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Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada & Anne Besnault-Levita, Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide: Remapping the Turn-of-the-Century Break in Literature, Culture and the Visual Arts

Routledge, 2018, 236 p.
Leslie de Bont
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Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada, Anne Besnault-Levita. Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide: Remapping the Turn-of-the-Century Break in Literature, Culture and the Visual Arts. Routledge, 2018, 236 p. ISBN : 9781138572041

Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

victorianisme, modernisme

Keywords :

Victorianism, modernism
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  • 1 Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (eds.), Bad Modernism, Duke University Press, 2006, p. 1.

1The question of the Victorian/Modernist divide is a stimulating area of research for both modernist and Victorian scholars. In 2006, Mao & Walkowitz reconsidered the ‘definitions, locations, and producers of “modernism”’, ‘enlarging the period and practices to which the term might refer, embracing a more temporally, geographically, and aesthetically broad cast of characters’.1 More recently, the 2013 review by Kristin Mahoney entitled ‘The Transition to Modernism: Recent Research on the Victorian/Modern Divide’, the ‘Victorian Persistence’ seminar at the Université Paris Diderot, or the ‘Transitions: Bridging the Victorian-Modernist Divide’ conference held at the University of Birmingham in April 2018 suggest that the question is gaining momentum.

2Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada and Anne Besnault-Levita’s Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide: Remapping the Turn-of-the-Century Break in Literature, Culture and the Visual Arts is a collection of essays that grew out of a conference held at the University of Rouen in 2014. It tackles a wide range of lesser-known authors, artists and critical references while offering new readings of Dickens, Gaskell, Ford, Eliot and Woolf. It revises major topics in literary and cultural history, including the gothic, families, rhythm, designs, and entomology and develops new approaches to the stream of consciousness and impressionism (to mention but a few).

3This informative and engaging volume aims at documenting and reflecting on the very concept of the divide and intends to acknowledge ‘the existence of dichotomies and antitheses and . . . see beyond them, rather than deny them’ (8). It also looks across arts and disciplines and proposes to ‘rehistoricize the divide’ as a construct so as to ‘interrogate . . . disciplinary and critical categories’ (9). Points of contact, dispersion, continuity, destabilization, conflicts, palimpsests and the complex negotiation with past and traditions are all evoked as alternative critical tools to the supposed chasm separating Victorian and modernist arts. In short, Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide contains both new approaches and fresh perspectives.

4Drawing from Michael Levenson’s influential account, A Genealogy of Modernism (1984), the first part of this volume is entitled ‘Questioning Labels and Periodization: Toward New Literary Genealogies’ and is devoted to a study of new genealogies and dialogic intertextuality between Victorian and modernist texts. Relying on Ngram Viewer Graphs, Melba Cuddy-Keane’s paper challenges the commonly accepted ‘radical cultural shift’ experienced by the Western world around the beginning of the twentieth century and investigates instead the ‘imbricated and dynamic relation of Victorians and modernists’. This approach paves the way for a new literary history and for ‘diverse and flexible futures’ (37). This is in keeping with Anne Besnault-Levita’s ‘provisional conclusions’ (50) in her study of the gothic, whose dissemination ‘from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century into diverse forms of high and low cultures’ (44) relies on ‘trans-historical networks of influences and affinities’ (45) that ‘overstep the notion’ of a Victorian/Modernist/Post-Modernist divide (12).

5Logically, several contributions also investigate the possibility of a continuity between the Victorians and the modernists as they revisit contextual landmarks: Edwardian literature, ‘December 1910’, or ‘the Great War as a phase in the onward ascent of modernism’ (78). Charlotte Jones scrutinizes May Sinclair’s destabilization of Idealism and Impressionism while LeeAnne M. Richardson sheds light on the ‘perception of the era’ (84) and on the ‘underground currents’ flowing through Edwardian fiction (95). The essays also explore the overlapping of styles, concerns and aesthetic experimentations. Indeed, if Jones refers to Bogazc’s notion of ‘antimodernism’ (77), Georges Letissier meticulously examines Dickens’s impersonality and Ford’s Victorianism, or rather the ambivalence of Ford’s ‘transitory figure straddling the Victorian/modernist divide’ (66). Last, Marie Laniel’s excellent chapter on Woolf’s ‘Victorian Modernism’ shows how the divide as a critical notion is both relevant and insufficient. Laniel explains that Woolf ‘succeeded in evolving a fictional form that evokes the past and its absence simultaneously . . . [and] reflects the movement away from the past as part of its own process of self-definition’ (108).

6Part two, ‘Art History and the Visual Arts across the Victorian/Modernist Divide,’ gives insight into little-known interests in, debts to, and influences of Velazquez and ‘the Greek form’ on both Victorian and Modernist artists. In ‘The Greek Body and the Formalist Quest across the Divide,’ Anne-Florence Gillard Estrada challenges the idea of a rupture between Aestheticism and Bloomsbury, which, she argues, has been constructed by ‘Bloomsbury art theoreticians’ (115). The remapping of art history allows ‘a revaluation of Aestheticism as part of the avant-garde formation that developed in late-Victorian Britain’ (115). Revisiting Roger Fry’s ‘vocabulary and critical axis’ (117), E. C. Burne-Jones’s ‘linear arrangement of static and repetitive figures’ (121) or Bell and Grant’s ‘classical and allegorical figures’, Gillard-Estrada tracks down networks of visual echoes and shows how Aesthetic painters associated Greek forms to the idea of abstraction, even if ‘their definition of that notion differs from Bloomsbury’s’ (12).

7In the following essay, Liz Renes investigates the categorization of John Singer Sargent as a ‘very “Victorian” artist’ (130) and argues that Sargent was actually ‘taking part in one form of a visual “Victorian Modernism”’ and that he ‘linked Modernist debates between both Britain and France’ (132). Starting from Sargent’s early admiration of Velazquez, Renes reconsiders the late-nineteenth-century usage of the term ‘impression[ist]’ which ‘pointed towards a new movement and way of seeing that was difficult to come to terms with critically and visually in any coherent way, because it defied affiliation to one specific movement, and, in Sargent’s case, a core connection to the style of one specific nationality’ (138). Lastly, running counter to the ‘orthodoxy that has dominated the writings of British design historians’, Anna Antonowicz refers to German art historian Nikolaus Pevsner’s 1936 work Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius, and uncovers the works of even earlier pioneers of the Modern movement: the Cole Circle.

8In the final part of the volume, ‘Interdisciplinary Approaches,’ Kathryn Holland looks at the interplay between the ‘catalyzing force’ of the ‘Strachey family hub’ (170) and the works of Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey), a member of what Holland calls ‘a multigenerational feminist family’ (164). Instead of relying on periodization, Catherine Lanone’s chapter relies on another type of taxonomy: entomology as ‘an ambivalent trope, referring to the lethal patriarchy that may succumb to fascism’ (194) but also sketching reverse images celebrating dissensus. Lanone’s study of motifs such as the glass jar that ‘instantly entices the little girl away from the green world of bottled femininity’ (186) (in Eleanor Ormerod’s 1904 autobiography) sheds light on Woolf’s representations of ‘gendered spheres’ and on her experiments with the ‘flicker of images’ (194).

9In Chapter 12, Frances Dickey lays out new genealogies connecting Victorian musical traditions to modernist poetry, while Laura Marcus focuses on rhythm as a physiological indicator studied by Herbert Spencer, Marie Stopes and nineteenth-century psychologists. The influence of this little-studied research in ‘rhythmic science’ on modernism’s ‘desire for poetry in prose’ (220) convincingly bridges the gap between Victorian epistemology and modernist experimentations.

10Overall, Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide provides a very stimulating addition to the critical studies and cultural history of the turn of the century. Relying on historiography as well as contemporary sources and multifarious close readings, the volume successfully reclaims a complex aspect of literary history and will appeal to both Victorian and modernist scholars.

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1 Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (eds.), Bad Modernism, Duke University Press, 2006, p. 1.

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Leslie de Bont, « Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada & Anne Besnault-Levita, Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide: Remapping the Turn-of-the-Century Break in Literature, Culture and the Visual Arts », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 89 Spring | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 19 novembre 2019. URL :

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Leslie de Bont

Université de Nantes

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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