ultimately unsatisfying.
Despite the success of Gareth's manly achievements, apart from the roles played by Lynette there is not much about them to stimulate the reader's attention, and the reason for this is that Gareth is simply demonstrating virtues the reader already knows him to possess. The "performances" are thus not expressing anything new in Gareth's character; as a consequence, they create little theatrical excitement for the reader and are more like rehearsals--not rehearsals in the sense of preparations for a performance, but of repetitions of something already learned. Granted, Gareth's quest provides him with the opportunity to do "man's work," something he did not have at home or at Arthur's court, but his manly virtues are already as well developed at the beginning of the story as they will be at the end.
For instance, although Gareth's obedience as a knight might be impressive to other characters, the reader--who has already read about Gareth's obedience as a knave in the service of the seneschal--is not presented with evidence of any growth in Gareth's character. In the same vein, the fight scenes do not do nearly as much as they might to suggest the development of increased physical prowess. The two battles in which Lynette inspires Gareth to victory, first by insults and then by praise, are somewhat exciting; but his other martial engagements, which might otherwise give him the chance to show how he measures up without Lynette's help, are over before they really begin. Lyonors's second captor, Sir Sun, has his horse slip out from under him at the start of the contest (ll. 1020-21); the final battle turns out to be a complete anti-climax when Gareth's opponent, named Night but described as if he were death itself, turns out to be a terrified child in costume (ll. 1372-74). (22)
The poem thus falls flat if read as a kind of bildungsroman with Gareth as the protagonist, even though Arthur's recitation of the manly virtues to the youth seems to set the poem in this direction. Ultimately, Gareth's declaration at the start of the poem that "Man am I grown" turns out to be absolutely accurate--he has already grown into manhood as much as he will in the poem, and at that point only lacks the opportunity to prove that fact through action. (23)
Fortunately, Lynette undergoes a much more impressive transformation, and her gradual and difficult development of manly virtues not only reflects the Victorian understanding of the progression from boyish youth to adult manhood as vexed with contradictions but also makes up for the lack of dramatic energy in Gareth's rehearsal of the manliness already in his possession. When she first appears, Lynette proves that she is already quite hardy with her bold address to the King. Anticipating unawares her later achievement of manliness, she even speculates on what she would do if she were king (ll. 583-586). But unfortunately her behavior at this moment in the poem is too discourteous to be considered manly, let alone kingly: her hardiness extends to cursing the King for his decision to make Gareth her champion (l. 643), and Gareth will later explain that this "mistrust" of the King is Lynette's only real blame-worthy mistake (ll. 1142-45).
Since this outburst comes barely a hundred lines after Arthur's explanation of the manly virtues, the reader cannot help but recognize that Lynette's possession of one (hardihood) stands in the way of two others: obedience to the King and, less obviously but just as significantly, gentleness. As Gareth will shortly find himself caught between hardihood and gentleness, Lynette, a step ahead on the road to manhood by dint of encountering its contradictions earlier and more completely, is caught between hardihood and both gentleness and obedience.
Yet it is precisely by proving that, of all the characters, she best lives up to the poem's multiple constructions of manly gentleness that Lynette will begin to emerge as the character most suitably considered the hero of the masculinity plot. Granted, Gareth's patient endurance of Lynette's insults, which begins before he discovers how motivating those insults can be, might be considered gentle, and indeed the narrative describes Gareth as "gentle" when he responds courteously to the first of Lynette's verbal barrages (l. 753). But this patient endurance is nothing new, since Gareth had already demonstrated similar forbearance in the face of his mother's abuse at the beginning of the poem. And whereas he is described as "gentle" just once, Gareth refers to Lynette as "gentle damsel" twice (ll. 1148, 1150), which seems odd given how roughly she has been treating him. He might just be using "gentle" to refer to her high social rank, except that if this were the case he would more likely use the term "gentlewoman," which Lynette herself uses to emphasize her high birth (l. 848).
A more convincing explanation is that Gareth really recognizes that Lynette possesses a particular type of gentleness, one that is defined elsewhere in Idylls as a masculine virtue. In Balin and Balan (the idyll Tennyson composed around the same time as Garetfi and Lynette, and which he placed three spots later in the completed cycle's order), gentleness is constructed not as being gentlemanly in the broad Victorian sense, but quite specifically as avoiding unnecessary violence. (24) As noted, this type of gentleness is brought to the fore when one of Gareth's defeated opponents begs for mercy. But rather than seizing the opportunity to prove his own gentleness, Gareth is quite clear that his enemy's fate lies entirely in Lynette's hands--that she is actually the one who will choose whether or not to grant quarter:
Then cried the fallen, "Take not my life: I yield." And Gareth, "So this damsel ask it of me Good--I accord it easily as a grace." (ll. 949-51)
Gareth's words here suggest that gentleness, in the sense of the avoidance of unnecessary violence, is not something he can choose himself; rather, it is something that Lynette must choose for him. Lynette is at first offended that a lady such as herself should have to ask a favor of a mere knave, but when Gareth makes as if to decapitate his fallen enemy (showing himself to be distinctly lacking in gentleness), Lynette's fierce pride is quickly overcome by her horror at the idea of Gareth killing a helpless man, even though the man in question is one of her sister's hated captors.
That Lynette shows herself to be gentler than Gareth might not seem all that surprising to either a Victorian or a modern reader--as many people do today, the Victorians generally considered gentleness as primarily a feminine trait. But as well as being among the knightly vows demanded by Arthur in this idyll, gentleness is also the primary measure of manliness as it is defined in Balin and Balan, where it is what raises Lancelot above the other knights (ll. 150-220). Gentleness is thus very much a manly virtue in the cycle, but in this one poem it is a manly virtue that belongs to the female hero more than to the main male character.
But while the avoidance of violence may be the most important aspect of gentleness in Idylls as a whole, in this particular idyll there is a second important type of gentleness at work--the ability to recognize nobility of character in the most seemingly unlikely of subjects. This is something that Lynette is sorely missing when she first enters the narrative, which she acquires only through a slow and confusing learning process--an experience that reflects the Victorian image of the man struggling to achieve and maintain his manliness.
This type of gentleness is first defined in the idyll by the ways in which Lancelot and Kay treat Gareth when he arrives at Camelot. Lancelot (who, as noted, is described in Balin and Balan as the most gentle of knights) immediately sees past Gareth's humble appearance and recognizes the youth's inborn nobility (ll. 451-459), in contrast to Kay, who repeatedly insults the youngster for choosing such humble work (ll. 445-450; 460-465). After enduring months of verbal abuse and other rough treatment, Gareth finally declares the seneschal to be "The most ungentle knight in Arthur's hall" (l. 738) and topples his former master in a joust. The inescapable implication is that gentleness is not only avoidance of violence but also the ability to ignore circumstances and detect virtue.
Immediately preceding and following Gareth's condemnation of the seneschal, Lynette assails Gareth with kitchen-themed insults that echo Kay's--Lynette picks up the same particular strain of ungentleness right at the point where Kay, its virtuoso, is forced to put it down (ll. 733; 751). But unlike Kay, and somewhat like Lancelot, Lynette gradually comes to recognize that Gareth is as virtuous as any of Arthur's knights. Her progress is slow and by no means steady; however, besides making her acquisition of manliness seem more typical of the Victorian construct, the precarious nature of her progress provides the reader with the sense of drama lacking from Gareth's rehearsals of his more stable, seemingly inborn (and thus, to the Victorian way of thinking, unrealistic) manliness.
Lynette's first step toward recognizing Gareth's virtue is impulsive, uttered mid-fight, and reminds Gareth of his lowly position even as it acknowledges his ability to rise above it: "Well-stricken, kitchen-knave!" (l. 946); she also backtracks from it moments later, informing Gareth that she can again smell the kitchen on him (ll. 967-970). Lynette does not fully acknowledge the nobility of Gareth's character until after his battle with the third captor, and her painfully confused words prove that even this last step is a struggle:
Sir, --and, good faith, I fain had added--Knight, But that I heard thee call thyself a knave,-- Shamed am I that I so rebuked, reviled, Missaid thee; noble I am; and thought the King Scorned me and mine; and now thy pardon, friend, For thou hast ever answered courteously, And wholly bold thou art, and meek withal, As any of Arthur's best, but, being knave, Hast mazed my wit; 1 marvel what thou art. (ll. 1133-41)
The dashes and semicolons that cut the lines into short, choppy phrases; the pounding list of verbs in the third and fourth lines; and the awkward alliteration in the penultimate line (the repetition of the initial consonant in three adjacent words separated by commas suggests a stutter) give this speech a breathless quality that makes it seem far more dramatic than any of Gareth's experiences and far more of a battle than the literal fight between Gareth and his opponent immediately preceding. With this speech, Lynette expresses how difficult it has been for her to recognize Gareth for what he is and thereby achieve manly gentleness (just as the Victorians would expect of any achievement of manliness). But for all its difficulty, Lynette's recognition comes at the perfect moment: Gareth has just defeated Sir Evening-Star, whose armor made from animal skins suggests a bestial nature. Since the cycle constructs manliness in contradistinction to bestiality, Lynette recognizes Gareth, and so achieves gentleness and thereby a greater degree of manliness, at the exact moment that Gareth triumphs over his most bestial, unmanly opponent. (25)
In her acceptance of Gareth, Lynette also achieves a new level of obedience, and more specifically, "obedience to the King." After she begs Gareth's pardon for her ungentle treatment of him, Gareth asserts that the only thing for which she need apologize is her discontent with Arthur's choice to make Gareth her champion (ll. 1142-43). This statement makes it seem like Arthur's decision was a test of Lynette's obedience, one that she failed after riding into court, defining herself by her social status ("Lynette my name; noble," L 592) and challenging Arthur's performance as king ("an I were King," l. 583). But now, by acknowledging that her social status is what made it so difficult for her to recognize Gareth's worthiness ("noble I am; and thought the King / Scorned me" [ll. 1136-37]), it seems that, besides apologizing for her earlier rejection of Gareth, Lynette is also rejecting the social privilege that led her to challenge Arthur's authority.
But Lynette's claim as the hero of the masculinity plot extends beyond her mere acquisition of manly virtues to the manner by which she continues to acquire them toward the idyll's end. Before sending Gareth on the quest, Arthur tells Lancelot ("our truest man") to follow the inexperienced knight in secret and watch over his progress (ll. 553-572). However, Gareth, whose manliness is strangely (according to the Victorian notion) essential and stable, has no need of the older man's advice when Lancelot finally overtakes him--he even brushes aside Lancelot's attempt to teach him strategies to conquer his final opponent (ll. 1313-20). Instead, Lynette, gradually acquiring manliness and apparently always on the point of letting it slip away (matching the Victorian understanding), becomes the student of the most gentle and (at this point, at least) most manly of knights. Lancelot then tutors Lynette regarding one of the same virtues--obedience to the King--that Arthur wanted Lancelot to make sure Gareth upheld. Lynette, having just accepted Gareth as her champion, and Arthur's choice to make him such, suffers a short relapse (which Victorians would recognize as typical given the instability of manliness) when Lancelot appears and reveals Gareth's status as a knight (ll. 1215-24). Lynette is, for the second time, angered to think that Arthur has played a trick on her: first she thought he had really made a kitchen-knave her protector; now she believes that he put a knight to watch over her, and that the kitchen-knave disguise was just a joke at her expense. But when Lancelot explains Gareth's story, Lynette, apparently impressed by what the middle-class Victorian readership would also consider an admirable motive for Gareth's maintenance of his disguise--a desire to earn his reputation, rather than inherit it--immediately relents (ll. 1225-43). (26) That Lynette, rather than Gareth, receives the teaching of Arthur's model for manliness, is one more piece of evidence indicating that she, not her male companion, is the true hero of the masculinity plot.
The Victorian Lynette's acquisition of these manly virtues (as well as the way she acquires the virtue of obedience) further differentiates her from her medieval analog. A little more than halfway through Malory's tale, Lynet is revealed to be in possession of "subtle crafts," by which she sends knights to interrupt Gareth and Lyonesse's premarital lovemaking, returns those knights to life after Gareth decapitates them, and finally heals Gareth of the wounds he suffers at their hands (272-273, 275, 281-282); but since her goal in all of this is to protect Lyonesse's honor and her goal at the beginning was to free Lyonesse from imprisonment, this does not suggest that her character has changed much. Unlike the Victorian Lynette, Lynet does not need to learn to temper her hardiness, for she is not so hardy to begin with: whereas Lynette begins her audience with Arthur by telling the King how she would rule better in his stead, Lynet "salute[s] the king, and pray[s] him of succour" (234). Nor does she need to reject her social privilege, since this does not seem to be a factor in the way she treats Gareth: rather than declaring herself "noble" at the start, Lynet only remarks upon the renown of the lady she wants to be rescued (234). Although the medieval and the Victorian damsels are equally gentle in terms of avoiding violence (like Tennyson's, Malory's restrains Gareth when he threatens to slay a knight who begs for mercy--245), Lynette's laborious process of coming to recognize Gareth's worth is more convincing than Lynet's abrupt shift: Lynet does not acknowledge Gareth's value at all until after he has fought and won five battles, and then she does so only in reply to Gareth's complaint about her constant rebukes (250-251). And whereas the Victorian Lynette learns from Lancelot's lesson in obedience, Malory's Lynet and Launcelot never even converse. As a character, the medieval Lynet is relatively static, much like both the medieval and Victorian versions of Gareth. In contrast to all of these, the Victorian Lynette undergoes a transformation that begins when she first lets slip praise for her kitchen-knave's valor and continues all the way through the disclosure of her marriage to Gareth at the poem's end (in Malory's version, Lynet never grows to love Gareth romantically). By replacing the static Lynet with a damsel who undergoes transformations on multiple levels, the text suggests that Lynette, more than Gareth, reflects the Victorian understanding that manliness is in a constant state of flux, and more broadly, that the Victorian period was itself an era of great change.
Part Four: Lynette the manly hero--Lancelot the failed man
But in the context of Idylls as a whole, the satisfaction the reader may derive from focusing on Lynette rather than Gareth as the hero of the masculinity plot is actually less significant than the suggestions that Lynette may be more manly even than Lancelot who, at this early point in the story, is still regarded by other characters as the paragon of manhood.
Although Arthur's lecture to Gareth constructs manliness quite simply in terms of gentleness, fidelity in love, and two other knightly virtues, the poem as a whole constructs manliness as something more nuanced. As noted, the part of the poem set at Arthur's court defines sound and hearing as masculine, in contradistinction to appearance and sight, which are constructed as feminine.
But when it comes to recognizing Gareth's nobility, Lancelot relies on his eyes, and it is Lynette who uses her ears. Lancelot sees that Gareth possesses "Broad brows and fair, a fluent hair and fine, / High nose, a nostril large and fine, and hands / Large, fair and fine!" (ll. 454-456). In contrast, Lynette is more attentive to how Gareth speaks, although it takes some time for her to respond to what her ears detect. In the beginning, she refuses to accept that what she hears is evidence of anything real, as when she first notices the way Gareth uses language: "'Sweet lord, how like a noble knight he talks! / The listening rogue hath caught the manner of it'" (ll. 758-759, emphasis added). At this early stage, Lynette is already aurally sensitive, but instead of believing what she hears, she convinces herself that it is Gareth who is actually the good listener and that he is using this talent to deceive her. By the time Lancelot appears, however, Lynette has learned to trust what her ears tell her. By acknowledging that Gareth is as good "as any of Arthur's best" based on the way he has spoken in response to her insults ("thou hast ever answered courteously"), Lynette proves that she is more sensitive to what she hears and, by the logic of the poem, more manly than the knight widely regarded as Arthur's best (ll. 1140, 1138). (27)
Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong about relying on vision rather than sound; even if the poem constructs this as feminine, Lancelot does not deserve to be criticized for it, especially given all the suggestions in Idylls that the best men possess some feminine qualities. But there are other ways in which a comparison between Lancelot and Lynette--something invited by the consonance that connects their names--indicates that the lady would make a better Victorian gentleman than the champion knight. For one, the ways they recognize Gareth's nobility differ in more than the distinction between hearing and vision. Whereas Lancelot recognizes Gareth's inborn nobility (his noble physiognomy), Lynette responds to his achievements (his performance of manly virtue). Her gentleness can thus be characterized as more middle-class and Lancelot's more upper-class--Lynette values Gareth's actions, in particular his success in "man's work," whereas Lancelot values the high-born looks Gareth inherited.
But more important in the context of the entire cycle is that Lynette influences Gareth with her gentleness far more effectively than Lancelot influences other knights with his. Starting with Balin and Balan, the idyll that most explicitly defines the gentle avoidance of violence as manly, and continuing through the end of the cycle, violent, ungentle behavior gnaws away at Arthur's order. In particular, Balin's descent into homicidal psychosis and the unnecessarily brutal slaying of the Red Knight by a group of Arthur's knights in The Last Tournament undermine the King's reputation as a good ruler, which also demonstrates a lack of obedience. A gentle role model might have quieted the violences of these men, and gentleness is exactly what is supposed to raise Lancelot above Arthur's knights. But by the time Balin needs his help, Lancelot's ability to guide him has been undermined by the rumors about the champion's affair with the Queen (and by Balin's discovery of what he believes to be evidence of that affair: BB ll. 276-277). Similarly, in The Last Tournament, Lancelot, tormented by his feelings for Guinevere, has stayed behind in Camelot and can be of no help when his help is needed most. Unlike Gareth, these knights have no Lynette to be gentle on their behalf. The fact that the unmanliness of men helps bring about the cycle's tragic end is why it seems appropriate to continue calling the virtues described by Arthur "manly" even though a woman evinces them more completely (and more entertainingly) than any man. Lynette does not appear in the cycle's second half, so her manliness cannot compensate for the un-manliness or ineffectual manliness of Lancelot and other men. "On One who Affected an Effeminate Manner" insists that the possession of womanly virtues cannot make up for a man's unmanliness; employing a more tragic logic, Idylls suggests that a woman's manliness, however helpful it may be for a moment, ultimately cannot save a society torn apart by the unmanliness of men.
Fortunately for Gareth, Lynette is extremely present in his idyll, and her faithfulness in love makes her far more effective as a positive influence than Lancelot. Rumors of Lancelot's love for the Queen have not yet begun to spread in Gareth and Lynette, but those familiar with the Arthurian story (which would certainly describe most readers, Victorian and twenty-first-century alike) cannot help but be reminded of Lancelot's failure to love faithfully as the fidelity of Lynette's love for Gareth becomes more apparent. Over the course of the quest, Lynette three times sings verses from a love song, although the only indication that Gareth is the object of her love at these points is the fact that these bursts of feeling each come immediately following one of Gareth's victories (ll. 970-976, 1032-36, 1130-32). But in the interlude before Gareth's fourth and final battle, Lynette explicitly articulates tender feelings for Gareth that make the idea of their future marriage credible, something Gareth himself never does (ll. 1249-52). These feelings pour out of Lynette while she talks to Lancelot after Gareth has fallen asleep; unlike two other central women in the cycle--Guinevere and Elaine--Lynette does not fall in love with Lancelot, even though circumstances have left her alone with the charismatic knight (who was also the man she originally wanted to champion her cause). Lynette possesses the ability to love faithfully, the absence of which makes Lancelot the catalyst for the cycle's descent into tragedy: in addition to the destructive effects of the rumors generated by Lancelot's love for Guinevere, his inability to love Elaine (after acting in a way that could not fail to encourage her to love him) creates one of the cycle's most tragic situations. (28)
In her development of gentleness, obedience to the King, and fidelity in love, Lynette, more than any male character, achieves the manly virtues that could have sustained the King's reign. As several critics have observed, Gareth and Lynette presents the ideal of manhood that is sorely missing from the later idylls; however, I have shown that Lynette, not Gareth, represents that ideal. The fact that Lynette does not appear in the other idylls (and is thus not there to help when things go wrong in Arthur's realm) does not mean that her achievement of manliness is not significant. Quite the contrary: realizing Lynette's role in this idyll encourages the reader to contemplate the order in which the idylls are positioned in sequence relative to the order in which they were written, and it also encourages the reader to wonder whether Tennyson, who apparently conceived the possibility of a manly woman while writing Gareth and Lynette from 1869 to 1872 (his poems that more obviously explore female manliness were written in the late 1880s), might have included other manly female characters in the idylls from later in the sequence, had he not already written--and published--most of them years earlier. (Balin and Balan, written around the same time, suggests through the characters of the passive Pellam and the beastly Garlon how unmanly men can become when they isolate themselves from women.)
Importantly, Lynette achieves manliness while also evincing the middle-class preference for good work above birthright; a middle-class Victorian reader would thus be more inclined to accept this female character who otherwise defies the ideal of the stay-at-home wife that was a manifestation of Victorian ideas about gender difference and also a marker of middle-class Victorian identity. Lynette makes the notion of a woman going out into the sphere of work attractive to a middle-class audience at a time when some middle-class women were yearning to work outside the home but most middle-class men (and many middle-class women) abhorred the idea (see Rivers for more detail).
More broadly, it is impossible to overstate the cultural significance of Tennyson's creation in the 1870s of a female character who achieves manly virtue more completely than any of the male characters around her (with the possible exception of Arthur, although he is perhaps too ideal to be recognized as human, let alone a man). Over the course of the nineteenth century, virtues that had previously been considered either feminine or open to both genders were increasingly being co-opted by men as manly: Adams gives the example of self-discipline as something that was considered a feminine virtue at the beginning of the nineteenth century but had already been "claimed as the special province and distinguishing attribute of middle-class men" by the 1830s (7). By defining certain virtues as manly and then investing them most completely in a female character, Gareth and Lynette reflects the Victorian appropriation of virtue as manly but simultaneously undermines it by investing manliness in a woman. The ideas in this idyll may have come to Tennyson too late for him to rework the rest of the cycle, but in Gareth and Lynette the poet gives himself the space to gradually explore and develop ideas that he would express more explicitly and concisely in poems he wrote in the following decades.
(1) The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). All references to Tennyson's poetry are to this edition.
(2) Elliot L. Gilbert, "The Female King: Tennyson's Arthurian Apocalypse," in King Arthur: A Casebook, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), pp. 232-233.
(3) Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1998).
(4) James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995).
(5) John Tosh, "Domesticity and Manliness in the Victorian Middle Class: The Family of Edward White Benson" in Manful Assertions, ed. John Tosh and Michael Roper (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 44-73.
(6) Herbert Sussman, Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995).
(7) Thomas Carlyle; John Sterling. Both quoted in Gilbert, "Tennyson's Arthurian Apocalypse," p. 230.
(8) Debra N. Mancoff, "To Take Excalibur: King Arthur and the Construction of Victorian Manhood," in Kennedy, King Arthur, pp. 260-261.
(9) Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 1-11.
(10) Gareth's insistence on the ethical necessity of doing "work" makes it easier to understand how this idyll, and indeed the epic as a whole, can be understood as having to do with middle-class concerns, even though the medieval characters--kings, queens, knights, and ladies--cannot be described as belonging to the middle ranks of their imagined medieval society, let alone the middle classes as they existed in the Victorian period.
(11) John Ruskin described the separate spheres thus: "The man, in his rough work in open world, must encounter all peril and trial.... But he guards the woman from all this; within his house, as ruled by her, unless she herself has sought it, need enter no danger.... This is the true nature of home--it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division." Sesame and Lilies, ed. Deborah Epstein Nord (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2002), p. 77.
(12) Bronwyn Rivers, Women at Work in the Victorian Novel: the Question of Middle-Class Women's Employment (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005), p. 7.
(13) This first part of the story, set in Gareth's home, does not appear in Malory's version of the story; it is an invention of the Victorian text, a reflection of the Victorian interest in (and anxieties about) domesticity.
(14) If the stupefied Lot is read as not merely emasculated hut feminized, then this might seem to reflect the Victorian notion that hysteria was a particularly feminine affliction. (See Elaine Showalter, "Victorian Women and Insanity," Victorian Studies 23, no. 2 : 157-181.) But according to the gendering of seeing as masculine and hearing as feminine in this poem (see my two paragraphs following), the description of Lot as possessing neither sight nor vision suggests that he has no gender (l. 80). And if anything, the fact that the husband is catatonic while his wife runs his household would seem rather to suggest a reversal of the notion of hysteria as feminine.
(15) John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 34.
(16) Although Gareth is apparently locked into the visual and out of the aural at the beginning of the narrative, the same is not necessarily true for the reader. Adam Roberts points out how the many sibilants that appear in the opening lines let the reader hear the hissing of the "serpentine" river. The reader is thus encouraged to imagine sounds as much as sights, and thus adopt the aural sensitivity that will be associated with manliness later in the poem. Adam Roberts, "'The Star with in the Mere': Tennyson's Gareth and Lynette," VP 32, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 184.
(17) Tennyson may have opposed on principle the division of Victorian society into these gendered halves--given his idea that the best people possess the virtues of both genders, a society so starkly divided might have struck him as inherently barren. But his own identity as a poet may have been another influence: Adams and Sussman both explore in depth the challenges Tennyson (and other male Victorian writers) had to overcome in order to conceptualize their work as manly--he could not, after all, claim to work in quite the same masculine arena as lawyers, business owners, and other professionals. A man in such a position might well fantasize a world where manly work got done in a comparatively gender-neutral environment.
(18) To Ruskin, it might not have been so surprising that a man traversing the wilderness could enjoy the support of a woman even outside the literal home: "Wherever a true wife comes, this home is always round her. The stars only may be over her head; the glowworm in the night-cold grass may be the only fire at her foot; but home is yet wherever she is; and for a noble woman it stretches far round her, better than ceiled with cedar, or painted with vermilion, shedding its quiet light far, for those who else were homeless" (p. 78). Ruskin, however, probably did not imagine a wife supporting her husband in the ways that Lynette supports Gareth and, in some cases, directs his action.
(19) Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur, ed. Janet Cowen with an introduction by John Lawlor, 2 vols. (New York: Penguin Books, 1969), 1:244, 248. All references to Malory's text are from the first volume of this edition.
(20) In Malory's text, Gareth does not ask Lynet for permission to deviate from their course and rescue the man. Compared to its medieval source, the Victorian poem again emphasizes Lynette's influence over Gareth.
(21) Malory's Lynet also uses the term "hardy" at this moment in the story; however, Arthur's four manly and sometimes contradictory standards are the Victorian text's invention, and therefore so too are the conflicts between them and Lynette's resolution of those conflicts.
(22) Jeffrey E. Jackson points out how Lancelot's later comment that "With sword we have not striven" (1. 1232)--ostensibly just a remark on the fact that he and Gareth have jousted, but not completed combat and thus not truly determined who is the superior fighter--draws attention to how little Gareth has really used his weapon. "The Once and Future Sword: Excalibur and the Poetics of Imperial Heroism in Idylls of the King," VP 46, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 214.
(23) It might be argued that the revelation of Gareth and Lynette's marriage at the end finally provides evidence of growth on Gareth's part; previously, Gareth had shown no romantic interest in Lynette or any other woman--he had merely promised Arthur that "God wot, I love not yet, / But love I shall, God willing" (ll. 550-551). But even this is unsatisfactory. In the Morte d'Arthur, Gareth marries Lyonesse after a passionate courtship described at length and in some detail. Tennyson, in contrast, springs the news of Gareth's marriage to Lynette in the last few lines, and the poem ends before describing any of Gareth's feelings.
(24) Balin, in his struggle to regain Arthur's approval, which he had earlier lost by striking a churl, observes that what the King admires most in Lancelot is his gentleness (ll. 179-180). Emulating Lancelot's veneration of Guinevere, Balin asks Arthur's permission to decorate his shield with the image of Guinevere's crown; the King agrees, "So this will help him with his violences" (l. 201). Balin's final decline into madness is brought about by his realization that by killing Garlon, even after the latter provoked him by insulting Arthur, he has failed in his attempt to become gentle and will thus never achieve Arthur's approval.
(25) James Kincaid argues that Lynette "threatens all manhood," but also that her marriage to Gareth at the end of the poem celebrates the union of manliness and gentleness, implying that Lynette embodies the latter virtue (Tennyson's Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975], pp. 166-169). However, since gentleness is itself an essential component of manhood as it is constructed in the poem (and in Idylls more generally), these two claims would be mutually exclusive unless Lynette experienced profound change. Such a transformation does indeed take place, but it would be nearer the mark to say that Lynette initially lacks gentleness and thus manhood but ultimately achieves them both.
(26) Here I differ somewhat from Randy J. Fertel, who suggests that Gareth's concealment of his identity from Lynette is the little lie that snowballs into the great deception that finally undermines Arthur's order ("Antipastoral and the Attack on Naturalism in Tennyson's Idylls of the King," VP 19, no. 4 [Winter, 1981]: 341-342). Gareth's concealment of the truth foreshadows more sinister dishonesty, but it does not lead to it. Although it is true that Lynette's faith in Arthur is shaken, she only acquired this faith in the first place by observing Gareth's virtues: as noted, her original lack of faith in the King is apparent when she arrives at court and explains to Arthur how she would take better care of the realm if she were in his place. Moreover, her faith is shaken but not abandoned: she recovers it a moment later.
(27) Lynette's reliance on hearing as opposed to vision further differentiates her from Malory's Lynet. The importance of Lynet's gaze in Gareth's achievement of masculinity in the medieval version of the story is described in detail by Molly Martin; indeed Lynet's visual evaluation of Gareth is so well developed that Martin makes this part of the Morte d'Arthur the focus of the first chapter in her book-length study of vision in Malory's text (Molly Martin, Vision and Gender in Malory's Morte Darthur [Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2010]).
(28) Lancelot's love for Guinevere might be considered faithful according to the traditions of courtly love in the sense that he loves the Queen and nobody else. However, it is highly unlikely that this is the kind of thing Arthur had in mind when he told Gareth that his knights must love faithfully.
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|Title Annotation:||Alfred Tennyson|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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