On Visualizing—Not Viewing—Nineteenth-Century Novels

A confession: no, I have not seen the recent film version of Jane Eyre.  Or the one before it.  Or any of them, come to think of it.  This might be interpreted as a carryover from an intense graduate school qualifying exam paranoia—a fear that, if I allowed myself to luxuriate in film adaptations while preparing for the exam, I might (for instance) inadvertently reference “Reese Witherspoon” in answering a question about Vanity Fair.  But I am no longer studying for my quals—those days and that anxiety are behind me.  Yet I remain reluctant to rent the new Jane Eyre, or to stay up and watch an older adaptation on late-night TV.  This reluctance has long been my shame, an embarrassing omission on my part, something I hide.  “Ah yes,” I nod knowingly in conversation with colleagues or students, “the David Lean Oliver Twist.  The BBC Little Dorrit.”  It’s all a disgraceful lie.

I think my recalcitrance has something to do with a formative experience with Wuthering Heights.  I watched the William Wyler adaptation of the film on repeat as an adolescent, and was thus confused when I first read Brontë’s novel in college.  I could not reconcile the novel with the film.  Even as I pictured Laurence Olivier while reading about Heathcliff, I knew this mental picture was wrong.

Since I have admitted this much, dear reader, I may as well let you in on a related conundrum, this one having to do with book covers.  For the longest time, I thought the painting of the dark haired woman on my Penguin copy of Jane Eyre was Jane—an actual artist’s representation of the character.  I felt a bit deflated when I learned that there was apparently no connection, aside from the fact that the woman in the painting vaguely conformed to Brontë’s plain governess.

Sometimes there are connections between cover art and text, however complex.  My old Penguin edition of Mary Barton makes one such connection through its cover, a detail of Hubert von Herkomer’s painting “Hard Times.”  The title of the painting evokes Dickens’s novel by that title, not Mary Barton.  Dickens, of course, appreciated Mary Barton so much that he solicited North and South, which he published in his Household Words after the serialization of Hard Times.  The choice of this painting as cover art for Mary Barton subtly references the relationship between Gaskell and Dickens, contextualizing Gaskell’s text in a broader condition-of-England tradition.  Yet there is also something of a misdirect going on here as well: the family in the painting is not the Barton family—the scene of the man standing along the road while his wife and children rest is nowhere to be found in Gaskell’s text.  The image is interesting, if potentially misleading.

Lest you think I’m just a generally cranky person, let me admit that I agree with the appropriate rejoinder to this critique: this kind of cover art does what precious little cover art does—it gives us a feel for the novel, representing themes explored therein, and offering an interdisciplinary cultural context.  This is undoubtedly true and helpful particularly for the undergraduate classroom, where students often encounter texts with only the vaguest sense of the larger history surrounding those texts and/or their authors.  But often this larger point about contextualization is buried somewhere in the 6pt font of the image’s attribution.  It becomes an implicit point, nearly obscured.

Photography complicate matters further still.  As Paul Fyfe recently commented to me at the 2011 Victorians Institute Conference, photographic cover art is potentially troubling, particularly when texts that predate photography incorporate such cover art.  For instance, a recent edition of Millennium Hall cover features an anachronistic Victorian photograph of a group of women gathered, as though to represent the women in the novel.  As with the Herkomer painting, there is no direct connection to the novel.  Unlike the painting, however, I would argue this photograph—precisely by being a photograph—problematically effaces the disconnect between image and text.  A photograph is not a painting; the latter is, by virtue of its medium, more transparently mediated.  Photography, for all our questioning, critiquing, and troubling of the limit between reality and representation, makes us feel we are looking at something more or less real.  When I look at Millennium Hall’s cover, then, I am more jarred than I would be by a painting of the same subject and at the same remove from the novel.  This is because the photograph on the cover implies that there is a connection between this eighteenth-century subject and this nineteenth-century technology.  The larger issue for me is that there are people in these photographs, people whose identities are effaced as they come to represent people in the book—fictional characters.

Literary realism achieves its reality-effect through appeals to vision and visualization, as critics such as Nancy Armstrong, Peter Brooks, and Audrey Jaffe explore and complicate in their respective works.  What happens, though, when that visualization is short-circuited for readers?  Let me explain that I love photography, I write about it, and I attempt to practice it.  But in being asked to see a photographic image of a person out of context and compare it to a character in a novel, I worry that we are not only obscuring the identity of the person in the image—I worry we might be missing some of the point of literary realism itself.

We are a visual culture, and it is easy to allow a painting, photograph, or film representation to help us visualize a literary character, particularly if we have seen the film or cover art before we read the text.  I wonder, though, if in this process we are circumventing some of the work a novel asks us to do.  Like a good Victorianist, I feel a duty to work, and in the case of the novel, I feel a duty to work at visualizing what Gaskell, Thackeray, Dickens, Brontë, Eliot, or any other novelist describes.  What do we miss when we no longer have to picture Jane Eyre, or for that matter Becky Sharp—when we are no longer called upon to do this work?  What do we lose in our need to see everything with our eyes, not our mind’s eye?

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~ by susanelizabethcook on February 12, 2012.

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