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Title: A home of their own : representations of women in interiors in the art, design and literature of the late nineteenth century
Author: Boyd, Ailsa Margaret Susan
Awarding Body: University of Glasgow
Current Institution: University of Glasgow
Date of Award: 2002
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This thesis engages with the contribution made by literary and visual representations to debates about woman's role in Britain and America between 1860 and 1917. During, that is, a period of transition from the relative securities of the early Victorian period until the radical social shifts propelled by the First World War. I introduce design reform debates in painting and interior design, and examine how these were approached by George Eliot, Henry James and Edith Wharton, both in the homes they actually lived in, and those they created in their fictions, particularly for their female characters. Issues of the aesthetic and the moral, and the shifting relationships between them, underpin responses to art and design of the period, and are reflected generally in the literary and visual arts. The representation of women in domestic space, in actual and literary interiors, necessarily has ideological implications regarding the proper place of women within society. Thus, directly and obliquely, questions were repeatedly being asked about what constituted a desirable and fulfilling life for women in this society, and how such a life was to be achieved. To support my contention that this is a wide debate, I am looking at representational paintings of women in interiors, and advice about decoration in manuals of household taste, to augment the primary focus of the thesis on various fictional portraits of ladies. In the Introduction I discuss some recent examinations of women's space and place in Victorian society in art historical, literary and cultural studies. I explain the ideology of separate spheres and how it was interpreted in the plan and decoration of the home, underpinning the codification of interior decoration. I consider also how theorisations of 'the gaze' have been used to analyse representations of women and to explore issues of female empowerment. In Chapter One I examine the history of the design reform movement, Aestheticism, the application of the separate spheres in practice and the influence of manuals of household taste on how the home was actually decorated. Women's taste was a contested issue and the conceptual conflation of the women's body with the house formed the background to Aesthetic paintings of women. Some women decorators, often connected to radical political movements, used their professionalism to make the home a site of power, countering the seeming entrapment of women within the interior. In Chapter Two I examine George Eliot's unconventional home life, particularly the decoration of The Priory. I discuss how she utilised interiors and related themes of seeing and commodity fetishism in the explication of character in The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Sympathy with the wider world enables Eliot's female characters to transcend the destruction of subjectivity threatened by constriction within an unhappy home. In Chapter Three I examine how Henry James dealt with the complicated conceptual relationship of Europe and America in The Europeans, using themes of the search for a home and the theatricality of self-presentation. I explain his notion of the House of Fiction, which was expanded by Edith Wharton. In The Portrait of a Lady, taste is used as a moral indicator in his discussion of the 'envelope of circumstance', with Aestheticism as the background to its use. James theorises the status of women as objects within interiors and what this means for Isabe1' s developing consciousness, as she searches for a husband and home. James uses the ambiguities of 'seeing' to explore how good taste is reached at expense of human relationships. In Chapter Four I discuss Henry James's own search for a home in his later years, and the significance of Lamb House. I discuss his friendship with Edith Wharton and compare their taste in decoration and how this related to moral themes in their novels. In The Spoils of Poynton good or bad taste seems to divide people morally. However, the rigidity of these divisions is questioned, and Fleda and Mrs Gereth discover unhappiness as an authentication of experience, in a small home without men. In Chapter Five I discuss Edith Wharton's development as a writer, the homes she grew up in and how this relates to the decoration and creation of her own homes. Her highly theorised approach to interior decoration is demonstrated by The Decoration of Houses, which was put into practice in her own homes, finding its most perfect expression in The Mount. Wharton's experiences of creating a home for herself gave her the strength to write out of a society disinclined to attribute serious artistic effort to women, and her writings re-enacted the problems she encountered living in this society. In Chapter Six I examine Wharton's The Houseo! Mirth, Ethan Frome and Summer, employing Wharton's aesthetic theories as a key to interpretation of her fictional works. Lily Bart is seen within different interiors as she descends through society, and gender issues are illuminated by a discussion of how the tableau vivant at the centre-point of the book brings together themes of theatricality and the gaze. Lily's self-fashioning is fraught with misreadings by her society, disastrous for her search for a happy and beautiful home. The poorer setting of the two novellas demonstrates that Wharton applied her theories across social strata. For Wharton, the achievement of a happy home, morally decorated, could be impossible for women in American Victorian society. In the Conclusion I look at paintings by progressive artists which enacted the instabilities of cultural change in their depiction of women in interiors. The Great War destroyed the bourgeois interior that the fictional women I have discussed found it so difficult to remain within. The rejection of the constrictions of separate spheres became part of a new feminist project, articulated by Virginia Woolf and Catherine Carswell. Women no longer felt the need to be constrained by the gilded cage, and looked for possibilities lying outside of the drawing room.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR ; PN Literature (General)