Visions of Light: Gender and the Photographic Imagination in Victorian Poetry

Kiser, Heather, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Tucker, Herbert, Department of English, University of Virginia
Stauffer, Andrew, Department of English, University of Virginia
Booth, Alison, Department of English, University of Virginia
Blatt, Ari, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

The status of photography as a legitimate art form was a matter of intense debate in the nineteenth century. Despite unprecedented literary opportunities, women also faced challenges attaining full recognition as poets. Women poets seemed to be a contradiction in terms, just as the technological nature of photography seemed to clash with the idea of artistic creativity being based in human originality. This dissertation investigates how the development of photography and the increasing presence of women poets in the literary marketplace offer different but complementary perspectives on the problematic concept of creative vision in the nineteenth century. In this project, I explore the Victorian preoccupation with the nature of vision as both a mechanical and a creative process and the relationship of this idea to evolving theories of art as the result of vision and the artist’s role as mediator of vision. I argue that the Victorian idea of vision as conductor of the creative imagination engages the problem of modern subject formation on multiple levels: the construction of individual subjectivity, the social function of art, and the conception of gender.

Using a variety of critical methods—psychoanalysis, semiotics, cultural anthropology, dramatic theory, postmodern theory, and gender theory—I examine how the work of four women poets and photographers illuminates the connection between artistic vision and subjectivity. The first chapter explores Christina Rossetti’s use of a liminal position in her poem “The Convent Threshold” to conceptualize her own relationship to creative vision in a photographic manner that combines imagination with fact. Concentrating on the mirror as a trope in Augusta Webster’s interior monologues “By the Looking-Glass” and “Faded” and in Clementina Hawarden’s domestic photography, the second chapter proposes that these works reveal individual subjectivity to be a type of self-reflection that is performative. The third chapter shows how Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic tableaux vivants in her edition of Tennyson’s _Idylls of the King_ displays the performative power of art by representing the boundary between the sign and the signified as open to change, a potential that she cautions may be destructive if misunderstood.

Although the difficult negotiations Victorian women artists/poets often performed between the contradictory aesthetic positions of subject and object have received a great deal of critical attention, and much work has also been done on photography’s relation to art, subject-formation, and the “real” in its early years, the connection between the liminal status of photography as a contested art form and the similar position of women poets as artists in the literary world has not been addressed. I seek to fill this critical gap by elucidating what I perceive as a crucial relationship between photography’s development and that of women poets as recognized artists in the Victorian era. Examining the ways in which these two categories tackle the debate about the status of art and the role of the artist offer a new perspective on the complex association among art, technology, gender, and subjectivity in this period.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
English literature, Victorian period, artist, art, poet, poetry, window, threshold, dramatic monologue, mirror, tableau vivant, illustration, performativity, photography, vision, gender, subjectivity, liminality, the gaze, creativity, Christina Rossetti, Augusta Webster, Clementina Hawarden, Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Tennyson, Idylls of the King
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