Invoking Oscar Wilde’s notion that art operates like a mask, Nicholas Frankel’s new book seeks to demonstrate that the decade of the British 1890s was “singularly preoccupied with ‘masking’ its texts,” and its writers and artists “exploited art’s inseparability from the physical media in which we encounter it” (22). Much of Frankel’s strong work over the past decade has been based on the premise that no literary or artistic work is independent of its material medium, and in this book he again focuses on the “mask-like structure” of dialectical performativity embedded in the material surfaces of nineties “decorated” books (17), the process by which their material manifestation constitutes a large part of their meaning. Over the course of his book the terms “mask” and “mediation” turn out to be much more amorphous and much less definitional than we probably expect, and properly speaking, the book is less about “masking” or “mediation” in some distinct or specific metaphysical sense than about the self-consciously fabricated and dynamic aesthetic interaction between a text’s ideas and its physical presentation.
There is a great deal to like about this book, not least its unusually high production quality (aside from a few typos) and very reasonable price. Frankel’s intensive research, exceptionally methodical argumentation, keen talent for incisive close reading, and instructive use of literary theory are all evident throughout, and the book helpfully includes nearly forty illustrations. He is unusually effective at forging a range of evidence into clear crystallized themes, while avoiding in the process the reductionism that has often marked the scholarship of this period. But particularly noteworthy and delighting is how Frankel nimbly sprinkles into his discussions numerous semi-arcane details, imaginative non-routine allusions, and incisive explanatory notes. Although perhaps questionable in terms of scholarly purity, many readers will also appreciate the fact that his textual citations of the primary works pragmatically reference mass-market editions or common paperback reprintings.
Frankel’s rhetorically skillful introduction builds on Wilde’s 1885 essay “Shakespeare and Stage Costume” and its conception of art’s “masking” function to show how nineties “decorated” works broke readers’ blind faith in some innate self-sufficient meaning and introduced them to more transactional and performative planes of meaning. Along the way Frankel affirms paradox as a central structural feature in the decade and astutely corrects the frequent misreading of British l’art pour l’art that inappropriately emphasizes self-containment rather than interactivity — not original insights, perhaps, but very important ones nonetheless.
The first formal chapter provides a sort of meta-example of one of the book’s themes, arguing that Christopher Millard’s collecting of Wildean works and scholarship was itself a transformational literary medium. The collector acts as “a guardian of the flame” (36), who “re-authorizes” literary texts “not simply as material things but as works of literature whose historical value would eventually be incommensurate with their exchange value” (38) and thus “renew[s] a world that threatens to disappear irretrievably” (40). The second chapter, dealing largely with Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr. W. H., makes the case that forgeries (material lies or fictions) “are ultimately a greater vehicle for understanding than fact alone” (47). Several of Frankel’s claims for forgery seem quite a stretch, such as the assertions that forgery forces us “into acts of startling historical imagination” (47) or that “theory or criticism works much like forgery, momentarily detaching us from the empirically verifiable” (58). Nonetheless, the chapter gives a very fine, skillfully integrated, corrective analysis of Wilde’s novella, showing it to be less about the art’s “truth-telling function” than the “fluctuating nature of belief, the status of proof, and the relationship between belief and knowledge” (49).
The next chapter, on Michael Field, is among the book’s best. It perceptively analyzes the difficult graphic and literary elements in the Fields’ complex poetry of “self-suppression,” in order to explain how their belief in “the irrelevance of the writer’s own personality” served their “effort to see things from their own center” and “objectively incarnate” in the lyric “the same monumental quality” traditionally reserved for the sonnet and other such poetic forms (64). Chapter Four gives an equally sophisticated analysis of Wilde’s psychology in the production and presentation of De Profundis. Marshalling a wealth of historical and epistolary evidence, Frankel demonstrates how Wilde “found in the medium of the typewriter an order that eluded him in his manuscripts” (92) and utilized that technology to evince “a coherent self” (93) and consequently ensure his “literary redemption and personal salvation” (83).
Chapter Five deals with the two published books of the important Rhymers’ Club, and while it is often excellent in analyzing the rhetorical and “bibliographic codes” implicit in these books, it appears to conflate problematically the mindset driving the incorporation and organization of previously published poems with that of the poems’ original creation. Frankel argues that the Rhymers’ poets were determined to shift poetry “away from the persona of the author” and foreground instead “the textual event of the poem in performance” (118), but he overstates the case and strains logic when he asserts that affixing the poets’ names to their individual contributions “only underscore[s] more forcefully their absorption into the collective whole of the book” and that the poets’ “central impulse” was “to merge the individual voice with that of the collective or club” and therefore “supplant” the “‘authorly’ text” (110–111). Frankel’s historicist approach is less forced in the sixth chapter, where he demonstrates, through careful and often brilliant exegesis, that Meredith’s linguistically compressed and convoluted poems represent not symbols of some essential ahistorical truth but a living “participatory environment” in which “the habitual claims of rational judgment, premised on the integrity of the perceiving self, are suspended in favor of an openness” enacting “an ever-deepening, widening process with no discernible center or conclusion” (128, 130).
In Chapter Seven, on Aubrey Beardsley, Frankel does his customary fine job analyzing the meta-textual relationships of graphic elements and provides good discussion of such key points as the “representational redundancy or ambiguity” in Beardsley’s “curvilinear black line” (170) and how Beardsley’s pictures “disrupt the solidity” of the ground on which any “sure epistemological grasp of the visual image is built” (175, 168–69). But whereas in the other chapters he solidly builds his arguments from specific textual examples, here he too often resorts to declaratory assertions only vaguely supported, or largely unsupported, by detailed analysis of specific pictures. Frankel seems to strain to fit Beardsley into his overarching argument about the interplay of text and presentation, and he is surely off the mark when he declares that Beardsley’s illustrations and decorative flourishes “have meaning ultimately by virtue of their place within the larger scheme of the printed book” (160–63) and that Beardsley always took pains to “ensure that we view his pictures in the broad textual context of the book, as part of a larger whole” (167).
The last three chapters are among the best in the collection. Frankel’s excellent work on Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates establishes how the book’s integrated typography, title-page, general composition, and unprecedented profusion of decorative details all contribute to the impression of a “house” that “works by visible and material means rather than by the invisible imagination alone” (194, 198) and whose meaning is driven by the action its graphic dimension “performs in relation to the text” (217). The fine penultimate chapter also deftly analyzes self-consciously provocative typology, layout, design, and compositional rhetoric, this time in Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Frankel demonstrates how the book “undermines univocal speech and the notion of singular truth” (230) and emphasizes “the visual, even decorative, nature of language itself” in “an effort to overthrow the writerly text in favour of the painterly one” (242). Frankel’s strong last chapter, on William Morris’s collaborative Kelmscott Press books, covers some familiar ground but does so with unusual acuity and nuance, arguing that Morris’s books not only materially embodied his social and political theories but also enacted a notion of reading that stresses “the spatial and iconic nature of textuality” (254) and “the symbiosis between decoration and text” (262).
Frankel’s book has a few relatively minor technical shortcomings. The fact that seven of his eleven chapters are versions of articles published previously does result in some repetition and a feeling that the book’s unity is rather more artificial than intrinsic, as is implicitly acknowledged by its subtitle Essays on . . . . This sense of contrived unity is not assuaged by the fact that the table of contents divides the chapters into two distinct parts — “Mediating the Text” and “Literature & the Medium of The Book” — yet such separation is not shown, mentioned, or explained anywhere else in the book. Moreover, while the endnotes in each chapter are copious and often helpful, they do not always make the identification of sources easy, and the book would have benefited from a list of works cited and possibly an index.
But these limitations are easy to excuse in light of the book’s wealth of thoroughgoing argumentation and sensitive perceptions. Even in chapters where some of the points are questionable or the argument problematic, we receive an abundance of innovative considerations and important insights. The essays in this book represent excellent analytical scholarship. They are a welcome and valuable contribution to understanding a rich and critical piece of the Victorian age and a very significant period in literary history overall.
Chris Snodgrass is Professor of English at the University of Florida. He has published numerous articles on late-Victorian literature and art, particularly on the British 1890s, and his Aubrey Beardsley, Dandy of the Grotesque (Oxford UP, 1995) was named by CHOICE as one of the “outstanding academic books” of that year. He is currently working on two projects, a study of Beardsley provisionally titled “Elegant Monsters” and a broader book on writers of the “Decadent” 1890s.