Seductive Beasts: The Female Werewolf in Victorian Literature


      The most exotic and interesting of all werewolves  must be the female werewolf. While the she-wolf is rare in any period’s literature, she does appear in the Victorian period quite a few times. Her appearance in literature is much rarer than in the oral history of lycanthropy which is full of women changing into wolves at night. When she does appear the she-wolf is often a sexual beast. She uses her dual nature and female charms to ensnare her prey. She is also a vehicle for at least one author to explore feminism and male sexual obsession something that would have been frowned on if it had been written about outside of the peculiar confines of Gothic horror.

 

A Rare Breed? The Female Werewolf

The female werewolf while very uncommon in literature holds a prominent place in myth and folklore. In our modern age when we think of female shape shifters wolves are often the last thing to come to mind. There are literally thousands of popular books depicting women turning into cats or catlike creatures but not wolves; however the female werewolf was much more popular in European mythology than our modern literary and media tradition would suggest. The female werewolf was prevalent in medieval stories and was often a witch that transformed herself with a magical potion. While the witch werewolf hybrid was the most common form of female werewolf it is far from the only type. Just as with males, female werewolves could be created by supernatural curses, deals with the devil, and even wearing the skin of wolves. Women could even turn their unborn children into werewolves by a simple magical spell that makes childbirth painless, “If a female at midnight stretches between four sticks the membrane which envelopes the foal when it is brought forth, and creeps through it, naked, she will bear children without pain; but all the boys will be were-wolves,” (Baring-Gould 80).

The female werewolf  was written about by several 19th century authors such as Clemance Housman and Frederick Marryat.  Housman was a writer, illustrator, and a leading feminist of her day. She wrote stories which fit more in with the traditional folklore than some of the other Gothic horror novelists. Her werewolves are the most interesting of the Victorian period and her exploration of the theme was more thoughtful and thought provoking than any of the other werewolf literature at the time.

 

 White Fell: Feminism, Sexuality, and Duality

The Were-Wolf, by Housman introduces us to the story with very little in the way of context or exposition. We know that it is winter, this is a large farmhouse, and that an extended family lives there. The names of the characters and even their pets give very little away about where or when this is taking place since they are a mix of Norse, Anglo Saxon, and Celtic names. We do know that this story probably takes place before the invention or at least the popularity of firearms as the only weapons used are an ax and a boar spear. Housman seems to have intentionally masked the characters in time and place to give the reader a sense of timelessness. This is important to the story in another way. White Fell, who we discover later is a werewolf, does not surprise the characters with her appearance. In she acts and dresses like a man and this is important for Housman’s underlying narrative. While White Fell is certainly the villain of the piece she also seems to be an extension of Housman’s ideas on feminism. White Fell is the equal to a man on every level. She is obviously a successful huntress. She able to best Christian (one of the two brothers in the story) in a foot race even after the narrative suggests that Christian is almost preternaturally fast. She is also able to outfight Christian and eventually gets the best of him. White Fell seems to represent a ferocious female spirit which can’t be defeated by any normal means.

This is however a Victorian novel and as such the female protagonist must be in some way depraved. Housman is able to get around that Victorian trope in several innovative ways. White Fell is the object of desire by Sweyn. Sweyn is the more beautiful and athletic of a pair of twins. He is only bested in one thing by his twin Christian and that is in the ability to run quickly. It may also be suggested that Christian has a much more keen sense of danger than Sweyn since Sweyn is totally taken in by the “Fell thing” (Housman 27). In Housman’s story it is not the werewolf who is the sexual wanton it is Sweyn. There is no suggestion in the story that Sweyn falls under the sway of the wolf woman by guile or even supernatural methods. No, Sweyn falls for White Fell naturally and because she is beautiful. He will hear no protest by his brother that she is a werewolf and his lust for her blinds him to the truth and to his brother’s concern. The tragedy of the story is not that a werewolf has arrived, but it is the unreasoning lust/love of Sweyn. This lust allows each death in the story as he protects White Fell from all accusations.

Christian from the beginning warns Sweyn and then the entire family that White fell was a supernatural creature but Sweyn convinced them all that Christian had gone mad with jealousy. In the end it was actually Sweyn’s jealousy that doomed them. White Fell is merely a predator doing what any predator would do. She is a monster but she would have had no power over the family if not for a lust that was not her own. Housman created what should be taken as a warning to all men that unreasoning love/lust is destructive.

Housman’s work is one that delves deeply into many issues that were prevalent in her time. Early on she explores the twin concepts of sexuality and feminism. Here she rejects the Victorian norm in which the strong sensual woman is the sexual predator. White Fell is a predator just not a sexual one. Instead she explores the idea that men are the origin of sexual deviancy and furthers her own ideas of feminism through the White Fell character. In fact if the last page of the story was missing this could have well been a story of a strong woman falsely accused of lycanthropy.

 

For Housman the female werewolf in her classic story is a vehicle for her to present a strong feminist inspired female character. White Fell is as competent as any man and had she not been hiding the creature inside herself she would have been the epitome of the perfect confidant woman. It is possible that Housman was telling the world that women had a hidden strength and that men should beware of their own hidden nature. This is an important concept because while White Fell has a dual nature the two male protagonists represent a dual nature of their own. The two men are twins and that alone should suggest this duality. Sweyn is beautiful and well made. The perfect male form but he harbors lust and distrust in his heart. Christian on the other hand is not beautiful and not the equal to his brother but he is pure of heart. Housman creates a modern parable by weaving a tale around three people who are never what they seem on the surface. It is a warning not to trust appearance but to find out the contents of a person’s heart.

Works Cited

Baring-Gould, Sabine (1865). The Book of Werewolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition. New York: Causeway Books, 1973. Print.

Clemence Housman (1896). The Were-Wolf. Web (Project Gutenberg) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/13131

 

 

 

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Cool! I must read that book!

It is a very quick read. It was free on Kindle last I checked and you can get it on project Gutenberg as well.