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Hallum, Kirby-Jane. Aestheticism and the Marriage Market in Victorian Popular Fiction. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-848-93481-8. Kindle. $40.

Reviewed by Laura Chilcoat.

Kirby-Jane Hallum’s aim in this study is to present a gendered argument about popular conceptions of aestheticism and its related impact on the marriage market. Using novels by Rhoda Broughton, George Meredith, Ouida, Marie Corelli, and George du Maurier, Hallum tracks the trajectory of an aesthetic discourse from its roots in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood through the decadents in the fin de siècle. Her argument extends beyond the literary, and she often incorporates other discourses (such as Darwinism and sexology) that occurred alongside aestheticism in order to add nuance to how the conception of the idealised woman and wife changed throughout the last third of the century. The introduction to this text makes bold claims that are deeply intriguing, but begins to hint at the lack of precision that unfortunately occurs in many of the chapters. Hallum states early that her “argument, in brief, is that in literature, when women are represented as objects endowed with aesthetic value they become commodified by the Victorian marriage market” (10). What this statement, and her argument more generally, lacks is an explanation of how this differed from other ways that women were commodified in the marriage market. Hallum is aware of the long-standing discourse in feminist scholarship of women’s roles as objects, especially in the marriage market, and she explains that her work seeks to address a gap in the social and economic conditioning on conceptions of female beauty. There is a gap here regarding aestheticism, and this gap is usefully addressed in this volume; however, there could be more recognition that social and cultural factors always have an enormous impact on what is considered beautiful.

In the first chapter, Hallum investigates how Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh up as a Flower (1867) takes the intersection of sensation and aesthetics as its starting point. The chapter starts off slowly, as Hallum begins by arguing Broughton’s role as a popular author in the nineteenth century, an argument that is not fully necessary. This repetition of the popularity of the texts becomes slightly taxing as the monograph proceeds; Hallum has chosen her texts clearly and carefully, and a defense of the popularity of each becomes progressively unnecessary.  The argument about the role of aesthetics and the marriage market in Broughton’s text is at its best in two sections: at the ends of “Rivals in Romance” when Hallum compares the traditional and constructed beauty of Dolly with the natural Pre-Raphaelite beauty of Nell; and the last section “Embodying the Pre-Raphaelites” in which Hallum fully explains how Nell was consciously paired with Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The thread of "artificial versus nature" in regards to female beauty is picked up in her second chapter on George Meredith’s The Egoist (1879). This does not, unfortunately, form the bulk of this chapter as it is the most engaging and clear section. The relationship between aesthetics and Darwinism is Hallum’s prevailing argument in this chapter, and she uses the useless, yet beautiful, hybrid double-blossom cherry tree as “the effective emblem of Darwinism and aestheticism,” especially in its role in bringing together the aesthetically pleasing Clara and the “good” aesthete Vernon (76).

The third chapter further develops the concepts of artificial and natural beauty in Ouida’s Moths (1880). This binary is thoughtfully engaged with throughout the chapter, and the roles of women with regard to these different styles of beauty are carefully presented. However, in the attention to detail of this argument the claims about the aesthetic movement become lost. The dichotomy of art and nature that is set up between the women’s beauty is not extended to an argument about the changing idealisations of aestheticism as embodied by the male aesthetes Corrèze and Zouroff, which would have solidified the connections that Hallum begins to bring up. In her fourth chapter on Marie Corelli’s Wormwood (1890), Hallum discusses issues of aesthetics and decadence, female and male beauty, and the marriage market; however, she never discusses these all at once. Her analysis of the role of the marriage market in this novel is brief and unrelated to her earlier discussion of aestheticism or female beauty. While much of her analysis on Wormwood is fascinating, it seems to abandon her central claims about the inter-relatedness of aestheticism, depictions of female beauty, and the marriage market. For instance, Hallum provides the claim that “while Gaston’s aesthetic sensibilities descend into decadence, Héloïse is perhaps the true aesthete of the novel,” and follows this by a brief discussion of Gaston’s physical attraction to her (111). Instead of developing how this impacts Héloïse’s worth as a commodity in the marriage market when there are no “true” aesthetes to value her, Hallum falls back on remarking that the narrator’s insistence on his attraction to only Héloïse’s personality cannot be trusted.

Hallum’s final full-length chapter is on George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), and provides an intriguing reading of the different physical presentations of Trilby. Unlike other works which focus on Svengali, Hallum provides a unique reading by analysing “Trilby’s reverse transformation from a fin-de-siècle New Woman to a caricature of the Victorian submissive woman” (125). Hallum carefully brings this back to the realm of artistic objectification by discussing how Trilby herself resists being only an object, and functions as a subject who gazes back at the men painting her. In many ways this is perhaps the strongest chapter overall in this study, as Hallum keeps her focus on Trilby’s changing gender identification. The central concerns of female beauty, aestheticism, and the role of object and subject in art are consistent and well explained. Yet, Hallum seems to abandon her focus on the marriage market here.

Overall, Hallum’s first monograph is promising and contains fascinating insights into the evolution of aestheticism and its effects on popular conceptions of female beauty; however, it suffers from trying to do too much instead of focusing solely on this main point. It is always very clear how aestheticism functions in creating ideal forms of female beauty in the novels that Hallum uses. What is often lost is either how this relates to the marriage market, or how this departs from other ways of commodifying women in the Victorian marriage market. When she explains how different women were envisioned as works of art and compares this to how women were compared to nature within the same volume, Hallum’s argument becomes engaging and clear. The bulk of her chapters, however, deviate from this core argument. Instead, she spends quite a bit of time elaborating on other interesting, yet tangential, claims. This is a useful volume for scholars interested in the role of nature and artifice in relation to female beauty and aestheticism.

Laura Chilcoat is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida, and received her Masters from Boston College. She specializes in the fin-de-siècle and her main interest in this era is New Woman fiction and representations of gender and sexuality. Her dissertation focuses on the New Woman’s queer interjections into the larger cultural discourses of socialism, fashion and gender, marriage, and imperialism. She has presented papers on Oscar Wilde at conferences in Ireland and France.