In her last post, Jennifer raised a number of possible connections between contemporary blogging and nineteenth-century serial writing. After reading a recent article by Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge in Victorian Studies, “The Plot Thickens: Toward a Narratological Analysis of Illustrated Serial Fiction in the 1860s,” I think one of the ways that Victorian serial fiction may differ from contemporary blogging is in the complex and reciprocal relationship between serial writing and illustration.

Leighton and Surridge argue that critics have yet to truly consider the narratological function of images in the plot of the serial novel. Leighton and Surridge are not interested in the author’s influence on illustrations or the way in which illustrations merely reflect or supplement the plot, but in how such images can be read “as intrinsic to the first reading experience of the mass Victorian public” and as “constitutive of plot per se” (66). They draw on critics such as Robert L. Patten, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, and Mark Turner as they examine “the interplay of visual and verbal text” in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Eleanor’s Victory (1863) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864-6), which were both illustrated by George Du Maurier. One of their most interesting claims is that Du Maurier’s illustrations contribute to the novels’ generic classifications. Du Maurier’s drawings in Eleanor’s Victory, Leighton and Surridge argue, increase the verbal text’s sensational effects and his illustrations in Gaskell’s realist novel “deploy sensation effects … to suggest Molly’s unconventional behaviour” (95). These observations lead them to surmise that realism and sensation fiction exploited the tropes of the other genre for some of their key effects. Their attention to illustration thus allows them to support a claim that is more subtly suggested in the verbal text.

Leighton and Surridge’s call for a more multifaceted analysis of serial writing and illustration is pertinent and timely. I am left wondering, however, how to break free from the way we currently write about Victorian novels, since, as they admit, “we often pay mere lip service to serial illustration, page layout, and serial breaks, treating them as supplemental — rather than intrinsic — to these complex texts” (97). Whenever I have referenced illustrations in an essay or conference paper, it was chiefly to prove a point I was making about the verbal text. I certainly have privileged the written text as primary in my work and perhaps this in part because modern editions don’t allow us to read like the Victorians. This raises a number of questions: Is it really possible for us to “read like the Victorians”? How can we teach our students to understand the original interplay between verbal and visual texts when most editions leave out the illustrations? And, is it always problematic to read the verbal text as primary? There are some key differences between verbal and visual texts, namely that we can read the verbal without the visual (as we often do), but can’t exactly read the visual without access to the verbal (can we?). After reading this article, I am now interested in searching out the original serial editions of the novels I am currently working on to see whether they were paired with illustrations and what these illustrations can tell me about the novels’ generic classifications and sensational techniques.

Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge, “The Plot Thickens: Toward a Narratological Analysis of Illustrated Serial Fiction in the 1860s.” Victorian Studies 51.1 (2008): 65-101.

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