- The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art: Fictional Form on Display by Dehn Gilmore
Scholars in Victorian studies have often been fascinated by intersections between the era’s literature and its visual arts. The nineteenth century was unusually rich for its painter -poets, its prolific art critics, its narrative paintings informed by literature, its painters-turned-novelists, and its novels modeling themselves on paintings. Dehn Gilmore makes a valuable contribution to the scholarly field with her book, The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art: Fictional Form on Display. While previous scholarship of novel-art intersections has usually linked authors to painters or schools—say, Charles Dickens to William Hogarth, or George Eliot to the Dutch realists—Gilmore takes a contemporary turn by reading novels in relation to the spaces of art, what she calls “exhibition culture,” following Daniel Sherman and Irit Rogoff (2). She argues convincingly that Victorian novelists and their reviewers often looked to the new nineteenth-century culture of art, its modern galleries, museums, and exhibitions, in order to imagine the formal space of the novel. [End Page 189] The Victorian art world oscillated uneasily between democratization and elitism, opening up art spaces to the masses even while producing a new host of experts, organizers, and critics. It thus offered an apt repertoire of images for novelists who were also facing similarly vexed issues of readership—appealing to the masses, while also making claims for the novel as an art form.
The book’s four chapters, progressing in a loosely chronological sequence, each focus on a single author (with the exception of the third chapter, on sensation novels). The subject of chapter 1, Dickens, presents an especially interesting case, since he is not usually aligned with the high visual arts studied in the book. This wonderfully counterintuitive move encapsulates Gilmore’s argument and her method: rather than seeing artistic metaphors (whether used by authors or critics) as pure signifiers of aesthetic quality, she sees artistic terms as dramatizing key questions of “consumption, of popular reproduction, and of dissemination”—all questions with which Dickens, an early commercializer of authorship, was very much concerned (21). Just as gallery commentators contended with an influx of spectatorial crowds and a new diversity of art in crowded gallery wall spaces, so too Dickens’s reviewers had to “make sense of novels fractured by serialization, multiplying plots, and proliferating characters,” all consumed by an increasingly heterogeneous audience (22). The chapter produces a virtuosic reading of reviews of Dickens across his career, showing how critics insistently assessed his novels using artistic language. I did want to know more about Dickens’s relation to the world of high art more specifically, given the long critical tradition of reading him in relation to popular visual forms like book illustrations and photography. Still, the chapter offers a compelling reading of the way Dickens’s novels were understood as verbal/visual “gallery” spaces.
The second chapter, on William Makepeace Thackeray, observes a striking similarity between the historical novel and the museum: both attempt to organize and display the shards of history, using techniques of restoration and preservation with often mixed results. Thackeray takes the image of a “mutilated” antique statue to symbolize the dangers of a botched historical recovery—one epitomized in controversial attempts by the British Museum and the National Gallery to restore old artworks, either brightening or defacing them (63). Gilmore argues persuasively that these controversies mirrored some of the important larger questions facing the historical novelist, who also wanted to reani-mate history authentically, without creating falsehoods. Thackeray’s The Newcomes (1855), set in the recent past, features numerous characters in museum settings; The History of Henry Esmond (1852), set in the time of Queen Anne, presents iconic female portraits which come to allegorize both the impossibility of historical recovery and the utopian promise of the present’s meaningful contact with the past.
In chapter 3, Gilmore presents a welcome rereading of sensation...