Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Middle-Class Victorian Family as Reflected through Dombey and Son, The Portrait of a Lady and The Awakening

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

Dombey and Son (Dickens, 1846-8), The Portrait of a Lady (James, 1881) and The Awakening (Chopin, 1899) all address, directly or indirectly, the varying forms the family took in the nineteenth century.  There are difficulties comparing novels produced within differing cultural contexts, whether historical (the 1840s, the 1880s and the 1890s); national (English, expatriate and American – or rather Creole); religious (Protestant and Catholic); and gender-based (male and female).  But they are united by a focus on the middle-class family: Charles Dickens and Henry James were dealing with upper middle-class milieux, and while that in Kate Chopin’s novel is ambiguous and complicated by its cultural background, Léonce Pontellier’s ability to remodel the family dwelling at short notice suggests a comfortable bourgeois existence.

The image of the middle-class Victorian family conjures up a network of idealised associations: a self-sufficient family with the father as benign but firm head, supported by his loyal wife, the ‘Angel in the House’ as Coventry Patmore characterised her in his 1854 poem (Mitchell 2000a, p.152).  The home is the domain of the wife and mother, and upon her rests the responsibility for the smooth running of the household.  Husband and wife are surrounded by healthy well-fed and well clothed children, all living in comfort and harmony, their home a private domestic space providing refuge from the wider currents of society and its ills.  It is hierarchical but supportive and cultivated.  Servants are treated with courtesy and included as part of the family for religious observance.  Through congenial family relationships the children are socialised by a mixture of love and firm but fair discipline, and thereby made fit for their future roles either outside or inside the home according to gender.  It is not a system of equality but it is one of affection and mutual respect.

On the other hand, subverting the idealised image is one drawn from melodrama, the autocratic father, embodied partly by Edward Moulton-Barrett as depicted in Rudolf Besier’s play The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1930).  He rules a home permeated by strict discipline, his authority underpinned by dour religion, dictating professions for sons and marriage matches for daughters, children either claustrophobically home-schooled by governesses and tutors or packed off to boarding school run by uncaring and profit-oriented tyrants.  It might be a household where one parent is dead, the loss of the father entailing straightened economic circumstances and downward social mobility, or the loss of the mother bringing in an unsympathetic stepmother to replace her.  The mother may have died in childbirth, and previously there may have been a number of infant deaths.  This is an image of the home not as a nurturing environment but as one of insecurity and indifference, and at its extreme it is one for which the negative connotations of ‘Dickensian’ are appropriate to sum up a home life in which the spirit is crushed.  It is clear from these conflicting, if exaggerated, depictions that the Victorian middle-class family was not homogeneous in its composition.  Nor was it static, it evolved as social and economic conditions changed.

It is no surprise then that Eric Hobsbawm in his history covering the period 1848-75 characterised the family as ‘the most mysterious institution of the age’ (Hobsbawm, 1997, p.278), and contemporary novels can be seen to reflect prevailing attitudes, but also the tensions and contradictions, of the family as an ideological structure.  Kelly Boyd and Rohan McWilliam note that ‘The nineteenth century was characterised by its elaborate enthusiasm for family life across the classes…. By the time Victoria ascended the throne, family life was viewed as the basis for a healthy society’ (Boyd and McWilliam, 2007, p.306).  However, as Tolstoy puts it at the beginning of Anna Karenina (1978 [1878])], a novel featuring a character that bears comparison with both Emma Bovary and Edna Pontellier, not all families were alike. ‘Family life’, even within a middle-class setting, encompassed a range of modes of living with varying degrees of satisfaction and self-fulfilment for its members.

The prevalence of premature death indicates the potential for the family to fracture and recombine.  In Dombey and Son, Fanny – the first Mrs Dombey – dies shortly after Paul’s birth and he himself dies in childhood; Edith Granger – the second – is a widow and becomes a stepmother; young Walter Gay has lost both parents and lives with his uncle.  In The Portrait of a Lady, Osmond’s first wife has died, Isabel becomes a stepmother and loses a young baby.  Edna in The Awakening had lost her mother when young and Robert and Victor have lost their father.  As this pattern suggests, life expectancy increased and puerperal and infant mortality declined across the nineteenth century among all social classes, particularly from the 1870s (Cunningham, 2004, p.94; Hobsbawm, 1994, p.193) and became a less prevalent motif in fiction.  In line with decreasing infant mortality, from 1875 women began to have fewer children (Hobsbawm, 1994, p.193) and large literary families like the Toodle family in Dombey and Son become less common.

Sebastian Mitchell (2000a, p.151) considers familial relationships in Dombey and Son as a whole to be unstable, and given how easily the catastrophe of death might occur it would not be surprising if they were.  Yet it is not entirely true.   It is one of the novel’s ironies that, despite Dombey’s distaste, the working-class Toodles have all the merits the middle-class family might take for granted, excepting the unfortunate blot of Rob the Grinder.  The group that assembles at the Midshipman is similarly a close-knit, if temporary, ‘benevolent community’ (Mitchell, 2000b, p.163) that mimics positive attributes of the family structure.  The Dombey household is dysfunctional in comparison to both; until, that is, it is reconstituted after the marriage of Florence and Walter.  Contentment within the family for Dickens is not yoked to economic status but rather depends on interpersonal dynamics – money alone is not sufficient for a comfortable home life.  The other two novels do not have such neat narrative closure: in The Portrait of a Lady the ending is ambiguous as it is left open whether Isabel returns to Osmond, while Edna offers the ultimate rejection of her family life.  Each of these families ‘is unhappy after its own fashion’ (Tolstoy, 1978, p.13).

 As he wrote in his 1908 Preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James saw novels generally in structural terms, as ‘The house of fiction’ with ‘not one window but a million’ (James, 2009 [1881], p.7).  Linked to family dynamics is the role of the house the family inhabits, buildings often acting as a metaphor for the state of relationships.  They range from the affluent upper-middle class but cold Dombey town house, the warmth of the home of Sir Barnet and Lady Skettles, to the marginal, both economically and geographically, dwelling of John and Harriet Carker (the Harker siblings form a further variant on the familial establishment, and Catherine Waters sees the emphasis on brother/sister relationships in Dombey and Son as suggestive of ‘sexual ambiguity’ (Waters, 2001 [1988], p.263).  After Paul’s death the Dombey house is forbidding and neglected, until Dombey remarries.  Its refurbishment proves only skin-deep, like the marriage of Mr and Mrs Dombey.  By contrast The Midshipman is cluttered but welcoming, as is the Toodle home (with numerous thriving children).  Gardencourt, the Touchett country estate, is welcoming whereas Palazzo Roccanera, the house shared by Isabel and Osmond, lacks warmth.  Edna signals her independence by moving from the grand home she occupies with her husband into the tiny ‘pigeon house,’ which is firmly not a dwelling suitable for a family.

A crucial concept in understanding the middle-class family is that of ‘separate spheres’.  This was the division between the private sphere of the home (the female domain where the ‘natural’ role of loyal wife and nurturing mother could be fulfilled) and that of public life outside, including business, which was the male domain.  Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall trace the development of this gender division in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as an accompaniment of industrialisation; prior to the period, domestic and work spaces usually coincided but by the middle of the century this was unusual for middle-class families (Davidoff and Hall, 2007, pp.309ff).  For the husband, the domestic sphere supposedly had a soothing function.  John Tosh quotes Henry Mayhew’s approving sentiments on the middle-class home as a sanctuary for men from the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism, a ‘morally wholesome environment’ where ‘all the cares and jealousies of life are excluded’ (Tosh, 2007, p.320).  Dombey’s example, however, indicates that a rigid home/business bifurcation has to be treated cautiously.  The home could be an adjunct to the place of business, for example for confidential discussions, but more discreetly to cement and extend business relations.  These apparently gender-determined separate spheres actually had a boundary that was permeable to an extent.

Also undermining the complete separation of the spheres, Edith can be seen as a business asset, her acquisition signalling Dombey’s success in his personal life, and thus signifying sound judgement in his business activities.  There is an instrumental attitude to marriage on both sides: Dombey marries Edith as an adornment to his prestige while Edith marries for security.  Dombey is attracted to Edith’s pride because he complacently feels it matches and will enhance his own: ‘He had imagined that the proud character of his second wife would have been added to his own – would have merged into it, and exalted his greatness.’ (Dickens, 1995 [1846-8], p.519).  He fails to understand in his solipsistic self-regard that the nature of pride is that it is not inclined to bend to the will of another.  As head of the family, in the way that he is head of the firm, the undermining of his authority has an emasculating effect.  That he considers Edith to be a subordinate in his role as paterfamilias, in the way that he regards his clerks, is shown by his attempt at humiliating her by using James Carker as his emissary.  Léonce also treats Edna as a subordinate where the children are concerned.  When he returns from an evening out he wakes her and inconsiderately chats while undressing.  Then he claims that one of the children has a fever, and when Edna demurs he charges her with neglect.  Edna dutifully checks, but meanwhile Léonce goes to sleep, leaving her fully awake.

Financial aspects to marriage feature strongly in nineteenth-century novels, for example providing a common motif for Jane Austen.  Laura in The Woman in White (Collins, 1996 [1859-60]) is attractive to Sir Perceval because of her inheritance.  That these financial considerations were typical of the time is indicated by Aşkın Haluk Yildrim: ‘In the Victorian era, marriage was far different from the romantic affairs often delineated in many novels of the time. Love actually had little or nothing to do in the majority of matrimonies that took place’ (Yildrim, 2012, p.118).  In The Portrait of a Lady, Gilbert Osmond marries Isabel both for her money and intelligence (assuming incorrectly that he can mould her to his will and make her discard those ideas – of which he believes she has too many – that are not to his taste).  Initially Isabel, unfortunately for her, is unable to see past Osmond’s superficial charms into his real character and refuses to listen to the advice of those more experienced around her who distrust Osmond’s motives.

After marriage Isabel would have limited property rights (a situation that improved gradually in England with the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882), but worse, the Victorian husband might consider his wife as an extension of his property.  This applies to Dombey, Osmond and Léonce, each of which sees his wife as a possession.  When Léonce sees Edna is sunburned, he is described ‘looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of property which has suffered some damage’ (Chopin, 1984 [1899], p.44).  Later she laughs at Robert for thinking that Léonce might set her free, saying, ‘I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not.’ (Chopin, p.167)  It is ironic that Edna swims out into the sea directly after Robert leaves a note saying goodbye, thereby preventing her from attaining ‘possession of the beloved one,’ that is, from seeing Robert in the very terms that she herself rejects (Chopin, p.172)

Issues of female identity and the way it is formed and maintained by societal pressures are present in all three novels.  In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel and Madame Merle discuss how the self is defined in relation to others, where it begins and ends, and by implication what obligations are imposed on the self in relation to others (James, 2009 [1881], p.207; Correa, 2001, p.121).  Selfhood is not unconstrained but works within the parameters of society’s mores, as transmitted through the family and social intimates.  An element of the depiction of identity is the crude dichotomy of women into the purity of angels on the one side and fallen women on the other.  Lynda Nead discusses fallen women in her wider examination of prostitution, pointing out that a fall implies fall from something, and was thus class-specific.  ‘The category of “prostitute”,’ she argues, ‘was not fixed or internally coherent; it was accommodating and flexible and could define any woman who transgressed the bourgeois code of morality.’ (Nead, 2007,p.349)  This is a broad definition, not necessarily entailing a financial transaction, and surprising to modern eyes with a less censorious attitude to sexuality.  On the other hand entering marriage for financial considerations might be seen as mercenary, but was not morally transgressive.

Applying the term fallen to Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary, who both transgress bourgeois morality as embodied in the family, shows how far outside the pale of respectability they have travelled.  Alice Marwood’s status in Dombey and Son as a fallen woman (and ex-transported felon) is clear-cut, but what is explicit in her case is implicit in that of Edna half a century later.  Creole society was much more relaxed socially than English or Protestant American society (Asbee, 2001b, p283) but Edna still contravenes its norms, and only escapes obloquy by her death.  Jarlath Killeen (2003, p.413) makes a somewhat extreme remark that The Awakening is ‘a novel of female emancipation, charting Edna Pontellier’s movement from being a white slave of the patriarchal family to individual personhood.’  In what sense her life can be thought to be slavery is unclear. After all, Edna’s father had been a Confederate colonel in the American Civil War, thus likely to have a clear notion of what slavery really meant.  However, ‘white slavery’ introduces a further set of connotations revolving around prostitution, hinting that the Pontellier marriage is a financial transaction in much the same way that the marriage of Dombey and Edith was.

An issue pertinent to an assessment of the family in The Portrait of a Lady and The Awakening is the predominantly middle-class, and controversial, phenomenon of the ‘New Woman’ (Hobsbawm, 1994, p.192), an example of which can be seen in James’ depiction of the journalist Henrietta Stackpole.  The New Woman was a reflection of increasing rights for women through the latter part of the century as they slowly gained a legal identity separate from husbands and fathers.  This amounted to the dream ‘of living beyond patriarchal Victorian culture’ (Gilbert, 1984, p.17), and incorporated an awareness that marriage was predicated on property relations (Ledger, 2007, p.156); Henrietta does become engaged eventually, so the ‘dream’ could easily clash with reality.  The increasing independence of middle-class women can be vividly seen by contrasting mid-century Dombey and Son and fin de siècle The Awakening.

Aşkın Haluk Yildrim discerns two types of female in Dickens’ novels (Yildrim, 2012, p.121).  Put simply, these are ‘the rewarded’ and ‘the defeated,’ their fates determined by whether they adhere to or transgress the boundaries of acceptable social roles.  Dickens though subverts this simple blueprint.  Fanny, conforming to Dombey’s wishes, is barely noticed by him, in life or death, in his overwhelming desire for an heir to carry on the family line.  Nor can one consider Edith defeated, despite her desertion, because her actions are justified by those of her husband.  In her final conversation with Florence (Dickens, 1995, p.801) she has lost her pride but not her dignity and she holds to her determination not to subordinate herself to Dombey.  Florence, sentimentally drawn, is also justified in her actions because she attempts to live within the role her father has assigned her, and only abandons that role when he assaults her.  Edith is perhaps unusual for her time in escaping punishment (or defeat) for transgression of social codes, but family structures are rigid and the stigma of Edith leaving is considerable, and not only for Edith herself.  Dombey’s own authority is undermined by his inability to control his wife.  Edith after fleeing Dombey’s house is completely disgraced, and eventually lives in exile in France.  Later in the century, with structures relaxing, it is perfectly acceptable for Mrs Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady to live separately from her husband in Italy, on her own terms.  Countess Gemini, who has had numerous affairs, is frowned upon but not ostracised.  Whether Isabel leaves Osmond or goes back to him is left open; the choice though does not revolve around the sacredness of family life, as it might have done earlier in the century.

Similarly, ‘The Awakening revolves around the key concerns of New Woman fiction – marriage, motherhood, women’s desire for a separate identity and bodily autonomy…’ (Heilmann, 2008, p.93).  An example of the increasing emphasis on depicting women as separate individuals with their own wants and desires is Edna’s refusal to see herself through the prism of husband and family.  Whereas Edith bonds with Florence in Dombey and Son, and Isabel with Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady, Edna rejects her own children as much as she does Léonce and what their life together represents, in the process rejecting the weight of the previous history of bourgeois expectations for wives and mothers.  She is content for her children to have an extended stay with their paternal grandmother in the country while Léonce is in New York, paying them only a short visit.  On a previous stay with their grandmother, the narrator avers that ‘Their absence was a sort of relief,’ even though she would not admit it to herself (Chopin, 1984 [1899], p.63).  To confirm this refusal to be identified completely with the role of wife and mother, as Edna is swimming away from the shore at the conclusion of the novel she thinks of her husband and children: ‘They were a part of her life.  But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.’ (Chopin, 1984, p.176)  She refuses to attend her sister’s wedding, bringing reproaches from her father, content to cast off the trappings of family in all its manifestations

Bert Bender examines the influence of Darwinism on Chopin, and her rejection of Darwin’s deterministic conclusions about the female role in natural and sexual selection for women’s status as autonomous beings.  Bender argues that Chopin is keen to establish that females are more active participant in the process of selection than Darwin credits.  The role of children is crucial to the analysis: ‘As a meditation on the Darwinian reality of Edna’s life, The Awakening begins and ends with the essential fact of motherhood.’ (Bender, 2001, p.490)  He notes that Edna sees no future for herself in terms of her relationships with men, and her despair extends to her children as they are the products of the same pressures of sexual selection that have created her unhappy domestic situation, to the extent that her children have become her ‘antagonists’ (Bender, 2001, p496).  That this is not an atypical situation is suggested by Sally Ledger, who notes the commonness of unfulfilling or tragic motherhood in fiction at this time (2007, p.162).

While other mothers at Grand Isle ‘esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels’ (Chopin, 1984, p.51), at the end of the novel, in a piece of blunt symbolism, Edna sees a bird ‘with a broken wing … circling disabled down, down to the water’ (Chopin, 1984, p.175).  For her, self-determination and family life have become mutually exclusive, and the only solution is to relinquish both.  The contrast is with Adèle Ratignolle, Edna’s friend, who suffers badly in childbirth.  Adèle subordinates herself to husband and domestic responsibilities in a way that Edna, following her awakening, cannot.  Even after her ‘sufferings’ Adèle can still exhort: ‘Think of the children, Edna.  Oh think of the children!  Remember them!’ (Chopin, 1984, p.170)  Edna does remember them, but in a reflexive way still wishes to place her body and soul beyond the call of others, even if it means putting them beyond her own.

As the domestic roles of women changed during this period, so did those of men.  Hugh Cunningham argues that ‘… middle-class men in the period 1830-80 lived in a culture of domesticity,’ actively engaged in the rearing of children.  In the last decades of the century though, he continues, this focus shifted to the wider world and it became ‘unmasculine’ to be too immersed in domestic life. (Cunningham, 2004, p94).  Yet here too it is dangerous to generalise.  While men may have valued the benefits of domesticity as a bulwark against the world, we can see from the example of Dombey that this did not necessarily translate into a desire to be involved too closely in the upbringing of children, apart from laying down guidelines for this to be accomplished to their satisfaction.  On the other hand, Osmond’s closeness to Pansy strikes the modern reader as suspiciously tactile.  She is described in words that infantilise her, consistently referred to as a ‘child’ even though she is in her mid-to-late teens during the course of the narrative.  At the beginning of Chapter XXIV she is called ‘little’ twice, clearly not referring to her size, once by the narrator, and by Osmond as ‘my little girl’ (James, 2009, p.257).  While they share a materialistic and instrumental attitude towards their daughters, Osmond is keen to manipulate Pansy into a marriage with Lord Warburton, ignoring her marital choice of Ned Rosier, and his controlling paternalism is the converse of Dombey’s in entirely ignoring the desires of Florence.  Good parenting, it would seem, lies in a middle course.

There is one aspect of Victorian family life that is easily overlooked.  Shelia Rowbotham posits that women were Hidden from History (Rowbotham, 1973), but middle-class family life could not have functioned without the employment of servants, mostly women (Hobsbawm notes that the percentage of men in service fell from 20 to 12 between 1841 and 1881; 1997, p.279) who were doubly hidden.  Some had a liminal status within the family, notably the governess, or Walter Hartright’s quasi-feminine position of art teacher in The Woman in White (Collins, 1996 [1859-60]), who hovered socially between family members and the upper servants.  Killeen (2003, p.422) points out that Edna’s awakening is possible thanks to servants: ‘Only because of their handy presence is she allowed the time and the space for the awakening of the New Woman mentality.’  Chief among these is the unnamed quadroon (that is, a quarter black; Asbee 2001a, p.249) who shoulders the burden of caring for the children in a maternal role that Edna herself is reluctant to adopt.   In Dombey and Son Dombey is obliged to hire a wet nurse after the death of Fanny.  As a mark of her subservient role Polly Toodle is given the name Richards, which ‘denies her identity as a wife and mother in another family’ (Klimaszewski, 2006, p.337).  She is forbidden to visit that family for the duration of her employment, betraying an ambivalent attitude towards those upon whom employers depended.  While Dombey subjects ‘Mrs Richards’ to a voyeuristic level of surveillance, Dickens in general treats her with respect.  However, in another example (along with the quadroon) of class and racial difference correlating, Joseph Bagstock’s unfortunate native servant in Dombey and Son is used as a comic foil to demonstrate how unpleasant the major is.  Other servants, from housemaids to butlers, are rarely seen in the novel.  In The Portrait of a Lady the great homes, and within them a comfortable mode of living, appear to function with little practical support.  We learn that a servant enters to tend the fire before Isabel’s lengthy meditation in Chapter XLII, and she requests fresh candles (James, p.419), but this is a rare appearance.  In all of these middle-class families there is an assumption that service is part of the natural order, and none of the three authors is concerned to examine this dependence.

It is testament to the richness of these novels that singly and together they neither completely endorse nor completely challenge preconceived notions of the middle-class nineteenth-century family.  This is not surprising, given that they were written in different times and places by authors with differing views of social relations.  The richest of the novels in its depiction and critique of the family generally, as opposed to marital relations more specifically, is Dombey and Son, and as Mitchell (2000a, p.156) notes, it supplies ‘examples of relationships which are more complex and unseemly than the more rigid ideological accounts of the family would allow,’ threatened with distortion as families were by free-market economic demands that constantly endangered their equilibrium.  Dickens was writing at a time of social, economic and political upheaval so it is not surprising that the family structure should resist easy categorisation.  The end of the century saw developments in the recognition of women’s rights, challenging patriarchal authority, and these developments fed through to literature; the situation in 1899 was very different from that in 1848.  It is not surprising that our image of the nineteenth-century family is contradictory, given that it incorporates a diversity of models which undermines any notion of a stable, unitary, ‘Victorian family.’  In their various ways, Dickens, James and Chopin assist us in understanding that.


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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.


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