Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction; The Rise of Picture Identification, 1764-1835.
In Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction; The Rise of Picture Identification, 1764-1835 Kamilla Elliott investigates a specific space of the British Romantic cultural imaginary which we call the Gothic to focus understanding of how the rise of portraiture during this period was tied to the increasing social dominance of the middling classes. Not since the demise of the Roman Empire had portraiture been accessible to any those with the money to afford it, if only for funeral purposes. In the West, portraiture had long been the provenance of royalty and those elites needing symbolic representation of their political and social power. The political and ritualistic uses of portraiture continued during the Romantic period, as Marcia Pointon has comprehensively shown in Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). Pointon's art historical treatment of the subject provides a framework for sorting out the recent rash of scholarship on why the eighteenth century became the 'age of portraiture', and how portraiture was aligned with investigations into subjective states, questions of identity, and changing cultural norms. Elliott's recent contribution to this growing field of research provides intriguing insights while leaving larger questions of the role of the imagination to future scholars.
Working off of a theory of 'picture identification' as the middle-class appropriation of elite uses of portraiture, Elliott claims that while elites continued to rely on symbolic projections of identity, the middling classes developed a network of converging concepts toward a different sense of selfhood. These concepts had to do with a belief in the mimetic power of representation that converged toward a moral center in which resemblance equates with nature, truth, and reality. The ancien regime, in other words, is a posturing sham in comparison with the truth regime of the middling classes. Rather than attributing the rise of portraiture to technologies that facilitated the production and dissemination of images, the increasing availability of expendable income among the lower middle classes and the rise of consumerism, or even Enlightenment theories relating nerve stimulation and subjective experience to the exploration of subjectivity, Elliott attributes the ubiquity of portraiture in this period to class warfare. Indeed, 'middle-class ideologies of portraiture infiltrate and co-opt as well as debunk and assault aristocratic ones', so that 'it is possible to identify [.] class-based cultural mythologies at war in, through, and over picture identification' (5, 4). Yet Elliott complicates this schema through investigations of the peculiar use of the 'trace' in Gothic appropriates of portraiture, for which Elliott draws on Jacques Derrida's concept, and of picture identification's devolution into iconophilia.
In the hands of middle-class practitioners, from philosophers to authors, the conception of portraiture transitions from a representation of public character to picture identification in order to determine likeness. Picture identification is the social use of portraiture to locate 'a mimetic matching of images' (2), a practice that promotes middle-class values. Moreover, Elliott argues, pictoral portraits need to be theorized differently from verbal descriptions of people or biographical sketches, and while her aim is not art historical but rather to locate the use of portraits in a specifically middle-class venue, she does ignore the contributions of art historians and theorists to our understanding of visual representation. Instead, Elliott aligns the uses of portraits and the ways in which characters are presented as mimetic in the specifically middle-class genre of Gothic novels. She does so to show how these novels practice the middle-class promotion of mimesis, in which resemblance and likeness identify a one-to-one correspondence that obviates the fraud, deceit, and falsehood increasingly associated with the honorific culture of the aristocracy. Gothic novels are 'the mother ship of literary picture identification--no other literary period or genre is so pervasively, didactically, and obsessively concerned with it' (6).
It takes Elliott most of her lengthy book to make her case, charting out a large number of Gothic works while still relying on a representational few--Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley--as well as contextual documents central to middle-class thought to support her claims. Part of the difficulty in accepting Elliott's central thesis is her insistence that the Gothic is the tabula rasa of middle-class values, which allows her to ignore the material forms using portraiture increasingly saturating the period's commodity culture: illustrated biographical sketches, jewelry, tableware, vase decoration, furniture embellishments, to name just a few. Indeed, even if the question of non-literary uses of portraiture is cast aside, why Gothic fiction rather than its larger category of domestic fiction, in which portraits, resemblance, mimesis, and--in fact--character sketching as both a visual and verbal art are rampant? Novels by women writer such a Jane Austen, Mary Hays, and Mary Shelley routinely make use of portraits or 'character sketching'--a psychological 'portrait' referred to as 'taking a likeness'--as do theatrical entertainments, especially domestic comedies. The association between women and portraits is particularly developed in the literature of the period.
For this reason then, another concern is that the essential differentiation between the 'male' and 'female' Gothic as theorized and practiced by Walpole and Radcliffe and their followers has no real place in Elliott's theory of picture identification as class warfare. Doing so allows her to ignore the role of women writers and readers in the Radcliffian version of the Gothic that orients her argument so that she elides the problem of gender, focusing instead on the historical features of the Gothic, which she finds aligned with portraiture's dynamic of presence and absence (rather than the gendered Gothic's dynamic of the same), to see in it mimesis as a stand-in for presence. Indeed, to focus on the female Gothic, as Elliott does, allows her to ignore the equally middle-class genre of melodrama, which relies on the dark spaces and hauntings to be found in the male Gothic, and like that form of Gothic gives less prominence to mimesis.
Certainly the question of the imagination and its Freudian wax tablet should be of larger concern in such an extended argument of the Gothic's importance to the Romantic period. And attention to current debates on visual-verbal continuities should have informed the work overall. That said, Elliott's scholarship is indeed comprehensive in archival texts, largely the source of her theoretical and supporting materials (but even there, supporting quotes aren't always convincing, or seem strained, particularly for histories of the word). Still, the archival research is impressive, and indeed, abundant enough to provide those working in the fields of the Gothic and portraiture a rich resource for perusal and food for thought.
ELIZABETH FAY University of Massachusetts Boston
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2014|
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