MARIE DUVAL: MAVERICK VICTORIAN CARTOONIST by Simon Grennan, Roger Sabin, and Julian Waite, Reviewed by Richard Scully

By Simon Grennan, Roger Sabin, and Julian Waite
(Manchester, 2020) x + 272 pp.
Reviewed by Richard Scully on 2021-01-19.

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This long-awaited study of Marie Duval (1847-1890, born Isabelle Émilie de Tessier) is a remarkable achievement. With an Introduction and nine copiously-illustrated thematic chapters divided into two parts ("Work" and "Depicting and Performing"), and with two appendices ("Questions of attribution" and "Questions of terminology and historicization"), this is about as thorough an analysis of any cartoonist and their work as could be imagined.

The only other single-volume study that comes close is Frankie Morris's landmark 2005 volume on John Tenniel -- Artist of Wonderland (which, curiously, is absent from the Bibliography of this book). But Duval's champions have met and triumphed in a much harder quest than Morris's. While the great man needed no rescuing from the oblivion of posterity, and countless archival sources shed light on his life and work, the surviving sources for Duval's "maverick" career mean that she can be glimpsed only as in a glass, darkly. Despite the lack of available evidence (most of which has been helpfully digitized since 2016 via the authors' Marie Duval Archive, Grennan, Sabin, and Waite succeed admirably in their simple and singular aim: to prove Duval's importance, and thus to fulfil what David Kunzle began more than three decades ago in the first great study of the Victorian cartoon icon "Ally Sloper" and his creator ("Marie Duval: A Caricaturist Rediscovered," Woman's Art Journal, 1986).

Having laid a strong foundation in the Introduction, methodologically and historiographically, the three authors divide the subsequent chapters amongst themselves. In Chapter 1, Sabin examines the essential context of Judy: or the London Serio-Comic Journal (1867-1907), at which Duval worked for fully sixteen years. Despite its importance, Judy has so far drawn nothing like the scholarly attention lavished on its rivals, Punch above all. Filling this gap with distinction, Sabin reconsiders "Judy's importance in the grand scheme of Victorian entertainment culture, and indeed in Victorian everyday life" (33). It is hugely refreshing to see serious discussion of Duval alongside her colleagues, including William Henry Boucher, a little-known and little-appreciated genius whom I myself have studied in Eminent Victorian Cartoonists (2018) and "William Henry Boucher," Victorian Periodicals Review (2013).

Given "the extremity of his views," Sabin notes, Boucher was also "a maverick," and in a fascinating overview of Boucher's "dance" with Duval (28-31), Sabin shows that it epitomizes the "serio-comic" nature of Judy. During the Franco-Prussian War, Sabin explains, Duval intentionally "undermine[d] Boucher's earnestness, week by week," and in his cartoons throughout the 1870s, Boucher gave "affectionate nods" to Duval and her husband Charles Ross, another caricaturist (32-33). The only analytical flaw is minor: Boucher's cartoons mostly depict not Otto von Bismarck but Kaiser Wilhelm I. In any case, one is tempted to agree with Sabin that Duval, not Boucher, was "arguably [Judy's] main cartoonist" and "its star turn" (21, 33).

Unsurprisingly, this book about a maverick is not only written in a maverick style that owes something to Kunzle's but also conceived within a maverick framework. Both come through well. Sabin takes aim at the "modern emphasis" on the comic strip in the cross-disciplinary field of Comics Studies and in the teleological narrative wrought by Kunzle himself as well as others. "[T]o see a linear progression from print-tradition-to-satire-magazines-to-comics," Sabin writes, "is only one way of 'telling history.'" Such retrospective grand narratives, he adds,"ignore other trajectories" (the connection between Judy and Private Eye, for instance), and have helped obscure Duval as much as liberate her (25).

Though Grennan feels slightly daunted by "such an enormous topic" as women's work (36), his chapter 2 on "Marie Duval and the woman employee" cogently shows how, in practice, women like Duval blurred the supposedly strict lines demanded by the "separate spheres" ideology. Such women, we learn, not only worked as such, but also "performed" and "visualized" work in ways inflected by class, and thus participated in an ongoing (and "never-ending") negotiation, construction, and definition of class (42). By analyzing several real as well as imagined female figures, Grennan reveals a great deal about the world of women's employment, including Eliza Lynn Linton and her "Girl of the Period" and Duval herself, with her fictional "Miss Echo" and all-female editorial staff.

Duval's activity in the liminal spaces of the theatre as well as in the editorial office ("stage and page") makes her doubly-significant. Even more than other "epitheatrical" cartoonists such as Matt Morgan, John Tenniel, and Bernard Partridge, she translated and transposed into cartooning the social transgressions permitted in the theatrical world. Unlike her contemporary, Adelaide Claxton, Grennan notes that Duval did not restrict her cartooning to "women's concerns," but "successfully sought to incorporate masculine, vulgar, humour" into her work, her performance of work, and her visualization of work (46). To enable these transgression, she also deployed such pseudonyms as "Noir," "Her Royal Highness, the Princess Hesse Schwartzbourg," and "Ambrose Clark," as well as the ubiquitous "Marie Duval."

Like his fellow authors, Grennan contextualizes the individual cartoons that he considers. Reflecting a rewarding new "turn" in comics studies, he treats Duval's handiwork within the material and commercial framework of the periodical that contained it. Citing, for instance, Duval's humorous comment on the enslavement of women by corsetry, headgear, and feminizing accessories, Grennan notes that page 2 of Duval's Ally Sloper's Comic Kalendar for 1878 features an advertisement for Swanbill Corsets--the very thing that helped to fund the journal:

In launching Chapter 3, on Duval's theatrical career, Julian Waite laments the 'piecemeal' nature of what can be recovered with small and scattered bits of evidence. Nevertheless, he sets a strong analysis of this evidence within a broader theoretical and interpretive framework centered on gender and celebrity studies. Also, besides comprehensively probing the stage works of Duval's life-partner, Charles H. Ross, Waite points the way forward to a fuller understanding of the essentially "epitheatrical" nature of much cartoon work in the nineteenth century: a topic first probed in studies such as my " 'The Epitheatrical Cartoonist,' " Journal of Victorian Culture 16: 3 (December 2011): 363-84.

Happily, Waite does not let the absence of evidence stand simply as evidence of absence. Without veering into fiction, he enriches with informed and logical speculation what would otherwise be a pretty sparse chapter. He makes the most of "[b]iographically suggestive" cartoons and illustrations (77ff.); he considers "possible influences" in a measured fashion (93-96); and overall, he shows how Duval managed to balance her theatrical work with her contributions to Judy (75-78). He also briefly cites the wonderfully-named Such v. Such divorce case of 1873 (in which Duval was cited as a respondent) and glances (in a three-and-a-half-line aside) at a sadly unanswerable question: "What did Marie Duval look like?"

While Duval's authorship of certain items in Judy and elsewhere is disputed (something addressed also in Appendix 1), Sabin's chapter 4 treats her one undoubted publishing success: Queens and Kings and Other Things (1874). Created by Duval at the very height of her powers (when she was also a new mother to her only son Charles) and produced by Chatto and Windus in collaboration with Judy's owners, the Dalziel brothers, this remarkably handsome illustrated book contained all manner of things to make the Victorian reader smile-- including a heavy dose of Medievalism reminiscent of Richard Doyle.

Sabin adeptly links Duval's book to several developments: the rise of a dedicated literature for children (but attractive to older readers, too), the advent of the "gift book," and the growing cultural and economic phenomenon of Christmas. Sabin also compares Duval's work with that of Edward Lear. Though reading Queens and Kings as "a calculated effort to position her as 'the female Lear'" (106) may stretch too far, Sabin ably explains their similarities as well as their differences in approach and style, and he illuminates the genre of nonsense rhymes as much as Duval's own work. Sadly, however, Sabin observes that Queens and Kings earned only a"half-hearted reception" in its own time, and it was "left to the historians" (114) -- specifically Duval's only contemporary biographer, Ellen Clayton -- to assess the book on its merits. Yet even that assessment was as heavily gendered as histories of the other fields in which Duval excelled.

In Chapter 5, Grennan explains how Duval worked and how her art was engraved, printed, and published. Shedding fresh light on Victorian-era periodical publishing, he explains what she did directly on the wood block, why wood was thought better for printing than other materials such as copper, and the chain of production from visual journalist to engraver to press worker. Aside from the labor history approach, which is more accentuated here than in other accounts (such as Nicholas Hiley, "Showing Politics to the People" in Using Visual Evidence [2009] 24-41), it is the gendered considerations that add most to our understanding. After aptly deploying Ramsay MacDonald's Women in the Printing Trade (1904), Grennan scrutinizes the "complex and dynamic collaborative enterprise" that was the periodical trade. While the first part of the chapter seems little more than a catalogue of caveats, the second part engagingly places the journalist in all sorts of overlapping and interactive contexts such as gender, class, and technology.

In the opening chapter of Part II of the volume -- "Depicting and Performing" -- Grennan wholeheartedly defends Duval's artistic style against condescending critics of the Victorian era as well as of later times. Paradoxically, even though Duval's drawings for Judy attracted her contemporaries (as emphasized throughout the book), they were excoriated by commentators in The Sporting Times in 1872 and labelled "excruciatingly bad" (137). Grennan demonstrates that such criticism sprang largely from basic prejudice and sexism.

Specifically, Grennen rebuffs A. J. Wilson's 1927 assertions that Duval's drawings were "bad" and essentially unfit for their satirical purpose. He also exposes the sexist double standard that accepted humor from John Leech and George Du Maurier but not from Duval and her colleague, Adelaide Claxton. Furthermore, Grennan reminds us that Judy was not meant simply to ape the respectable Punch, but rather to be its satirical mirror-image, with a very different political and socio-economic readership in mind. Calling Judy "vulgar," Grennan writes, was "apposite" (145), for that is essentially what it aimed to be.

Lastly, Grennan does for Duval what others such as Juliet McMaster (That Mighty Art of Black-and-White, 2009) and I (Eminent Victorian Cartoonists, 2018) have done for Linley Sambourne and John Gordon Thomson. In short, Grennan shows how Duval's cartoons sent up the annual summer exhibitions of the Royal Academy. Just as effectively as the cartoonists of Punch or Fun, she bowdlerized--or perhaps "Sloperized"--great works of art. By wielding a decidedly masculine form of humor, she fed the development of "a new visual culture" (159), as illustrated below.

Julian Waite's Chapter 7, on the crossover between Duval's theatrical and visual journalistic work, is the most obviously art-historical of the whole book. Citing several key theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Ernest van Alphen, Waite compares the poses and attitudes depicted in Duval's drawings with those displayed in nineteenth-century acting manuals. Noting the freedom inherent in Duval's approach, Waite argues that her amateurish and vulgar style (which so offended the critics cited above) was itself a deliberate and studied approach to her art, and not simply indicative of a lack of talent or ability. In other words, as Waite cogently and sophisticatedly argues, Duval was theatrically performing the role of the imperfect artist in excellent fashion.

Building on this theatrical point as well as on his examination of Duval's theatrical career in chapter 3, Waite turns in chapter 8 to the specific forms of Victorian spectacle (popular forms of theater involving "special effects") that influenced her work. Duval's drawings, Waite observes, may well record forms that have since been "altered or fossilized," and could therefore be useful to theater historians in ways hitherto unappreciated. Highlighting the "transformation scenes" of pantomimes (188-92), Waite strongly examines them as well as circus/trapeze acts and clowning-- all of which importantly underpinned Victorian cartooning. But he might have mentioned other cartoonists (such as Matt Morgan) who were involved in such productions or based their work on them, and he might also have cited studies such as Frankie Morris's analysis of John Tenniel's use of pantomime in chapter 13 of the book cited earlier.

Appropriately, the ninth and final chapter in the volume takes up one of the ever-present questions that is -- quite unfairly -- asked of any female cartoonist: did she grapple with women's issues, and was she therefore a "women's cartoonist"? By way of answer, Sabin sets Duval within the context of women's cartooning (216-17)-- a story not often told outside Trina Robbins's successive volumes on the American context (Pretty in Ink, 2013). Though necessarily "rudimentary" (217), the history of women's cartooning is valuable because it sharpens the basic point of the whole volume: like the other female cartoonists of the Victorian age, Duval is little-known and little-appreciated today (just as in her own time) because of sexist prejudice. But this volume makes Duval herself both much better known and much better appreciated.

Richard Scully is Associate Professor in Modern History at the University of New England, Australia.

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