In Daniel Deronda
(1876) George Eliot sardonically observes, “[p]erspective, as its inventor remarked, is a beautiful thing. What horrors of damp huts, where human beings languish, may not become picturesque through aerial distance!” (Deronda
, 155). Eliot’s critique of perspective rests on its tendency to make material human suffering “picturesque” and remote, blunting the kind of sympathy we associate with Eliot’s realist project—a project whose touchstone remains the famous digression from chapter 7 of Adam Bede
(1859), with its ethical investment in “the faithful representing of commonplace things” (180). Rather than a rejection of perspective itself, however, Eliot endorses a tactile, embedded perspective; unlike the detached observer who eyes unreachable figures in the “aerial distance,” Eliot’s spectator focuses on “the few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know, whose hands I touch” (Adam Bede
, 180). Yet, as Linda Shires shows in her masterful and wide-ranging study of perspective in nineteenth-century art and literature, as early as 1859 Eliot was already struggling with the limits of this claim to a more ethical form of perspective. In her insightful reading of Silas Marner
(1861) toward the end of the book, Shires conjures a novel that “accepts multiple points of view and differing capacities for taking in and interpreting what one sees, as it both expands and limits the capabilities of point of view” (106). The decentered perspective of Silas Marner
has implications both for Eliot’s realism and her investment in sympathy, creating a situation where “limiting sympathy is the only way sympathy can be maintained” (114). That Shires’s important contribution to how we think about Eliot’s narrative perspective and realism more generally constitutes only a third of her final chapter demonstrates how rich this deceptively short book is. In four chapters flanked by a substantial introduction and short coda, she offers close-readings of writing by Ruskin, William Morris, and paintings by J.M.W. Turner and William Dyce; paintings and poems by D. G. Rossetti; photographs by Clementina Hawarden and Henry Peach Robinson; and poems by Robert Browning, alongside novels by Wilkie Collins and George Eliot. Collectively, these readings help redefine how we think about the history of art, the politics of perspective, and the relationship between Victorian and modern aesthetics. While art historians have often associated modernism with the “end point of classical perspective’s hegemony in the visual and verbal arts” (10), Shires pushes back against this still-prevalent “rupture” approach to cultural history. She convincingly shows that nineteenth-century writers and artists were already interrogating, in highly complex and self-conscious ways, traditional, single-point perspective, along with its claims to a stable, objective point of view. Experimenting with multiple points of view, they worked to interrogate, renegotiate, and critique the gendered, raced, and classed forms of mastery and power critics have associated with this authoritative gaze. Perhaps one of Shires’s most useful interventions here is to complicate entrenched ideological assumptions about the perspectival gaze, both in terms of its history and politics. Shires argues that it is only retrospectively that traditional perspective was described as a single, dominant technique. Instead, “multiple vanishing points, anamorphosis, and aerial perspective were also employed” (6). She also usefully points to the way in which the phrase “Cartesian perspectivalism” represents a conflation of Descartes’s epistemological theories with the idea of perspective, “so that perspectivalism has come to stand for rationalism” (7). Such a distortion ignored Descartes’s “doubts about the senses” (7-8). Making good on her critique of histories of rupture, she argues that Victorian experimentation represents not a radically new approach to space and vision, but rather a “continuation” of the ...
Daniel A. Novak is associate professor of English at Louisiana State University. He is author of Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2008), and co-editor with James Catano of Masculinity Lessons: Rethinking Men's and Women's Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).