Each of the characters seems specially chosen to exemplify many of the attitudes and interests—both common and bizarre—of the nineteenth century.
Deirdre, as has been seen, illustrates the fascination of the time with the occult, but the century had an equal passion for the stage. This love is shown through Malvinia, who runs away as a girl to join a troupe of actors. She becomes a star, attracts her leading man, and, in the first turning point of her life, discovers a horrible secret: She likes sex. Malvinia, like many people of the nineteenth century, thinks that women are too fine and high-minded to possess sexual feelings. Thus she is caught in the ironic situation in which she delights in her sexuality while despising herself for having zest for what she calls “the beast.” Although she regards her lustiness as unwomanly, she is unable, as she puts it, to “control herself.” Only later, when she reforms and marries a clergyman, is she freed from her “burden.” She then becomes the kind of obedient and pure wife celebrated in nineteenth century domestic literature.
Her sister Octavia, on the other hand, from her earliest age wants only to be a wife and mother and through her story shows the century’s commitment to a stern duty and an almost equally stern religion. The taboos of the time prevent frank instruction in reproduction, and she searches unsuccessfully for the facts of life in books. Even her mother is worse than...
(The entire section is 569 words.)