When characters pause to look at portraits in nineteenth-century English novels, they often learn key information about the depicted subjects. One of the most memorable examples is Elizabeth’s encounter of Mr. Darcy’s portrait at Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. The painting softens the heroine’s harsh impressions of Darcy and thereby advances the novel’s central marriage plot. Scholars like Elizabeth Helsinger and Kamilla Elliott have agreed that fictional portraits in nineteenth-century novels often function as plot devices to impart knowledge of characters. This paper, however, seeks to complicate this observation by thinking how the novel draws upon different traditions of portraiture to challenge the idea that the process of knowing someone is linear, progressive and accumulative. Through an analysis of the portrait scene in Pride and Prejudice, this presentation argues that Elizabeth’s complex reactions towards Mr. Darcy’s picture suggest an ongoing conflict between her personal memories and a Reynoldsian historical representation of Mr. Darcy’s character. Recalling the “Grand Style” portrait advocated by Sir Joshua Reynolds, probably the most prominent English portraitist of the eighteenth century, the painting of Darcy consolidates his individualized smile with his aristocratic ancestry. Susceptible to this historically authoritative version of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth therefore edits and alters her past memories of their acquaintance to validate the picture’s likeness. In doing so, Elizabeth further undermines the novel’s painstaking depictions of her gradual trajectory in knowing others.
Lingyi (Olivia), Xu is a M.Phil. student at the University of Hong Kong, where she received her B.A. in English studies and Fine Arts. Her MPhil thesis examines the ubiquitous presence of fictional portraits in the nineteenth-century English novel and argues against the common “narrative reading” of visual arts in the novel. Her research interests are interdisciplinary, located at the intersection of nineteenth-century English novel, visual arts and aesthetic theories.