SERIALS TO GRAPHIC NOVELS: THE EVOLUTION OF THE VICTORIAN ILLUSTRATED BOOK by Catherine J. Golden, Reviewed by Philip V. Allingham
 

SERIALS TO GRAPHIC NOVELS: THE EVOLUTION OF THE VICTORIAN ILLUSTRATED BOOK
By Catherine J. Golden
(Florida, 2017) xviii + 299 pp.
Reviewed by Philip V. Allingham on 2019-10-18.

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In this book Catherine J. Golden, author of Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing (2010) and Images of the Woman Reader in Victorian British and American Fiction (2003), and editor of Book Illustrated: Text, Image, and Culture, 1770-1930 (2000), charts the principal developments in illustrated fiction from the earliest of the illustrated serials of the 1830s to the graphic novels of the present age. Though Golden tracks changes in both visual aesthetics and contexts of production over two centuries, she highlights the products of collaboration between authors and artists. Necessarily, then, she confines her scope to such pairings as Charles Dickens and Phiz (Hablôt Knight Browne) in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (April 1836-November 1837), and to the work of such writer-illustrators as William Makepeace Thackeray and George Du Maurier. In the final chapter, which treats "graphic classics"--graphic novel adaptations of nineteenth-century British classics, she likewise gives equal credit to the script-writer and artist(s) responsible for a synthetic project such as Batman Noël (2011).

Golden tells a complex story with reassuring conviction, pausing whenever necessary to provide background and define her terms, as well as aptly quoting from illustration studies and from a larger body of biographical, bibliographical, art-historical, and theoretical criticism. Taking the reader on a Grand Tour, she ranges from the beginnings of the British illustrated book with the initial backstory of Pickwick to its multitudinous and lively descendants: children's books such as Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and graphic novels of our own time such as Will Eisner's Fagin the Jew (2003).


The cover, designed for our own visual age, juxtaposes George Cruickshank's Oliver Asking for More in Oliver Twist, which first appeared in Bentley's Miscellany (February 1837), with Erica Awano's "She Felt a Violent Blow on Her Chin" from Leah Moore and John Reppion's The Complete Alice in Wonderland (2009). The cover thus previews Golden's discussion of cartooning and graphic novels such as Will Eisner's Fagin the Jew (2003) in her concluding chapter. Furthermore, though Golden writes for a non-specialist audience, she cites some of the standard texts on her subject such as John Harvey's Victorian Novelists and Their Illustrators (1971) and Jane Rabb Cohen's Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators (1980).

As Simon Cooke has pointed out in reviewing this book on The Victorian Web, "[m]aking sense of Victorian illustration is a complicated task." But Golden simplifies the topic by conveniently dividing it into the "pre-Victorian" or Regency grotesque satires of Gillray and Rowlandson; the witty caricatures of George Cruikshank and Phiz (Hablôt K. Browne); the poetic realism and high craftsmanship of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, J. E. Millais, A. B. Houghton, and George Pinwell; the esoteric eroticism of Aubrey Beardsley; and the sophisticated magazine satires of fin de siecle illustrator George Du Maurier. Moreover, even as she surveys changes in the technology and marketing or packaging of nineteenth-century illustration, Golden offers cogent commentaries upon such specific plates as Robert Seymour's Mr. Pickwick in Chase of His Hat (see below) from the fourth chapter of The Pickwick Papers, the first novel she examines. Her comment on this rarely reproduced Seymour illustration, one of many high-resolution reproductions that complement her analyses, nicely defines the effects achieved in this picture:

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Robert Seymour, Mr Pickwick in chase of his hat (May 1836).

This is the pregnant moment Seymour stages. Samuel Pickwick's respectable black hat, placed brim down in the cloud of dust, serves as an essential prop on Seymour's illustrative stage. Although hats are not commonplace today, to the Victorians, a misplaced hat in public was more than a major wardrobe malfunction: losing one's hat meant losing one's dignity. Seymour hints at the future restoration of the hat by showing a flustered Pickwick, extending both of his arms to "seize [the hat] by the crown, and stick firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else" . . . . (Golden, p. 27)

As this analysis suggests, Golden identifies and explores the origins of the Victorian illustrated novel by examining in depth Dickens's nineteen-month serialization of Pickwick, and in particular the pair of collaborative relationships that produced this seminal work. Dickens and Seymour were often at odds, not merely over the moments illustrated but over their very different conceptions of the work itself. Determined to assert the primacy of the word over the image, Dickens developed a far more congenial relationship with Phiz (Hablôt Knight Browne). Like Dickens, Phiz was a newcomer to the London publishing scene and proved a far less fractious junior partner than Seymour had been. Though Pickwick was not the first work of new fiction to be issued in monthly parts over an extended period, Golden correctly ascribes the subsequent commercial success of the serialized novel to this part-published picaresque story because it set the standard and became the "model for publication of newly released, illustrated serial fiction for adult readers" (49). After first commissioning, as Golden explains, an established and popular illustrator, Chapman and Hall then recruited a relative unknown: they asked Charles Dickens, a twenty-four-year-old parliamentary reporter turned journalist, to furnish twenty-four pages of commentary each month. Though Chapman and Hall had contracted the young author of Sketches by Boz merely to "write up" Seymour's humorous pictures of Cockney sportsmen making fools of themselves, Boz quickly hijacked Seymour's project, making his text "the hand," and the illustrations "the glove" rather than vice-versa, as Seymour had expected. "Dickens," writes Golden,


turned the illustrator into a "glove," molded to fit the author's "hand." Increasing the allotment of text [to thirty-two pages per instalment] and decreasing the number of plates [under Buss, and then Phiz, to just two] expanded the author's role, granting Dickens greater room for plot and character development. With this improved plan, Dickens earned more money (£21 a part); however, by cutting the number of plates in half and hiring artists less established than Robert Seymour, Chapman and Hall offset the total cost. (29)

Turning next to caricature, Golden reads serial illustration against the conventions of melodrama. Defining and re-reading caricature as a kind of distortion akin to satire, she treats it in terms of its stage-craft. Caricatural illustration, she observes, incorporates stage effects of lighting and visual cuing (58), gestures and props (66), and "bodily distortion" (77), and Cruikshank, she notes, employed tableaux vivant in his etchings for Oliver Twist (1838). As Cooke says in the review cited above, "Golden charts the ways in which [the etchings] capture the immediacy of the theatre, involving the reader-viewer in a visceral experience between laughter and horror. She also concedes the limitations of caricature as a mode of illustration and the rise of a more realistic approach."

This change occurred as the artists of the 1860s supplanted the practically rather than academically trained Phiz and Cruikshank. At first glance, it may seem as if the style of the comedic and melodramatic in the early serials was simply replaced for a reading public that quickly came to prefer the new poetic realism to the comic grotesque. Golden notes, however, that rather than disappearing, the traditions of the illustrated serial continued to run alongside the naturalistic idiom of the New Men of the Sixties. Later Dickensian illustration, Golden shows, particularly the Household Edition, was based upon and constantly adverted to the visual narratives of Cruikshank and Phiz. To compare, for instance, Cruikshank's original illustration of "Fagin in the Condemned Cell" (1838) with the later rendition by James Mahoney in the Household Edition of 1873 is to see their visual continuity.

Though Golden argues that the caricatural style continued to inform commercial illustration throughout the rest of the century, it waned as the fifties drew to a close. Dissatisfied with the old-fashioned look of Browne's short program for A Tale of Two Cities in November 1859, Dickens turned instead to New Men of the Sixties such as Marcus Stone. To explain why illustrations declined in newly released, widely-circulated volumes, Golden cites such "intertwining economic and aesthetic factors" as the decline in the production of serial fiction that occurred as prosperity and literacy became more general (151). She notes too "the changing nature of the novel, new developments in illustration, and competition from other media" (152), that is, photography and--later on--cinema. She also cites the impact of literacy legislation during the last third of the century:

The 1840 census (based on data up until 20 June 1839) lists 67 percent of males and 51 per cent of females as literate. By 1900 -- thirty years after the passage of the Forster Act of 1870 (legislation that made education compulsory in England and Wales for children between the ages of five ad thirteen) -- 97.2 percent of males and 96.8 percent of females in England and Wales were literate. (153)

In particular, the development of the subscription library (Mudie's and W. H. Smith) led to increased demand for the triple-decker, so that multiple readers could borrow and read the same title at one time. "By 1890," she writes, "Mudie's Select Library (1725-1960) had 250,000 subscribers" (152). Public libraries accelerated the proliferation of the triple-decker. When the Public Libraries Act of 1850 granted local boroughs with populations over 10,000 the right to open lending libraries, it also allowed local authorities to impose a local tax of one penny to pay for this public service. On 2 September 1852, Dickens himself spoke at the inauguration of the first such public institution, the Manchester Free Library, with an initial collection of 18,000 books. Rather than shifting immediately to the new library-friendly triple-decker format, Dickens continued to publish in serial right up to his death in 1870. But from Great Expectations (1861) onward he accepted the triple-decker, partly from the demands of libraries, major purchasers of new fiction, and partly from new economies in publishing. The ideal form of illustration became the composite woodblock engraving, which could be produced on the same press as the text of the novel and even integrated into the letterpress.

In fact, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century in England and Wales, two distinct markets for fiction seem to have operated. Whereas readers of periodicals such as The Graphic read the serialized works of novelists such as Thomas Hardy with appropriate illustrations, purchasers of the equivalent volume editions of these previously serialized works read unadorned text. "Hardy's fiction published in volume form without the original illustrations," Golden concludes, "came to be considered his serious literary work" (153).

At the fin de siècle, the Victorian illustrated book entered its third iteration as professionally trained artists such as George Du Maurier fused realism and caricature in works such as Trilby (1894), published in both serial and volume forms. Through graphic examples Golden shows how, in depicting the evil genius of Svengali as a stereotypical Jew, Du Maurier drew upon Cruikshank's depictions of Dickens's Fagin, and thereby integrates examples of anti-Semitism from across the century. The most telling piece of evidence that the caricatural form survived to the end of the century is Du Maurier's characterization of the patiently plotting, devious, and manipulative Svengali in the centre of a web of his own creation, an emblem of his succeeding in controlling Trilby O'Farrell as the operatic diva La Svengali:

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LEFT: Cruikshank's etching The Jew & Morris Both begin to understand each other for Oliver Twist in Bentley's Miscellany, November 1838

RIGHT: Du Maurier's An Incubus for Trilby in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 88 (March 1894): 576.

In "The Jew & Morris Both begin to understand each other," Cruikshank stresses the length of Fagin's nose by contrasting it with the snub-nose of criminal-wannabe "Morris Bolter" (Noah Claypole's London nom de guerre). In depicting the villain of Trilby, Du Maurier likewise exaggerates Svengali's nose. "[I]t is long enough," writes Golden, "to signal in Fagin-like fashion that he, too, is in the know of Jewish villainy" (182), though Du Maurier flaunts the wildness of his villain's hair ("here fashioned to suggest a devil's horns") rather than the length of his nose, a species of dark comedy that embodies Trilby's fears as it both spoofs and dehumanizes the antagonist: "he is part human," Golden writes, "part arachnid, and part demon" (183). Here Du Maurier is clearly working within the conventions of the caricatural school to convey a psychological reification of the heroine's terror.

The successes of the illustrated novels of George Du Maurier in the last decade of the nineteenth century brave a sharp decline in illustrated, volume-length, adult-oriented fiction. Nevertheless, illustrated adult fiction continued to flourish in magazines, artists' books, and children's literature such as the Peter Rabbit books of Beatrix Potter (1902). Following in the footsteps of John Everett Millais, and also influenced by A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908), Potter combined the highly popular animal tale with naturalistic, near-photographic realism in books such as The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903). Other artists of the period who combined such elements in children's books include Edward Lear, Arthur Rackham, E. W. Kemble, Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, and Kate Greenaway. So Victorian illustration did not vanish. Instead, argues Golden, it was absorbed into both children's books and works of poetry such as Christina Rosseti's Goblin Market (1862).

In the fifth chapter, Golden tries to show that the Victorian illustrated novel eventually begot the graphic novel of our own time. Her evidence can be highly selective, since it includes canonical adaptations of such classics as Oliver Twist and Alice. But her examination of the dynamics of the cartoon-strip panel shows  how modern illustrators have moved beyond the "pregnant moment" of the early caricaturists to convey stages of motion. She examines not only graphic adaptations of nineteenth-century novels by Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope, but also Neo-Victorian graphic novels such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999) and original, Victorian-themed graphic novels such as Batman Noël (2011).

In adapting such nineteenth-century novels as Alice in Wonderland and Oliver Twist, Golden explains, script-writers and artists of the "graphic classics" communicate meaning and achieve emphasis by means of the cartoon strip, including "panels of different shapes and sizes" (234). While this assessment implies that letterpress and image now coexist comfortably, Golden observes that the form of the cartoon panel insists upon the primacy of the image over the word, as if the picture is now "the hand," and the words of the author (usually amounting to dialogue in a dramatic freeze-frame) are once again "the glove." This twenty-first century fusion of the word and the image privileges the latter over the former, just as Robert Seymour and George Cruikshank would have wished. Thus, Golden seems to have brought us full circle.

Philip V. Allingham is Professor of English Emeritus, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada


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