Article body

Stefanie Markovits’s study, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, is a masterful analysis of the complex production and reproduction of the Crimean War in British media, literary, and visual culture. Throughout the book, Markovits rather quietly, but consistently and powerfully, argues for the significance of the Crimean War to a period of Victorian literature and culture that is often analyzed with only minimal acknowledgment of its historical role. Markovits makes this argument through an impressively well-researched analysis of a wide array of written and visual material. Each of her four chapters examines one cultural or artistic mode: the newspaper press, the novel, poetry, and the visual arts. This deceptively simple organizational format, however, is actually a crucial aspect of her analysis, since she shows how each of the artistic modes she examines in the final three chapters of her study is forced to come to terms with the dominance of the press’s coverage of the war. The interpenetration of these cultural and artistic modes is, indeed, one of the most significant and compelling aspects of Markovits’s analysis, so that by the time she gets to her final chapter on the visual arts she is able to tease out myriad threads of intra-cultural referentiality embedded in the illustrations and paintings that she examines. The density of such references adds force to Markovits’s argument about the significance of the Crimean War at the same time they convey the complexity of the war’s representation.

Two major, interconnecting sets of concerns structure Markovits’s study of the culture of the Crimean War. The first concern involves genre, the issue of the appropriate mode through which to describe the events the war and the consequences, the challenges, of selecting one mode over another. Thus, for example, in her examination of Crimean War novels, Markovits demonstrates how domestic realism, romance, epic, and even sensation fiction jostle and give way to one another in the course of a single novel and the significant shifts in tone that attend such generic transformations. Perhaps the most important arena in which these shifts register themselves is that of heroism and heroic action, the second set of concerns that Markovits’s analyses trace out. Picking up on the some of the threads of her earlier book, The Crisis of Action in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2006), Markovits shows how the textual and visual arts of the Crimean War pursue the question of the heroic possibilities available to Britain’s modern commercial present through their imaginative representations of the conflict. This is one of the areas in which Markovits’s study makes its most wide-reaching contribution to Victorian studies. By examining how representations of the Crimean War challenged, eroded, and refigured traditional models of masculine and feminine heroism, Markovits makes a significant contribution to Victorian gender studies, one that extends well beyond the narrow chronological parameters of the war itself. At the same time, however, that very contribution supports her overarching argument about the importance of the Crimean War in the shaping of the British imagination.

In addition to these two major structuring concerns, several other key issues emerge from Markovits’s analysis. The crucial concept that links these issues is that of interpenetration. Over and over in her discussions of Crimean texts and images, Markovits shows how writers’ and artists’ understandings and representations of the Crimean War were alternately troubled and enabled by the interpretration of apparently distinct domains, spaces, and artistic modes. The most persistent of these is the interpenetration of the public and private spheres. Markovits’s analyses also trace out the interpenetration of life and art, which has particularly intriguing effects in the realms of journalism and the visual arts. As suggested above, the very structure of Markovits’s book points to and demonstrates another kind of interpenetration, that of one form of media or artistic mode with another. Finally, Markovits demonstrates repeatedly how the Crimean War and its representations lead to the interpenetration of the home front and the battle front. This begins with the historical phenomenon of a new kind of newspaper coverage of the war, but this phenomenon leads in turn to innumerable other types and levels of spatial and imaginative interpenetration.

Markovits’s first chapter is devoted to the journalism that dominated the cultural “airwaves” during the Crimean conflict, not simply covering the war but, in the process, temporarily displacing the dominance of the novel as the nation’s most prominent and influential cultural form. Markovits uses her analysis to demonstrate that during this period the newspaper coverage of the war actually constituted a kind of genuine public sphere, hence countering the theoretic and historical claims of Benedict Anderson and Jürgen Habermas which dismiss the popular possibilities of the newspaper media. Markovits’s discussion of Russell’s correspondence shows how his reports borrowed from novelistic conventions of descriptive detail and serialization. Markovits argues that Russell’s coverage of the war was so dominant that it posed significant narrative problems for all the novelists who tried to make the war the subject of a novel. Markovits makes her most significant contribution to our understanding of the war, Victorian journalism, and the 1850s themselves in the third section of her chapter, “The People’s War.” Here she at once renders visible and analyzes the contribution of non-journalists to the newspaper’s coverage of the war via the republication of “private” letters from officers and soldiers like Captain Fred Dallas and letters to the editor. Through this complex cultural process, Markovits argues, as well as through the events of the war itself, “everyman” becomes a potential hero, both on and off the battlefield.

This focus on heroism provides the transition to the book’s second chapter. Taking gender and heroism as her topic,.Markovits argues that “the novel is the genre best suited to displaying the complex negotiation with ideas of the heroic that come out of the war experience” (64). Pointing to realism’s role in the decline of epic, heroic action in the novel, Markovits argues that some Victorian novelists saw the war and the war novel as a way to counter this trend. Her analysis shows, however, that the only tenable models of heroic action that emerge from the war are feminine roles, rather than masculine ones. Repeatedly, in her readings of novels including Westward Ho! (1855), Two Years Ago (1857), and Ravenshoe (1862), Markovits shows us that while the “wartime setting creates heroines…it endangers heroes” (86). The heroines that emerge in Charles Kingsley’s novels tend toward sensationalism, but when Markovits turns her analysis toward North and South (1855) and Aurora Leigh (1856) she is able to show how these texts explore female heroism in a sustained, realistic mode. In addition, by drawing on private letters as well as their published texts, Markovits shows how both Elizabeth Gaskell and Elizabeth Barrett Browning responded to the model of female heroism rendered iconographic in the figure of Florence Nightingale.

Markovits’s third chapter on the poetry of the Crimean War argues that the poetry of the war is characterized by a series of dissonant issues that it cannot resolve. One of the most pervasive of these is the “moral quandary” posed by the question: “how does one write without first-hand experience about a war that journalists and soldiers were recording from the thick of the action” (125). Poetry such as Alexander Smith and Sydney Thompson Dobell’s Sonnets on the War (1855) approach this issue through different poetic strategies. What Markovits calls the “Poetry of Sympathy” focuses on the suffering of loved ones left behind in Britain rather than the soldiers’ deeds. The “Poetry of Bewilderment: vox populi” features divergent voices that fail to coalesce, and in doing so this poetry demonstrates its concern for “the collective nature of experience itself” (136). Another set of poems that Markovits also terms the “Poetry of Bewilderment” concerns the infamous charge of the light brigade. Here Markovits notes how the poetry must struggle to capture both the visibility and impenetrability of the charge. Much of Markovits’s chapter is devoted to a paired analysis of Tennyson’s two Crimean War poems, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “Maud,” since, she argues, these two poems need to be read together in order for us to truly understand the poetic challenges posed by the war.

Markovits’s final chapter on the Crimean War in the Art of John Leech and John Everett Millais is an interdisciplinary tour de force. Throughout her monograph, Markovits constructs and develops her arguments through finely observed and insightfully analyzed close textual analysis. In her final chapter, she moves from textual to visual analysis, revealing her facility with a whole new range of interpretive skills and tools. Her overarching theme is that of remediation as she argues that the visual arts are the crucial site for “registering the generic permeability of the art of the period” (168). Focusing on narrative painting and drawings, she argues that their use of paraquotation and remediation create ambivalent responses to the war that cannot be stabilized into a single, stable meaning. The ambivalence these paintings express go far beyond their general attitude toward to war to include questions of play, masculinity, heroism, domestic unity, artistic manliness, realism, and eye-witness authority. Markovits’s analysis of “Peace Concluded” is particularly effective in conveying both the ambiguities surrounding the visual representation of the war and their irresolvability

Markovits concludes her study with a brief afterward analyzing Elizabeth Thomson, Lady Butler’s famous painting, “The Roll Call” (1874) whose popularity she sees as suggesting “a broader acceptance of shifts in understanding initially brought forth by the war” (212). The afterward allows Markovits to draw together again the threads of gender, genre, and heroism that run throughout her analysis. Her afterword also highlights the fact that even if ambivalence, dissonance, and bewilderment characterize much of the Victorian response to the war, Markovits’s masterful analysis of this response does not share in these qualities. Rather, even as her study leads us through a densely populated discursive and cultural field, it never loses its clarity or direction, but rather consistently draws upon that field to develop an increasingly rich and insightful account of the Victorian response to the Crimean War.