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Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan

Jonathan Crary, in his book Techniques of the Observer, describes a reorganization of vision in the nineteenth century, a change that created a new model of the observer, embodied in aesthetic, cultural, and scientific practices.[1] Identifying a number of new optical devices invented near the beginning of the century, Crary argues that they indicate a profound change in ideas of seeing central to the construction of modernity. Crary concentrates his analysis on devices that create optical illusions: the thaumatrope, in which a card having on its opposite faces different designs is whirled rapidly to combine the designs in a single picture; the phenakistoscope, in which a disk with figures on it representing different stages of motion is whirled rapidly to create the impression of actual motion; the zoetrope and the stroboscope, later developments of the phenakistoscope; the kaleidoscope; the diorama; and the stereoscope, which combines pictures taken from two points of view to create a single image with the illusion of solidity or depth. One can add to Crary's list a number of other nineteenth-century optical inventions that projected, recorded, or magnified images: the camera lucida, which projects the image of an object on a plane surface; the graphic telescope, which adds magnification to the operation of the camera lucida; the photographic camera; the binocular telescope; the binocular microscope; the stereopticon, a nineteenth-century precursor to the slide projector; and the kinetoscope, an early motion picture projector.

Much in the standard literary history of the nineteenth century supports Crary's claim that an analysis of vision gives crucial insight into the way the Victorians constructed experience. Nineteenth-century aes-


thetic theory frequently makes the eye the preeminent organ of truth. John Ruskin's Modern Painters, with its detailed descriptions of clouds, water, rocks, air, and trees, provides the most encyclopedic example of the authority many writers vested in the eye. "Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion—all in one."[2] In "The Hero as Poet," Carlyle writes, "Poetic creation, what is this too but seeing the thing sufficiently? The word that will describe the thing follows of itself from such clear intense sight of the thing."[3] Likewise in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," Arnold describes the ideal in all branches of knowledge: "to see the object as in itself it really is." The effort of the Pre-Raphaelites to represent religious subjects with minute attention to visual detail reflects a similar faith in seeing.

Poetic theory, accordingly, emphasized what John Stuart Mill called the poet's power of "painting a picture to the inward eye."[4] In his review of Tennyson's first volume of poems, Arthur Henry Hallam defines the "picturesque poet," "whose poetry is a sort of magic, producing a number of impressions, too multiplied, too minute, and too diversified to allow of our tracing them to their causes because just such was the effect, even so boundless and so bewildering, produced on their imaginations by the real appearance of Nature."[5] A character in Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford, enthusiastically praising the visual accuracy of Tennyson's poetry, says it was Tennyson who taught him that ash buds are black in the beginning of March. As Tennyson's legendary fidelity to visual detail suggests, word painting, or what Hallam terms the picturesque, is central to nineteenth-century poetic style. Biographical evidence abounds of poets' quests for visual experience—Wordsworth's hiking tours, Hopkins's journals, Tennyson's falling to his knees in the grass to observe a rose through a dragonfly's wings. Furthermore, there is a close partnership between poetry and painting. "Ut pictura poesis" could stand as a motto not only for Rossetti's paired sonnets and pictures but also for the large body of Victorian poetry about paintings.

The visual experience important to the poetics and poetry of the nineteenth century was also valued in the novel. In "The Art of Fiction" Henry James provides what could stand as a summary statement of the nineteenth-century novel's attempt to picture what it represents:

The air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel—the merit on which all its other merits . . . helplessly and submissively depend. If it be not there they are all as nothing, and if these be there, they owe their effect to the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life. . . . It is here in very truth that he competes


with life; it is here that he competes with his brother the painter in his attempt to render the look of things, the look that conveys their meaning, to catch the color, the relief, the expression, the surface, the substance of the human spectacle.[6]

Similar moments, in which the novelist defines his or her art in terms of painting, occur in the works of many nineteenth-century writers. George Eliot's famous chapter in Adam Bede in which she compares her art to Dutch painting provides an example—the pictures "of an old woman, bending over her flower pot, or eating her solitary dinner, while the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning wheel, and her stone jug" or the village wedding, "where an awkward bridegroom opens the dance with a high-shouldered broad-faced bride, while elderly and middle-aged friends look on, with very irregular noses and lips."[7] That Eliot's novel only partially embodies the aesthetic ideal she describes here does not lessen the significance of the visual analogue she chooses. Or we can turn to Hardy, who finds in the 1880s in impressionist painting a model to which he aspires in his fiction. He writes in his journal, "The impressionist school is strong. It is even more suggestive in the direction of literature than in that of art . . . the principle is, as I understand it, that what you carry away with you from a scene is the true feature to grasp."[8] Beyond finding analogues to their work in painting, novelists formed actual partnerships with illustrators. Dickens's work with Phiz and Cruikshank and Thackeray's design of his own illustrations demonstrate the closeness between verbal and visual art in the nineteenth-century novel.

This brief account of nineteenth-century visual culture establishes its importance; the meaning of all its prominent features is far harder to assess. Two very different accounts have been given of the history of the visual imagination in the century. One has stressed the predominance of realist modes of representation, culminating in photography and, in the twentieth century, the cinema. The other has emphasized a break with realism, an increasingly subjective organization of vision leading to modernism.[9] Often the same writer can be used to support either model. Ruskin's minute cataloguing of the truth of rocks and trees and his many declarations of the necessity of accurate vision seem to place him squarely in the objectivist camp, yet he erects the argument of Modern Painters in defense of Turner. Similarly, George Eliot repeatedly represents herself as a scientist mirroring the reality she depicts, yet she represents perception as necessarily individual and subjective. Likewise the optical inventions of the century do not support a single model.


Jonathan Crary argues that the optical devices he describes show a new subjective model of the observer emerging in the early nineteenth century, but the photograph, the binocular telescope, and microscope seem to tell a different story, in which optical inventions extend our powers of objective observation.

A comprehensive study of visuality in the nineteenth century, one that would try to understand the relationship of what seem to be different constructions of the observer, has yet to be written. The only two books that attempt a comprehensive argument are Crary's account and Martin Meisel's Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England .[10] Whereas Crary bases his argument on optics, Meisel identifies formal similarities between fiction, painting, and drama, which cut across medium and genre and, he argues, constitute a common nineteenth-century style. This style, according to Meisel, unites pictorialism with narrative to create richly detailed scenes in painting, in theater, and in the illustrated novel, scenes that at once imply the stories that precede and follow and symbolize their meaning.

With the exception of Meisel, no critic has tried to give a general account of visuality in nineteenth-century British art and literature. There are, of course, hundreds of studies that illuminate various aspects of the nineteenth-century visual imagination—studies of the image or description in individual writers or groups of writers, studies of painting or photography, book illustration, the sister arts, landscape, the picturesque the list could go on.[11] But few writers have attempted to link these fields of inquiry to develop a comprehensive account.

The time is now ripe for such an attempt. The development of interdisciplinary scholarship has created useful models for moving across different fields of inquiry and discourse. Influential theoretical formulations by Lacan (on the gaze), Foucault (on surveillance), and Debord (on spectacle) have given new impetus to the study of vision and visuality in a variety of cultural and historical contexts, in eluding literary studies.[12] The groundbreaking work of Roland Barthes on popular culture and on photography has encouraged others to read visual images as "texts," using the tools of semiotics and ideological critique.[13] Psychoanalysis, feminism, film theory, and media studies have all contributed to our understanding of what Martin Jay calls the "scopic regimes of modernity," a phrase he uses to designate the contested terrain of visual theories and practices since the Renaissance.[14] Practitioners of the "new art history" draw readily on literary theory as well as on literary texts in developing their arguments,[15] while the recently founded journal Word and Image shows an interest in the relationship of pictorial


and verbal representation. Furthermore, post-structuralist criticism has motivated a concern with analyzing the representational status of the image in literature and in literary theory, complicating, even deconstructing, the opposition between objective and subjective, mimesis and imaginary construction.[16]

The essays we have collected for this volume concern the relationship between the verbal and the visual in the nineteenth-century British imagination. We have limited our compass to the Victorian period, and we have organized the volume around topics central to an analysis of visuality and the Victorian imagination—the relationship of optical devices to the visual imagination, the role of photography in changing the conception of evidence and of truth, the changing partnership between illustrator and novelist, the ways in which literary texts represent the visual. Each of the essays either addresses a particular relationship of the Victorian visual imagination to Victorian literature or shows how the visual is consequential for studies of Victorian writing. Together they begin to construct a history of seeing and writing in the Victorian period.

From this history, a number of conclusions emerge. Primary among them is that neither an exclusively subjective nor an exclusively objective model provides a sufficient explanation for the Victorian idea of visual perception. Rather, the Victorians were interested in the conflict, even the competition, between objective and subjective paradigms for perception. The ideas that most powerfully engaged their imagination were those such as perspectivism or impressionism that could simultaneously accommodate a uniquely subjective point of view and an objective model of how perception occurs. George Eliot's famous image of the pier glass in Middlemarch provides a good example of such an accommodation:

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection.[17]

Pater's impressionism, most powerfully articulated in the conclusion to The Renaissance, provides another example of a model of perception that


combines scientific objectivism with a personally singular subjectivism. He begins his analysis by representing physical life as "a combination of natural elements to which science gives their names." These elements are in perpetual motion in a set of processes, "which science reduces to simpler and more elementary forces." Human access to this world of elements and processes—the scratches on the pier glass, as it were, in Eliot's metaphor—can only come through the individual's impression, his or her candle. Thus, Pater observes, "The whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind."[18]

The optical instruments so popular among the Victorians demonstrate a similar tension between objective and subjective models of vision. Susan Horton's essay on optical gadgetry and on the representation of seeing in Dickens, which begins this collection, provides a rich analysis of the competition between Romantic and empirical conceptions of vision in the Victorian period. Her essay leads to the insight that optical gadgets were not arrayed on one side or the other of this conflict. She shows that for Dickens they provided a means to contemplate the conflict, indeed, to experience it. Like Eliot's pier glass, like Pater's impressionism, optical gadgets used science to derive a subjective spectacle.

As Horton's essay suggests, the question of what the visible reveals fascinated and preoccupied the Victorians. A second conclusion that emerges from this collection of essays is the importance of the visible trace as evidence, both in broad empirical terms and in a narrower legal and judicial sense. We all have in our stock of Victorian images the picture of Sherlock Holmes and his magnifying glass. In his essay "Making Darkness Visible," Ronald Thomas calls Holmes "the essential Victorian hero who is known above all for his virtually photographic visual powers." Holmes, Thomas argues, seeks "to make darkness visible . . . to recognize the criminal in our midst by changing the way we see and by redefining what is important for us to notice." Holmes thus also shows the tension between uniquely personal and scientifically determined observation. Such interest in the visible clue could paradoxically lead to a greater emphasis on circumstantial evidence than on an eyewitness account. In Strong Representations: Narrative and Circumstantial Evidence in England, Alexander Welsh argues that plots centered on carefully managed circumstantial evidence, "highly conclusive in itself and often scornful of direct testimony," constituted the most prominent form of narrative in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[19] Welsh's argument might seem to contradict the importance we are attributing to the visual because circumstantial evidence does not derive from direct


visual experience of the event. On the other hand, circumstantial evidence often derives from a visible trace. It thus shows the Victorians' fascination with the way the visible could reveal events of which we have no firsthand visual knowledge.

This interest in visual knowledge in part motivated the pictorial style that Martin Meisel has so exhaustively and richly detailed. A number of essays in this collection confirm the collaboration between narrative and picture that Meisel defines as the matrix of Victorian style. Miriam Bailin's analysis of ekphrasis in Tennyson's Enoch Arden, Judith Fisher's account of the uneasy partnership between image and text in Thackeray, Richard Stein's essay on urban iconography, Susan Casteras's examination of paintings depicting the urban poor, Robert Polhemus's reading of John Everett Millais's painting The Woodman's Daughter together demonstrate how consistently the Victorians pictorialized narrative and made pictures tell a story.

This partnership is not stable throughout the period, however. The early Victorian novel reflects a relatively homogeneous pictographic culture in which text and illustration carry equal weight. This complementary relation between text and illustration is described by two essays, by Gerard Curtis and Judith Fisher, at the beginning of our collection. By the end of the period, however, this partnership no longer existed, disrupted in part by the advent of photography, whose representational claims differed from those of painting and drawing. Curtis argues that the harmonious relationship between writing and drawing, or between pen and pencil, deteriorated gradually during the century until it was destroyed by photography, which replaced the pen illustration and wood-block print as the novel's visual analogue for truth and communicative value. Late-Victorian fiction, as Garrett Stewart argues in the last essay of the collection, reverses the tendency of earlier writing to move from the verbal to the visual, emphasizing instead the textuality of the visual image and leaving fiction less firmly attached to its visual analogues. The pictorial style that Meisel claims as characteristic of the age has been radically altered.

As both Curtis and Stewart observe, the advent of photography plays a central role in changing the relationship between picture and text. Although we group the essays specifically on photography, it plays an important role in many of our authors' arguments. Because the photograph seemed to offer a transparent record of the truth, it assumed a representational authority that rivaled that of text and of graphic art. Its transparency, however, was often illusory. As both Jennifer Green and Ellen Handy show in their essays, the photographer carefully composed


his pictures to focus on what was important to his design and to exclude what he wished to repress. Although photography in many ways initiated and motivated a break with earlier Victorian visual culture, its tensions between objective and subjective models of vision paradoxically resemble those of that culture. The very claims that the photographer could make for the transparency of representation, however, increased his power to mythologize the elements he presented.

In its ability to construct a social mythology, photography became an important tool for mapping different social worlds. Because it claimed documentary power, photography could construct, classify, and build a relationship to images from exotic social worlds, whether those of the urban poor, foreigners, or even criminals. A number of our essayists demonstrate this use of the camera—Handy in Thomas Annan's photographs of the Glasgow slums; Stein in Adolphe Smith's and John Thomson's collection of texts and photographs, Street Life in London; Green in P. H. Emerson's photographs of the Norfolk Broads; and Thomas in police photography. As Thomas observes, the notion of the photograph as evidence and authentication allowed it to become not only a tool of social knowledge but a weapon enabling social control.

The social functions photography assumed depended in part on transformations in the media—the ease of mechanical reproduction, the prevalence of cheap printing. Readily available and easily reproduced, the photograph transformed the social function of the portrait. What had been a declaration of a socially privileged identity could become an instrument of control and detection and a product for commercial distribution. Public figures could widely distribute images and thus construct an identity in new ways. In their essays, Margaret Homans, Linda Shires, and James Adams all analyze the public figure as a spectacle. The new possibilities of being seen in photographs, often reproduced in print media, created new ways of building power and significance. Even the ideal of the sincere, unselfconscious writer, as Shires and Adams show, involved the author in a theatrical manipulation of his or her image. The author could use the media to commodify his own life in a seemingly unprecedented manner, creating images of identity as a spectacle that could be widely reproduced.

As Susan Horton observes, the nineteenth century devised rationales to legitimate spectatorship as a dominant cultural leisure-time activity. Although the interest in the spectator seems to take its motivation from the optical gadgetry that so fascinated people of the period, it had a far broader cultural importance. It was directly linked to the development of a consumer culture, but, even more important, spectatorship gave


access to cultural life in general. Audrey Jaffe's essay on A Christmas Carol shows how social sympathy emerges from the spectator's relationship to spectacle. She argues that Dickens's text is paradigmatic not only for the nineteenth but also for the twentieth century because of the way spectators, cast as the observers of a series of visual representations, gain access not merely to their better selves but also to a set of social relationships and values.

Jaffe's essay, like many essays in this volume, locates in Dickens the paradigmatic writer for her argument. In part the focus on Dickens is an accident of occasion: these essays were originally papers delivered at the 1992 Dickens Conference in Santa Cruz. But Dickens's predominance here has more to justify it than the fact of the conference. In his partnership with illustrators, in his pictorialization of narrative, in his fascination with optical gadgetry, and in his uncanny anticipation of twentieth-century cinema, Dickens, more than any other nineteenth-century writer, provides insight into the multiple aspects of the Victorian visual imagination.

For their assistance at different stages in this project, we are grateful to Linda Hooper, Lark Letchworth, and Heather Julien of the University of California Dickens Project and to Barbara Lee and Betsy Wootten of Kresge College, University of California at Santa Cruz. Special thanks go to Murray Baumgarten and to Paul Alpers for their encouragement and advice.


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