- The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art: Fictional Form on Display by Dehn Gilmore
Early in the introduction, Dehn Gilmore’s The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art sets forward its deceptively straightforward approach: to examine the novel not according to “what, but rather how the Victorians saw” (2). This provocative and elegant study goes on to suggest that new viewing practices in galleries, museums, and exhibition spaces had a transformative effect on the ways in which Victorian novelists conceived of their writings and their audiences. Gilmore emphasizes that her argument is based on “causality” rather than “analogy” (16), thereby encouraging us to consider the immediate and pervasive effects that nineteenth-century visual culture had on the literary sphere. She argues that the multiplicities, juxtapositions, and distractions of the art world compelled authors to shape their fictions with new viewing practices in mind. Novelists like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins began to work analogously to curators in laying out multiple plots and characters for their readers in ways that replicated tours through commercial art galleries or exhibition halls. This is an important argument, one that contributes substantially to ongoing critical discussions about the interconnectedness of the visual and the verbal in the Victorian period.
The core of the book consists of four chapters, each of which serves as a case study on authorial assimilations of artistic viewing; as Gilmore contends, she is less invested in providing a “comprehensive history” than in “offering the ability to perceive and make sense of an experience of proliferation and changing ideas about reception” (19). This approach successfully conveys the experience of multiplicity as it offers snapshots into various exhibitionary and narrative strategies, which are explored and expanded through perceptive contextualizations and readings. The first chapter, on Dickens and exhibition culture, lays out a captivating discussion of the author’s incorporation of the “glare and bustle” (32) of the gallery into his fictions and his inclusion of characters and situations that anticipates the reception of his own multiplot novels by his readers. The second chapter focuses on Thackeray and the problem of historical fiction, creating a persuasive connection between debates around the restoration of art objects in British national collections and novels such as The History of Henry Esmond (1852), which also seek to revive a no longer extant past. Sensation fiction and the spectacular spaces of exhibitions such as the Crystal Palace of 1851 and the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857 form the basis of the third chapter. Gilmore’s argument that both the sensation fiction reader and the exhibition visitor must balance new “attentive norms” based on selection and “repeated looking” (100) is, in my view, one of the most original in the book. The final chapter isolates Thomas Hardy’s fictions and his transition to writing poetry as a means of considering fin-de-siècle concerns about the “art of the future” and the investments (or lack thereof) of prospective audiences in novelistic and artistic matters. The book closes with a brief conclusion that offers glimpses of the works of writers including George Gissing, George Moore, and George Meredith, who were also drawing on the world of art to offer their audiences “new forms of reading” (163). As an aside, I was left wondering why the visual artist and novelist George Du Maurier was omitted from this selection of “literary Georges” (162).
At certain moments, reading Gilmore’s book can be dizzying; her readings of novels can be quite epigrammatic and pass swiftly from one narrative space to another. This panoramic view demonstrates an impressive breadth of knowledge of the literature [End Page 126] of the period, paralleling the expertise with which Gilmore moves from one artistic concern (the eclectic nature of gallery space, for instance) to another (restoration and its critics). I did occasionally find myself wanting a more leisurely pace, consisting of longer and more in-depth analyses of individual texts. At the same time, however, I continue to debate whether such longer looks would...