When considering gender in a literary context, as Andrew Elfenbein asserts, it is important to explore the ways that “culture rather than biology defines masculine and feminine roles” and lists education, religion, social mores, legal prohibitions, and social tradition as the areas in which gender questions often surface in an English context. Elfenbein continues by stating that most literary critics with an interest in gender and how it is portrayed in literature have a tendency to focus on the depiction of women, but that there has been a recent fascination with and subsequent exploration in the ways in which men and masculinity are portrayed.
As Elfenbein points out, morality was inexplicably linked to masculinity in the early nineteenth century:
[Masculinity’s] weapons were moral earnestness, sincerity, patriotic love of England as the haven of Protestant Christianity, and dedication to hard work and the family […] [this] model of masculinity paired stern moral duty with personal reserve and absence of theatricality.
The Englishman became known for his reserve, wildly opposed to the perception of the time of the “Continental character”, who was outlandish and outgoing. These ideas of Christian manliness pervaded eighteenth century literature, which showcased an abundance of gentlemanly heroes who were rewarded for their morality (or masculinity) with the heroine of the story. Byron challenged these ideas by severing the ties between eighteenth century morality and masculinity, producing characters that were ambiguous, complex, dark and exciting; very different heroes in comparison to the likes of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy or, in Elfenbein’s example, Hannah More’s Mr Stanley. The further Byron took his hero from the traditional Christian figure, the more disgust and disdain he received from those around him: John Constable wrote in a letter that though “the world is rid of Lord Byron, the deadly slime of his touch still remains” and Thomas Babington Macaulay deciphered a new “system of ethics, compounded of misanthropy and voluptuousness, a system in which the two great commandments were to hate your neighbour, and to love your neighbour’s wife” from Byron’s poetry. Perhaps this rejection of Byron and the lack of morality in his work came from the rumours that were circulating about his personal life, specifically his sexual conduct (or lack thereof); but Elfenbein declares that “instead of being objects for judgement, the Byronic heroes are spectacles for wonder. They gain their power through a quasi-magical ability to attract and retain attention, even though they do nothing to solicit it.” Byron’s heroes, despite their criticism, found and engaged with a European audience, who were fascinated by the difference that Byron had exhibited between masculinity of everyday life and masculinity in art and were more than likely intrigued by the idea that these two perceptions of the male gender could exist.
The fact that Byron’s Turkish Tales are not set in scrupulous England allows a certain level of allure for his audience. In fact, in one of his footnotes from Lara, Byron explains that there is “no circumstance of local and natural description fixing the scene or hero of the poem to any country or age.” Elfenbein ensures his reader that “if [Byron] had set his poems closer to home, it is questionable whether or not his audience would have been quite so enthusiastic.” That the radical thoughts and actions of his heroes take place in foreign lands lends contemporary readers the idea of the Other, something drastically different to the inhabitants of Byron’s homeland, and somewhere in which hidden desires are freely expressed and acted upon. In particular, Ottoman practices at the time which demonstrated non-Westernised sexuality in action became increasingly intriguing for the repressed, moral-bound society of which Byron had been part. At the same time, Eastern practices created for the Anglican public certain racial stereotypes that Byron often played with or inverted. Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud uses the harem as an example of such a stereotype:
The fascination with the harem […] helped consolidate racist stereotypes such as the always sexually willing Oriental woman and the enervated Oriental male […] Such fictions of the harem thus underwrote the European civilizing mission, with the goal of “freeing” women from the Sultan’s lascivious excesses.
Byron twists this stereotype in The Corsair, instead narrating the rescue of Conrad by Gulnare. Conrad is described very similarly to the way Byron often is: a “man of loneliness and mystery, / Scarce seen to smile and seldom heard to sigh” and that “dazzles, leads, yet chills the vulgar heart”; he is the “gloomy, brooding figure” of masculinity, rebelling against the traditional nineteenth century conceptions of manly behaviour – the Byronic hero. The Turkish Tales often detail situations in which the Byronic hero meets his match in the form of a woman who has been titled the “Byronic heroine.” The Byronic heroines share several common traits across most of Byron’s work, as Gloria T. Hull explains: they are young, beautiful, and foreign. They are knowledgeable in the romantic arts and refined, even if the Byronic hero finds them in an inferior societal position to himself. Whereas critics’ focus is predominantly placed on the Byronic hero figure, some, such as Hull, insist that the Byronic heroines are “important and should be more carefully studied” because they are “worthwhile in themselves”, echoing Caroline Franklin’s belief that the women in Byron’s poems are more interesting than the male characters; however it is important to note that Hull continues to state that “they are important for the additional insights which they give into the nature and use of the Byronic hero.” William Hazlitt has said of Byron that he “makes man after his own image, woman after his own heart; the one is a capricious tyrant, the other a yielding slave.” The Byronic heroine is a woman that has a voice, then; but can only be heard enough to ensure the Byronic hero is still seen as the hero—despite being dubbed ‘heroine’, the women in Byron’s work, notably those in the Turkish Tales, are not equal as heroes.
This can be seen in the portrayal of Gulnare. At first, she is portrayed as typically feminine, a woman enamoured by Conrad after his attempt to free her: “[I] long to view that chief again, / If I but to thank for, what my fear forgot, / The life – my loving lord remember’d not!” But it is a femininity of which she is self-aware, and in being so, understands her own weakness: QUOTE. However, Gulnare’s femininity is something entirely Other to Medora’s. Gulnare is darker, both in appearance and personality, and Byron expands her role more than that of the ‘light’ Medora. QUOTE ABOUT LOOKS Gulnare’s rich complexity and her contrasting ideal of femininity represent the “world of strife for which Conrad abandoned Medora and represents that part of his being and experience.” Gulnare’s femininity morphs into something unfeminine throughout the poem and, at times, into something masculine. The ‘shifting’ of gender roles eventually ends up emasculating Conrad when Gulnare commits a murder that he will not, using the “firmness of a female hand” to do so. When Conrad notices a spot of blood on her face, with “the wildness of her eye” and her “dark far-floating hair”, Byron writes that it has “banish’d all the beauty from her cheek",” eliminating the feminine Otherness that Gulnare once possessed, and transforming her into a wild, exotic beast, epitomising the stereotypes of Eastern culture as something uncivilised.
It is not just Gulnare’s femininity that comes and goes in the course of the poem. Conrad’s masculinity ebbs and flows around Gulnare, who is used as a foil to show the various different personae of men. Byron calls her “the Haram queen – but still the slave of Seyd” but at one point, “Conrad following, at her beck, obey’d” reversing the traditionally thought of Eastern or Ottoman roles by placing Conrad in the subservient position. She challenges Conrad on his masculinity when he is too afraid to escape with her, chiding “If thou hast courage still, and would’st be free, / Receive this poniard—rise and follow me!” Gulnare’s enthusiasm to free herself of her slavery and willingness to use her own sexuality to beguile the Pacha paints her as a bold femme fatal, and puts her in the same unique league as Don Juan’s seductress amongst Byron’s women in his poetry. And later, Conrad “clasp’d that hand – it trembled – and his own / Hand lost its firmness, and his voice its tone.” Repeating the motif of a firm hand as a masculine trait, Gulnare’s actions render Conrad faint and meek, despite Byron describing Gulnare with that exact phrase. Gender, then, seems to interchange between the male and female bodies, and whoever appears the most feminine is the weaker of the two in that moment. This can even be seen with Medora’s death: Medora is the feminine ideal, the Western “angel of the house” prototype. Her femininity clashes with that of Gulnare, who possesses a feminine Otherness. Ostensibly, Medora has none of the power that Gulnare seems to hold; what she does have, however, is the suffocating control that her wifely devotion has over Conrad. Alexis Spiceland Lee writes:
Conrad “escapes” Medora’s tower, in which he is as imprisoned as in Seyd’s. He can only love her when he is free of her control […] Conrad “mans” himself, or adopts an authoritative performance of masculinity which allows him to maintain his subjectivity and individual freedom, only when “off the leash.”
This is ironically reiterated by Gulnare herself, when she hesitatingly declares, “I felt – I feel – Love dwells with – with the free.” When Conrad learns of Medora’s death, Byron leaves it up to the reader to decide if she committed suicide or died of a broken heart. Either way, her death represents the wifely duty Medora felt obligated to enact; her patriarchal feminine devotion to Conrad forces her into a situation in which her inability to live without her husband means her existence must be terminated. Yet Conrad, upon discovering his wife has died, loses all trace of the English Christian masculinity he is expected to have: “So feeble now – his mother’s softness crept / To those wild eyes, which like an infant’s wept: / It was the very weakness of his brain.” Thus Conrad, as a male, displays feminine qualities, which are construed as weak. At the same time, Conrad is admired for his Western heroism and chivalry, and his treatment of women is sharply juxtaposed with the Pacha’s, whose cruelty and disrespect for women ensures that the Western-born stereotype of the uncultured and boorish Eastern male has its place in the poem. The Corsair explores not so much the notion of being a woman or being a man, but rather the idea that gender is interchangeable between the two sexes and that the power play between a man and woman is not necessarily to do with their anatomical make-up but rather the qualities displayed through gender.
If this is the case, then it would be logical to assume that same-sex relations can carry the same weight in Byron’s works as heterosexual relationships do. Lara deals with concepts of homosexuality and gender fluidity and is often read as the sequel to The Corsair with Conrad as Lord Lara and Kaled as Gulnare in men’s clothing. Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud sets up a fairly detailed understanding of homosexuality or same-sex practices in Eastern and Ottoman cultures in Byron and Oriental Love. In brief:
… those Ottoman men who could afford multiple wives and concubines might also be expected to own young male slaves. […] the page boys of Ottoman court life […] were known to work not only as attendants but also as sexual servants. This well-circulated aspect of Ottoman high society means that Lara might be expected to resonate erotically.