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  • A Victorian Muse: The Afterlife of Dante’s Beatrice in Nineteenth-Century Literature
  • Joseph Phelan (bio)
A Victorian Muse: The Afterlife of Dante’s Beatrice in Nineteenth-Century Literature, by Julia Straub; pp. 178. London and New York: Continuum, 2009, £60.00, £24.99 paper, $120.00, $44.95 paper.

One of the most striking visual images of the nineteenth century, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (1864–70), serves as the starting point for Julia Straub’s investigation of the Beatrice phenomenon in nineteenth-century literature. Rossetti attempted to capture Dante’s Beatrice at the moment of her transformation from object of unfulfilled earthly desire to heavenly muse and mentor; for Straub, this combination of the corporeal and the spiritual helps to explain the extraordinary resurgence of interest in Beatrice during the nineteenth century. Her image crystallises emerging ideas about the relation between the material and the ideal in art and provides a focus for anxieties [End Page 166] about the endurance of the human personality and human relationships beyond death. This is not, though, a conventional study of influence; Straub suggests, with varying degrees of ingenuity and plausibility, that many familiar nineteenth-century figures, from George Eliot’s Romola to Walter Pater’s Mona Lisa and Alfred Tennyson’s Arthur Hallam, should be seen as Beatrices in disguise. This process of Beatricification is made possible by the affective resonance of the Beatrice myth, which liberates it from the confines of merely literary influence and elevates it to the realm of the “transmedial” (11). Much of the opening section of the book is given over to the elaboration of theoretical concepts for the understanding of the (literary) “afterlife,” including the notion of transmediality. The transmission of ideas, images, and narratives can take place either exclusively through the medium of literary texts themselves or “intermedially” (10), through a combination of texts and images, Straub suggests. The condition of transmediality is achieved when a cultural phenomenon becomes relatively independent of its source material and reaches a kind of autonomy, feeding upon and being renewed by the culture to which it has attached itself. It is her translation to the intermedial sphere that gives Beatrice the power to manifest herself in a variety of forms, to move freely between centuries and locations, and even, on occasion, to change gender.

Beatrice is, for Straub, an exemplary case of intermediality, whose afterlife cannot be convincingly explained by conventional notions of reception and influence. Perhaps the most plausible of her “ultra-Beatrices” is, somewhat unexpectedly, Tennyson’s Hallam (14), who makes the same journey as Beatrice from object of affection to celestial guide and guardian and, in the process, enables Tennyson to offer his culture a new model of masculinity. The plausibility of this reading derives to a significant extent from Hallam’s own engagement with the work of Dante and in particular his opposition to the allegorical reading of the Divine Comedy (1307–21) put forward by Gabriele Rossetti, father of Christina and Dante Gabriel. Other suggested examples of “Beatricification” are less persuasive. Romola (1863), for instance, is set not in Dante’s Florence, but in the Florence of the Renaissance; to see the heroine of this novel as a Beatrice is to reject the historical and cultural specificity of Eliot’s portrait. Similarly, the attempt to read the narrator of Christina’s sonnet of sonnets Monna Innominata (1881) as a kind of Beatrice explicitly disregards the poet’s explanation that her heroine is one of the “bevy of unnamed ladies” who preceded Beatrice and Laura and escaped the “exceptional penalty of exceptional honour” suffered by the objects of Dante’s and Petrarch’s affections (55).

Straub’s reading of Christina’s poetry illustrates her occasional neglect of the homely critical virtues in her pursuit of elaborate theoretical schemas. There is remarkably little close attention to the verbal nuances of the text, in spite of the fact that each of the sonnets in Monna Innominata is preceded by quotations from Dante and Petrarch, offering ample scope for detailed intertextual reading. The absence of detailed close reading is a striking feature of this study as a whole; only two complete stanzas (illicitly conjoined...


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pp. 166-168
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