- Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850–1914 by Alexis Easley
In the mid-nineteenth century, the word “celebrity” shifted from its older designation of a “solemn rite, ceremony or celebration” (“celebrity,” def. 2) to its modern meaning of “a celebrated person, a public character” (“celebrity,” def. 4). As Alexis Easley notes, this linguistic shift is one facet of the rise of celebrity culture in Victorian Britain. In the literary realm, this rise included new genres (celebrity portraits and interviews), new forms of travel (literary tourism), new forms of memorialization (historic preservation of authors’ homes), and thus new approaches to authorship.
Easley begins with literary tourism as it relates to what Stephen Greenblatt calls “the desire to speak with the dead,” a “familiar, if unvoiced, motive in literary studies” (1). Using Dickens’s London as a case study, she discusses the ways in which London landmarks came to have value because they had been vividly (re)created in Dickens’s novels and how that value both marked historical loss and served as “evidence of national progress” (27). Easley shows how journalists used Dickens’s London to argue for historical preservation in the midst of massive urban rebuilding. She shows how tourists, especially Americans, came to England to see Dickensian sites (the Old Curiosity Shop, the London Bridge steps of Oliver Twist, the old Hungerford Stairs where David Copperfield worked) and explores how this form of tourism negotiates between “the real and the imaginary” (33), the original and its double. And she discusses how Dickens’s heirs capitalized on literary tourism to further their own careers and financial solvency.
The deployment of the author’s home is a strand that Easley introduces in the Dickens chapter and continues throughout Literary Celebrity. Easley argues that Dickens’s house in Doughty Street became “a focal point for tours of Dickens’s London” (42) and, more provocatively, that it represented a safe haven in the otherwise frightening London he depicted in his novels. Easley also mentions a later home, Gad’s Hill, as it became a “symbol of the ‘real’ Dickens: the family man, the father, the domestic paragon” (42). One might add that Gad’s Hill became a symbol of Dickens’s success as a professional author, in that he bought this suburban house with his literary profits. Easley continues her discussion of the author’s home as a symbol of personal values and authorial success in a chapter on Harriet Martineau, “The Woman of Letters at Home,” in which she argues with real verve that Martineau, “perhaps more than any other Victorian woman writer, understood the importance of capitalizing on celebrity culture” (69). Martineau used the Knoll, the home she built in the Lake District near William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydal Mount and Matthew Arnold’s Fox How, to exhibit her domesticity and her distinctively professional approach to authorship. Martineau’s “Architectural Plans for the Knoll,” which include a ground-floor study separate from the sitting room, were reproduced in her autobiography to consolidate this self-representation. [End Page 228]
If Martineau understood the importance of using celebrity culture to support her authorial career, then one might conclude that Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot failed to negotiate the new terms of authorship—or just didn’t care. Easley’s chapter on these women writers’ “homes and haunts” begins with the absence of their London homes from guidebooks and their “ghostly absence in the public sphere and their reticence as national heroes” (49). Easley attributes this absence to a Victorian “domestic ideology” that mandated a woman writer’s public invisibility. Perhaps, but there are other explanations. In Rossetti’s case, the lack of concrete autobiographical scenes in her poetry and her abiding concentration on a heavenly, not earthly, home contribute to the unimportance of Torrington Square. In Barrett Browning’s, the fact that she represented her childhood home in the Malvern Hills in Aurora Leigh and the Italian home she shared with Robert Browning in Casa Guidi Windows made her London...