Domestic Abuse in the Victorian Romance Novel Aurora Floyd
Domestic abuse, unfortunately, is a common theme in civilizations throughout the world and, consequently, literature. Violence in the home is generally about control: one person wishes to exercise dominance over the other in order to implement some form of control over that person. It should be noted, however, that violence does not necessarily lead to bruises and bloodshed. Violence happens when someone decides to force control and ideals on someone else with such anger that they have at least a notion and intent to cause harm to that person if so denied, and they must be denied. For violence to occur, the one attempting to implement control must encounter resistance to such implementation. While this may lead to carnage and destruction, it is not necessary that such actions do, they only must hold the threat of such occurrences. Such threats must also be knowledgeable, one cannot unintentionally cause physical pain on another individual and claim it as ‘violence.’ Violence must be knowing, deliberate, and have a psychological component so as to implement control over the subject of said violence. This psychological component is the implementation of control over the individual under the threat of possible physical or mental abuse. Now while this may seem like a rather redundant and broad definition, it is clear and correct when one examines the topic in question: the Victorian novel. An excellent example of violence and control in literature is Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd. In the novel Aurora Floyd, violence and abuse is looked upon lightheartedly and with an air of love in an attempt to subtly exercise control over the dominant Aurora Floyd in an effort for society to reclaim its male control over such an unusually independent woman. This is shown through Talbot’s and John’s attempts to control her as well as Steeve’s desire to kill her, all in addition to a stark comparison to her perfect cousin Lucy.
Aurora Floyd is a very independent and free-spirited woman who is the epitome of the complete opposite of the Victorian female ideal. Such independence and masculine authority portrayed by Aurora is intimidating by the male-dominated society of Victorian England because she lacks a controller. Aurora lacks someone who is an authority figure in her life. In his dissertation, “Some versions of violence: Writing civilization in Victorian literature,” Michael Joseph Walker discusses many Victorian novels, however, there is one in particular that holds an interest when compared to Aurora Floyd. Walker argues that in George Gissing’s work The Nether World, the character Clem’s violence is a context for her sexuality and ‘animality’ (Walker, page 249). This assertion, at least the sexuality in relation to violence, is related to Aurora’s violence because it also is based in female sexuality and sexual dominance. Aurora upsets the masculine component of Victorian society because she is so sexually free and without control. Such a thing was absolutely appalling and terrifying to society during that time period. Because of this, Aurora needs to be controlled. Aurora’s need to be controlled is evident to everyone in the novel: Talbot is quite aware of it right away and it tortures him, John Mellish seemingly submits to it, and Steeve Hargraves wants to kill it and her. Talbot leaves her dangerously ill and near death upon realizing that she will not submit to him and relinquish her secret. Because knowledge of the secret is knowledge of how to know Aurora and through that knowing would he exercise his control, Talbot refuses to love her and through his lack of love he acts with violence upon Aurora due to the dangerous implications to her health. She all but dies without him and it takes quite a length of time for her to recover. However, this attempt to dominate her fails because she does recover and comes back as equally if not more dominant than she was before he left her. John Mellish seems to submit to her dominance, but even he does not totally. He imposes violence upon her under the guise of an act of love.
“‘I would rather see your coffin laid in the empty niche beside my mother’s in the vault yonder,’ – he pointed in the direction of the parish church which was close to the gates of the Park, – ‘than I would part with you thus. I would rather know you to be dead and happy than I would endure any doubt about your fate. Oh, my darling, why do you speak of these things? I count part with you – I couldn’t! I would rather take you in my arms and plunge you into the pond in the wood; I would rather send a bullet onto your heart, and see you murdered at my feet’” (Braddon, page 197.)
Such a blatant act of potential violence is clear manipulation of control over Aurora on John’s part. He is saying that he would rather kill her than let her live without him or live without her. That is definitely violence inflicted upon her in order to exercise his control and it works because she reassures him immediately after that they are never to part- he will not lose her because she will not leave him. John effectively exercises his control of her through such violent imagery under the guise of loving her. Steeve, on the other hand, wishes to control Aurora through the violent act of murder. Now while violence does not necessarily mean gore and carnage, in this special instance it does but it also exemplifies a lack of control over Aurora on Steeve’s part. She made him feel less masculine and therefore impotent when she attacked him and subsequently had him fired. Because a woman made him feel this way, Steeve sees her as a challenge to his manhood.
“I’m afraid to trust myself a-nigh her, for fear I should spring upon her, and cut her tho-at from ear to ear. I’ve seen her in my dreams sometimes, with her beautiful white thro-at laid open, and streaming oceans of blood; but, for all that, she’s always had the broken whip in her hand, and she’s always laughed at me. I’ve had many a dream about her; but I’ve never seen her dead or quiet; and I’ve never seen her without the whip” (Braddon, page 192).
He dreams about killing her but also conquering her sexually. Steeve sees her as a wild, sex-crazed creature that needs to be violently punished and tamed and when he is unable to do that, he feels impotent. This is the basis of the masculine need for control over Aurora: she challenges their manhood. “Male performance anxieties and fears of sexual incompetence are reinforced in Hargraves’ description of his erotically charged fantasies of murdering Aurora […]” (Gravatt, page 120). If a woman is that dominant and that masculine, then their manhood pales in comparison. They cannot control her, so they begin to feel insecure and implement violence upon her. She is not a domestic submissive and the male part of society feels blatantly threatened.
Victorian women were expected to be the model of domestic submission and Aurora not being such a woman needed something to be compared to so that Braddon’s commentary about male fears of a dominant female could be communicated effectively.. This comparison is shown through Aurora’s cousin Lucy. Unlike Aurora, Lucy is docile, which means that she takes orders well. Lucy needs no violence in her life because she is already under the control of societal regulations. “Captain and Mrs Bulstrode will come too; and we shall see how our little Lucy looks, and whether solemn Talbot beats her in the silence if the matrimonial chamber” (Braddon, page 199). Such a joke seems quite misplaced in the novel. In the context, it is said as an aside among a list of guests who are to visit so that it stands out. Through context, Braddon allows for significant awkwardness of the statement to seep through- she wants the reader to realize how misplaced such a stark implementation of control over Lucy is because Lucy is portrayed throughout the novel in a very bright light and thusly the ideal Victorian female. According to society, she needs no control exerted over her by a man. Talbot left Aurora because he could not control her and instead married Lucy, who was always excruciatingly submissive. “Yet, through Talbot’s equivocal happiness with Lucy, Braddon subverts the presumption that marital bliss is ensured by adherence to patriarchal authority and female submission” (Gravatt, page 118). Now, while it can be argued that Talbot’s marriage and happiness with Lucy means that a man can be happy with both a dominant and submissive female, it can also be argued that because Talbot left Aurora and married Lucy he was not happy with Aurora. He could not exercise dominance over her so he could not marry her. Braddon is blatantly commentating on male fears of a powerful woman. Lucy needs no control and subsequently no violence, however, Aurora is too dominant for a woman and therefore needs to be controlled and Talbot saw that he could not do that, which made him unhappy. If he had been equally happy with Aurora as with Lucy then he would have stayed with Aurora. He left her and chose Lucy because she made him happier because he felt safer with her. She was not rebellious and needed no taming. Lucy and Talbot’s marriage is an exemplification of male fears about a dominant female as well as the model for a perfect Victorian marriage.
Violence is the implementation of someone’s will on another person with expected resistance and therefore the threat of a physical repercussion. Such violence is all about control and domination over the person upon whom it is focused. In the case of Aurora Floyd’s character, the masculine part of society feels threatened by her spirit, sexuality, and independence. They feel emasculated by such an exertion of female dominance and therefore attempt to exercise control over her in an attempt to reclaim their manhood through the use of violence and potential abuse. Lucy further amplifies the commentary about such fears by standing as a comparison to Aurora. Lucy is the epitome of everything wanted in a Victorian woman and therefore further shows the ideals of the society through the lack of necessity for males to exercise their control over her. Aurora is just an example of emasculating fear and the necessity for taming of women for fear of the implications of impotence in social structure. She is a nightmare for the male-dominated and sexually-repressed society of Victorian England.
Braddon, Mary E. Aurora Floyd. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Gravatt, Denise H. "'A Rod of Flexible Steel in That Little Hand'; Female Dominance and Male
Masochism in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Aurora Floyd." Straight Writ Queer; Non-normative Expressions of Heterosexuality in Literature (2006): 109-23. Print.
Walker, Michael J., Ph.D. Some Versions of Violence: Writing Civilization in Victorian
Literature. Diss. University of Oregon, 1990. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print