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

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. 72). Instead, Webster appears to turn to male speakers to explore topics that are, in Patricia Rigg's words, "more broadly human"--questions of religious faith and doubt, truth and knowledge, self and other, all presented as universal and genderless. (6)

This essay will argue, rather, that women poets contested, through the form of the dramatic monologue, this very construction of gender difference that their dramatic monologues seem to uphold in content--namely, the association of intellectual inquiry and the authoritative subject position with men, on the one hand, which relegates women to the realm of personal experience and private feeling, and the universalization of the male point of view, on the other, which genders only the female sex. To do so, I will focus on the dramatic monologues of Augusta Webster, not only because she was the most prolific Victorian woman writer of monologues, but also because she wrote more monologues with male speakers than with female. Indeed, Webster consistently weighted each of her collections of dramatic poetry more heavily with male speakers, with four male and three female speakers in her first collection, Dramatic Studies (1866), and six male and four female in her second collection, Portraits (1870). When she added a fifth female speaker to the expanded edition of Portraits in 1893 (the previously unpublished poem "Faded"), she in turn added two more male speakers, both reprints from Dramatic Studies ("A Preacher" and "A Painter"). Webster even divided the speakers of Portraits by sex, opening with the female speakers and closing with the male, making sexual difference the organizing principle of the collection. All this invites us to consider closely not only the relationship between Webster's dramatic monologues and the canonical men's, but also the relationship between her male and female speakers and the relation of gender to form--both the form of the dramatic monologue and the structure of her collections--all of which, I suggest, is key to understanding the relationship between gender and genre in women's dramatic monologues.


In comparing Webster's male monologists with the canonical men's, one might be struck more immediately by their differences than by their similarities. As Angela Leighton has observed, in contrast to the extraordinary perspectives of Browning's and Tennyson's monologists, who range from monomaniacs, murderers, charlatans, and cheats to visionaries, prophets, saints, and martyrs, Webster's speakers seem altogether more ordinary. (7) An unnamed preacher, an unknown painter, an unsuccessful inventor, a soldier returning home from war, an ordinary man wrestling with religious doubt or with the snares of social convention: these are but a few of Webster's many male personae, all unnamed and generally unremarkable. (8) With the exception of "With the Dead," Webster seems to adopt the mask, as Rigg argues, "to construct speakers more generic and representative than Browning's particularized individuals" (p. 66). (9) The result is speakers who seem more sympathetically portrayed and monologues that appear to be focused less on the psychology of the speaker and ironic character revelation than on social and cultural critique. As Leighton writes, these "speakers are not so much victims of an irony which exposes their standards or double dealings as they are victims of historical and social double standards outside themselves" (p. 178). This shifts the poems' interest, Rigg contends, "from the individual within a social context to the society that makes up that context" (pp. 66-67).

At first blush, then, Webster's male speakers seem different from the canonical men's in the same ways that women's monologues with female speakers have been seen as different: Webster appears to sympathize more with her speakers, employing irony to target more the social systems that produce the speakers than the speakers themselves. And like her female speakers, as I have argued elsewhere, Webster's male speakers do not enjoy the linguistic freedom and power that characterize Browning's paradigmatic speakers--the freedom to tell, in Dorothy Mermin's words, "with absolute self-command and impunity, the worst of truths." (10) In contrast, Webster's male speakers more often lament their linguistic impotence and failure. For example, even though Webster's Preacher boasts the kind of linguistic power taken for granted in the canonical monologues--in his words, "the power" of "willing" something done "[a]nd the thing is done"--the Preacher's complaint is that he has no such power over himself (11. 77, 78, 81); he cannot will himself "[o]ne least small breath of power beyond the wont," cannot awaken in himself the same "burning faith" that he awakens in others (11. 82, 52). Conversely, Webster's Painter is convinced he has the genius of Raphael and Michelangelo--"something of the soul I That was their art" (11. 38-39)--but he cannot convince his critics of the same. In his eyes, the only mark of genius that the critics are capable of recognizing is an artist's name, which this pointedly unnamed painter lacks. Without it, he is doomed to failure. As the Painter states of his self-proclaimed masterpiece, "It has failed / Of course--I always fail. Yet on the whole /1 think the world would praise it were I known" (11. 240-242).

Thus, when we compare Webster's male monologists to the canonical men's, their differences might seem to confirm the gender difference that critics have found between men's and women's dramatic monologues--or, more precisely, between women's female speakers and the canonical male speakers. In other words, the differences between Webster's male speakers and the canonical men's seem to support the view that male and female poets exploited the genre differently, regardless of the sex of the dramatic speakers. However, when we compare Webster's male speakers to her female speakers, I suggest that the differences between them reveal surprising similarities between her male speakers and the canonical men's, similarities that complicate the question of sexual and gender difference once again.

Unlike her female speakers, who are intensely self-conscious of the ways in which gender constitutes and constrains their identities, subjectivities, and speech, her male speakers are altogether oblivious of gender--at least, of their own. Regardless of their social and cultural position, whether a messenger from God ("Jeanne d'Arc"), a cloistered nun ("Sister Annunciata"), a powerful sorceress ("Medea in Athens"; "Circe"), a high-class prostitute ("A Castaway"), a beautiful bride ("The Happiest Girl in the World"), or simply a plain girl ("By the Looking-Glass") or an old woman ("Faded"), all of Webster's female speakers define themselves as women and wrestle with the ways in which the category of "woman" in turn defines them. As the poems' titles indicate, each speaker is located within and confined by the dominant gender ideology, which defines and values all women according to their market/marriageability. Thus, the plain girl is defined "by the looking-glass"; the bride-to-be is defined as "the happiest girl in the world"; the prostitute Eulalie is defined as "a castaway"; and the old and unmarried woman is defined as "faded." Even those who seem to have escaped this measure of a woman's worth--as Eulalie puts it, "that a woman's life, / Her natural life, her good life, her one life, / Is in her husband" ("A Castaway," 11. 388-390)--still find themselves caught in its logic. Sister Annunciata is committed to a convent (or compelled to "choose the cloister") in order to save "one dower" in a home with "too many daughters" ("Sister Annunciata," 11. 489, 488, 479); Circe centers her entire being and existence on finding--or rather, being found by--"the one true right man" "whom fate will send I One day to be [her] master utterly" ("Circe," 11. 190, 110-111); and Medea's entire story of vengeance, which culminates in the murder of her children, originates, in Euripides' play, in Jason's breaking of his marriage oath and concludes, in Webster's poem, with her marriage to Aegeus. Even Jeanne d'Arc, who willingly chooses God and country over husband and home, is suspected of sorcery and heresy for that same reason--because she "obeyed the visions" at the expense of "thoughts of happy love / Such as some women know in happy homes, / Laying their heads upon a husband's breast" ("Jeanne d'Arc," 11. 163, 148-150).

As these examples illustrate, to occupy the subject status of "woman" is to be subjected to norms of femininity that govern whether or not one will be regarded as a (normative) woman. To violate those norms is to risk one's status as a woman, to risk being constituted instead as a "sorceress and one impure" ("Jeanne d'Arc," 1. 171), "a clumsy creature smelling of earth" ("By the Looking-Glass," 1. 43), a "fiend" or "slimy thing out of the pools" or an "animal / That feed[s] men's lusts and prey[s] on them" ("A Castaway," 11. 28, 394-395), or as "ghosts" and "lifeless husks" ("Faded," 1. 77). It is to be constituted, in short, as not-woman. As Webster's female speakers illustrate further, these norms of femininity extend to speech. Speaking as a woman, each woman's speech is constrained by the same gender ideology and the same norms of femininity. To speak as a woman requires speaking in a way that is recognizable--"legible," in Judith Butler's terms--as the speech of a woman, in a way that conforms to the norms of a specifically feminine "speakability," to adopt Butler's phrase. (11) Where "[t]o become a subject means to be subjected to a set of implicit and explicit norms that govern the kind of speech that will be legible as the speech of a subject," any violation of those norms "risk[s] one's status as a subject" and threatens "a certain dissolution of the subject" (pp. 134, 136, original emphasis). As Butler writes, "If the subject speaks impossibly, speaks in ways that cannot be regarded as speech or as the speech of a subject, then that speech is discounted and the viability of the subject called into question" (p. 136).

With Webster's female speakers, we can see the gendered norms of speakability operating on both their speech and subjectivity. As Melissa Valiska Gregory has argued, Medea's self and speech break down precisely at the point where she asserts that "her sons' deaths were for the 'best' [11. 248, 256]." (12) Such unmaternal sentiment is unspeakable and makes Medea both mad and monstrous, as her nightmares attest. She describes "ill dreams" in which she "moan[s] in tossing fever thirsts" to see her sons "loathe [her], fly from [her] in dread, / When [she] would feed [her] hungry mouth with kisses" (11. 257, 260, 258-259). (15) In "Sister Annunciata," the speaker violates speakability when she questions God's intentions for women, suggesting that he will "have only market marriages" as some kind of perverse reminder of "[t]he anger and distrust that haunt earth's homes" (11. 531, 534). Recognizing her transgression, Annunciata immediately repudiates her speech as a moment of madness and even demon possession:
   Am I mad? Am I mad? I rave
   Some blasphemy which is not of myself!
   What is it? Was there a demon here just now
   By me, within me? Those were not my thoughts
   Which just were thought or spoken--which was it?
   Oh not my thoughts, not mine! (11. 546-551)

And as I have argued elsewhere, Eulalie's scathing critique in "A Castaway" of the Victorian gender ideology that both condemns and sustains her "trade" is made possible only by the absence of an auditor who would otherwise subject her speech to the norms of speakability (1. 67). (14) When an auditor does enter at the end of the monologue, Eulalie immediately changes her "frank tone" of "straight-speaking dissent," for which she is often praised, into one of disingenuous companionability. (15) While to herself, in private, she rails against "the cackling goose" that she sees in her auditor, to her auditor, she says instead, "Most welcome, dear: one gets so moped alone" (11. 626, 630).

However, even in the absence of auditors, the speakers of "By the Looking-Glass" and "The Happiest Girl in the World" are equally conscious of the norms of speakability and the threat to their viability as subjects should they violate those norms. Speaking entirely to themselves, the speakers censor their very thoughts at the slightest hint of any transgression of feminine speakability. The plain girl wonders what "might have been" had the man who first showed interest in her not ultimately chosen her sister for a bride, and immediately silences herself at the thought: "But it might have been--for did he not speak I With that slow sweet cadence that seemed made deep / By a meaning--Hush! he has chosen his bride" (11. 131-133). She then rewrites her regret into sisterly support, returning her speech to the domain of speakability: "Oh! happy smile on her lips and her cheek, / My darling! And I have no cause to weep" (11. 134-135). Similarly, the Happiest Girl defends herself against any suspicion of unmaternal monstrosity by rewriting her maternal aversion as a form of marital devotion. Insisting twice that she "cannot wish" for "women's dearest wish ... I To press a baby creature to [her] breast" (11. 238, 239-240), she asks twice, "Is it wrong?" (11. 234, 241), sensing the unspeakability of the sentiment. (16) Answering, however, that she fears dividing her devotion or reducing her "service" to her husband--"I would be all for him, / Not even children coming twixt us two / To call me from his service, to serve them" (11. 241-242)--she contains the threat of the unspeakable by re-embodying the norms of an unmistakably feminine speakability. (17)


Thus, for Webster's female speakers, gender is not simply a thematic preoccupation, the central subject of their monologues, but the constitutive condition of their subjecthood--their identities, their subjectivities, their speech. As women, they must obey and embody the norms of feminine speakability or risk being constituted as monstrous or mad--as not women and not subjects of speech. Defined as women, they are defined solely in their relation to men and marriage. In contrast, Webster's male speakers evince no consciousness of the ways in which their identities, subjectivities, and speech are conditioned or constrained by gender, or constituted and constructed as gendered. Rather than defining themselves as men, they define themselves and are defined by their professions, passions, pursuits, principles, ideologies, or actions, as Webster's titles once again reflect: "A Preacher," "A Painter," "An Inventor," "A Soul in Prison," "A Dilettante," a speaker "Tired" of society's follies, or a soldier "Coming Home." Accordingly, their monologues focus not on the problems of gender but, like the canonical men's dramatic monologues, on questions of religious faith and doubt, the nature of truth and the limits of knowledge, the principles of art and aesthetics, the relation between self and other, and perhaps most of all, the relation between self and self--the question of how one becomes oneself; remains true to oneself; avoids cheating, deceiving, or losing oneself. As the Painter asks in despair, confronted with the seemingly insuperable barriers to achieving his full artistic potential, "who can tell / If now I ever shall become myself?" (11. 126-127). The Inventor, faced with similar impediments, wrestles with the choice of being "traitor to them" (his family) or "traitor to [hirrjself" in allowing his work and purpose to go unfulfilled (11. 123, 128). And recognizing the "falseness" he feels "clogging" him in his lack of faith in God, the Preacher likewise refuses to "cheat [him]self" as others have done by "schooling]" or "scarfing]" himself into "an unbased belief' "through a delusion" (11. 50, 161, 164, 113, 165, 166).

And though Webster's male speakers, like her female, do not experience the linguistic power and freedom that characterize the canonical speakers, the reason for their linguistic failure is not that their speech is constrained by gender, as it is for her female speakers, but, paradoxically, because they speak from a position of greater authority. As the last example illustrates, the Preacher's inability to awaken in himself the same "burning faith" that he awakens in others is due to his ability to see through his own falseness and his concomitant unwillingness to fool himself into faith (1. 52). It is this that distinguishes him from others and establishes his superiority over them. Unlike the "[g]ood men" who are "honest, though not overwise / Nor studious of the subtler depths of minds / Below the surface strata" (11. 110-112), or those "with thin minds / Of the effervescent kind, easy to froth, / Though easier to let stagnate" (11. 125127), the Preacher is "one / Who calmly says 'I know--this is a dream, / A mere mirage sprung up of heat and mist; / It cannot slake my thirst" (11. 150-152). He is therefore one, and seemingly the only one, who can see through the "surface strata," "dream," and "delusion," even of someone like himself. As the Preacher admits, if another man like him were to decry exactly what the Preacher denounces in his monologue--that is, preachers like himself who "serv[e] God like clock-work sentinels" (1. 32)--he, "like the rest," would condemn him(self) as a "charlatan" (11. 33, 34). The Preacher therefore fails to move himself to faith in the way that he has moved others precisely because he succeeds where others have not--he sees through the delusions that deceive others, including his own false act.

Similarly, the Painter fails, in his own view, not because of the failure of his power as an artist, but because of the failure of critics to recognize his artistic power and genius. Dismissing them as critics only "[b]ecause they have learned grammar" (1. 29), he denies their authority to judge his works, which he grants only to the old masters:
      the men who worked
   For something more than our great crown of art
   The small green label in the corner, knew
   Another public than our May-fair crowds,
   Raphael and Michael Angelo and such-Whose
   works sold well too. They should have been left
   My judges whether something of the soul
   That was their art had not been given me. (11. 32-39)

The speaker thus claims for himself the authority of the artist that no mere critic can claim, and thereby protects himself from their criticism and censure. Indeed, as Rigg notes, he shields himself from any criticism or censure by making the departed Raphael and Michelangelo his only worthy judges (p. 74). He therefore places himself above judgment by all but himself, and his self-judgment only confirms his artistic power: "I know there is in me / Another power than what men's eyes yet find / In these poor works of mine" (11. 124-125).

Even the Soul in Prison, who presents himself as lacking all authority in his pursuit of religious truth and knowledge, claims a greater authority on those very grounds. As a soul who "grope[s] and strainfs]" "in the dark," the speaker searches for a teacher who will "lift" and "guide" him out of his prison-house of doubt (11. 9, 2, 7, 11). In the religious tract before him, however, the author refuses to answer any questions of doubt, like so many other religious teachers, leading the speaker to ask the "toothed question," "Do these, who know most, not know anything?" (11. 114, 115). His conclusion is that they know less than nothing, since they do not even know that they do not know anything. Rather, with "[t]he zealot's warp, who takes believed for proved; / The disciple's warp, who takes declared for proved; / The teacher's warp, who takes defined for proved," they "cannot think 'I know not'" (11. 184-187). In contrast, it is precisely the ability to think "I know not" that differentiates the speaker from the author, the doubters from the teachers, and sets the former above the latter. For although both are ignorant, "[o]ur doubt," the speaker asserts, "is consciousness of ignorance, / Your faith unconsciousness of ignorance; / So you know less than we" (11. 180-182).

The differences between Webster's male and female speakers thus point up some striking similarities between Webster's male speakers and the canonical men's: neither focus on gender in the way that Webster's female speakers do, both interrogate epistemological questions instead, and both do so from a position of authority and power. If these differences also seem to reinforce contemporary notions of an essential difference between men and women--namely, the association of men with intellectual inquiry, presented as authoritative and universal (i.e., genderless), and the relegation of women to the realm of personal (i.e., gendered) experience and private feeling--I suggest that they also reveal Webster's critique of this very notion of gender difference. Through these differences, Webster places her monologues with male speakers in dialogue with her monologues with female speakers and places both in dialogue with the canonical monologues. Read together and against each other, as I demonstrate next, Webster's monologues expose the process by which this particular notion of gender difference is constructed and maintained.


Although Webster's male speakers and the canonical men's both claim for themselves a position of authority and power, they differ in the kind of authority and power claimed. The canonical speakers can be said to claim a godlike linguistic omnipotence, the power to do by saying. For Cornelia Pearsall, this linguistic power in the canonical dramatic monologues is what defines the genre more generally. According to Pearsall, the dramatic monologue "constitute[s] efficacious, highly intentional articulations" and is characterized by its speakers' "assumption of rhetorical efficacy": every speaker of a dramatic monologue "seeks to accomplish something in the monologue, by way of the monologue," and every speaker succeeds. (18) In contradistinction, Webster's male speakers can be said to claim a godlike omniscience, the power to transcend their individual subjectivities and subject positions to see and know all, including themselves, even if it is only their own blindness and ignorance.

However, as we have seen, to establish and maintain this position of superiority, each speaker must construct an other or others who are positioned as inferior--as less knowing and less aware. In "A Preacher," they are the "surface," "thin," and "effervescent" minds of other preachers who are able to scare themselves into faith and able to accept a "dream" and "mirage" as truth. In "A Soul in Prison," they are the religious teachers who have faith without knowing doubt, and thus know less than nothing since they do not know that they do not know. In "A Painter," they are the critics who are unable to see or recognize true genius when it appears before them, as well as the "fashionable world that chatters art" (1. 111). Indeed, the authority that the Painter lays claim to is truly godlike in that it is granted by God himself. It is only "[w]e painters," the speaker asserts, who know true beauty and the truth of beauty ("How one can live on beauty and be rich / Having only that--a thing not hard to find, / For all the world is beauty") (11. 219, 216-218); only "[w]e know that," the speaker claims, since it is only "[w]e painters ... whom God shows how to see" (11. 218, 219).

When the other is female, however, the male speaker constructs her not merely as an inferior other to himself, but also as an inferior other who is a reflection of himself. Whereas the self-deceived preachers, ignorant teachers, and unqualified art critics are all perceived by the speakers as subjects in their own right--autonomous entities with independent identities and even their own claims to authority--the female others to Webster's male monologists are all viewed as reflections of the speaker's self. Perhaps the clearest sign of the male speakers' differing relation to the male and female other is the imaginary dialogue that each holds with the male other, a dialogue that is markedly absent when the other is female. For instance, the entire monologue of "A Soul in Prison" consists of the speaker's imaginary dialogue with the author of the religious text he has just finished reading, while the Painter quotes at length and often the different critical responses he has received and anticipates receiving to his work. In these imaginary dialogues, each speaker represents his male auditor as an authoritative speaking subject (almost) equal to himself, which in turn increases his own claims to authority and superiority. Indeed, the Preacher even imagines an auditor identical to himself by imagining that he is the auditor to a speaker like himself (someone who would preach the sermon he would like to preach), which increases his superiority even further by placing him above an already elevated subject.

In contrast, the male speakers do not direct the substance of their monologues to the female other, in either actual or imaginary dialogue. Rather, the female other appears in their monologues only in the margins, as an illustration of or interruption to the speaker's thoughts. For instance, the Preacher's wife, Jane, first appears in the monologue only in an incidental--indeed, parenthetical--aside, as an example of the speaker's present point. Perplexed that the very power of his preaching leads him into careless errors that "carry [him] I Athwart the truth at times before" he realizes it (11. 185-186), the speaker offers Jane up as the latest example of the way in which his "knack / Of sermon-making" brings him to "blame by rote, / Where by [his] private judgment [he] blame[s] not" (11. 183-184, 197-198). Whereas he had preached the importance of focusing exclusively on "Heaven's thoughts" and "Sunday thoughts" on Sundays (1. 201), Jane's casual comment after the sermon reveals to him his error in advising a "separation of our thoughts / By Sundays and by week-days" (11. 203-204). As he explains, "(I thought of it coming home while my good Jane / Talked of the Shetland pony I must get / For the boys to learn to ride.)" (11. 194-196). Jane does not appear again until the poem's final lines, when she interrupts and ends the monologue by calling the speaker to "[p]rayers and supper" (1. 253). By describing her in the final line as "Dear Jane, who thinks me half a saint" (1. 254), the speaker makes her an example of his argument once again: the fact that he has fooled even his wife into believing him "half a saint" proves both the power of his performance and his falseness as a preacher.

In "A Painter," the speaker's wife Ruth similarly enters the poem mid-monologue, as an interruption to the Painter's speech rather than its intended auditor (1. 128). Indeed, even after her entrance, the Painter continues his imaginary dialogue with the critics as though Ruth had not entered at all. When he does address her, it is to beg her to restore his faith in himself by praising his self-declared masterpiece--to reflect back to him, in other words, the image of himself he wants to see:
   ... persuade me with your earnest voice
   And look of long belief, this twentieth time--
   Persuade me that the day we hope must come,
   Because it is myself ...

   And come now, find me in my picture there
   Something to praise ... (11. 132-135, 142-143)

Like the Preacher, the Painter thus turns his wife into a reflection of his own image while projecting onto her the image of her that he desires. Speaking for her rather than to her, the Painter insists (to himself, in her absence) that despite his failure and all their hardships, Ruth is still happier with him because she is his happiness:
   But you are happier even in our want
   And your enduring than you would have been
   Still pining, smiling, on, the mere fed slave
   Of a cross idiot and her hoyden brats.

   You are happy, love;
   We have our many troubles, many doubts,
   We are at war with fate and a hard world,

   And God knows whether we shall overcome;
   But you are happy, love, because you know
   You are my happiness. (11. 185-188, 198-203)

Whether or not this is true for Ruth we cannot know, since the first-person convention of the dramatic monologue gives us only the speaker's thoughts and speech, and then the auditor's response only through the speaker. Likewise, we cannot know what Jane actually thinks of the Preacher--whether she considers him "half a saint" as he says. All we know is what the Preacher thinks Jane thinks and what the Painter believes or wants to believe Ruth feels.

Like the canonical male monologists, then, Webster's male speakers reduce the female other to a projection or reflection of the male self. As U. C. Knoepflmacher has argued, Browning's dramatic monologues both dramatize and ironize the "act of projection by which a devouring male ego reduces [a] Female Other into nothingness" in the speaker's "attempts mentally to possess a Female Other." (19) In such poems as "Porphyria's Lover," "My Last Duchess," "Andrea del Sarto," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb," and "Fra Lippo Lippi," the male speakers all "flatten" the female other into "a mere image, a representation, an object of art" (p. 143). While Webster's more ordinary male speakers may not be driven, like Browning's Duke and Porphyria's Lover, to murder the female other that they wish to possess (though the speaker of "With the Dead" is), they still "deanimate" and "flatten" her in more ordinary ways (pp. 143, 147, 154, 142). This is, I suggest, a difference of degree, not kind. Like Porphyria's Lover, the Painter imputes to Ruth "his own wishes without any fear of contradiction"; in her absence, he "impose[s] his own mental processes on [her] mind" (pp. 152, 151). Like Porphyria, Jane "exists solely within the speaker's words," and like the female other in so many of Browning's monologues, the female other to Webster's male speakers "remain the perennial captives of masculine speech" (pp. 155, 143).

Perhaps the clearest example of this is Webster's "Tired," in which the speaker fully admits to creating his wife, Madge, in his own image, and acknowledges it was a "mistake" to do so (11. 132, 133). Priding himself on being an enlightened liberal intellectual who was always "against the multitude" and "who [has] been bold to hurl revolt / At great Queen Bugaboo, Society" (11. 341, 136-137), the speaker explains that he had first chosen "[his] simple peasant girl" Madge "for being all unlike the tutored type" (11. 22, 68)--that is, women who "live by drill and laugh by drill," "women who have learned / Sweet level speech and quiet courtesies" and who "waste each other's time" in "treadmill ceremonies, mimic tasks" (11. 33, 86,364, 359). Thus, as Rigg observes, the speaker has chosen Madge because she reflects his social ideals (p. 139). However, after transplanting "[his] wood violet" to the "artificial soil" of his higher class, and then "mould[ing]" her to the very customs he despises, the speaker is disappointed to discover that Madge is just "like the rest" (11. 23, 127, 69, 21)--that "the prized dissimilarity / Was outer husk and not essential core," and that his "wife is just the wife [his] any friend / Selects among [his] any friend's good girls" (11. 94-95, 96-97). Regretting his "mistake" in believing Madge would be his "rich ideal" of a woman, and thus regretting his choice of wife, the speaker wonders if Madge would be "over sorry to come out / Into free loneliness with [him]," to leave society for "[c]lear tints and sunshine, glowing seas and skies, / Beauty of mountains and of girdled plains ..." (11. 109, 352-353, 354-355). He decides (for her) that she would be: "[f]or she loves that round / Of treadmill ceremonies, mimic tasks, / We make our women's lives" (11. 358-360).

Again, however, we cannot know whether this is true of Madge or whether the speaker has mistaken her once more. We cannot know this not only because of the first-person convention of the dramatic monologue, which limits us to the speaker's thoughts, speech, and subjectivity, but also because the speaker himself does not know; he never puts the question to Madge. As Rigg argues, "The fact that once again he thinks for Madge and is reluctant to ask her whether she would leave her present circumstances with him underscores his dependence on an idealized, unproven image of himself' (p. 140). Like Webster's other male monologists, this tired speaker keeps the musings of his monologue to himself, speaking about the female other and for her, but not to her. When he finally addresses her at the end of the monologue, as Madge enters dressed for a party, he speaks not as to another authoritative subject like himself but to an inferior female other. As other critics have noted, the speaker's tone in his final address to Madge is clearly infantilizing: (20)
      Ready, love, at last?
   Why, what a rosy June! A flush of bloom
   Sparkling with crystal dews--Ah silly one,
   You love these muslin roses better far
   Than those that wear the natural dew of heaven. (11. 395-399)

As others have also noted, however, Madge's reply, reported by the speaker-that "[t]he wild flowers in a room's hot stifling glare / Would die in half a minute" (11. 404-405)--counters the way that she is constructed by him. For Leighton, the wild flower is a symbol for Madge, who "must find a way not to 'die in half a minute' in the life her husband has chosen for her" (p. 192). Madge's choice of muslin roses thus represents her attempt at self-preservation and survival, both in her new social class and in her marriage.

Webster thus gives clues--"signals behind the speaker's back"--that call into question the male speakers' constructions of the female other, which in turn calls into question the speakers' constructions of themselves as authoritative, enlightened, and even omniscient subjects. Jane might not revere the Preacher as he thinks, if she forgets his sermon as quickly as he reports. By the Preacher's own account, Jane "had heard my sermon and no doubt / Ought, as I told my flock, to dwell on that" (11. 225-226). That she did not, however, suggests that she may well see through his act after all, recognizing the sermon as one of his "lessons" of habit, those "lessons and rebukes long made / So much a thing of course that, unobserving, / One sets them down as one puts dots to i's, I Crosses to t's" (11. 238-241). Likewise, Ruth may not center her being and happiness on the Painter as he believes, given that she does not stay to salve his ego as he requests. Indeed, we might even hear in her response, inferred from the speaker's "[y]es, yes," some impatience at the request: "No you cannot stay--I Yes, yes, I hear the summons. If Blanche cries--" (11. 144-145). In light of her abrupt exit, we might infer further that Ruth's sudden entrance into the monologue was not to "[c]ome to learn [the speaker's] trouble" as the Painter assumes, but because he had "startle[d]" not Ruth but the baby with his "sudden steps and speaking loud" (11. 103, 104). If we cannot trust his interpretation of her outward speech and actions, then we can trust even less his interpretation of her inner thoughts and feelings.

Far from the omniscient and superior subjects they believe themselves to be, Webster's male speakers are thus revealed to be not only blind to their own faults and failures but also blind to their own blindness. Perhaps worse than the religious teachers who are merely unconscious of their ignorance, these speakers, who claim to be conscious of their ignorance, are unconscious of their unconsciousness and call their double blindness superior sight. In the solitude of interior monologue, they need never think otherwise, never exposing their thoughts to the auditor who may challenge their constructions of themselves and others. Through the dramatic monologue, however, Webster exposes the lie, exploiting the distance of the mask to dramatize and ironize this process by which the male speaker constructs himself as the primary and universal subject and constructs the female other as the secondary and inferior sex. He does so, Webster reveals, not only by elevating himself to the godlike position of omniscience, able to transcend the limitations of his own perspective to see through others as well as himself, nor simply by reducing the female other to an inferior image of himself. He does so further by reserving the position of authoritative speaking only to other male subjects, even when they are merely imaginary. This reveals the extent to which the male subject has constructed the female sex as entirely other--he cannot imagine the female other as a speaking subject in her own right, not even within the confines of interior monologue or imaginary dialogue.

It is this erasure of female subjects as subjects from her male speakers' consciousness that, Webster suggests, constructs and compounds the gender difference between men and women, construed as the gender difference of women. Discoursing on questions of epistemology, religion, philosophy, even gender, Webster's male speakers never think of women as interlocutors, only as illustrations of their thought. They never ask what they think or invite them into dialogue; they only state what (they think) the women think. As the Happiest Girl puts it, "I think nothing, only hear him think" (1. 18). Excluding women from abstract intellectual discourse, the male speakers designate it a masculine preserve and simultaneously rule its topics universal or "human" subjects. In her monologues with female speakers, however, Webster exposes the effects of this construction of gender difference by men: all the women are reduced entirely to their gender, which simultaneously constitutes and constrains their identities, subjectivities, and speech. And yet, by placing her female speakers first in her collections, Webster ensures, through the resources of the dramatic monologue, that we hear them think and hear what they think, even if the male speakers do not. Indeed, by showing that they do not in the cross-gendered monologues that follow, Webster exposes the male speakers' ignorance: both blind and deaf, they have created the world in their flawed image and called it good.


(1) Dorothy Mermin, "The Damsel, the Knight, and the Victorian Woman Poet," Critical Inquiry 13, no. 1 (1986): 75.

(2) Glennis Byron, Dramatic Monologue (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 59.

(3) Byron, Dramatic Monologue, p. 5; Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 316 (accessed via Taylor and Francis e-Library, 2005). For discussions of the dramatic monologue as a critique of the nature of the self, see Herbert F. Tucker Jr., "From Monomania to Monologue: 'St. Simeon Stylites' and the Rise of the Victorian Dramatic Monologue," Victorian Poetry 22, no. 2 (1984): 121-137; Herbert F. Tucker, Jr., "Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric," in Critical Essays on Robert Browning, ed. Mary Ellis Gibson (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), pp. 21-36; Carol T. Christ, Victorian and Modern Poetics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984); and Loy D. Martin, Browning's Dramatic Monologues and the Post-Romantic Subject (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985).

(4) Cf. Mermin, "The Damsel, the Knight"; Armstrong, Victorian Poetry; Byron, Dramatic Monologue; Kate Flint, "'... As a Rule, I Does Not Mean I': Personal identity and the Victorian woman poet," in Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present, ed. Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 156-166 (accessed via Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2002).

(5) All references to Webster's poetry are drawn from Augusta Webster: Portraits and Other Poems, ed. Christine Sutphin (Toronto: Broadview, 2000).

(6) Patricia Rigg, Julia Augusta Webster: Victorian Aestheticism and the Woman Writer (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2009), p. 68.

(7) Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing against the Heart (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 178, 180, 182, 201.

(8) The poems are, respectively, "A Preacher," "A Painter," "An Inventor," "Coming Home," "A Soul in Prison," and "Tired."

(9) Rigg classifies most of Webster's monologues as monodramas due primarily to their lack of empirical auditors in the poems. I argue elsewhere that the auditor is essential to the dramatic monologue genre even when absent, so its absence should not disqualify a poem from the genre. Rigg, Julia Augusta Webster; Helen Luu, "A Matter of Life and Death: The Auditor-Function of the Dramatic Monologue," Victorian Poetry 54, no. 1 (2016): 19-38.

(10) Luu, "A Matter of Life and Death"; Dorothy Mermin, The Audience in the Poem: Five Victorian Poets (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1983), p. 49.

(11) Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 133.

(12) Melissa Valiska Gregory, "Augusta Webster Writing Motherhood in the Dramatic Monologue and the Sonnet Sequence," Victorian Poetry 49, no. 1 (2011): 32.

(13) For an extended discussion of Medea's monstrosity, see Helen Luu, "Freaks of Femininity: Webster's Gallery of Female Grotesques in Portraits," Victorian Poetry 55, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 85-103.

(14) Luu, "A Matter of Life and Death," pp. 33-34.

(15) Kathleen Hickok, "Augusta Webster," in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century British Women Poets, Dictionary of Literary Biography 240, ed. William B. Thesing (Detroit: Gale, 2001), p. 339; Leighton, Victorian Women Poets, p. 200.

(16) For a fuller discussion of the speaker's monstrosity in "The Happiest Girl in the World," see Luu, "Freaks of Femininity."

(17) For a discussion of speakability in "Jeanne d'Arc" and "A Castaway," specifically in relation to auditors, see Luu, "A Matter of Life and Death."

(18) Cornelia Pearsall, Tennyson's Rapture: Transformation in the Victorian Dramatic Monologue (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), pp. 10, 23. For alternative accounts of rhetorical power in the dramatic monologue, cf. Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (New York: Norton, 1963) and Mermin, Audience in the Poem.

(19) U. C. Knoepflmacher, "Projection and the Female Other: Romanticism, Browning, and the Victorian Dramatic Monologue," Victorian Poetry 22, no. 2 (1984): 142-143, 141.

(20) Leighton calls the tone one of "infantilising patronage" (Victorian Women Poets, p. 191); Rigg describes it as "paternal and snide" (Julia Augusta Webster, p. 140); Byron refers to it as the speaker's "patronizing treatment of Madge" (Dramatic Monologue, p. 77).
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Author:Luu, Helen
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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