Edited by George Justice

Drawing the Accomplished Lady

Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art

By Ann Bermingham.
Yale University Press, 2000. 304 pages. 270 b/w and color plates.
Hardback. $75.

Reviewed by Inger S. B. Brodey.

Bermingham’s lavish art-history volume is a feast for the mind as well as the eyes. Initially inspired by the discussions of landscape drawing in Northanger Abbey along with issues of drawing in Jane Eyre, the volume addresses the historical evolution and cultural position of drawing in Great Britain over the last four centuries. The art-historical information and rich illustrations are intertwined with appropriate references to literature, including frequent references to Jane Austen and her intellectual milieu.

Bermingham first mentions Catherine Morland’s self-deprecatory apologies to the Tilneys (she "knew nothing of drawing--nothing of taste") as an indication of the social import and complicated cultural connotations of drawing. Although Bermingham limits her discussion of Austen’s fiction primarily to Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Sanditon, the reader will immediately think of other examples. Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, for example, exclaims: "What a pity it is, Elinor, that Edward should have no taste for drawing" and expresses her hope that someday he will be "stimulated by [Elinor’s] genius as to learn to draw himself."

The reader may also think of Fanny’s cousins’ early complaints to Mrs. Norris, meant to condemn Fanny’s character: "Do you know, she says she does not want to learn either music or drawing!" Mrs. Norris of course agrees that such a remark "shows a great want of genius." These additional passages support Bermingham’s assertion of the importance of drawing as sign of social status, of romantic availability, and often of superficiality in the early nineteenth century. This volume is helpful in understanding the context for such remarks, for it traces the evolution of drawing from a courtly, and largely masculine preoccupation to one associated with amateurs and eventually considered indispensable for genteel ladies. The second half of the volume traces the history of drawing from the travelling sketches of the Picturesque, inspired by William Gilpin; to the Landscape of Sensation, so prominent in the Culture of Sensibility; to the rising importance of Amateurism; to the role of drawing for "accomplished" women; and finally to the symbolic importance of flower painting for women. Bermingham argues that the major changes in attitude over these four centuries has been the "commercialization" of drawing and the use of drawing to achieve the "aestheticization of the self and the things of everyday life."

Perhaps the most important issue for the Austen reader is her discussion of feminine accomplishments. The illustration by George Romney encapsulates what Bermingham calls the late 18th century's "Frenzy of Accomplishment" or the importance of accomplishments like music and drawing "in the construction of femininity and the positioning of women in relation to high culture." Bermingham gives a detailed analysis of this painting to illustrate how, among other things, the portrait "commemorates the liminal moment between maidenhood and marriage. The sisters' "display of accomplishments signals their desirability and availability," appropriate, Bermingham claims, since the portrait was begun while both sisters were single, and both were married shortly afterwards.

The discussion of the "Accomplished Woman" begins, as one might expect, with the famous conversation from Pride and Prejudice about the nature and rarity of what Darcy calls the "really accomplished" woman. According to Bermingham’s generally feminist and occasionally psychoanalytic analysis, the discussion at Netherfield reveals that the truly accomplished woman is "an ideal that could never be attained, critiqued, or transcended." In particular, Miss Bingley’s requirement of a "certain something" in addition to many concrete skills, makes the ideal "operate[-] like an ever-present reproach" to individual women.

Bermingham goes on to describe Austen’s "interesting" position in regard to accomplishment. She argues that most Austen heroines are accomplished in keyboard music or drawing (a debatable point), and that Austen’s "truly accomplished heroines are always virtuous and use their accomplishments for personal enrichment" rather than as "tools for social and romantic advancement." As an example of the alternative approach, Bermingham discusses the Beaumont sisters from the Sanditon fragment at length, paying particular attention to the parallels between their ostentatious accomplishments and their feminine "display" in their own window, inviting the "gaze" of all.

While it can in no way be said that Austen is the focus of this work, nor that Bermingham is an Austen scholar, still this is a volume that can be very instructive to a reader familiar with Austen’s novels. The direct discussion of Austen is interesting and apt, but more importantly, the volume opens the door to historical debates regarding drawing and the place of female accomplishment. These debates echo in Austen’s fiction, and must have figured prominently in her own life and self-understanding as an artist.

Inger Sigrun Brodey, Assistant Professor at the University of Puget Sound and former JASNA board member, spoke at the Seattle AGM.

JASNA News v.17, no. 2, Summer 2001, p. 25

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