A study of Contrasts and other writings of A.W.N. Pugin in relation to the mediaevalist tradition in Victorian literature : together with a bibliography of publications by and about him (1987)
AuthorsBelcher, Margaretshow all
It. is the argument of this thesis that A.W.N. Pugin's Contrasts, issued in 1836, should be seen to stand at the head of the medicevalist tradition that came to form a distinct element in Victorian literature. Pugin is not usually regarded as a literary figure and there is no intention here to make out that he is a great one: architecture and the decorative arts remain the fields in which he made and left his mark on the century. Nevertheless, his writings, Contrasts in particular, his most characteristic and influential book, on which this study concentrates, and to a less extent his other publications, are susceptible of a reading as rhetoric which sets them far apart from standard examples of contemporary architectural discourse and close to works of recognized literary status. They mediate a vision which is in essence an imaginative one that removes his work from the realm of history, architectural or ecclesiastical, to which readers of his time believed it to belong, and aligns it rather with other, later texts that likewise express an ideal of a social and spiritual kind. Departing from earlier fictional accounts of the Middle Ages too, Contrasts offers, as it interprets the ethos of a society from the buildings which mediceval man chose to erect, a picture, of considerable originality, of a way of life that is perfect in all its aspects. The value of order which is customarily viewed as typical of works in the mediaevalist mode is present but the vision that Contrasts and Pugin's other writings articulate is even more strikingly distinguished by its possession of unity, which subsequent works in the mediaevalist tradition can also be shown to display: the society that Pugin deduces from the Gothic and Christian structures of the mediceval period is endowed with organic cohesion and harmony in all its relations. Since this ideal is, moreover, opposed at every point to the actualities of contemporary circumstance as Pugin perceives and represents them, it becomes in his antithetical treatment an instrument of social criticism, seeking to counter the godless ugliness, anarchy and fragmentation of his day. Because of the nature of the vision which inspires them, and not only them but all the multifarious activities of Pugin's career in addition, Contrasts and his other writings take their place beside pre-eminent mediaevalist texts, Carlyle's Past and present, Ruskin's chapter on 'The nature of Gothic' in The stones of Venice and Morris's News from Nowhere. Like those texts but in advance of them, Pugin's publications contribute to the post-Coleridgean, anti-utilitarian stream of didactic and hortatory works which endeavour to combat the increasing secularization and materialism of the Victorian age.