Victorian Illustrated Fiction Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.