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  • Memory as "Shifting Sand":The Subversive Power of Illustration in George Du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson
  • Paisley Mann (bio)

In 1891, George Du Maurier, famous Punch cartoonist and book illustrator, turned to writing fiction. His first novel, Peter Ibbetson, appeared in monthly installments in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in Britain and the United States from June to November 1891. Du Maurier illustrated his own novel, contributing eighty-four drawings (fourteen per serial part). Written in the first person and purporting to be Peter Ibbetson's memoirs, the novel follows Peter from his youth in France to his adulthood in England and describes his ability to connect with a childhood friend Mary in their communal dreams. Throughout his memoirs, Peter rejoices in his discovery that, through dreaming, he can return physically to his past. Although Peter's incarceration in an insane asylum casts doubt on his narrative reliability, he supplies the reader with evidence that supports his ability to meet Mary in dreams, thus his dream visits appear possible, and his method of accessing the past seems fantastical, yet substantiated.

The range in scholarly interpretations of Du Maurier's text is limited; critics have tended to accept Peter's far-fetched claims about dream states and telepathic communication. For example, Richard Kelly inserts Peter Ibbetson into the same thematic tradition as Benjamin Disraeli's Contarini Fleming (1832), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), all of which explore "mental telepathy" and the ability to communicate across distances (66). Deems Taylor also situates Peter Ibbetson in this genre, considering it the first piece of literature about "lovers, parted by fate, who have only to sleep and dream in order to meet" (xiv). Both scholars read Du Maurier's novel as a fantasy and do not identify any inaccuracies in Peter's nostalgic accounts.

However, my study of Du Maurier's accompanying illustrations complicates these readings as I analyze the discrepancies between Du Maurier's illustrations of Peter's childhood and the illustrations of his dream journeys back to this childhood. As I will show, these illustrations suggest that Peter has not remembered these events accurately and that the faculty of memory is not as infallible as Peter would like to believe. Indeed, I will suggest that the novel accords with fin-de-siècle psychology, which asserted that memories could be remembered incorrectly or lost entirely. Interestingly, Athena Vrettos also identifies the novel with Victorian formulations of memory, but she sees the narrative as supporting [End Page 160] the earlier belief that memories are "infinitely retrievable and recorded with photographic accuracy in the ancestral depths of the unconscious mind" (9). While I do not deny the novel's indebtedness to these theories about the permanence of human recollections, I see the text's illustrations as suggesting the problems with these theories. Working from the assumption that text and illustration contribute jointly to a novel's meaning, I posit that the drawings undermine the predominant scholarly approach to the novel and reposition it in relation to the category of fin-de-siècle psychology. This approach adds to the text's significance by pointing out the tension between the verbal text's affirmation of human memory and the visual text's subtle denial of these memories, thus suggesting the fragility and failures of human recollection.

Peter Ibbetson and Late-Victorian Studies of Memory

Memory recall was debated and variously theorized throughout the nineteenth century. While Victorian scientists held differing opinions on an individual's ability to control memory, Sally Shuttleworth summarizes that "in the mid-century, memory was celebrated as the power which distinguished us from the animal chain" (59). In 1845, Thomas De Quincey used the metaphor of "a natural and mighty palimpsest" to describe how experiences are stored in the human brain: "Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain as softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished" (150). Similarly, in 1866, Eneas Sweetland Dallas saw memory as "a mystery," but as being vitally controlled by human agency: "we hide our knowledge so that it seems...


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pp. 160-180
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