‘Both in Men’s Clothing: Gender, Sovereignty and Insecurity in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle’ in Critical Survey, vol 19, no 2, August 2007, pp63-81. ISSN 0011-1570
I became interested in Richard Marsh's Gothic fiction The Beetle in the course of researching for a proposed textbook on the Gothic literatures of the Victorian fin de siécle. Marsh’s novel, more popular than Dracula on its publication in 1897, had fallen away from popular and critical attention, until the reawakening of scholarly interest in it in the late 1990s and its re-issue in 2004 by Broadview Press. Upon reading the novel I was struck by the sheer range of fin de siécle themes contained in its pages: from representations of the New Woman, urban unemployment and degeneracy, to fearful fantasies about male homosexuality, and reverse colonization by a ‘racialized Other’. The resulting article was accepted by the journal Critical Survey and came out in August 2007.
My response to the novel was shaped by a sense that there were aspects to it that were insufficiently explored in existing scholarship. Kelly Hurley (1996), Roger Luckhurst (2000) and Julian Wolfreys (2004) have all offered illuminating readings in which are discussed, respectively, the novel’s depictions of the ‘abhumanness’ of the female body, its adoption of Victorian ideas about mesmerism and trance states, and it embodiment of fears about ‘reverse colonization’. My article aims to progress discussion of the novel by identifying aspects calling for further interpretation: its ambivalent treatment of its main protagonist and its exploration, through him, of political authority; its opening emphasis upon urban unemployment and destitution; its problematising of two of the four narrations which comprise its narrative; and the plot device in which the New Woman character is dressed in the clothes of the unemployed and emasculated male. The article contends that, read alongside one another, these features reveal Marsh’s novel to be ridden with ambivalence about the ‘modernity’ facing British culture at the end of the 19th century, as well as radical uncertainty about the viability of the virile masculine identity it proposes as a solution to fin de siécle degeneracy and decline.
Marsh was a successful and immensely prolific writer of the Victorian and Edwardian periods (he produced over 80 novels and several short story collections) and I continue to research into his work and its significance for turn-of-the-century culture.