In 1889, Mona Caird published her third novel, The Wing of Azrael, which skillfully blends New Woman themes, melodrama, and Gothic tropes. Caird’s portrayal of marital violence and a wife’s consequent murder of her husband in self-defence incorporated many of her views on the status of women and problems of marriage in the late Victorian era. In particular, the novel dramatized the same criticisms of a patriarchy that perpetuated female marital enslavement that she had made in an earlier essay ‘Marriage’ (1889). The Wing of Azrael, described as a ‘feminist gothic’ (Gullette 512), tells the story of a girl raised by her family to follow the principles of female sacrifice in marriage. For economic reasons she is forced by her parents to marry a rich evil man whom she detests and finally murders.

The novel’s title, ‘The Wing of Azrael,’ refers to the figure of the Angel of Death, Fate, and Destruction in Jewish and Islamic angelologies. Caird may have been inspired by a poem written by the poet and painter Ann Charlotte Turnbull, later Bartolomew (1800-1862), titled ‘The Song of Azrael’ (1840), which tells of the tragic death of a young bride. Caird used the legend of Archangel Azrael, to whom a scapegoat is offered, as a powerful metaphor of the price women paid in mismatched marriages and oppressive families. In her opinion women coerced into an undesired marriage were victimized scapegoats of patriarchy. She might also have known William Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (1856).

The Novel’s Preface and Caird’s Theory of Fiction

Mona Caird’s preface to The Wing of Azrael makes a distinction between polemical essays and the art of fiction, claiming that short stories and novels have a different object than the polemical essay.

I have described these unattained ideals of the art of fiction, in order to show as convincingly as possible that however much this book may be thought to deal with the question so much discussed, there is no intention on the writer’s part to make it serve a polemical purpose or to advocate a cause. Its object is not to contest or argue, but to represent. [X]

It seems that Caird wanted to stress a clear demarcation line between her polemical writing (nonfiction), which served an immediate purpose, and her creative writing (fiction), which conveyed a more universal idea or message of lasting artistic merit. Interestingly, Thomas Hardy, a great admirer of New Woman novelists, also claimed that Jude the Obscure (1895) was not a novel with a purpose (Claybaugh 202). In fact, the purpose of Hardy’s novel was to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian society, and Caird’s novel had a similar purpose. Like her essay on marriage, it is polemical because it delivers an important controversial social and moral message. Nonetheless, Caird skillfully embeds her polemical theme in a melodramatic Gothic literary convention. Molly Youngkin’s study of the late-Victorian Woman’s press on the development of the novel, claims that

In fact, in the preface Caird goes on to describe the process of writing novels as one which the writer must be selective to a least some degree (rather than producing an exact photograph of life), yet this selective process should not be confused for a ‘purpose’. It is possible to be selective yet also avoid letting a polemic overpower the artistic’. [89]

Caird may have known Walter Besant’s lecture, ‘The Art of Fiction’, delivered at the Royal Institution on April 25, 1884, which prompted an intense debate on the purpose of literary fiction. According to Besant, fiction must a have moral purpose that that raises a reader’s social conscience. In turn, Henry James politely rebutted Besant’s arguments in his famous essay of the same title, ‘The Art of Fiction’ (1888), affirming that artistry, not morality, should be the criterion of a good novel. Undoubtedly, in her preface Caird shared James’s statement that ‘the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life’ (James 5). However, unlike James, but in line with Besant, she believed that fiction might awaken social conscience of readers more effectively than polemical essays.

Marriage as a ‘vexatious failure’

In The Wing of Azrael Caird describes the tragic consequences of the oppressive marriage of Viola Sedley to a rich baronet’s son, Philip Dendraith. In the novel, Caird fictionalizes her thesis, presented earlier in her famous 1888 article ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, that the institution of marriage is a ‘vexatious failure’ (186). Later in the article, she also calls it ‘an insult to human dignity’ and ‘the most hypocritical form of woman-purchase’. Her novel was therefore a literary contribution to the vivid late Victorian debate on marriage, motherhood, and women’s right to an independent life.

When Viola, the youngest child and the only girl among a family of boys, reaches adolescence, she falls in love with the good-natured and vivacious Harry Lancaster, but her parents have arranged a marriage for her with a baronet’s son, in order to avert their own financial ruin. Viola’s father and brothers, who have been saddled with large debts, need Sir Philip’s vast wealth to save them. Viola’s mother, having been raised as a deeply religious person, is a totally submissive wife who obeys her husband uncritically and cannot protect her highly sensitive daughter from an undesired marriage.

Mrs. Sedley, following the dictates of her creed, had spent her life in the performance of what she called her wifely duty, and this unfailing submissiveness, this meek and saint-like endurance had now succeeded in turning a man originally good-hearted into a creature so selfish, so thick-headed, and often so brutal, that even his all-enduring wife used to wonder, at times, if Heaven would give her grace to bear her heavy cross patiently to the end! [4]

Mrs. Sedley, who has been the victim and partial cause of her husband’s tyrannical behaviour, treats marriage as sacrifice and even martyrdom. She has instilled in her daughter that submissive obedience is the best strategy in marriage. One of the novel’s more important points, therefore, is that women play an important role in the victimization of other women. Another is that female submissiveness encourages bad behavior in men. Mrs. Sedley, who betrays her maternal role, is not much concerned with the wellbeing of her daughter and insists that she should marry Sir Philip although she is aware of his sadistic behaviour. Her daughter, she believes, ‘must always be prepared to make sacrifice for her brothers’ (5). When Viola tries to protest against this marriage, Mr. Sedley tells her that a daughter who will not marry is a ‘burden’ for the family.

‘Yes, a burden, a dead weight, hanging like a millstone round my neck’. Do you know what a woman is who does not marry? I will tell you: she is a cumberor of the ground, a devourer of others' substance, a failure, a wheel that won't turn; she is in the way; it were better she had never been born. She is neglected, despised, left out; and who cares whether she is alive or dead? She is alone, without office, without object, without the right to exist. If you are minded to choose such a lot, at least you shall do it with your eyes open. A woman who is not performing her natural duties, serving her husband and her children is an absurdity,— an anomaly, a ramrod without a gun, a key without a lock, a — a ship without a sail — she's — she's a DAMNED NUISANCE! [64]

Although Viola’s beloved Harry Lancaster, who knows Philip’s brutality towards animals, tries to persuade her against the marriage, she eventually decides to obey her parents for the good of her family. The day after the betrothal, Philip displays his brutish temper over a trifling incident, which prompts Viola to think of breaking off the engagement. On the day of their wedding Philip begins to quarrel with Viola over a gift she received from Harry — an antique paper-knife, which she hid in her hair. Exerting his marital authority, he ordered her to give it to him. When she refused, Philip tried to take the knife by force. Looking at her in astonishment, he said: 'I am unable to congratulate you on your wisdom, Viola. To begin your married life by deliberate opposition and disobedience is not the act of a sensible woman, but of a pettish child' (143). The rest of the novel recounts Viola's unhappy married life, which lacks both spiritual and physical intimacy and is filled with verbal and sexual abuse. After their honeymoon tour, Viola and Philip settle down in Upton Castle, her husband’s ancestral residence, which echoes the haunted castles of Gothic novels. Once there Viola becomes the persecuted woman of the castle when her husband proves to be a cruel tyrant, incessantly showing his bad temper. A domineering and controlling husband, he spies on her and threatens to lock her up. Tormented by Philip’s sadism, Viola adopts a passive resistance while dreaming that she can escape the bondage of her marriage. However, this passivity only enrages his anger.

If she had been a haughty, rebellious woman, giving him insult for insult, sneer for sneer, he might have understood it; but she professed the most complete wifely submission, obeyed him in every detail, and when he reviled her she answered not again. Yet behind all this apparent yielding he knew that there was something he could not touch — the real woman who withdrew herself from him inexorably and forever. [154]

Philip, who takes pleasure in abusing Viola, systematically seeks to control every aspect of her life. He strongly believes in the old legal doctrine of coverture entrenched in English law, which said that a wife's legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband. And therefore, because of their limited rights, married women became almost totally dependent on their husbands, who effectively acted as their legal guardians and landlords. In accordance with this law, Philip treats his wife as his exclusive property.'Let me remind you that you bear my name; that (...) it is branded upon you, and by that brand I can claim you and restrain you wherever you may be so long as you live' (178). A Victorian wife was expected to endure her husband's total control and even brutality, including physical, emotional and sexual violence, as well as economic deprivation. Mona Caird argued that patriarchal Victorian marriage was a bondage from which a woman had the right to free herself

Under the influence of her friend, the iconoclastic, educated, and financially independent New Woman, Mrs Sibella Lincoln, Viola begins to have doubts about the value of self-sacrifice in an intimidating marriage. Sibella tries to convince Viola that her religious upbringing has led her to bitter submissiveness to her parents and husband.

We have both been taught (as we imagined) to worship God; I fear that we have really been taught to worship the Devil! We are trained to submission, to accept things as they are, to serve God by resignation — yes, even the resignation of our human dignity; whereas the Devil laughs in his sleeve, and carries off the fruits of miserable lives to add to the riches of his kingdom. [211]

The Wing of Azrael argues strongly against female self-sacrifice. Feeling increasingly isolated, bullied, and victimized by her husband, Viola finds relief in the castle’s West Wing, in a room called the 'Death-chamber', where Philip’s eighteenth-century ancestor murdered his wife for an alleged adultery. Viola hides there the ornamental paper-knife, the wedding present from Harry, and begins to plan to flee to France with her former suitor, whom she truly loves. When Philip tries to stop her, she stabs him to death with that knife.

His touch, constraining, insolent as it was, forcing her in spite of all her resistance towards the door, excited her to very madness. His lips touched her cheek, his hand was seeking hers to seize the knife when in an instant — a horrible instant of blinding passion — the steel has flashed through the air with a force born of the wildest fury — there was a cry, a curse, a groan, a backward stagger, and Philip lay at his wife's feet mortally wounded. [295]

The closing scene is quite weird because it seems to depend more on the conventions of nineteenth-century melodrama and opera than Caird’s feminist beliefs: Viola runs away from Upton Castle, but instead of rejoining Harry Lancaster, she commits suicide by jumping off an ocean cliff. This highly melodramatic dénouement of the novel leaves the reader wondering whether Caird simply rewrote a standard tragic fairy-tale ending or a wanted to convey a sad reflection on the hopeless situation of Victorian women constrained in patriarchal marriage. Paradoxically, Caird had an ambivalent view of female sexual liberation. Despite the total failure of her marriage, it appears that Viola punishes herself through suicide for her extramarital love. 'Her one desire or necessity was to cut herself off from her fellow-creatures, even from those who would face all the risks for her. She seemed to be thirsting for punishment, yet unrepentant' (303).

The Scapegoat and the atonement

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt. 1854-1856. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (Liverpool). [extended discussion of painting] Click on image to enlarge it.

In showing Viola coerced to marry the rich baronet's son by her repugnant family, who want to extricate themselves from financial difficulties, Caird symbolically identifies her with the Biblical scapegoat. In the Bible, the scapegoat is an animal which is ritually imbued with the sins of other people. The original term was derived from a Jewish purification ritual described in the Book of Leviticus, wherein a goat was symbolically infused with the sins of the community and driven into the wilderness on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). In Christian theology, Jesus Christ is a scapegoat whose sacrificial death led to the purification of the human community. In contemporary usage, the word 'scapegoat', following its religious foundations, refers to someone made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place. In The Wing of Azrael, Mona Caird employs the scapegoat metaphor in order to describe the situation of women married against their will. Viola was literally sold into domestic bondage. She was deliberately dehumanized and objectified by both her greedy family and her cruel husband. In the final episode, Harry recalls Sibella's words, which express Caird's arguments against female self-sacrifice in marriage: 'But the goat on which the lot for Azazel fell shall be presented alive before Jehovah, to make atonement with him, to let him go to Azazel in the wilderness' (304-05). By these words, Caird strongly contests the idea of filial duty and self-sacrifice as authoritarian and oppressive. After her suicidal death, Viola becomes a scapegoat figure of patriarchal Victorian society, which condoned victimization of women in marriage.

[Interestingly, Caird makes Viola a scapegoat in only the most limited sense: unlike the Old Testament scapegoat, her suffering does not in fact absorb the sins of Victorian society, a community in it, or even of the novel’s two families. Her family benefits financially from her obedience and consequent suffering, but her cruel husband eventually meets his deserved death because of his role in causing it. Viola differs even more from Holman Hunt’s Christian reading of the Levitical scapegoat as a divinely intended prefiguration of Christ, whose suffering not only compensates for sins of the believers but also grants them eternal life. Viola just suffers . . . to a point, for she kills her abusive husband, and in a surprisingly Victorian turn, Caird has her commit suicide rather than escape and lead a new life with the kind man who loves her (and gave her an edged weapon for a wedding present!). On the whole, Caird does not seem in complete control of the symbolism she employs. —  George P. Landow]

A feminist New Woman Gothic with a cliffhanger

In The Wing of Azrael, Caird uses the conventions of the Gothic genre blended with elements of melodrama to convey her radical feminist views. As Agnieszka Żabicka points out, ‘it is immediately obvious to any reader familiar with the female Gothic tradition that The Wing of Azrael confidently employs its set of requisite conventions’ (6). Żabicka compares the oppressive castle in Caird’s novel with the setting of the archetypal Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe. Although resolutely Gothic in form and melodramatic in plot, The Wing of Azrael marks the emergence of New Woman fiction in the 1890s — a new feminist literary genre that dealt with the Woman Question in the conditions of patriarchal male supremacy and female dependence. As Anne Lisa Surridge has noted:

The Wing of Azrael is one of the earliest of the New Woman novels of the fin de siecle, preceded and probably influenced by Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883) and Sarah Grand’s Ideala (1888), while anticipating George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893), Grant’s The Heavenly Twins (1893) and The Beth Book(1897), George Egerton’s Keynotes (1893) and Discords (1894), Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did (1895), Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), and Caird’s own successful The Daughters of Danaus (1894).[189]

The principal Gothic ingredients in The Wing of Azrael include a persecuted maiden (Viola), her villainous husband (Philip), and the novel’s setting (his family’s abode, the gloomy Norman castle). The melodramatic tension builds around the struggle of the two contrasting protagonists: the wicked and brutal husband and his suffering wife who, being unable to free herself from her toxic marriage, resolves to murder in an act of both desperation and self-defence. In addition, Caird’s novel bears, as Demelza Hookway suggests, some affinity to Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), because both novels contain cliffhanger scenes with a strong element of suspense and uncertainty (132). What is more, Caird’s heroine may have in turn inspired Hardy to write Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), where the eponymous heroine stabs her lover with a knife in a quintessentially cliffhanger episode. Hookway argues that Hardy’s penultimate novel ‘has some echoes of The Wing of Azrael’ (143).


The Wing of Azrael received some critical attention immediately after its publication not only in England but also in Australia and New Zealand. A contemporary reviewer of The Wing of Azrael in the Academy in 1889 stated of Mona Caird that ‘It is impossible to say whether she is a born novelist or merely a born controversialist’ (Godfrey 33). However, a front-page review of The Wing of Azrael that appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette predicted that ‘it will be one of the topics of the year, and anyone who goes out to dinner and has to confess that he has not read Azrael will be at a disadvantage at London dinner-parties during the coming season’ (Rosenberg 83). The South Australian Register in 1889 reviewed The Wings of Azrael together with Olive Schreiner’s A Story of An African Farm under the heading ‘Why Do Women Wilt?’ (Magarey 42). An anonymous reviewer of the New Zealand newspaper, The Evening Star wrote that 'the book would have been twice as readable in half the space' (the 29 June 1889 issue). Caird was better known as a polemical essayist and radical social commentator than a novelist and, therefore, her novel was probably ignored by reviewers in major literary journals when it first appeared.

However, in recent years, The Wing of Azrael and other works by Caird have been rediscovered and analysed by several critics and PhD students. Lyn Pykett’s ‘The Improper’ Feminine: The Women's Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing classified Caird as a New Woman writer concerned with women’s marital situation and oppressive domestic space. Ann L. Ardis placed The Wing of Azrael alongside Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm. Ann Heilmann described Mona Caird as a New Woman writer, who ‘conceptually linked violence towards animals with women’s oppression in her novels’(164). Lisa Surridge has shown that The Wing of Azrael discusses darker aspects of the marriage question. The critic concludes that Viola Sedley’s death ‘represents the symbolic demise of the Victorian Woman. Viola, the child of her generation, embodies the woman on the verge of the modern era, whose sense of familial duty and fading faith tie her to the ideals of the past, but whose soul will not bear the humiliation of coverture (which Caird depicts as leading naturally to abuse, as she sees absolute power leading to tyranny)’ (190). Patricia Murphy believes that The Wing of Azrael is the most appropriate novel to address in discussing fin-de-siecle marital entrapment’ (157). An excellent analysis of The Wing of Azrael can be found in Tracey S. Rosenberg’s PhD dissertation entitled Gender Construction and the Individual in the Work of Mona Caird.

The Wing of Azrael can be read as a New Woman novel that adheres to melodramatic and Gothic conventions, but offers a strong critique of late Victorian marriage as an oppressive institution. In the novel, Caird successfully analyzed the male-oriented construction of femininity. She exposed the futility of the religiously motivated female self-sacrifice in marriage, but did not offer a positive solution for the oppressed women. Unlike Caird’s later and more successful novel, The Daughters of Danaus, The Wing of Azrael is still readable today, probably thanks much more to its sensational and melodramatic content than the feminist message.

References and Further Reading

Ardis, Ann L. New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Caird, Mona. The Wing of Azrael. Montreal: John Lovell & Son, 1889.

Claybaugh, Amanda. The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Godfrey, Emelyne. Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society: From Dagger Fans to Suffragettes. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Gray, Alexandra. .Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. Afterword, in Mona Caird, Daughters of Danaus. New York: The Feminist Press, 1989, 493-534.

Heilmann, Anne. New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Hookway, Demelza. ‘Falling Over the Same Precipice’: Thomas Hardy, Mona Caird and John Stuart Mill’, Thomas Hardy Journal 26 (Autumn 2010), 132-150.

James, Henry. The Art of Fiction. E-book. Seltzer Books, 2018.

Magarey, Susan. Passions of the First Wave Feminists. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2001.

Moon, Jina. Domestic Violence in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.

Murphy, Patricia. The New Woman Gothic. Reconfigurations of Distress. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2016.

Pykett, Lyn. The ‘Improper’ Feminine: The Women's Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing. London and new York: Routledge, 1992.

Rosenberg, Tracy S. Gender Construction and the Individual in the Work of Mona Caird. PhD in English Literature. Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh, 2006; available on online at

Surridge, Lisa. Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.

Turnbull, Ann, The Song of Azrael and Other Poems. London: J.W. Southgate, 1840. Westminster Review, 130 (August 1888) 186-201.

Warwick, Alexandra, ed.New Woman Fiction, 1881-1899. Volume 3.The Wing of Azrael. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

Youngkin, Molly. Feminist Realism at the Fin de Siecle: The Influence of the Late-Victorian Woman’s Press on the Development of the Novel. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2007.

Żabicka, Agnieszka. ‘Female Gothic Motifs in Mona Caird’s The Wing of Azrael, Victorian Review, Vol. 31(1) (2005), 5-20.

Last modified 26 February 2019