King Solomon’s Mines, Homosocial Male Bonding, and the Possibilities of Masculine Identity

What a difference a big budget film makes.

Earlier this semester, I Netflixed the classic 1950 film version of King Solomon’s Mines, for an article I was working on for The Film League.  I found it fascinating:  an imperial English love story set against the backdrop of Africa, using real Africans and footage of real safaris.  I also found it problematic in all the usual ways: an imperialist period piece using the legacy of imperialism to gain footage of “exotic” Africans, which in turn could spice up the otherwise ho-hum white, heterosexual love story, which itself uses Africa and Africans as both catalyst and afterthought.

Actually reading the book for my Victorian lit class was quite a different endeavor, even moreso than I initially imagined it would be.  For one thing, the love story is totally fabricated.  The novel actually follows three men into the wilds of Africa in search one’s lost brother (and the treasure).  This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t rehash another white person love story; instead, the “love” is the homosocial bond between the three men, who all represent various points on a spectrum of masculinity.  (I kept thinking about the male identity-trinity from Star Trek: The Original Series as reference point.)  Haggard rather self-consciously sets the three up as positive masculine role models, each representing several different possible masculine expressions from which his boy readers could choose.

The novel is famously free from any “petticoats,” narrator Allan Quatermain’s metonymically reductive description of white women.  Much as been written about the treasure map representing the female body to be penetrated (like Africa), and the terrifying depictions of African female identity.  But somehow — and this rarely happens — I find myself much more interested in Haggard’s strange masculinity project, and what it meant for Victorian ideas of manhood, and why on earth this was deemed unsuitable for a blockbuster film adaptation.

I don’t have any answers to those questions or problems, but they’re sticking in my mind, along with several others.  Why such vitriol against women?  Why reconstitute the family as homosocial male bonding mechanism in the final pages of the novel?  And why has this story above so many others stayed in our pop culture consciousness and been replayed over and over again?

The Rossetti Siblings and Troubling Sexuality

My Victorian lit class provided me with an interesting poetic juxtaposition: reading Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Christian Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” side by side. As a poet, I think, Christina is more well-known. I like her work better than her brother’s, but I also think they illuminate each other to a great degree.

Illustration for the cover of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

To me, “Jenny” and “Goblin Market” are both about the commodification of sexuality in the Victorian marketplace, and the ways that it can twist male desires and harm women. They’re also tremendously weird poems with fraught sexual expressions. “Jenny” features the age-old client-who-thinks-he-treats-his-prostitute-right trope; “Goblin Market” is a fairytale mixed up with lesbian incest that posits the protective quality of radically homosocial female relationships.

In other words, this is stuff I really love.

The radical possibilities Christina provides for the redemption of the fallen woman at the end of “Goblin Market” struck me perhaps most of all. The idea that a fallen woman could be saved is pretty much unheard of in Victorian literature.

Because this was classwork, I also read a few assigned critical essays on the poems, and unfortunately, I thought some of them missed the mark pretty seriously. Your argument will never win me over by removing sex from the discussion, especially not when dealing with poems like these. (And articles about the “World Wide Web” written in 1998 are just embarrassing to read now.)

This is not to say that I fault the professor for picking bad secondary materials. Quite the contrary, I think reading articles one vehemently disagrees with can be both exhilarating and thought-provoking. My theories about the poems are stronger because I have negative examples against which to structure my thoughts.

I also got to write about the poems for class, which gave me an unexpected chance to put my love of the archives to use. I wrote about the shared use of the term “goblin” in the poems, the evolution of the word’s use in various drafts of “Jenny,” and how the word links the poems thematically.

This is all a little more academic than I usually get on this blog, but I’m interested to hear what others think about the Rossetti siblings as poets. Who is your favorite? What are your thoughts on the poems?

Loving and hating John Ruskin

Oh, Ruskin.  What’s a modern girl to do with you?

I don’t know that a work has ever enthralled and infuriated me like Sesame and Lilies did.  One part paean to a thing I love, reading books; one part social critique that still rings true today; and two parts essentialist Victorian hogwash that very nearly strains credulity.

Okay, the book is actually two lectures Ruskin gave in Manchester in 1865: “Of King’s Treasuries,” about the necessity of instructing (male) students in literature so that they may be better citizens, and “Of Queen’s Gardens,” about the proper ways to educate female children so that they may serve as support and moral compasses for men.

Beginning with the first lecture and then getting the shock of the second was difficult for me.  I am, of course, a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile, and I could read for hours about the pleasures of reading and the proper means for engaging with a literary education.  I am also, as a feminist child of the 20th century, accustomed to reading things directed solely at men and shifting them around in my brain so that they’re directed at me too.

Ruskin’s exhortation to students to read the best books they can during their short lives struck me in a particularly powerful way:

But if you read rightly, you will easily discover the true bits, and those are the book.

Now books of this kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men:—by great readers, great statesmen, and great thinkers. These are all at your choice; and Life is short. You have heard as much before;—yet have you measured and mapped out this short life and its possibilities? Do you know, if you read this, that you cannot read that—that what you lose to-day you cannot gain to-morrow?

Oh goodness, I thought, Ruskin is right!  I have to stop wasting time on the internet!  I’m losing the ability to experience books!

After this startling revelation of education advice, the second lecture came as quite a disappointment.  The problematic gender essentialism is rather too tricky to get into in a short blog post — scholars have been arguing Ruskin’s intentions and the proper feminist response pretty much since it came out — but it gave me enough pause that I felt I must mention it.

There is, we acknowledge, a severe danger in delineating male and female spheres of life and action, as well as a wildly unfair burden in asking women to be the moral standard for men and then holding them accountable when men fail. And yet, there is also something revolutionary in calling for parents to stridently educate their female children.

And not only in the material and in the course, but yet more earnestly in the spirit of it, let a girl’s education be as serious as a boy’s. You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments, and then complain of their frivolity.

His preferred method of educating girls is one I would have delighted at:

Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in a field. It knows the bad weeds twenty times better than you; and the good ones too, and will eat some bitter and prickly ones, good for it, which you had not the slightest thought would have been so.

Victorian conceptions of gender aside, something happens when you exhort young girls to read and take education seriously: some of them do so.  And some of them take it far beyond what Ruskin counseled or intended, and we have them to thank for suffrage, the ability to wear pants, and any other good thing that has happened in the intervening 150 years.