Imagery In the Victorian Era: Idealized vs Actual
Victorian Imagery: Actual vs Idealized
Victorian Era arts, both literary and traditional, developed a very interesting divergence from the established norms of the time through the use of realism. Realism as a literary technique allowed writers to convey rhetoric in new ways and we see the advent of technological innovations which afforded individuals unparalleled levels of accuracy in portraits of people and events. The camera, specifically, was a device which was capable of delivering pictures with an element previously unseen in portraits: a representation of things as they actually appeared. A commissioned artist – especially one commissioned by the royal family – presumably had an agenda of their own: their painting or drawing has a specific purpose to serve and a message to convey. This can very clearly be seen in Thomas Parris’ painting of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. As an artist commissioned by the royal family to capture such an important event, a certain amount of embellishment and “creative liberties” are included. Parris employed the use of “sittings … from her majesty and all the chief personages who were present” in order to sketch proper posture and body position for subjects (Lee). Additionally, Parris greatly expanded the size of the venue – creating a far more expansive space and allowing a larger number of spectators to appear in the portrait. Thomas Parris subverted realism by presenting a portrait with exaggerated features and added illusions of grandeur.
Conversely, the camera (at the time, at least) created pictures without an artist’s interpretations of the truth and instead presented the whole, realistic truth. The photographed portrait of Queen Victoria in 1900, exposed a new element of the monarch – a human element. The photograph offers an unaltered, unmitigated view of the queen which had never before been possible. The queen – in all her matriarchal glory – was no longer able to disguise her age behind the brushstrokes of portrait artists. She appeared as she was: weary, tired, old, but elegant nonetheless. The photo, which was taken the year before her death, depicts Victoria as wise and powerful; noble, even. In some respects, the picture displays Victoria far better than the somewhat fictitious renditions artists have made in their works. The camera completely removes the element of exaggeration: slightly altering a subject’s features to better convey a message, or an author penning a description evocative of the message they intended the reader to gather – things in line with their own agenda and personal views.
Realism, as a rhetorical device in the Victorian Era, was “the union of a skeptical realist epistemology with a suspenseful narrative form” (Levine, 12). In essence: a description of places and events as they actually were, but transposed into a reader-engaging format. Realism was most commonly used as a vehicle for delivering a social commentary and critique, without simply stating the issue and the beliefs the writer held. Jane Elgee presented her thoughts and experiences about how Britain, as a governing body, failed the Irish people throughout the Potato Famine in “The Famine Year” and “The Voice of the Poor”. Elgee chose to use poems as her format, which allowed her to explore some creative freedom without losing her – and, by extension, the Irish nation’s – voice. To Elgee, realism is explored and achieved through hyperbole. The only means to truly convey the mass amounts of suffering, starvation, and neglect of the Irish people to readers was to exaggerate them to seemingly impossible proportions. While Jane Elgee achieved realism through the description of real events in unreal, hyperbolic ways, Robert Browning sat at the opposite end of the spectrum. In “Caliban upon Setebos”, Browning uses realism to depict unreal things. He borrows the fictional character Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and drives the plot through the use of dramatic monologue while realistically writing about Caliban’s struggle with Setebos (his God) and theology itself. At the core, though, Browning was writing about society’s struggle in coming to terms with the extreme polarity of views on Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Realism, whether achieved through technological advances or through a writer’s story, was the face of social commentary in the Victorian Era.
Lee, Sidney, ed. (1895). Dictionary of National Biography 43. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 369.
The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt.
By Caroline Levine. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.