Vision animates: John Harvey, ‘The Poetics of Sight’

John Harvey, The Poetics of Sight. Peter Lang, Bern, 2015. Paperback, 309pp. (Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, 25)

I have recently written here about the excellent literary-cultural studies by John Harvey of the colour black and here about clothes. Last year I included several pieces on his novel about Ruskin, Millais and Effie Gray, The Subject of a Portrait.

Harvey Poetics bk cover Lang siteThe Poetics of Sight is ‘an intermittent history of culture’s “visual turn” through the last four hundred years’, during which time the subject of sight itself has become, until quite recent years, of primary literary and artistic concern. This book is mostly about the visual life of poetry and prose fiction and ‘about the poetic life of pictures’. Writing within the tradition of comparing pictures with poetry – ‘Ut pictura poesis’ – that stretches ‘from Horace to Hagstrum’, Dr Harvey focuses on the hitherto relatively neglected ‘human sense of sight’ in this debate, and in particular on the concept of the ‘visual metaphor’.

 

In his Introduction he mentions how memories (like dream images) are often ‘momentary and fragmentary’ – the Proustian epiphanies of memory evoked initially by that novelist’s famous childhood madeleines, but then more revealingly by paintings and visual representations in the sequence of novels.

Neuroscientists point out, Dr Harvey explains, how our way of seeing isn’t static but ‘saccadic’: our eyes dart here and there over what we perceive in order to create and maintain an understanding of what it is: this enables us to identify what we see. This is a consequence of evolution – it’s of great advantage to a predator (or predator’s target) to be able to distinguish quickly and accurately what’s dangerous from what’s edible.

In a short review I can’t possibly do justice to the detailed and scrupulous consideration Harvey gives to a wide range of visual and literary artefacts; his analysis, to give just one example, of Titian’s paintings of Venus – two of the nine colour plates in the book; there are 36 monochrome illustrations — is inspiring – though I’d recommend accessing the images online: it’s helpful to be able to zoom in on the details he assesses.

He begins with a chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘visual imaginings’ and the pictures by artists inspired by the plays. Then he turns to the uneven art of Blake, with its ‘element of wilful deprivation’ which is ‘a challenge to taste at any time’ as he strove to ‘keep his vision pure and Eternal’– but which is, at its best, sublime, like Blake’s best poetry.

Here we encounter one of the most interesting recurring themes in the book: the role of the metaphor in art. It is part of Blake’s extraordinary and eccentric genius that he ‘makes the poetic part of visual art stronger and easier to see.’

In his next chapter Harvey carefully examines the ‘migrations of satire’s scurrilous muse [wonderful phrase!] back and forth between visual and verbal art’, with attention to such figures as Gillray and Cruikshank, Pope and Dryden. Here too the ‘slow historic change’ involved the ‘visual or the pictorial “turn”’ that satire took over the centuries, in line with the growing fashion for the ‘picturesque’. When the fashion for satiric verse died out, it re-emerged in the novel, and subsequently in film.

For me the most interesting sections of the book are those which deal with the novel (and there’s a superbly perceptive chapter on ‘metaphor and modernism’, and the ‘double metaphor’ of visual representation in the flat two-dimensional plane of a painting or photo).

The early novelists ‘saw no reason to tarry over a sight unless it was remarkable, and in reading them one’s auditory imagination is at least as busy as one’s visual imagination.’

It’s only in the early nineteenth century that the novel ‘opens its eyes and aspires to a continuous visualization.’ Harvey shows how Austen pays little attention to the visual compared with Dickens, Thackeray and the high Victorian novelists, about whom he writes with subtlety, authority and insight: he moves from fictional landscapes in words to the importance of portraits on the walls of fictional characters’ houses – initially those of the aristocracy, then increasingly in those of the bourgeoisie. The wealthy figure in the portrait intimidated its viewer with its complacently land-owning gaze.

Dr Harvey has published extensively on the illustrations in Victorian literary works, and it is not surprising that he is particularly strong on this topic here – Dickens’s illustrators’ achievements, for example, are explored for their symbiotic relationship with the narrative. But it’s not an academic study for its own sake: he is able to show how they reflect the growing interest of novelists in the concept of watching and seeing, and of related themes like clairvoyance and blindness, light and dark (literal and metaphorical):

Because Dickens’s feeling is more laden his visual details work as emotional metaphors.

George Eliot, we see, is acutely sensitive to the ‘the physique’ and the body of her characters, a visual awareness he calls ‘the classic optics of the novel.’

The modernists became uneasy with this highly realist visual approach, both in painting and its sister art, literature. The move from impressionism through to abstract expressionism is traced alongside the novel’s development, which began to show more affinities with the metonymy of photography and film than with painting (‘I am a camera’), with movement, a ‘visual dynamic’ found, for example, in Harvey’s analysis of Virginia Woolf’s work, where the ‘point of view’

dances from consciousness to consciousness in an almost cinematic way, swooping and zooming, tracking one person till they pass another when all the individuals are themselves in motion, while also slipping rapidly between outward sight and inner picturings.

As I did with his other non-fiction works, I particularly liked Harvey’s ability to argue his case in lucid, elegant prose, as I hope the extracts I have briefly quoted so far indicate. Notice his wittily revealing (nuanced, not ostentatious) use of visual metaphors in his exposition (the novel ‘opens its eyes’; POV ‘dances’; Dickens’s ‘laden’ feeling), for example. And there’s his usual mastery of prose rhythm and the well-turned sentence to express his argument with considered authority.  His scholarship is judiciously deployed.

He’s especially good at showing how writers ‘examine the nature of memory and time’; this resulted in the most recent generations of writers favouring the present tense. Given our tendency in real life to look with ‘fugitive, almost subliminal glimpses’ at the world around us, in literature this results in ‘durable, examinable’ public forms. The Poetics of Sight doesn’t explore the short stories of Raymond Carver, but I find this American writer is a master of the narrative of glimpses, the sideways look or oblique point of view, what in this book is called ‘fiction’s long tradition of indirect visualization.’

I’d be interested to see a lengthier account by Dr Harvey of Henry James’s place in this discussion of art and literature: there are a few tantalising glimpses that whet the appetite for more.

For now, I commend this book to you: it’ll change the way you read.

 

Mine was a review copy sent by the publishers, from whose website the image of the book’s cover is taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our appearance is our reality: John Harvey, ‘Clothes’

I wrote recently HERE about John Harvey’s two fascinating studies of the colour black, and HERE about his novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the love triangle involving John Ruskin, Effie Gray and the artist Millais. Clothes is part of a series of philosophical studies by Acumen Publishing ‘on matters of life and death’, and in particular on the question: ‘How should we live?’ Other titles include ‘Death’, ‘Sex’ and ‘Work’.

 

Harvey ClothesIn this characteristically energetic, accessible and entertaining short study, Dr Harvey deploys his considerable scholarship and intelligence on a topic that concerns us all – no matter what our attitude to what we wear. Whether we choose designer labels, functional casual or work wear, or power suits, our clothing is ‘an outer envelope’ that we can ‘select and manipulate’ to make a statement about how rebellious, conservative or ‘on trend’ we are. It indicates – even more than our naked skin can – ‘many allegiances, sensitivies and foibles.’

 

Clothes can even be a matter of life and death, as the introductory chapter indicates: two young goths were beaten to death in a Lancashire park, simply because of their outlandishly distinctive look. Military uniforms enabled soldiers to identify who to kill or not, who to salute or not.

Our clothes represent a metaphor for ‘misrepresentation’ – they ‘can be treacherous companions’, his argument begins, because ‘they touch us closely, because they touch our skin.’ Our ‘recurring mistrust’ of them has recurred throughout history, and has exercised philosophers since the time when Socrates deprecated “women’s adornment” and advocated extreme simplicity in garb. In Christian thinking, nakedness and the need to cover it to hide our shame is a theme introduced in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

Drawing upon his scholarly research into visual art and its relationship to our literature and broader culture, Dr Harvey explores works as diverse as Titian’s ‘Sacred and Profane Love’ and literary texts; Shakespeare was much concerned with dress and its physical and metaphorical power. George Eliot and Dickens are also cited for their treatment of characters’ dress.

We are ambivalent about clothes, he argues, for they are ‘dangerous things’, often a ‘metaphor for hypocrisy’; what other people wear can take us in, deceive us, until we discover what they are like under this second skin, this body mask or disguise. Clothes are part of our perpetual performance in the world. We dress for ourselves and for others: the ‘sense of an audience’ is important.

Apart from material he’s discussed in a slightly different context in his books on the colour black, such as the contrast between puritanical plainness in costume in some periods of western history and foppish dandyism in others, there’s much that’s new here. There is, for example, the Liz Hurley of the 20s, Rita Lygid, who designed and wore the first backless dress and caused a scandalous success.

What I particularly like about Dr Harvey’s studies is the way he communicates his formidable range of literary and artistic knowledge with an intelligently readable, often witty prose style. For example, he has a way with metaphor:

When we put on clothes we sheathe ourselves in a social shadow: an ethos, an ethic, that guides and limits.

 I also liked this on a design by couturier Jean-Paul Gautier, expressed as wittily as the garment it describes:

When he is not clowning, still there is wit, as when he lets a tight-waisted dress of aluminium-ish silk flare out extravagantly over a froth of flounced chiffon petticoat with a little the look of a washing machine exploding.

He has a good ear for sound patterns, rhythms and linguistic symmetries, as those extracts I hope show; but he also has a subtly prompting, guiding voice. He has that rare gift: the ability to make the familiar strange and new. But I never felt he was lapsing into academic-speak. On the ‘issue of shoulders’, to take an example of his cheerfully discursive tone, he points out that men’s fashions have tended to bulk them out and cover them up, whereas for women’s fashion this is an equally ‘sensitive issue’ for different reasons: John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of ‘Madame X’ caused a ‘furore’ when it John_Singer_Sargent_(1856–1925)_Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_1883–84was first exhibited around 1900 because ‘one slender strap’ was ‘hanging down off the shoulder’:

The strap was scarcely more than a thread, but loosening it was a step too far, and Sargent was required to mend the portrait, and replace the strap. Only later still could shoulders be wholly naked.

There’s much more detail in this book than I can hope to summarise here. Briefly, he looks at the the history, materials, functions and aesthetics of clothes, and the way we use them to ‘be ourselves’ or ‘be someone else’ in order to avoid exposing our ‘private self’ to the public gaze while revealing different “sides” of ourselves ‘deliberately or quite unconsciously’, as he suggests in another elegantly balanced aphorism:

clothes may help us to possess our soul, and we may place our soul within the clothes.

Clothes enable us to innovate or conversely to follow the herd, by conforming to fashions of the day or team to which we belong (I notice most of my teenage female students now favour a torn gash across both knees of their jeans).

As in his other books Harvey explores the differences between the relatively uncovered or exposed, colourful and extravagant look of women’s fashion compared with the more sober, suited, buttoned-up (in every sense) male costume. Young fashions versus old, politicians, soldiers (especially the ruthlessly fearsome black-clad SS) all present various degrees of individuality and uniformity, power and powerlessness.

Politically and socially, then, clothes tend to be mass-produced (often by sweat-shop exploited labour) and enable us to express our individuality but also to group ourselves. They can exhibit modesty, and ‘protect us from temptation as they protect us from the cold’, constituting a ‘moral fence, enclosing our sinfulness and frustrating the desires of others’. Of course, they can also, paradoxically, enflame them, and play a key part in our search for a sexual partner.

As the text on the book’s cover says, by being aware of the role clothes play in our lives, we can come to know and better understand who we are.

John Harvey, Clothes. Acumen Publishing, Stocksfield. 2008. Paperback, 134 pp. Copy supplied by the author.

Apart from the piece on this blog about John Harvey’s studies of the colour black cited above, there are these two pieces from last year: this one, in which the author of the novel The Subject of a Portrait discusses in a guest post the ways in which he treated his historical theme, and its relationship with the film scripted by Emma Thompson which came out shortly after his novel’s publication. There’s also this piece by guest writer Michael Flay, proprietor of the independent imprint Polar Books, which published the novel.

Photo of book jacket my own; ‘Madame X’ in public domain via WikiCommons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Harvey on the Colour Black

Men in Black, Reaktion Books, London 1995

The Story of Black, Reaktion Books, London 2013

 Even when brilliant, rich, powerful women have worn magnificent black in the past, they have usually needed the pretext of mourning to do so. And what has seemed to me a curious point of interest for study is the way which, through time, the use of this colour – the colour that is without colour, without light, the colour of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame – has been adopted in its use by men not as the colour of what they lack or have lost, but precisely as the signature of what they have: of standing, goods, mastery…It relates to the relations between people in society, and to the relations between men and women; and to the way in which people display externally what in some ways is a ‘dark’ interior of human motivation.

 

This is John Harvey in his introduction to the first of these two fascinating studies of the colour black. In Men in Black he goes on to examine how and why black became the default colour of dress for men, associated with the world of work and professional dignity, contrasting with women who tended to wear white (or various other hues from the colour spectrum) – often in ‘vicarious display by men’; most jobs were ‘closed to women’. The period of black dominance in clothing for men dates largely from the early nineteenth century until shortly after the First World War.

 But both black and white are colours of denial; and what they deny is colour.

Thereafter it became the colour of Chanel’s little dress. In the 1930s it represented for the fascists the ‘most complete and intense way of marking off a group of people from the polychrome ordinary mass’. Himmler, the head of Hitler’s terrifying SS, admired ‘the disciplinary principles on which the Jesuits were organized, and was called by Hitler his Ignatius Loyola.’ More recently it has become the colour of rebellion and youth, from bikers and beatniks to punks, goths and emos.

John Harvey, Men in BlackAlthough men have in the past of course worn all kinds of colours, these books trace the reasons for the shift to sombre black clothes, with a focus on the representation of black in art and literature. Baudelaire is quoted as saying of the frock-coat:

 ‘Is it not the inevitable uniform of our suffering age, carrying on its very shoulders, black and narrow, the mark of perpetual mourning? All of us are attending some funeral or other.’

He also remarked that ‘a uniform livery of grief is a proof of equality’; as Harvey points out, ‘For Baudelaire, black, like death itself, was a leveller.’

John Harvey, The Story of Black These are scholarly but lavishly illustrated works and furnished with copious academic notes, but as that opening extract I hope shows, the texts are written in highly engaging prose, with carefully modulated, elegant sentence structure and, despite the formidable erudition, an accessible style and enthusiastic tone that encourage the reader to devour the text greedily.

Both books are packed with well-researched detail. As Dr Harvey is a literary scholar there is not surprisingly an emphasis on the literary aspects of the significance of the colour black: there are long sections on Victorian literature in particular, with perceptive accounts of Dickens’ dark cities and their inhabitants, and, for example, the saturnine characters in Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.

Last year I reviewed John Harvey’s excellent novel The Subject of a Portrait, which is about the relationships between John Ruskin, his young wife Effie Gray, and the artist Millais, with whom Effie fell in love. There are supplementary posts by Michael Flay here and by Dr Harvey himself here (where he discusses his novel in the light of the film ‘Effie Gray’, about this triangle of Victorian characters, that was about to be released at the time of the post). Ruskin believed that the Victorian climate was changing as a result of a malignant ‘plague-wind’ of darkness, and that this ‘moral gloom’ was connected with the pollution – real and metaphorical – of industry, and in turn with ‘blasphemy’, ‘iniquity’ and social injustice – and Empire. Victorian morality was founded upon inequality and fear, and on ‘a terrifying faith’. On p. 169 of Men in Black the Millais portrait of Ruskin that features on the cover of Harvey’s novel is again reproduced. This is what he says about it:

 Ruskin is keen but cold like the water, and indeed was himself so damaged by strains of the most intimate British asceticism that he was unable to be a husband to his wife…There are elements of personal pathology in Ruskin’s obsession with the plague-cloud, as possibly there are in Dickens’s darkness: but their pathologies were of their culture, involving as it were ethical injury, and sensitized them to a greater pathology.

 

Elegantly and eloquently expressed. I particularly like that phrase ‘ethical injury’: it sums up succinctly the personality of the enigmatic Ruskin.

I was surprised to discover in Men in Black that dandies like Beau Brummel tended to favour tight-fitting, well-cut black clothes rather than peacock displays, at least at night.

What I found so interesting about these two books is that they take a topic as mundane as the colour black – one which I for one had never really paid much heed to; it’s rather like what’s been said about Jane Austen’s novels: she doesn’t mention the domestic arrangements of the country houses in her fiction because the maids are taken for granted, invisible. That’s how I was with the colour black. These books have enlightened and enthused me.

In Men in Black we learn that dandyism ‘played with discipline, and self-discipline, and the style was, not surprisingly, popular with the military’ – Brummel had been a captain in the Hussars (what a splendid name), and Wellington was thought a dandy.

 Wellington in turn had to reprimand the officers of the Grenadier Guards for riding into battle, on a day of foul weather, with their umbrellas raised.

 

There are sections on black as the colour of ‘self-effacement’, especially in religious contexts – although Christian priests had originally tended to wear white. Nevertheless black gradually became the predominant colour of dress for ascetics, hermits, then monks, friars, Jesuits and priests:

 A perfection of self-denial may make one holy, a person to be heeded with reverence and awe: and black, as the colour of power over oneself, has come to be associated with impressive, intense inwardness.

 

Another felicitously expressed sentence.

Then black is associated with the melancholy lover, and with melancholy in general – the ‘black bile’ of the ancient lore of the bodily ‘humours’; Hamlet is a key figure here (‘a man whose black clothes, finally, are the dress of his dark ontology’) and Robert Burton’s encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Black also became the colour favoured by merchants, especially Calvinist Protestants in the London business community; ‘pious asceticism’, as Weber suggests, is connected with capital. Also, perhaps, it was associated with trustworthiness, fair dealing: ‘Black is serious and means business’ –

 But black is a paradoxical colour, ostentatious through the show it makes of renouncing ostentation. The man in black can sidestep the social staircase because he seems to take his stand on a moral stair instead, and indeed to take the high ground precisely through humility.

 

Other areas explored by Harvey include black as a skin colour, and social/literary attitudes to ‘négritude’ – in Othello, for example. Devils (and the devil), of course, were also frequently depicted as black.

The extracts I have quoted are an indication of the elegant lucidity of Harvey’s writing, as well as of his capacity for conveying a great deal of information in a manner that is as rewarding as a well-written, pacy novel.

Men in Black concludes that the social significance of black is polysemous, ‘because all statements made by clothes are ambiguous, and even one colour will have different meanings’; but the dominant meaning of the widespread use of black could be that it

 is associated at once with intensity and with effacement: with importance, and with the putting on of impersonality. Alone or in ranks, the man in black is the agent of a serious power; and of a power claimed over women and the feminine. Black may be a shadow fallen on the feminine part of man.

 

I’ll conclude by stating that The Story of Black covers much of the same ground as the earlier book, but with very little repetition and a host of different material, and a closing section that looks at some developments in the world of art in the last few years. Both books belong to a series produced by Reaktion that use copious illustrations as the basis for historical analysis.

I’d recommend these texts to anyone with even a passing interest in literary, artistic/cultural, social, political or philosophical history.

Ruskin and Effie: Harvey’s ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

In my previous post John Harvey wrote about his recent novel ‘Subject of a Portrait’, and the questions he tried to address in giving fictional life to the tangled love triangle of its central characters: John Ruskin, his wife Effie, and the artist Millais. He speculated how Emma Thompson might address these questions in her forthcoming film, ‘Effie Gray’, released here in the UK on 10 October. My own review of his novel was posted here in June.

Today my guest writer is Michael Flay, author of the novels The Watchers (2009) and The Lord (2012), and The Persian Wedding (forthcoming), all published by Polar Books (Cheltenham). Dr Flay is senior lecturer in SEN (Special Educational Needs) at a Midlands university.

The Subject of a PortraitChild abuse is an important problem in the U.K. and elsewhere. John Harvey’s recent novel ‘The Subject of a Portrait’, well contributes to understanding aspects of abuse. Perpetrators and victims have individual features and here Harvey presents one example of the former. What kind of person abuses a child? A version of Ruskin reveals the art critic as only able to relate to the female in the shape of pre-adolescent girls. His marriage to an adult woman is annulled because it was never consummated. Adult women disgust him except in terms of spiritual interchange. He sees their bodies as deformed. The novel is courageous in approaching such psychological areas with imaginative insight and detailed psychological investigation.

 

However, a scholarly commentator on Ruskin, Christopher Newall, is cited recently in ‘The Times’ (he is commenting on the forthcoming film about Ruskin) as disagreeing with the idea of Ruskin as sexually disordered. Newall’s view is that Ruskin ‘was perfectly easy’ with his wife ‘physically’ and to suggest otherwise is to contribute to a false myth or negative ‘legend’. Ruskin’s character is a subject for controversy, with several versions available. Newall prefers a purified view.

Harvey’s version is valuable in terms of the vivid fictional light cast on complex psychiatric matters that also exist in factual shape outside imaginative narrative. The Ruskin-version character is seen to encourage visits on fabricated pretexts from a young girl, a ’little maid’—‘that is the age where beauty dwells, we spoil as we grow big’. His encouragement could be referred to as ”grooming“, in current vocabulary.

Pre-adolescent girls are his preference, partly because they have no breasts (the novel suggests this) and, in his view, other sexual features are less obvious. The Ruskin figure, in the novel, has a secret collection of pictures, early photographs, of part clothed or naked, breastless young girls and other views of female children. Some of these shots were taken of children in a hotel he stays at by a clandestine, shady photographer he is in collusion with.

A disturbing, revelatory sequence in the novel comes when Ruskin gets out the pictures in order to assist in a masturbatory event. He stimulates himself also via repeated words, ‘Oh little neat dress with petit point lace’ and by pulling ‘a little girl face in the mirror’ as he watches and listens to himself. After his climax he is full of self praise, ‘John, John—was there ever potency like to yours? You are the King of the Golden River.’ His mood then switches to self disgust as he glimpses a remnant of his own semen on his body, a wish for the Lord to ‘scald my weakness’.

In a later attempt to have sex with his wife Ruskin is presented as calling up this past experience in an attempt to gain arousal, repeating words he finds erotic, ‘ Oh little pert nose and tiny waist’, and telling his wife ‘Be like twelve again’. After the failed encounter he lapses into baby language, ‘Don leave me all on my owny’.

A strength of Harvey’s narrative is that these vivid and revealing sexual crises are presented in a context of Ruskin’s other, but related, behaviours. Such behaviours include mood and attitude instabilities, revulsions towards the physical and exalted views on art and beauty. At times he seems spitefully to collude with his wife’s attraction to Millais, combining this with absolute rejection of her physically. When she attempts to have sex with him he tells her she is physically ‘misformed’ and ‘the hand of nature’ has ‘erred’ in her case. He manipulates Millais by referring to Effie as ‘my own clever monkey’, both praising and insulting her at once, possibly to get Millais to react.

An attraction to sexuality with young girls and a recoil from that kind of relation with older women is a Ruskin characteristic. The episode in which Ruskin takes the ‘little maid’ from the hotel for an outing in the wood is disturbing. Ruskin is ‘suave’ and plausible, getting the girl’s mother to give permission. Then, in the wood, come kissing games, incidents in which the girl lies on him in various postures. The episode concludes with the open comment ‘he led her beneath low branches’. It is left non-explicit, speculative, what follows, maybe nothing, more, or worse? Ruskin reflects early on in the jaunt, that such girls are ‘the art of God. He imagined her tiny shoulder blades sliding within her dress’. The later masturbation sequence reveals that Ruskin’s interest in the girls has a physical aspect and is not just a case of visual appreciation. After Ruskin’s wife has obtained her divorce from him, Ruskin continues to look out for such young girls—he notices one near the National Gallery, ‘nearly a woman but slender as string’. He considers she has an eating disorder, but ‘such’…’I could love with a grown man’s love’. His attractions have a repetitive, part obsessional aspect.

Harvey presents Ruskin’s disorder, reveals it as an individualized psychiatric case in the sense that it issues in symptomatic, cumulative ways. Here is a valuable consideration of aspects of child abuse, embedded in the context too of a specific, stressed marriage. Fiction here performs a useful function of contributing to the understanding of a non-fictional condition that exists in ‘fact’, demonstrating an abuse perpetrator in a complex web of contexts and characteristics. Beyond the theme of the abuser the Ruskin character is also representative of a man who is entirely disunified in a psychological sense. He has therefore no creative relation with anyone in the novel and is alone. At the same time he is an eminent art critic and social reformer. A suggestion here is disturbingly implicit in the narrative that an expert in any field may simultaneously be pathological in a psychiatric sense. This theme too is current in actual society. Mental disorder can occur anywhere, in the prominent and obscure alike. However, the prominent may have more options for concealment or for conveying disorder as talent, likewise for decision making or opinion forming that has its basis in defect or neurosis,

For some Ruskin’s characteristics as seen in Harvey’s novel may seem a psychological area they are reluctant to consider. The presentations of sexual behaviours and thoughts may be challenging. This is all to the good. Lawrence has commented that ‘a condition of freedom’ is that ‘in the understanding I fear nothing’. The ‘abhorrent’ and disturbing need their own attention, both fictionally and otherwise. Writing in ‘The Reality of Peace’ he continues to emphasise that the horrific or pathological needs imaginative presentation, an aim being to ‘see what it is’, to admit it  to ‘understanding’ with no elision of consciousness. Harvey’s writing fits this context, enacting Lawrence’s aim , keeping company as he does so with a minority of fiction writers who do the same, such as Pynchon and DeLillo.

 

 

‘The Subject of a Portrait’, ‘Effie Gray’ & the Ruskin Marriage

John Harvey, author of The Subject of a Portrait, a review of which I posted HERE in June, is my guest for this post. He writes about his novel exploring the tangled relationships between Millais, the subject of his portrait, Ruskin, and Mrs Ruskin, Effie, in the light of the forthcoming film about this troubled triangle of characters.

It’s a curious thing to find yourself telling the same story as someone else, and at the same time — like overhearing a person, in the next room, saying the same thing that you’re saying. For my novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the marriage of John Ruskin and ‘Effie’ (Euphemia) Gray, came out this July, and in August there was a screening of Emma Thompson’s new film on this subject, Effie Gray, which is scheduled for release on 10 October. Since I have not yet seen the film I cannot comment directly, but — following my own engagement with the Ruskins — I am interested to see how Emma Thompsons’s script handles some key questions, and I thought I should record these questions before I do see, or read reviews of, Effie Gray. These are questions raised by the original historic events. They matter for anyone retelling this story, and are I believe interesting in themselves.

Both Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portrait, feature the trip to the Highlands which Ruskin and Effie made in 1853 together with the young PreRaphaelite painter John Everett Millais — when Millais was to paint a portrait of Ruskin, and when Millais and Effie fell in love. The Ruskin marriage was still, after five years, unconsummated. But no one knows exactly ‘what happened in the Highlands’. Queen Victoria, when she heard the story, thought that everything had happened there.

One question is: what was happening inside John Ruskin? For the Ruskins did not travel to Scotland with only a handsome young artist for company — that would have looked odd to the Victorians and perhaps to anyone. Millais’ brother William came with them. But once they had settled, Ruskin let William stay in their hotel, and rented a tiny cottage where there was just room for him to sleep on the sofa while Millais and Effie slept in tiny bedrooms to either side of him. Ruskin loved this arrangement though Millais and Effie were not delighted. Effie wondered whether Ruskin wanted to get her ‘in a scrape’.

Ruskin treated his wife both oddly and badly. To a contemporary eye what may be most interesting is the monomania in Ruskin’s passion for the body of a child: he had fallen in love with Effie when she was twelve and it seems he could not bear the fact that by the time they married, she had a woman’s body. Not that Ruskin ever explained exactly why he disliked her ‘person’. He did invite her to believe she was wrongly ‘formed’, so that his sexual failure was in some sense her fault. When she protested he decided she was mad — and wrote to tell her father that his daughter was insane. And he insisted they pretend to live like a normal married couple.

The Subject of a PortraitActually there was nothing wrong with Effie’s body, as the physicians found when they examined her during the annulment of the marriage. The deformity — and deformity of mind — was in Ruskin. But why and how did Ruskin come to be so? Because it was not just a matter of high-Victorian puritanism. The pathology of Ruskin was more particular. Contrary to the verdict of the court of annulment, it does not seem that Ruskin suffered from ‘incurable impotency’. He protested at this suggestion, and let it be known that he practised ‘the vice of Rousseau’ — masturbation — and that he had some vigour in that department. Certainly he did not desire his wife, or any other grown woman, so far as we know. He was attracted to very young girls, and in one letter he advises a friend as to the wiles he might use to win a kiss from a tiny girl. But I don’t think one should think of him as a Victorian Rolf Harris. The case is different. He liked to write letters to some of his friends in baby talk, so one could wonder — is the true ‘tiny girl’ inside Ruskin himself? In our time the performance artist Grayson Perry dresses up and performs a little girl called Claire, who he says is his alter ego. And psychologists say it is possible for a person to suffer arrest, emotionally, at a very early stage where the infant psyche is neither boy nor girl. But it was hard, in the nineteenth century, to face such things openly.

I should not simplify the human mystery of Ruskin’s make-up. He was also capable of playing the authoritarian husband: he told Effie once that he would ‘beat her with a common stick’. Clearly he had his contradictions: he called himself both ‘a Tory of the old school’ and ‘a red-hot Communist’. He also is, and by a large margin, the greatest critic of art this country has produced — and he does write very wonderfully about art. It is obviously not easy to get to the root of such a person, you have to guess and imagine, and that is why I am interested to see how Emma Thompson — and her husband Greg Wise, who plays Ruskin — read his character.

There is again a question about Effie. What did she think about her marital situation? This is a real question, because although it was possible for a young Victorian wife to be extremely innocent and ignorant about intimacy, it is odd if Effie was so totally innocent since her best friend in London was Lady Eastlake — that is, the wife of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, the Director of the National Gallery. Lady Eastlake was an intellectual figure in her own right, a traveller and an author — and she was both the daughter, and the sister, of ladies’ doctors, of obstetric physicians. In The Subject of a Portrait, at one point, Effie asks Lady Eastlake to examine her. And it is the part of Lady Eastlake that Emma Thompson has chosen to play, herself, in Effie Gray, so I am interested to see at what stage Emma Thompson advises Effie about obstetrics.

There are further questions as to Effie. If she and Millais fell in love in the Highlands, why did she go back with Ruskin to London — only to run away later? She did not need to hurry back, because her parents lived in Perth, and she could very well have said, I shall stay with mama and papa and come home later. She visited them easily enough at other times. The fact that she did go home with Ruskin, only to take off later, raises two questions: how much did happen in the Highlands? And what happened later, in London? Was there communication — were there secret meetings — between the lovers? Or were they wholly cut off, knowing nothing of what each other felt, so Effie had to take her decision blind, in the dark? As the story proceeds, Effie does develop a remarkable independence, and an ability to survive, and to grow.

And the PreRaphaelite prodigy, John Everett Millais? For reasons of time, Millais could paint only the background of his portrait in Scotland — for actually, though this now-famous painting is a portrait of Ruskin, Millais painted Ruskin in later, in his studio in Gower Street in London. There were regular sittings. But what on earth did Ruskin and Millais say to each other then? Did Millais give signals, did Ruskin know, that the artist loved his wife? It is clear also that Ruskin liked Millais quite tenderly, but with an ambivalence, so you wonder, was he more attracted to the artist’s brilliant talent or to his youthful glamour? After the annulment he wanted Millais and himself to go on meeting and collaborating, regardless of the fact that his ex-wife was now Mrs Millais. Those sessions in the studio must have been extraordinarily charged, like chapters in Dostoevsky where momentous intensities hang over the quiet talk of two people in a room. I am not Dostoevsky, but still one has space in a novel to imagine such talk, and I have tried to do that. Of course a film must have a different economy, and obviously has many fewer words than a novel. In any event, I am interested to see how Emma Thompson and Greg Wise manage the relation, not only of Effie with Millais, but of Millais with Ruskin, because Ruskin was a hugely important figure for any young painter, whether or not the painter loved Ruskin’s wife. And Millais was, by a large margin, the most talented young artist whom Ruskin, as an art lover and art critic, was ever to meet.

I have said that Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portait, tell the same story. But it cannot be quite the same story. Even if the narrative is based on real life, still the people in it have to come alive, and sound like living people, in a film or in a novel. And if they are to come alive, they have to have some freedom to go their own way. Also, if you have an idea for a character in a film or a novel, then I think you must be free to pursue that idea as far as it can lead you. What’s the use of half-measures, in a work of imagination? But if you do push your idea as far as it will go, your picture may be more extreme than the reality actually was. I don’t know what Emma Thompson does with John Ruskin, but there have been some critical rumblings in Ruskinian circles. And it may be some admirers of Ruskin will also be dismayed by my portrayal of him — though I am an admirer too, and simply think one must try to understand his pathology. Because ‘pathology’ is the word.

The main point is that the relation between a historical figure and the fictional portrayal of a historical figure cannot be ‘identity’. Maybe their relation can be like that of siblings. Emma Thompson’s Ruskin, and my Ruskin, cannot be Ruskin, the real Ruskin, but perhaps they can be as it were like Ruskin’s brother — or like his bad brother. In science fiction people speak of ‘parallel universes’, and a historical film or a historical novel can only at best be a ‘parallel universe’, it cannot be the actual historical universe. Emma Thompson’s Victorian universe, and my Victorian universe, may or may not be quite parallel to history — or to each other. And this is why I am so interested to see how she tells the story in her film. For every retelling of an event that really happened — however fictitious — may still shed light on the original event. In this case, on the history of a famous wife’s unhappiness, and her search for happiness, in one marriage — or another.

John Harvey

The Subject of a Portrait is published by Polar Books, Cheltenham 2014

 

Sexuality, repression and aestheticism: John Harvey’s ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

The Subject of a Portrait: a Novel by John Harvey. Polar Books, Cheltenham: 2014.

The Subject of a Portrait

John Harvey

John Harvey (photo: Emmanuel College website)

Apart from being the author of three previous novels, John Harvey (not the homonymous author of the Charlie Resnick crime novels) is a distinguished academic: he’s University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture at Cambridge, and a Life Fellow at my old college, Emmanuel. This interest in the ways in which visual art and fiction intertwine is reflected in this novel, and in his two books on the socio-cultural and literary significance of the colour black.  Men In Black (1995) explores the meaning of clothing and colour, and in particular the way that Victorian men’s clothing went dark, reflecting the constraint and self-abnegation of that period. He explores how Dickens and Ruskin (subject of the novel under discussion here) assessed its ‘paradoxical aspects of repression and self-assertion’. The Story of Black (2013) develops this theme in broader symbolic terms, including aesthetically and sexually.

John Ruskin: self portrait, 1861

John Ruskin: self portrait, 1861

I mention this background because The Subject of a Portrait is deeply concerned with the repressed and conflicted consciousness of the eminent Victorian critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900), the eponymous Subject of the Portrait by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (1829-96). The novel is about the famous love triangle involving Ruskin, his younger wife Effie (1828-97), and Millais.

Effie Gray had been born in the Scottish house where Ruskin’s grandfather had committed suicide – an event that is portrayed in the novel as a dark foreshadowing of the catastrophe of her marriage to Ruskin, which took place in 1848 – the same year that Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with his friends Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Millais met her in 1852, when she posed for the figure of the doughty Scots wife in his painting ‘The Order of Release’.

Millais in 1854

Millais in 1854

The story is well known and frequently filmed, dramatised on stage and on radio, as well as forming the basis of a number of previous works of fiction by, among others, Emma Donoghue (the story ‘Come, Gentle Night’, in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, 2002, recounts the disastrous wedding night, when Ruskin was apparently repelled by Effie’s physical form, which differed from that of the classical statues which represented his ideal of female beauty). The marriage was annulled in 1854 on the grounds of non-consummation and Ruskin’s ‘incurable impotency’.

Events came to a head when the three, accompanied initially by Millais’ brother William, undertook a trip to the Trossachs (around 1853) where Millais had been commissioned by his patron Ruskin to paint his portrait. As Millais notices the strains in the Ruskins’ marriage and the husband’s high-handed treatment of his young wife, he falls in love with her, and she responds to his growing ardour. As noted just now, she tried to seduce John into a full sexual relationship (‘Make me your wife’, she urges him), but he is repelled by her advances and nakedness. His rejection is portrayed with chilling fervour by Harvey: ‘He drew back, as though a serpent crouched there’. When she asked him what was wrong with her, ‘He said in an odd, soft, mealy voice, “It is how you are made”’. When she shows herself hurt and confused, he describes her as his ‘curse’, she is ‘mis-formed, and mad’. When he confesses to a mysterious ‘vice’ of his own, it is her turn to feel a ‘spasm of revulsion’, and she spurns him, dispatching him from her room. He flings a last venomous insult at her: ‘scorpion’. When he has gone she realises he is dead to her as a husband, and she belongs to Everett.

Millais, The Highland Lassie, c.1854, Delaware Art Museum, seems to be a portrait of Effie

Millais, The Highland Lassie, c.1854, Delaware Art Museum, seems to be a portrait of Effie

Earlier she had admitted to Everett that she was still a virgin after five years of marriage: ‘”John does not like children. He calls them bits of putty. He says their eyes are like rat’s hair…We live like angels…It is John’s wish. He wants my figure not to spoil…”’ John’s confused sexuality is thus revealed as the novel progresses: his preference is for pre-pubescent girls, although there are glimpses of a homoerotic feeling towards Everett which he disguises as another ‘angelic’ ardour.

 

The second part of the novel deals with the aftermath of the Scottish trip, when the Ruskins returned to their Herne Hill marital home in London, and their marriage collapsed. Effie is aided by her friend Lady Eastlake to gain the legal annulment that freed her to marry Millais a year later, in 1855.

The story is summed up in the striking cover image, of Millais’ unfinished portrait of Ruskin (shown in my picture at the start of this piece). As the narrative shows, his method was to paint in the background of portraits in photographic detail, leaving the outline of the figure blank, a ‘white silhouette’ to be filled in later, in this case in London, as the novel shows. The scenes in Millais’ studio where Ruskin visits him to pose are painfully realised. Ruskin adopts a range of humiliating tactics, acting as the outraged innocent husband, betrayed by his protégé (even though Millais swears that although his love for Effie is reciprocated, they did not have a sex during the Highland trip), and then suggesting the three of them enter into a triadic relationship. Millais becomes increasingly angry and frustrated with his patron’s bizarre, mercurial behaviour, and angrily rebuts this offer. Harvey astutely refrains from judging Ruskin, and by showing his occasional self-disgust and shame reveals him as a fallible human, rather than a monstrous stereotype of Victorian perversion. When he faces crises in his marriage or dealings with Millais Ruskin slips revealingly into mincing baby-talk and infantile behaviour.

Millais, The Order of Release, 1853

Millais, The Order of Release, 1853; Effie Gray posed for the figure of the Highland wife, saving her rebel husband from the British

The novel is written in a style that verges on pastiche of the high Victorian prose style, but which, like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, includes touches of modernity that remind us that it’s a modern sensibility behind the prose, as I hope the extracts I have quoted so far indicate. (There are occasional lapses into modern idiom, as when Everett’s brother asks him about his marriage plans with Effie: ‘”Next summer, right?”’ But perhaps this was an 1850s  usage after all? Maybe a specialist in Victorian linguistic style could clarify.) Presumably Harvey has used the letters and other documents available, such as the book by Millais’s grandson William Milbourne James, The Order of Release: The story of John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais (1943), based on the letters of the three characters. The dialogue in particular has the ring of authenticity in its register and idiom.

Effie Ruskin

Effie Ruskin

As I read it first time, I was surprised by the plot’s romanticism: the yearning, passionate love that grows furtively then increasingly openly between Effie and Everett is represented in touching detail. What prevents the novel from straying too far into sentimentality is the sobering, baleful presence of the repressed, tormented figure of Ruskin. He is portrayed as sexually a complete mess. He’s tormented by phallic nightmares of snakes. In Scotland Effie is perturbed by his liaisons with a dodgy figure who turns out to be a supplier of the pornographic images of ‘maids’, like the nine-year-old hotel maid whom Ruskin admits he is ‘half in love with’. Effie recalls that she was only twelve herself when she first met him, and he idolises her little sister Sophie. His response reveals his nature: ‘”I’m so old I can’t tell these things. But that is the age where beauty dwells, we spoil as we grow big.”’

Later, in a passage of interior monologue from Ruskin’s viewpoint, he reflects how even Millais has lost his allure, now that he had passed the age of being ‘maiden-fair’; he now ‘had the un-sweet voice of a man.’

 Soon he would be – the male beast. Oh, animality – the pink stick of a dog in the street, two flies on a pane, the stallion rammed into the dripping mare. But away with brutishness. The perfect beloved must be young and new, delicate-fresh from the Maker’s hand. The tiny body not yet awake, perfect in shape – a fine gold down just appears on her lip. Lower, there is Heaven’s gate: he must never approach it.

Ruskin, in this portrayal by Harvey, emerges as asexual rather than nympholeptic, homosexual or a paedophile; his parents seem (as Larkin would agree) to be partly responsible for arresting his sexual development at a pre-pubescent stage of his own: he is not so much sexually attracted to little girls, as sexually repelled by adults.

Millais, Blind Girl

Millais’s lush style is apparent in ‘The Blind Girl’, 1856; Harvey’s novel relates the scene in which Millais sees this girl, who has a profound impact on him

The Subject of a Portrait is a subtle, engaging and intelligent exploration of some of the iconic figures of the Victorian literary and artistic period. We are familiar with the notion that the Victorians were a strange mixture of sexual repression and prurience; this novel brings to life these contradictions with style and great narrative skill. The characters of Millais and Effie are far from romantic stereotypes; their passion is depicted as convincingly as Heathcliff and Cathy’s. But it’s the strangely sympathetic portrayal of the monstrous innocent Ruskin, with his angels and demons in constant conflict, that dominates the narrative and lingers in the memory.

As I reach the end of this piece it occurs to me that this novel has much in common thematically with the Henry James’s story that I wrote about here recently; both ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ and this finely tuned novel by Harvey deal with the curious Victorian blurring of sexuality, repression and aestheticism.

(All illustrations are in the public domain; cover photo my own)

The finished portrait of Ruskin by Millais

The finished portrait of Ruskin by Millais