What Is “Artistic Duplicity”?

Added about 4 years ago by William B. Dillingham

Juliana Horatia Ewing

GUEST BLOG: Author William B. Dillingham explains the meaning behind the title of his new book, and explores a little of what makes Juliana Horatia Ewing’s work so special for him.

The author of a new book, say some writers of note, should select a title with the goal of expressing as accurately as possible and as briefly as possible the one thing that the author would most like readers to keep in mind as they make their way through the book. I invented the odd phrase “artistic duplicity” to signify the one thing I hope readers will keep before them.  It seemed to me to describe in the fewest possible words what Juliana Ewing practised in order to become the kind of writer that she was. Artistic duplicity is the very essence of her way of writing.

One meaning of the word duplicity (the older definition) is simply “doubleness”. Its use in my title suggests that Ewing wrote on two levels. Now, to be sure, duplicity does not describe an admirable quality. If you were accused of being duplicitous, you probably would want to consider suing for character assassination, for, as you are no doubt aware, you would have been called a deceiver, a two-faced double dealer. Yet, despite its pejorative connotations, I wanted to use duplicity not only because of its meaning of doubleness but also because it is associated with a doubleness that is not at once obvious. But the harsh word needed to be softened by a modifier. Modifiers are the transmogrifiers of meanings. For instance, to say that an author’s writings are simplistic would be to convey the impression that his or her works are shallow and unsophisticated, but adding the modifier delightfully, thus creating the phase delightfully simplistic, results in suggesting something entirely different, something positive rather than negative. So it is when artistic is added to duplicity: two levels of meaning for two different audiences achieved through artistic cleverness and skill.

A good example of this artistic tour de force in poetry is Ewing’s ‘Master Fritz’. It is a charming poem for children about a little boy and a little girl playing “house” (and echoing what they have heard their parents say). It is also a hard-hitting poem for adults, a blistering, scalding condemnation of the Victorian cultural concept of the proper roles of the husband and wife in marriage.

Literary history has, unfortunately, failed on the whole to recognize this crucial aspect of Juliana Ewing’s work and has branded her with a label of limiting sameness: “Author of Children’s Writings”. Undoubtedly, some children through the years have read some of her works or what is more likely, had them read to them so that it is not inaccurate to refer to her as a writer who composed on that level. To stop there, however, is to be deprived of the wonders of a stunning artistic accomplishment, for there is clearly another, more sophisticated, level of communication in her work. She wrote not only for children but more importantly, she wrote for herself, driven by her unusually strong creative impulse to practise the fictive and poetic skills with which she was gifted and to express a depth of vision that characterizes particularly significant writers of adult literature.

Only a true artist could bring off what Juliana Ewing accomplished during her relatively short life of forty-four years. In an effort to make that apparent, I deemed it necessary not only to analyse certain of her works, illustrating how they transcend the level of juvenile literature and in doing so manifest the characteristics of a writer of major importance, but also to include a carefully selected group of her writings. The result is that Artistic Duplicity: The Fiction and Poetry of Juliana Horatia Ewing is both a critical study of Ewing’s artistic achievements and a collection of ten of her writings: five works of fiction and five poems. It is one thing to write about an author with whose works the critic can assume his or her particular audience is familiar, an author whom literary history has enthroned as a major writer—a Shakespeare, a Dostoyevsky, a Proust, a Melville—but it is something else to write about an author who has practically no reputation among an adult audience and to write about her writings not as children’s literature but as significant works of mature art often with profound themes. Such a situation cries out for examples of this author’s work to introduce readers who have never read, indeed, in many cases never heard of Juliana Ewing. Artistic Duplicity, therefore, aspires to be both an introduction for adult readers to her writings by providing a representative sample of them and a general and, I sincerely hope, an enlightening assessment of the artistic merits of the works included in the book.

Juliana Ewing was a remarkable woman whose work constitutes an impressive body of stories, novels and poems waiting to be discovered for what they are: not just literature for children but writings that merit close attention from an adult audience and should open the gate (previously closed to her) so that at last she will be welcomed into the halls of academe to be considered along with the other major female writers of the Victorian era.

If you have questions or comments about my book, feel free to comment on this blog or email me.

William B. Dillingham is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of American Literature Emeritus​​ at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, where he taught for four decades until his retirement. He is the author of several books on Rudyard Kipling and Herman Melville. He lives with his wife in Decatur, GA.​

In Artistic Duplicity, Dillingham offers a new appraisal of the work of Juliana Horatia Ewing not only as a writer of children’s literature, for which she is best known, but as the author of a number of works that are written with adult readers in mind. Get your copy today.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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