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33 TeachingVictorian Literature in the Context of Photography Jen n ifer Gr een-Lew is • Iwould argue that any discussion of realism and its relationship to Victorian culture necessitates a consideration of photography; certainly, in helping students to navigate between the strangeness and the intimacy of Victorian literature, I’ve found putting it in the context of photography to be extremely useful.The camera was a shaping force, and its images served as a site of contest regarding the nature of the real.As evidence of the pervasiveness of that contest, photography’s metaphors are to be found throughoutVictorian writing. Literally, of course, photographs make tangible our perceptions about the nature of reality; they express philosophical beliefs and aesthetic desires, and offer an acute reminder of shared humanity and mortality.As much as the nineteenth century may be strange and distant to our students, photographs allow them to establish a kind of intimacy with theVictorians, while they may also suggest to us the limits of our own perception. My intention here is to share with you some of the ways that thinking broadly about the advent of photography, and looking specifically at individual Victorian photographs, can prove useful to a range of issues that emerge in the course of teaching nineteenth-century novels and poems.These are not recommendations for a class that is onVictorian photography per se, but are simply reflections on how the subject of photography can inform and assist the teaching of nineteenth-century literature. Photo gr a ph y as M eta phor Any in-class discussion of the relationship between epistemology and representation in mid-nineteenth-century culture is likely to lead to (if it doesn’t begin with) Charlotte Brontë’s assessment of Jane Austen’s work as“more real than true.”The “real” that Brontë dismisses, in favour of the “true” she finds lacking in Austen, is Austen’s verisimilitude: her faithfulness to the world of custom and manners.Austen wrote her novels before Daguerre could provide her with any metaphors, but Brontë, reading in 1848, understood Austen’s work in terms made clearer, or even redefined, by the intervening advent of photography.1Where Brontë’s interest lies in the life of the emotions,Austen, victorian review • Volume 34 Number 2 34 she suggests, attends to surface detail that is without significance—is, in other words, photographic. In this, Brontë anticipates Hardy’s turn against photography and toward what is“true” (see his play with both the word and the concept in“An ImaginativeWoman”).The bourgeois limitations of the photograph are on display in Jude the Obscure, in which the “real” surface of an image can tell us nothing of a character’s inner life—evidence, perhaps, of Hardy’s resistance to the wider culture of empiricism that affirmed a relationship between appearance and identity. Putting Victorian literature in the context of photography can bring into a student’s own range of vision some of the ways that perception has been shaped historically by notions of what is real. Moreover, photography can be a part of any discussion of technology, perspective, or visual culture that has bearing on the nineteenth-century novel.The topic of photography may emerge when it is featured in the text, of course, as in Hardy, and I’ve found that students are quick to note the symbolic function of the photograph when it shows up in novels or poems. But they’re less apt to recognize the way in which photography is also metaphorically embedded in the language of fiction and non-fiction. In a graduate class that I teach onVictorian visual culture, in which we are overtly, rather than merely contextually, interested in the subject of photography, students read documents from the history of photography in order to examine the kinds of metaphors that photography generated in its first decades. Lady Elizabeth Eastlake’s long essay in the London Quarterly Review (1857), for example, frames its argument with language evoking class difference and suggests ways in which tropes of class and labour were used to make sense of photography’s relationship to the art world. Once students have read and discussed this essay, as well as other...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 33-41
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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