CW: Non-explicit discussion of sexual assault.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about mental illness and vampirism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and focused especially on the way Mina and Lucy, the two female characters and victims of Dracula, embodied a lot of aspects of what was considered to be mental illness in the Victorian Era. Mental illness is front and center in the novel, considering that a lot of it takes place in a mental asylum and two of its main characters are “brain doctors.” Sexuality, however, takes more of a backseat, relegated to innuendo and suggestion. Three female vampires try to feed on one of the male characters, Jonathan, in a sexually charged manner. When Lucy becomes a vampire, the chaste young woman becomes much more alluring and “hungry.”
In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a comic series that ran from 1999 to 2007, sexuality is much more explicit. Its first volume reimagines many of the classic Victorian monster and adventure stories, from Bram Stoker’s novel to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In her introduction in the comic, we learn that Mina was “ravished by a foreigner,” which excludes her from the polite society to which she previously belonged. The “foreigner,” of course, is everyone’s favorite Transylvanian vampire, and her being “ravished” is a clear reference to the events of the source material, in which she was fed on and partly turned into a vampire. In the novel, she was cured of the vampire’s curse when Dracula was slain and of the potential damage to her reputation by marriage to Jonathan, but in the comic series, she is without her cadre of male protectors and left to fend for herself in a society that rejects her for her perceived “sexual deviance.” The association between the vampire bite and sex or sexual assault is made much more explicit than in the source material and used to exclude Mina from middle-class Victorian society.
Mina, as a virtuous, hard-working middle-class Victorian woman, was a symbol of the British Empire. To have been ravished by a foreigner is the ultimate failure. Not only does she lose her purity and chastity, but she, as a representation of the British Empire, was subjected to reverse colonization. I talked in my previous Dracula post about how reverse colonization is one of the Victorian fears most blatantly exploited to create fear in readers; in the comic, he is a reverse colonizer because he conquered a prime exponent of the values of Victorian England. Remember that the British Empire was at that time led by a woman who worked hard to cultivate her image as virtuous, unassuming mother and wife, the model of middle-class femininity. (Even if, as all those clickbait articles would have you believe, she secretly hated babies and childbirth.)
However, Mina doesn’t belong with the working class, either. She dresses, behaves, and speaks like the middle-class woman she was raised to be. When Campion Bond attempts to be on first-name terms with her, Mina makes it very clear that she still intends to maintain propriety:
Mina also values gentlemanly behavior, such as that of Captain Nemo, of whom she says: “He has his eccentricities, but at least he is courteous." Given her exclusion from both classes, there is only one place for Mina—the “menagerie” of misfits that is the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which exists outside of conventional society.
Mina’s in-between, outsider status caused by her sexual deviance also allows her to pass as a member of different social classes and conform to different class expectations. While in Paris, Mina learns that female prostitutes are being killed by what appears to be an escaped orangutan. She quickly decides that the way to capture the killer is by setting herself as “bait.” Mina then appears in revealing clothing prompts Dupin to state, “Well, you look the part, all right.” Clothing and sexuality are the markers that associate her with a lower class. Mina’s willingness to set aside her sense of Victorian propriety and display her sexuality is tied to her exclusion from polite society due to her sullied reputation.
When Mina plays the part of a lower-class woman, her body is exposed and she becomes vulnerable; in fact, within a few minutes of playing “bait,” she’s snatched up by the “orangutan,” Mr. Hyde. However, Mina’s body is also at risk even when she isn’t playing a part. During the introduction of one of the other main characters, Quartermain, Mina is assaulted by “Mohammedans” (the comic’s treatment of race is another topic; whether it reflects the views of the Victorian Era-British Empire about the peoples under its rule or the authors are simply making use of lazy stereotypes, it’s pretty cringe-worthy). Quartermain saves Mina at this juncture, which mainly seems to serve as a way to galvanize him into action despite his sorry state due to his opiate addiction. Mina seems to be at risk because she comes to an unknown location without male protection, which would have been afforded to her if she had been a proper middle-class Victorian woman.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mina passes as a middle-class married woman while investigating Miss Rosa Coote’s Correctional Academy for Wayward Gentlewomen. Here, she is successful because she is performing an identity not too different from the one she used to have as Mrs. Harker. Despite her proper clothing and conveyance in a carriage, Miss Coote attempts to make Mina’s body available once more, saying: “What a firm, womanly figure you present!” However, in this guise, Mina reinforces her class status and the protection it affords her: she is “Mrs. Murray” and introduces Quartermain as “my husband, Mr. Murray” and Captain Nemo as “our manservant.” Unlike Mina’s passing as a prostitute in Paris, which only required her to make her body available, her passing as a respectable married woman depends on the security afforded by a “husband” and a male subordinate. In this role, Mina is given deference by Miss Coote, who curries for her favor, thinking Mina will send her daughter to the academy. By conforming to the expectations of her sexuality in the position of a middle-class woman, set aside from the “bordello” that she considers the Academy to be, Mina temporarily accesses class privilege that she no longer possesses.
In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Mina has much more agency than in Bram Stoker’s novel, perhaps because she’s not restricted by the class boundaries she was tied to when she was able to belong to the middle class. She demonstrates that class is permeable: it is constructed through markers such as clothing, speech patterns, sexual behavior, occupation, marital status, and places of residence. None of these markers are inherent, as evidenced by Mina’s success in taking them on. She transcends class, and in so doing she transcends the gender and sexual norms that are tied up with class. Her misfit status is what gives her the power to take advantage of the categories she doesn’t belong to.