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Andrea Rummel, « Delusive beauty » : femmes fatales in English Romanticism

V & R Unipress, Bonn University Press 2008, 224 p.
ISBN 978-3-89 971-520-0.
Pierre Vitoux
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Andrea Rummel, « Delusive beauty » : femmes fatales in English Romanticism, V & R Unipress, Bonn University Press 2008, 224 p.
ISBN 978-3-89 971-520-0

Texte intégral

1The purpose of this thesis is to follow the development of the titular motif, between roughly 1790 and 1840, emphasizing the plurality of its forms and the importance of the socio-historic context.

2Part I is preliminary. It deals with the revival of the traditional ballad and its development from the supernatural to the uncanny. It then follows the similar trend in Gothic fiction, with the emergence of the female demonic figure, the elusive as well as delusive « evil temptress » : at the intersection of the supernatural and the human (as in Lewis’s The Monk), as a source of repulsion or/and temptation, as an instance of satanic and/or sensuously seductive femininity. In Shelley’s Zastrozzi, the evil is innate or resulting from natural hatred rather than transcendent. The question of the gender framework is interestingly discussed in relation to Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya. What happens is a transition from the femme diable (possessed) to the femme diabolique (evil naturalized and personified).

3Part II is concerned with the continuation and revision of Gothic aesthetics in the theory and poetic practice of the Romantic imagination. It points out the ambivalence in Christabel of Geraldine’s magic power : spell cast but also sensuous attraction, the attributes less of a person than of an impersonation of erotic forces, destructive of innocence, but questioning the manichean dichotomy between good and evil. Keats’s Lamia has a demonic serpentine beauty and power, but also the womanly longing for love, in the mortal world only accessible to her as an ideal world of private bliss, destroyed (made unreal) by the philosopher’s cold unimaginative eye, and in which Lycius feels stifled and becomes cruel in a complete reversal of roles. « La Belle Dame sans Merci » adopts the medieval ballad form and quest-motif, but the failure has more to do with the unreality of the « elfin grot » than with a cruel design. The dissociation of the two types is complete in Shelley’s « Epipsychidion », where (l. 267-8 of the poem) « [he] rashly [seeks] the shadow of that idol of [his] thought in many mortal forms » that are those of the femme fatale.

4Section 6 on William Blake firmly stresses from the first the essential Blakean theme that the feminine principle proceeds from a division and is itself divided because it belongs to the Fallen human state where the creative relation of contraries has become destructive antagonism. The selection of Vala for commentary is justified in so far as that incomplete draft is free from the bemusing complexities of the later poems and focusses on the operation of « the discordant principles of love and rage » in feminine figures. But the effect is also a limitation of the perspective, and some references to the total myth derived from Blake’s non-manichean dualism could provide a useful broader frame. In the early Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Oothoon evokes nostalgically an age of innocent free love destroyed by Theotormon’s imposition of male power and possessiveness. In The Book of Urizen, where the biblical Creation is ironically inverted into a Fall, the prophet Los is torn apart and his feminine principle emanates from him as Enitharmon, « the first female now separate, » immediately desired and refusing him « in perverse and cruel delight ». We have here the same dissociation of primeval androgyny as in Genesis, but the Blakean Enitharmon is both more of a powerful antagonist and less of a fatal woman than Eve, the archetypal temptress and cause of our woes. And at the end of Blake’s final version of his myth Albion recovering his visionary power needs the awakening of his « lovely emanation » Jerusalem to restore harmony.

5All this could also contribute to the discussion of « feminine radical questioning » in III and « fin-de-siècle aestheticism » in IV. But it would probably give additional support and illustration to the thesis of a continuous tradition with multiple aspects, as it is summed up in the end after it has been situated by extensive reference to relevant criticism and very competently illustrated through the discussion of extracts from the poetic texts.

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Pierre Vitoux, « Andrea Rummel, « Delusive beauty » : femmes fatales in English Romanticism »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 70 automne | 2009, mis en ligne le 16 janvier 2019, consulté le 16 juin 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/5007 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.5007

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Pierre Vitoux

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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