- Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities: Constructions of Masculinity in Art and Literature ed. by Amelia Yeates, Serena Trowbridge
Queer studies inconsistently informs the essays collected in Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities: Constructions of Masculinity in Art and Literature edited by Amelia Yeates and Serena Trowbridge. This theoretical irregularity weakens the critical currency of the book, despite the rigor of archival and other research data gathered in its pages. Readers who are interested in William Bell Scott’s marginalization in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood [End Page 181] and his notions of gender would find Rosemary Mitchell’s chapter useful. For an analysis of Ford Madox Brown’s Cromwell on His Farm (1874) in relation to Thomas Carlyle, Gavin Budge’s essay will be of interest. In Eleanor Fraser Stansbie’s chapter, readers will find a discussion of the three versions of Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (1853–54) and imperial masculinity. Victorian ideas of male virgins, as considered by William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, are evaluated in Dinah Roe’s chapter.
There is no doubt that scholars, including myself, will consult Yeates’s well-organized and well-researched essay for the vile examples in which Victorian England pathologized, shamed, and oppressed variants of the male sex and their representations, but Yeates misses an opportunity to inform her readers of her scholarly position on the history of sexes, in which there is no neutrality that does not favor the oppressor.
Yeates’s research on late nineteenth-century critical responses to Edward Burne-Jones in England that characterize the artist as “sick,” “morbid,” and unnatural is extensive and compelling (83–90). In a society in which the politics of gender and sex is “sick,” “morbid,” and unnatural, however, its notion of bodily health itself can be unhealthy—Yeates mentions Walter Pater’s reverence for male infirmity, but she does so without recognizing its political implications (88). This is where the trouble lies: historical researchers must examine the position of critique they occupy. In Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (1988), Linda Nochlin discusses how a poverty problem has really been a wealth problem, a Black problem has really been a White problem, and a woman problem has really been a man problem. If one’s research focuses on the ways in which the privileged consider the poor indolent, for example, one has to be explicit about how this notion itself is the dominant group’s expression of violence and how it affirms the existing power, thereby perpetuating the structure of exploitation and false consciousness. Yeates may consider her position to be neutral with regard to the Aesthetes’ malady of the male sex as envisioned by Burne-Jones, but by not asserting her stance against the savagery of heteronormativity, her impressive factual findings seem to reaffirm the Victorian bias that there was only one way for men to be healthy, and that way was the one commensurate with the dominant ideology of patriarchy.
Yeates rightly points out that the Victorian discussions of Burne-Jones connect health with nature. But, like health, the understanding of nature is also historically and ideologically determined, and seeing nature as the depository of moral plenitude and health is not a universal position, but rather a political contrivance that serves interests of specific groups (for example, when abortion is argued to be unnatural, this benefits patriarchy, which refuses to yield its control over the female body and reproduction to women). In addition, the fact that sickness is part of nature proves that the practice of perceiving only health as a natural state is socially determined. Henry James’s characterization of Burne-Jones’s work as a result of “a complete studio existence, with doors and windows closed” is not simply “less pejorative” than calling him and his likes “ignorant of ‘the health of nature’” (85). Rather, it should be seen to correspond to the Aesthetic philosophy as expressed in Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” (1891), in which Vivian...