A Serpent in the House: Subversive Women in Victorian Literature and Art

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Agile, Katherine Elyse
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Between 1854 and 1862, Coventry Patmore penned his idyllic vision of the Victorian woman in his long narrative poem <i>The Angel in the House</i>. Amid praising a figure whose likeness comes to define the ideal Victorian woman, an anxiety is woven into Patmore’s poem that the supposed domestic angel who stood as a pinnacle of purity for the Victorian family could in fact be a serpent in woman’s petticoats. My thesis explores the expression of this anxiety through literary and visual representations of serpentine women. Through performing the idealized role of Victorian womanhood with startling ease, serpentine women destabilize patriarchal confidence in the sexual, moral, and spiritual purity of the Victorian woman. While many critics who engage in Victorian critical analysis have kept the cultural discourses of art and literature apart, this thesis will repair this gap to develop the density and pervasiveness of the obsession with the serpentine woman in 19th-century England. By incorporating art, the visuality of this obsession is transported across time and space for a deeper and more empathic understanding of Victorian culture’s preoccupation with serpentine women. Moving beyond aesthetic expressions, this study also engages ancient mythological and Judeo-Christian interpretations of the female-serpent relationship to expose a powerful coupling and recast the traditional idea of womanhood to reveal a far less angelic woman at the helm of Victorian domesticity.