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'Why did you melt your waxen man?': The Femme Fatale, the New Woman, and the Ends of Sex Masquerade
In their analysis of the 'sexualized visions of change and exchange' which mark the end of the nineteenth century and the uncertain formation of the twentieth, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar read the leitmotif of the late-Victorian New Woman as one fantasy among many, part of a sequence of imaginative literary extremes that reflects the changing stakes in an escalating war between the sexes. As Gilbert and Gubar understand this sequence, the New Woman emerges against a palette of other phantasmagoric images-most notably, the femme fatale, who, in Swinburne's words, incarnates male anxieties about that 'silent anger against God and man' which 'burns, white and repressed, through her clear features.' Like the femme fatale, the New Woman is also commonly read as an image of hyperbolic female ascendancy. In fact, both images seem to answer the narrative of the sexualized but disempowered 'fallen woman' with an alternative narrative of 'sexchange,' to use Gilbert and Gubar's formulation. By appropriating the outward signs of masculine virility and control, both the femme fatale and the New Woman shift the balance of power, as female sexuality becomes the site of erotic authority rather than simply of radical otherness.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Sister Helen' (1854) presents a challenge to this family resemblance by subordinating the femme fatale's sex masquerade to her more defining emasculating potential. In the end, Helen is 'fatal' to Keith of Ewern not because she consumes him sexually but because he endeavours to resist. More significant than the fact of Helen's nuptial curse upon Keith and his bride, however, is the question Helen's brother poses at the beginning of the poem, for it is the Ur-question that confronts any feminism willing to use gender to subversive ends: 'Why did you melt your waxen man, / Sister Helen?' Little brother's question highlights a systematic power reversal rather than reformation, a transposition ironically embodied in the popular iconography of the overly caricatured New Woman some forty years later yet radically challenged in the more polychromatic, less Amazonian New Woman of the novel form. How, then, do we distinguish the sex masquerades of the New Woman from those of the femme fatale? And in what way might the New Woman's erotic authority be refigured as an enabling rather than disabling misalliance?
Structurally, transgender fantasies in New Woman fiction are usually developed in generic juxtaposition with, rather than as a consequence of, the narrated 'real.' That is to say, sex masquerades neither require nor complete a reversal of patriarchal sex right; rather, they occur alongside of and in spite of that right-as dreams, daydreams, and other fantastic interludes. Consider, for example, Mary Cholmondeley's Red Pottage (1899). Although now considered a New Woman novel, Cholmondeley's fifth and most successful novel achieved enormous popularity initially as a sensational melodrama. At first glance, the scandal of the novel seems to inhere in a melodramatic plot of triangulation and patriarchal sex right, for not only does the contest between Lord Newhaven and his wife's lover suggest the primacy of the story of male ascendancy over against women's sexual self-determination, but the narrative is further supported by the ideological conflict between a rising young author, Hester Gresley, and her narrow-minded, authoritarian brother. But if these parallel plots mark out the proprietary boundaries of authority that men struggle with and against-whether in terms of sexual knowledge or religious knowledge-in the end, the melodrama of Red Pottage is simply a palimpsest, a record of words and letters whose sensational shapes and swirls obscure an older script beneath. This older script is the story of an emotional, even poetic, covenant between Hester and her friend Rachel, a misalliance that dispossesses the authoritative Romantic hero of his chief antagonist-and thus of his logic for sexual victory-without turning sexual hierarchy on its head. Interestingly, we find traces of this older story in Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market' (1862), as we read Lizzie's saving relation to her sister not as an emasculating and individualistic response to the seductions of the goblins but as an emancipatory vision of collective identification between women. Likewise, the idea that gender distinction might vanish or at least prove irrelevant, that sexchange would effect not a shift in power but a shift in social dispensation (from a competitive to a cooperative principle), is clearly at the core of the New Woman's most radical acts of 'passing,' each of which transforms the isolated and random acts of the femme fatale into a culturally durable narrative for feminism.