HELEN LUU murderous mother who kills her own sons, a sensual sorceress who transforms men into beasts, a child-woman billed as "The Happiest Girl in the World," a high-class prostitute "that feed[s] men's lusts and prey[s] on them," and an old maid "faded" into a "lifeless husk": this opening sequence of speakers in Augusta Webster's second volume of dramatic poetry, titled Portraits (1870, with "Faded" added in 1893), might call to mind the sensationalized and hyperbolic rhetoric of nineteenth-century freak exhibitions.1 Like the Victorian freak show, these first five portraits in Webster's gallery, "Medea in Athens," "Circe," "The Happiest Girl in the World," "A Castaway," and "Faded," all exhibit human oddities--specifically female oddities and, even more specifically, female grotesques. Defined by Mary Russo as women who make a spectacle of themselves by transgressing the social norms of femininity, the female grotesque is characterized by a specifically feminine excess: female bodies that display their sexuality or simply fail to hide it; bodies that bear the mark of their female sex. As Russo writes, "the possessors of large, aging, and dimpled thighs displayed at the public beach, of overly rouged cheeks, of a voice shrill in laughter, or of a
Victorian Poetry – West Virginia University Press
Published: Jun 27, 2017
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