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In mainstream twentieth-century culture, the phenomenon of love at first sight--as romantic trope, Hollywood staple, biochemical wonder--has resided squarely in the realm of what we might call a feminine epistemology. In his 1955 study of the "logical forms" people use to justify their actions, philosopher E. A. Gellner noticed that the "question [of] whether there is such a thing as 'love at first sight'" was "frequently and with interest discussed in the pages of women's journals"--if, that is, his "reading in dentists' waiting rooms [was] at all representative" (158). Mustering a masculine, vaguely scientific authority, Gellner bemoans the naivete of treating the topic as "an empirical question" (158) and, modeling the correct approach, demonstrates that on logical grounds love at first sight could never really exist. Not surprisingly, despite such a confident closing of the case, the culture of "women's journals" has continued to proliferate theories about love at first sight, in articles such as "Love at First Sight," "The Truth about Love at First Sight," and "Love at First Sight: Does It Really Exist?" in Glamour, Ladies' Home Journal, Redbook, Seventeen, and Teen throughout the 1980s and 1990s. (1) Like romance generally, a familiarity with love at first sight has been marketed to (implicitly heterosexual) women as a necessity for emotional and sexual literacy: women's expertise at femininity, such marketing implies, requires a mastery of both the pleasurable romantic drama and the tricky empirical problems of acquiring a male mate. In the modern division of sexual labor, women are still addressed en masse as amateur specialists of the heart, practicing an inconsequential mastery in the antechambers of male professionalism.
If we were to seek this mastery's genealogy, we might expect to arrive somewhere near the Victorian drawing room, that segregated space of women's discourse. But in nineteenth-century Britain, love at first sight in fact emerged as a question of masculine epistemology and sexuality. Understood as a specifically male experience of desire for women, the pleasures and dangers of such love required men's attention, their affirmation or skepticism. While never a centerpiece of debate within the professions, love at first sight nonetheless gained a certain currency, and an aura of legitimacy, within male-centered segments of literary and visual arts culture of the mid-century--a culture that became an important resource for later narratives of scientific and psychological exploration. Beginning in the 1840s, love at first sight emerged as a valorized trope, particularly in compact literary and visual forms--lyric poetry, short fiction, and narrative painting--that could accommodate and/or mirror the accelerated intimacy of love at first sight. Short stories entitled "Love at First Sight," "The First Time I Saw Her," or "A First Love," as well as essays entitled "Falling in Love" and "Modern Love," appeared in major British and American periodicals from the 1840s to the 1880s. (2) Those decades saw love at first sight represented similarly in poetry, from Arthur Hugh Clough's The Bothie of Toper-Na-Fuosich (1848) and "Natura Naturans" (1849) to Henry Austin Dobson's "Incognita" (1866) and Coventry Patmore's "The Girls of All Periods" (1878), as well as in Abraham Solomon's paintings entitled First Class--The Meeting: "And at First Meeting Loved" (1854). (3) While such works typically put on display the irresistibly modest woman in public, the real object of their attention is the nature of the development, responsiveness, and moral valence of male desire. The attractive woman is not necessarily a static object--these narratives in part dramatize the procedures and ethics of sexual attraction between men and women--but mid-century portrayals of love at first sight most directly explore and celebrate the spectacle of male heterosexual desire, its origins and processes. Examining a shift from skepticism to valorization over the course of the century, I will argue that the trope of mid-century love at first sight constructs male heterosexuality as a performance of simultaneously instinctual and moral passion.
Jeffrey Weeks has written of "the difficulty of finding either a noun or an adjective to act as a guide through the historical material" (66) when attempting to trace sexualities within the diverse vocabularies of different historical contexts. Recognizing such difficulty, this essay proposes that "love at first sight" operated as such a signifier--a catchphrase that can, through its own Victorian deployment, reveal one chapter in the development of modern male heterosexuality. It can do this especially if by "heterosexuality" (a word whose relatively recent invention has been well documented) we understand not only a biological impulse, legislated custom, or institutional regime but a stance, a way of being and self-styling as well as of producing narrative. (4) In "Heterosexuality Obscured," his survey of approaches to heterosexuality in the field of nineteenth-century studies, John Kucich notes that even when "constantly addressed," heterosexuality's "analytical presence is often rather oblique and one-dimensional" to the extent that "the full complexity of its social and psychological dynamics rarely emerges" (475-76). Mid-century representations of love at first sight provide one provocative perspective on heterosexuality as a nuanced and evolving phenomenon: a multidimensional positioning, a collection of feelings, gestures, duties, and transgressions that produces narratives and subjectivities. In what follows, I will explore these dimensions in the light of selected works that participate in the mid-century reevaluation of love at first sight: paintings by Solomon, short stories by Thornton Hunt and Horace Smith, and poems by Clough and Dobson. Beyond an interest in men's experiences of spontaneous love, these works also attest to a link between such love and one particular setting: the railway compartment. If, as I will argue, love at first sight is defined in this period not only by instantaneous desire but by its transformation of public space into libidinal space, then the railway's technologies offer an ideal figurative and material setting. The perfect location for high-speed desire, the railway also redraws relationships between places and between travelers. As an essential force in "the modernization of the senses," Nicholas Daly notes, the railway "appeared to promise an erosion of the social barriers between the sexes that was both tantalizing and threatening" (470). Indeed, while providing a celebratory aura of modernity, the railway setting intensifies the possible objections to the promotion of public sexual encounters. I begin with an instance of both celebration and contention.
"At First Meeting Loved": The Lure of Modernity
In 1854, having previously produced scenes set only in the eighteenth century, Solomon paints "an incident derived," according to art historian Jeffrey Daniels, "for the first time in [his] career, from contemporary life" (51). First Class--The Meeting: "And at First Meeting Loved," exhibited in 1854 at the Royal Academy, depicts the first encounter of would-be lovers in a train car's well-appointed compartment (fig. 1). On one side of the compartment, and in the center of the canvas, a young woman dressed in fashionable yellow and illuminated by sunlight plays provocatively with her necklace--the heart dangling from the chain suggesting that the said organ, at the mercy of idle hands, hangs in the scene's balance. Her flowers, whose hidden blooms suggest revelation, similarly suggest a double valence of sexual modesty and display. She looks demurely away from a young gentleman who sits opposite her, on the right side of the painting, his body shadowed and looming toward the center, drawing the viewer's eye toward the face at which he gazes so intently. With one glove off, as if to promote fantasy and invite fleshy contact, the young gentleman rests his chin on his bare palm in an attitude of dreamy contemplation. If the fishing pole next to him is one sign of a dangerously casual sexual encounter, there is another, to which the young woman's awkward glance leads: on the left side of the canvas, her elderly male guardian snoozes in the lurid glow of sunlight beaming through the compartment's blood-red window shade. The glow transforms the compartment into a small red-light district; a red tassel in the compartment's window flutters in the wind as the train speeds along. (5)
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Somewhere in this scene lies the lure of modernity that drew Solomon's attention from the old eighteenth into the middle of the new nineteenth century. The attraction, however, was not always shared by his reviewers. After the painting's showing, according to Daniels, Solomon found himself "accused of impropriety in depicting a flirtation ... between a young man and a young woman whose father or guardian was oblivious in slumber" (51). In The Art-Journal's review of the Royal Academy exhibition, complaint was mixed with praise of this "adventure in a railway carriage": "As a picture, it is executed with great knowledge and power, but it is, we think, to be regretted that so much facility should be lavished on so bald--or vulgar--a subject" ("Royal Academy" 164). In 1855 Solomon produced a revision of the painting under the same title, transforming the young gentleman into a naval officer and placing an awakened guardian between the officer and the young woman (fig. 2). With his notably gloveless hand removed from his chin for the purposes of serious discussion, the young officer's identity as a nation-serving, duty-bound, manly young man--no longer the idle gentleman fishing for love--is made sufficiently clear. He actually woos more actively than before (when he stared at his object as if the gaze itself would charm her), for now he lays siege to both his auditors' hearts--winning, perhaps like Othello, both father and daughter with stories of naval adventure. But, although Solomon palliates his squeamish viewers by triangulating the scene and foregrounding homosocial negotiation, the young man's body remains in the same position as before: his dark form leads us diagonally into the scene, and his gaze brushes past the guardian to lock with the young woman's own. Metaphorically flirting behind her guardian's back in the first painting, here she does so literally; and for all his bright-eyed willingness to negotiate a match for her, her guardian seems as oblivious of the charged erotic atmosphere as before. The officer's sword leans in the background as a symbol of national duty and manliness but also, again Othello-like, as an indicator of sexual possibility and threat. Without her chain, the young woman knits a purse, only intensifying the aura of erotic opportunity. And, despite the shade being raised, a red halo, echoed by the red flowers on her knees, still floats above the young woman's head.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
Solomon's revision seems only to have rearranged the offending qualities of the scene, to have relocated and re-energized its daringness while presumably beefing up its adherence to social convention. James Dafforne, a critic who surveyed Solomon's career for The Art-Journal in 1862, expresses a concern about Solomon's First Class that the revision could hardly claim to correct: the two lovers are, Dafforne complains, "so well pleased with themselves and each other as to interest none besides ... they are …