Review: Carol Mavor, Aurelia: Art and Literature Through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale (2017)
If any readers are expecting a definition to be provided in this review as to what exactly the term aurelia refers to in Carol Mavor’s recent book, they are likely to be disappointed. Having now read Aurelia: Art and Literature Through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale (London: Reaktion Books, 2017), I am still unsure what it means. In fact, I get the sense that this might indeed be partially the point. Aurelia is not a book which aims to clarify and explain so much as it seeks to provoke and inspire. It is nominally a book about fairy tales. In reality, it is a journey through a wealth of imaginative practices, touching on a range of folklore, literature, photography, modern art and sculpture which, although featuring no explicit examples of animation, nevertheless sheds light on an artistic tendency towards illumination and dynamism of folklore through the visual arts that can be located in many animated works produced over the past century.
The introduction to Aurelia sets out a shifting set of theoretical and historical interests to which the term might be applied by tracing the term’s complex etymological origins. To start, Aurelia is a feminine name, derived from the Latin meaning ‘golden’ (aureus), as well as the name for the Roman goddess of dawn. However, as Mavor highlights, aurelia also contains a number of metonymic and synonymic associations with a wealth of terms used to refer to a range of oral and literary storytelling traditions from early cave paintings to illuminated medieval manuscripts to carnivalesque puppet shows. It is to looser web of aurelian ideas that Mavor seems most interested in exploring, contextualising fairy tales against a wider backdrop of the visual arts often made in parallel with the production of modernist fantasy literature. As the books begins, Mavor’s journey through the imaginative depths of the fairy tale and its surrounding culture does not so much crystallise as it does fracture into a series of crystalline shards of theoretical enquiry. In dialogue with a number of canonical poststructuralist and feminist theorists (Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Laura Mulvey, Teresa de Laurentiis), all of whom are not so much treated systematically as much as they are allowed to drift in and out of the conversation like the fairies Mavor describes - or otherwise evokes - on the page.
Aurelia is a book that covers a vast spectrum of narrative, art and theory. The breadth of subject matter and style of analysis Mavor offers suggests a preference for a deliberately elliptical engagement with her subject matter, sending the reader on a poetic, meandering and – admittedly, at times – maddening journey through a world of critical analysis. A chapter on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books considers on a subtextual element of the original novels that focuses on a rejection of consumption (Alice avoids eating and drinking unless required to make her grow larger or smaller), and how Carroll’s interest in youthful innocence as a marker against Victorian industrialism is also evidenced within his photography. Providing an analysis not dissimilar to the kind discussed in James Whitlark’s book Illuminated Fantasy, Mavor examines what Whitlark would term the “picture/text discrepancy” of Carroll’s fantasy world as visualised through his highly choreographed photographs (Whitlark 1988: 21). Alongside its prose, Mavor chooses to showcase a number of Carroll’s photographs directly, featuring full page displays of his work with child models, posing against fantasy backdrops and orientalist backgrounds (including many with the original Alice Liddell herself), as well as featuring Lord Tenniel’s accompanying illustrations of the novel (Fig. 1). Beginning each chapter with folkloric structures like ‘Once Upon a Time’ and including large quotations from her chosen examples, her book presses her nose against the magic of the prose that is alluded to and emulated within Aurelia itself.
Within subsequent chapters, this approach continues through discussions of other Victorian literary sources (Paul and Virginia ) and the photographs they have inspired, considering what the visual accompaniment to such stories can help illuminate about their subtextual explorations of themes such as innocence, violence and cruelty. At each stage of her analysis, Mavor provides readers with a visual backdrop to her analysis both conceptually and practically, making sure to place such artistic endeavours in dialogue with the original text. Mavor does not necessarily theorise one or the other, but examines the cumulative effect of both media. Presented with a series of photographs, illustrations and sculptures that are both created and inspired by the authors studied, the reader is required to constantly consider the analysis provided in dialogue with a plethora of visual accompaniments. Perhaps the most intense example of this approach comes in her discussion of glass sculpture (127-154). Theorising glass as a simultaneously dreamlike and transparent substance, Mavor contextualises the history of glass sculpture against examples of folklore (most obviously Cinderella) whilst also showcasing work of glassmakers from the Victorian to the contemporary through her visual illustrations (Fig. 2). In making her conclusions, Mavor gathers evidence of her theoretical enquiry from the art theory of John Berger to the musings of Pliny the Younger, creating a strangely eclectic account of glassmaking that seems at times opaque and at the same time revelatory. A particularly striking section sees Mavor consider the late work of Henri Matisse in cutouts, particularly his The Thousand and One Nights (1950), which is presented as an inevitable consequence of centuries of Aurelian influences (Fig. 3).
Aurelia is, I’ll confess, a vexing text to read at times. Perhaps read is not even the correct term to describe one’s required engagement to get the most out of the book. Instead, one must give oneself over to the sensory saturation of it all, searching not for a cohesive journey through the sprawling theoretical maze in the manner of Alice in Carroll’s novels but instead giving oneself over to each page or moment and enjoying it for what it is. Aurelia becomes a book with a lot to say about the nature of fantasy and the way we visualise it, yet its perplexing qualities metamorphose into something altogether more curious and curiouser.
James Whitlark, Illuminated Fantasy (London: Associated University Presses, 1988).