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Reviewed by:
  • The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature 1848–1920 by Karen E. Laird
  • Brian Cheadle
Laird, Karen E. The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature 1848–1920. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015. Pp. x + 230. £60; $104.95.

Laird’s Introduction notes the tendency to scorn Victorian stage adaptations of literary works but to give more careful attention to silent film adaptations of the same material because they are recognized as prime features of the new medium whose early history is eagerly and sympathetically studied. The book’s stated aims are accordingly to revise the history of adaptation in two ways: first, by stressing the extent to which the Victorian playwrights established “a language, theory and practice of adaptation” that was foundational to the development of narrative cinema; and secondly by drawing attention to the extent to which the adapters “increasingly came to value change, originality, and invention above fidelity to the source text” (2). This second intention is guided by Laird’s sketchily-theorized belief that the adaptations do the cultural work of recombining key constituents of cultural identity such as class, gender and nation in new contexts. This belief directs her choice of case studies. She devotes two each, one on stage and one on film productions of the novel, to selected adaptations of Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and The Woman in White. This allows her to focus on a range of specific strategies revealed by the adaptations, such as the way that the stage version of Jane Eyre tailors “the text’s politics to appeal to audiences of a different socio-economic class” and the way the film version works towards “gendering the text to appeal to a female audience” (15).

Because the book limits itself to case studies of only three novels, it has more space to attend to specific early stage and film adaptations than do works such as H Philip Bolton’s Dickens Dramatized (1987) and Grahame Smith’s Dickens and the Dream of Cinema (2003). In doing so it usefully describes, in some detail, works which are not easy to access. In the chapter on stage adaptations of David Copperfield, for example it gives the reader a sense of two early works on the popular stage, George Almar’s Born with a Caul (1850), put on at the Strand Theatre in London before the last seven chapters of the novel had been penned, and J Courtney’s David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rectory (1850), put on at The Surrey less than a [End Page 148] fortnight after the final number had appeared, both of which are available only in manuscript form in the British Library’s Lord Chamberlain’s Collection. It also evokes two works with somewhat higher aspirations, F. C. Burnand’s The Deal Boatman (1863), available only in a rare edition published in the same year, which appropriates, recasts and reconceives the Little Emily/Steerforth affair and gives it a happy ending; and Andrew Halliday’s Little Em’ly (1869) which confines itself largely to this sub-plot. In addition to describing features of the adaptations, Laird assembles a good deal of pertinent material, such as reviews in the popular press and fascinating titbits like the information that Burnand was a Cambridge graduate, failed barrister and disinherited son. Moreover, it provides some insight into the mechanics of contemporary staging, quoting Halliday’s elaborate stage direction for the storm scene:

Seashore in 6th grooves. The two front entrances are the shore, with set rock to bear the weight of six men, ten feet high, R.2E.;

rocks along 2nd groove line; rocks at L.i1 and2 E’s; ist and 2nd grooves are rocks and sky; all the upper wings sky and sea; sea

on flat, with storm clouds; waves, large, to work, in all upper entrances; seacloth, to work in 3d and c. part of 2ed E.; fragment

of ship, foremast and forecastle, splintered, to sink, L.U.E. with three men on it; lightning, upper entrance, thunder


Unfortunately, Laird does not always adequately put her information to work, in this case offering only the quotation and leaving it to the reader to decipher it and to decide...


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pp. 148-150
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