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Review of Transforming Anthony Trollope

By Catherine Corder

Grennan, Simon and Laurence Grove, eds. Transforming Anthony Trollope: Dispossession, Victorianism and Nineteenth-Century Word and Image. Leuven University Press, 2015.

Novelists in nineteenth-century England had a variety of options for producing and distributing their fictional works. Writers could see their stories serialized in weekly or monthly magazines and pamphlets, although a three-decker (three-volume) version of that same novel generally appeared when the serial was about three-fourths of the way through the narrative. Where an author might be limited by column space and time constraints in the serial format, that same writer could expand and revise his text in the later publication.

A twenty-part novel serialized over nineteen months typically cost one pound for the entire run, and readers who were well off could take their paper-bound pamphlets and have those rebound in boards or in leather, even adding new artwork. However, most people in the Victorian period did not buy new novels: they borrowed them from circulating libraries or “hired” an installment or a volume for a penny per hour from news stalls. With such cheap distribution, readership expanded quickly to the middle and lower classes. The Victorian novel also evolved over the period (Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901), with the sensational serial, crime-focused novels of the 1840s yielding to more realistic novels that addressed social problems that emerged out of industrialization, urbanization, Darwinism, and a corresponding loss of faith.

How fitting then that we have this work, Transforming Anthony Trollope: Dispossession, Victorianism and Nineteenth-Century Word and Image, edited by Simon Grennan and Laurence Grove, for Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) who was especially effective in transforming the terms of his own authorship: he shopped around his manuscripts among publishers for the best copyright terms, and his forty-seven novels appeared under sixteen different mastheads. Trollope was an extremely popular and prolific writer of the second half of the nineteenth century, and he authored both fiction (domestic and sensational novels) and nonfiction texts (travel guides and political commentary). His most well-loved and highly respected work is the six-volume series, the Chronicles of Barsetshire, which describes the religious, political, and social issues roiling the fictitious cathedral town of Barchester. Trollope availed himself of some of the best artists of the time, and, as one scholar has noted, fifteen of his novels were “illustrated in their original magazine-serial or part-publication, and these contained more than 300 full-page illustrations (and 100 quarter-page vignettes), most of which were included in the first book editions” (Hall xiii).

Transforming Anthony Trollope is issued by the University Press of Leuven, which also commissioned a graphic adaptation of one of Trollope’s novels to commemorate the bicentenary of the author’s birth. The resulting work, Dispossession: A Novel of Few Words by Simon Grennan (2015) is based on John Caldigate (1878/9), which has a sensational plot, as it depicts the story of a young English gentleman who sails off to try gold mining in Australia, succeeds in gaining a fortune, returns to England, and marries his childhood sweetheart—but the course of events is troubled with the suggestion that John Caldigate may have married another, more suspicious type of woman when he was in Australia. Both Transforming Anthony Trollope and Dispossession were officially launched at an international academic conference held in September 2015 at the University of Leuven, and a few of the conference speakers also wrote essays for this volume.

Transforming Anthony Trollope examines theories of adaptation, narrative drawing, Victorian literature/illustration, and neo-Victorianism. The text consists of three sections, the first of which looks specifically at the graphic novel Dispossession. Beginning this section, Jan Baetens’ essay, “Adapting and Displaying Multiple Temporalities: What Became of Trollope’s John Caldigate and Maupassant’s Boule de Suif in Simon Grennan’s Dispossession and Battaglia’s Contest et Nouvelles de Guerre?” addresses the question of how best to adapt nineteenth-century literary source texts before turning to an examination of both Dispossession and a graphic adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “Boule de Suif.” Baetens considers the regularity and irregularity of panel structures as they reflect time and duration in the literary texts. The second essay is a conversation with Simon Grennan about the rules he developed to govern and shape the graphic novel’s storyboard and thus the organization and orientation of panels on the page. Grennan notes that he strove to replace “Trollope’s literary voice, his John Caldigate style of writing, with a visual style” in order to achieve a sense of “visual ambiguity” (34). Hugo Frey’s essay, “The Tactic for Illusion in Simon Grennan’s Dispossession,” continues to investigate Dispossession as Frey describes Grennan’s use of visual perspective to achieve “a number of techniques that push and pull a reader as if they were watching a music hall magician” (57). These three essays focus on the graphic novel Dispossession, and the authors all examine the source text, the challenges that novel presented for graphic adaptation, and the techniques that Grennan used to deal with those challenges. Taken together, they are a little repetitive, but each provides a well-argued perspective on the process of creating this particular graphic novel.

The essays in the second section, “Nineteenth-century Visualisations,” focus on the use of illustration in Victorian novels and range from landscape descriptions in Trollope’s later novels, to the rise of comics and one particular type of nineteenth-century comics more specifically: comics without words. In “Allegorical Landscapes: The Psychology of Seeing in Anthony Trollope’s Later Novels,” Frederik Van Dam considers the “allegorical landscapes” or “story-worlds” that Trollope creates in his later novels from the 1870s and asserts that at this later stage, Trollope turned from outward descriptions full of physical details to more inward depictions of the emotional states of his characters, which resulted in an “unmediated reading of the characters’ states of mind” (80). David Skilton’s essay, “Complex Meanings in Illustrated Literature, 1860-1880,” identifies features of illustrated novels in the period from 1830 to 1885. Skilton characterizes the artwork of the earlier period as “dramatic illustration,” which “presents a complex action or a sequence of actions extended over time” (90) and notes how that style evolved into an illustration that depicts an ambiguous situation. Skilton writes that John Everett Millais, who illustrated a number of Trollope’s novels, was especially influential in developing this type of “problem picture” (98).

Roger Sabin continues this section’s examinations of nineteenth-century visualizations in his essay “Comics Versus Books: The New Criticism at the ‘Fin de Siècle’,” as he discusses the rise of the popular form of comics in the later part of the period and reveals the possible origins of the debate between “good” literature and the working-class entertainments of comics. In “The Visual Culture of Comics in the Last Half of the Nineteenth Century: Comics Without Words,” Barbara Postema looks at comics in the late 1800s, which tended to be “one-off vignettes as opposed to series,” with no recurring characters (135). Such author/artists as Wilhelm Busch and Caran d’Ache, writes Postema, built on the earlier tradition of Rodolphe Töpffer in creating “short silent picture stories,” whose popularity among readers has not been matched until today (144). The essays in this section move from adaptation approaches to take a closer look at visual images in nineteenth-century literature, both in the works of Trollope and in other writings. This section, however, does not cohere as well as the first, as the authors draw from such disparate topics as visual psychology, reading response theory, cultural criticism, and even “proto-cinematography” (11).

The third section, “Using the Victorians: Appropriation, Adaptation and Historiography,” features essays that turn to contemporary appropriation and adaptation of Victorian literature and culture. Marie-Luise Kohlke considers the “abominable pictures” that much neo-Victorian literature presents of the “repressed Victorians’ secret sex lives and illicit carnal practices” (151), but notes that such depictions of the taboo are much more complex reading for modern audiences in her essay, “‘Abominable pictures’: Neo-Victorianism and the Tyranny of the Sexual Taboo.” In an otherwise well-illustrated book, Kohlke does not present any visual images of these “abominable pictures,” but rather offers textual descriptions of such illicit practices. This makes this essay feel like an outlier in this third section, which is otherwise the best part of the book.

Next, Ian Hague discusses the challenges of adapting Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and looks at two adaptations, both by Stéphane Heuet. Hague’s essay, “Drawing ‘the apprenticeship of a man of letters’: Adapting Remembrance of Things Past for ‘bande dessinée,'” observes that Remembrance is well-suited for adaptation as a bande dessinée, since Proust frequently features the visual arts in his text. Hague notes, however, that the format also presents difficulties in depicting the narrator’s perspectives and the ways in which his memories might be “braided” into the storyline.

Aarnoud Rommens, author of “Allegories of Graphiation: Alberto Breccia’s Counter-Censorial Versions of E. A. Poe’s Valdemar,” examines Alberto Breccia’s adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe short story and sees in Breccia’s illustrations a type of “stealth maneuver,” for the Argentinian comics artist makes use of white and negative space to suggest the “disappeared” of so many Argentinian individuals during the military dictatorship, as well as the effects of censorship (211). Finally, Peter Wilkins contemplates the impossible task of adapting Moby-Dick to a graphic format in his essay, “An Incomplete Project: Graphic Adaptations of Moby-Dick and the Ethics of Response.” Wilkins looks at two Classics Illustrated versions of the novel, as well as at Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures, and concludes that this great nineteenth-century story “resists adaptation in favour of response” (230). He advocates an adaptation technique where readers may “play with [the novel’s] ideas” rather than preserve them (231).

Taken together, the last three essays in this section present a fascinating look at adaptation theory and nineteenth-century illustration as they relate to contemporary graphic literature. However, while the back cover copy of this book announces that the volume is “a cross-disciplinary collection,” and the authors do represent such fields as aesthetics, literary criticism, art history, and cultural studies, I found it difficult to hear how the scholars were speaking to one another in an interdisciplinary manner. In particular, essays that focused on a semiotics-oriented approach to comics were often laden with critical jargon, making the studies almost inaccessible to those outside that field. An interdisciplinary approach to comics study might well consider Robert Darnton’s “communications circuit” as it identifies the relationships between the components that are involved in authoring, drawing, publishing, and reading.

The editors’ introduction also builds on that shortcoming, as their justification for this particular collection of essays, and its division into the three sections, rests on “different aspects of the adaptation process” and the connections that all the considered graphic works have with Trollope and with Dispossession (10). The connections are tenuous and the individual disciplinary approaches, together with the vocabulary used in some of those disciplines, often obscure any sense of continuity between Trollope in print, Trollope in images, illustrations of the late nineteenth century, early British comics, and contemporary graphic adaptations of late Victorian writing.

Another fault of the book is the lack of references to the original text of John Caldigate in the discussions of its graphic adaptation, Dispossession, or to the manner of the original story’s production and distribution. Those authors who do cite Trollope’s novel refer to recent (1990s) editions. What might be the added value of referring to the original source text, which was published in Blackwood’s Magazine from April of 1878 to June of 1879, in sixteen parts of forty-eight pages each? That version is easily available online, and a careful reading might reveal rhythms and patterns not apparent in the modern paperback. This omission, to me, points out the gulf between Anglo-American comics studies, which emphasize form and medium, and the more semiotics-oriented nature of European comics studies, and again, a truly interdisciplinary approach might have effectively bridged that gulf.

Additionally, the text is, unfortunately, full of typos and errors. One author writes of a fictional character who gets some flowers with which to “woe his nice” (woo his niece?), but who is unsuccessful and leaves the flowers to “whither” (wither)—and the entire essay is rife with similar mistakes. Another author begins so many paragraphs with such words as “finally,” “in conclusion,” or “to sum up,” that I lost track of what topic was perhaps going to be summarized. Titles of works listed in the index are alphabetized by “the” and “a,” so the reader will have to search twice for those references. These are trivial errors, but their prevalence became distracting as I read through the studies.

For me, the most successful essays were the last three, which looked at graphic adaptations of nineteenth-century novels other than those of Trollope. The essays by Aarnoud Rommens and Peter Wilkins are especially strong, in that they go beyond theory and signs to bring in the political and social circumstances of the graphic works’ creation and the work of the reader in constructing and transforming a literary text source. Magic happens in visual storytelling when a writer and an artist, inker, letterer, colorist, etc., successfully fuse text and image to create a narrative that seems as though it could not possibly exist in any other form—a narrative that draws the reader in as a participant. Transforming Anthony Trollope touches on that work of creation, but too much of this book is self-referential or esoteric in tone, and that magic is hidden.

Works Cited

Hall, N. John. Trollope and His Illustrators. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.

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