- The Plot Thickens: Illustrated Victorian Serial Fiction from Dickens to Du Maurier by Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge
by Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge;pp. 331, illustrated. Ohio UP, 2019. $95.99 cloth.
This is a book about collaboration. Examining illustrated serial fiction from the 1830s to the 1890s, the authors analyze a plethora of collaborations— between pictures, words, and technologies; between artists, authors, and publishers; and between readers, formats, and temporalities— demonstrating how they contributed to Victorian practices of meaning-making. How fitting, then, that this gorgeously illustrated book makes its argument through its own visual-verbal format and productive collaborative authorship. Co-written by Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge, The Plot Thickens: Illustrated Victorian Serial Fiction from Dickens to Du Maurier is a scholarly tour de force, showing what can be learned about the complex interrelationships between Victorian modes of production and consumption when we put down our classic paperback editions and turn to the archive. Using a materialist, historical method founded on considerations of form, Leighton and Surridge set out to bridge the gap between Victorian and modern readers by returning to original publication formats and reconstructing the complex reading practices they required. Their achievement is nothing short of groundbreaking. As the wide range of examples in The Plot Thickens demonstrates, taking account of serial illustration demands rethinking what we thought we knew about Victorian fiction and its readers.
This study shows that illustrated serial formats must be understood as more than simple preludes to the volume editions we read today and retrospectively valorize as “the Victorian novel.” Arguing “that form is meaning,” Leighton and Surridge ask what narratological functions images played in the quintessentially Victorian form of the illustrated serial. As they have argued elsewhere, the plot of illustrated serial fiction is thickened by the presence of pictures. The interplay of verbal and visual narrative elements over time required nineteenth-century readers to move forward and backward in order to revisit key scenes and compare pictorial and textual information at various points in the plot. Moreover, readers often received visual information before they read the text itself, as full-page images on wrappers, frontispieces to parts, and pictorial initial letters were typically viewed first. Readers were thus invited to see illustration as an aid to interpreting characters, scenes, and plot events before, during, and after the reading process. These recursive practices compelled reflective reading strategies and developed advanced visual literacy in Victorian readers. While Leighton and Surridge infer Victorian reading practices principally from material formats, their reconstructions are persuasively rooted in physical evidence and demonstration. Moreover, they bolster their inferences with archival evidence from actual nineteenth-century readers, whose records of reading [End Page 325] illustrated serial fiction provide apt and illuminating models for their own method.
The Plot Thickens is structured thematically rather than chronologically, in five thick chapters rich in historical detail and insightful analysis, each one addressing a different critical and theoretical question about the relationship between form and meaning in a particular subgenre. The first chapter, “Imagining the Self: Illustration and the Technology of Selfhood in David Copperfield and Cousin Phillis,” examines the roles illustration played in autobiographical serial fiction. Format is crucial here. Charles Dickens’s autobiographical novel of 1849–50 was issued in monthly parts illustrated by Hablôt K. Browne, with a wrapper and two full-page steel etchings at the beginning of each number. Leighton and Surridge skilfully read David’s retrospective autobiography against the emergence of illustrated mass print culture, showing how the past is represented as a series of recursively viewed visual tableaux, which require reviewing, revisioning, and reinterpreting over time as the narrator and his memories mature. In contrast, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella, serialized in the Cornhill Magazine from November 1863 to February 1864, had only a single illustration by George Du Maurier in the first instalment. Significantly, this allowed the image to face the letterpress it pictured, a rare occurrence in illustrated serial fiction. Leighton and Surridge show that this single illustration acts as a narrative fulcrum, picturing the moment in...