12:07am Monday 26 August 2019

Research reveals the history of Victorian female beauty and the ‘trophy wife’

Kirby Jane Hallum

For her PhD in English Literature, Dr Kirby-Jane Hallum studied the late Victorian marriage market, whereby families sought to arrange financially and socially advantageous marital unions between their sons and daughters. She discovered that although the valuing of women according to their beauty dates back for centuries, the arrival of the Aesthetic Movement in the second half of the nineteenth century generated new standards for female beauty.

Kirby-Jane has now had her research accepted as a book, called Aestheticism and the Marriage Market in Victorian Popular Fiction: The Art of Female Beauty. It will be published this month by London publishers Pickering & Chatto as part of the Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace series.

Aestheticism was a mid-to late nineteenth century art and design movement, championed by Oscar Wilde and artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris, who surrounded themselves with fashion, art and interior design in order to reach a level of refinement that elevated their lives to a work of art.

“People began to live their lives like an artwork. Aestheticism crossed over into literature and we started to get these texts that have highly decorated settings and characters.

“I was interested in how male characters became obsessed with surrounding themselves with beautiful objects and this included having a beautiful wife to complement their collection of fine art.”

Kirby-Jane traces the development of Aestheticism, examining the differences between the authors, including their approach, style and gender as she describes the interaction between popular fiction, the marriage market and the aesthetic movement between 1860 and 1890.

She looks at how women’s beauty was valued in the 19th century novel and the increased ‘fetishising’ of women’s bodies. The era also featured a rise in vivid descriptions of heroines in literature, especially connected to the language of art and commerce.

“You get this proliferation of marbled arms, statuesque figures, burnished gold hair and ruby lips that consign the beautiful Victorian woman the status of a collected object on a marriage market that closely resembles the way paintings are bought and sold.”

Kirby-Jane chose to use popular literature in her research because it provided a way to explore the tension between art and economics that characterised both aestheticism and the marriage market. She discovered that in an era where people publically claimed to be reading Dickens and Bronte, the most popular books were in fact the equivalent of today’s Mills and Boon romance novels. Kirby-Jane uses five of these novels to illustrate her book including  Marie Corelli’s Wormwood, a lurid tale of unrequited love, betrayal, vengeance, murder, suicide, and absinthe addiction; and George du Maurier’s Trilby, in which the heroine, Trilby O’Ferrall, is a half-Irish girl working in Paris as an artists’ model and laundress while the male characters fall in love with her.

She researched much of the book during a three-month scholarship to the University of Birmingham where she immersed herself in aestheticism research culture and was able to observe numerous paintings and art objects.

Kirby-Jane is already working on her second book, a study on the wives of New Zealand’s 19th Century Premiers, Sir Julius Vogel, Robert Stout and Hon William Pember Reeves.

Aestheticism and the Marriage Market in Victorian Popular Fiction: The Art of Female Beauty is available to purchase as an e-book or hardback directly from the publisher’s website: www.pickeringchatto.com/marriagemarket


Anna Kellett, Media Relations Adviser

Email: anna.kellett@auckland.ac.nz

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