THE ILLUSTRATED LETTERS OF RICHARD DOYLE TO HIS FATHER, 1842-1843 by Grant F. Scott, ed., Reviewed by Richard Scully
 


THE ILLUSTRATED LETTERS OF RICHARD DOYLE TO HIS FATHER, 1842-1843
Ed. Grant F. Scott
(Ohio, 2016) xxii + 335 pp.
Reviewed by Richard Scully on 2016-05-21.

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Richard "Dicky" Doyle (1824-1883) is something of an ambiguous figure for students of Victorian art, illustration, and cartooning. Resting largely on Rodney K. Engen's Richard Doyle (1983), the prevailing view is that while Doyle was talented, he did not match the genius of his key contemporaries, and this verdict seems confirmed by the brevity of his tenure on Punch (1843-1850) as well as by the way he left it. However, as Grant F. Scott makes abundantly clear in this first scholarly edition of fifty-three of Doyle's letters to his father, such a view is unfair at best.

In what he calls "one of the most delightful digressions" of his career (xix), Scott updates the rather uneven popular impression of Richard Doyle and makes a strong case for his importance. In so doing, he also lends further weight to a reappraisal of Dicky's father -- the great John "HB" Doyle (1797-1868), caricaturist and grandfather of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- who is featured in studies such as Richard Gaunt, ed., Peel in Caricature (2014) and Richard Scully, "Founding a Dynasty and an Art-Form," forthcoming in International Journal of Comic Art (2016). Across more than 300 pages of archival material, analysis, and annotation, Scott takes us back to early 1840s England via the prose and art of Doyle himself and the incisive scholarship of a standout professor of English literature and Victorian culture. The result is a triumph for the editor and his publishers and a boon for students of Victorian Studies. Great service has thus been done to a still under-appreciated artist, his world, and the remarkable dynasty of illustrators, cartoonists, satirists, and scholars, to which he belonged.

The framing scholarship and contextualisation of the fifty-three letters is of an impeccable standard (as one would expect from so well-versed an editor as Scott). Covering everything one would like to know about the contents of the book, the Preface carefully and methodically explains the provenance of the letters, the history of their publication, the problem of dating them, and the editorial procedures adopted. Thereafter, a more comprehensive Introduction explores the essential contexts for these remarkable epistles, and is particularly strong on the biographical context for their composition. In particular, Scott makes it clear that while Richard's mother has long been thought to have died in 1832, she actually died on December 11, 1839. As Scott points out, the date of her death has a major bearing on Dicky's letters. Had she died in 1832, his grief would have been somewhat eased by the time he wrote them; but since she died in 1839, the pain of her loss would have been still fresh, and perhaps provides a key reason why the letters were written (and the journals composed, the plays performed, and the artworks created) by Dicky and all her other children.

Building on this key chronological point, Scott's main lines of argument are clear and incontrovertible: these letters were not the frivolous productions of a precocious youngster but (potentially) "an emergency response to a psychological crisis" (13). Although laden with humor, it is a humor that Scott finds "unrelenting" and over-stressed as a means of diverting and distracting both the author and his father from the emotional crises that shook the Doyle family at the time (Mrs Doyle's death was followed just a few years later by that of her fourth son, Francis, in 1843). But besides distracting himself and his father from grief, Scott argues, the letters served a more practical purpose: laying the ground of unofficial apprenticeship for Richard's expected career as an artist, illustrator, and satirist. His father imposed this apprenticeship by setting a "draconian" deadline for the submission of the weekly letters (ix), and thus sought to teach his son an important lesson (although accounts of Doyle's subsequent career suggest that he learned it only in part).

Scott also finely construes the letters as a sequence or symphony in six movements. Yet even while noting the patterns into which they fall, and the steady development of Doyle's aesthetic vision and competence, he recognizes that each letter is a response to circumstance, and therefore not consciously meant as part of an overall structure. All this analysis is conveyed in hugely enjoyable and accessible prose, as "cool" and "bright" as he finds Doyle's own work (23). Though grounded thoroughly in the facts of Doyle's life, Scott's commentary on the letters also unearths their literary, historical, cultural, and psychological roots, pondering what they reveal about the expression of grief, love, and other emotions. On its own merits, therefore, Scott's introductory essay takes its place amongst the best studies of Doyle available. It effectively places Doyle in a number of contexts, including the indispensable history of Victorian-era illustration, illustrated books, and periodicals.

The letters themselves are still more rewarding. They refer to all manner of early Victorian minutiae and ephemera that can and should be carefully absorbed by scholars and readers seeking an ever more lively and rich impression of the past. Throughout, Doyle's unbounded imagination and artistic whimsy mix with more serious, realistic compositions; in a multitude of windows, he describes and depicts the life of the theater, street, political arena, social structure, and cultural imaginary in early Victorian England. Furthermore, Scott annotates each letter with the sort of information we need to understand it fully. In a note to Letter No. 9, for instance, he explains that prior to the 1920s, golfballs were teed up on small heaps of sand rather than on pointed pegs. He also identifies all names, places, dates, events, works of art, and literary productions mentioned in the letters, and helpfully, in most cases, he points the way to further information should it be needed. Indeed, I can identify only one error of fact in these excellent annotations: contrary to the claim that Queen Victoria visited the House of Commons (24), she never did so; given constitutional conventions going back to the time of Charles I, such a visit would have occasioned a revolution.

This volume should interest both the general reader and all Victorianists. In the context of my own field, the volume helps to reaffirm what David Kunzle suggested over two decades ago (in The History of the Comic Strip, Volume 2: The Nineteenth Century [1990]): that the modern comic strip and the graphic novel originate from the unpublished work of artists like Doyle, who experimented with text and image in new and innovative ways. In Doyle's own case, many of these experiments subsequently found their way into the pages of Punch, where they influenced countless generations of cartoonists and consumers alike. Doyle began his work for the London Charivari in late 1843, just as he was completing the last of his letters to his father. As Scott makes clear in his Afterword, Doyle mined the contents of his letters (and journal) for his Punch compositions, using the material he had perfected during his paternally-imposed apprenticeship to create vibrant new works for public consumption such as the Punch cover below, which he created in 1844 and which lasted--with minor variations--until 1954. Rather than cutting his teeth at Punch, then, he had already proven his extraordinary talents by the time he joined it.

The decision to reproduce Doyle's original, handwritten (and hand-drawn) manuscripts in facsimile, followed by an annotated text, as shown above, is a marvellous one. It imparts the same sense of authenticity and artistry as did the 1885 edition of Doyle's Journal of 1840 (now in the British Library), and Christopher Wheeler's 1980 edition of it. The designers at Ohio University Press have adapted the "look" of the original Doyle pages to the volume overall, and included little illustrations in the headers and footers of Scott's editorial text as well as in the front- and back-matter. There is also a group of colored plates showing many of the letters in their original, vivid tones. The result is a very attractive book indeed, with an internal coherence that is often lacking in similar edited volumes. My only complaint is that a higher-resolution image should have been used for the cover, where marginalia from Doyle's letter of September 11, 1842 is decidedly pixelised.

As a final note, Scott's volume of Doyle letters is the third in the developing Ohio Series in Victorian Studies, edited by Joseph McLaughlin. One hopes that a future, similar volume might do justice to John Doyle's other sons and their letters to him. For now, however, Scott's book is a standout contribution to a burgeoning series. Indeed, it also joins a strong catalogue of other Victorian-themed publications, further underscoring Ohio's leadership in this dynamic and much-contested field.

Richard Scully is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of New England, Australia.


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