- Victorian Artists’ Life-Writing
Cambridge University Press has wisely reissued Julie Codell’s 2003 The Victorian Artist in paperback. This will be welcome news to Victorian scholars—art historical, literary or otherwise—interested in biography or the social role played by artists in the fin de siècle. Codell’s vast and extensive study, unchanged save for a few corrections, explores the ways that artists participated in the period’s robust life-writing culture. She argues that they had both nationalistic and economic aims; namely, they sought to establish specifically British models for creativity and to better position themselves and their work in relation to the changing art market. In addition, she illustrates the myriad ways artists used biographical modes to move away from negative typologies (the degenerate, the bohemian) and to carve out space for positive personae that (mostly) supported their increasing respectability [End Page 437] and professionalization. Her study makes many of its most interesting points about the presentation of class and gender in artists’ life-writing, focusing on the white-collar domesticity of the male artist and the social flânerie of the female artist.
As The Victorian Artist’s original reviewers noted, the chapters’ origins as discrete articles can lead to some mild repetition in the text’s recursive attention to its main theoretical argument. This is unfortunate, especially since the overarching idea is less groundbreaking than it was a decade ago. Her premise, overly simplified here, that life-writing is a site for mediating culture—though interestingly supported by anthropological theories from thinkers such as Bourdieu and Douglas—is by now a truism of the field. This fact is no liability, however. If anything it is a testament to the pervasive impact of work such as hers.
Fortunately for The Victorian Artist, the beloved god is everywhere in the details. And what details. Codell skillfully discusses artists’ life writing subgenres ranging from the more familiar modes, such as autobiography, to the period- and culture-specific forms, such as the “widow” biography. Her chapters feature an intoxicating wealth of lush, stimulating materials, painstakingly collected over a fifteen-year period. Chapter after chapter features seemingly exhaustive and beautifully curated materials, accompanied by astute and nuanced discussions.
The materials Codell presents are products of the larger fin-de-siècle passion for biography. Her work shines new light onto the period’s larger trend wherein general interest in the interior life, aligned with an exponentially increased publishing press, resulted in a life-reading frenzy that swept at least the more educated classes by the late-Victorian era. So much so that by the years this study covers “the reading of biographies had become a major indoor sport for the educated middle class” (Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Vol. IV: The Naked Heart, W. W. Norton, 1995, 154). This period information is valuable, not because Codell focuses on the larger biographical mania of late-Victorian England (she doesn’t), but because it illustrates precisely why her work on biography may prove valuable to a much wider swath of Victorian scholars than, perhaps, it originally intended. [End Page 438]