decorated initial 'T' o sympathize with Isabel is to sympathize with representation in several forms. Unable to participate in middle-class life by virtue of her aristocratic identity, figured as her oversensitive body, Isabel in the latter half of the novel "assents" (Wood's term) with all the intensity of her spectatorship and suffering to the value of that life. Eliciting readerly sympathy for Isabel largely through the mechanism of spectatorship--requiring readers, as a condition of sympathy for her, to gaze both at and through the eyeglasses that mark her as spectator and spectacle--Wood ties readerly sympathy to a condition of spectatorship. Sympathy for Isabel is identified with a relentless spectatorship that mirrors Isabel's own; it depends upon identification with the representations for which she comes to yearn, and with her yearning for them. Indeed, in several ways Isabel's story registers her social fall as a fall into representation: as an increasing involvement with spect acle, reflection, projection, dissimulation, and disguise. To identify with Isabel is to identify with Isabel's spectacles: those she sees, those she wears, and those in which she appears; it is also to sympathize with an identity in which, as in the fiction called the middle class, images of various class identities jostle against one another. As a fallen aristocrat, and in particular a woman in decline, Isabel-in-disguise emerges as a paradigmatic figure for a fractured middle-class identity, an image that captures the tensions between high and low, "nature" and artifice, out which this identity is constituted. Rendering sympathy a spectator's melodrama, East Lynne makes spectatorship a condition of sympathy and, in doing so, discloses the role played by sympathy and spectatorship, and sympathy with spectatorship, in the construction of middle-class identity.

Wood's reliance on a dynamic of scenes and spectators has, it has often been noted, obvious affinities with stage melodrama. But that connection does not so much explain away her reliance on spectatorship as suggest the way both the popular novel and stage melodrama reflect and reproduce the increasingly spectatorial nature of experience in the 1860s. To describe the scenes Isabel imagines as a phantasmagoria, as Wood does, is to imagine a spectator in the mind: to include spectatorship in subjectivity's definition. As E. Ann Kaplan notes, East Lynne demonstrates the way the popular novel is "affected by the culture of the spectacle, "revealing in turn the way that culture "transform[s] the subject's way of perceiving and desiring.

Here as in "A Christmas Carol," however, spectacular forms of cultural representation do not create but rather reinforce cultural values already in East Lynne's visuality amplifies the spectacular function of middle-class Victorian women, for whom visible details indicated status and value; the novel functions in large part as a feminine phantasmagoria, a portrait in which women hone their ability to distinguish good feminine spectacles from bad ones and evaluate the pictures other women make. For Isabel embodies the contradictory tensions of a Victorian middle-class feminine identity that was, increasingly and preeminently in the mid-nineteeth century, a matter of keeping up appearances: of displaying the visible evidence of middle-class status. Sympathy with representation, for instance, accurately describes Barbara's activity as she observes and imitates manipulation of social codes (despite Isabel's ostensible function as a negative role model, she is, as Jeanne B. Elliot points out, very much a lady). (pp. 100-102)

Related Materials


Jaffe, Audrey. Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction. London and Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Victorian Web Genre and Technique

Last modified December 4, 2004