Pleasures Taken

Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs

Pleasures Taken

Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: 49 photographs, includes 16 duotones Published: May 1995

Author: Carol Mavor

Art and Visual Culture > Photography, Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Sex and Sexuality

An intimate look into three Victorian photo-settings, Pleasures Taken considers questions of loss and sexuality as they are raised by some of the most compelling and often misrepresented photographs of the era: Lewis Carroll’s photographs of young girls; Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of Madonnas; and the photographs of Hannah Cullwick, a "maid of all work," who had herself pictured in a range of masquerades, from a blackened chimney sweep to a bare-chested Magdalene. Reading these settings performatively, Carol Mavor shifts the focus toward the subjectivity of these girls and women, and toward herself as a writer.
Mavor’s original approach to these photographs emphatically sees sexuality where it has been previously rendered invisible. She insists that the sexuality of the girls in Carroll’s pictures is not only present, but deserves recognition, respect, and scrutiny. Similarly, she sees in Cameron’s photographs of sensual Madonnas surprising visions of motherhood that outstrip both Victorian and contemporary understandings of the maternal as untouchable and inviolate, without sexuality. Finally she shows how Hannah Cullwick, posing in various masquerades for her secret paramour, emerges as a subject with desires rather than simply a victim of her upper-class partner. Even when confronting the darker areas of these photographs, Mavor perseveres in her insistence on the pleasures taken—by the viewer, the photographer, and often by the model herself—in the act of imagining these sexualities. Inspired by Roland Barthes, and drawing on other theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, Mavor creates a text that is at once interdisciplinary, personal, and profoundly pleasurable.


“I have never read a book like it. . . . [A] thrilling mix of philosophy, photography, biography and much more. It touched something deep in me about what it is to be a creative man.” — Grayson Perry, Observer

“Mavor elucidates the provocations of three sequences of photographs made in the early decades of the new medium: under her clever, searching eye and in her greedily epicurean hands, these pictures cease to be the faded work of hidden Victorians. Mavor exults in the risks they take, in the way the images flaunt their subjects’ and their makers’ own desires. She opens with Lewis Carroll’s notorious photographs of little girls, moves on to Julia Margaret Cameron’s early portraits of Madonnas, saints and cherubim, and closes with the photographic chronicle of the perverse, clandestine relationship between Hannah Cullwick, maid of all work, and her master or ‘Massa’, the minor Pre-Raphaelite rentier A. J. Munby.” — Marina Warner, TLS

“Mavor raises crucial questions about the use and affective response to photographs as biographical ‘data,’ and their evocative power to portray both the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’ figures and time of their surface images: the need to examine biographical themes like adolescene; and the complex and often unexamined set of relations between the biographer’s subjectivity and her biographical subject.” — Julie F. Codell, Biography

“The book expresses [Mavor’s] passion and appreciation for the photographs of Clementina Hawarden and provides an introduction to contemporary artists engaged in exploring female adolescence. Mavor's style makes her book accessible to students and to those with an interest in photography. It is a useful addition to feminist and queer study and to photography's engagement with adolescence.” — Elizabeth Ashburn, Journal of the History of Sexuality

"Pleasures Taken couldn’t have been more aptly titled. A lusciously written study of luscious images, it invokes smell, touch, disequilibrium, the heft of labor and the weight of loss, to show how much more than spectatorial are the wrenching and stirring relations around Victorian photographs." — Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, author of Fat Art, Thin Art and Tendencies

"On Carroll’s photographs of girls, on Cameron’s photographs of madonnas, on the topics of death, sex, and girlhood, Mavor has produced iconoclastic, illuminating, and consistently thoughtful readings." — Henry Abelove, coeditor of The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader

"This book is a knock-your-socks-off hummer. Daring, open, and engaging, Pleasures Taken is both brilliant and warmly seductive. The book keeps us off-balance and eager for more tilts, as the author depends partly on the material and partly on her own prose to open up for us a set of stunning ideas about these photographs, about visions of women and girls, about Victorian culture, and about the ideology of our own customary viewing habits." — James R. Kincaid, author of Annoying the Victorians


Availability: In stock
Price: $24.95

Open Access