Michael Field’s Aesthetic Conduct Book

The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates

Dominique Gracia is a second-year part-time PhD student at the University of Exeter, working under Professor Regenia Gagnier and Dr Kate Hext. Her research focuses on late-nineteenth-century ekphrastic writing and relationships with art-objects. You can follow her on Twitter @graciado.

Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper’s 1892 volume of poetry, Sight and Song, written under their shared pseudonym Michael Field, is unusual in that it comprises solely ekphrastic poems, predominantly from the Renaissance period.[1]

If we approach Sight and Song in the context of lived experience and encountering art-objects, then we can make sense of the volume as a conduct book. Conduct books emphasise self-improvement and teach individuals ‘appropriate’ behaviours rooted in normative moral values. Thus, the ‘proper’ appreciation of art—whatever that might mean to individual authors—is achieved only via appropriate behaviour in encountering art-objects. Aesthetic literature was one important mechanism for constituting aestheticism, and one that was more…

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