Sharon Aronofsky Weltman. Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theater, Science, and Education. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2007. ISBN: 978-0814210550. Price: US$36.95[Notice]

  • Judith Stoddart

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  • Judith Stoddart
    Michigan State University

Despite John Ruskin’s sustained involvement in women’s education, claiming him as a champion for feminist studies has never been easy. Kate Millett’s classic condemnation of his sexual politics nearly forty years ago set the terms of a debate that has moved only gradually beyond a contention about where he drew the boundaries of his separate spheres. Sharon Aronofsky Weltman’s first book, Ruskin’s Mythic Queen, intervened elegantly in that conversation by proposing that we use Ruskin’s work not to draw lines between spheres but to reexamine the gender categories that subtend them. In Performing the Victorian Aronofsky Weltman continues this line of argument, looking more closely at how Ruskin’s interest in performance informed his views about the mutability of gender. At the same time she examines the recurring use of Ruskin as a stock figure for our own constructions of Victorian sexualities. Her title gestures toward the interesting self-reflexiveness of her project: hinting at the similarities between recent stage portrayals of Ruskin and contemporary literary criticism, she acknowledges that all reconstructions are an exercise in performing the Victorian, one that often tells us more about our contemporary attitudes than about those of the nineteenth century. Although Aronofsky Weltman’s argument is familiar from her previous work, what is new is the way she uses Ruskin’s preoccupation with popular theater to probe his evolving understanding of identity as iterative. Through incisive readings of Ruskin’s discussions throughout his work of actual theatrical performances, she demonstrates Ruskin’s persistent “fascination with all processes of performance and change” (2). Often anxious in the face of gender- and even species-bending stage portrayals, Ruskin nevertheless was drawn to writing about what she characterizes as “disturbing theater” (32), where categorical boundaries were blurred. Analyzing Ruskin’s fleeting moments of theatrical critique, Aronofsky Weltman shows how he enacts the kind of transient, performed identity he found so appealing on the stage. Ruskin was not only always keenly aware that he was writing to an audience; he wanted his readers to be aware of the part they played in his textual performances. Acting as an audience, Aronofsky Weltman contends, becomes for Ruskin a mode of potential social action: performing the role of spectator in an enchanted space—theatrical or textual—rehumanizes those who have become impervious to the evils of a capitalist, industrialized world. He rejects mimetic or didactic theater in favor of a “stage existence” that is “purely ideal,” “even more real than the street” (29). Aronofsky Weltman carefully parses the complexity of Ruskin’s position here, and the result is a nuanced argument about theater as a mode of social discourse both in the nineteenth century, and, by the end of her book, in our own time. The book traces Ruskin’s emphasis on performed identity through his scientific and pedagogical writings. Less invested in narratives of origins and development than in myths of metamorphosis, Ruskin created a “performative science” (53) in which observer and observed are constantly in motion. In some cases Ruskin takes this literally, forming girls into ever-changing crystalline patterns; in others, such as in his mythical and Shakespearean nomenclature for flowers, he figuratively remaps familiar terrain to emphasize the behaviors, rather than the characteristics of objects, as well as of the scientists who study them. Aronofsky Weltman expands on her earlier work on Ruskin’s mythic queens by showing the theatrical roots of Ruskin’s revision of nature. Similarly, her chapter on Ruskin’s pedagogical schemes for girls moves from her reading of “Of Queens’ Gardens” in her previous book to consider how Ruskin’s insistence on movement acts out a dismantling of rigid gender categories. The final chapter turns the lens on our own …

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