- Pictorial Victorians: The Inscription of Values in Word and Image
The nineteenth-century world saw an explosion of narrative illustration in popular literature and periodicals, as well as in narrative painting. This is nowhere more true than in Britain, where the narrative image was regarded as somewhat of a national specialty, and illustrated periodicals proliferated to an astonishing number. Wide-spread use of printed illustration, considering the technical difficulties and added costs involved, clearly reveals its importance to nineteenth-century publishers, readers, and writers. However, many historians, either of art or of literature, still approach illustration in the traditional, dismissive way, as mere sugarcoating, a tastier repetition of a dry but authoritative text.
Julia Thomas, in Pictorial Victorians: The Inscription of Values in Word and Image, gives us a thoughtful investigation of how misleading this approach can be, and how very un-Victorian. A continuing theme of the book is that Victorian writers recognized illustrators as dangerous competitors in the process of constructing meaning, and strove to retain control over their words, regularly attempting to forbid illustration or to control the choice of artists. In this context, an amusing and revealing conversation recorded by Holman Hunt, the subject his illustrations for Tennyson's poem, The Lady of Shalott, demonstrates the extent to which Tennyson demanded, but did not get, [End Page 82] a slavishly literal, adjective by adjective, reproduction of his authorial intent.
Thomas then proceeds to show not only why writers were wary but also why it is next to impossible, even with the best of wills, to create images that reproduce a writer's aim. Working with a variety of illustrated texts, ranging from Tennyson's poems to English versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin to Punch cartoons, she unveils some of the ways in which image can undermine, reinforce or alter the meaning of a text in unexpected ways. Illustrations can highlight aspects of the text that are understood rather than emphasized, refocusing the reader's attention and understanding. Thus, some English illustrated versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, though themselves pirated editions, take the moral high road in their visual construction of slavery as a peculiarly American problem, framed in American flags, drawings of the Declaration of Independence, and other emblems of freedom.
By contrast, the image may reinforce the text in new and disturbing ways. A series of Punch cartoons pictures crinolined women as powerful and threatening in their superhuman appropriation of space and freedom from male embrace, even as the text presents them as weak, shallow and selfish in their slavery to fashion and wasteful expenditures. This layered "re-presentation," once in text and once in cartoon, of the self-willed woman as a socially destructive force is a continuing theme in Victorian humor. Unsurprisingly, it parallels the rise of agitation for female emancipation.
In a final section, Thomas demonstrates that narrative painting may even challenge its own stories, as much through its own conventions as through the unruly and indeterminate nature of visuality. One of her examples, a triptych of paintings called Past and Present, by the little known Victorian painter Augustus Egg, depicts the discovery and fall of an adulteress. The format, composition, poses and use of light, draw broadly on religious imagery. Embedded in these conventions are accompanying connotations of Marian virtue and the saintly repentance of Mary Magdalene, which actively work against the simplistic primary narrative of sin and its punishment, suggesting an underlying theme of redemption through suffering. Contemporary comments suggest that this was a particularly disturbing and confusing work, more so for scholars of art, who, like Ruskin, were steeped in the conventions of religious imagery, and consequently torn among multiple interpretations.
Thomas draws on a broad array of English illustrated periodicals, in the process demonstrating the existence of a lively contemporary debate over relationships between text and image, well before modern versions of the same discussion. Pictorial Victorians is an excellent introduction [End Page 83] to the possibilities of text and image studies as they might apply...