Woman/Image/Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature.
Article Type:
Book Review
Books (Book reviews)
Larson, Elizabeth
Pub Date:
Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1993 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Oct, 1993 Source Volume: v20 Source Issue: n3
NamedWork: Woman/Image/Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature (Book) Review Grade: A
Reviewee: Pearce, Lynne

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Woman/Image/Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature provides a critique of feminist criticism at the same time that it discusses Pre-Raphaelite art. Lynne Pearce argues that although representations of women and their experiences may be in some instances profitably internalized by late twentieth-century women readers, recuperation as a critical tactic may have negative results for these readers and for feminism in general. Consequently, women must begin to recognize what they may and what -- for political reasons -- they should not appropriate. Her case, modifying the common feminist practice of reading "against the grain," is made through the dense texts and rich context of Pre-Raphaelite work.

Woman/Image/Text, marketed as a textbook, will be useful in the interdisciplinary classroom, providing an excellent model for blending representations (from art and literature, for instance) so that students gain richer understandings of sources and materials. In addition, the clever, often astute readings contribute to Pre-Raphaelite scholarship. Finally, it offers a feminist mapping of a period that troubles many feminists. Certainly, it also should be read by scholars and teachers who are tempted to reclaim all texts, even those "whose manufacture was intended for an exclusively male audience, and whose dominant ideological message might be inimical/degrading to women" (5). Such practices, Pearce notes, must raise issues of the degree to which feminist readers should "press a resistant text" (25).

In her introduction, Pearce traces the development of her critical position. Beginning with Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams, and Pierre Macherey, she moves to feminist projects that can direct readers to gaps, margins, and inferences to provide ways into otherwise closed texts:

the reason that we can read Tennyson or Rossetti "against the

grain" depends precisely on the fact that they did not control the

ideological content of their work from some transcendent, omni-

scient, authorial position, nor ... [reflect] ideologies ... in some

naive way.... (11) Pearce points out that feminist criticism, having progressed beyond merely making new readings available, asks why women -- in any age -- have been pleased by images of women that are "ostensibly negative" (16). First she turns to feminist theory (Teresa de Lauretis, Luce Irigaray, Mary Ann Doane, Tania Modleski, and Ann Kaplan) for the view that images of women, even those that are negative, may be attractive to women because they reflect the complexities of their own lives (16--17) and/or because "[w]omen need and desire other women to compensate for what they lack themselves. ... Women are role models for one another; are each other's heroines" (21). For the feminist critic, emphasis is now on the positioning of the reader/viewer. Feminist critical theory, then, provides two reading tactics: deconstructing and viewing the way texts make "visible our own needs and desires" (22).

However, although a feminist reader may be able to read all texts "against the grain" and/or to find pleasure, "it may be both difficult and politically undesirable for her to do so in every case" (3). Despite the reading tactics, one must recognize "that the texts themselves were frequently produced in a different context with a different audience in mind," and they remain "commodities that have been produced exclusively by and for men" (22--23). Pearce, therefore, also directs the reader to ask "to what extent can the twentieth-century feminist reader legitimately press a resistant text?" (25).

The book focuses on work produced by the Pre-Raphaelites. Founded in England in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood originally consisted of Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Collinson, William Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens, and Thomas Woolner. They intended to purify the academic art and neoclassical style of the period with symbolic art that was based on tales from a variety of sources and clearly represented moral values. While primarily a visual art movement, it also produced highly visual poetry as well as renderings of myths and romantic poetry. Promoted by John Ruskin, the movement influenced Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown, and William Morris and contributed to the development of Art Nouveau and the European symbolist movement.

Woman/Image/Text, which has eight excellent color plates, begins with an early (1848--49) oil painting and a Keats poem; the latest work discussed is a 1896--1905 Holman Hunt. There are literary references to Rossetti's poetry, as well as to Patmore's and Tennyson's, and to essays and lectures by Ruskin and Carlyle. In some cases, Pearce works from both the visual and the written; she also refers to critics of the period. In other words, Woman/Image/Text is thoroughly interdisciplinary, focusing on multiple means of artistic expression and interpreting through a range of sources. Many instructors will find her methodology welcome.

The most successful reading, in terms of exposing available contextual layers, is that of the "Eve of St. Agnes," in which Pearce uses multiple contexts to deconstruct texts and reveal "sinister narratives" (131). Long considered a romantic tale of the power of imagination, Keats's poem was popular with Victorian readers and Pre-Raphaelite illustrators and painters. Given a New Critical/metaphysical reading, it remians a part of university reading lists. Pearce, however, works through a contemporary reading of the poem and her own interpretations of two Pre-Raphaelite paintings -- Millais' Eve of St. Agnes and Arthur Hughes's triptych The Eve of St. Agnes, to problematize the story, in any of its versions, for women.

Viewing the poem through the 1971 "anti-mystical" reading of Jack Stillinger, Pearce suggests that Porphyro is a master strategist and that while the poem may not be "categorically ... 'about rape' ... it is certainly about the chance of one" (104), a point of realism that her students, with their romantic vision of Madeline as a heroine, dislike. At the same time, Stillinger "makes little" of what Pearce sees as the "classic enactment of male scopophilia" in the poem (105). Pearce further argues that even Stillinger's reading leaves Madeline a victim of her own romantic desires and dreams and ignores the materiality of rape. To explore Madeline's lack of material context, Pearce turns to the paintings. Hughes, she contends, designs a version of the poem that explicitly -- through its use of triptych structure and "ghostly characterisation" (109) -- places the story in legendary, not real, time. She believes

[t]he ideological implications of this are clear: cut the strings binding

us to a specific time and a specific place and things are known by

another name. Within the metaphysical walls of Madeline's dream,

as within the gothic arch of Hughes's frame, Porphyro could never

rape Madeline. In that rarefied space, his actions exist only as euphe-

misms.... (109)

The Madeline of Millais's Eve of St. Agnes, which was specifically intended to illustrate the poem, presents another problem for the female viewer. Madeline "is unquestionably flesh and blood," captured in a male gaze, "looking and acting slightly stupid ... vulnerable," with a "sexuality ... to be taken advantage of" (110--11). Pearce points out that although her students find this Madeline "absurd" and nonerotic (111), the poem's "narrative subtext is always promising rape" (110). For all her material reality, this Madeline remains object: the viewer is "in the closet with Porphyro, viewing Madeline through Porphyro's eyes"; further, since Millais' Porphyro is invisible "there is nobody to which we can attach the blame for what we know is about to happen" (111). In no way, then, can the story be legitimized as a romantic narrative of desire.

Pearce takes note of what she considers "legitimate" appropriations in her discussion of Pre-Rahaelite constructions of Guenevere. Yet, when she looks "for a proto-feminist Pre-Raphaelite heroine" (130) she turns to the Venus of Burne-Jones and finds the power and beauty of the image deceptive. Feminists who "appropriate such representations and inscribe them in discourses of [their] own ... [will] do so at the risk of making invisible the sinister narrative to which they belong" (131).

To clarify just such a "sinister narrative," one that would have been fully available to Victorians, Pearce reminds the reader of an "originating [discourse]," the annihilating love that Swinburne poetically attributes to Sappho and her female lover, Anactoria: represented as a strong and dangerous woman in Swinburne's "Laus Veneris" and in Laus Veneris by Burne-Jones, Venus assumes the potency of the "Pre-Raphaelite femme fatale" (131). The Burne-Jones Venus is not only powerfully large, but also androgynous and pictured with far more delicate, vague, and softer women, a juxtaposition that for Victorian viewers (and reviewers) would have supported a "suspicion" of lesbianism:

This woman, tall and strong enough to match a man in strength,

might also be strong enough to decline his favours. The overt

androgyny of her figure ... denies and disguises her reproductive

"purpose." This woman ... threatens to make a sport of men and

to reserve her affections for her female companions. Symbolically

cloistered with such a company as here, she threatens to dispense

with men altogether. (136) However, this Venus also is too mythic to be a true threat to Victorian men. She is only "the site on which a male reader/viewer can indulge his fantasies of female domination without ever risking their actuality" (139).

Pearce continues: although women viewers may wish to "reclaim" a strong image from the "femme fatale," such reclamation "is ethically undesirable" because, as the Pre-Raphaelite texts indicate, "she is contained by narrative and formal devices that foreshadow her 'death,' deny her existence. Victories won by women on such terms (and here I include women readers) can only ever be considered pyrrhic victories" (139).

Woman/Image/Text is so rich in references that one wishes Pearce also had discussed the "real" women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, e. g. Jane Morris or Elizabeth Siddal, the women on whose bodies the artists depended to reify their vision and who are discussed in relation to the artists in Jan Marsh's The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. One particularly wonders what Pearce might make of Siddal's paintings, in which modern women viewers can see through the eye of a woman herself constructed for the male gaze, who positioned herself doubly as lover/ideal woman, but also, doubly, as viewing artist/constructed vision.

Lynne Pearce's argument is carefully developed through several stunning readings and a comprehensive theoretical approach. Even for readers unfamiliar with the complex texts of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the time spent with this important book will be rewarded.
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.