WOMEN WRITERS AND THE ARTIFACTS OF CELEBRITY IN THE LONG NINETEENTH CENTURY by Ann Hawkins and Maura Ives, eds., Reviewed by Tom Mole
 

WOMEN WRITERS AND THE ARTIFACTS OF CELEBRITY IN THE LONG NINETEENTH CENTURY
Eds. Ann Hawkins and Maura Ives
(Ashgate, 2012) xiv + 280pp.
Reviewed by Tom Mole on 2012-07-31.

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At first glance, celebrity culture and material culture might seem like strange bedfellows. A lot of material products are certainly required to support the celebrity apparatus -- from the newspapers and magazines that purvey information about celebrities' private lives to the products that celebrities endorse. But the people, and not the products, seem to be the point of celebrity culture. In some cases, the products are presented as a conduit for information about the people. In others, the products become desirable through their association with the people. So the consumer of celebrity culture is asked to look past the artifact, as it were, to see the individual. Often, the material artifacts of celebrity are valued not in themselves but for the connection they seem to offer between the consumer and the celebrity.

Paradoxically, this tendency to re-imagine cultural consumption as a more-or-less unmediated encounter between individuals makes celebrity a powerful force in the commodification of everyday life. By rendering the material products of celebrity culture transparent, and thus keeping the conditions of their production invisible, celebrity culture allows a variety of material products directly or indirectly associated with celebrities to be produced, circulated, and consumed. But if we wish to develop a critical understanding of celebrity culture, rather than an unreflective absorption in it, we need to look closely at precisely those products that invite us to look through them, treating the products themselves as objects of enquiry, rather than as the media that enable an asymmetrical relationship with the celebrity him- or herself. Once we stop thinking about celebrities and start thinking about celebrity culture, in other words, we can see that celebrity culture and material culture were made for each other.

The premise of this book, then, is an excellent one. It promises to tackle the complex gendered nature of celebrity culture, to focus on the material artifacts that enabled it, and to place both the culture and the artifacts in their historical context. Though long overlooked by accounts of celebrity from within cultural studies, the importance of this context has been recently asserted by a number of studies of the cultural history of celebrity. The present book considers a variety of artifacts: photographs, frontispieces, birthday books, calendars, tombstones, writing desks, a spoon believed to have belonged to one celebrated woman, a fragment of wallpaper from her room, a scrap of silk from her dress. In some cases these artifacts are relics thought to have been handled by the celebrity or otherwise associated with his or her physical presence. In other cases they are mass-produced items designed to assume some of the aura of relics by association with the celebrity.

The most common kind of artifacts discussed here, however, are books. And this is where things get a bit more complicated, because books are particularly complex kinds of artifacts, with both material and discursive dimensions, operating through what Jerome McGann has called the "double helix of perceptual codes: the linguistic codes, on one hand, and the bibliographical codes, on the other" (The Textual Condition [1991], 77). Some of the essays here highlight the latter. Maura Ives's essay on Birthday Books, for instance, examines a popular kind of Victorian book that placed quotations for each day of the year opposite blank leaves where the book's owners could collect the autographs of their friends next to the dates of their birthdays. Besides describing the physical form of these books in illuminating detail and showing how it changed over time, Ives also explains how different readers used them (not always as intended). She thus treats the books as artifacts, reading them for their bibliographical codes.

By contrast, Katie Halsey's essay on the posthumous construction of Jane Austen's reputation shows how early biographies by members of her family portrayed her as modest, domestic, feminine, and religious. This portrayal shaped later biographical notices in editions of her novels, which in turn shaped critical responses to her work. Valuable though it is in supplementing Kathryn Sutherland's Jane Austen's Textual Lives (2005), this essay treats its sources as discursive, not artifactual. The Austen examined here is a discursive construct, and the books in question are treated primarily as the vehicles of that discourse. Similarly, in reading two memoirs of literary women by their sons -- W.B. Maxwell on Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Charles Wood on Ellen Price Wood (Mrs Henry Wood) -- Jennifer Phegley suggests that both men portray their mothers as fundamentally domestic, nurturing women who valued their professional writing lives well below their family obligations. In doing so, both men implicitly carve out a space for themselves as modern professional male writers, ready to emerge from their mothers' shadows.

Whether contributors choose artifactual or discursive approaches to celebrity, they implicitly suggest that celebrity has both material and discursive elements, constantly referring to each other and typically (but not always) reinforcing one another. Recognizing this symbiosis, some of the most interesting essays in this volume explore the relationships between material and discursive elements of celebrity. Linda H. Peterson's essay on Alice Meynell, for example, shows how her identity was branded through a combination of book design, interviews, engravings, photographs and spin-off products such as the "Modern Poets Calendar" for 1897. Marie Corelli, Lizzie White argues, was branded by similar means. Though she long refused to have her own portrait circulated, the public identity signaled by her adoption of a pen name was reinforced by the gold-embossed monograms on her books as well as by the characters within them who were read as portraits of Corelli. Paratextual, bibliographical, textual and extra-textual elements worked together. When Corelli eventually consented to having her photograph published, it was extensively retouched to make her appear younger and slimmer.

These essays show the close connections between the artifacts of celebrity and the discourses of celebrity, and the ways in which the two can meld together in a printed codex. The Countess of Blessington offers a case in point. Ann R. Hawkins argues that Blessington's reputation for sexual laxity was only posthumous, and that during her lifetime she was thought to be respectable as well as beautiful. Several portraits that were exhibited in public and circulated through engravings established her reputation for beauty, but they were frequently described as falling short of "the lovely original." The outward beauty of her appearance was supposed to reflect the inner beauty of virtue and good breeding. When Blessington published books, then, they too were expected to be beautiful in both senses: written gracefully and stylishly, conveying only respectable opinions, and produced as high quality artifacts, with fine paper, type, and bindings. They were just the kind of books that a beautiful woman should produce if she became a writer. So Blessington was the ideal candidate to edit Heath's Book of Beauty, an annual that both celebrated beauty in its contents and embodied it in its production. The artifacts and the discourse of Blessington's celebrity, then, worked in concert. But they didn't always work in her favour. When she turned to satire in Victims of Society (1837), she seemed to neglect "her obligations as a beautiful woman" (75) and was harshly reviewed as a result.

Besides the artifacts produced by the celebrity industry, other artifacts gained cachet by association with celebrities. Alexis Easley and Troy J. Bassett analyze celebrity interviews, especially those that take place in the celebrity's home and often include a photograph. Building on the work of Richard Salmon ("Signs of Intimacy: The Literary Celebrity in the 'Age of Interviewing,'" Victorian Literature and Culture 25.1 (1997) 159-77), they note how much attention interviewers paid to interior decoration as a material sign or manifestation of a celebrated author's personality. Fans who decorated their own homes in similar fashion found yet another way to connect with celebrities by means of artifacts -- even mass-produced ones. Those who couldn't afford the things celebrities had sometimes tried other means of obtaining them. Having seen a violin in a picture of one of Marie Corelli's rooms, an admirer wrote to ask if she could have "one of your old violins," and added, "Please don't be cross." (qtd. 143).

Photographs or descriptions of celebrities at home, however, could also reveal the artifacts they didn't have. Bassett notes that many of the female celebrities interviewed in an 1893 collection had either no writing desk of their own or only a modest one. Like Jane Austen (according to her first biographers), they worked in the common areas of the house and put away their writing materials when guests came to call. Opening the private spaces of women writers to scrutiny, then, not only helped to create a sense of intimacy between writer and reader; it also reassured readers that these women were not hardened professionals, but -- as supposedly became their sex -- domestic creatures who fitted their writing around the demands of their families.

This book helps us to see some of the complex ways in which gender and celebrity intersect. Focussing on women, on literary celebrity, and on the nineteenth century in Britain, America and Canada, it usefully explains how women writers were both empowered and constrained by celebrity culture in gender-specific ways. Whether they treat the celebrity of nineteenth-century women writers as primarily a discursive construct, a product of artifacts, or both, the contributors significantly enhance our understanding of the cultural history of celebrity: a history now emerging from the growing number of books on this topic. The conjunction of gender, celebrity and material culture make this book essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the cultural history of literary celebrity in the nineteenth century.

Tom Mole is Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar at McGill University, and Principal Investigator of the Interacting with Print Research Group.


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