A Secret History of Aestheticism: Magic-Portrait Fiction, 1829-1929
Bellonby, Diana Emery
This dissertation recovers the long nineteenth-century history of the magic-portrait story, a forgotten genre of prose fiction that climaxed in 1890 with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I argue that the history of the genre constitutes the history of British aestheticism to the extent that the Victorian movement was initiated, defined, and challenged by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, Ouida, Wilde, and the many now-obscure writers who published magic-portrait stories during the movement’s heyday. Originating in Romantic literature as a variant of the Künstlerroman, or artist’s Bildungsroman, magic-portrait fiction is characterized by a thematic focus on the sexual politics of artistic mastery and a formal integration of aesthetic philosophy, both of which develop through the ekphrasis of a painted portrait. The genre provided a forum for writers to explore gender and sexual identities and to assert or critique a specifically art-critical mode of cultural authority caught up in an ideology of male artistic masters and objectified female sitters. In chapters that join obscure and canonical texts by authors such as E. T. A. Hoffmann, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Virginia Woolf, A Secret History unsettles conventional definitions of British aestheticism, generally perceived as an archive of avant-garde poetry, painting, and art criticism, revealing instead the fundamental role popular prose fiction played in the history of a high-art movement.