Victorian Illustrated Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

Victorian Illustrated Fiction


Victorian Illustrated Fiction

A proliferating genre of literature supplemented by caricature, realistic renderings of narrative scenes, or satiric visual commentary on the text.

Authors and artists collaborated on some of the great literary works of the Victorian period, creating a product both enhanced and refashioned by the fusion of the two genres. The primary reason for the flowering of pictorial accompaniment was a dramatic increase in the literate population in England, especially after 1830. The demographic change created two conditions that inspired the rise of illustrated fiction. First, the relative cost of book production declined when the volume of books produced increased, making illustration more affordable than it had been during the eighteenth century, when potential book buyers were comparatively few. Second, the social makeup of the reading class changed significantly: a new readership arose from among the middle and lower classes, and represented, according to scholar John Harvey, “a public which did not easily imagine what it read.” Illustrations were also a useful aid to readers of serialized novels—which often appeared in periodicals pitched to the middle classes—to help them recall what had already transpired. Many popular novels of the nineteenth century originally appeared in serial form. In addition, illustrations were an effective marketing tool.

Artistically, one of most important influences on Victorian illustration was William Hogarth, who has sometimes been called the “true father of English book illustration.” Hogarth was famous for several series of satirical narrative engravings, including The Harlot's Progress (1732), The Rake's Progress (1735), and Marriage a-la Mode (1745), which he sold by subscription in mid-eighteenth-century London. Hogarth was influential not only on later artists but also on novelist Charles Dickens, whose highly visual writing style and eye for the details of the urban landscape drew much from Hogarth's work. Dickens first major work, The Pickwick Papers (1837), actually originated with the illustrations of Robert Seymour, for which Dickens was asked to provide text. Dickens turned down this arrangement and insisted on working more independently, asserting his seniority on the project as well as the hierarchy of author over artist that would prevail throughout the nineteenth century. The popularity of The Pickwick Papers also helped pave the way for an increase in the illustration of fiction in both serialized and book form.

Dickens would eventually work closely with many of the major illustrators of his era. His first published book, a collection of stories entitled Sketches by Boz (1836), was illustrated by George Cruikshank, who would later be considered the heir to Hogarth's throne as the greatest illustrator of his time. Cruikshank claimed to be the true creator of both Oliver Twist (1838) and the Pickwick Papers, a boast that has been widely disputed. Cruikshank was also an actor in Dickens's amateur theater group, as was the illustrator John Leech, who counted the illustrations for A Christmas Carol (1843) among his better-known works. Dickens's most often used illustrator, however, was Hablôt Knight Browne, who adopted the pen name “Phiz” to complement Dickens's pen name “Boz.” Their career together began when Browne was chosen to replace Seymour to complete the run of the serialized Pickwick Papers; Browne would eventually illustrate ten of Dickens's twenty-three novels.

Dickens's writing career came to a close during the 1860s, just as the trend for illustrated fiction really began to gain popularity. The era of book illustration generally referred to as “The Sixties” began in 1855 with the publication of poet William Allingham's Music Master, featuring the illustrations of Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt. Preferring to depict more fantastical subjects from the distant past, the Pre-Raphaelites exerted their influence on the style of illustration overall but generally confined their work to books of poetry, with the notable exception of Millais. Millais became famous as a painter in his own right, but he also supplied illustrations for several novels of Anthony Trollope. Millais's style and the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic emphasized both attention to detail and a focus on nature, and this latter characteristic distinguished his work from the satiric caricature associated with Cruikshank, Browne, and other artists of the earlier generation.

Developments in the art of book publishing and, in particular, wood engraving also contributed to the illustration boom of the 1860s. Engravers traditionally drew illustrations onto wood blocks or etched them on to metal plates; most often engravers would reproduce the work of illustrators, although many of Dickens's illustrators did their own metal etching. The Dalziel brothers, leading wood engravers of the mid-nineteenth century, worked to maintain the highest artistic standards and quality workmanship, even opening a school for the art of drawing on wood. These efforts were countered, however, by the increasing use of photography to reproduce illustrations onto wood blocks. While an increasingly mechanized process allowed for increases in output and lower prices, the quality declined as the craftsmanship of the individual engraver was removed from the process.

By the end of the century, illustration was beginning to fall out of favor. No longer the realm of admired artists and skillful engravers, illustration was seen by some authors as an imposition on a text that was complete without pictures. During the late nineteenth century, Henry James demonstrated in his writing the changing trends in illustration: while he admired the work of Dickens illustrators Browne and Cruikshank, and even later artists such as George Du Maurier, he eschewed illustration in his own work. As James argued, the mechanical business of illustration had become far enough removed from the artistic creation of the novel that images and text were more often in competition than they were complementary. By the twentieth century, novels that Victorian readers found irrevocably linked to their images—such as Dickens's Oliver Twist or Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848)—were often published with no illustrations at all. Contemporary lovers of Victorian authors such as Anthony Trollope or George Eliot are generally unaware of the illustrations that contributed to their novels' original popularity. Modern literary criticism has also tended to ignore the role of illustration in interpreting the text. However, during the late twentieth century the advent of materialist scholarship, which emphasizes the manner in which material conditions in a society affect artistic creativity, has increased scholars' interest in the context in which books were produced and read by their first audiences, making a careful study of the role of illustrators and illustrations crucial once again.

Representative Works

William Allingham
Music Master [illustrated by Arthur Hughes and D. G. Rossetti] (poetry) 1855

Lewis Carroll
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland [illustrated by John Tenniel] (novel) 1865

Charles Dickens
A Christmas Carol [illustrated by John Leech] (novel) 1834
Sketches by Boz [illustrated by George Cruikshank] (short stories) 1836
Pickwick Papers [illustrated by Hablôt Knight Browne] (novel) 1837
Oliver Twist [illustrated by George Cruikshank] (novel) 1838
Bleak House [illustrated by Hablôt Knight Browne] (novel) 1853

George Du Maurier
Trilby [illustrated by author] (novel) 1894

George Eliot
Romola [illustrated by Frederic Leighton] (novel) 1863
Daniel Deronda [illustrated by Frederic Leighton] (novel) 1876

Thomas Hardy
Far from the Madding Crowd [illustrated by Helen Paterson Allingham] (novel) 1874
A Lacodicean [illustrated by George Du Maurier] (novel) 1881

William Makepeace Thackeray
Vanity Fair [illustrated by author] (novel) 1847-48

Anthony Trollope
Framley Parsonage [illustrated by John Everett Millais] (novel) 1861
Orley Farm [illustrated by John Everett Millais] (novel) 1862

Criticism: Overviews And Development

Ronald Paulson (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Paulson, Ronald. “The Tradition of Comic Illustration from Hogarth to Cruikshank.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 35, nos. 1-2 (1973): 35-60.

[In the following essay, Paulson describes the influence of Hogarth and Rowlandson on Victorian illustration. Paulson suggests that in some cases literary illustration stands as a text of its own, while in other cases illustrations function as a kind of commentary or interpretation of the verbal text.]


Sophisticated analysis of book illustration is a recent development, with most attention going to a few special cases like Blake's dynamic marriage of illustration and text in his...

(The entire section is 10032 words.)

Wendell Stacy Johnson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Johnson, Wendell Stacy. “Illustrious Victorians.” Journal of Popular Culture 15, no. 4 (1982): 1-15.

[In the following essay, Johnson discusses the trends that influenced the development of illustration. Johnson focuses on a Victorian aesthetic theory which held that all arts were in essence a form of poetry, and that, by extension, all visual arts were a form of storytelling.]

Although modern criticism has come to recognize what the ancients knew, how arbitrary a distinction between music and poetry can be, we sometimes still insist upon an artificial purity of genres. This is especially true when the genres are visual and verbal. We hold as suspect...

(The entire section is 7721 words.)

David Skilton (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Skilton, David. “The Relation between Illustration and Text in the Victorian Novel: A New Perspective.” In Word and Visual Imagination, edited by Karl Josef Holtgen, Peter M. Daly, and Wolfgang Lottes, pp. 303-25. Erlangen: Universitatsbund Erlangen-Nurnberg, 1988.

[In the following essay, Skilton provides an overview of critical writing on Victorian illustrated fiction.]


By far the largest amount of work on illustrations to Victorian fiction concerns the important issue of the generation of the illustrated work—whether or not the writer directed the visual artist in detail, or on the contrary...

(The entire section is 6214 words.)

Criticism: Technical And Material Aspects Of Book Illustration

Geoffrey Wakeman (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Wakeman, Geoffrey. “Wood Engraving, 1850-1900.” In Victorian Book Illustration: The Technical Revolution, pp. 69-81. Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1973.

[In the following essay, Wakeman describes the technical innovations affecting illustration and publishing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, including improvements in the printing press, electrotype, and photography. Wakeman stresses the difficulties in realizing the original vision of the artist in the published work.]


In the second half of the century two styles of wood engraving are discernible—the old vignette and a new style...

(The entire section is 3789 words.)

Paul Goldman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Goldman, Paul. “The Explosion in Popular Publishing.” In Victorian Illustrated Books, 1850-1870: The Heyday of Wood-Engraving, pp. 35-44. London: British Museum Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Goldman discusses the factors contributing to the dramatic increase in illustrated fiction during the mid-nineteenth century. Goldman considers social and economic reasons as well as the technical developments that made increased production possible.]

The reasons why the 1860s saw such a growth in imaginative illustration, and indeed in illustration as a whole, must now be examined. This growth of creative illustration was paralleled in other areas, such as...

(The entire section is 3126 words.)

Criticism: Charles Dickens And His Illustrators

Michael Steig (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Steig, Michael. “Dickens, Hablôt Browne, and the Tradition of English Caricature.” Criticism 11 (1969): 219-33.

[In the following essay, Steig argues that Dickens's novels provide an overall model for observing the development of literary illustration, focusing his discussion on the novels illustrated by Hablôt Browne.]

Since the word “caricature” has so often been applied to Dickens' literary methods, Dickens' own attitude toward caricature is of considerable interest. Writing in 1848, Dickens called his friend and contemporary, John Leech, “the very first English caricaturist (we use the word for want of a better) who has considered beauty as...

(The entire section is 6066 words.)

Donald H. Eriksen (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Eriksen, Donald H. “Bleak House and Victorian Art and Illustration: Charles Dickens's Visual Narrative Style.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 13, no. 1 (1983): 31-46.

[In the following essay, Eriksen investigates Dickens's own views of art and his strongly visual writing style to illuminate the author's development of a more “modern” form of novel writing. Eriksen asserts that in Bleak House Dickens moves away from the Hogarth-inspired style of caricature and satire to a more symbolic form of imagery, a move paralleled by contemporary trends in the visual arts.]

In a letter to John Forster, his friend and biographer, Dickens commented...

(The entire section is 7477 words.)

Michael Hollington (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Hollington, Michael. “Dickens and Cruikshank as Physiognomers in Oliver Twist.Dickens Quarterly 7, no. 2 (1990): 243-54.

[In the following essay, Hollington proposes that Dickens and Cruikshank related to each other as rivals in the art of physiognomy with their depiction of the characters in Oliver Twist.]

The aim of this essay is to explore in outline the nexus of relationships between writer, illustrator and reader in the representation of human appearance in a novel where it becomes clear at a very early stage that this is a question of considerable significance. The first metamorphosis of state undergone by the infant Oliver is a fall into a...

(The entire section is 4191 words.)

Gareth Cordery (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Cordery, Gareth. “Furniss, Dickens and Illustration: Parts One and Two.” Dickens Quarterly 13, no. 1 (March 1996): 35-41; 13, no. 2 (June 1996): 99-110.

[In the following essay, Cordery argues for the aptness of Harry Furniss as an illustrator for Dickens. The critic asserts that Furniss, who illustrated the Charles Dickens Library Edition after Dickens's death, was a corrective to the exaggerated, moralizing style of Cruikshank, and thus was better suited for rendering the complex vision of the author.]


In a series of letters he wrote in 1882 and 1883 to his friend Anton van Rappard, Van Gogh expressed...

(The entire section is 6595 words.)

Catherine J. Golden (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Golden, Catherine J. “Cruikshank's Illustrative Wrinkle in Oliver Twist's Misrepresentations of Class.” In Book Illustrated: Text, Image, Culture, 1770-1930, edited by Catherine J. Golden, pp. 117-46. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 2000.

[In the following essay, Golden finds that Cruikshank's illustrations for Oliver Twist sometimes frustrated Dickens's attempts to draw a sympathetic portrait of the lower classes, while at other times they revealed Dickens's own lingering hostility toward them. Focusing mainly on the characters of Nancy and Fagin, Golden demonstrates how Cruikshank's differing attitudes toward class, as reflected in his illustrations, sometimes...

(The entire section is 6502 words.)

Criticism: William Makepeace Thackeray

Christopher Coates (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Coates, Christopher. “Thackeray's Editors and the Dual Text of Vanity Fair.Word and Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry 9, no. 1 (1993): 39-50.

[In the following essay, Coates examines how the editorial decisions regarding the illustration of Vanity Fair affected the reader's interpretation of the novel.]

One clause of the agreement between William Makepeace Thackeray and his publishers, William Bradbury and Frederick Mullett Evans, for the serial production of Vanity Fair stipulates that:

The said William Makepeace Thackerary undertakes to furnish by the 15th of every month sufficient matter...

(The entire section is 5803 words.)

Victor R. Kennedy (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Kennedy, Victor R. “Pictures as Metaphors in Thackeray's Illustrated Novels.” Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 9, no. 2 (1994): 135-47.

[In the following essay, Kennedy argues that Thackeray's illustrations are often essential to a full understanding of his novels. The allusions and visual puns of Thackeray's drawings contribute further meaning to the narrative, Kennedy finds, and in some cases provide an ironic commentary on the text by their dissonance with the scenes to which they correspond.]

Literary criticism has traditionally been concerned with verbal metaphors. I consider a less traditional medium for metaphor: visual images in the illustrations...

(The entire section is 4019 words.)

Criticism: George Eliot And Frederic Leighton

Shawn Malley (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Malley, Shawn. “‘The Listening Look’: Visual and Verbal Metaphor in Frederic Leighton's Illustrations to George Eliot's Romola.Ninetheenth-Century Contexts 19 (1996): 259-84.

[In the following essay, Malley suggests that the tensions between literary and visual art that run throughout George Eliot's novel Romola are paralleled by the tension between Eliot and her illustrator, Frederic Leighton.]

The relationship between verbal and visual representation is central to George Eliot's Romola, whose quattrocento Florentines—its painters, scholars, orators, philosophers, and aesthetes—are very conscious of the verbal and visual...

(The entire section is 8141 words.)

Mark W. Turner (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Turner, Mark W. “George Eliot v. Frederic Leighton: Whose Text Is It Anyway?” In From Author to Text: Re-Reading George Eliot's Romola, edited by Caroline Levine and Mark W. Turner, pp. 17-35. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1998.

[In the following essay, Turner examines the relationship between text and illustrations in Romola to illuminate the interpretation of Victorian illustrated fiction in general.]

Romola, serialized in the popular monthly Cornhill Magazine, was the only novel by George Eliot to be accompanied by illustrations in its first form. In his drawings for the serial, Frederic Leighton, now best remembered for his large...

(The entire section is 8263 words.)

Criticism: Lewis Carroll And John Tenniel

SOURCE: Hubert, Renée Riese. “The Illustrated Book: Text and Image.” In Intertexuality: New Perspectives in Criticism, edited by Jeanine Parisier Plottel and Hanna Charney, pp. 177-95. New York: New York Literary Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Hubert uses a study of Alice in Wonderland to discuss the challenges inherent in the analysis of an illustrated text. Hubert compares the illustrations of Carroll, Tenniel, and Salvador Dali, who published an illustrated Alice in 1969, to demonstrate the differing relationships between word and image in nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts.]

A study of the illustrated book requires an examination of...

(The entire section is 3611 words.)

Further Reading


Baker, Charles. Bibliography of British Book Illustrators, 1860-1900. Birmingham, England: Birmingham Bookshop, 1978, 186 p.

Lists the illustrations of major artists of the last half of the nineteenth century, including works published anonymously.

Olmsted, John Charles, and Jeffrey Egan Welch. Victorian Novel Illustration: A Selected Checklist, 1900-1976. New York: Garland, 1979, 124 p.

Catalogues twentieth-century scholarship on the topic of illustrated fiction in the nineteenth century.


Bogardus, Ralph F. Pictures and Texts: Henry James, A....

(The entire section is 730 words.)