The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel:

The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel: Andres, Sophia.  

Narrative Challenges to Visual Gendered Boundaries.  Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2005.  

Pp. xxvii + 208.  ISBN 978-0814251294.  $89.95, Hardcover; $29.95, Paper; $9.95, CD.


 

  Sophia Andres’ The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel examines selected novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy.  In her introduction, Andres notes that she “explores the ways in which the Victorian novel was shaped by Pre-Raphaelite Art” [my italics] and that her book not only “concentrates primarily on representations of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the Victorian novel” but that it will show that “[i]n textual redrawings of those paintings, novelists often engaged readers in questions over restrictive, conventional gender boundaries.” Because my concern here is with Andres’ consideration of Thomas Hardy, I’ll confine further comment largely to her discussion of his work in a chapter she has titled “Beyond Gender Boundaries: Edward Burne-Jones and Thomas Hardy” in which she concentrates on Jude the Obscure.

 

There is no question that in The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel Andres reveals considerable scholarship—in the sense that that her bibliography and other textual references make clear that she has cast her research nets widely, though certainly not exhaustively or always with appropriate relevance.  She cites, for example, Elizabeth Prettejohn’s The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (2000) but not her After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England (1999) which includes, among other things, a significant essay on Burne-Jones’s The Mirror of Venus. She makes numerous references to the Grosvenor Gallery but does not include in her bibliography such relevant works as Christopher Newall’s The Grosvenor Gallery Exhibitions: Change and Continuity in the Victorian Art World (1995).    She extensively discusses Hardy’s portrayals of the sexuality of Sue Bridehead and Arabella in Jude the Obscure, and includes in her bibliography many studies of that novel, including one of my own which has no obvious relevance to her work; but, on the other hand, she makes no reference to Rosemarie Morgan’s illuminating consideration of those characters in her Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (1988). Nevertheless, Andres exhibits a considerable knowledge of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, of the comments on them made by their contemporaries, and of later scholarship on them. She exhibits, too, a familiarity with the texts of the novels she discusses and of much of what has been said about their relationships to the Pre-Raphaelites. She sometimes includes reference to scholarly views opposed to her own, as, for example, in her first chapter where she notes the arguments of Jan Marsh and Joseph Kestner to the effect that the Pre-Raphaelites representations of gender were relatively conventional--a view she rejects in her study. In short, there is much learning that informs The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel.

 And, yet, at least with respect to Hardy, this is a book whose arguments are remarkably weak.  Andres provides original analyses of the most flimsy, contradictory, and unpersuasive kinds. Again and again, what Andres terms a “textual redrawing” of some Pre-Raphaelite picture by Hardy has little that convincingly connects it with the painting to which it is claimed to be related, and what she fails to demonstrate with any real persuasiveness is that the novels she discusses were “shaped by” or constitute a “redrawing” of some specific Pre-Raphaelite painting. She attempts to anticipate that criticism by asserting that Hardy's "allusions" to Burne-Jones were "subtle and inconspicuous." But, in fact, that claim appears to be a nugatory bit of rhetoric that collapses when confronted with a close consideration of the evidences she offers. Moreover, disturbingly, some of her supporting quotations in her chapter on Hardy are deceptive in what they deliberately leave out. At issue, then, is not only the persuasiveness of the relationship of Hardy's Jude to the particular Pre-Raphaelite paintings with which Andres claims to make connections, but the the probity with which she undertakes to advance her argument.  

 In the spring of 1878 Edward Burne-Jones exhibited some of his paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery. As Andres notes, Hardy visited the Grosvenor Gallery in June of 1878, and she provides this quote from Hardy’s notebook entry:

June 8.—To Grosvenor Gallery.  Seemed to have left flesh behind and entered a world of soul.  Andres then follows this quotation with her own comment that such quotations as Hardy’s suggest  

 


Pre-Raphaelite art captivated literary artists, inspired them, and compelled them to reconfigure
some of the most notable and popular Pre-Raphaelite paintings in their own ways . . . .

 


But Andres’ quotation is deceptive.  Here is the whole of Hardy’s notebook entry:

 


  June 8.—To Grosvenor Gallery.  Seemed to have left flesh behind and entered a world of soul. 
In some of the pictures, e.g., A. Tadema’s ‘Sculpture’ (men at work carving the Sphinx), and ‘Ariadne
abandoned by Theseus’ (an uninteresting dreary shore, little tent on corner, etc.) the principles I have mentioned
have been applied to choice of subject.

 


In short, the full quotation makes clear that Hardy’s reaction was not to Burne-Jones’s paintings or to other Pre-Raphaelites but to pictures by Lawrence Alma-Tadema—a painter whose style was far removed from that of the Pre-Raphaelites.

 

                      Of course through the late 1870’s and into the 1890’s there was considerable   discussion of the willowy dream-like beauty Burne-Jones and other late Pre-Raphaelites aspired to. But when Hardy wrote Jude in 1894, he was at a considerable remove in time from his Grosvenor Gallery visit of 1878—even assuming that he took specific notice of and had distinct memories of any of Burne-Jones’ paintings. There is, then, no external evidence I am aware of that clearly relates Hardy’s Jude to Burne-Jones’ paintings—but much that relates aspects of his work to other painters to whom he makes specific reference.  And, again, in such cases, Andres will sometimes deceptively attempt to draw attention away from the artist to whom Hardy refers and associate his remark with Pre-Raphaelitism.  She quotes, for example, a well-known Hardy comment:

 


I feel that Nature is played out as a Beauty, but not as a mystery.  I don’t want to see landscapes, i.e,
scenic paintings of them, because I don’t want to see the original realities—as optical effects, that is. 
I want to see the deeper reality underlying the scenic, the expression of what are sometimes called abstract imaginings. 
The ‘simply natural’ is interesting no longer. . . . The exact truth as to material fact ceases to be of importance in art—
it is a student’s style—the style of a period when the mind is serene and unawakened to the tragical mysteries of life;
when it does not bring anything to the object that coalesces with and translates the qualities that are already there—
half hidden, it may be—and the two united are depicted as the All.

 


I have here transcribed this passage exactly as Andres provides it. She immediately goes on to associate that quotation with “the two most important phases of Pre-Raphaelitism—realism and aestheticism.”  But what is really important to note is what Andres leaves out, for the ellipses in Andres’ quote conceal the following sentence: " The much decried, mad, late-Turner rendering is necessary to create my interest." That Andres should expunge Hardy’s reference to Turner in that quotation is suggestive of the almost obsessive ways in which she attempts to relate Hardy’s work to the Pre-Raphaelites in general and Burne-Jones in particular. In such cases, Andres’ omissions in the quotations she makes of Hardy’s statements amount to deception: they conceal Hardy’s references to other artists—in these cases Turner and Alma-Tadema, neither of whom were Pre-Raphaelites—with whom Hardy associates the impulses for what he says about influences on his art. Moreover, Andres claims that Hardy not only visited the Grosvenor Gallery but “had met Edward Burne-Jones”—though there is, so far as I know, no evidence whatever that Hardy was personally acquainted with Burne-Jones.  

 

                      Furthermore Andres makes the astonishing claim that “In Pre-Raphaelite art Hardy must have seen [my italics] the means of making his narratives memorable and meaningful to diverse audiences, ” and she insists that specific Burne-Jones paintings are alluded to in Jude:

 


As his other novels Jude is precariously balanced on an uneasy tension between an endorsement and a subversion of gender
ideology.  I locate this tension in Jude the Obscure in subtle reconfigurations of contemporary paintings by Edward
Burne-Jones, whose androgynous figures are often cast in dreamlike landscapes, paintings of classical or chivalrous scenes,
luxuriant images of a world that never was or could never exist.

 


But Andres’ claim that Hardy’s Jude is a “subtle reconfiguration” of various Burne-Jones paintings is altogether unconvincing. Consider, for example, how Andres attempts to relate Hardy’s Jude to Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin, which, in an earlier chapter, she had already found to be an “isomorphic verbal equivalent” to Gwendolen towering over Grandcourt in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Here she finds that Hardy’s account of Arabella on her first meeting with Jude—“She brightened with a little glow of triumph, swept him almost tenderly with her eyes in turning, and retracing her steps down the broadside grass rejoined her companions”—also evokes The Beguiling of Merlin:

 


Arabella’s boldness unsettles and disturbs Jude’s pleasure, paralyzing his will power and undermining his self-control. 
Indeed Jude seems to undergo the terrifying effects of Medusa’s power evoked by her staring eyes, as he experiences
the weakening of his resolution: “[T]he intentions as to reading, working, and learning, which he had so precisely
formulated only a few minutes earlier, were suffering a curious collapse into a corner, he knew not how.”

 


            The first encounter between Jude and Arabella, replete with suggestive narrative hints, evokes the situation strikingly
depicted in Edward Burne-Jones’s   The Beguiling of Merlin (1873) (plate 15), which captures the catastrophic results
of Nimue’s “spellbinding gaze” and sharply registers the transgression of conventional gender boundaries.

 


  Now, in Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin, Nimue is indeed imaged as a kind of Medusa (her hair is entwined with snakes) and she holds Merlin’s book of charms. She towers over Merlin whom she has emprisoned, her back to him but her face turned to stare forcefully into his, while Merlin averts his gaze. But on what basis Andres’ claims that Arabella, who in Hardy’s description " brightened with a little glow of triumph, swept him almost tenderly with her eyes in turning, and retracing her steps down the broadside grass rejoined her companions" somehow " evokes" that Medusa-like image in Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin is not at all clear. Nimue’s fierce stare is scarcely relatable to Arabella’s “brightening” and sweeping Jude “almost tenderly with her eyes.” The differences between the Burne-Jones’s picture and Hardy’s novel are so vast that Andres’ claim that Hardy’s scene “evokes” the Burne-Jones painting is simply not plausible.  Even less persuasive is Andres’ attempt to suggest that Arabella somehow “evokes” the Circe in Burne-Jones’s The Wine of Circe—as if Hardy’s narrative of Jude’s youthful and inexperienced entrapment by Arabella’s feigned pregnancy would, of course, prompt recollections of Burne-Jones’s picture of an enchantress who by a potion turned men into swine!  Even assuming that Hardy had even seen that picture, for which there is no positive evidence, the connection between Hardy’s narrative and Burne-Jones’s The Wine of Circe is so remote as to render Andres’ claim of an influence of one on the other to be highly implausible.

 

                      Other efforts on Andres’ part to argue that a scene or an aspect of Hardy’s Jude “evokes” or “redraws” one or another of Burne-Jones’s paintings are equally unpersuasive. For example, consider the following claim made by Andres:

 


In 1864 William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones decided to produce a lavish, illustrated folio of Morris’s long
verse narrative Earthly Paradise, the first poem of which is “The Story of Cupid and Psyche.”  . . . . In these
paintings, gouaches, and oils Burne Jones [sic] depicts a sequence of love, betrayal, and rescue, resembling
the phases of Jude’s and Sue’s love story.

 


                      In fact, the relationship of Jude and Sue in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure has little resemblance at all to the story of Cupid and Psyche.  That story involves Psyche, the daughter of a king (not a “deity” as Andres calls her) and beloved by Cupid, who insists that when he visits her at night she must not look at him.  When she does, Cupid abandons her and she undertakes a series of painful wanderings until, finally, after an attempted suicide by drowning, she is reunited with Cupid. How that story resembles the “phases of Jude’s and Sue’s love story” Andres does not at all make clear, and her efforts to do so are weak and altogether unconvincing.   Consider, for example, her discussion of how Hardy’s account of Sue’s escape from the training school for teachers “evokes” Burne-Jones’s picture Cupid Finding Psyche. The event depicted in one of Burne-Jones’s pictures is the moment when Cupid, who had been sent by Venus to destroy Psyche, instead falls in love with her. Burne-Jones’s winged Cupid is dressed in a blue robe bending over the half-naked sleeping Psyche. In Hardy’s scene, Sue goes to Jude’s lodgings, soaking wet from having waded through a river in her escape. The situations could scarcely be more different, but Andres makes the following argument:

 


The allusion to Cupid and Psyche is embedded in Jude’s thinking and action: “What counterparts they were!
He unlatched the door of his room, heard a stealthy rustle on the dark stairs, and in a moment she appeared
in the light of his lamp. He went up to seize her hand, and found she was clammy as a marine deity, and
that her clothes clung to her like the robes upon the figures in the Parthenon frieze” . . . . Jude’s lamp casts
an enchanting light on Sue’s sudden appearance and evokes a similar event in the Cupid and Psyche story.
Moreover, lest we missed the allusion to Cupid and Psyche, this important chapter concludes with Jude leaning
over the sleeping Sue, observing that “a warm flush now rosed her hitherto blue cheeks, and felt that her hanging
hand was no longer cold. Then he stood with his back to the fire regarding her, and saw in her almost a divinity” (150). 
This scene reconfigures the subject of Burne-Jones’s Cupid Finding Psyche . . . which shows Cupid gazing
affectionately at the sleeping Psyche, her left arm loosely hanging in the foreground, the two figures forming two
halves of a circular configuration.

 


What, then, are the “allusions” in Hardy’s scene to Burne-Jones’s Cupid Finding Psyche?  Apparently Andres thinks Jude’s thought “what counterparts they were!” alludes to the figures in the Burne-Jones painting “forming two halves of a circular configuration.”  Apparently, too, for her, Jude leaning over the sleeping Sue with her hanging hand is a clear allusion to Burne-Jones’s picture of Cupid looking down at Psyche.  But these are small details of complex and strikingly different situations portrayed by each artist and scarcely provide persuasive evidence of any “allusion” whatever. 

 


                      Nevertheless,   Andres seems able to find such strained “allusions” with remarkable ease.  Consider one other example. After crossing the river to escape from the teacher training school, Sue arrives at Jude’s with her clothes soaking wet, her hands “clammy as a marine deity.”  For Andres,

 


Sue emerging from the water in search of Jude evokes yet another painting of the story of Cupid and Psyche, Pan
and Psyche (1872-1874), which represents Psyche emerging from the water after trying to drown herself following
Pan’s [sic] desertion.  Burne-Jones exhibited this painting at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878, an exhibition that, as we
have seen, Hardy had attended.

 


Andres mistakenly attributes Psyche’s situation to “Pan’s desertion, ” though, of course, it was not Pan’s but Cupid’s that prompts Psyche to attempt to drown herself. But, again, exactly what in Hardy’s scene “evokes” the Burne-Jones painting?  Hardy's scene is not of Sue "emerging from the water" but of her appearance at Jude's lodgings. Her arrival, fully clothed, wet and clammy, somehow “evokes” a Burne-Jones painting of a naked Psyche who, with not a drop of water visible on her body, stands in a river in which she has tried to drown herself--a river which, in William Morris’s poem, is “kind” and has treated her with “gentle care”--where, as she puts one foot on the river bank, is gazed on by a naked and dark-skinned Pan who places his hand upon her head?

 


I think, on the basis of the details provided above, it is clear that Andres' procedure is deeply flawed. She finds one or two correspondences between a picture and a scene in a novel which, in most respects, is vastly different, and, then, claims that the novelist "reconfigured" the painting. It's a slipshod rhetorical trick that can be worked with practically any painting and novel scene which have no more than two or three similar elements, and, I think that anyone looking closely and critically at the works she has compared will find her method altogether unconvincing.

 


                      Finally, what is one to make of Andres’ claim that “[b]y reconfiguring in his novel the androgynous figures of Burne-Jones’s paintings, Hardy engaged in contemporary debates over the destabilization of gender constructs the women’s movement had created since the 1860’s”?  Here is Andres’ summary of her argument:

 


Unlike Edward Burne-Jones, who suspended gender boundaries by representing both male and female figures as androgynous,
thus destabilizing conventional gender constructs, Hardy, in his reconfigurations of Burne-Jones’s paintings, represents only
Sue as androgynous.  As Laura Green remarks, “Hardy seems to imply that women are more able to achieve and maintain an
androgynous ideal partly for that most Victorian of reasons—their lesser sexual impulses” (127). Through Jude’s masculinity,
albeit passive, Hardy holds on to the gender stability that Sue’s anarchic nature has threatened and, if we think in terms of the
accomplishments of the feminist movement, has forever changed.  Yet Sue’s sudden change into docile femininity at the end
of the novel comes too late.  By then the readers of Jude the Obscure and viewers of the androgynous figures of Burne-Jones’s
paintings, which the novel evokes, have already questioned the validity of the established gender boundaries and have toyed with
androgyny and its implicit reconciliation of threat and desire and its elusive promise of equality.

 


It is worth a moment to look closely at Andres’ claims in that paragraph.  She flatly asserts, first, that " Burne-Jones suspended gender boundaries by representing both male and female figures as androgynous, thus destabilizing conventional gender constructs." Now in fact many of Burne-Jones’s paintings and other art works are quite gender specific, including the Pan and Psyche painting Andres refers to above.  One could cite example after example—e.g., The Mirror of Venus, The Star of Bethlehem, Sidonia von Bork, St. George and the Dragon, The Princess of Egypt, Flora, Caritas, Day, Spes, Fides, The Bath of Venus, Danae and the Brazen Tower, The Mirror of Venus, The Wheel of Fortune, The Golden Stairs, Woodnymph, Phyllis and Demophoon, Sibylla Delphica, Vespertina Quies, The Tree of Life, The Nativity, Flora, Pomona—and the list could go on.   It is true, of course, that a number of critics called attention to pictures where one could not be sure of the sex of one or another of the figures and spoke of the ‘effeminacy” of Burne-Jones’s representations, and one might argue about some others. But, unhampered by that, Andres boldly makes the unqualified claim that Burne-Jones " suspended gender boundaries by representing both male and female figures as androgynous, thus destabilizing conventional gender constructs." Moreover, not only does she make such sweeping claims about Burne-Jones's paintings but confidently assumes that she has persuasively shown--which she has not--that Hardy's Jude " alludes to" and " reconfigures" specific Burne-Jones paintings and creates in Sue an " androgynous ideal." Sue--that extraordinarily complex and ambiguous character as Hardy portrays her--an " androgynous ideal" ? And, to the extent that Hardy might have wished to portray Sue as androgynous, then why would he associate her with Burne-Jones's Psyche, whom Burne-Jones portrays as thoroughly and unmistakeably feminine?

 


And, then, there is Andres’ naïve concluding narrative about what happens to readers of Hardy’s Jude who, she assumes, of course find in it evocations of Burne-Jones's paintings.  We are told—with a kind of simplistic explicatory innocence: 

Sue’s sudden change into docile femininity at the end of the novel comes too late.  By then the readers of Jude the Obscure
and viewers of the androgynous figures of Burne-Jones’s paintings, which the novel evokes, have already questioned the validity
of the established gender boundaries and have toyed with androgyny and its implicit reconciliation of threat and desire and its
elusive promise of equality.

 


That Andres could describe Hardy's representation of Sue's final situation as " docile femininity" is, certainly, a grotesque distortion of his complex portrayal of Sue at the end of the novel, and I leave it to readers of this review to say whether or not Jude left them " toying with androgyny" --whatever that might mean.  

 


In short, Sophia Andres' arguments about the relationship between Hardy's Jude and Burne-Jones's paintings are altogether unpersuasive, and at least two of her quotations from Hardy's writings intended to bolster her argument in fact involve deliberate omissions of Hardy's references to other non-Pre-Raphaelite painters whose influence Hardy indeed acknowledged. Such tendentitious omissions tend only further to weaken her already implausible case.

 

Robert Schweik -- published The Hardy Review, Vol VIII: 2005 (order form)


State University of New York at Fredonia

2005

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