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The Face as Legible Text: Gazing at the Portraits of George Eliot George Griffith Susan Sontag, in On Photography, presents this fantasy choice: which would people prefer—that Holbein the Younger had lived long enough to have painted a portrait of Shakespeare, or that the camera had been invented early enough to have a photograph of him? People would all want the latter, she claims, not simply because the photograph would be a more accurate representation, but also because "having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross" (154). Unlike the painted portrait, the photograph seems not to be an interpretation. It seems a relic of the real thing, a tracing, like a footprint or a death mask.1 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing about the daguerreotype to a friend in 1843, asked her to "think of a man sitting down in the sun and leaving his facsimile in all its completion of outline and shadow." She wanted a portrait of everyone she loved, she said, because "It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases but the association, and the sense of nearness involved in the thing . . . the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever!" (Rabb xxxvi). For such a relic of the real thing George Eliot's fervid worshipers prayed, all of them disappointed by a camera-resistant woman who would not be appropriated, "photo-possessed." She was not alone. The popular Victorian novelist Marie Corelli was like-minded, but they were in a small minority among Victorian 20volume 27 number 2 The Face as Legible Text writers. Corelli's resistance was so strong that late-century candid photographers pursued her, finally succeeding in 1905 in publishing in The Sketch a photograph of her alighting from a cab. Beneath, in triumph, a caption reads: "A photograph of a woman who would not be photographed" (Federico 33). Corelli was at war with the commodification of writers and their lives which seemed a necessary part of promotion in a competitive publishing market. That process was well underway a half-century earlier, given an immense boost by the invention of photography in 1839. By the 1850s photography was a passion of the middle classes as people traded "cartes de visites, tiny 4" ? 21/4" photographs, mass-produced by London photographers in stereotyped settings with stereotyped lighting" (Ford 19). By the 1860s there was a flourishing trade in the cartes of the famous, from the Royal Family, photographed byJ. E. Mayall, who is reported to have earned £35,000 for his cartes of Royalty, to the most minor of writers (Howarth-Loomes 82). Hugh Diamond, an early, influential amateur photographer, published Menof the Time, a collection of photographic portraits, in 1856, and PhotographicPortraitsof UvingCelebrities began serial publication the same year. For the publishing industry, photography made possible a new means of creating celebrity and marketing books. As the vogue of illustrated books indicates that the public wanted to "see" their literature, photography gave them the opportunity to see the writers as well. Writers themselves for the first time became visible, no longer just creators of images but images themselves. Accomplished photographers Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron did formal portraits of Tennyson, Ruskin, Carlyle, Browning, the Rossettis and others. Tennyson complained to Cameron, "I can't be anonymous by reason of your confounded photographs" (Rabb xxxvi), but most writers shared the excitement of the public over the new invention and many participated eagerly in photographic self-promotion. Both Hawthorne and Whitman boldly used daguerreotypes or photographs as frontispieces for their work, the former for The Marble Faun in 1860, the latter for editions of UavesofGrass. Over one hundred portraits by more than thirty photographers chronicle Walt Whitman's life, and the image of a Victorian Review21 G. Griffith white-suited Mark Twain was as well known in his own age as it is today. George Eliot, by contrast, wrote to be heard and not seen. As though anticipating what would be said about Corelli, the American journalist Kate Field called Eliot "the only woman in the civilized world who has never been photographed" ("To the Editor"), when she wrote...


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