Faculty Publications

Victorian Literature as Trans Literature

Document Type

Book Chapter


Gender, Gay & Lesbian Literature, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, Literature & Gender Studies, Literary/Critical Theory, Literary History, Cultural Studies, Humanities, Literature, Language & Literature

Journal/Book/Conference Title

The Routledge Handbook of Trans Literature

First Page


Last Page



As Ardel Haefele-Thomas outlines in Queer Others in Victorian Gothic: Transgressing Monstrosity (2012), the Victorian era was populated by all manner of nonbinary and gender expansive slippages. This chapter examines gender non-binary and transgender characters in Victorian literature in order to demonstrate the period’s persistent interest in gender non-normative roles and bodies. As we locate proto-trans characters and transgender potentialities in Victorian literature, we can better understand authors’ overt and covert rejection of rigid gender binaries, noting that Victorian literature often portrayed a society where secure gender identity was being questioned. Drawing on the work of Lisa Hager (2019) and Jen Manion (2020), the chapter includes cultural contexts about the dandy, the New Woman, female husbands, and others who challenged the gender binary. Using the culture’s medical and scientific approaches to what we would now term transgender and intersex populations, the chapter includes a brief section on Victorian sexologists (Havelock Ellis (1928), Richard von Krafft-Ebing ([1886]1993)) who created sexual taxonomies that incorporated trans phenomena. Literary texts include poetry by Michael Field and Algernon Charles Swinburne, as well as fiction by Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker. Gender nonconforming characters speak to the transgressive capabilities of Victorian culture. These authors’ poetic and fictional worlds offer spaces for queer and transgender characters, spaces that incorporate, accept, or, as expected, also violently reject. These trans possibilities in Victorian literature suggest that numerous authors exploited and fetishized trans characters (and they are often the recipients of a scathing heteronormative gaze), and in several instances institutionalized or punished them for their difference. While this literature often depicts the punitive effects of a repressed, conservative Victorian culture, this chapter argues that it also offers at least temporary generative spaces for gender nonbinary and trans possibilities and characterization.


Department of Languages and Literatures

Original Publication Date


DOI of published version