The Cinematic Aura

It was clear–too clear—that something was not right.

I recently attended a screening of the award-winning 1989 film Glory, and noticed, a few seconds into the first scene, that everything looked too…real.  Everything was extremely crisp, as though I were watching daytime television.  This crispness gave the visual impression of hyper-reality.  I found myself distracted by the overly clear visual quality of this DVD (certainly not present in the original VHS version I remembered watching several times in the 1990s) and unable to settle into the film’s story.

I know others have written on this topic before; in fact, a casual Google search yields numerous discussion threads dedicated to complaints and questions about precisely this visual quality.  But whether the issue with Glory was poor lighting conditions, poor film quality, or (probably more likely, given the differences between VHS and DVD) an incorrect television refresh rate or a somehow-inept remastering for DVD, the experience made me think about those naturalized visual qualities of film; those qualities I unthinkingly value.   

The hyper-real quality of Glory jarred me out of the viewing experience.  Ironically, I realized, the relatively less realistic quality of most films enables a more engrossing movie-going experience.  Visually less photorealistic, most films paradoxically draw us into their worlds precisely through a heightened visual mediation.

Is it that the hyper-reality forces us to confront how unreal the film actually is for us—makes us consider, through this heightened reality-effect, the actual distance between viewer and film?  Does it disrupt that imaginative sense of escapism that can accompany a trip to the movies?  Is it just that we are used to a vaguely fuzzy quality in our films, so that anything visually crisper seems less natural?

The strange visual effect made me realize not only how comfortable I am with a mediated viewing experience, but how the look of that mediation is crucial to the experience.  This hazy, somehow not-quite-photorealistic look is the cinematic aura.  It works by protecting us, its viewers, from the harshness of reality (even while it may be used in the representation of extremely harsh, extremely real events).  It works by distancing us, visually, from too close an encounter.  Like Impressionism, in both the literary and art-historical senses of the term, the cinema evokes the real, not through mimesis, but through something in-between the realistic and the imaginary; the objective and the subjective; the external reality and the internal psychology.  The aura protects us by distancing us from the every-day; it evokes significance by aestheticizing.

As I wrote in a recent post, I am a bad Benjaminian in that I cannot hate the aura.  The aura is what separates my everyday view of the world from a film; my mind-numbing reality-TV weekdays from a vision of a different sort.  The aura asks me to participate, psychologically anyway, in narratives, whereas the hyper-real merely pushes me out of the story.

Does Glory, a film about the first African-American U. S. Army regiment during the Civil War, mean the same thing and do the same memorial work if its viewers feel detached?  In our distracted culture, it is hard enough to dedicate two hours to an engrossing narrative, but it seems to me that we forfeit our capacity for such engagement at our peril.

 

Discipline Envy

Sometimes I have discipline envy.  Like this weekend, when an overzealous afternoon with the interlibrary loan system at my university meant that I found myself with 48 hours to survey 18 books carefully enough to be able to reference them in The Book Project.  It was an unpleasant way to spend a weekend, to be sure—a utilitarian exercise in speed reading.

Of course things went awry.  Just read the introductions and relevant chapters, I told myself—and then I came to the three books by Famous Author from the Other Discipline (FAOD) and Pretty Book that Weighs a Ton (PBWT).

Besides possibly giving me carpal tunnel,  PBWT made me extremely jealous about my own as-yet hypothetical book.  I can only imagine what the image permissions cost, let alone the 9X11.5 glossy pages.  The word that comes to mind is “luxurious.”  The book, about the more scientific uses of Victorian photography, ironically presented those scientific uses in the most artistic way possible (was this the editor’s subversive intent?).  This was a book that could very well make William Morris appreciate mass production.

The books by FAOD are similarly beautiful art objects.  What interests me so much about FAOD, however, are his arguments and his style: they surprise me; they seem so similar to the arguments and style I have encountered in books of a particular theoretical persuasion in my own discipline.  FAOD’s books remind me that no matter how far apart these two disciplines appear to be, they are also capable of sharing a discourse, a theoretic approach, a particular style.  Now, this style rubs some in my own discipline the wrong way, let alone the Other Discipline, where I am willing to bet FAOD is not universally adored.  So where does the primary loyalty lie?  To argument and style or to object of study?

The truth is, it’s hard to break into the Other Discipline from the outside—and for all our platitudes about “interdisciplinary scholarship,” it turns out that many of us in academia have grown comfortable in our silos.  So these books and the discipline they represent become objects of envy and desire—desire for the grass that’s always greener, in some ways, but also desire for a plot of grass that has no sides at all—or at least a plot of grass where the sides are measured by different criteria.

And all of this is a long way of saying that I did not make it through 18 books this weekend.

On Auratic Books

I am currently editing a special issue, and as one of the essays in the issue discusses the non-auratic in Benjaminian terms, I have been thinking a lot about Benjamin and the aura of late.  It’s like the best part of grad school all over again, but with fewer spontaneous Wordsworthian hiking trips.

The thing is, the mechanical reproduction essay has always bothered me.  This is because I like the aura.  I am a Victorianist, after all, but more than that, I am a collector of Victoriana.  No matter how troublingly bourgeois/elitist it may have been and still is to fetishize art objects, I covet them all the same.  And my most auratic object is one that has been mass-produced, to the tune of 34,000 copies.

Take these books, for instance.  How wonderful it would be, I begin to fantasize while reading the article, to discover an errant first edition of Wuthering Heights at a garage sale.  The most desirable book on this list of “the most valuable rare books in existence” (a problematic list: where is the Dickens?) is really a toss-up for me between the Gutenberg Bible and the copy of Frankenstein, signed by Mary Shelley to Byron.  The first book is the first book, and it’s kind of hard to argue with that, but the signed copy has the added bonus of combining the aura of the first edition with the celebrity mystique of authors in the plural.

The list makes me ruminate on my own fledgling collection, which consists of several old but not first editions that once belonged to my grandmother; several daguerreotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, and stereoviews; a penny from 1853 that cost $20 in 2010; an original illustration from Bleak House that must have been cut out of the novel and that consequently makes me feel guilty every time I look at it; and a first edition of Bleak House.  I will admit to treating the first edition with all the auratic esteem of a holy relic on occasion, and without much reason.  The book was clearly read multiple times, it is sturdy in its binding, and it was clearly meant–like all of Dickens’s novels–to be read.  I suppose if everyone had treated Dickens’s novels like auratic objects, we would never know what he had written about; it is, after all, difficult to read small typeset at a distance.

My first edition has been mechanically reproduced in various ways, of course–the text and illustrations clearly use print technology, and according to the Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department, approximately 34,000 complete first editions editions of the text were sold in the form of monthly parts (from which my copy is bound).  How can I feel the aura from a book that was 1 in 34,000?

I think the aura inheres in the word “first.”  While intellectually I understand that there were many other “firsts,” in practice I don’t think about those other copies–I consider my first edition the first.  My book takes on an added auratic charge when I consider its differences–its particular foxing, its unique binding.  These things diminish the value of the book, but in the process increases its auratic power.

Is the process of rendering auratic a mechanically reproduced art object a depoliticizing, fascist process?  Or does it possibly indicate an acceptance of mechanical reproduction into more facets of psychic life?  Can the aura be politicized?

Dickens Wikis and Blogs!

My Dickens class designed blogs (and one group designed a wiki) as part of a group project on reading communities and Dickens.  Take a look!

One group’s blog, All Things Dickens, integrates audio recordings, passage interpretations, and reflections on our own public reading of A Christmas Carol.

The blog Dickens in Performance combines research on Dickens’s public readings with reflections on our class reading.

Another blog, Illustrating Dickens, provides contextual and interpretive information for all of the illustrations in Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and A Christmas Carol.

In the blog Team Dickens, students created a character web for Oliver Twist and included film clips and illustrations to help create a portrait of each character.

Finally, the wiki Dickens Force Four also tackled the character web, linking between characters throughout the novels covered in our class.

Lost in Time and Space

I’ve often thought to myself that I like the world of Neo-Victoriana—not necessarily in itself, but because I like the enthusiasm such a trend implies for Victorian things.  If someone really falls in love with The Eyre Affair, it’s not such a stretch to see them reading Jane Eyre next.

Yet the reader who falls in love with The Eyre Affair may never read Jane Eyre—or, even worse, may try to read Jane Eyre and hate it.  The Neo-Victorianist and the Victorianist are not necessarily one and the same.  Indeed, I would go so far as to brashly suggest that the very logic that governs Neo-Victoriana is in an important way antithetical to Victorians studies.

Neo-Victoriana—and I’m aware that I’m generalizing outrageously here for rhetorical effect—operates according to a logic of ahistoricism.  This may seem contradictory: it is, after all, a movement very much tied to a specific historical period.  But it is also, at its heart, a movement about temporal and spatial dislocation.  It is about playing with the past from the perspective of the present; in some cases, it is about the reinvention of the present through a reappropriation of the past.

For all its seeming historicity, it strikes me as profoundly anti-historical.

Allow me to explain myself via a detour with Charles Dickens.  Dickens hated having his photographic image taken: he found the experience of sitting for photographers uncomfortable, and he turned down at least one sitting, citing his unwillingness to multiply his photographic images.  Yet multiply they did: he sat for at least 120 distinct photographic portraits.  While we may wonder about the source of Dickens’s discomfort, as well as the seeming contradiction represented in his simultaneous disdain for photography on the one hand and the fact that he was the most photographed Victorian person beside Queen Victoria herself on the other, this recalcitrant abundance (loudly hating photographic portraits and yet sitting for so many) is nothing less than the logic of celebrity.

The fiction of the celebrity photograph is that it promises to “put one in the presence of fame” (Marsh 106).  And at the heart of its logic lies its failure to live up to that promise.  Alexis Easley writes that “Although celebrity culture was premised on reconstruction of the past, it was also focused on the ephemeral world of the day-to-day literary marketplace” (11).  The discourse surrounding celebrity was “premised on what could be seen and known about popular authors” as well as “the mysterious and unknowable aspects of their lives and works” (12).  A celebrity is someone you know about but about whom you want to know more—a person in some respects available to you but yet withheld.

Dickens’s celebrity is going strong today.  Jay Clayton lists some of the uncountable, uncontainable, unknowable number of films, television episodes, songs, comics, fictions, nonfictions, web sites, stores, and other allusions to Dickens and his novels that are alive and well in our contemporary culture.  An important subset of these proliferating allusions is the category featuring Dickens’s images.  Photographic portraits played a vital role in establishing Dickens’s celebrity as an author and continue to play a role in sustaining that celebrity today.  Photographic reproductions understandably adorn the covers of biographies of Dickens, but also objects such as coffee mugs, hats, and t-shirts.  This Dickens, the Dickens of the coffee mug industry, is in one sense the “right” Dickens in spirit, a postmodern anachronism with just the right amount of “allusion, parody, irony, and hyperbole” to do Dickens—the man who “took pleasure in noting the spinoff products from his imagination”—-proud, as Clayton suggests (164, 4).  In another sense—or perhaps it’s more just to say on the other side of this same sense, this endlessly reappropriated face of Dickens holds “No depth—-just surface” (102).  These reappropriated photographic portraits are completely out of historical context.  This is a different, completely ahistorical way of encountering a historical personage.  Photography not only makes the image possible—-for they are photographs—-its logic of image reproduction also makes this proliferation possible.

Instead of a conscious or subconscious cultivation of celebrity, we might read Dickens’s reaction to his photographic recalcitrance a bit more generously.  Was it, perhaps, an acknowledgment on some level of the anti-historical move of such photographic celebrity?

Neo-Victoriana is not all concerned with photography or celebrity.  I think the comparison is apt, however: both Neo-Victoriana and Dickens’s celebrity image are definitionally dislocated.  The “Neo” in Neo-Victoriana emphasizes its historical separation from the object of its fixation.  I’m not convinced this is a bad thing, but I do think it is a worth notice.  Readers and scholars have treated the Neo-Victorian seriously as a subject of analysis: 2007’s University of Exeter conference on Neo-Victorianism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Appropriation, for instance, indicates a willingness to engage with Neo-Victoriana critically.

Yet I believe at stake is a larger issue of our contemporary relationship to history.  My students often seek connections between the Victorian texts I assign and contemporary events.  Indeed, I teach them to look for these connections.  In one sense, that’s what the study of literature is all about: why read something from long ago if it does not resonate?  Yet there is something disquieting about this appropriation, to borrow from Exeter’s conference title.  In making all history our history, we efface important differences.

Do we even know what it would mean to approach history without attempting to appropriate it in some way?

Works Cited

Clayton, Jay. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Easley, Alexis. Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2011.

Marsh, Joss. “The Rise of Celebrity Culture.” Charles Dickens in Context. Ed. Sally Ledger. NY: Cambridge UP, 2011. 98-108.

“Where’s Ma? Oh, she’s the one ensconced in the rug.” (Part II)

“I am almost certain that the last picture shows a deceased subject.”

“Actually it looks like four of them are deceased imo.”

“They all look alive to me, but I’m often wrong.”

“Ok; pictures 2 and 3 are 100% photographs of deceased children.”

“Actually I disagree about most of these photos being memento mori.”

“None of these children are dead.”

“I can guarantee that shots 2 and 3 are post mortem in fact.”

“there is the possibility that one or two of these might be post mortem.”

“I don’t agree that these depict deceased children.”

Everyone is concerned about whether or not the kids are dead.  Which, don’t get me wrong, is a valid concern (except, of course, that they are all dead, by now). The quotes above, excerpted from responses to Hidden Mothers in Victorian Portraits, steer the conversation away from the mothers-ensconced-in-rugs-issue and into macabre memento mori terrain.  So my questions in this, Part II of my post on mothers-as-furniture, are as follows: 1) what does it say that people become so angsty about whether or not the kids were dead in these images, and 2) doesn’t the fact that the memento mori conversation has somewhat hijacked the hidden mother conversation ironically reproduce the very problem illustrated in the hidden mother images to begin with?  In other words: these mothers are effaced, and instead of debating this issue, we instead efface them further by focusing on dead babies.

This problem–alive or dead?–is interesting, don’t get me wrong.  It is creepy to see a photograph of a person who was clearly dead; it is creepier still to see a photograph of a dead (?) person posed as though still alive.  The prevalence of nineteenth-century memento mori indicates that this creepiness factor is not transhistorical: we have become less comfortable with this kind of proximity to death (somehow it is okay to watch graphic violent deaths on the evening news, but taboo to have a photograph of your dead uncle in his coffin hanging on your wall).  At the same time, we remain obsessed with these images of death, and–as the dialogue excerpt above indicates–obsessed with being able to identify them as such.

Like My Last Duchess, the children in the Hidden Mothers images all look as if they were alive, and so to me this conversation exposes a desire to know whether these poses are real.  Viewers are either skeptics or believers in this realism, and the debate suggests that realism itself is on the line.  How much do we trust the stories these images tell?  If a given image is “not real”; i.e., if the child is dead and posed to look alive, what might that say about other elements within the image we take for realism?  What might it say about similar images?  Photography at large?  Realistic representation at large?  Some of these are grandiose questions and I’m not suggesting we answer them here; my point, however, is that the weight of these underlying, implicit concerns might explain some of the responders’ impassioned and absolutist arguments.

So we want to know whether or not the images we look at are “real.”  But there’s an additional hysteria at play here, I would suggest, because these are children.  And if anything is creepier than a memento mori, it’s a memento mori of a child.  Or a potential memento mori of a child.  And what I find so interesting about this is, as I mentioned above, thatallthe people in these nineteenth-century images are by now quite dead.  The argument is about whether the dead people–specifically, the dead children–were dead at a certain point in time.

We want to know when we are looking at life or death.  And our inability to truly know contributes, I would suggest, to the tenor of the debate on the Hidden Mothers page.  One commenter might say he or she can “guarantee” an image is post mortem; another states bluntly that “None of these children are dead.”  Everyone is so sure, and it’s starting to remind me of the time one of my graduate school advisors told me, “Susan, you can’t prove a point simply by stating it 100 times.”  But we need to know if these kids were alive or dead, and since we can’t know, we have to insist we know anyway (this need underlies the horror of the vampire and the zombie–albeit in different ways–as I will discuss in a future post).

It also leads us away from the other very creepy–and central–aspect of these images.  The images illustrate the effacement of the Victorian mother.  It is therefore extremely ironic that effacement falls into the background (yet again) in the response section of this post.  Ironic and, to my mind, just as creepy as dead babies.

“Where’s Ma? Oh, she’s the one ensconced in the rug.” (Part I)

I recently came across this ridiculously interesting post (which was itself reposting images from Retronaut and The Hidden Mother Flickr Group) about hidden mothers in Victorian photographs.  I find this phenomenon fascinating because of what it implies about Victorian motherhood, but I am also struck by the ensuing “Response” section debate about whether or not these were memento mori images (see subsequent post).

I am certainly not the first to observe that a conspicuous number of mothers in Victorian novels are dead or otherwise missing.  Carolyn Dever, for instance, argues that these absences facilitate a Victorian domestic ideal and, conversely, the image of the “good” mother.  The mother’s absence is an important element of the bildungsroman: because of her absence, subjects in novels are able to develop into complex individuals, overcoming the hurdle of a lacking home life so their narratives may resolve with the creation of a domestic ideal.  As Tolstoy writes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (1).  The unhappy family is the driving force of the novel, and what better way to ensure a fictional family is unhappy than to remove a vital component of that family?

The missing mother makes sense, narratively speaking, coinciding as the trope does with the development of the bildungsroman.  But the existence of a “hidden mother” photographic portrait convention speaks to a cultural interest in effacing mothers extending far beyond the novel.   In a Flickr discussion of the images, user Photo_History suggests that the female in the image may not be the mother, but rather a female photographer’s assistant.  This is perhaps the case, but if the goal is to hold children and often babies still, it stands to reason that the mother would have better luck at this task than a stranger.  Photo_History offers the following as a perfectly sensible argument: “One photo historian I have read said there would be less reason to scratch out the face of the mother than a stranger.”  One would think so, yes.  However, this is a culture that repeatedly effaces its mothers in its novels–a culture that, as Dever writes, was anxious about “the function of gender in the construction of origins” (xiv).

So let us assume that at least some of these women (and we can surmise from their skirts that they are predominantly women) were the mothers of the children they held.  What is perhaps strangest to me is the number of women who are not wearing a black covering–something that would blend into the background, especially once the images were cropped or matted, as several have commented they would be.  Instead, however, several women are draped in pattered throws:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image on the left looks strange; the image on the right looks like it must have been downright uncomfortable.  Is that a carpet?  It seems extremely heavy.  These throws may have been donned to camouflage the women holding the children, but they have the additional effect of transforming the mother into a piece of furniture.

These mothers are not merely effaced–they are shown to be effaced.  Their absence becomes a presence in these images; indeed, it becomes the focal point of the images.  These images, consciously or unconsciously, mark the mother–or the mother-proxy–as the subject of effacement.

A lamp, a chaise, a rug, a mother.  Domestic objects all.

Works Cited

Dever, Carolyn. Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud, Cambridge UP, 1998.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Playing Fictions

There are eighteen board game adaptations of Dracula, nineteen based on Sherlock Holmes, and seven dedicated to the Frankenstein tale.  Far from antiquated forms of entertainment, board games are experiencing a renaissance of sorts: new games are released each month, and game shops and international conventions regularly draw enthusiasts.  Many board games are also under-analyzed modes of textual adaptation.

Games based on literary texts give players an intensely participatory experience of the text, making them unusual among adaptations.  The newer smartphone and tablet apps approximate this level of involvement, but what makes board games unique is the length of time they take to play—typically between one and three hours.  While an app like Dracula Draculaura Hairstyle may be played in a few minutes and Vampire Slayer Squad Lite may be played in short installments and put on hold indefinitely, the board game Fury of Dracula takes two hours or more of continuous play.

This lengthy focus demands and cultivates active participation, and the length of some board games and the type of participation involved is particularly suited to nineteenth-century literature.  It is no mistake that board games are experiencing a resurgence at a time when our culture is, by many accounts, losing its ability to focus on a single text for long periods of time.  Board games are not on a continuum with smartphone apps; they are the anti-app—communal antidotes to solitary and fleeting entertainment.  Board games based on literary texts revise the idea of the reading community and perhaps allow us to explore new definitions of “adaptation,” “reading,” and “text” alike.

A culture can be understood, in part, through the games it plays.  The Victorians played games such as Beggar My Neighbor, Speculation, and Commerce—games that reflect an interest in the world of finance.  What do the eighteen board game adaptations of Dracula say about us?

Re-Visioning Dickens: Phiz and the Bleak House Illustrations


 

Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), “The Lord Chancellor Copies from Memory,” illustration for Bleak House (1853)

I’ve been thinking about the Bleak House illustrations a lot recently, mostly due to my Victorian literature and visual culture seminar.  I’d like to thank my students for helping me articulate a connection between Esther and the creepy doll I discuss below.

Of the forty illustrations Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) completed for Charles Dickens’s 1853 Bleak House, Esther Summerson—our sometimes-narrator—appears in seventeen. Of these seventeen appearances, however, she is completely effaced in ten, and only presented in profile or shadow in seven.  Phiz takes an active role as illustrator, effacing this narrator long before Dickens effaces her with pockmarks halfway through the text.  As Michael Steig puts it, the illustrations are “at once an expression of Dickens’ intentions and Browne’s interpretation, at once a visual accompaniment to the text and a commentary upon it.”  I would argue that in Bleak House the illustrations at times move beyond interpretation to outright revision.

In the illustration above, “The Lord Chancellor Copies from Memory,” Mr. Krook spells out “Jarndyce” on the wall for Esther.  On the right side of the image, a doll hangs ominously but is easily overlooked amidst the clutter of Krook’s shop.  This doll reappears two more times in the illustrations—in “The Appointed Time,” just after Krook has spontaneously combusted, and in “Tom All Alone’s,” that wretched alley of London.  A doll also appears in Dickens’s narrative: “Dolly” is Esther’s only friend, the single solace she finds for a lonely childhood.

The figure of the doll is comforting in Dickens’s text, but sinister in Phiz’s illustrations.  Phiz works it into scenes of dilapidation and death, thereby forging a formal tie between Esther and these darker elements of the text.  The doll becomes a stand-in for Esther, going well beyond Dickens’s textual evidence.  Critics have charged Esther with false modesty, but rather than coy or genuine self-effacement Phiz suggest through his illustrations that Esther has malevolent motivations for cultivating obscurity.  Phiz does not just efface Esther—he rewrites her.

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?