I have assigned my Victorian Literature and Visual Culture class the task of analyzing a Bleak House illustration, so I’ve been thinking about my own illustration. My mother gave me an original 1853 copy of “A New Meaning in the Roman”:
I was elated; I had requested it as part of my acquisition-of-old-things campaign. Now it sits by my desk, waiting to be framed. And as I stare at it, I find myself troubled: have I just made some first edition that much less valuable? I’m assuming, of course, that the image comes from a rare and valuable first edition. But as I write this, I realize I’m not quite sure. The image is old, to be sure, with the telltale signs of a nineteenth-century print: yellowed paper, foxing around the edges, etc. The image also seems to have been cut out of a book, and inexactly cut at that. Other than that, the illustration is just kind of there, undocumented, not contextualized in any other way, its point of origin erased or effaced–a commodity fetish, if I want to get all Marxist about it.
What gives this image value is the history it implies: it sells itself as an illustration cut from the text of Bleak House. It is troubling and magnificent at once to own such a piece. Next task: to hunt down an edition of Bleak House conspicuously missing its illustrations.