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Reviewed by:
  • The Woman Painter in Victorian Literature
  • June Sturrock (bio)
The Woman Painter in Victorian Literature by Antonia Losano; pp. 300. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2008. $67.50.

Antonia Losano approaches her subject—women artists as represented by women novelists—with enthusiasm and vigour. Her arguments are complex, but she repeatedly returns to the idea that "painting always becomes a seduction where women are concerned" (114). Selecting primary texts and illustrations with intelligence, she addresses a wide range of novelists, canonical and otherwise.

In the chapters discussing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Jane Eyre, Losano is at her best. She shows how Anne Brontë's Helen Graham, as a painter, moves towards "resolutely less self-expressive art" (69), and also explores Helen's financial difficulties in relation to Caroline Norton's struggle and the slow movement toward the Married Women's Property Act of 1870 (the second, more effective, act of 1882 she does not mention). She might have added that Anne Brontë seems less attracted by male power than her sisters, which may help to explain her lesser popularity, a concern for Losano. In her chapter on Jane Eyre, "Ekphrasis and the Art of Courtship," she demonstrates convincingly how in describing Jane's art, Charlotte Brontë insists on Jane's own choices and activity as an artist, reminding us of how Brontë represents Jane first as a viewer and then as a producer of images.

Other chapters, however, are seriously weakened by lack of consideration and by various kinds of carelessness. The muted tragedy of Margaret Oliphant's Rose Lake, the young art teacher and designer in Miss Marjoribanks, is a good subject in a discussion of "Making a Living" as an artist, but any analysis of this novel in relation to women's work should at least acknowledge Elizabeth Langland's important discussion in Nobody's Angels. Moreover, though Losano's page numbering in discussing the major revisions concerning Rose clearly refers to the appendix to Elisabeth Jay's fine edition, I find no reference to the edition either in the notes or the works [End Page 161] cited. To move to the novel itself, Oliphant's Carlingford is not, as Losano avers, a cathedral town (136); part of Oliphant's concern in her Chronicles of Carlingford was to create a community that resembled in its claustrophobic narrowness Austen's Highbury rather than Trollope's Barchester. Lucilla, the novel's protagonist, does not mock Rose's clothes (143), though she silently deplores them; to do so would be quite out of character. Such errors (and others like them) weaken Losano's credibility. And I flinched at a reference to Oliphant's "message" (121), for she is far too subtle a writer to deal in "messages."

The careless reading evident in Losano's treatment of Charlotte Yonge's The Pillars of the House is more serious still, as it renders much of her argument untenable. The artist in question here is Geraldine (Cherry) Underwood. Losano examines Yonge's contrasting of Cherry and her artist brother, Edgar, a rich topic. A (fictional) critic comments on Edgar's Royal Academy painting "Brynhild" as "the flaming production of a tyro in suspense between the Pre-Raffaelite and the Turneresque, who in the meantime had better study the primary rules of drawing" (Yonge II. 115). Alluding to this comment without providing its context, Losano assumes that it indicates Yonge's distaste for Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, whereas it actually suggests the inadvisability of mixing the two on one canvas. She goes on to suggest that Yonge faults Edgar for aiming at "high art" rather than "the realm of moral narrative realism" (Losano 206), which is, she argues, Cherry's province. In fact, Yonge continually contrasts Cherry's careful drawing with Edgar's laziness over the basics of his art. Her point is that Cherry is more dedicated as an artist, more professional than her brother, despite his lengthier training. (Losano claims that Cherry has no training [200], but in fact Yonge sends her to "the South Kensington Museum" [2.34] for art lessons.) Another argument based on misreading, and therefore untenable, is the contrast between Cherry and her older sister...


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