March 29, 2013

The NSFW Files: "Gynecocracy," by Viscount Ladywood

Gynecocracy, by Viscount Ladywood
(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite the erotic, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
Gynecocracy, by Viscount Ladywood
Review by Karl Wolff
The History: Along with the Fifties in US history, the Victorian era is a time period at best misunderstood and at worst stereotyped. Covering piano legs, rigid class and gender roles, and the rise of industrial capitalism and European imperialism paint very broad strokes of what was a dynamic, complex, and revolutionary time period. In order to understand Gynecocracy better, we should take a look at its immediate cultural and literary context. The novel was written in 1893, while its thematic predecessor Venus in Furs was written in 1870.

By the 1890s, numerous artistic and literary movements flourished in Victorian England and the European Continent. Many overlapped with similar aesthetic agendas. Romanticism was on its way out and new scientific discoveries threatened the established order. Movements at the time included Aestheticism, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Symbolism, and Decadence. Each commingled with the other, members joining one and then another group. Gynecocracy exists on the tail end of what historians call the Long Nineteenth Century (1789-1914). Bookended between the French Revolution and the First World War, the Victorian era seemed an oasis of political, social, and economic conservatism. But beneath this facade of upright behavior lay a swirling vortex of sexual eccentricity and gender confusion.

From 1879 to 1880, The Pearl, a pornographic magazine, was published in the United Kingdom. Psychologist Sigmund Freud would devote his life to investigating the human mind, itself a battleground between the Death Instinct and the sex-and-violence crazed Id. A few years before Gynecocracy went to press, Richard von Krafft-Ebing wrote Psychopathia Sexualis, a comprehensive inventory of sexual deviance and dysfunction. Written in 1886, it gave us the words "sadism" and "masochism." Besides these developments, advancements in electrification and the combustion engine would revolutionize transportation and domestic life.

The Book: Written in 1893, the full title of the work is Gynecocracy: A Narrative of the Adventures and Psychological Experiences of Julian Robinson (afterwards Viscount Ladywood) Under Petticoat-Rule, Written by Himself. Dr. C. J. Scheiner, in the introduction in the Masquerade Books edition, informs us that Julian Robinson is none other than London attorney Stanislas de Rhodes. The sensation and prurient content of the novel necessitates the use of a pen name. Scheiner goes on to inventory the various humiliations and degradations suffered by Julian, "He is kicked, beaten, whipped, pierced, circumcised, locked in a cage, urinated on, covered in filth, and made to wear a penis sheath, women's clothes and tight corsets." While all this sounds pretty horrendous, the novel operates on another level, offering a satire and pointed critique of gender roles in Victorian society.

After harassing a maid, Julian is sent to be tutored under a stern French governess named Madamoiselle de Chambonnard. She also teaches Julian's cousins, Maud, Beatrice, and Agnes. After an initial bout of disobedience, Julian is put under "petticoat-government," meaning he is dressed like a girl and treated like one. At first Julian endures this treatment as humiliation, especially to someone from the aristocracy. He eventually sees this subjugation as exhilarating, acting like a girl and getting on the good graces of Mademoiselle. He gets birched, beaten by a thin birch branch, on numerous occasions throughout the novel. On notable occurrence is when he gets birched by the scullery maid. Julian (later Julia) takes offence at such treatment, not necessarily because of the physical beating, but because he is beaten by someone from the lower classes.

The novel is a panorama of gender fluidity. In academic-speak, one can say gender is "performative." This is a fancier way of saying gender is a performance of specific roles, gestures, costumes, etc. One can act like a girl despite having the sexual apparatus of a male. Gynecocracy, beneath its prurient combinations and outrages, is a delightfully anti-deterministic novel. Julian, now in a dress as Julia, is seduced by Lord Alfred Ridlington. Lord Alfred, it is later revealed, is none other than Lady Ridlington, dressed as a male. Our benighted narrator also comes across Gertrude Stormont, a fellow train passenger who also torments Julian, much to the chagrin of Mademoiselle During their affair, Gertrude insists he call her Mamma, adding the frisson of faux incest to the mix.

In the end, Julian marries Beatrice, but finds himself still under petticoat-government. Beneath his proper English suit, he wears a corset and a chemise, even as he declaims mightily in the House of Commons. (Julian informs us he is not the only MP subject to this specific regime.) Make no mistake, Gynecocracy is a prurient book. The many sexual situations are described, albeit without the explicitness one would expect from a modern novel of the genre. One has to read carefully, since descriptions vary from the florid and oblique to the clinical and mechanical. Because of the time period, readers at the time would find this work transgressive. Today it is merely eccentric. But it is worth reading, if one's temperament is sympathetic to material of this nature. Those seeking an early example of "trans literature" should give this novel a look, at least from a historical and cultural perspective. This is a wonderful examination of fluid gender roles.

The Verdict: An underground classic.
Read even more about Gynecocracy: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: The Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille

Filed by Karl Wolff at 10:00 AM, March 29, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles | Reviews |