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Review of Clinton Machann's Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics: A Darwinist Reading

Book under Review:

Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics: A Darwinist Reading by Clinton Machann. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. 166 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6687-5. $89.95.


Clinton Machann employs the methods of literary Darwinism to analyze Victorian epic poems by Tennyson, Barrett Browning, Clough, and Browning.  This review of his book focuses on the ways Machann bridges a gap between culturally or historically based criticism and a criticism that interprets literature through biological human universals.


Review of Clinton Machann’s Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics: A Darwinist Reading

It should come as no surprise that an established Matthew Arnold scholar would approach literature with a concern for universal human truths or that one with such interests would turn to literary Darwinism for a methodology.  While Clinton Machann is not concerned, per se, with the adaptive value of the texts he treats in Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics, his approach is informed by a perspective that allows him to bridge the gap between a cultural/historical criticism and a biological engagement with essentials of “human nature.”  Machann’s evolutionary perspective liberates him from post-modern assumptions that view gender in particular and human identity in general as exclusively based on cultural constructions, opening up a space for discussions of biological human universals.  Far from discounting the role of culture, Machann presents a deeply informed understanding of historical contexts of mid-to-late nineteenth-century England and Italy along with detailed knowledge about the lives of individual authors.  Indeed, Machann’s approach feels rather traditional much of the time, but he engages texts with evolutionary concerns in mind.  He approaches the texts in terms of their treatment of sexual, familial, and social relations among characters, and examines the cognitive abilities of characters as they contribute to survival and procreation.  Machann focuses specifically on masculinity, with particular attention to the male code of chivalry that is so prominent in both mythical and Victorian concepts of manliness.  He points to the ubiquity of male violence and honor across cultures as a primary, universal trait of masculinity.

Machann maintains in his introduction that the issue of masculinity is not only central to the four long poems he treats but to “our understanding of Victorian literature: its major themes, its idealism and social criticism, its perplexities and uncertainties” (1).  He begins by discussing the popularity and prestige of the long or epic poem during the Victorian period, before moving into the issue of Victorian masculinity and its recent critical treatment.  Machann argues that we must re-assess this critical project as it has always approached gender strictly as a social construct.  While Machann values the contributions of past scholars on the issue of Victorian masculinity, he proposes an alternative approach that goes beyond a socially constructed and historically specific view of gender to include biological reality.  Using information from a variety of relevant fields, evolutionary psychology and cognitive science in particular, Machann approaches biology and culture as forces that mutually influence each other.  He assumes that there exists an underlying “human nature” that gives rise to culture, without discounting the role that culture plays in influencing individual identities.  He makes it clear that he does not ascribe to genetic determinism, as some might imagine.  He explains that the four authors treated in his book “celebrated certain aspects of human nature but yearned for change as well” (28).  The broad scope of Machann’s project and methodology allows him to consider individual authors and characters for their unique traits, as well as specific cultures in specific historical moments, and the uniqueness of individual works within the authors’ canons, while relating all of this to “universal human experiences.”

Machann insists that his chapters are meant to be read sequentially, not as free-standing essays.  Indeed, while the book essentially follows a chronological organization, each chapter builds on previous chapters and, as it progresses, the argument benefits from the contrasts between different poems.  Machann begins with a treatment of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King focusing on Arthur’s misguided chivalric ideals that fail to temper male violence and promiscuous sexuality.  Machann explains, “In the Idylls, potentially destructive male energy is curbed and controlled by the rigid chivalric code instituted by Arthur, and its primary regulating instrument is woman-worship, a code that assumes the moral superiority of women and places a premium on female life and welfare” (42).  This view of women is based on a primitive imperative centered on the child bearing and nursing function of women, which serves as a basis of species survival and for civilization over barbarism.  Arthur ultimately fails in his attempts to bring order; male-violence and primitive sexuality prevail.  Guinevere fails in the role Arthur envisioned for her and for women in general: to temper male violence and bestial sexuality through superior female morality.  As Machann points out, “King-worship and woman-worship are inadequate and even destructive ideals” (47).  Arthur learns that he cannot project his moral ideals onto his queen or his knights, and this failure leads to the demise of his kingdom.  Machann’s reading of the Idylls reflects a constant tension in the text between the value of culture, civilization, and order, and primal elements of biology, including male violence associated with competition, dominance, and reproduction.  Machann demonstrates how these tensions reflect Tennyson’s own doubts about prominent, idealized Victorian gender constructions, while he maintained hope against the primary destructive instincts of humans.

Machann reads Barrett Browing’s Aurora Leigh as offering a challenge to dominant concepts of masculine identity based on violence, and a challenge to the traditional male definition of heroism.  The two most important male characters in the poem and in Aurora’s life, her father and her love interest, Romney, live a code based on love.  They serve as a stark contrast to Arthur who seeks to control violence while prone to violence himself.  Machann shows the significant early influence of Aurora’s father who shapes her views on love, life, spirituality, and learning.  His last words to his daughter are, “Love, my child.”  Aurora’s relationship to her father foreshadows and allows for the gender reversal that occurs later when she marries and must care for the blinded Romney.  While Romney is portrayed as a traditionally masculine hero/protector throughout the poem—in his attempts to help Marian and in his efforts for social reform—he ultimately fails in this role.  Still, Romney does provide an ideal mate for Aurora when he learns to put love above ideology and above all else.  Barrett Browning offers a different view of sexual selection where the male cannot offer protection but, instead, companionship and respect.  Machann’s reading of Aurora Leigh envisions Romney as the perfect mate for Aurora even though he does not ultimately represent traditional ideals of masculinity.

In his treatment of Amours de Voyage, Machann focuses on Clough’s protagonist, Claude, who also challenges traditional views of masculinity, but offers no alternative ideal, not even a failed one like Arthur’s.  Claude comes to represent many of the uncertainties about gender roles and much of the general doubt emerging during the Victorian period.  Claude never settles firmly on any beliefs or loyalties.  As a tourist and outsider in Italy, he is sympathetic with the cause of the Roman republic but ultimately detached from it.  He cannot imagine embracing the warrior role and fighting for the cause.  His concerns for personal survival trump his ability to heroically sacrifice himself.  His distaste for violence carries over into his relationship with his love interest, Mary Trevellyn, and her family.  He questions whether or not he would fight even to protect the Trevellyn’s if the circumstances arose.  Considering his hesitance to protect his potential female mate, Machann views Claude as “deconstructing the chivalric values defined in Tennyson’s Idylls” (90).  A code of self-sacrifice is unimaginable to Claude.

It is common to simply read Claude as detached from himself and his natural desires, but Machann complicates this reading.  He points to Claude’s concerns over whether expectations of him as a young man, as a warrior or as a lover, are based on real biological desires or simply on cultural expectations.  Claude wonders whether fighting can be considered natural when it violates concerns of self-preservation.  He also questions the genuineness of his feelings for Mary.  Machann writes, “Clough’s preoccupation with the idea that humans mate as a result of chance encounters is significant” (101).  Claude’s hesitation in courtship, stemming from his uncertainties about masculinity, result in a narrative that undercuts the prototypical heroic love narrative.  Claude and Mary are never united and he ultimately gives up his pursuit of her.  Claude’s (and Clough’s) “ambivalent manhood,” as Machann puts it, results from a conflict between his sense of himself as an individual, biological being and external social expectations that are placed upon him, between nature and culture.

Machann’s final treatment is of Browning’s The Ring and the Book where he presents the complexity of Browning’s critique of male violence and honor.  Machann focuses primarily on the villain Guido, but also presents some discussion of the victimized Pompilia and the failed but noble, chivalric hero, Caponsacchi.  Pompilia would have well represented the ideals of Tennyson’s Arthur as the female paragon of moral virtue.  Machann points to some biographical comparisons of her to Browning’s wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to whom The Ring and the Book was dedicated.  He also cites critics who have noticed a conflict in Browning’s treatment of women where he frequently idealized the female characters in his poems, but also had a tendency to portray women as victims, often to tyrannical husbands.

While critics have often viewed Browning as sympathetic to the feminine and read the murderous Guido’s character flaw as a hypermasculine need for control and propensity for violence, Machann explains how “Guido’s failed masculinity is the key to his failure as a human being” (131).  Guido sees his masculinity and the paternal authority that goes with it as the natural privilege of both his sex and his class status.  But his understanding of manhood is misguided as he proves himself abusive and unloving as a mate to Pompilia, and uncaring and uninterested as a father to his son.  He does not accept the responsibility and protectiveness that go with paternal authority and shows little interest in propagating to establish an heir.  Furthermore, Machann explains, Guido is portrayed as a coward throughout Browning’s narrative, even by speakers who are sympathetic to him.  When he does commit murder, it is against unarmed victims, two of them women.  And, most significantly, he never confronts his supposed romantic adversary, Caponsacchi.  Guido’s violence is not only reprehensible because it is destructive in itself, but because it is unmanly.

I have tried to summarize the overarching arguments of Machann’s book in terms of his treatment of masculinity.  However, for the sake of brevity, I have not fully captured the scale of his approach particularly in terms of how he constantly draws connections between the texts and gender related debates and changes taking place within Victorian culture.  With its treatments of history, culture, biography, literary and critical traditions, archetypes, and biological imperatives, one might find the ambitions of this project dizzying.  Yet, one could not accuse Machann of inconsequential digressions.  Masculinity is a large issue and evolutionary criticism typically seeks to encompass the sometimes dizzying complexity of the texts it treats.  Machann explains in his introduction that his “critical approach deals with the tension between historically (or culturally) based literary interpretations and those that imply ‘universal’ human experiences” (12).  He provides a cultural criticism tempered by the acceptance of an underlying human nature—an acceptance shared, as he demonstrates, by the four authors he treats.

Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics proves provocative in its rejection of the status quo of gender studies.  Certainly, there are those within literary studies who would reject a biologically based treatment of gender and maintain that any such attempts at “essentialism” are merely based on cultural constructs that, in many cases, can have negative social consequences.  However, Machann’s focus on tensions between the cultural and the universal implies that culture and civilization can have a positive effect on negative primal impulses.  He is not using the idea of “human nature” to justify barbaric, violent, or oppressive behavior.  Rather, by acknowledging primal human nature, he points to the potential for a deeper understanding of our selves that could lead to greater social justice.  Furthermore, Machann adds to our understanding of Victorian culture, its epic tradition, and the poets who engaged in that tradition.  He offers refreshing readings of each of these four Victorian epics with an approach that is likely representative of an oncoming sea-change in contemporary literary studies.

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