- Visuality in the Novels of Austen, Radcliffe, Edgeworth and Burney by Jessica A. Volz
Anthem Press, 2017. 252pp. £70. ISBN 978-1783086603.
Jessica Volz examines the visual elements of the titular authors' narrative forms and functions and their powerful impacts on the reader, shedding light on the cultural significance of these elements as a strategic practice. A thoroughly researched and convincing deep dive, Visuality offers intriguing insights into gender politics, inviting further scholarly research using visuality for inquiry into women-penned novels from the start of the Anglo-French War in 1778 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Volz argues that not only was depicting visual elements a prominent practice in women's literature of this period, but examining this technique can and does shed new light on the constraints that governed women's behaviour. Crucially, the literature review in the introduction (4–5, 13–14) could serve as a valuable entrée for graduate students into the history of critical examination of visuality, and demonstrates why a book such as Visuality, which focuses exclusively on Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth, and Frances Burney, is long overdue. Most compellingly, Volz argues in the chapter on Burney's Evelina (1778) and [End Page 515] The Wanderer (1814) that visualizing mental pictures of situations and places was a necessary skill for women's social survival in this notoriously visual culture, in which appearance could make or break a reputation. As the Rev. Mr Villars puts it in Evelina, "Nothing is so delicate as the reputation of a woman; it is at once the most beautiful and most brittle of all human things" (letter 39).
Visuality posits generative ideas about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women and the novels that assisted them in navigating the socially constructed yet very real world of gender norms, constraints, and expectations. I especially appreciate the overall structure of the book. Instead of a traditional, chronological approach that would imply a linear development in skill that crescendos at Austen, a non-linear structure points to common themes in each author's work, thereby examining Radcliffe's, Edgeworth's, and Burney's techniques on their own terms. Though the author clearly treasures, and launches the book with, Austen, Visuality avoids the critical trap of the shifting critical baseline and its bias towards Austen. Momentum builds in the second, exciting chapter on perhaps the most visual of these novelists, Radcliffe, and her use of, like Austen after her, portraiture and architecture (but also, unlike Austen, veils and sublime panoramas); Edgeworth's dialogic treatment of make-up to obscure and extend women's sense of self, and Burney's theatrical elements, or "optical allusions," guide readers to a fitting, non-linear close. In a book on visuality, one might assume that illustrations should play a prominent or at least a supporting role. Volz wisely avoids this temptation in order to drive home the point that these novelists painted with words. Like the authors she examines, Volz uses visual cues and references to the (gendered) gaze to encapsulate the strength and intensity of women's perception.
Owing to its nuanced focus on the constraints under which women operated during the critical period of political upheaval between the Anglo-French and Napoleonic Wars, and the strategic modes of visuality these authors used to adapt to their political and social reality, Visuality is a must-read for anyone interested in the public humanities. Put another way, Volz emphasizes that the book focuses on "the identity crisis to which women of the period were subjected and why much that could have been described or expressed of their visual appearances and innermost selves was not" (13). Volz's professional experience perfectly positions her to make visible this period of "crisis" for women using compelling, forthright language, modelling the strategic rhetorical moves that she identifies. Volz's work in strategic communication (for example, for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation) and her background as a visual artist make for an exciting perspective from which to view the cultural impact [End Page 516] of visuality techniques in...