The Michaelian
the michaelian

issue two: december 2010

Nicholas Frankel, Masking the Text: Essays on Literature and Mediation in the 1890s. High Wycombe: The Rivendale Press, 2009. 279 pages Hardback.
ISBN 978 1 904201 14 1 £40.00 / US $65.00.

Reviewed by Lewis H. Whitaker

Oscar Wilde famously declared in “The Truth of Masks,” “the truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks,” an amplification of his statement in “The Critic as Artist,” “give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In other words, it is only through the intercession of the mask, or some other medium that comes between the artist and the viewer or reader, that art can truly be expressed. Nicholas Frankel takes this initial statement by Wilde as the starting point for his excellent monograph Masking the Text: Essays on Literature and Mediation in the 1890s. However, as the title suggests, it is not masks, strictly interpreted, that this volume discusses, but rather the ways in which an object or technique acts in a mediating role, removing the reader even further from the authorial presence.

Two important chapters in Frankel’s work focus directly on Wilde. The first, “Forgery as a Means of Knowing: Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr. W.H. as a Liar’s Manifesto,” is a fascinating discussion on the issue of forgery in Wilde’s essay on the supposed dedicatee of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Rather than reading The Portrait of Mr. W.H. as an attempt to “queer the canon and to construct Shakespeare as Wilde’s own sexual contemporary,” (as many critics do) Frankel delves deeper into the Platonic implications of forgery by examining the elaborate framing device of the dialogue between the unnamed narrator and Erskine (49). The act of forgery, Wilde’s narrator tells Erskine is not so much a “lie” as it is the goal of all art: the Platonic “desire for perfect representation” (Wilde qtd. 55). The forger becomes the epitome of the true artist who calls for the “reenchantment of art and imagination” (55).  A forgery is, for Wilde (T)ruer than a non forgery, for once the portrait is determined to be false, “the world of fact only places truth yet further from the narrator’s grasp” (Wilde, qtd. 55).

Although Wilde equates Christ (and himself) with a martyred Romantic artist in De Profundis, he does not claim that success came as a result of lying or forgery. Rather, Frankel argues that Wilde’s rehabilitation after his imprisonment came as a direct result of the mediation between the hand-written text from prison and the published document. It is the typewriter that is the “masking agent,” mediating between Wilde and the public. This last point is significant, for it indicates the importance that Wilde placed on De Profundis becoming a public document, rather than a private letter to Douglas. Frankel extensively quotes Wilde’s meticulous directions to Robbie Ross. These stipulate not only that the document should be typed, and typed by a particular typing office, but that it should be produced on high quality paper with extensive margins to facilitate corrections. This careful attention to detail, Frankel argues, demonstrates that Wilde saw the letter as “a bona-fide literary ‘work’” (86). Typing the work foregrounds the printed (and revised) document, making the original manuscript seem “irrelevant or dispensable by comparison” (86). Significantly, Wilde chooses the same typewriting firm that had produced fair copies of his plays, a move Frankel sees as placing De Profundis on the same level as his earlier, well received comedies. In having his text typed, in one of the few industries developed and run primarily by women, Wilde both legitimizes typing as a medium to replace hand-written manuscripts as well as the work of women. In producing a clean, typed manuscript (as distinct as possible from the grimy, hand-written document from Reading Gaol) Wilde begins the process of rehabilitating his own image even before his release from prison. This carefully developed chapter is crucial for a proper understanding of Wilde’s own views on the legacy that De Profundis would leave him.

Of particular interest to Michaelians, Frankel’s chapter “Incarnating the Poetry of Painting: On Verse as Art-Object in Michael Field’s Sight and Song” focuses, quite literally, on the entire book. Frankel considers not only the poetry, but the important prose preface along with the design and construction of the physical object itself. Sight and Song, published in 1892 is an attempt on the part of Michael Field “to translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain pictures sing in themselves; to express not so much what these pictures are to the poet, but rather what poetry they objectively incarnate” (MF qtd 63). As such, this attempt places Field’s poetry in the tradition of “picture poetry” most often associated with D.G. Rossetti. Significantly, Frankel argues, Field attempts to present “a lyric form drained of its speaking-subject” (64). It is the “pictures that sing, not the poet” (64). Thus, Field distinguishe themselves from both Rossetti and Walter Pater, the latter famously asking in The Renaissance “What is this song or picture … to me.” In removing themselves from the text, Field removes the always troublesome problem of male or female pronouns. The pronoun “I” only appears once in the text, and it has neither a masculine nor feminine antecedent. Similarly, Frankel claims, the two proclaim the death of the author some seventy years before Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.

The chapter also focuses on the book as physical object. As a product of Elkin Matthews and John Lane, it is an artistically striking volume produced in dark green and vermillion, and emblematic of the work of these two important fin-de siècle publishers who also published John Gray’s Silverpoints.

Frankel’s chapter on Michael Field represents an exhaustive study of Sight and Song. As such it is occasionally quite dense, but it represents a thorough engagement not only with critics who have written on Field, but on critical theorists as well. It should be consulted by anyone writing on Field in general, and Sight and Song in particular.

Other chapters focus on Aubrey Beardsley, particularly in his insistence upon being seen as a decorator or “picturer” of books and not merely an illustrator. Beardsley’s view considers his work to be not an addition to a book but rather a constitutive part of a work on the level of the author. Frankel also considers Ricketts and Shannon’s design for Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates, Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, and the two Books of the Ryhmers’ Club.

This well-written work should be considered by anyone interested in late Victorian aestheticism, particularly as it relates to the position of the author in relation to the text, but also by those with interests as the book as physical object. Frankel’s prose is a bit heavy at times, but this speaks to the depth of scholarship that he has undertaken. Many of the chapters have appeared in other publications and have been revised for this volume. The book is heavily footnoted and annotated, although sadly lacking an index. It appears as part of Rivendale’s Essays on 1890s Print Culture.

Lewis H. Whitaker
Georgia Perimeter College