Introduction: The Male Body in Victorian Literature & Culture

Muller, Nadine and Joanne Ella Parsons (eds.), Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 36:4 (Autumn 2014)

Nadine Muller and Joanne Ella Parsons

School of Humanities & Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University
School of Humanities & Cultural Industries, Bath Spa University

This special issue is available here

There exists a considerable amount of research focused on the female body in the Victorian period, from texts such as Krugovoy Silver’s exploration of anorexic female bodies to Talairach-Vielmas’s Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels (2007) and Sondra Archimedes’Gendered Pathologies: The Female Body and Biomedical Discourse in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel (2005), to name but a few. However, the representations of and discourses surrounding the physicality of her male counterpart only have begun to be examined recently. Critics such as Andrew Dowling have questioned whether it is anachronistic to discuss masculinity in the nineteenth century because ‘the topic did not exist in the way we conceive it today’ (Dowling 1). He concludes that, while it was not a part of contemporary debate, the idea of what constituted manliness was deeply embedded within Victorian culture, not least through images of male deviance in the literature of the period. But despite the work completed by Dowling and others,[i] the breadth and depth of scholarship on Victorian men and masculinities leaves much to be explored.

John Bull taking a Luncheon. Or British Cooks, cramming Old Grumble-Gizzard, with Bonne-Chere

© Royal Museums Greenwich

But the starting point of this special issue is not masculinity. Rather, its central concern is the exploration of the Victorian male body not only as a signifier of a variety of gendered identities, anxieties, and norms but also as a physical canvas on which we can trace masculinity’s inherent intersections with nineteent h-century discourses of social class, empire, race, nationhood, disability, and science. In doing so, the issue goes beyond representations of male physical deviance and discipline. Joyce L. Huff’s recent work has begun to explore the connection between science and the rise of arithmetical ways of knowing, the growing fascination with weight, and its impact upon the male body.[ii] The impact of this Victorian need to quantify and categorise the male body is one of the concerns of this special issue, particularly in the context of science and physical excess. The issue begins with an essay that focuses on three early pieces of Victorian fiction – R. S. Surtees’s Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities (1838), Handley Cross (1843), and Hillingdon Hall (1845). In her exploration of these novels, Joanne Ella Parsons highlights the wider significance of male food consumption and its effects on the male body. Food, here, leads to literal physical excess that, in turn, also comes to signal class transgression as well as creating a particular sense of English masculinity all pivoting around the chaos of the carnivalesque.

Charlotte Mathieson shifts our attention away from corpulence and consumption and towards the surface of the male body. Moving forward into the mid-nineteenth-century, her analysis focuses on representations the sunburnt English traveller in the Victorian novel, in particular Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. While sunburn may be a commonplace feature of travel given the hot climates from which the men in question return, Mathieson argues that it nonetheless represents a rare instance of the body of the male body coming into view and destabilizing the identity categories of race, class, and gender which define the while, male, imperial subject. Through a contextualised analysis of Bleak House’s Allan Woodcourt, she explores how the male travelling body navigates these identities, and how his sunburned skin can give rise to potentially conflicting readings of the male body, not only in terms of race but also with regard to social class and gender.

Gilbert Bayes, "Sigurd" (1910)

© Tate Britain

Adding another layer to our reading of the nineteenth-century male body is Katherine Faulkner’s careful analysis and comparison of Gilbert Bayes’s fin-de-siècle chivalric statuettes and Burberry advertisements of men’s fashion. Faulkner maintains Parsons’s and Mathieson’s focus on national identity, but considers how the clothes which cover the male body contribute to these discourses. According to Faulkner, both the exaggerated bulk and impenetrable surfaces of Bayes’s statuettes and the supposed resistance and impermeability of Burberry’s men’s wear indicate an anxiety, Faulkner argues, regarding the potential vulnerability of the male body, an anxiety which led to the desire to invest the male body with a mythic strength and to promote the idea of a perfect and impenetrable man.

Within this context of the illusion of physical perfection, then, follows Clare Walker-Gore’s illuminating exploration of three texts that take as their inspiration the life of a disabled aristocratic man. Connections have also been established between concepts of manliness and the cult of muscular Christianity.[iii] Mary W. Blancharddiscusses how an ‘anthropology of “boyhood”, at the turn of the century stressed, too, that strong male bodies could be replicated by rigorous, consistent regime, thus tightening the boundaries around a narrow definition of manhood’ (49). In turn, the extreme or aberrant male body and its links with wider cultural concerns have discussed thoroughly within the field of disability studies, and particularly in examinations concerned with Victorian freak shows.[iv] Here, Walker-Gore expands on such discussions of the interplay between the disabled male body and the shifting notions of masculinity from the mid to the late-nineteenth century.Comparing two novels and a biography of her subject, she contends that these texts’ radically difference representations of the disabled male body illustrate their authors’ attempts to reconcile disability and differing models of masculinity, thus shedding light upon the shifting construction of these terms over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Returning us to the realm of categorisation and quantification – the exploding of which is the subject of the first essay in this issue – Shaun Richards considers the body of bachelor scientist,  who is not defined by physical excess but by disembodiment. Using Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) as a case study, Richards explores the de-corporealization of Doctor Ledsmar in comparison with the physicality of the novel’s red-headed seductive artist and its corpulent Catholic priest. In contrast to these characters, Richards argues, the bachelor scientist is a classifying subject, not a classified object, through whom the ethereal masculine mind is privileged over the femininized body as Ledmar’s male body is rendered invisible.


[1]    See, for example: James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (1995); Angus McLaren, The Trials of Masculinity Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870-1930 (1999); Herbert L. Tucker, Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art (2008); and John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family, and Empire (2005).

[2]   See Joyce L. Huff “‘A ‘Horror of Corpulence’: Interrogating Bantingism and Mid-Nineteenth-Century Fat-Phobia” (2001).

[3]   NormanVance, The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought (2010).

[4]   See, for example: Nadja Durbach, Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture (2010); and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (ed.) Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (1996).



Adams, James Eli. Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1995. Print.

Archimedes, Sondra. Gendered Pathologies: The Female Body and Biomedical Discourse in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Blanchard, Mary W. “Boundaries and the Victorian Body: Aesthetic Fashion in Gilded Age America.” The American Historical Review 100.1 (1995): 21–50. Print.

Dowling, Andrew. Manliness and the Male Novelist in Victorian Literature. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001. Print.

Durbach, Nadja. Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Print.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie, ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 1996. Print.

Huff, Joyce L. “A ‘Horror of Corpulence’: Interrogating Bantingism and Mid-Nineteenth-Century Fat-Phobia’.” Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. Ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001. 39–59. Print.

McLaren, Angus. The Trials of Masculinity Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.Open WorldCat. Web. 5 July 2014.

Silver, Anna Krugovoy. Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.

Sussman, Herbert L. Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Tosh, John. Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family, and Empire. 1st ed. Harlow, England ; New York: Pearson Longman, 2005. Print. Women and Men in History.

Vance, Norman. The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

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