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Victorian Literature: Conan Doyle and Robert Browning

Sexuality in Victorian novels seems to be a fragrance that is merely palatable but is still there letting the reader feel it and know it is there. The strict social code of behavior for women and the dresses that cover around 90% of the body, letting only the neck be seen leaves an imprint in the literature. Attributes of clothing that underlined sexuality or deemed to do so like the ones mentioned in Mary Barton‘s fly-away veils’ were considered inappropriate for a decent woman (Gaskell 2006). The topic of sexuality was rarely discovered in the literature. According to Giddens (2013, p. 32), only the medical documents and nonofficial sources discussed that intricate topic. However, not many people had access to them, and the general public was often not literate enough to read them.

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The occasionally-publicized non-medical literature that mentioned the tabooed topics received a great deal of attention and criticism among scholarly society. Mentioning body parts attributed to a woman’s covered anatomy was often considered inappropriate. Aurora Leigh, a Victorian-age female writer, was often criticized for her word choice that was associated with vulgarity. Some critics even characterized her as ‘not a genuine woman’ (Ayton 1857).

However, among other coevals the topics of motherhood and the beauty of a pregnant woman’s body being gently but stressed inspired, Edgar Alan Poe and Emily Dickinson. The resonance that such literature created indicated considerable interest in sexuality within the civilized society of that time. Closer to the end of the epoch, the often-concealed theme of sexuality through medical, legal, and scientific works was gradually becoming discovered. With the help of literary sources like those mentioned above, the seal of silence started to crumble, at least among the educated society. The middle and lower classes, however, due to the often-traditional and set-in-stone beliefs continued to ignore it (Foucault 1978).

Fictional Imposition of Gender Constraints and a Role of Women in Victorian Literature

From the dawn of time till the modern age, the dominant role of a male was rarely questioned. Victorian age was no different. However, the topic received some attention. Armstrong’s argument of the seemingly necessary gender limitations was partly true to life. In the nineteenth century, the idea of a woman was imbued in core values that persisted from previous ages. A hearth keeper, a mother of children, and an obedient, non-resistant wife were the roles that Victorian women were taught to play since early childhood.

If motherhood seems somewhat an inborn, natural quality that was rarely questioned and stood against, obedience was another matter. Charlotte Bronte among the first expressed the women’s desire and right to decide, summarized in Jane Eyre’s words ‘I am a free human being with an independent will’ (Bronte 1999, p. 268). However, the right of a woman to choose her fate was to some extent limited by the nature of the economy and society. There were simply not that many opportunities for a nineteenth-century woman. A typical job list for a middle-class woman included a housemaid, an agriculture field worker, or a coal-sorter. The incomes were barely tolerable (Beeton 1861).

Practically, the only occupational choices for a woman of higher standing were to become a writer or a teacher. Above that, a woman-writer covering economic, political, or social issues or trying to introduce something new to the genre of poetry would often be frowned upon. Moreover, poetry was mainly considered a male domain. Browning related to these matters in her poem Aurora Leigh, arguing that the form and the topic of writing need to be developed according to the authors own will no matter the gender. However, she doubted the influence of poetry on the real state of affairs, stressing that ‘life develops from within’ (Browning 1864, p. 222).

Crime, Gender, and Class in Victorian Writing

Despite the overall low crime rate among women, the infamous actors of such events, if exposed to the public, were heartlessly execrated. Men constituted most of the criminal offenders, thieves, rapists, killers, and burglars were rarely considered as something out of the ordinary. On the other hand, a woman was often perceived as a harmless and law-abiding being. That being said, the crime regardless of gender was often associated with a general lack of moral standards as such and attributed to the people of the lowest social standing. Those people were often treated as naturally related to crime. This was probably due to a common belief that low wages could not keep a decent family fed and clothed. Therefore such a family would be more likely to descend into the depths of corruption. Mayhew, however, distinguishes the crimes out of necessity to provide for a family and those committed by one’s own volition and for one’s benefit (Mayhew 1983, p. 331).

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The crimes against morality among women were more often than thievery or murder but not less stigmatized. Those crimes usually included infidelity to a husband or prostitution. As both of the acts involve willingly committed sexual intercourse with a man other than your lawful husband, they were deeply associated with sexuality. Despite the irreligiousness of prostitution it was still more or less tolerated by society. According to Anderson (1993), it was often written in literary sources, that a woman’s sinful nature encompasses an ‘aggressive sexuality’ that is suppressed by a good education and manners taught to girls from an early age. This was also linked to middle and low classes as being less able to control their desires. As per the economic side of prostitution, it was and still is a stable and sizable source of income that was one of the prime reasons women chose the profession.

Class and Status through the Depiction of Material Objects

For many authors, it seems crucial to convey an idea or create a picture in the reader’s mind exactly as they see it. For that goal, it may be necessary to fill the scene with objects that are typically associated with a particular lifestyle, person, or class of people. For example, smoking tobacco or having a cigar case lying on a table could indicate a privileged man, since good tobacco was quite a luxury at that time. Additionally, as depicted in the Fitz-boodle papers, women rarely smoke while men developed intricate rites of doing it and had clubs and rooms for smoking where women were not allowed (Thackeray 1887).

Items of furniture, jewelry, and clothes were also a way to make the reader a hint. If it was usually not preferred to say some things about a person using a direct word, the reader could guess the meaning through such objects. For instance, it was often unacceptable to describe a woman as a prostitute directly. However, a plain black ribbon on her neck could suggest that she was. A person’s clothes could tell a great deal about his or her social status. One could always distinguish a maid from a lady and a working man from a lord by the intricacy of their clothes. For instance, Mr. Rochester’s first meeting with Jane was notable due to the man’s confusion when he saw her in a simple dress. The dress, however, was made from a fine cloth, which did not occur to him at first sight (Bronte 1999, ch. 12).

The Connections between Various Themes in Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

A fairytale for kids with direct moral standards for young women illuminates several more elaborate and multifaceted topics. Moral standards of Victorian society are based mostly on biblical concepts, which in this particular piece of poetry are projected on the two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. Laura, judging from her actions, resembles a biblical Eve who succumb to the forbidden pleasures offered by goblins. Lizzie, in turn, embodies the qualities of Mary being the ideal of a proper woman: pure and hearth-keeping. There is also a reference to Eve’s fall represented by their deceased friend, Jeanie, who ‘for joys, brides hope to have fallen sick and died’ (Rosetti 1970, line 337). Her death and the visible changes in the grave are mentioned here to be a warning for Laura, which she ignores and falls under the charms of the goblins’ fruits.

The moral decline of Laura is seen directly through her negligence regarding household chores that her sister is doing all by herself. In contrast to a biblical Eve receiving punishment for her weakness, Laura is being saved through her sister’s sacrifice, which is, again, a biblical reference to Christ’s sufferings.

The aggressive way goblins trade, enumerating positive sides of their goods appealing mostly to the consumers’ feelings rather than their mind can indicate the capitalist motives. If the fruits are the forbidden fruit, then the goblins selling it are doing the devil’s work. Therefore, a trader trying to lower the buyer’s guard down by exploiting a woman’s week spot for aesthetic pleasure is the devil’s servant. This theme later comes to its climax where instead of what was advertised (nothing more than a sweet fruit) one sister received poison, and the other was beaten and disgraced in an attempt to cure her. The nature of that exchange was corrupted from the start. A tasty fruit for a lock of hair seemed like a generous offer to the customer. However, there was more to it than the goblins revealed. When an offer and the bid were practically equal, the sellers refused it knowing that their deceitful scheme will not work.

Patriarchal ways seem to continue to dominate the author’s mind judging from the final implication of the fairy tale: do not go outside, do not listen to other men, stay home, maintain the house in order, and you will be safe. However, the poem contains allusions to some gender problems. The first and the most evident indication is that the goblins are presented to be male trying to deceive the two pure and innocent females. This represents the ability of men to influence and use women for their pleasure. The sisters’ dead friend is evidence of the power of such influence. Here, Rosetti twists the biblical plot to her will. While the Holy book suggests that a woman was the one who seduced the man into tasting the fruit, which resulted in their banishment from Eden, in the fairy tale the roles are reversed.

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Even though the book was intended for children, it contains covert implications of eroticism. The overly-prolonged description of passionate feelings towards Laura in the garden may be an indication of female homosexuality. The beating the goblins gave Lizzie also implicitly suggests a rape attempt (Rosetti 1970).

Class, Identity, Deception, Disguise, and Detection in Conan Doyle’s The Man with the Twisted Lip

It seems to be like a human being to crave for more and never be content with what you already possess. Sometimes the desire for earning material benefits makes people forget the goal, for which they earn them. It becomes a passion for passion’s sake. In this continuous whirlpool of money, a person loses one’s themself. Therefore, to be one’s self means to have goals, beliefs, values, the past, the present, and the future. Strip a man from all of it – he is just a set of reflexes. Arthur Conan Doyle showed the reader such a man. He reduced his expenses to a minimum turning himself into a beggar earning the money he did not know where to spend anymore because in his aspiration for the wealth he forgot how to use it.

When Mr. St. Clair faced his former self, he entered a state of shock. It seemed as though he did not believe that face belongs to him. It appears to be the author’s intention to provoke the reader to do the same. To stop for a minute and try to remember what you are. A feeling of shame, remorse, guilt, or pride is what should guide people to a deeper understanding and sense of their identity. The revelation that the man was once an actor, the professional, who swaps faces in a blink of an eye, further suggests the easiness of losing oneself in one of the roles.

Many representatives of the deprived classes dream of being rich and powerful. However, riches and power also require the skill of handling them. Otherwise, they can overwhelm an unprepared person. The speed at which Mr. St. Clair achieved his dreams of being a wealthy and respected man was, perhaps, too much for him to handle. He did not manage to fit into his new role – the mask did not sit properly. Hence, the fear and the retreat to a more cozy, usual outfit. This does not necessarily mean that the beggar was his true identity because it was rather a tool for achieving a goal, a goal that he lost a sense of somewhere along the path.

Deceiving in itself can doubtfully be called a crime. However, this can be a gate to a darker world. St. Clair realized in the end that further deception could lead him to be charged with the murder of himself. This part seems to be a bit improbable, as the police would eventually discover the truth with or without Holmes. Nonetheless, the implication is clear – such situations might be avoided if the truth is spoken. Lies often lead to more lies entangling the liar to lead double or triple life losing his true face because of that.

A disguise offers a comfortable position when people do not have to show their bad traits of character. However, as exemplified by the failed beggar, this path leads nowhere. All disguises, even the most well-worked, will break. All a person builds on that false foundation would fall upon him.

Drama and Crime in Robert Browning’s Confession Poetry

Browning’s failure with making a good playwright may have become that critical push that directed him towards psychological poetry. He decided to do what he could do best – write speeches, which eventually yielded him a solid place among the ranks of Victorian poets. Some monologues describe the scenes of planning, thinking, or doing murder. The poet seems to be particularly interested in the processes that happen in their mind. In Porphyria’s Lover, the husband kills his wife for her infidelity that she confessed to him thinking he was asleep. The murderer meticulously describes the emotions he felt committing a crime with his own hands (Browning 1836). In this way, the author probably wants to fascinate the reader with the same questions that bear the mind of his own.

The nineteenth-century witnessed the birth of criminology as a science. It might as well be attributed to Browning as one of the popularizers of the topic. In his works, he predicts the main field of study of the future science – the human brain. The moral issues that he raises come out not only from the words of a person’s confession but his or her actions, or thoughts. Moreover, all of them become a part of the psychological portrait of the poem’s hero.

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Those who typically confess believe they sinned, wrongdoing. A normal confession requires a feeling of remorse, shame, or guilt. In the case of the duke, he killed the previous duchess so as not to let anyone see the beauty of her smile (Browning 1842). What is peculiar about it is that he speaks of the murder and his desire to keep her for himself as something ordinary for a normal person. This confession can in most part resemble a normal monologue. He seems to treat his former wife as an item of his collection among the other things he shows to the guest. Perhaps, the next wife will be no different given the ease with which he speaks of killing the last one. Therefore, this genre may resemble a confession only by the factor that the speaker is rarely interrupted and does not hold back even the most dreadful details.

Browning’s probable goal for these ‘confessions’ was to dive deep into the peculiarities of the human soul, and for that, he could not have found a better style. When a person confesses, he practically reveals his soul and leaves nothing personal unsaid. In the case of Porphyria’s Lover, there are probably two confessions: one made by the wife and one by the husband each being a piece of the puzzle that does not answer nature of feelings that arose from taking a life. His dramatic monologues can also bear a mark of mockery. Thus, in the poem Johannes Agricola in Meditation the hero addresses God and justifies his own actions by the notion that he was born and raised by God’s will. Therefore, his every deed can be considered an act of it (Browning 1836).

Reference List

Anderson, A 1993, Tainted souls and painted faces: the rhetoric of fallenness in Victorian culture, Cornell University Press, New York.

Ayton, W 1857, ‘Mrs. Barret Browning – Aurora Leigh,’ Blackwood’s Magazine, 5 December, p.15.

Beeton, I 1861, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Beeton Publishing.

Bronte, C 1999, Jane Eyre. Broadview Press, Ontario.

Browning, E 1864, Aurora Leigh, J Miller, London.

Browning, R 1836, Johannes Agricola in meditation. Web.

Browning, R 1836, Porphyria’s lover. Web.

Browning, R 1842, My last duchess. Web.

Foucault, M 1978, The history of sexuality, Random House, New York.

Gaskell, E 2006, Mary Barton, ed. S Foster, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Giddens, A 2013, The transformation of intimacy: sexuality, love and eroticism in modern societies, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Mayhew, H 1983, London Labour and the London Poor, vol. 4, Dover Publications, New York.

Rossetti, C 1970, Goblin Market. Web.

Thackeray, W 1887, The Fitz-boodle papers, Smith, Elder & Company, London.

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