Kate Mitchell, The [Other] Art of Fiction: Portraits in Neo-Victorian Literature

Join us for this week’s CuSPP Seminar (taking place in-person)

Thursday 24 June, 4.30 – 6pm, AD Hope Conference Room, First Floor, AD Hope Bldg

The painted portrait features in a number of Victorian novels, often invested with the power to divulge a hidden truth about its subject. Portraits also recur in neo-Victorian fiction, though here they may conceal as much as they reveal: in A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which romanticises the written text, the portrait of Christabel LaMotte can only reveal her close relationship to Maud once this information has already come to light through other, textual means. Whereas Byatt’s text describes ‘fictional’ portraits, a number of other neo-Victorian novels construct their narratives around actual pieces of art, imagining the lives of the painters, those of their subjects, or both.

This paper investigates the practice of ekphrastically incorporating historical works of art into neo-Victorian literature, focusing on Deborah Davis’s evocation of John Singer Sargent’s (in)famous portrait Madame X in her literary nonfiction Strapless (2003). When it appeared at the Paris Salon of 1884, the portrait of a Parisian socialite, Virginie Gautreau, showed one strap of her dress falling from her shoulder, causing a scandal that ruined Gautreau’s reputation. Sargent later painted the strap back on, and this is how the portrait appears today. I examine Davis’s imaginative recovery of the earlier image, and what it suggests to us about the power of art to reconstruct the past. How is art conceptualised as historical trace? Strapless makes the image of a woman offered for public consumption, and the story of how this consumes her life, speak to twenty-first century celebrity culture and its prurient fascination with publicly circulated images and the private lives behind them. Since it also exploits and extrapolates upon the portrait of Madame X and the associated scandal, it also speaks to contemporary fascination with, and uses of, Victorian celebrity in fiction today.

Image: fragment of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent, 1884. Source: wikimedia

Kate Mitchell is an Associate Professor in Literary Studies at the Australian National University. Her research is focused on neo-Victorian fiction and the neo-historical novel, and on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary and cultural history. She is author of History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages (Palgrave Macmillan,) and, with Dr Nicola Parsons (University of Sydney), co-editor of Reading Historical Fiction: The Revenant and Remembered Past (Palgrave Macmillan). Her articles on historical fiction have appeared in Neo-Victorian Studies, Victoriographies and a number of edited collections and journals. She serves on the Arts and Humanities Editorial Board of ANU EPress.

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