I’m really rather fond of the 19th century

Dear Medieval Blog:

I must confess, I am unfaithful in my affections. You see, I have this horrible crush on the 19th century. I know, it’s awful. I mean, I’ve spent so long collecting little pictures to illustrate medieval posts, and I’ve got absolutely nothing for the 19th century.


So. I said I wasn’t Well Read, and I was going to read more Literature. I thought about a structured program of reading, but in the end my reading habits shall be directed by What I Can Lay Hands On In Second-Hand Or Remainders Stores (this is not a bad plan. Canberra has whole shops devoted to Academic Remainders).

And that is how I came to read Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I could say a lot of things about this book. It is long. It is  the longest non-academic book I’ve read for… possibly four years. Maybe more. And since I rarely read an academic book cover-to-cover, suffice it to say that 636 pages of Portrait were an exercise in patience. It’s not a book which moves very fast: it’s a book in which people drift about Europe and converse in drawing-rooms, and all the interest and beauty is in the detail of their characterisation and relationships. There are no explosions, swords, quests, comic relief characters, or even satisfactory snogging scenes. Once upon a time this wouldn’t have bothered me, but apparently I’ve grown shallow in my old age.

Aside from the lack of explosions, swords, quests and the like, the other thing which bothered me about reading 636 pages of 19th century literature is that, when one reads novels, one reads the novel. I’m so used to reading medieval texts in small chunks, responding, commenting, reading secondary lit, reading some more of the original, discussing, making pencil notes and cross-referencing this or that other obscure text, it was very strange to be reading only one thing at a time and having no further purpose to it. My inner cross-referencer went into overdrive, and came up with some interesting points of comparison.

First up, Portrait reminded me of The Picture of Dorian Gray1, so much so that I wonder if one title references the other or if they’re both referencing something common to them. Not in plot, per se, but they share a common genre – both Gothic, but largely bereft of spooks, ghosts, bloodsuckers, sputtering candles, fluttering curtains, and all the usual bread and butter of Gothickery. Each relies on one chilling figure to underpin the Gothic narrative – although both Wilde and James do use some of the other tropes of Gothic literature (murder for Wilde, ghosts for James) with a light hand. The Picture lurks at the centre of Dorian’s tragedy, and Gilbert Osmond at the centre of Isabel’s. Understatement is the order of the day: both Wilde and James underplay the horror – it is not as if they wish to wind their audience into hysterical fright, or wow them with dramatic thrills, but rather to leave the reader unnerved.

Wilde and James also have in common a knack of Not Talking About Sex while still, very much, talking about sex. They go about it differently – you can tell Wilde is trying to see just how much he can say, just how far he can push people before someone arrests him (again). I read Dorian and sniggered and muttered things to myself like “artistic romance my FOOT”, and then had a look at the appendixes and discovered that all the business about Basil’s “artistic passion” for Dorian was a late addition… the original Wilde MS did not exactly beat around the bush in the early stages, but as far as Penguin’s appendices can tell you, he never went so far as to spell out what Dorian’s sins were, exactly what dreadful influence he had on young men, or the extent of the experiences Dorian pursued for the sake of experience. He leaves the question open: he could mean anything, and whatever answer you settle upon leaves you wondering both if you’re dreadfully dirty-minded, and if you’re incredibly naive and the truth is much more salacious.

James is, in a way, more straightforward: he simply elides sex and desire from his narrative, and the absence tells you very clearly exactly what it is he means. James’ description of Osmond, on introducing him, didn’t make of him the great object of desire which Wilde does of Dorian Gray (you can hear Wilde drooling…). He tells us little of Isabel’s initial reaction to Osmond: she admires his taste, enjoys his conversation… We are told nothing of her decision-making process surrounding her marriage: James keeps the details as shuttered off from the reader as Isabel keeps them from her family. All we know is that she’s somehow gone from a self-analytical young woman opposed to marriage, to one with an all-absorbing devotion to an apparently unremarkable betrothed.

Wilde’s treatment of desire in Dorian Gray was entertaining and intellectually engaging, but James’ handling of the subject in Portrait really got me. It’s the one power which could make Isabel surrender her self-determination, and James doesn’t engage with it as an intrinsic part of her character, or even as one of the life experiences her friends thought so beneficial to her.  He simply marks out the space where desire arrived in her life, and leaves that space for the reader to remember as, in the ruin of her marriage, Isabel holds fast to the determination that she chose her surrender.

Secondly – and more surprisingly than the Wilde connection – Portrait brought my internal cross-referencing system to Little Women and the work of Louisa May Alcott. This post has taken me far too long, so I shan’t continue right now, but as soon as I can manage it without decimating my sleeping patterns, we will consider such questions as the value of experience, a young woman’s potential, and a woman’s duty.


1. Also an acquisition of the What Can I Buy Cheaply campaign. ❤ Popular Penguins.

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2 Responses to “I’m really rather fond of the 19th century”

  1. Lori Says:

    You might want to take a run at George Eliot’s _Daniel Deronda_ for yet another 19th century take on woman’s potential vs. woman’s duty. While it’s a lopsided book, it provides an unsparing look at the marriage market among the monied classes (and other classes as well). It’s not a little book, but it’s a lot more entertaining than James and poor Isabel.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    Ooh, thanks for the rec! I have Middlemarch, and liking it but finding it slow going… I shall add Daniel Deronda to the list 🙂


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