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  • Prefiguring Genre:Frontispiece Portraits from Gulliver's Travels to Millenium Hall
  • Janine Barchas

During the early decades of the genre's formation, English novels' material embodiments as printed books rivaled their narrative contents in diversity and creativity. This parallel between formal and stylistic rambunctiousness is unsurprising: novels were the new species of writing, unpoliced by audience expectation or print convention. As a result, writers of prose fiction during the first half of the eighteenth century experimented broadly (and, broadly, every publication was an experiment) with the material presentation of the novel as well as its narrative content. Assisted by printers and publishers, these authors enthusiastically mined print culture for forms that could give shape to the new genre. As the early eighteenth-century novel, or something like it, adopted the printed features of established modes of discourse, it favored forms that signaled the literary heritage and legitimacy of the new literary species: grand subscription lists, promising tables of contents, lengthy dedications, laudatory poems, and lofty prefaces found their way into early novels and the books that housed them.

As Gérard Genette and others argue, these framing materials or "paratexts" constitute an integral part of a literary text, occasionally offering a reader fully articulated readings and always subtle interpretive clues. Genette maintains that a printed text's presentation of itself (its title page, illustrations, preface, or even the author's name) is "always the conveyor of a commentary that is authorial or more or less legitimated by the author."1 Some early novelists, most famously Laurence Sterne, used paratexts to comment on the emerging genre itself and to test its boundaries.2 Yet, if Sterne borrows promiscuously from print culture, Dada-like, to question hermeneutic cohesion, other authors deploy non-narrative print artifacts to shore up desired readings and anchor their books in print tradition. For example, [End Page 118] author-printer Samuel Richardson, another great borrower in the visual production and packaging of the novel, includes an exhaustive, one-hundred-page "Historical and Characteristical Index" in the final volume of Sir Charles Grandison (1754). Modeled on the scholarly apparatuses in scientific reference texts and the entries in conduct books, Grandison's index aims both to guide interpretation and to signal the permanence of the new genre. The entries in the index, from Adam to The World, reveal Richardson's ambitions for the novel. With this index rerum Richardson aims not only to control a reader's memory and interpretation of specific passages, but also to proclaim the lasting utility of his epistolary fiction. In addition to being harnessed with such weighty paratexts, the early novel features graphic designs and pictorial images adapted from established discourses in print culture. These visual borrowings are similarly deployed to mark the novel's legitimacy and signal its participation in the heritage of "high" literature.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the graphic packaging of books–prominent, because always found at the front of a work, facing the title page–is the frontispiece portrait. This subgenre of the longstanding tradition of the author portrait emerges as a feature of British book production in the seventeenth century. Frontispieces commonly offered an engraved likeness of the book's author within a masonry frame, frequently accompanied by a Greek or Latin inscription. This model, what David Piper terms "the equivalent in engraving of the sculpted memorial bust in its niche," constitutes "a formula that repeats for the next two hundred years for hundreds of authors in their frontispieces, varying only in details of dress [and] inscription, but with of course each one individualized by the sitter's own face." By the midseventeenth century "the frontispiece is a firmly enough established convention for it to be played about with."3 Because in some cases frontispiece portraits were Lilliputian copies of pre-existing paintings, adapted for use as an engraving, they conform to the visual conventions of the painted portrait and share, in miniature, that genre's complexities of iconography and composition. Occasionally frontispieces convey the sitter's reputation with standard iconographic embellishments, such as a laurel crown, classical costume, or hovering muse.4 The inclusion of a copper-plate engraving at the front of a work inevitably raised...


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