“Too expansive to be contained”: The Queer Collaboration of The Were-Wolf (1896)
The late nineteenth century in Britain is an era characterized by social-political movements and emergent identities: the demand for suffrage burgeoned with first-wave feminism; the fin-de-siècle Decadent movement declared the imperative of art for art’s sake; the New Woman, lampooned by the public for her masculinity, sought political upheaval; the Arts and Crafts movement proffered utopian socialism; and gay rights coalesced into a fledgling campaign. Through the arts, gender and sexual dissidents negotiated what it meant to be a man, a woman, or neither within British society. Clemence Housman’s 1896 novella The Were-Wolf uniquely demonstrates the active entanglement of politics and literature in the period. The Were-Wolf’s story and background—equally strange, equally compelling—offer a look into the complex history of gendered monstrosity.
As this series argues, the werewolf figure is particularly suitable for teasing out the slippage of gender and sexual identities, but we’ve not yet encountered a female werewolf or a woman creator. Housman’s novella offers both: as a writer, activist, and artist, she wrote one of the earliest portrayals of a female werewolf. Sister to poet and critic A.E. Housman and their younger brother Laurence, an artist and early gay rights activist, Housman’s personal life was imbued with politics, art, and Christian devotion. She lived her entire life (a whopping 94 years) with Laurence, never marrying. Though we know little about her identity, Clemence’s political legacy is pronounced. With Laurence, she co-founded the Suffrage Atelier, an artists’ collective that campaigned for women’s suffrage. Clemence demonstrated (see fig. 1) and was arrested in 1911 for refusing to pay taxes in protest of women’s disenfranchisement.
Heavily involved in the politics and movements of her day, it is unsurprising that Housman’s novella would incorporate much of the late nineteenth-century’s debates regarding gender and sexuality. The Were-Wolf follows the werewolf White Fell’s disruption of a brotherly bond. When Christian recognizes White Fell for what she is—a werewolf masquerading as a human—he unsuccessfully attempts to intervene in his brother Sweyn’s attraction to her. At the novella’s climax, Christian races against time with White Fell across the snowy Scandanavian landscape, determined to kill her upon transformation at midnight in order to save his brother. Though White Fell bests him, blood, like holy water, pours from his fatal wound and destroys her. Sweyn finds Christian’s body beside a dead wolf, mourning his brother’s Christ-like sacrifice for him.
On the surface, The Were-Wolf reads like a standard morality tale: the (almost painfully) aptly named Christian saves his sinful brother from the enticingly androgynous woman, elevating the sacrificial brotherly bond. The novella, however, becomes ideologically complex upon closer reading and through attention to its publication history. Originally published in the girls’ magazine Atalanta in 1890, Clemence Housman republished the novella in 1896 with new illustrations: engraved by herself and illustrated for printing by Laurence, these updated illustrations emphasize gender dissidence that Everard Hopkins’s 1890 illustrations largely ignore. Borrowing from the Decadent movement’s artistic style and conceptions of gender, The Were-Wolf proffers an androgynous hybridity of gender through the siblings’ artistic collaboration.
A clear indication of the shift in the novella’s politics through the siblings’ collaboration is the depiction of White Fell, Housman’s New Woman-like werewolf. White Fell is a “half masculine, yet not unwomanly” huntress who favors athleticism and power over romantic gestures. She eschews traditional female roles; among other things, she kills a child and is sexually independent. She inspires in Sweyn a desire to be dominated: “Wonderful and beautiful was that wrist, slender and steel-strong; also the smooth shapely hand, that curved so fast and firm, ready to deal instant death”; he desires “to feel the pressure of these hands.” White Fell furthermore exemplifies the elusive characterization of werewolves as between human and wolf, man and woman: she is “that dreadful Thing that looked like a beautiful girl.” While Hopkins’s illustrations of White Fell are decidedly feminine, Housman figures her as clearly androgynous and almost animalistic.
In Christian, Housman depicts something of a gay aesthete who would not be out of place in the queer Decadent movement alongisde the likes of Oscar Wilde. Overshadowed by his brother in all ways except his ability to run, Christian, like White Fell, is androgynous. Unable to live up to his brother’s masculinity—“Women are so easily scared … and ready to believe any folly without shadow of proof. Be a man, Christain, and fight his notion of a Were-Wolf by yourself,” Sweyn demands—he is also immune to White Fell’s appeal.
Though rivals, White Fell and Christian mirror one another. Both gender dissidents, their similarities are never more striking than in the novella’s climax. In his attempt to catch and kill White Fell when she transforms into her beast form at midnight, Christian chases her into a dizzying, temporally-confused race. He feels time move unnaturally as they run, as if days have gone by while never approaching midnight. He realizes “that strange Things hid themselves from men,” but now come “slipping out from their harmless covers to follow him.” In the most remarkable passage, Christian questions his identity: “He grew bewildered, uncertain of his own identity, doubting of his own true form. He could not really be a man, no more than that Thing running was really a woman; his real form was only hidden under the embodiment of a man, but what it was he did not know.” Christian’s identity—tied as it is to his gender—destabilizes through his relation to White Fell. Again, the ideological import of the illustrations is paramount. Hopkins’s illustration of the race distinguishes Christian and White Fell’s appearances and positions Christian in power. His grip on White Fell, and the fear apparent on her face and in her body language, masculinizes Christian rather than subverts his gender. In contrast, Housman’s illustration parallels the characters’ stances and loping slender bodies, effectively equalizing them. His work thus bolsters his sister’s text in which gender dissidence functions in tandem with the novella’s values. Like its disruptions of Victorian notions of linear time and progress, gender in The Were-Wolf is proven to be unfixed.
Although Christian’s martyrdom aligns the novella with Anglican morality, its gender dissidence remains prominent. At the moment of his death, Christian’s “own true hidden reality that he had desired to know grew palpable, recognizable … too expansive to be contained by the limited form of a sole man, it yearned for a new embodiment infinite as the stars.” In death, Christian achieves a superior, nebulous identity. Through her marriage of gender fluidity with Christian’s Christ-like sacrifice, Housman constructs a form of gender dissidence that is congruent with her religion. A peculiar and beautiful novella in and out, The Were-Wolf offers a glimpse into a period of rapidly changing understandings about gender, politics, and recognizing the irresistible strangeness within us all.
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Join me in the next installment of Queer Moon Rising on the feminist horror film Ginger Snaps (2000).
Marisa Mercurio (she/her or they/them) is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD student, she studies intersections of gender, sexuality, and empire in nineteenth century British literature; female detective fiction; horror and the Gothic. Marisa is also the co-creator and co-host of the However Improbable podcast, a Sherlock Holmes book club that narrates and discusses the great detective. Her writing has recently appeared in Sublime Horror. You can find her on Twitter @marmercurio and on WordPress.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020 from a pitch emailed to the editor following a brief discussion on Twitter. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly and genre fiction review networks, and the author has written for the editor and ARB previously. No review copy was arranged by ARB.