Wednesday 13 February 2019

Victorian Villains, University of Oxford, 9th February 2019

On a bright winter morning a group of Victorian enthusiasts gathered for a thought-provoking study day on the most notorious villains in Victorian literature.

First was an examination of the enigma that is Heathcliff by Dr Sandie Byrne. She spoke of the way modern adaptations of Wuthering Heights underplay his villainy, instead focusing on his victimization, and a skewed version of his love for Cathy. Wrong-footing us slightly, rather than dissecting his character in the tradition of villainy, instead we looked at the different tropes of hero figures and whether or not he could fit into these. The Bront√ęs having been fans of the Romantics we looked to the Romantic hero to which he loosely fits due to his extremes of emotion and fixation on one thing. There were also comparisons to the trend ignited by Henry MacKenzie’s The Man of Feeling which allowed men to be as emotional as women until its popularity waned with a backlash accusing such men as being effeminate, an accusation unlikely to be leveled at Heathcliff, he does nonetheless have a great sensitivity to certain stimuli.

One other possible link to the hero type is being the moral centre of the novel. Heathcliff’s morality is not one that’s held up as being admirable, but Byrne argues he could be seen as the only character in the book that stays true to themselves. Catherine betrays not just Heathcliff but her own true nature by entering the world of the Lintons. His behaviour toward the other characters could be seen as testing them. They repeatedly fail and as a result he sees them as weak. Yet, Heathcliff is full of contradiction. He is hellbent on revenge and yet before it is fully realised he stops, claiming in the famous line ‘I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.’ Why is this? Has seeing Hareton and Cathy defy his attempts to force a repeat of his own history softened him? Was he merely worn out? Is his desire to be reunited with Catherine in death greater than his desire for revenge? Why does he seem to regret some of his actions yet refuse to reconcile with Catherine on her deathbed? (I don’t hold Heathcliff to account for this, she continued to torment him to the end).

What are we to make of his nature? We see Hindley tormenting him in his youth and Catherine’s desertion of him wounds his very soul. Yet as Byrne points out, these actions skew traditional morality – he has done nothing wrong at this point, it is not punishment. There is much we don’t know of his history however, was it the actions of the Earnshaws that led him to becoming bitter and vengeful, had something in his past that we aren’t privy to affected him so deeply? Or, perhaps, Emily is expressing in him her belief that people should act according to their nature, like animals, and be held to no account? Heathcliff could therefore be seen as simply having a violent and fierce nature and living out his inevitability. A strange stance you may think from the daughter of a priest, and yet some have gone as far as to claim she was not a woman of faith at all. Fundamentally, it is this unknown surrounding Heathcliff that has made generations of readers fascinated, dissecting his character, pitying or reviling him.

Dr Charlotte Jones then led a discussion of the villains in Dickens’ Hard Times. In this we questioned what it meant to be a villain during the Industrial Revolution. Jones took us through a whirlwind history of the term, explaining how words that once denoted social rank became moral terms during the sixteenth century. The drastic changes brought about during the Victorian period raised questions once again of how we measure morality and it is this that Dickens bases his villains on in this novel. Thomas Gradgrind is the first character we meet and he is introduced to us as a villain, obsessed with utilitarianism, losing sight of what makes us human in his obsession with facts and figures. The fact he has fundamentally misunderstood Bentham’s philosophy make his character almost comically distressing, and somewhat sympathetic. He does not set out to make people miserable and yet his actions do, raising questions of what makes a villain.

On the other end of the spectrum is Bounderby who has created his life on a fantasy, lying about his past to fit into the ideal of the self-made man. Samuel Smiles’ Self Help was hugely popular at the time and emphasized the perceived difference between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, intended to stimulate action as it frames the gentleman as a moral status rather than an economic one. In pretending to have come from a life of poverty and abuse to create financial success for himself Bounderby is abusing his position and making a moral judgment on those less fortunate than himself. In having these two opposing villains Dickens broadens the definition of a villain.

Jones argues however, that labour is in fact the main villain in the novel. Dickens was writing for a specific audience – literate and wealthy enough to buy journals. In writing about a world alien to them he was attempting to open their eyes to the problems of factory work. It is widely acknowledged that working conditions at the time were dangerous and grueling and yet he seems to be suggesting that the most pervasive problem was the repetitious inevitability of life. The monotony wears the workers down and makes them miserable. In his description of Coketown everything looks the same, from school to hospital to gaol, the workers leave home at the exact same time every day, and in the descriptions you begin to feel how claustrophobic and tedious this is, the writing begins to reflect the repetitive monotony of life in industrial towns at the time.

Next, Barrie Bullen led us through the complex world of villains and Greek gods in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The two main villains are Alec D’Urberville and Angel Clare. Alec claims to be a villain and yet Bullen believes he is merely ventriloquizing bourgeoisie values. There’s no doubt he doesn’t treat Tess well, regardless of what you believe happened the night he impregnated her. Yet, Bullen claims it is Angel’s rejection and desertion of her that is the far crueler villainy enacted on her.

He believes they are symbolic of something much more significant than mere stage villains. Likening them to Dionysus (Alec) and Apollo (Angel) he points out that even Tess and Angel’s courtship mirrors the solar year, beginning in Spring, attaining its passionate climax in summer and then the abandonment by winter. The scene at Stonehenge and discussion of sacrifice to the sun is appropriate as one in which Angel plays a part. In fact, this scene and the earlier scene in the Chase with Alec are carefully mirrored. Bullen pulls out the similarities in the ancient settings, the darkness, dominance of the man, and ultimately, of Tess’s sacrifice. It is in the final lines of the novel that Bullen argues reveals the true villain – the President of the Immortals.

In all of the novels so far it has been shown that their villains are not as straightforward as one might originally have thought, and indeed it is often not the characters that prove to be the most villainous but the environment in which the action takes place or the gods who kill humans for sport. In the final lecture of the day, delivered by Dr David Grylls, we perhaps see the most traditional antagonist in Count Fosco from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Yet, his character is not all that simple, Collins himself described him as both ‘a brand-new villain’ and ‘the quintessence of a hecatomb of villains’. He meets many of the traits of a classic villain; he is intelligent, subtle, foreign, fallible, and attractive, and yet Collins created a character that he enjoyed writing and that readers often come to admire.

His intelligence is genuine, although disturbing for being devoid of morality. He plays against expectations, when providing Marian with medication the reader is led to assume he is poisoning her when he is not; he is aware of the suspicion he might encounter due to his nationality and he plays up to it, constantly keeping one step ahead of the rest of the characters. Collins can be seen to be mocking parochial xenophobia as it is the least intelligent characters that believe the stereotypes. Percival Glyde, who sat happily in the role of villain in the first volume of the novel, before Count Fosco appears, is soon shown to be clumsy and crude in comparison. As in Hard Times and a number of other Dickens novels, Collins uses opposing villains that complement each other in their disparity.

Similarly, as we saw with Heathcliff, Fosco is full of contradictions. He is physically large yet light on his feet. Once a radical, he abandons his beliefs for social pretension, a fact which ultimately leads to his downfall. His fondness for pets and in particular his mice, is a childlike image yet in every other way he appears cultured and sophisticated, possessing not just the fruits of study but also emotional intelligence. We saw throughout the day that a villain can take many forms, are often strengthened by a counterpart, and need some relatable qualities to make them believable and interesting. 


  1. I've tried reading Wuthering Heights before but haven't gotten too far into it yet. I might have to give it another go. Great post :)

    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed the post. I love Wuthering Heights but it's definitely not to everyone's taste. Let me know how you get on if you do give it another try.

  2. This is such an interesting post. I now need to re-read Wuthering Heights. Because when I first read it I was perhaps 16, and definitely not capable of understanding the deeper themes and the problematic nature of Heathcliff etc.
    I've also fallen into a fantasy hole a few years ago and have neglected the classics somewhat. I should make more of an effort :)

    1. Thank you. Wuthering Heights is definitely worth coming back to I think. I first tried to read it when I was 9 and it was all a bit beyond me. Let me know how you get on if you do give it another read :-)