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Mary E. Coleridge, Androgyny, And The Spectral Doppelgänger

The female Doppelgänger is in hiding. Critical studies of literary Doppelgängers focus almost entirely on male doubles from Frankenstein to Fight Club, suggesting that this motif more aptly describes a distinctly male duality. Yet throughout the nineteenth century, women writers from Mary Shelley to Mary Elizabeth Coleridge used Gothic doubling to critique assumptions about gender essentialism, the Angel in the House, and competing roles of wife, mother, and professional writer. Shelley’s Frankenstein (1816), for example, highlights the dichotomies between Creator and Creature, father and son, Self and Other, but stops short of creating a female double to share in the Creature’s isolation. Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Poor Clare (1856) presents a female Doppelgänger through the filter of the unnamed male narrator who attempts to save Gaskell’s Lucy from her own demonic double. Most notably, Mary E. Coleridge confronts female duality and otherness directly in moments of intimate self-reflection and Gothic dread. Many of her poems, novels, and essays offer a perspective missing from traditionally masculine Doppelgänger tales such as R. L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer (1910) . Coleridge’s androgynous, often duplicitous narrators challenge the notion that literary Doppelgängers embody secrets hidden deep within a male psyche. Rather, her work actively rejects the belief that Victorian women were incapable of compelling duplicities all their own.

The Doppelgänger—literally “double walker” in German—is defined as an “apparition of a living person; a ghost” (OED). Today, this term has become synonymous with one’s physical twin; however, Doppelgängers in Victorian literature rarely look anything alike. Rather, these supernatural doubles are often deformed or grotesque versions of an original or idealized self. What made Doppelgängers so compelling to Victorian writers was not their shared external features but rather their uncanny psychological connections. The doubling motif was especially fitting for a society obliged to keep individual and aberrant desires hidden for the sake of propriety and prestige. Victorian doubles often help protagonists recognize something within themselves that they are otherwise unable to see. By exposing the relationship between public masks and private selves, these spectral Doppelgängers represent an enduring tension between the personas we create to adapt and survive and the “true” selves that get lost beneath them. [i]

Mary Coleridge wrote frequently about the impossibility of separating the duplicities of our public and private selves. Her best-known work, The King With Two Faces, includes frequent references to doubling: two creatures, a wise man and a fool ( King 99); two ways to get rid of a dangerous person (i.e., reconcile with or kill him); two Queens (173); and the possibility that man is not two but many selves at once (“He is two at least—sometimes I think he is ten” [158]). Her best-known poems, too, feature mirrors, masks, and the multiplication of poetic voices and identity. As the great-great-niece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge was publicly reserved about her poetry, agreeing to publish only under the third-person male pseudonym Anodos, or pathless wanderer, a self-constructed male Doppelgänger, a master of Orwellian doublethink that allowed Coleridge to evade constraints of her gender and historical moment through her writing: “I will christen myself over again, make George MacDonald my godfather, and name myself after my favourite hero, Anodos in Phantasies ” ( Gathered Leaves 24).

In Gathered Leaves, a posthumous collection of letters, stories, and articles, Coleridge describes the male Anodos as distinctly aware of his autonomy and gender fluidity, specifically his ability to inhabit multiple characters and bodies at once: “ Anodos has over and over again been conscious, both for good and evil, that he was being rented by a spirit not his own, and when his body goes to sleep, he is in all probability animating another one” ( Gathered Leaves 221). Through the Jekyll and Hyde-like Anodos, Coleridge rejects the moral righteousness surrounding Victorian femininity and the woman writers in her poetry, novels, and essays rather than in her life. More importantly, the fragmented, epicene speakers of “The Witch,” “Regina,” and “The Other Side of a Mirror” (1896) complicate rigid thinking about Victorian women as passive, dutiful, and angelic mothers and wives. Coleridge’s divided narrators are as much estranged from themselves as they are compelled into enraged silence by passions and fears they cannot articulate, even to themselves.

Coleridge’s phantom-wanderers increase the need for doubled selves and the impossibility of maintaining such duplicity without fatal consequences. In the two-voiced ballad “The Witch,” Coleridge introduces a first narrator who haunts the poem’s second narrator by disguising herself as an innocent and helpless maiden who simply wants to be passively “lifted” over the threshold and set before a warm fire. Describing herself as a weary female wanderer in search of rest and the listener’s pity, she makes competing claims to female purity and to the need for rescue, resurrection, and preservation: “I am but a little maiden still, / My little white feet are sore / Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door” ( Fancy’s Following 53-54, ll. 12-14). The maiden’s puzzling statement that “the worst of death is past” (l. 11) distances her further from the warm and welcoming domestic threshold. She is an unearthly Gothic threat, a mysteriously vampyric temptress who becomes more powerful when disguised as a cold, helpless “maiden” in need of male rescue.

One cannot separate this enigmatic female speaker from the ominous suggestiveness of the poem’s title: Coleridge’s maiden-witch wraps herself in the costumes of female virtue and vulnerability while carrying with her omens of death. She utters her refrain once again before the poem shifts abruptly to a second, anonymous “I,” an unnamed individual who hears “her” entreaty and cannot turn her away: “Her voice was the voice that women have, / Who plead for their heart’s [sic] desire” (ll. 15-16). The maiden’s innocent refrain shifts abruptly in the third stanza from “I” to “her,” blurring the agency and motives of both speakers and making it impossible to identify the true narrator from among the poem’s shifting voices. At the climax of “The Witch,” the second speaker joins countless others who have been compelled to suffer and delight in the hauntings of this split self.

Coleridge distinguishes her poetic speakers from those who “live in a world of [the] looking-glass, which reflects all their most important actions—or their least important, as the case may be—for the benefit of the outside world” ( Gathered Leaves 177). The absence of single-voiced narration in “The Witch” echoes this need to appear publicly passive and unassuming within Victorian society before one can begin to wield any power from within it. The split nature of the first speaker’s identity divides the poem even further by refusing to explain which voice is in control of the tale or what becomes of the voice that ends the poem. The increased length of poetic lines also highlights the distance between the world of the poem and the social reality beyond it. In doing so, Coleridge heightens the Gothic and spectral features of the Doppelgänger as well as its cultural and ethical implications for Victorian women wishing to delay domesticity in order to continue to write.

The passive narrators of “The Witch” and the speaker of “The Other Side of a Mirror” contrast sharply with the strong female characters of poems such as “Regina.” The first-person speaker of this poem watches as “My Queen” removes all symbols of regal power from her body. This disrobing scene is reminiscent of the disrobing of Geraldine in Coleridge’s great-great uncle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel ; here, however, nakedness is empowering rather than hidden from view, “a sight to dream of, not to tell”: “My Queen her scepter did lay down, / She took from her head the golden crown / Worn by right of her royal birth” ( Fancy’s Following ll. 1-3). Once these physical markers of power are fully removed, the queen stands “[i]n her nakedness” as “the Queen of the world, herself, and me” (ll. 7-8). Though this queen demonstrates “manly” command, it is significant that she is a queen and not a king.

The poem that most successfully highlights the actual moment of coming face to face with one’s Doppelgänger is perhaps Coleridge’s best remembered. “The Other Side of a Mirror” presents a “wild” and “hideous” female presence made visible in a mirror ( Fancy’s Following 10-11, ll. 5, 15): this anonymous speaker faces, apparently for the first time, a reflection that is foreign yet also isolated from social judgment. The first-person speaker of the poem deliberately “conjures” up a female presence very different from herself, “a face bereft of loveliness,” a monstrous vision to which the narrator will refer repeatedly as “she” and “her.” Finding she can neither identify with nor tear herself away from this “silent visage,” she can only stare at her, observing how this unsightly woman “had no voice to speak her dread” (l. 18). Even “her” lips appear woefully distorted into a “hideous wound” that “in silence and in secret bled” (l. 16). This transfixed, repulsed narrator suggests the possibility of an androgynous, self-ruling identity that alienates and mesmerizes with unfamiliar or unconscious desires. The woman on the other side of the mirror is stripped of Victorian veils of cheerful acquiescence and struggles to recreate herself without relying on conventional “glad and gay” female ideals.

In the final stanza of “The Other Side of a Mirror,” this reflection “of jealousy, and fierce rage” (l. 23) collapses into two haunting female entities—a rapt, gradually yielding narrator and the “shade of a shadow in the glass” (l. 25) that begins to assume power over the narrator. The enchanted narrator pleads with this “shadow” to turn back into “the ghost of a distracted hour” (l. 29), to “set the crystal surface free” (l. 30), and to pass away as “the fairer visions pass” (l. 27). In the poem’s climactic whispered confession, “I am She” (l. 30), the narrator at last understands these desires as her own, though she can neither personalize nor articulate them. When Coleridge’s narrator comes face to face with her own hideous reflection, laid bare, she collapses the first and third person in a manner evocative of the collapse that occurs in the concluding narrative of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This shift recalls the pronoun shift so crucial to the ominous tone of “The Witch.” In this moment, Coleridge’s narrator becomes painfully conscious and terrified of the self she is compelled to repress. By ending the poem with this repressed, powerful “she,” Coleridge equates this new self to the “I” that opens her poem. As “she” and “I” collapse into one another in this imminent moment of self-discovery, speaker and reader discover simultaneously the complicit role of the “I” in presenting this mute and monstrous “she” as a foreign and fearful Other. [ii]

For Coleridge, mirrors represent a distinct weakening of power and mystique, a realization of truth that is unwelcome for its lack of artifice. In her final essay in Non Sequitur, Coleridge provides a convincing description of an androgynous sitter in a similar act of self-reflection: “In life, if we have gazed too long, the eye beholds itself and is averted instantly—conscious reflection for more than a minute becoming intolerable. Not one of us can stand it alone before the looking-glass” ( Non Sequitur 211). This description contrasts sharply with characters such as Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray or Ovid’s Narcissus, neither of whom can tear himself away from his own physical reflections. In Gathered Leaves, Coleridge describes the act of looking into mirrors as a secret wish to step outside our own reflections and look in on them from the outside. Indeed, one of the greatest dangers of looking into a mirror is that it obliterates movement and emphasizes the garish or flimsy quality of our chosen masks. At the same time, mirrors can also obliterate identity altogether: “Personal identity?” Coleridge writes in one of her letters, “I think we are much greater fools to believe in it. It is only the stupid transitory flesh in which we walk about that makes us. We believe it for others, not for ourselves” ( Gathered Leaves 221). Coleridge’s discussion of mirrors as both eclipsing identity and eliciting moments of unsettling recognition sheds new light on contemporary conceptions of the Doppelgänger as a female phenomenon.

Through the vehicle of spectral doubles, Mary Coleridge produces poems in which foreign reflections and suspended dread held keys to self-discovery. She creates androgynous, doubled-voiced characters who take us beyond concerns with her poetic lineage or her involvement in advancing social movements. In “St. Andrew’s,” for example, she writes of “a far, fantastic place” (l. 5) where gender is reimagined as important but not divisive: “There no men and women be: / Mermen, maidens of the sea, / Combing out their tangled locks, / Sit and sing among the rocks” ( Fancy’s Following ll. 11-14). Coleridge’s shadow selves are not merely the product of a society that requires repression; rather, these doubles represent the possibility of the mundane and the irreverent existing side-by-side, a cohesive self beneath our social masks that cannot be defined by conventional gender roles. This silent otherness is significant for Coleridge since confronting one’s reflection is only the first step toward establishing a unified self. Also essential to this process is finding a way to reintegrate the double into one’s consciousness so that it no longer feels foreign or fragmentary.

Interestingly, Coleridge publicly rejected claims of feminist motives in her work: “Woman with a big W bores me supremely ... It is a mere abstraction born of monks and the mists of the North. A woman I know, but what on earth is Woman? She has done her best to spoil history, poetry, novels, essays, and Sir Thomas Browne and Thoreau are the only things safe from her; that’s why I love them” ( Gathered Leaves 234). At the same time, Coleridge was also critical of other woman writers who failed to transcend their gender. Some of the writers that Coleridge labeled as too proper and safe have since been considered among the leading feminist writers of their time. Referring directly to female contemporaries including Mary Shelley and Sara Coleridge (Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s only daughter), Coleridge expresses frustration that these women writers must behave “so Englishwomanly. They certainly have imagination, and when they set it to work it works successfully … But it does not play about in their ordinary writings or lend grace to their lives. It is all cold” ( Gathered Leaves 219). Through Anodos and in the male and androgynous protagonists that frequent her novels and poems, Coleridge finds a way to escape “Englishwomanly” conceptions of femininity and morally righteous conceptions of the Victorian writer.

Viewing Coleridge’s work alongside tales of doubling by male writers could mean another revival of her work. In their 1979 Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar named Coleridge’s “The Other Side of a Mirror” as central to the “feminist poetics” they wished to construct (15), namely that which could begin to “excavate the real self buried beneath the ‘copy’ selves” (Gilbert 44). Katherine McGowran resists this early feminist reading, explaining how Coleridge’s “reluctance to assume a gendered identity” indeed granted her a great deal of creative freedom. Viewed this way, “the business of assuming a pseudonymous identity becomes a positive act, a means of casting off the burden of selfhood in order to enter a new one in writing” (585). More recently, Coleridge has become largely absent from scholarly discussions of the Gothic that focus on women writers. Her contributions to what was largely considered the male terrain of Doppelgänger tales offers a way to reconsider her body of poetry and prose.

In his well-known study The Divided Self, Masao Miyoshi sees the double in Victorian literature as a mode of self-creation (Miyoshi 291). In his chapter on masks and mirrors in literature of the 1890s, Miyoshi writes, “The mask hides no man’s face, and although everyone fears exposure of his nothingness, to others one’s mask is one’s face. The mirror, on the other hand, reflects not only the mask but, hopefully, the hidden truth of the face” (311). Coleridge implicitly experiments with the idea that “[t]he mask is for others’ inspection, the mirror for one’s private introspection” (311). In her miscellaneous letters and diaries, Coleridge also challenges the connection between mirrors and self-reflections. “It is to see ourselves as others see us,” she writes, “that we provide ourselves with looking-glasses, that we have our portraits painted and our photographs taken” ( Non Sequitur 267). Mirrors reveal shadow selves that provide additional layers to the Doppelgänger motif: namely, the ghost of another self, one that is perhaps more authentic but is nevertheless suppressed by more pleasing, artificial masks. Most dangerous, Coleridge’s poems suggest, are those characters who understand the power and desire beneath these masks and also know how to express them.

In much of her work, Coleridge depicts the struggle to reconcile a true self in a world that requires such convincing public masks. Her Doppelgängers make visible the shadow selves in motion within us and the dangers of repressing essential parts of ourselves that society deems unacceptable or even depraved. These poems also complicate psychoanalytic readings of the Doppelgänger by suggesting ways in which we can welcome or reject our shadow selves, causing them to consume us. This process of fragmentation does not necessarily end in the fight for dominance or the death of one double seen in countless male Doppelgänger tales. Rather, the quest for one’s hidden self ends in ambiguity and disillusion, revealing the impossibility of ridding ourselves of the masks that have come to define us. Coleridge envisions the Gothic double as essential in moments of profound self-awareness that are simultaneously liberating and paralyzing. Such moments of shock and contention expose fears about modernity and degeneration, fears that force characters to maintain these personas in order to conceal the vital parts of themselves.

While it may be easier than ever to find our celebrity twin in the digital age, such doubles are reductions of a motif so compelling it dominated the most enduring works of nineteenth-century British literature. Coleridge’s Gothic doubles differ radically from current notions of the double as physical look-alikes who live alternative lives to our own. In fact, her chameleon-like Doppelgängers may offer a more relevant way of describing how we create and maintain our own virtual personas today. Like the narrators of Coleridge’s poems, we present what we think will dazzle and leave out what is likely to displease or disappoint. Because we are constantly connected to these virtual modes of self-expression, our public and private selves become entangled and impossible to unravel fully. Examples of the Victorian Doppelgänger—like those depicted by Coleridge—suggest the possibility of recognizing and absorbing those parts of ourselves that exist apart from our digital personas. More importantly, these spectral doubles may even provide clues for how to navigate the shadowy terrain of our public profiles and private lives. Perhaps now, with lives lived largely online, there has never been a better time to return to Coleridge’s subtle and alluring female Doppelgängers and to bring them out of hiding.

Author's Bio: Heather Braun received her Ph.D. from Boston College and is an assistant professor of English at the University of Akron. Her research and teaching interests include Romantic and Victorian literature, women writers and Young Adult literature. She is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Femme Fatale in British Literature, 1790–1910 (Fairleigh Dickinson, 2012) and editor of The Lady on the Drawingroom Floor with Selected Poetry and Prose by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2018).

Works Cited and Consulted

Coleridge, Mary E. [Anodos]. Fancy’s Following. Oxford: Daniel P, 1896.

---. Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge. London: Constable and Co., 1910.

---. The King with Two Faces. London: Edward Arnold, 1897.

---. Non Sequitur. London: J. Nisbet, 1900.

Conrad, Joseph. “The Secret Sharer.” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Secret Sharer, and Transformation: Three Tales of Doubling. New York: Longman, 2008. 181-219.

Foucault, Michel. “Different Spaces.” Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Ed. James D. Faubion. New York: New Press, 1999.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.

Herdman, John. The Double in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

McGowran, Katherine. “Re-reading Women’s Poetry at the Turn of the Century.” Victorian Poetry 41.4 (2003): 584-89.

Miyoshi, Masao. The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians. New York: New York UP, 1969.

Živković, Milica. “Toward a Definition of the Doppelgänger.” Linguistics and Literature 2.7 (2000): 121-28.

[i]In “Toward a Definition of the Doppelgänger,” Milica Živković considers the difficulty of arriving at a single, coherent definition of this elusive figure: “As an imagined figure, a soul, a shadow, a ghost or a mirror reflection that exists in a dependent relation to the original, the double pursues the subject as his second self and makes him feel as himself and the other at the same time” (Živković 122).

[ii]In his essay “Different Spaces,” Michel Foucault describes this otherworldly experience of encountering one’s self as Other: “In the mirror I see myself where I am not, in an unreal space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there where I am not, a kind of shadow that gives me the visibility, that enables me to look at myself, there where I am absent—a mirror utopia” (Foucault 179).