Interview Questions by Anna Clark, M.A. Student in History and Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant
This fall, the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum is hosting “Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in ‘Fifine at the Fair,'” an exhibition exploring the topics of sexual desire, social class, and the male objectification of women in Robert Browning’s 1872 poem “Fifine at the Fair.” This exhibit was curated by Katrina Gallegos, a Master’s student of Museum Studies at Baylor University. Gallegos’ exhibit is on display in honor of the poem’s 150th anniversary from August 17, 2022 – February 15, 2023.
I had the opportunity to ask Katrina Gallegos some questions regarding her exhibit, Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in “Fifine at the Fair.”
Gallegos is a M.A. candidate in the Museum Studies department at Baylor University. This past spring semester, Gallegos partnered with the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum to curate an exhibit exploring the topics of the male gaze, the sexual objectification of women, and Greco-Roman symbols in Robert Browning’s poem “Fifine at the Fair” on its 150th anniversary of publication.
Gallegos’ exhibit is on display in the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum Hankamer Treasure Room through February 15, 2023. We invite you to come see the exhibit before it closes this winter.
How did you become interested in creating an exhibit on Robert Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair”?
“Fifine” was actually my second choice. Originally, I was going to curate an exhibit based on women poets of Texas. However, as I was researching secondary sources in ABL’s closed stacks I came across literature that swayed me to curate an exhibition based on the poem. This poem is one of Robert Browning’s more obscure works and it was published later in his life. 2022 celebrates the poem’s 150th anniversary.
How did your previous research experiences assist you with this exhibit?
My background is in Spanish and the culinary arts, but my experience as a graduate student in the Department of Museum Studies aided my research. I have taken an exhibition curation course which taught us how to conduct preliminary research when developing a new exhibit. Additionally, my experience as a McNair Research Scholar at the undergraduate level assisted me in finding the secondary sources to support my thesis of the male gaze. There are published literary works in the Armstrong Browning Library’s periodicals which explore and analyze this theme.
In your exhibit, you highlight how Browning wrote about the provocative subjects of sexuality, desire, and the male objectification of women in a conservative Victorian society. Why do you think Browning was willing to address such topics that were generally considered taboo in Victorian England?
After reading the secondary literature and comparing that against contemporary sources one can find many examples of explicit sexuality in Victorian Literature. For example, Charlotte Brontë ‘s novel Wuthering Heights contains a few erotic scenes and sentiments. A specific example is when Heathcliff goes to Catherine’s bedchamber and replaces his rival’s hair with his own. The language of that and the succeeding scenes are erotic. And while not in the same generation, Lord Byron and the Romantics of the proceeding generation were a little scandalous. Also, if one looks to the Pre-Raphaelite movement of painting one can see both the male gaze, desire and sexuality. One famous painter Rossetti who was both a mentee and friend of Robert Browning painted many women who are beautiful and flirtatious. Also, if one considers the date of publication, 1872 one can posit why R. Browning wrote such a poem. By this point Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) had been deceased for 11 years and R. Browning never remarried nor taken a lover, a close friend, nothing. One can only imagine he must have had moments of loneliness and desire, he was after all, a living breathing human just like you and me. However, there are some contemporary and more recent secondary sources that argue that this poem was written as a critique on the Rosetti’s love life. As mentioned before R. Browning and Rosetti were friends, yet Rosetti was not as devoted to his wife as R. Browning was with EBB. After the poem was published, Rosetti was furious and ended his friendship with R. Browning. Browning was astonished, and nothing could persuade Rosetti to reconsider. Rosetti believed it was a personal and public attack on his behavior. From my research I could not find any document written by R. Browning which supports this theory. If I were to be very generous, I’d say both could be true. R. Browning was lonely, still had desires, and also disapproved of his friend’s behavior. The Victorians were and were not conservative. As with any society it is nuanced. The era is named after one individual, Queen Victoria, who was conservative. Queen Victoria’s successor, her son Prince Albert, known as “Bertie” was a scandalously licentious in his behavior. He took many lovers outside of his marriage and was a disappointment to his mother. I believe we, 21st century denizens, attribute much of our beliefs of this time around one person’s values and behavior. This is a disservice because there is much more to this era than one person.
How do you think Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair” contributed to late 19th century discussions regarding women’s suffrage, the cult of true womanhood, the aesthetic dress movement, and women’s role in both the private and public spheres?
I do not think the poem contributed much to these discussions. If anything, the poem reinforces the idea of “true womanhood” through its fetishization of a minority woman in direct comparison to a white English woman. As far as women’s suffrage I am only guessing therefore the following is an opinion, Donna Elvire has less than 20 lines of speech in this poem, and it is only at the beginning. If I recall correctly, Fifine has none. Therefore, I’d argue that R. Browning was not appealing to the females in the room. Could a woman have read it and its content affirmed her belief that a woman should have a voice and a right, sure. But I cannot definitively say that it had that effect. I am not entirely familiar with the aesthetic dress movement so I cannot speak to it. However, I do think R. Browning’s wife, EBB, contributed much more to women’s rights. She delicately balanced her public and private roles in a way that was far more unexpected and influential than her husband’s. He did what was expected, she did not. EBB wrote poems about slavery and child labor; she was a poet activist.
What do you believe is the most enduring legacy of Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair” on its 150th anniversary of publication?
That people change yet remain the same. Even today, different can be seen as exotic and desirable and a welcome relief from what expected and common. Also, famous people, poets, politicians, etc. are just people, they’re just trying to express themselves and figure it out like the rest of us.
Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in ‘Fifine at the Fair'”:
- Introducing the Mythic Women in “Fifine at the Fair”
- Analyzing “Fifine at the Fair” Through Symbology
- “Mythic Women” Closing Announcement