Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Cameron's Christabel (1866)

This is Julia Margaret Cameron's famous photograph (more precisely: it's an albumen silver print from a glass negative) of Coleridge's 'Christabel'. The model is Cameron's own niece, May Prinsep, who quite a bit later became Alfred Tennyson's son Hallam's second wife. The image is from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has, rather sportingly, made 325,000 of its artworks and images available online free of copyright, for anybody to download, reproduce, remix and share. The Met reckons the image is supposed to show Christabel before her 'corruption' by Geraldine. I have my doubts about that. Eye of the beholder, I suppose.

Things I like about this image include: its straightforwardness, the blankness of Prinsep's expression, the aesthetic balance of its lit top-left and shadowy bottom-right, the way this pulls into sharper focus the triangular shape formed by the hair, framing the face. It is a reticent image, which suits its source text, since whatever else it is, 'Christabel' is a poem that refuses to disclose the secret in its heart, and has managed to keep that secret for two centuries now. Cameron's photo makes a rather refreshing change from the more outré images that latter day sensibilities have tended to supply when illustrating what people like to call 'the Prototypical Lesbian Vampire Story'. I mean this sort of thing:

I don't mean to hate-on that image, but it seems to me to misunderstand something crucial about sexual allure—to miss, that is, the way desire tends to fasten on what is withheld rather than what is conspicuously proffered. The way desire is always, to an extent, perverse, in the sense that it grounds itself in the hidden and taboo and strange. This image, we might say, understands that desire is perverse, but wears the semiotics of its transgression all on the surface, almost as if it wants to placate perversity, to get it out of the way, so that we can get on with the clean healthy fucking. Coleridge's poem doesn't present desire that way.

Prinsep, in Cameron's photo, looks young because she was young: she had just turned thirteen when the image was taken. And if her expression is, shall we say, unforthcoming then that is part of the logic of (to use an anachronistic term) teenagerdom. But it works beautifully for this image. I'm not denying that 'Christabel' is a poem about awakening sexuality and same-sex desire and transgression and all that; and I have no problem with Queer appropriation of the text as a ground for the uninhibited performance and display of gay identity. But the poem itself is much more ambiguous than this, and not only because it is unfinished. It is a work that says: sex, especially when we first become aware of it as a force in our lives, is as much a secret inwardness as a mode of outward being-in-the-world. Sex is something structurally 'about' connecting with other people, of course, but it comes into our adolescent existence in the first case as something that seals us away from other people, something difficult, balanced between thrilling and alarming, a mode of possibility that is also a mode of guilty frustration. Sexual desire, at the beginning, is a mode of truancy from family and society.

Coleridge's poem dramatises that through Christabel's secrecy and its flavours of shame, deceit and disguise: creeping around outside after dark, bringing Geraldine back to her bed without her father knowing and so on. Cameron's photo, I think, internalises that drama (for many adolescents, because sex starts as fantasy unanchored to experience, such fantasy tends to veer into unrelaistic directions, more melodramatic and wild and Goth than 'real life'), and Prinsep's expression, her lack of affective engagement with the camera, neatly captures a sense of something occluded. Compare, for example, this image from 1870, again by Cameron. Here Prinsep is seventeen, but she is now inhabiting her sense of own physical allure, and it generates a completely different vibe.

Or, from four years later, 'Elaine the Lily maid of Astolat' (from Tennyson's Idylls, of course), where a killing wistfulness and posed conventionalised longing has entered the composition:

Better by far is the cool blankness of the thirteen-year-old Prinsep's gaze. That gets at something really crucial in Coleridge's text.

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