- Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel
Janine Barchas reminds us that all matters which contribute to the visual presentation of a literary text (such as the frontispiece, title page, page layout and design, illustrations and graphic ornaments) greatly affect our reading and responses to that text. This was true in the eighteenth century and it is so today. For example, the publisher of a recent paperback edition of Defoe’s Moll Flanders meant to appeal to the college classroom market and chose for its cover a black and white 1910 photograph of a buxom courtesan in her quaintly naughty déshabille. Gat toothed and bedecked with flowers in her [End Page 154] hair, these conventional signs announce the woman’s lust and the amatory nature of the narrative that follows. The intent of the cover (our contemporary equivalent to a frontispiece), besides the hoped-for economic benefits of appealing to prurient interests, is to reference the account of Moll who was “Twelve times a Whore”. What the cover portrait also does, hopefully not intended by the editor, is to misrepresent Moll and mislead the reader. Shared careers notwithstanding, the woman on the cover exudes an erotic sensuality pointedly absent from Moll’s materialism; Moll does not pursue sensual pleasure. The publicity intended by the cover photograph is meant to update a frontispiece which attended an unidentified “early edition” of Moll Flanders and which is reproduced on the flyleaf of the modern paperback and by Barchas (45). That graphic portrait, “Taken from Life in New-gate”, represents “The famous Moll Flanders, of beauty the boast” sporting a long strand of large pearls round her neck and hair, as well as a large diamond brooch pinned at her bosom. Even as she is framed by the stone walls of New-gate, she projects the image of a fashionable, if not modest, late seventeenth-entury gentlewoman. The extent to which eighteenth-century authors controlled—or their editor, publisher or printer intended to cause—such visuals to influence the reading of eighteenth-century texts is the question Barchas scrupulously addresses.
There is no doubt that the Tatler sheets on which Swift’s Description of a City Shower first appeared, and whose text is framed by three paragraphs presenting the historical poetic context for Description followed by more than one and a half columns of contemporary advertising announcements, presents an enlarged context for reading this poem. It clearly underscores Swift’s condemnation (more than “indulgent critique”) of, in Barchas’s phrase, “London’s bustling materiality” (3) and thus supports, and even extends, current readings of the poem as the domestic offal brought to the surface by the flood that is augmented by the advertisements offering “the spoils of empire”. Barchas speculates that Swift would have been aware of and indeed counted on the physical context in which the Tatler would frame the poem, and that hence, without that context, we have less than a complete text, even if “only a footnote to the poem itself” (6). It is a persuasive argument and begs the question: do we, in presenting Swift’s poem to students, or in our editions of the text, whether in a critical edition or anthology, need to reproduce a facsimile of the Tatler half sheets, that is, a facsimile rather than a reprint, for fonts, punctuation, and other matters of graphic designs since they too can affect the reader’s response to a text?
Barchas’s discussion of frontispieces as “interpretive guides” to the eighteenth-century novel proves most instructive. For example, the portrait [End Page 155] of Gulliver printed in the third volume of the duodecimo edition of Swift’s Works (1735) strongly supports the character of the author who has returned from the Country of the Houyhnhnms and has penned “A Letter from Capt. Gulliver, to his Cousin Sympson”, a portrait of Gulliver significantly different from the frontispiece of other states of the Travels (N.B. Gulliver’s letter to Sympson is absent from the first state...