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  • Geological Fantasies, Haunting AnachroniesEros, Time, and History in Harriet Prescott Spofford's "The Amber Gods"
  • Dana Luciano (bio)

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Frontispiece to Elements of Geology, by Charles Lyell, vol. I (London: John Murray, 1841).

Standing before her mirror on the morning of her wedding day, Giorgione Willoughby, the narrator-protagonist of Harriet Prescott Spofford's 1860 short story "The Amber Gods," announces, "I'm not good, of course; I wouldn't give a fig to be good."1 Since the story she goes on to recount concerns, in part, her seduction of the young painter Vaughan Rose away from his childhood sweetheart, her virtuous cousin Louise, the reader may well be inclined to believe her. But it was the "of course," the casually tossed-off assertion that her lack of virtue is something already expected, that troubled some readers of the then Miss Prescott's fiction. An anonymous reviewer of her first collection, The Amber Gods, and Other Stories (1863), declared that despite the "many passages of gorgeous magnificence, of intense interest, or of startling power" in each of the stories, he or she could not ignore the "low, murky atmosphere" and "morbid and unhealthful tone." These faults could be attributed, the reviewer thought, to the author's unusual attention to "illicit love," since

a writer who makes the interest of her love-stories … depend on the development of an unlawful affection, commits a grave artistic fault. Illicit love in ordinary life is the exception, not the rule; and it is certainly making [End Page 269] rather an extravagant use of the exceptional for a writer to employ it in four cases out of five…. The constant contemplation of a diseased side of human nature can scarcely fail to produce an unhealthy state of mind, and thus to exert a dangerous influence.

This critique's preoccupation with "unlawful affection" combines the moralistic and the aesthetic: not only is this preoccupation "dangerous" to the reader (the reviewer notes, in particular, that "a writer, whose stories are so eagerly read … ought not to be unmindful of the influence which she may exert on the young"), it is also an "artistic fault," since it misrepresents "ordinary life" by depicting the exceptional as normative.2

Two years later, in a review of Spofford's novel Azarian: An Episode (1864), the young Henry James Jr. would also accuse her of violating the rules of realism. James, however, locates Spofford's fatal "extravagance" not in her subject matter but in her style, specifically in the excessiveness of the very descriptive tendency the earlier reviewer had admired. Describing the volume as "a wearisome series of word-pictures, linked by a slight thread of narrative, strung together, to use one of Miss Prescott's own expressions, like 'beads on a leash,'" James sternly advises Spofford to pay attention to realist writing, in which "things are all described only in so far as they bear upon the action, and not in the least for themselves." Conversely, he insists, "the reader feels that Miss Prescott describes not in accordance with any well-considered plan, but simply for the sake of describing," a habit he characterizes as wasteful to the point of morbidity. James's witty and scathing condemnation of Spofford's style declines to judge the morality of content, insisting that subjects "questionable … in point of morals or of taste" may still possess merit if presented skillfully; yet the review nevertheless retains an echo of the moralism that suffused the earlier review in the way it insists on a specified productive end for literary description. Exhorting Spofford to study modern realism and to strive "to be real, to be true to something" external to the fiction, James leaves no room for [End Page 270] an aesthetic that comprehends description itself as a (queer) kind of action—what is not narratively productive, he insists, can only be a waste of time.3 James's review reminds us that even the most sophisticated engagement with aesthetics may be directed toward projects of normalization, requiring the artistic encounter to confirm a preexistent truth rather than create truth anew.

The intersection of what appears, here, as morbid sexuality...


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pp. 269-303
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