Last week I met Fiona at Manic Coffee, where I learned many fascinating things from her about Victorian photography and the evolution of trust in reproduced images. (She had been giving me some really knowledgeable and generous feedback on one of my book chapters — I recommend we all besiege her with similar requests, all at once…) One of the things she mentioned was Thomas Hardy’s lesser-known novel A Laodicean (1881), which apparently contains textual hijinks such as the touching-up of photographs, the faking of telegrams, and conflations of different Shakespeare plays in the same performance as a ploy to cover sexual transgression. (!!!) Encouraged by all this absurdly useful material for my book chapter, we set off to check a couple of used bookstores down College Street, but couldn’t find a copy. (Though I did find a copy of Tesla’s autobiography, which should be good for some even stranger posts down the road. Btw, I mean this Tesla, not that one, though neither really got the credit they deserved…). Anyway, this afternoon I looked at some early editions of A Laodicean in the U of T’s Fisher Rare Book Library, including a triple-decker published in London in 1881, the year of the novel’s publication, and a single-volume illustrated American edition from the same year. I suspected the American edition might have been one of the many piracies of British novels that would happen nearly simultaneously across the Atlantic, especially with well-known novelists like Hardy. Being a lazy non-Victorianist book historian — who leaves actual reading to his smarter literary friends, and then mooches research ideas off them — I flipped through the volumes looking for illustrations as my entry-points into the text, and as potential material to discuss in my book chapter. The London triple-decker contained no illustrations, but the American single volume contained several, one of which you can see below. However, I really don’t know anything about Hardy’s publication history or the textual history of this particular novel, which I haven’t even read.

That’s exactly the point of this rambling introduction: I found myself not-reading a novel I knew next to nothing about, instead mining it for graphic material that could lead to threads I’d follow through the text and back into my own writing. That struck me as an oddly perverse and unliterary way to read (or not-read), and yet increasingly normal in the research that I read and produce. It got me thinking about how often images or other graphic features of books become our entry-ways into texts, and whether others might have similar experiences.

Illustration facing title page from Thomas Hardy, A Laodicean (New York: H. Holt, 1881). Image courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

For example, this image jumped out as a potentially rich vein to mine, given that my own chapter plays on photography in relation to what Hamlet calls the “counterfeit presentments” of two images, his father and his uncle. It’s the theme of treacherous substitution that interests me, and it seems to be present in this image, too. Again, when I was paging through the 1881 American edition and found this, I had nearly no sense of the plot with which to contextualize it, aside from what a friend had described in a coffee shop a few days before. What came to mind instead was the great opening line of Deidre Lynch’s article “Gothic Libraries and National Subjects”: “In a gothic novel, to enter the chambers a household sets aside for its reading and writing is to be recruited into a genealogical plot” (Studies in Romanticism 40 [2001], p. 29). I have no idea (yet) what’s happening in this image, or whether the scene is set in a library, but between the image, the caption, and my (relatively limited) prior reading of 19th-century novels, I had a strong sense of imaginative recruitment into some family’s plot.

To a Victorianist who knows her Hardy backwards and forwards, this all might sound like the musings of a tourist from another field — which is what they are. But I wonder if my encounter with this as-yet unread novel might be similar to others’ experiences of unread texts. Somewhere out there, right now, some reader is reaching the end(s) of Great Expectations for the first time, and someone else is sitting down to watch Citizen Kane without knowing in advance who or what “rosebud” is. (Someone else just learned what the smoke monster on Lost really was, or thinks they did — one can sympathize.) Not long ago I managed to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo knowing absolutely nothing about the story, except that it (again) had something to do with a family plot. The last few big rock concerts I attended were vastly improved by my not knowing the setlists in advance. As the proverb goes, ignorance is well and truly blessed.

Does anyone else have any good stories about crossing that threshold, from the unknown to the known, in a first encounter with a text? What are the material, social, and other factors that guide us across that threshold? Has anyone else been drawn into a book or other text primarily by an image? Is the image-as-entryway an aspect of Victorian reading and textuality that we’ve perhaps neglected, along with other aspects of Victorian visual culture? Why did the smoke monster make those machine noises anyway?

PS: I just ordered a copy of the novel, and will read the heck out of it once I finish my current exercise in self-indulgence.

One thought on “On not reading Victorian novels

  1. Great post, Alan. Like Fiona, I too love Hardy’s A Laodicean. I believe a few of us had a conversation about the novel a while back in the comments section to my post on Desperate Remedies (I could be mistaken about this).

    The thing I find most fascinating about Du Maurier’s illustrations is how much they look like the illustrations of Edward Gorey. Clearly Du Maurier’s work must have hand an influence on Gorey. This reminds me of the ways in which popular culture looks back on the Victorians as exemplars of a certain “gothic” style, even though Du Maurier’s illustrations are by no means gothic. I find it fascinating to go back to the Victorian originals only to find reflections of the neo-Victorian there. It’s a thoroughly strange experience of the interpenetration of past and present, a skewed vision of the notion of influence, a strange sense that despite the layers of simulation and reproduction, there is still something strangely “present” in the Victorian originals that make them look thoroughly of our own age. Of course, the fact that I revisited Du Maurier’s originals through a Google image search further confirms this sense of strangeness.

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