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In the introduction of this collected set of essays, Amelia Yeates and Serena Trowbridge set out their store quite clearly: this collection is to fill a perceived gap between the attention given to Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities, hence the title, and (although they don’t use this word much initially) that given femininities. The prompting for this collection is the observation that masculinities within Pre-Raphaelitism have been ‘taken for granted’, perhaps even ‘naturalized’ through the concept of ‘Brotherhood’.[1] The essays collectively try to examine the concept of masculinities by taking the viewing that masculinity is as much fought out and negotiated as femininity is.[2] The essays build on the valuable work by the likes of John Tosh and Michael Roper, and offer a much needed extension to the art historical discourse upon masculinities within the nineteenth century, particularly by applying it to the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates.

As Yeates and Trowbridge point out, there are many aspects of masculinity that are ‘marked out’ in the Pre-Raphaelite world, and they highlight this sense of patriarchy through the readings and positioning of a first and then second (child?) generation, and the ‘maleness’ of artistic circles of Watts and Rossetti, and the male Pre-Raphaelite construction and development of Aesthetic images of women. Critical attention has been given to uncovering the women with Pre-Raphaelitism rather than turning attention to the men. Inevitably this follows trends in twentieth century criticism and it is only now that the rise in interest in masculinities is becoming more popular / timely / dedicated that a collection such as this can appear.

To date, the only text which really explores this area of criticism is the inimitable Herbert Sussman’s text Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art (1995) and, although Yeates and Trowbridge don’t labour or underline the point, I will: the book is 22 years old now.

A more recent text, itself now 19 years old, is J.B. Bullen’s masterly The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry and Criticism. Yeates and Trowbridge describe this as providing ‘excellent analyses’, before highlighting Bullen’s attention to ‘Rossetti and Male Desire’, and ‘Burne-Jones and the Aesthetic-Body’ and his psychoanalytic framework.[3]

Other items of interest in this field are:

Colin Cruise’s, ‘Lovely devils’: Simeon Solomon and Pre-Raphaelites (1996) and Julie Codell’s ‘The Artist Colonized: Holman Hunt’s Bio-History, Masculinity, Nationalism and the English School’ (also 1996), and the Jay D. Sloan’s ‘Attempting ‘Spheral Change’’.[4]

Nancy Cott argued in 1990 that ‘In contrast to women – who are too often seen only in terms of their sex – men have been the unmarked sex’.[5] Masculinities are fluid and mobile, a sentiment Yeates and Trowbridge echo but which can also be found in the writings of Adams and Savran (who they refer to) and Tosh. Like them, Yeates and Trowbridge argue that Masculinity is fluid and mobile, and was a discourse which preoccupied Victorian critics.

Yeates and Trowbridge’s own understanding, or offering, of the term Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities is in relation ‘to the way in which ideas and models of masculinity were, or have been, constructed in the work of those artists and writers associated with Pre-Raphaelitism’. This does seem to somewhat state the obvious, but the telling bit is the reminder of where these constructions occur, the work itself and responses to it, both biographical and autobiographical writings, performance (interesting choice of word there) of public and private personas, and this is why the collection focuses upon the reception of Pre-Raphaelite art and literature.

The introduction is keen to point out that there is no cohesive view of a ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ masculinity and although the collection does use it as a ‘familiar signifier’ it is as a means of recording and discussing the various constructions that occur through those involved with Pre-Raphaelitism (a qualification of their earlier obvious statement).[6] Whilst the Pre-Raphaelites often defined against the norms, they were not always, and should not always be considered, ‘other’.[7] The collection is about understanding their use of available masculine tropes. This collection is an invaluable addition to this current discourse.

Whilst drawing on major writers on masculinity of the time, e.g. Carlyle, Arnold, Kingsley etc., the most useful quote to keep in mind when reading these essays is this by Tosh: In the name of manliness Victorian men were urged to work, to pray, to stand up for their rights, to turn the other cheek, to sow wild oats, to be chaste, and so on’.[8]

With the weight of this expectation, it is no surprise that there were deviations, resistance and conflicts about what was considered normative masculinity, and that even the most vigorous and sincere attempts to reach the standard required inevitably fell short.

A brief overview of some of the essays:

Sally-Ann Huxtable argues that conflicting ways of Pre-Raphaelite knights – recreating / undermining notion of traditional hero. Each depiction of errant knight deconstructs different aspects of normative masculinity, with each work offering a new perspective for an alternative masculinity in the future.

Jay Sloan examines Rossetti’s destabilisation of norms and offers the trope of the ‘Confessional Man’ as an alternative and a companion to the Dantesque figure of the lover which Rossetti frequently uses. Sloan uses ‘Jenny’ as a means of discussing gender constructions and the ‘separate spheres’ encountered by both sexes. Whilst this pens up valuable conversations about ‘Man’ (confessional or otherwise) as being a ‘figure of contradictions, it does also suggest one problem: that in order to discuss men, or masculinities, we often have to engage with the feminine. One wonders whether these spheres of critical clarity can really ever offer us that? As Tosh and Roper note, ‘masculinity has always been defined in relation to ‘the other’’.[9] ‘The other’ being femininity, although Sloan suggests other can itself be masculinity.

Amelia Yeates’ own essay considers the reception of Burne-Jones’ work and examines the correlation between manliness and health in his imagery. With a careful examination of critical vocabulary (mirroring the approach of Bullen) she also refers to the significance of gender and its impact upon a man’s construction of (his own) masculinity and his subsequent success or otherwise (e.g. Buchanan’s infamous attack on Rossetti and its potential limiting of Rossetti’s then success).

Eleanor Fraser Stansbie’s essay on Holman Hunt’ The Light of the World (1853 – 1854) is particularly interesting. There are actually three versions of the painting (Keble College, St. Paul’s and Manchester Art Gallery) which Fraser suggests have been generally received as one and the same in content, a wilful overlooking of the differing details. By considering the third version (the Manchester one), Fraser Stansbie unpicks its symbolism through the prism of manliness and imperialism. This essay is interesting as it locates Pre-Raphaelitism as part of a dialogue with, and against, Muscular Christianity’s version of the male form, and Victorian Empire building: Yeates and Trowbridge quote Caine and Sluga’s view of Empire building as a ‘sense of the sexual nature of imperial conquest’.[10]

[1] Amelia Yeates and Serena Trowbridge eds., Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities Constructions of Masculinity in Art and Literature (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2014), pg. 1

[2] Yeates, Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities, pg. 1

[3] Yeates, pg. 2

[4] Cruise, C J, ‘Lovely devils’: Simeon Solomon and Pre-Raphaelite masculinity in E Harding (ed.) , Re-framing the Pre-Raphaelites : Historical and Theoretical Essays (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996), pp. 195-210 .

[5] Nancy F. Cott, ‘On Men’s History and Women’s History’, in Mark C. Carnes and Clyde Griffen (eds.), Meanings for Manhood: Constructions of Masculinity in Victorian America (Chicago, 1990), p. 205.

[6] Yeates, pg. 7

[7] Ibid. .

[8] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family and Empire. (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 87

[9] Roper, Michael and John Tosh, eds., Manful Assertions: Masculinities in Britain since 1800 (London:  Routledge, 1991), p. 1

[10] Barbara Caine and Glenda Sluga, Gendering European History, 1780 – 1920 (New York, 2002), p. 109