cover of book

Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism
by Nancy Armstrong
Harvard University Press, 1999
Paper: 978-0-674-00801-4 | Cloth: 978-0-674-29930-6
Library of Congress Classification PR878.R4A76 1999
Dewey Decimal Classification 823.80912

Victorians were fascinated with how accurately photography could copy people, the places they inhabited, and the objects surrounding them. Much more important, however, is the way in which Victorian people, places, and things came to resemble photographs. In this provocative study of British realism, Nancy Armstrong explains how fiction entered into a relationship with the new popular art of photography that transformed the world into a picture. By the 1860s, to know virtually anyone or anything was to understand how to place him, her, or it in that world on the basis of characteristics that either had been or could be captured in one of several photographic genres. So willing was the readership to think of the real as photographs, that authors from Charles Dickens to the Brontës, Lewis Carroll, H. Rider Haggard, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf had to use the same visual conventions to represent what was real, especially when they sought to debunk those conventions. The Victorian novel's collaboration with photography was indeed so successful, Armstrong contends, that literary criticism assumes a text is gesturing toward the real whenever it invokes a photograph.

Table of Contents:

Introduction: What Is Real in Realism?

1. The Prehistory of Realism
2. The World as Image
3. Foundational Photographs: The Importance of Being Esther
4. Race in the Age of Realism: Heathcliff's Obsolescence
5. Sexuality in the Age of Racism: Hungry Alice
6. Authenticity after Photography


Reviews of this book:
In this engaging look at Victorian fiction, Armstrong show how the unprecedented popularity of photography affected and informed the works of major writers. Choosing well from classic Victorian novels, Armstrong examines the works of authors like Dickens, Emily Bronte;, and Oscar Wilde as she traces the development of realism and discusses the powerful visual clues that began to drive plot and determine how characters relate to one another. As much social commentary as literary criticism, the book brings to life a society obsessed with the camera and burdened with what Armstrong calls a 'mass visuality.' An important work.
--Ellen Sullivan, Library Journal

Here is intellectual leadership at its best. Entirely responsive to yet entirely independent of the conventional explanations of the origins of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British fiction, Nancy Armstrong argues that the photographic image has long been present as a structuring principle in both realist and modernist modes of writing. By foregrounding visuality, she radically reconceptualizes the relationship between realism and modernism, bringing about a paradigm shift with which scholars will have to reckon in the decades to come. As much a model of critical imagination as it is of scholarly integrity, this book accomplishes what only the rarest of books do: it teaches you how to think.
--Rey Chow, author of Ethics after Idealism

Nancy Armstrong, a well-known literary critic, has contributed a major work to the new field of visual studies. The crossover is significant, for she manages to highlight the complex interplays between work and image, photography and prose, production and reception, in order to show how image-making subtly replaced writing as the grounding of fiction. The pictorial persuasions that she charts in a variety of Victorian genres subtly invert standard notions of both realism and readership. Armstrong's range is broad, her erudition and imagination are impressive, and her command of theory in putting it all together is simply stunning.
--Michael Holly, author of Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image

Exploring a dazzling variety of topics--landscape gardening, cartes de visite, folklore, contagious diseases legislation, the shift to paper currency, Bleak House, Dorian Gray, Heathcliff, and Alice--Nancy Armstrong pursues a single and original theme: the absolute interdependence of literary realism and the advent of photography in nineteenth-century Britain. Her elegant and compelling account makes it clear that visual studies is more than an interesting new field of study. Rather, it is central to the projects of aesthetic theory and literary history.
--Janet Wolff, author of The Social Production of Art
Nearby on shelf for English literature / Prose / Prose fiction. The novel: