The National Catholic Review
Jane E. Fisher

Robert J. Begiebing, a professor of English at New Hampshire College, has written both critical and fictional works, including the well-received historical mystery The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (1991). His most recent novel, also historical in its setting, follows the convoluted adventures of an itinerant female 19th-century portrait painter. Steeped in the conventions of American literature, this novel purports to be an authentic document unpublishable in its original historical period because of its unconventionality. Now supposedly rediscovered by a 20th-century librarian "among a collection of art instruction books, sketch and watercolor studies, and albums of quotations from favored authors," this mock memoir can find its audience among contemporary readers receptive to its narrator’s truth-telling about her artistic ambitions and her corresponding desires for freedom and self-expression.

The novel’s strengths are its lively, appealing characters and the strong sense of 19th-century American daily and intellectual life that it conveys. Allegra Fullerton emerges as an articulate narrator who remains believable despite the melodramatic events that constitute her life story. Her skill in painting other people’s portraits translates into a skillful portrayal of her own life. As she informs us early on, "this portrait of myself is no vaporish fiction out of that handkerchief school so popular in these, and in my mother’s, days...my story depicts people and things as I found them, as commonplace as the spittoon and cigar...." She becomes the reader’s eyes and ears, recording (and providing a frame for) her world of New England and Europe in the 1830’s and 40’s. Mrs. Fullerton fulfills her promise to her readers, for, despite its obvious ties to domestic women’s fiction, Adventures does not rely on marriage to organize its actions. Already a widow when the novel begins, Fullerton is immersed in her vocation as a painter and the contradictions such a vocation involved for a 19th-century woman who must work for her living.

Perhaps the major problem that Allegra Fullerton must solve is how to live independently and paint without the protection of marriage. Although she does not remarry, she does affiliate herself with a series of benevolent male relatives and mentors who both encourage her to continue painting and rescue her from exploitation. Showing fine melodramatic flair, the novel begins with her being held captive by Joseph Dudley, a wicked industrialist who has kidnapped her with intent to seduce her. During her captivity she relies on her memories to fill her time, a device that helpfully informs the reader of her previous experiences as an itinerant painter traveling with her brother Tom.

Bored by the drudgery of farm work following her husband’s death, Allegrawho was educated at a seminary for young womenhad turned to "limningpainting true likenesses" to earn her way. After painting likenesses of the farmers and merchants in her small community, she and Tom had moved through New England milltowns painting portraits of people from every class. She recalls the particular care she had taken when portraying young women who remind her of herself in their desire to escape "farm labor, penury, or a marriage of pecuniary convenience." She and Tom then moved to Boston, where her work attracted the attention of the painter George Spooner, who offered her a place in his studio as well as advice about balancing high art with the commercial aspects of portrait painting. It is at this promising point in her career that Dudley arranged for her kidnaping.

The novel maintains coherence despite its bizarre plot twists by its confident grounding in Allegra Fullerton’s character, and builds suspense by challenging her to solve daunting problems. Because readers find her voice and perspective believable, we persuade ourselves that she is perfectly capable of escaping Dudley’s captivity, reuniting herself with Tom, meeting the American Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, living with Tom in a utopian community, acting as an accomplice in Tom’s revenge on Dudley, beginning a love affair with a fellow painter, rejoining Spooner’s circle of painters in Boston, traveling to Italy, meeting the British art critic John Ruskin, and so forth. Unlike other picaresque female heroines (such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders) whose life stories are dominated by chance, Mrs. Fullerton maintains control of her life through scrupulous honesty and dedication to her work. Despite a somewhat clunky plot, this narrative consistently emphasizes characters’ abilities to negotiate and make choices from among the restrictions they face. Fullerton’s life becomes a work of art itself, even if her paintings do not always reach the high standards for which she strives.

Like most historical fiction, this novel runs the risk of being didactic, and its discussions about art and the role of the artist are repetitive. Yet after finishing the novel, readers will find these historical details rewarding, for The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton works surprisingly well as a popular version of art history. It depicts how American painting originated in stock portraiture and landscape. It also chronicles European influence on American painting as photography made portraiture mechanically available. The reproductions of early 19th-century American advertisements and paintings that illustrate this novel contribute to its sense of authenticity. Serious readers interested in American culture and society of that period will be especially satisfied.

Jane Fisher is associate professor of English and director of the women’s studies program at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. She is currently at work on a book about women’s narratives of the 1918 influenza pandemic, to b