My Victorians: Lost in the Nineteenth Century

My Victorians: Lost in the Nineteenth Century

by Robert Clark


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My Victorians is a hybrid in both form and content, part memoir/extended lyric essay but also a work of biography, photography, and cultural, literary, and art history. This is a travelogue of writer Robert Clark’s attempt to work through a sudden and inexplicable five-year-long obsession focused on Victorian novelists, artists, architecture, and critics. He wends his way through England and Scotland, meticulously tracking down the haunts of Charles Dickens, George Gissing, John Millais, the Bloomsbury Group, and others, and documenting everything in ghostly photographs as he goes.

As Clark delves deeper into the Victorian world, he wonders: What can its artists offer a twenty-first century writer by way of insight into his own life and work? His obsession with Victoriana bleeds into all aspects of his life, even the seemingly incongruous world of online dating. My Victorians is in the spirit of Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. This book considers what happens when heartbreak, eros, faith, and doubt drive us to take refuge in the past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609386672
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 11/01/2019
Edition description: 1
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Robert Clark is the author of five books of nonfiction and five novels, most recently the nonfiction book Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces. He lives in New York City.

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ON JUNE 20, 1853, the painter John Everett Millais, the critic John Ruskin, and Ruskin's wife, born Euphemia Grey but universally known as Effie, set off for Scotland. Ruskin intended to teach Millais to paint landscape and water ("You shall see things as they Are," Ruskin liked to say). Millais planned to paint twin portraits of the Ruskins, while Effie — let's call her by her first name; she's the inspiration and the helpmate, the watcher and the watched — would sketch and embroider and read novels.

You may know something of their story: the Ruskins and their unconsummated marriage and the affair of Effie and Millais, which Ruskin may well have greeted with relief and may even, with his parents' help, have connived at. She had known since their honeymoon that Ruskin didn't want her ("the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April [1848]"); she saw that he was always elsewhere ("John is spending all his money on Missals — he has aperfect mania in that line just now"), writing the next volume of Modern Painters or The Stones of Venice, sketching rocks and outcroppings.

Myself, I have seen any number of drawings, paintings, and photos of Effie, and she seems attractive enough. She had broad, rather narrow eyes and a long elegant nose and looks a little sly — not devious, but as though she might laugh at any moment (especially if you were being overly serious), as though she might suddenly tease you, maybe flirtatiously. And while my character is a bit like Ruskin's (I have manias; I'm a bit frayed around the edges of my psyche; a little fond of solitude, wary of parties and crowds, of bodies and intimacy), I'd date Effie in an instant. I'd go moony over her, as Millais did over both of them at first: "The Ruskins are most perfect people.... She is the most delightful unselfish kind hearted creature I ever knew, it is impossible to help liking her — he is gentle and forbearing." This is from a letter that he wrote to his best friend, the painter Holman Hunt, from Glenfinlas at Brig O'Turk in the Trossachs, near Loch Lomond, the deep imaginary of Sir Walter Scott's novels, where they settled in for three months at the beginning of July.

I decided to visit Glenfinlas, but first I wanted to see everything connected with the summer of 1853: drawings by Ruskin and sketches, studies, and of course paintings by Millais. The bulk of it was in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford: Ruskin's drawing of the gneiss rock along the river; Millais's studies of Ruskin standing amid waterfalls on the same formation; and the finished portrait.

In the library, they gave me white cotton gloves to wear and let me handle the drawings, chiefly Ruskin's Study of Gneiss, which took a kind of possession of me. It was uniformly gray, a lampblack wash and pen over pencil. There was vegetation along the upper edge — ferns, honeysuckle, a spindly ash tree — but nothing but rock below, sloping toward the lower right corner, striated in the same direction, globular, as though it had melted and run, pooling in a horizontal lobe at the bottom.

That doesn't sound like much, and perhaps the formation itself is nothing remarkable. But Ruskin bore down microscopically on its particulars, gave them a kind of attention that for me made the whole almost impossibly vivid — something that was not present when I saw the actual formation, whereas in the drawing it seemed to leap out at me, compelling me to see it in a way I had previously been incapable of seeing.

Downstairs in the main gallery, I stood a long time before Millais's portrait of Ruskin. Ruskin is in a frock coat, a high collar and tie, and tapered gray trousers that lap the tops of his sleek black shoes, holding what at the time would have been considered a casual brown hat — none of it casual by our standards. He's looking downstream, half in reverie, half watching; seeing, as he would have it. There's a green and chestnut cast to the overall hue of the painting, and you can unmistakably make out the gneiss formation that Ruskin drew. The rendering of the water, which was one of the points of the expedition, is not — to my eye — entirely successful: the foam and eddies look more like stratus clouds than pooling water and the waterfalls curtain down statically rather than roiling and pouring. Ruskin, who took Millais to Scotland to help him master painting it, did better in his own drawing of gneiss.

Still, it's a good painting. Millais was, for my money, the best of the Pre-Raphaelites; the least mannered and willfully eccentric, the most technically competent. Crucially, to me, he had a grasp of emotional truth, not just of Ruskin's "true-to-nature" imperative but of human tenderness. He had a gift for portraying women and girls that avoided both the vampery of Rossetti's "stunners" and the Technicolor hyperrealism (save for the faces and heads) of his friend Holman Hunt.

I have, truth be told, mostly mixed feelings about the Pre-Raphaelites. I love the dreaminess, the narcoticized erotic that begins in Rossetti and ends, beautifully, in Burne-Jones. But then there's the stuff that makes me cringe, paintings that make my teeth hurt, cloying, candy-colored, earnest, and amateurish — wincingly corny by the lights of the twenty-first century. The painting that epitomizes this for me was also in Oxford, at Keble College: Holman Hunt's The Light of the World, the most popular painting of the Victorian age. People stood in line, rooted, stunned and weeping before it. It was endlessly reproduced, and Hunt himself made two more versions of it.

I went to see it that same day, after leaving the Ashmolean. In part, I went to find out if I could stand it, if I could see anything to like in it or at least to understand. I didn't want to mock it or hold it in contempt: I had, I liked to think, a broad sympathy for the Victorians; they fascinated me as the missals, rocks, and Turners fascinated Ruskin. I wanted to meet them halfway, to comprehend what they saw in it, even if I saw very little.

There was another reason to see it, which I only became aware of later: The Light of the World was the painting that Hunt was working on at the same time Millais was working on Ruskin's portrait. Moreover, Millais and Hunt had a passionate friendship, which we would be inclined to pathologize much as we do the taste of the people who loved The Light of the World. Hunt was, in fact, meant to join Millais and the Ruskins on the expedition to Scotland. Millais openly wept and keened when he learned that Hunt couldn't make it, too busy traveling to the Holy Land and working on The Light of the World.

We like to categorize Victorian desire within our categories, not theirs, so we believe that it was always repressed and constructed by forces they couldn't — unlike us — reflect on; they couldn't, despite Ruskin, see things straight. That goes doubly for Ruskin himself: How could he reject Effie in favor of virginity or aestheticism or whatever it was? Most of the proffered explanations are risible (chiefly that he couldn't bear the sight of her pubic hair), but without any resort to theory I wonder the same thing — merely on account of Effie's beauty, on the basis of my own attraction. Ruskin's rejection of her seems as incomprehensible as liking The Light of the World; maybe it's even somehow the same thing.

I'd seen The Light of the World twenty-five years ago on loan to the Tate Gallery and described it in an essay as "an exaltation of corn ... Jesus with his lantern, trick-or-treating for souls on Pumpkin Night ... you die of embarrassment." I'd like to say that I was now less smug, but when I got to the Keble College chapel where the painting sits behind a rope, illuminated by a timed spot that you ignite by pressing a button, I still couldn't bear it. It was smaller than I imagined or remembered, and I thought the size — so much awfulness in a tiny package — made it even more absurd. And I saw now that one of its main absurdities was the size of Christ's head, which — allowing for perspective (which Hunt was generally pretty good at) — was smaller than the lamp he carried. That his head was surmounted by a crown and his chin festooned with a russet beard made it that much worse. I took a selfie — maybe selfies are to us what The Light of the World was to Victorians: transfixing, essential, an anchor in a fragmented world. I didn't have to feign my distaste. But then there were the eyes: sad, confused, deprived of any triumphalism or even much confidence. I knew the theological reasons why Christ might look that way — that in order to bring this light into the world he will have to suffer and die; still more, that the people he's bringing it to are as likely as not to reject it — but I was mainly flummoxed: in those two inches or so, there was something that felt very much like truth, like something previously unseen made visible, into art. The eyes might have even fit our contemporary definition of art — shock and awe undergone in a museum — because they were troubling, impossible to parse if you gave the painting half a chance, if the scales dropped from your own eyes.

When I'd left my home in Seattle for England, I had more in mind than research. I'd been divorced five years and been dating online but without much success. But in London, I thought, I might have better luck: with my interests and in a large population center full of artists, intellectuals, scholars, and writers, there ought to be more suitable types than I found in Seattle and not a few fellow Victorianists. That was the card I played most heavily when I posted a profile on the dating site of the Guardian:

I'm American, a transatlantic commuter, not exactly an innocent abroad but, despite quite a few years resident in Europe, someone whose midwestern roots show in the manner of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby characters: naivety bruised but with a capacity for wonder still intact, rowing sometimes unwisely against the current.

I'm an author (of both novels and nonfiction) and teach creative writing in a university MFA course, and I'm pretty free to live where and how I please, generally depending on whatever writing project I'm pursuing. My latest obsession is Victoriana, or really Victoromania, chiefly my own, which has crept up on me over the last decade and seems in many ways inexplicable but extends to art, architecture, novels, Ruskin, Gissing, Dickens, Gaskell, C. Rossetti, trains and ruins, etc. (Also recently crazy about Forster, Mansfield, Bowen, Taylor.) I'm open to putting down deeper roots in England: my ancestors emigrated from Suffolk and London 300 years ago, but what's a few years' hiatus? At present, I'm here about six months a year, but should I meet someone special ...

I've been divorced five years, I'm fit, and my photos were all taken within the last eighteen months. I'm politically progressive and a diffident Anglo-Catholic, but will only mention the latter if asked, though I do like to visit churches. I'm introverted but not cripplingly so, sybaritic when it comes to food and wine, and, so I'm told, quite funny. Need music (classical, art song, much more), films, espresso, wine, humor, and books to function, and — who knows? — maybe you. You don't have to wear a bonnet and muslin but I wouldn't mind if you were pretty, fit, and happy in your vocation and busy finding your heart's desire.

I hadn't quite thought through what would happen if anyone responded — if I was really prepared to move 5,000 miles for the right person — but I was joining the site on a lark, with no expectations, or so I told myself. If anyone replied, I'd be clear about my situation and at least I might make a friend.

But there were quite a few responses, particularly from art historians, museum curators, and scholars and fans of Victorian history, literature, and art. I'd imagined my own Victoromania to be a pretty singular thing; maybe, in truth, I liked it that way. It made me special and, if eccentric, eccentric in my own fashion; in — when you got down to it — a Victorian way. Now I had discovered that I wasn't alone; reading their e-mails and gazing at their photos, I saw that there were women I could share my obsession with and maybe become lovers too. Victoromania plus companionship plus sex: for these I would compromise my eccentricity. And if I had no luck, I'd still have my solitude, my books and camera, my private world.

My first date was with a feminist art historian, Annie, not exactly a Victorianist but funny and incisive. We bantered and laughed a lot on our first two dates, though she was a bit incredulous when I mentioned that I taught writing at a church-affiliated university. She wondered what sort of nonsense I believed; still more, how art and the creative process could be taught and flourish in such an environment. I hastened to explain that I wasn't one of them, that when I'd applied for the job I'd suggested otherwise, played along, gone through the motions. In fact, on the job application and contract I'd pretty happily assented to the bulk of Christian dogma without much compunction, knowing that any number of adherents struggled with the same doubts. I didn't quite believe but I didn't quite not believe, not enough to renounce it in a thoroughgoing way — except over dinner with an attractive woman. I'd let her construe whatever she wanted about my not being one of them. If she pressed me further, I'd tell myself and her that I was being nuanced rather than evasive. Art, among other things, was surely about nuance.

On our second date we'd done some passionate kissing in her car when she dropped me off at my flat. So this date, our third, might culminate in something, cement us or undo us. That was the night of the day I'd gone to Oxford and communed with Ruskin, Millais, and Holman Hunt.

I gave her a full report, showing her my dyspeptic selfie in front of The Light of the World, and we had a good laugh. But what I went on about was Ruskin's Study of Gneiss. She looked at the shot I'd taken of it on my phone and shook her head: "He didn't add anything with this, didn't advance art in any way." It was an illustration, a meticulous rendering that was no more than the sum of its parts.

I argued with her. I said that maybe she was partially right: it was photographic, everything was foreground, and that represented a way of seeing that was strange and new at the time. It was Ruskin's own dictum of truth-to-nature, of "seeing things as they Are," made manifest. He'd argued, in fact, that no kind of observation was more fundamental to art than geology:

[The laws of the organization of the earth] are in the landscape the foundation of all other truths — the most necessary, therefore, even if they were not in themselves attractive; but they are as beautiful as they are essential, and every abandonment of them by the artist must end in deformity as it begins in falsehood.

But Annie was unswayed and, I sensed, impatient. I went back to The Light of the World in hopes of easing the mood, but to not much effect: we'd already been over that, and the evening had seized up at some earlier moment. I didn't bring up the Hunt eyes, of course.

When she dropped me off, we didn't kiss. We met a week later. Over dinner I also told her that I was going back to America in two weeks, something that I was sure I'd already mentioned — that I'd made explicit. She said, though, that I'd misled her about my intentions. She looked angry and also hurt; she'd felt something, which was something I hadn't planned on. I never heard from her again.

He's made me real, Effie seemed to say when Millais first painted her in The Order of Release. In 1851 the Ruskins had visited Millais's house in Gower Street — the birthplace of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — in the wake of Ruskin's influential letters to the Times in defense of the movement. They'd stayed in touch, and in early 1853 Ruskin suggested that Effie pose for Millais's entry in that year's Royal Academy Exhibition. Writing a friend about the finished painting, The Order of Release, Effie said, "My head you would know anywhere. In fact it is exactly like ... absurdly like; any body who has ever seen me once would remember it was somebody they knew."

There are five figures in the picture: A Jacobite prisoner of war, his guard, a dog, Effie, and the infant she's holding. No faces are fully visibly except hers. The theme of the painting — the reunion of the Jacobite rebel with his wife and child — would seem to dictate that her expression be overcome by emotion, by tears or joy. But she's impassive, not nonplussed but cryptic, inscrutable. Millais's faces of women are like this: from his Ophelia two years earlier to his portrait of Effie's sister Sophie four years later, these women are not quite present but suspended in moments of intense but unreadable feeling; maybe on the near or far verge of consciousness — dreams, sleep, shock — but, to me, refusing to be read, to reveal themselves, to be seen.


Excerpted from "My Victorians"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Robert Clark.
Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1. Love,
CHAPTER 2. Money,
CHAPTER 3. Difficulties,
CHAPTER 4. Modern Times,
CHAPTER 5. Jenny Wren,
Selected Bibliography,

What People are Saying About This

Patricia Hampl

“Writing fiction or nonfiction, Robert Clark is always mesmerizing. But this small masterwork of historical exploration is something special, moving deftly from personal obsession to cool historical consideration, never losing the narrative beat. My Victorians is passionate, clear-eyed, acute in its analysis. But are these Victorians? Surely he’s shown us ourselves.”—Patricia Hampl, author, The Art of the Wasted Day

Ted Scheinman

My Victorians is an astonishing blend of literary history and autobiography. Alternating between frank memoir, rigorous research, and ecstatic ekphrasis, Clark illuminates the griefs, uncertainties, pieties, and odd hopes of his Victorians. His success is that he manages to make his infatuations ours as well, drawing us into his own idiosyncratic world that thrums with poetry and painting and nineteenth-century ghosts. The book is called My Victorians, but as Clark shows, they’re very much our Victorians, too.”—Ted Scheinman, author, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan

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