Monday 10 February 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: L is for Laura's Landscapes

In an earlier post I looked at the earnest portrayal of the difficulties of female artistic agency in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetic novel Aurora Leigh (1856), looking at how women’s position as art objects (often in portraiture) made their role as artists problematic.

 We see something similar as a more minor strand of the narrative in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860-1) where Laura Fairlie’s artistic efforts are repeatedly undermined and, importantly, the works she does produce are landscapes – excluded as she is from the world of portraiture, where men paint and women are portrayed.

Laura’s paintings are never described and Walter, her drawing master and later husband refuses to assess her work:

‘All serious criticism on the drawings, even if I had been disposed to volunteer it, was rendered impossible by Miss Halcombe's lively resolution to see nothing but the ridiculous side of the Fine Arts, as practised by herself, her sister, and ladies in general.’

The ‘masculine’ Marian (Miss Halcombe) derides Laura’s artistic skill (and that of all women) from the outset, and draws attention to the fact that what they sketch is landscape, rather than people:

‘After lunch, Miss Fairlie and I shoulder our sketch-books, and go out to misrepresent Nature, under your directions. Drawing is her favourite whim, mind, not mine. Women can't draw—their minds are too flighty, and their eyes are too inattentive. No matter—my sister likes it; so I waste paint and spoil paper, for her sake, as composedly as any woman in England.’

Laura Fairlie and Walter Hartwright in John McLenan's illustration
 Women are shown to be frivolous and childlike in their engagement with art here – the very way in which Romney views Aurora’s poetic ambitions. Later, Laura is tricked into believing that her art is supporting the family, when in fact her production of watercolour landscapes is part of her infantilisation and protection from the truth, even though she begs ‘Oh, don't, don't, don't treat me like a child!’.

Marian on the other hand is referred to repeatedly as masculine and, perhaps because of this, a large section of the novel can be written in her voice, giving her the opportunity to portray in words if not in paint. Count Fosco describes her diary as a species of portraiture, in which he (a ‘feminine’ man) becomes are object:
‘I feel how vivid an impression I must have produced to have been painted in such strong, such rich, such massive colours as these.’

For Walter however, Laura is an object not an artist, and her decline into almost madness and regression into childhood seems to intensify his desire. During their initial period together he writes:

‘At one time it seemed like something [was] wanting in HER: at another, like something [was] wanting in myself, which hindered me from understanding her as I ought.’

And, over the course of plot, Walter is made more stereotypically masculine by adventuring abroad, while Laura is made more feminine by her incarceration and loss of subjectivity.

Walter is the portrait painter not Laura – she only produces poorly imitated landscapes. And although Walter expresses dissatisfaction with his own art it is for very different reasons. He writes:

‘Does my poor portrait of her, my fond, patient labour of long and happy days, show me these things? Ah, how few of them are in the dim mechanical drawing, and how many in the mind with which I regard it!’

We might expect that the failure of portraiture suggests an interiority for the sitter which art fails to capture, but the dichotomy which is actually created is between the drawing of Laura and Walter’s own conception of her – not how she is in herself. Laura fails as an artist – she is simply a producer of mediocre landscapes – but she important as an art object because of the reaction she provokes in men:

‘Sympathies that lie too deep for words, too deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, by [her] charms.’

What should be M in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post, thanks. Incidentally, as a character, Laura is a faint and pale as her feeble sketches and Walter refers more frequently to a painted image of her than to his actual memories of her. It's Marian that colours the family in and allows them to live as the idealised family portrait at the end of the novel.