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Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction

The Rise of Picture Identification, 1764–1835

Kamilla Elliott

Publication Year: 2012

Traditionally, kings and rulers were featured on stamps and money; the titled and affluent commissioned busts and portraits; and criminals and missing persons appeared on wanted posters. British writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, reworked ideas about portraiture to promote the value and agendas of the ordinary middle classes. According to Kamilla Elliott, our current practices of “picture identification” (driver’s licenses, passports, and so on) are rooted in these late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century debates. Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction examines ways writers such as Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and C. R. Maturin as well as artists, historians, politicians, and periodical authors dealt with changes in how social identities were understood and valued in British culture—specifically, who was represented by portraits and how they were represented as they vied for social power. Elliott investigates multiple aspects of picture identification: its politics, epistemologies, semiotics, and aesthetics, and the desires and phobias that it produces. Her extensive research not only covers Gothic literature’s best-known and most studied texts but also engages with more than 100 Gothic works in total, expanding knowledge of first-wave Gothic fiction as well as opening new windows into familiar work.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Cover and Front Matter

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List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

This book would never have been written without Catherine Spooner. I was busy researching intersections between Victorian fiction and the rise of mass picture identification when she suggested that I take a look at first-wave Gothic fiction. It turned out to be the mother ship of literary picture identification; thus, what...

Note to the Reader

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p. xiii

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pp. 1-18

This book shares with The Recess an interest in the “great mystery” of portraiture and, more specifically, in how first-wave British Gothic fiction and contemporaneous discourses mythologized the rise of mass picture identification between 1764 and 1835,1 a process that photography would complete in the early...

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1. Theory and/of Picture Identification

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pp. 19-35

We have seen that, in spite of picture identification’s global ubiquity in establishing social identity today and current academia’s keen interest in identity, picture identification is addressed rarely in literary and cultural studies or by the theories that inform them. Before the theoretical turn, academics neglected picture...

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2. The Politics of Picture Identification

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pp. 36-78

However, these are not princes, but princely through wealth. Similarly, when Knox asserts that “there is many a nobleman, according to the genuine idea of nobility, even at the loom, at the plow, and in the shop and many more in the middle ranks of mixed society” (“Illustrious Birth” 58), these are adjectival, metaphorical...

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3. “The Age of Portraiture” and the Portraiture of Politics

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pp. 79-101

Art historians are unanimous in designating the eighteenth century “the age of portraiture” in Britain, a period when internationally celebrated painters, most notably Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and Thomas Lawrence, established the first distinctive national art since medieval Gothic times. A letter to...

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4. Matriarchal versus Patriarchal Picture Identification

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pp. 102-137

Gothic fiction further challenges aristocratic ideology by critiquing primogeniture and patriarchal power over progeny. When procreative success produces a surplus population, patriarchs seek to control their progeny’s procreation, forcing marriages to strengthen landed power and sentencing surplus children...

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5. Portraits, Progeny, Iconolatry, and Iconoclasm

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pp. 138-165

Gothic fiction makes much of the aristocratic tradition that renders portraits and progeny parallel imaged afterlives of forebears (see chapter 2). Progenitors are the relative “originals” of both progeny and portraits: “I examined her features; they bore a striking resemblance to the picture. But no wonder—the original was...

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6. Identifying Pictures

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pp. 166-185

Joining political and aesthetic attacks on idealist representation is a growing sense that “undue reverence for antiquity” opposes “the progress of true knowledge.” “Antiquity” represents aristocratic authority; “true knowledge” gestures to bourgeois sources of power. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791–2) champions...

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7. Pictures Identifying

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pp. 186-202

Picture identification runs not only between the writing and reading of portraits but also between the words and images within portraits, establishing social identity intersemiotically. While the picaresque novel Gil Blas (1715–35) declares that “neither the picture nor the letters will convince me” (Le Sage 2.217, Smollett’s...

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8. Iconism and the Aesthetics of Gothic Fiction

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pp. 203-219

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars, authors, and readers are keenly concerned with the pictorial properties of verbal language, particularly with the capacities of words to raise mental images. One term for this is iconism. The OED (1989) offers two definitions: “A representation by some image or figure...

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9. Desiring Picture Identification

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pp. 220-254

Iconophilia takes many forms, including veneration of religious icons, adoration of celebrity images, lust for pornography, ardor for pictures of lovers, affection for family portraits, and the connoisseurship of art. While the OED in 1989—somewhat uncharacteristically—allows only the last definition, a periodical writer...

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10. Fearing Picture Identification

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pp. 255-280

In recent definitions of iconophobia, including the OED’s, phobia has, somewhat perplexingly, come to signify solely hatred, displacing the fear that figures equally, if not more prominently, in its etymology. Both appear in the OED’s definition of phobia—“A fear, horror, strong dislike, or aversion; esp. an extreme or irrational...

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pp. 281-293

Still examining monuments, still gazing on pictures, I start involuntarily from the view, uneasily aware that there is a great deal more to be said and that it cannot be said here. This book has emphasized uses of picture identification to promote middle-class ascendancy because my research indicates that this is the primary...


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pp. 295-301


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pp. 303-325


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pp. 327-336

E-ISBN-13: 9781421408644
E-ISBN-10: 1421408643
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421407173
Print-ISBN-10: 1421407175

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 16 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 830022801
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English fiction -- 18th century -- History and criticism.
  • Art in literature.
  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Gothic revival (Literature) -- Great Britain -- History -- 18th century.
  • Gothic revival (Literature) -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Art and society -- Great Britain -- History -- 18th century.
  • Art and society -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • National characteristics, English, in literature.
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