Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Primrose: Early Russian Colour Photography

Yelena Mrozovskaya - Portrait
 of girl in Little Russia costume, 1900s

The Photographers’ Gallery in London is currently holding an exhibition on early colour photography in Russia (Primrose apparently translates as ‘first colour’ in Russian).  The introductory blurb states that it is simultaneously an examination of the history of Russia in photographs and the history of Russian photography.  It’s a neat formulation, but as colour has been a small element of Russian photography for most of the discipline’s history, neither one is an achievable goal within the exhibition’ compass.  Certainly if you were to rely on it for an education in Russian history you would come away with only a partial understanding, but then it is hardly likely anyone would want to do so.  After all, a mere hundred and forty photographs cannot do justice to the subject, and the exhibition does feel a little sketchy when considered as a whole.  Even so, one can trace the technological changes in photography alongside an outline of developments in Russian society during a tumultuous century.

Notwithstanding reservations about the exhibition’s lofty goals, the photographs included are well worth a look.  Eschewing fancy thematic groupings beloved of curators, the photographs are hung chronologically on two floors, one devoted to the Czarist period, the other to post-Revolution photography.  The earliest images date from the 1860s, and show a mixture of studio portraits and landscapes, with hand-colouring often producing beautiful results.  Then come photographs that were a more accurate representation of the scene photographed, including Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky’s three-plate additive technique and reproductions of some lovely autochromes.
Varvara Stepanova - Be ready!, 1932

After the October Revolution there were the familiar photomontages used as propaganda by the Soviet government, and the inclusion of works by Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova hint at a paucity of colour photography at that time.  With a more rigid orthodoxy under Stalin, photography was controlled by state monopoly, private studios banned, and limited supplies of colour stock were used by approved photographers in adherence to Socialist Realist tenets (cue heroic peasants and workers and the odd collective farm, and lots of carefully composed – and stilted – compositions).

Yakov Khalip - Sea cadets, late 1940s

Under Khrushchev’s reforms photography started to permeate society and was used less formally to document social conditions, though it is clear that there were still strict boundaries as to what was permissible in the early years.  Russia only began producing colour film in quantity itself in in the 1950s, and film became widely available to the public in the 1960s (another significant development was home processing of colour transparencies, which as well as reducing costs lessened the risk of official disapproval). With the increasing availability, state control became more difficult.

Ivan Shagin - Student, early 1950s

The final part of the exhibition is a slideshow of Suzi et Cetera by Boris Mikhailov, which explores the drabness of a society that had failed to fulfil its promise.  The photographs are direct and uncompromising in their subversion of the idealised image of everyday life that had been the Communist norm, and an enormous contrast to the sedateness of the rest of the exhibition.  Some of them are explicit, and it is amusing that the slideshow is put in a little corner area so that the interested can see it without the rest being offended.  Sitting there feels a slightly clandestine activity, which in a way replicates the original viewing conditions when the slides were presented privately to small artists’ groups.

I was puzzled by the exhibition’s title on two counts (leaving aside the relevance of the primrose): firstly there are landscapes that were taken in Kiev, and Mikhailov lives and works in Ukraine, so the exhibition is not completely 'Russian'; secondly, going up to the 1970s somewhat stretches the definition of 'early'.  Still, it is enjoyable in a number of ways.  The pre-revolutionary photographs are poignant, showing landscapes and people in a diverse country before it embarked on its astonishing transformation.  The inter-war years show initial optimism, but also increasing regimentation.  The post-second world war photographs open a window onto a world that was hidden for so long from the West and made to feel completely alien because of the Cold War.  The current political situation in Russia feels like a backward step, and the post-Soviet artistic experimentation may eventually take on its own nostalgic glow in a society that once again subordinates freedom of expression to ideological control.

Dmitri Baltermants  - Rain, 1960

The gallery staff could take a look at how they produce the captions stencilled on the walls.  Letters come away easily, making some words difficult to read, and it would help if they were applied in a way that rendered them less vulnerable to damage.  I don’t want to carp though, because the exhibition shows what can be done on a limited budget, and the curator and gallery staff are to be congratulated on a fine display.  Anyone with an interest in colour photography and/or in Russian history would be well rewarded by a visit.

Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London until 19 October 2014.  It is curated by Olga Sviblova, director of the Moscow House of Photography Museum and ‘Multimedia Art Museum’ and is part of the ‘UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014’ (probably not an auspicious year to hold such an event, which is a shame).

Monday, 15 September 2014

Walter Besant, Fiction’s Moral Purpose, and Middlemarch

[This is an adapted version of an assignment written for a course on the nineteenth-century novel]
In his essay ‘The Art of Fiction’, Walter Besant (2001 [1884]) argues that the novel is a fine art, on the same technical level as other arts such as poetry, music, painting and sculpture, though in some respects superior in that its subject matter is the whole of humanity.  He argues that the novel instils in the reader empathy for others, and is therefore a civilising force.  As part of his argument, Besant sets up a criterion of artistic quality for the novel based on its moral orientation: the novel ‘almost always’ begins with a moral purpose, to the extent that this could be characterised as ‘practically a law of English fiction’ (2001, p.67).
It follows that where a novel does not begin with a moral purpose, it conveys a sense of ‘debasement’ to the reader, in which case the author cannot be considered an artist.  However, Besant discounts didacticism, in the form of the old-fashioned ‘preaching novel’ propagandising on behalf of a theological perspective.  As well as the moral imperative, the novel can also be characterised in terms of craftsmanship: poor style distracts from the artistic effect, but this has to be balanced so that style does not predominate to the detriment of the fictional world, style being subject to transitory fashions.  An understanding of these laws, as Besant considered them, would improve the quality of many of the inferior novels that were so common.
Besant’s talk sparked a debate on the function of the novel, with a number of contributions.  Foremost among these was Henry James’s article with the same title (2001b [1884]).  He does not see the novel having a moral purpose, and considers Besant’s recipe for the novel as an artistic product to be prescriptive.  James argues that the novelist is free to approach the task with complete freedom, the only obligation being that the novel should be ‘interesting’ and ‘a personal impression of life’ (2001b, p73); it is only the execution that should be subject to criticism (2001, p.78).
Delia Da Sousa Correa interprets this as James claiming that he saw no place for moral aspects in fiction (2001, p142).  However, James was not arguing for unengaged aestheticism: Amanda Claybaugh notes that the two novels James wrote after this essay – The Bostonians and Princess Casamassima – dealt with social reform, thus having a moral dimension (2006, p.139).  But Correa also notes that James’s emphasis on creativity and imagination challenges both simplistic notions of reflective realism and the novel as vehicle for moral values (2001, p.141).
Other writers had views on the moral aspect of the novel.  Robert Louis Stevenson (2001 [1884], pp.93ff) argues that art cannot compete with life and is only a pale imitation of it, supplying ‘phantom reproductions of experience’ (2001, p96).  It extracts details from the broad sweep of life and makes something ‘typical’ of them.  He therefore sees the novel as more of an entertainment than having a higher purpose.    Émile Zola on the other hand finds a moral purpose in Naturalism, as Naturalists are ‘experimental moralists’, showing ‘the mechanism of the useful and the useless’ for the social good (Zola, 1893, p.31).
According to James Eli Adams, Henry James credited Besant’s essay as the beginning of criticism of the Victorian novel (2012, p.62).  However, Adams points out that this discounted previous critical debate on the status of the novel, though much of the debate took place within reviews (2012, p.62); George Eliot’s review ‘The Natural History of German Life’ is a case in point (2001 [1856]); Claybaugh points out that Besant emphasises the novel’s ‘conscious moral purpose’ ‘in much the same terms as George Eliot did thirty years before’ (2006, p.138).  Eliot sees her treatment of her characters in Middlemarch (1994 [1872]), as involving issues of morality and fair dealing.  These may be summed up by the term ‘social sympathies’ that she uses in her 1856 review (2001, p.30).  Without psychological depth, she argues, the result is unrealistic, and lacks moral force. 

James’s review of Middlemarch (2001a [1873]) reaches the paradoxical verdict that it is ‘at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels,’ referring to the choice between a balanced whole and ‘a mere chain of episodes’.  He concludes that it is ‘a treasure-house of details’ but ‘an indifferent whole’ (2001a, p.79).  Eliot would surely have considered that perceived weakness to be its strength.  Middlemarch is socially integrated, a web of mutual influences and balances, as indicated by Eliot’s repeated use of the web metaphor.  Thus ‘Lydgate fell to spinning that web from his inward self … As for Rosamond ... she too was spinning industriously at the mutual web’ (p346).  The web is typical of Eliot’s ambiguous approach to mutual influence, which can convey influence and sympathy yet also be seen as a means of entrapment.  The latter is invariably due to personal weakness, and it is through social interaction that character is expressed, and can change.  Lydgate is disdainful of provincial life, ‘his conceit was of the arrogant sort’ (p149), but he thereby shows himself to be one whose ‘distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness’ (p.150).
Of all the characters’ in the book’s wide canvas, the one who most embodies a sense of moral purpose is Dorothea, explicitly linked to St Theresa, but living at a time when there is no practical scope for such a figure.  In terms of a moral purpose, Dorothea is shown to have limited effect, her aspirations generally ‘intangible and abstract’, her ‘apparently unlimited potential for greatness’ (Nora Tomlinson 2001a, p.246) limited by her situation.  As a counterpoint to Dorothea, Rosamond is shown to be aesthetically pleasing but lacking her sister’s moral fibre.  Eliot attaches the word ‘heroine’ to Rosamond as an ironic label, as she possesses ‘a great sense of being a romantic heroine, and playing the part prettily’ (p.297) but significantly also uses it when describing the other woman in Lydgate’s life, Laure, who stabbed her husband.  Neither matches up to the heroic and selfless aspirations of Dorothea who, with Caleb Garth, forms a moral compass for the rest of the cast.  At the same time Dorothea’s social inexperience leads her to misjudge Casaubon’s merits and motives (as Lydgate misjudges Rosamond’s in a different way).
A linking element to the moral dimension of the characters is the world of work as fulfilling both personally and for society.  Garth in particular sees work in moral terms, exemplifying Smilesian notions of application and perseverance, with ‘Business’ as the highest calling, irrespective of its rewards or risks.  Yet despite his apparent indifference he is rewarded, while Fred Vincy is redeemed by his association with Mary Garth and her father.  However, the hypocritical Bulstrode, who gained his wealth by dubious means, has to endure opprobrium, the financially imprudent and weak Lydgate faces ruin when his focus shifts from his medical vocation to accommodating Rosamond’s extravagance, and the blackmailing Raffles meets an unfortunate end.  Ladislaw, initially a dilettante, buckles down and eventually achieves political office, contrasting with Mr. Brookes who, content to allow his tenants to live in poverty, is unsuccessful in his parliamentary ambitions.  Middlemarch’s characters tend to achieve deserts consonant with their virtues; apart ironically from the kindly cleric Mr. Farebrother, who fails to win Mary’s hand (though he does have professional success).  In all these strands Eliot ‘sought to explore the natural laws that determined human behaviour’ (Tomlinson, 2001b, p.272), characters inhabiting a world influenced profoundly by the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Eliot and Besant were not so far apart in their attitudes to the novel’s moral character.  The major distinction between them was their respective attitudes to the role of religion in formulating morals.  Besant had emphasised ‘deep-seated religion’ as a force for the author that will ‘lend to his work, whether he will or not, a moral purpose’ (Besant, 2000, p.67).  This was in contrast to Eliot’s secularism: ‘George Eliot, at least, had discarded the primary religious and epistemological assumptions of her inherited culture, including the convention that a single unitary theory of reality could be established’ (George Levine, 2008, p.32).  Not only did Eliot diverge from Besant’s emphasis on religion as an essential component of a moral outlook, but she understood that this had implications for the treatment of her characters.  Without a religious underpinning, her criterion for determining the value of actions had to be a humanist one that gauged moral value solely in terms of an action’s effect on others.  In contradistinction to James, Eliot and Besant each emphasised the novel’s moral purpose, but from entirely different perspectives.

Adams, J. E. (2012) ‘A History of Criticism of the Victorian Novel’, in David, D (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Besant, W. (2000 [1884]) The Art of Fiction, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Claybaugh, A. (2006) The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press.
Correa, D. S. (2001) ‘The Art of Fiction: Henry James as Critic’, in Walder, D. (ed.) the Nineteenth-Century Novel: Identities, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Darwin, C. (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, London, John Murray.
Eliot, G. (2001 [1856]) ‘The Natural History of German Life’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Eliot, G. (1994 [1872]) Middlemarch, London, Penguin.
James H. (2001a [1873]) ‘Middlemarch’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.
James, H. (2001b [1884]) ‘The Art of Fiction’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Levine, G. (2008) Realism, Ethics and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Stevenson, R. L. (2001 [1884]) ‘A Humble Remonstrance’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Tomlinson, N. (2001b) ‘Middlemarch as a novel of Vocation and Experiment’, in Correa, D. S. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Realisms, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Tomlinson, N. (2001a) ‘Middlemarch: The Social and Historical Context’, in Correa, D. S. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Realisms, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Zola, É. (1893) The Experimental Novel and Other Essays, New York, Cassell.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Fairy Story Elements in Jane Eyre

[This is an adapted version of an assignment written for a course on the nineteenth-century novel]

Genre can be broadly characterised as a means of categorising stylistic similarities which manage readers’ expectations within and between texts (see M. H. Abrams, 1999, p.108).  Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre combines and modulates a number of genres, but generic elements are subtly interwoven so that rarely does one predominate over others for long, nor do they at any time descend to pastiche.  Even in the case of the novel’s Gothic aspect, the most obvious of its generic borrowings, these are more realistic than they might be in such obvious examples as The Mysteries of Udolpho (Ann Radcliffe, 1966 [1794]).  Instead genres play against each other, reinforcing and undermining reader expectations and enriching the characterisation of Jane.

Delia da Sousa Correa (2000, p.97ff) outlines the variety of ‘high’ and ‘low’ genres present in the novel and explores their interplay.  She notes that Jane Eyre is variously Bildungsroman, a ‘novel of education’ and development; fictional autobiography; realist social commentary; romance; governess novel; plea for equality (though in a more restrained mode than the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft); even at points a novel of religious and ethical debate, in addition to those elements that are Gothic and melodramatic.  As Correa points out, the admixture of genres suggests ‘multiple potential developments for Jane’s story’ (Correa, 2000, p.98).  When we set off with Jane on her journey we cannot be sure what direction it will take, leaving her character development less constrained than it would be if the novel were confined to a single narrative style, with its attendant set of expectations.  These generic devices are one means whereby Brontë generates, as Michael Mason discusses in another context, an ‘unconscious response, on our part, to powerful cues’ (Mason, 1996, p.xxii)

The Gothic tropes are easily noted, but there are other aspects which work to show the complexities of Jane and her situation, reinforcing its strangeness.  A more subtle contribution than the Gothic elements is made by the consistent use of fairy story features to underpin Jane’s trajectory.  The central example is the association of Jane with elves, fairies and spirits of the earth (variations on the word ‘green’ recur frequently throughout the novel).  This strand links Jane and Rochester from their first meeting, when Rochester falls from his horse upon coming across Jane sitting on a stile moments after Jane, hearing his horse in the distance, was put in mind of stories of the ‘Gytrash’, ‘a North-of-England spirit’ (Brontë, 1996, p.128).  Gilbert and Gubar characterise this encounter as “a fairytale meeting” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979, p.351).  Recalling it, Rochester casts the memory into fantasy terms, jocularly claiming, after suggesting that he had considered asking if Jane had ‘bewitched’ his horse, that he had thought that Jane was ‘waiting for your people when you sat on that stile’ (p.139).  In response to the question ‘For whom, sir?’ he continues: ‘For the men in green’, (ibid.) thus explicitly linking her with fairy folk, and implicitly accusing her of the ability to bewitch him.  In true folkloric fashion she finds herself in a place of enchantment, Thornfield, though in a reversal of Rochester’s teasing claims she discovers that he has bewitched her.  Rochester usually uses such language patronisingly, and its repetition invests Jane subliminally with a feyness that counterpoints the more typical emphasis in the book on her down-to-earth practicality and common sense, enriching her character.

The stile, that staple of country furniture hitherto associated with Jane, later becomes associated with Rochester himself.  Upon her return from Gateshead after the death of Mrs Reed, Jane encounters him sitting on a stile, writing.  Yet unlike with Jane, this does not confer an ethereal quality on him, the association with the fairy folk thus being cast in gendered terms.  Upon seeing her, and learning that her aunt is dead, he notes that she has not come by carriage ‘like a common mortal’, but arrived ‘just as if you were a dream or a shade’ ( p.275).  He then connects her explicitly with death and the Afterlife: ‘She comes from the other world – from the abode of people who are dead … If I dared, I’d touch you, to see if you are substance or shadow, you elf!’  (ibid.) A couple of weeks later he describes the encounter to Adèle, referring initially obliquely to Jane as the other participant: ‘It was a fairy, and come from Elf-land,’ and then he says that ‘Mademoiselle is a fairy’ ( p.300). Adèle dismisses his ‘Contes de fée’ [fairy stories] as the product of ‘un vrai menteur’ [a true liar], herself speaking truer than she realises.  It is ironic that as a child Jane had dismissed the existence of elves as less plausible even than Gulliver’s Travels: ‘as to the elves, having sought them in vain … I had at length made up my mind to the sad truth that they were all gone out of England to some savage country…’ (p.28).  It is she who is herself now identified with them by Rochester.

A witchcraft/sorcery motif also links Rochester and Jane.  When Jane saves Rochester from a fiery death in bed by throwing water, Rochester in his confusion asks, ‘In the name of all the elves in Christendom, is that Jane Eyre? … What have you done with me, witch, sorceress?’ (p.169)  This is not said in his usual jocular fashion, making it an honest indicator of Rochester’s sense of her power over him.  But similar vocabulary is used of Rochester.  When he masquerades as a gypsy woman he is described as a ‘real sorceress’ by Frederick Lynn (p.217), while Miss Ingram refuses to believe that he is a ‘genuine witch’ (p.219) and Jane snorts that his ‘witch’s skill is rather at fault sometimes’ (p.225).  Bertha is also woven into this set of witch references: when Jane returns to Thornfield after the fire and enquires what had happened, she is told that the fire was set by Bertha, ‘who was as cunning as a witch’ (p.475), cunning in a way that Jane is not; Bertha’s is a different type of witchcraft entirely, one with disastrous consequences.  Jane, Rochester and Bertha are linked in a chain which can be broken only by Bertha’s death.

In the meantime, if Jane is identified with fairies and elves, and both she and Rochester with witches and sorcerers, Rochester is associated metaphorically with a much darker fairytale motif, that of Bluebeard (see Snodgrass, 2005, pp.33-34, for the history and influence of Charles Perrault’s ‘La Barbe Bleu’).  John Sutherland examines parallels between ‘Bluebeard’ and Jane Eyre, noting that by the 1840s the former ‘would have been among the best-known of fables (Sutherland, 2000, p.68).  When Mrs Fairfax is showing her over Thornfield, Jane finds herself in the corridor in which Bertha is imprisoned  It is ‘narrow, low, and dim … like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle’ (p.122), though at this point she does not realise the implication of her musings.  This melodramatic aura evokes a sense of mystery within Rochester’s home which increases in intensity, culminating in Bertha’s visit to Jane’s room (pp.316-8).

The misogynistic Bluebeard association might be thought to convey a sense of Rochester as a threat to Jane, yet because of the overriding romance genre expectations we do not read him in this way.  Bluebeard’s actions contain a degree of sadism, whereas Rochester’s act in confining his wife, it is implied, was humane, undermining the sense that Rochester is being self-serving by keeping her secret and is subjecting her to an injustice by her incarceration.  It may be, as Sutherland observes, that Brontë inverts the conclusion so that we feel sympathy, Rochester as ‘a Bluebeard who has wholly mended his ways’ (Sutherland, 2000, p.69), with little remembrance by the reader that his treatment of Bertha deserves censure.  Added to the implied sympathy for what he has endured through Bertha’s insanity and the sense that he married her under false pretenses, Brontë glosses over Rochester’s responsibility for injustice against Bertha and Jane by removing him from the narrative after his failed attempt at bigamy and only showing him again at his lowest ebb.  This structure of silence allows Jane to return to him, despite his past misdeeds and confessed sexual incontinence, yet still retain the reader’s approbation for her act, while for Rochester the slate is wiped clean with Bertha’s death and his penitential disabilities.

Related to the Gothic and fairy elements that work alongside the realism to deepen it is the uncanny, evoking an eerie, strange quality that does not necessarily conform to what we normally understand as natural laws (Correa, 2000, p.109).  It has a psychological aspect, involving such elements as clairvoyant visions and precognition.  Sometimes apparent paranormality is shown to be explainable, as when Jane becomes panicky while locked in the red room, or when Rochester makes his gypsy pronouncements.  Often, however, explanations are not so straightforward.  Jane refers to ‘Sympathies’ expressed at a distance ‘whose workings baffle mortal comprehension,’ suggesting a belief in the operation of the ‘higher phenomena’ of mesmerism, such as clairvoyance (p.248).

The most famous example of the uncanny is what Sutherland refers to as ‘Rochester’s celestial telegram’ (Sutherland, 1996, p.59), which occurs when Jane is being worn down by St. John’s persuasions to become his wife.  Suddenly she experiences a sharp feeling and hears a voice call her name three times, to which she replies: ‘”I am coming!” I cried. “Wait for me! Oh, I will come!”’  She then twice asks:  ‘“Where are you?”’ (p.467).  This could be a subjective hallucination, but it later transpires that Rochester in his despair had called her name thrice at the same time that Jane had heard it, and received a reply:  ‘“I am coming: wait for me”; and a moment after … the words – “Where are you?”’ (p.496). This veridical telepathic communication denotes a bond operating at a time of high emotion, one that saves Jane from marrying St. John and reunites her with her true love (Mason, 1996, p.xxix).  Sutherland notes that for Brontë this was not supernatural because she was convinced that such events had happened (Sutherland, 1996, p.60), and he suggests that Jane and Rochester had each self-induced a trance (with a candle and the moon respectively) at the same time. As with the novel’s fairy elements, such uncanny themes in the novel imply that there is a deeper meaning to reality than we see every day, one that links us both to kindred spirits and to unseen forces in the world.


Abrams, M.H. (1999) A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th edition, Boston, Mass., Heinle & Heinle.

Brontë, C. (1996 [1847]) Jane Eyre, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Correa, D. S. (2000) ‘Jane Eyre and Genre’, in Correa, D. S. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Realisms, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Gilbert, S. M and Gubar, S. (1979) The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Mason, M. ‘Introduction’, in Brontë, C. (1996 [1847]) Jane Eyre, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Radcliffe, A. (1966 [1794])) The Mysteries of Udolpho, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Snodgrass, M. E (2005) Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature, New York, Facts on File.

Sutherland, J. (1996) Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Puzzles in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Sutherland, J. (2000) Can Jane Eyre be Happy?: More Puzzles in Classic Fiction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Helen Allingham’s illustrations in the Cornhill Magazine serialisation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd

 [This is an adapted version of an assignment written for a course on the nineteenth-century novel]

At this remove it is easy to overlook the volume and range of late-nineteenth century periodical literature: ‘Once newspapers and magazines were finally and fully liberated from fiscal restraints [with the abolition of stamp duty on print] after 1861, their rate of growth was remarkable’ (Simon Eliot, 2012, p.47).  Technological advances in printing through the century also increased quantities and decreased costs (Eliot, 2001, pp.331ff).  That quantity was startling: ‘the Victorians published not only over 25,000 journals of all kinds including newspapers but also a few hundred reviews, magazines, and weeklies that could claim to be “literature”’ (Walter E. Houghton, 1979, p.389).

Magazines catered to a wide range of interests, both non-fiction and fiction.  Houghton makes a distinction between those that were concerned with the formation of opinion, and many of those launched in the 1860s, including the Cornhill, that ‘were often so firmly committed to amusement as to banish politics and religion altogether’ (ibid., p.407).  The latter included a significant proportion of fiction in their content, and magazine publication was a significant revenue stream for authors prior to republication in book form.  While modern readers associate classic Victorian literature with books, particularly the three-decker, for the first readers consumption was achieved in more diverse forms: ‘What must have been obvious to any aspiring novelist by mid-century was that Victoria’s reign was not, in publishing terms at least, going to be characterised by the book, but rather by the newspaper and the magazine’ (Eliot, 2012, p.48).

The Cornhill Magazine was a mass-circulation monthly magazine founded by George Smith (owner of the publishing firm Smith, Elder & Co.), which was first published in 1860 (Spencer L. Eddy, 1970, p.1).  It was priced at a shilling per issue, which meant it was comfortably affordable for a middle class readership.  From 1871 the magazine was edited by Leslie Stephen, and the following year he invited Hardy to contribute a new novel for serialisation (Linda M. Shires, 2002, p.xi).  The novel was Far From the Madding Crowd, which appeared in twelve instalments between January and December 1874, in volumes 29 (January to June) and 30 (July to December).  Smith offered Hardy £400 for the serial and first book-edition rights, a significant advance on the sums he had achieved for his previous novels (Eliot, 2000, p.212).

Stephen collaborated closely with Hardy on the editing to shape his story into a form suitable both for the constraints of serial publication and for the readership at which the magazine was aimed.  According to Linda M. Shires The Cornhill was ‘prestigious’ (Shires, 2002, p.xi) and an ‘upper-middle-brow family magazine’ (ibid., p.xix), and the narrative had to be tailored to that audience’s sensibilities.  In practice, Shires continues (p.xix), this took the form of ‘conservative editorial censorship’ by Stephen, to which Hardy acquiesced; this was not the case later in his career, however, and The Return of the Native (1878) was sold elsewhere after Stephen declared that it was ‘“dangerous” for a family magazine’ (quoted by Dale Kramer, 1999, p.168).

The extent of Hardy’s openness to editorial intervention can be seen by comparing The Cornhill version with the restorations incorporated into the Oxford World Classics edition, as indicated in the ‘Note on the Text’ (Suzanne B. Falck-Yi, 2002, pp.xxxiff.)  Some changes related to practical issues of serialisation, for example the length of each instalment and issues of pacing, which led to requests to shorten or reorder certain scenes.  Where the unmarried Fanny’s pregnancy was concerned, this had to be dealt with cautiously, and Stephen asked Hardy to ‘soften or even eliminate references’ to this (ibid., p.xxxi).  However, he indicated that Liddy’s ‘there’s two of ‘em in there!’ (Hardy, 2002, p.285) when telling Bathsheba about the occupants of the coffin, altered to Liddy whispering into Bathsheba’s ear for The Cornhill (Hardy, 1874b, p.491), could be restored for the book version (Eliot, 2000, p.212).  As Eliot points out, price acted as a form of censorship related to class prejudice, the more expensive, and therefore exclusive, book being the preserve of those of a higher class considered less likely to be corrupted than a mass magazine readership.

Each instalment was accompanied by a large engraved illustration and a small initial-letter vignette by Helen Allingham, the former signed and the latter initialled by her.  None of the instalments though bore Hardy’s name, despite the fact that the serialisation was considered significant enough to begin every issue in Volume 29 and three in Volume 30 (see Allingham, 2002, for a brief discussion of the content of Volume 29).  The supplementary vignettes, Philip V. Allingham suggests, imparted ‘an old-fashioned literary’ quality (Allingham, 2002).  Illustrations added to the cost of production so Stephen must have felt that their presence justified the expense by attracting additional purchasers.  Smith, Elder & Co. produced a triple-decker edition of the novel in late November 1874, thus slightly preceding the final instalment in the magazine, which included all twelve of the full-page plates, but none of the vignettes (Jackson, 1982, p.87; Allingham, 2001).

Helen Allingham (née Paterson, she married while working on the illustrations) was chosen by Stephen to illustrate Hardy’s work without Hardy’s knowledge (Allingham, 2007a).  Eventually she became the ‘most famous and prolific of the many … artists of idyllic rural scenes …’ (Julian Treuherz, 1993, p.188).   She was primarily a water colourist (a member of the Royal Watercolour Society: see Allingham, 2007a for details of her career) but despite being well known for bucolic country scenes, as Treuherz continues, ‘Even at the time, her work had a nostalgic charm; though she lived for a period in Surrey, she was essentially a town dweller...’ (ibid., pp.188-9)  This restricted understanding of country life may partly account for the paucity of agricultural activity, in particular the lack of animals (with the notable exceptions of Bathsheba with a pony in plates 2 and 4), in the twelve plates.

Vignette 5

The vignettes focus more on country life more than the plates do, but even here animals tend to be obscured, such as in vignette 5 which shows Gabriel astride a sheep while shearing it, and vignette 7, a scene taken from chapter 32, ‘Night: Horses Tramping’, showing Gabriel and Jan examining tracks when following Bathsheba’s gig as she travels to Bath (Hardy, 1874b, pp.13-14).  In general, the illustrations focus on the characters, isolated or interacting, rather than on the natural world that permeates the novel.  Despite these technical limitations, Hardy rated Allingham highly: writing to James Osgood on 6 December 1888, and to Edmund Gosse on 25 July 1906, he declared her ‘the best illustrator I ever had’ (quoted in Allingham, 2007a), and it is true that her illustrations for Far from the Madding Crowd possess a more robust quality than can be found in her later chocolate-box watercolours of picturesque thatched cottages (the Helen Allingham Society’s website contains numerous examples of her bland rural aesthetic).

Vignette 7

 The start of the novel is the opening item in the January 1874 issue of The Cornhill,, and prefacing this is the first of the twelve plates, captioned ‘Hands were loosening his neckerchief.’  As becomes clear from the text, the individuals depicted are Gabriel and Bathsheba, so introducing the two most significant figures in the novel.  The caption is taken from page 14 of the Cornhill instalment (Hardy, 1874a), a scene in which Bathsheba rescues Gabriel from suffocation in his mobile hut.  As a scene-setter it is dramatic and piques the reader’s interest to know how that circumstance arose.  However, it misleadingly suggests a romantic closeness between the protagonists which is not the case until the novel’s conclusion, but that would have guided readers to expect a significant relationship to develop.  The text states that Gabriel’s head is in her lap, but in the illustration it is perched more decorously on her knee, and the interior of the hut has been rendered for dramatic purposes as rather larger than a wheeled hut would likely have been.  The two figures are shown in a symbolic configuration, with Bathsheba dominant in the composition, as her social position compared to Gabriel’s is for much of the novel (though not at this point, when Gabriel is still an independent farmer rather than a shepherd for hire).  Perhaps unconsciously Allingham has posed them as a Pietà, a subject in Christian iconography that shows Mary cradling Jesus after the Crucifixion; the best-known example is by Michelangelo (Alessandro Parronchi, 1969, pp.37-41).  In 1874 this configuration may have had considerable resonance for some readers, most of whom would have had a Christian (albeit largely Protestant) background.

Plate 1

 The accompanying vignette shows a woman carrying a pail who is later revealed to be Bathsheba, but while vignette and plate are linked by the pail that she is carrying in the vignette and one overturned in the plate, there is a significant difference between her working clothes in the former and her dress in the latter, which has a middle-class appearance (Allingham, 2007b), even though at this stage she has not come into the tenancy of her uncle’s farm.  Allingham has followed Hardy in depicting Bathsheba’s left arm extended in the vignette (Hardy, 2002, p.22), but her counterbalancing posture is somewhat exaggerated for such a small pail and there is less bare arm on display than one might infer from the text, which suggests that Gabriel finds the sight erotic.  The vignette’s effect is to reinforce the physical nature of her labour, and it acts as a general comment on the rural setting of the novel which the enclosed space of the main image does not provide.  The milkmaid with churn was a common subject in Victorian sentimental painting, but in particular Allingham’s figure and setting are similar to Jean-François Millet’s 1874 painting ‘Laitière Normande de Gréville’ in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.  Arlene M. Jackson detects the influence of John Everett Millais’ ‘school’ in the series (Jackson, 1982, p.88), and such high art associations would have resonated with many of The Cornhill’s readers, lending the story extra gravitas and memorability.

Vignette 1

 Allingham’s skilful use of light and shade to focus attention on part of the scene for dramatic effect is seen to good effect in plate 10, captioned ‘Her Tears Fell Fast Beside the Unconscious Pair.’ Troy is shown kneeling beside the coffin containing Fanny and her baby, with Bathsheba looking on.  The whole forms a tableau with the chiaroscuro highlighting Bathsheba and linking Troy to Fanny by heavy shadows and his dark jacket (Jackson, 1982, p.81).  The composition appears melodramatic, but Jackson argues that where melodrama is present in the series, it is always kept in check by Allingham’s control which emphasises psychology rather than heightened dramatic emotion.  Lawrence Jones notes that Stephen’s desire to soften references to Fanny’s baby in order not to offend the magazine’s respectable readership resulted in a ‘ludicrous misunderstanding’ by Allingham.  Whereas the book version reads ‘Her tears fell fast beside the unconscious pair in the coffin…’ (Hardy, 2002, p290), in the serialisation the final phrase was omitted (Hardy, 1874b, p.494), and Allingham assumed that the ‘pair’ were Fanny and Troy, not Fanny and her baby (Jones, 1978, pp.322-3). 

Plate 10

 The caption would have puzzled the reader because at this point in the narrative Troy is not present, and Bathsheba is alone with the coffin.  Allingham’s scene relates to the later moment when Troy ‘sank upon his knees … and, bending over Fanny Robin, gently kissed her’ (Hardy, 1874b, p.496).  It is possible that Allingham chose obfuscation in order to draw attention away from the true meaning of ‘the unconscious pair’, that is, one of the pair was an illegitimate baby.  The confusing mismatch between image and text, however, suggests that Jones is probably right in his surmise.  The accompanying vignette shows Troy at a later point, when he is planting flowers on Fanny’s grave at night and appears opposite the plate, at the start of chapter 43 (‘Fanny’s Revenge’).  Readers linking the vignette to the coffin in the plate might assume that Tory is interfering with the grave since he appears to be about to start digging with a shovel, giving the scene a Gothic feel absent from the text, in which he is merely planting flowers.

Vignette 10

 It is impossible to know with certainty the extent to which the pictures modified the narrative’s reception for The Cornhill’s readers.  Philip Allingham argues that illustrated magazines assisted understanding among working-class and rural (i.e. labouring) readers with their lower literacy rates (Allingham, 2001).  This would have been less of an issue for The Cornhill’s target market, but even highly literate readers would be cued to the meaning of the words by an initial perusal of the images, setting up questions that they expected to be answered as they read.  But as Jackson points out, ignoring the natural turmoil and concentrating on that of the humans carries a cost:

By omitting Hardy’s view of changing, unpredictable nature, the illustrations shift her reading of his text: the cosmic dimension inherent in the text gives way, in the illustrations, to the human realities of Wessex. (Jackson, 1982, p.88)

By ignoring its most dramatic scenes – the fire and the storm, for example – Allingham fails to do the novel full justice.  More than that, far from faithfully depicting Hardy’s story, her interpretations of his words often betray a lack of congruence between text and image.  However, despite Allingham’s inability to exploit the narrative’s potential, the serialisation was ‘an instant popular success’ (John Halperin, 1980, p.740), and the pictures would have helped to make the story more memorable in a competitive market.


Allingham, P.V. (2001) ‘Why do Hardy's Novels Often Have Illustrations in Periodical but not Book Form?’ The Victorian Web. 11 August.  Available at http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/pva151.html (Accessed 16 February 2014).

Allingham, P. V. (2002) ‘The Physical Make-up of "The Cornhill Magazine," Volume 29’ The Victorian Web. 15 November.  Available at http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/allingham/pva159.html (Accessed 18 February 2014).

Allingham, P. V. (2007a) ‘Brief Biographical Introduction’ The Victorian Web. 22 February.  Available at http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/art/illustration/allingham/pva154.html (Accessed 16 February 2014).

Allingham, P. V. (2007b) ‘Plate 1: ‘Hands Were Loosening His Neckerchief’ and Initial Letter Vignette "W" (Bathsheba carrying a milk pail)’ The Victorian Web. 22 August.  Available at http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/allingham/1.html (Accessed 18 February 2014).

Eddy, S. L., Jr. (1970) The Founding of The Cornhill Magazine, Ball State Monograph Number Nineteen, Muncie, Indiana, Ball State University.

Eliot, S. (2000) ‘Books and their Readers, part 2’, in Correa, D. S. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Realisms, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Eliot, S. (2001) ‘Books and their Readers, part 2’, in Walder, D. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Identities, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Eliot, S. ‘The Business of Victorian Publishing’, in David, D (ed.) (2012) The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, 2nd ed., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Falck-Yi S. B. (2002) in Hardy, T. Far from the Madding Crowd, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Halperin, J. (1980) ‘Leslie Stephen, Thomas Hardy, and A Pair of Blue Eyes’, The Modern Language Review, vol. 75, no. 4, pp.738-745

Hardy, T. (1874a) ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, in Stephen, L. (ed.) The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 29, London, Smith, Elder & Co.

Hardy, T. (1874b) ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, in Stephen, L. (ed.) The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 30, London, Smith, Elder & Co.

Hardy, T. (2002) Far from the Madding Crowd, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Houghton, W. E. (1979) ‘Victorian Periodical Literature and the Articulate Classes’, Victorian Studies, pp.389-412.

Jackson, A. M. (1982). Illustration and the Novels of Thomas Hardy. London, MacMillan Press.

Jones, L. (1978) ‘“A Good Hand at a Serial”: Thomas Hardy and the Serialization of Far from the Madding Crowd’, Studies in the Novel, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp.320-334.

Kramer, D. ‘Hardy and Readers: Jude the Obscure’, in Kramer, D. (ed.) (1999) The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Parronchi, A. (1969) Michelangelo: Sculpture, London, Thames and Hudson.

Shires, L. M. (2002) ‘Introduction’, in Hardy, T. Far from the Madding Crowd, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Treuherz, J. (1993) Victorian Painting, London, Thames and Hudson.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Alice Johnson, Eric Dingwall, and their copy of Tertium Quid

From Psychic News, 1967

This began life as a note written in 2011 in response to a general request for articles on interesting psychical research/parapsychological finds in bookshops, to be included in a magazine series.  I’ve made one or two such finds, but not any I want to share, so I thought I would contribute something general.  I chose the anecdote by Eric Dingwall which opens his article ‘The Work of Edmund Gurney’ in Tomorrow magazine, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 1955, pp.23-29.  In the end the magazine did not run the series, and I’ve expanded what I sent to them.  Here is Dingwall’s account:

‘Walking one day in the streets of an ancient British city, I stopped, as is invariably my custom, before a bookstall in the street.   Amid a medley of books, all of which were priced at sixpence each, my eye soon lighted upon two blue volumes lettered Tertium Quid by Edmund Gurney.  Seizing them, I paid my shilling, and blessed my good luck, for I knew that this work was one of the rarest of Gurney’s books and I had never up to that time succeeded in obtaining a copy.

‘It was only on opening the first volume and reading an inscription that I fully realized my good fortune.  For the book had been a present to Miss Alice Johnson from Mrs E. M. Sidgwick, names so well known in psychical research that no comment is necessary.  It was clear that Mrs. Sidgwick thought that a copy of Gurney’s most interesting work would please her loyal colleague, and the pleasure of the latter doubtless equalled mine at being the possessor of such rare and valuable volumes.’

Edmund Gurney

Why was he so pleased with the purchase which had cost him such a modest outlay?  Gurney was a significant figure in the early history of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), until his untimely death at the age of 41 in 1888.  His Tertium Quid: Chapters on Various Disputed Questions, published in 1887, was a revised collection of essays on philosophy and aesthetics that had previously appeared in magazines.  It was praised by William James, given a rather less effusive review by George Bernard Shaw, was not much noticed otherwise, and effectively died with its author.  Eleanor Sidgwick was also a highly significant figure in the early SPR as researcher and administrator, in addition to being a noted educationalist, eventually becoming Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge.  Johnson too had been extremely active in the SPR during its early years, working closely with Sidgwick, for a period as her private secretary.  Dingwall was a well-known authority on psychical research, among a variety of subjects.

Eleanor Sidgwick

Stumbling over the volumes was good fortune indeed for Dingwall, and we can envy him all the more because such lucky finds are rarer these days (though you can read the book online).  Part of his pleasure was surely having paid so little for something exceptional.  He does not stop to consider how Johnson’s copy ended up on a stall in the street among a miscellaneous lot priced at 6d each.  Sidgwick died in 1936, so the volumes were given before that date.  Johnson retired on grounds of ill health in 1916 (incidentally the same year Sidgwick left Cambridge to live with her brother Gerald near Woking) and died at the age of 79 in 1940.  It is possible that Sidgwick presented them to Johnson as a leaving gift at her retirement, and they were disposed of on her death.  One can speculate how much Johnson really treasured Gurney’s dense prose, and what else in her library was picked up in a job lot by a dealer for a song, which is presumably what happened to those ‘rare and valuable volumes’ of Tertium Quid.

One also wonders where they are now.  Presumably they were sold with the rest of Dingwall’s library at auction in 1987, the year after his death.   His papers went to the Harry Price Library, part of the University of London Library, but Tertium Quid was not with them, and ULL does not have a copy.  One hopes that, wherever those volumes which passed through the hands of three such eminent psychical researchers are, they are being cherished as much as they were by Dingwall.  His story of how he came across them was important enough to him to warrant beginning his article on Gurney with it (if a little self-indulgently), and it captures the excitement of the bibliophile when acquiring something really special.