[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. George Cruikshank created the illuminated “G.” — Jay Rosenthal]


Illuminated initial G

ilmore takes a genuinely fresh direction in what have become somewhat tired efforts to connect two wildly popular forms of Victorian cultural production: novels and paintings. Others have looked at thematic and stylistic parallels while noting a common public's wide exposure to both. More interestingly, Gilmore considers how novelists learned from the public display and reception of visual arts. By examining reviews (often by the same critics, in the same language, for both arts) as well as letters and journalism, she demonstrates that the novelists in question--Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy, and various sensation novelists --were not only astute observers of the visual arts scene but also thoughtful adapters of art exhibition to publishing. Her book rests on commendable work in the archives as well as a generally good command of a diverse secondary literature from several disciplines. The results are fluently and often entertainingly presented, rich in quotation from original sources.

To suggest more particularly what novelists took from the public discourse about art, Gilmore organizes her study into four central chapters, each pairing a single author or genre with a different facet of contemporary "exhibition culture" (a phrase she borrows from Jonah Siegel's Desire and Excess, 2000). For instance, Dickens exemplifies novelists' responses to the crowding and critical confusion provoked by the floor-to-ceiling display of miscellaneously organized contemporary art in exhibitions like the annual Royal Academy's. How, asks Gilmore, does Dickens's "gallery" of characters both register and respond to such problems?

Thackeray's historical novel The History of Henry Esmond raises a different question: in constructing his own meta-fiction about the pleasures and dangers of historical memory, how does a novelist well-informed about visual culture reflect contemporary debates about the kind and degree of conservation or, more controversially, restoration to which paintings or buildings should be subjected? Turning from historical fiction to the well-known excesses of sensation fiction, Gilmore links these to the disabling impressions of excess experienced by visitors to the huge temporary displays of 1851 (the Crystal Palace Exhibition), 1857 (the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition), and 1862 (the International Exhibition in South Kensington). Noting that exhibition-goers learned to bear this overload by means of selection (looking only at the displays of subject matter they knew something about) and repetition (making multiple visits in order to take in the whole show), Gilmore argues that writers of sensation fiction adapted these strategies to make their stories at once narratively engaging and manageable. Finally, Gilmore reads the fiction of Hardy through the lens of late nineteenth-century art criticism: since both exhibition culture and the audiences for the arts were undergoing big changes, critics could not imagine the responses of future viewers and therefore found it difficult to evaluate the art of their own time.

Gilmore thus aims to explain more precisely how art-critical terms were used by reviewers and readers writing about novels during the period. Though the fact of their use has long been noted, Gilmore tries -- and this is the real promise of her work -- to see how critics and novelists learned from the public presentation of visual art. From the ways in which painting was preserved, displayed, viewed, and judged, they learned how to shape their own efforts to succeed in the literary marketplace, especially in realist novels. When this connection is persuasively made, it gives us a new way to think about certain features of a particular author's or genre's style, structure, presentation, and thematic or conceptual concerns, as well as its effects on contemporary readers. For art historians (particularly those engaged with more sociologically oriented work on British Victorian art), the story Gilmore tells from the art side will not be new, but it will be new to most scholars of Victorian literature, who will also learn how novelists and reviewers rethought art historical debates in terms of literature.

From chapter to chapter, however, the connections Gilmore draws between aspects of visual culture and novelistic strategies are unevenly persuasive, particularly when she examines specific novels. Like Kate Flint's Victorians and the Visual Imagination (2008), Gilmore's work highlights Victorian visuality. Rich in quotation, organized around suggestively chosen issues, and reviving long neglected (though once compelling) debates, this kind of work panoptically surveys a vast amount of Victorian extra-literary writing from periodical criticism to letters and diaries, and thus performs a very valuable service to all of us. Gilmore's book, however, is more narrowly focused than Flint's, and as shown in places, she is also less in command of the visual material or its history. Furthermore, Gilmore wants to do more than Flint: to show how specific authors learned from visual art culture how to shape as well as market individual novels, how to enhance their reception. Though Gilmore's thesis is arresting, her argument is less so, better in some chapters (Dickens, sensation novels) than in others (Thackeray's historical fiction, Hardy and the art of the future). Gilmore's strengths do not always include the kind of conceptual probing or subtle reading that the structure of the chapters might lead us to expect.

But Gilmore's strengths begin with the Introduction, which is very promising. In arguing that a pervasive exhibition culture strongly influenced what Victorian novelists thought about literary reception, Gilmore offers a new way of linking realist novels and contemporary realist painting. In this opening chapter, which is fluently written and illustrated with engaging examples, Gilmore expertly positions her study. In the ensuing chapter on Dickens, which juxtaposes extensive quotation from contemporary art criticism with passages from Dickens's letters and journal articles, Gilmore is at her best: she links the literature and art of the period in a new, historically grounded way that makes a valuable contribution to Victorian studies. She is quite compelling in arguing that Dickens knowingly adapted the display techniques of the picture gallery and structured his plots so as to counter the effects of confusion these could produce. But in the last section of the Dickens chapter, her discussion of particular novels is both hurried and too thin, as it is also in the chapters on Thackeray and Hardy.

On the other hand, Gilmore usefully explains what Thackeray does with contemporary debates over art preservation and restoration in two historical novels, Pendennis and, especially, Henry Esmond. The pros and cons of these debates, she plausibly suggests, are reproduced in the different fates that Thackeray assigns to two characters in Esmond: on one hand, the elaborate painting, dressing, and flirting of the elderly Viscountess Isabel Esmond fail to convince anyone that she still resembles her youthful self as the king's mistress, when she was painted as Diana; on the other hand, though Rachel Esmond's early beauty was apparently defaced by smallpox, it may or may not have fully returned by the time she surrenders her role as Esmond's maternal protector to become his miraculously youthful wife, eclipsing even her beautiful daughter -- with whom Esmond had earlier been hopelessly in love. Thus the contrast vividly evokes mid-century arguments about whether it is ever possible, or even desirable, to restore the past as a living presence (and what strange distortions of generational sequence might result if one did!) in a work of art, a woman's face, or a historical novel.

Nevertheless, Thackeray would also have known that both novelists and critics had long and intelligently reflected on such matters as the untrustworthiness of memory, the dangers of mixing history with fiction, and the license novelists and historians alike might claim in reviving the past. Do Thackeray's representations owe their shaping concerns to what he observed of the blunders and successes of art restorers any more than to the literary historical tradition? Either way, I found the discussion of Henry Esmond (which I've taught many times) somewhat underwhelming. Gilmore's arguments about Victorians' attitudes to representing the past here seemed less than impressively subtle or fresh.

The third chapter, however, beautifully links sensation fiction to the discourse surrounding the great temporary exhibitions of 1851, 1857, and 1862. While a great deal has been written about these events in recent years, the connection Gilmore posits between viewing strategies and narrative strategies in sensation fiction is very adroitly demonstrated and, as far as I am aware, original. The argument pursued in the Hardy chapter (Chapter Four) -with its rather irritatingly breezy exposition--is unfortunately less compelling, though the topic is intriguing: given changing audiences and the rapidly-shifting criteria for judging visual art, late nineteenth-century critics worried about the future of art. Gilmore rightly points to Hardy's extensive engagements with the museums, galleries, and studios of the later Victorian art world. Plausibly enough, she examines the two versions of The Well-Beloved to illustrate her claim that Hardy's increasingly pessimistic efforts to imagine a future for the reception of the novel are informed by his familiarity with critics' concerns for the future of art.

In the second version of The Well-Beloved, the last novel Hardy was to publish, the central characters are an artist and the ideal he pursues through its successive incarnations in a generational sequence of beautiful women. Through the artist who finally abandons this pursuit of an ever-changing ideal, the novelist may indeed have figured his own decision to abandon fiction, to stop trying to embody his imaginations in novel forms. But I have already been led to wonder if Thackeray's ambivalent thoughts about reviving the past might not owe at least as much to reflections prompted by the historical novel as to art critics. Likewise, I am not convinced that fin-de-siècle concern with the changing criteria for artistic success significantly explains Hardy's pessimism about the future of the novel. Is it not possible that both Hardy's and Gilmore's representations of confusion and despair in the case of visual art may be inflected by Hardy's estimate of the state of the novel -- and by the greater promise he found, for himself as a writer as for audiences of the future, in the forms of poetry? A more penetrating discussion of Victorian thinking about developmental versus cyclical/ repetitive temporality in fashion, art, and literature might perhaps have better illuminated for us the situation of late-nineteenth-century novelists and their readers.

In short, then, there is much to admire in this original and frequently absorbing study. Gilmore has an excellent eye for figures from fiction that memorably picture for us competing positions in art-critical debates whose interest for novelists she tracks with economical skill. The book's intriguing thesis will no doubt inspire others to pursue its implications in more detail. Yet one is left regretting that this book did not do a bit more: offer more complex and nuanced readings of particular novels as they engage with the cultures of exhibition, but also define more sharply the larger conceptual issues, while acknowledging their equally important history in relevant literary-critical traditions.

Related reviews

Hamilton, James. A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain. London: Atlantic Books, 2014. [Review by George P. Landow]

Kanwit, John Paul M. Victorian Art Criticism and the Woman Writer. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2013. [Review by George P. Landow]


Gilmore, Den. The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art: Fictional Form on Display. Cambridge: Publisher, 2013. ix + 242 pp.

Last modified 22 October 2014