Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 337-340
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The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden
Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden. By Carol Mavor. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. Pp. 213. $59.95 (cloth). $19.95 (paper).
In 1995, Carol Mavor published Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. Her new book, Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden, is a study of a little-known female pioneer of British photography who lived from 1822 to 1865. In turning to these images, Mavor builds on her earlier work and considers issues of Victorian motherhood, homosexuality, and perversion, as well as photography. Becoming is well illustrated with many of Viscountess Hawarden's photographs of her family and other adolescents and contains autobiographical material about the author herself.
While she writes with intensity, Mavor delays approaching the body of her text until she has presented a series of preliminary observations. In the "Preface," she notes that Viscountess Hawarden's working life lasted only eight years (1857-65); that while she entered her work in exhibitions and sold five prints to Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), until recently she was virtually unknown; and that her photographs, around eight hundred in number, are primarily sensual pictures of her daughters, taken in a few rooms in her South Kensington home. While these portraits conform to Victorian expectations of the way women should look, there is an erotic aspect to her images that is still frequently overlooked. For example, in Charles Derwent's 1996 review in the New Statesman of an exhibition of Hawarden's photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, he represented Hawarden as "a lady imprisoned in a tower," who sought to escape from Victorian conventions through photography. He saw her world as claustrophobic and contained, and the sexuality in her photographs as repressed. It is this idea of a repressed heterosexuality that Mavor challenges in this book.
Between 1846 and 1864, Hawarden gave birth to ten children, eight of whom survived. Unlike her contemporary, Julia Margaret Cameron, who turned to photography after her children were grown, Hawarden [End Page 337] produced photographs primarily of her eldest daughters, Isabella, Clementina, and Florence, during the period when she was still giving birth to her younger children. According to Mavor, Hawarden documented a "female world of love between mother and daughter and between daughters as sisters." She depicted an eroticism, particularly a homoeroticism with "same-sex tenderness, longing, cross-dressing, caressing, sexuality, flirtation, longing, voyeurism, and unveiling," that Mavor believes has been overlooked in other studies. Consequently, in this book, Mavor intends to "chip away" at those "cultural guardians" (Hawarden's class and gender, her isolated studio, her productivity as a mother, and the conceptions of the Victorians) that have sustained the invisibility and the "interiority" of Hawarden's pictured erotics.
Mavor asserts that Hawarden's photographs have remained in the "closet" of her "suprainteriorized" world. She employs the word "closet" here in reference both to the closet that Hawarden converted to a darkroom (where the toxic chemicals she used possibly caused her death at the age of forty-two) and to the representation of same-sex erotic desire, Hawarden's interiorized secret. Mavor does not suggest that Hawarden was homosexual but that her closet was that of "imagining a homosexual secret."
In "An Erotic Note," Mavor stresses her own attachment to Roland Barthes, who was himself attached to his mother, as the inspiration of her effort as teacher and writer to expand the cultural notion of the erotic. In Camera Lucida, Barthes claimed that the erotic photograph does not focus on the genitals, which indeed may not be shown at all; but it takes spectators outside its frame, and thus they animate the photograph and the photograph animates them. This is Mavor's intention--to animate Hawarden's images so that we may in turn experience jouissance, "the delicious ambiguity of a slowly rushing orgasmic pleasure and an ungenital pleasure at once" as we read, look, learn, and reach a state "of being...