Aestheticism and the Marriage Market in Victorian Popular Fiction
The Art of Female Beauty
Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace Series, N°8
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2015
Hardcover. ix+217 p. ISBN 978-1848934818. £95
Reviewed by Helena Ifill
University of Sheffield
Aestheticism and the Marriage Market in Victorian Popular Fiction explores five novels in the light of the aesthetic movement and the commodification of women in the Victorian marriage market: Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh up as a Flower (1867), George Meredith’s The Egoist (1879), Ouida’s Moths (1880), Marie Corelli’s Wormwood (1890) and George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894). By choosing novels which are disparate in tone and style, and which move from aestheticism’s ‘foundations in Pre-Raphaelitism, its fashionable success at its high point in the 1870s and 1880s, through to its eventual diffusion into decadent and fin-de-siècle culture at the end of the Victorian period’ , Hallum is able to draw some enlightening similarities and contrasts between the texts. She reveals recurring trends such as the reliance on natural imagery in depictions of the most prized forms of female beauty, and highlights the ways in which the novels are distinct, reflecting their individual cultural context and the concerns of each particular author. This usefully shows how popular authors worked within, developed, and sometimes overturned the literary expectations of their readers. In fact Hallum is strangely defensive about her decision to focus on popular fiction as a source of ‘cultural value’ , perhaps anticipating that her reader expects a discussion that will ‘locate the [aesthetic] movement in high art forms’ . In fact this work contributes nicely to the large body of recent critical work that has been produced on Victorian popular fiction and culture, and is timely as authors such as Broughton and Corelli are attracting more and more well-deserved critical attention.
The main focus of the book is on how female beauty is prized by prospective lovers and suitors, not so much because it is pleasurable or attractive, but because it will enhance the man’s ‘cultural capital’ , signifying both his good taste and his ability to secure an enviable bride. The result is that women become aesthetic commodities which are bought and sold on the marriage market. So ostensibly the subject matter and arising argument are rather simple: Victorian women were valued for their beauty and were objectified by the marriage market and the men who acquired them. However, the fact that the book is predominantly a series of close readings informed by references to the changing cultural and historical contexts that accompanied the rise of aestheticism, means that particular instances of how and why this commodification happens are explored in detail. In this way individual examples of resistance to, and compliance with, aesthetic commodification are productively contrasted. Similarly, Hallum’s argument that Victorian authors often use references to nature and natural imagery in order to depict “naturally” beautiful women who are prized over more artificial beauties, is also not particularly surprising, but the textual analysis allows us to pause and consider why and how this connection is so often established. Hallum also draws out the regularity with which naturally beautiful women are portrayed in ‘artistic terms’, which means that ‘the female appears more as a work of art than a physical being’, leading to her objectification . In this way Hallum encourages her reader not to ‘take for granted how much ideal feminine beauty was heavily debated’ in the second half of the Victorian period .
The first chapter on Broughton’s Cometh up as a Flower establishes many of the lines of argument that will be returned to in later sections. Hallum considers how sensation and romance fiction represents ‘the Victorian marriage market as […] a process of legal prostitution’ , but also ‘admits and feeds off the practice of the aesthetic commodification of women’ . The sisters, Nell and Dolly Le Strange, are shown to be aware of men’s perception of their beauty, and therefore their value as aesthetic commodities. Whereas Dolly willingly works the system to achieve a suitable husband, Nell is repelled by her commodification, but nevertheless ends up marrying the suitor (she has two to choose from) with the more impressive social and economic status, whom she does not love. In this way the novel demonstrates both women’s complicity in their own commodification, and men’s need to possess sufficient cultural capital in order to secure and ‘own an aesthetic female commodity which reflects his own social situation’ .
The second chapter on The Egoist explores Victorian notions of the complementarity of the sexes, such as in Ruskin’s famous ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ (1865). By highlighting the many references to reflective surfaces in the novel, Hallum shows how beautiful women are chosen because they are at once different from (and complementary to) men, but also reflective of the man in his best aspect. Essentially, the gaze of the adoring wife should massage the receptive husband’s ego. Hallum then demonstrates how Meredith draws on Victorian theories of natural and sexual selection in such a way as to suggest that a man’s choice of wife is mainly to do with his sense of his own appearance and self-worth: to win the most beautiful wife implies the winner’s ‘masculine superiority’ .
This theme occurs again in the discussion of Moths in chapter 3: ‘the real pleasure Zouroff gains from having married Vere results from his primordial experience of ownership rather than from any real aesthetic response to her beauty’ . The recurring interrogations of what drives a man’s choice of wife, and the repeated conclusion that it is to do with his own pride, vanity or insecurities, are some of the most intriguing parts of Aestheticism and the Marriage Market. Whilst women are prized for their beauty, it is frequently clear that romantic or erotic attraction takes a distant second place to the securing and enhancing of a man’s cultural capital. On the other side, women’s awareness of their aesthetic commodification, and their ability to use their objectification to gain a form of power is another recurring topic which I would have liked to see taken even further. For example, in the discussion of the supporting female characters in Moths, Hallum suggests that while the “natural” beauty of Vere is revered in the novel, it is also clear that women whom society accepts as “beauties”, who consciously accept their role in the marriage market, and who work to enhance their own beauty (i.e. are more artificial), are no longer ‘at the mercy of the male gaze’ but rather ‘wield power over it’ and can therefore ‘occupy a controlling subject position’ despite being objects of ‘spectacle and consumption’ . Hallum does confirm that ‘the high culture school of aesthetics that Vere represents is opposed to the artificiality of Lady Dolly’s beauty’, but this raises further questions about the potential tensions between Ouida’s opulent aestheticism and her ‘love of nature’ , as well as between the prizing of naturalness over artfulness in an aesthetic context, and between issues of female power and morality more broadly.
In chapters 4 and 5 on Corelli’s Wormwood and du Maurier’s Trilby there are moments when the intersections between aestheticism and the marriage market are not consistently explored: Hallum has much more to say about the ‘aestheticization of the dead female body’  and the ‘fetishizing’ of female body parts , respectively, than about the marriage market. Nevertheless, Hallum returns to some of the most interesting topics in her book. In Wormwood, Gaston’s fascination with the dead bodies of the women he loved reemphasises that men often seem to be content to value the passive female exterior, regardless of what is or is not beneath the surface. In Trilby, Hallum returns to the possibility of women achieving subjectivity through objectification. Her observation that Trilby’s ability to at once take part in ‘a circuit of aesthetic commodification through her being literally represented as an object of art’ and to resist ‘being objectified’ by ‘reversing the male gaze’  builds interestingly upon previous chapters, and the connections could have been made even more explicitly. Also thought-provoking throughout the book are the moments when Hallum notes how the conventions of Victorian literary gender relations are overturned, for example when Meredith ‘reverses the traditional idea of women being on display’ , or with Vere’s ‘physical appreciation’ of Corrèze . Even more could have been said about moments when men are prized for their beauty or forced to preen and flaunt themselves in order to win the attention of women, or when women are placed in ‘a subject position’ as this complicates the commodity / consumer relationship on which the marriage market is based.
The number of topics and contexts covered by Aestheticism and the Marriage Market is belied by the title. From the start, the Introduction delivers a very broad overview of the connections between art, gender and popular fiction in the Victorian period, moving from (to name only a selection) William Morris, to legal developments relating to coverture and women’s rights, to conduct literature, to popular publishing practices and the rise of sensation fiction. Although this is useful to begin with, as the book progresses the focus is not always sufficiently pulled back to the key issues of aestheticism and the marriage market, and as a result the work feels unbalanced at times. For example, although Hallum’s chronological range goes from Pre-Raphaelitism to decadence and the fin de siècle, Pre-Raphaelitism, and the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, actually get far more detailed coverage and extensive attention than later aesthetes and the developments of the movement. The reader comes away with a far more solid grounding in the aims and personalities of the PRB than of the ensuing, complex growth of the movement and its relationship to decadence. For example, the recurring interrogations of natural imagery and natural beauty could go beyond comparing the various heroines to Pre-Raphaelite paintings and models, and be situated more within developing artistic and aesthetic debates about the appeal and value of art over nature. This is probably because the majority of the authors Hallum discusses are clearly influenced by, friends with, or parodying the PRB; even the discussion of the latest text, Trilby, takes us back to the Pre-Raphaelites again as the novel, set in the 1850s, ‘relies for its meaning on the discourse of Pre-Raphaelite themes and imagery’ . This is all interesting and relevant for the close readings of the five novels but, whilst there certainly are references to important figures such as Walter Pater, and issues such as the tensions around mass-production, quality and value (the section on ‘willow pattern’ china and the associations with it in The Egoist is particularly good), I did at times find myself wondering where the aestheticism had gone.
This is an important book in terms of the texts it analyses and the issues that it explores. Although it is something of a sprawling read in terms of topics covered, it is engaging and scholars of nineteenth-century popular literature, art and culture will find much of use and interest within it.
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