Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol 14, No 2 (2009)
Romantic friendship between women has been a fertile ground for explorations of Victorian sensory culture, inciting nuanced attention to the emotional and erotic components of intimacy. Work in this area has advanced our understanding of the histories of gender, sexuality and the family and of the history of emotions. This essay takes a new approach to contests over the (in)compatibility of female friendship and marriage, exploring the rich vocabularies through which women’s pain at an intimate friend’s marriage is represented. It examines the language and imagery that Charles Dickens’s fiction shares with women’s actual accounts, taking in life writing including diaries, letters and autobiography, with a focus on the writings of American poet Emily Dickinson, herself an astute reader of Dickens. Dickinson’s reception of Dickens and imaginative use of his work to conceptualise her own experiences of female intimacy offers evidence of a shared trans-Atlantic affective culture.
Exploring the gothic strain within this range of sources, I suggest that such accounts offer important evidence for the expression of extreme emotion in the period, offering insights into available languages of loss and mourning, and the points at which those verbal modes become insufficient. At the same time, a focus on this moment of anguish calls for a further complication of our increasingly nuanced understanding of the experience of romantic friendship, and exposes a wealth of hostile attitudes towards marriage, here presented less as a happy ending or fulfilling destiny and more as a fate worse than death.