TRANSFORMING ANTHONY TROLLOPE: <i>DISPOSSESSION</i>, VICTORIANISM AND NINETEENTH-CENTURY WORD AND IMAGE by Simon Grennan and Laurence Grove, eds., Reviewed by Michelle Keown
 

TRANSFORMING ANTHONY TROLLOPE: DISPOSSESSION, VICTORIANISM AND NINETEENTH-CENTURY WORD AND IMAGE
Eds. Simon Grennan and Laurence Grove
(Leuven/Cornell, 2015)
Reviewed by Michelle Keown on 2018-04-20.

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This collection of essays is designed, inter alia, as a critical companion to Simon Grennan's graphic novel Dispossession (2015), an experimental work that melds Victorian and contemporary visual culture in adapting Anthony Trollope's John Caldigate (1878-9). Highlighting the adaptation itself, Part I of this volume's three parts contains essays by Jan Baetens (on representations of time) and Hugo Frey (on the interplay between realism and illusion), as well as John Miers's highly illuminating interview with Grennan himself. Turning to Victorian visual culture, Part II offers three essays (by Frederik Van Dam, David Skilton and Roger Sabin) focused on the wider historical context of Trollope's oeuvre, and a further essay (by Barbara Postema) on wordless comic strips in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Part Three treats contemporary neo-Victorianism, with three essays (by Ian Hague, Aarnould Rommens and Peter Wilkins) on graphic narrative adaptations of nineteenth-century fiction, and a further essay (by Marie-Luise Kohlke) on representations of Victorian sexuality in contemporary novels and television.

Usefully explaining the structure of the book, the introduction notes that Parts II and III complement the first by surveying nineteenth-century visual culture (including the rise of comics as a popular medium) as well as comparing Grennan's text with "other renditions" of that culture (10). Yet the introduction could have explained that not all of the essays in Part III are comparative: Kohlke's, for example, says nothing about Grennan's novel, though its sometimes frank depictions of sexuality could easily have been dovetailed into Kohlke's wide-ranging overview. More directly relevant to Dispossession are Hague's chapter on Stéphane Heuet's 1998 adaptation of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, Rommens's analysis of Alberto Breccia's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar, and Wilkins's account of various contemporary comics based on Herman Melville's Moby Dick. But here again the comparisons remain largely implicit, with just a fleeting reference made to Grennan's work by Wilkins.

That said, Part III will considerably interest scholars of literary adaptation in general, and particularly within the context of neo-Victorianism. Its essays enrich the rapidly expanding field of graphic novel theory exemplified by recent publications such as Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey's The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (2015), Thierry Groensteen's The Expanding Art of Comics (2017), and Grennan's A Theory of Narrative Drawing (2017). Implicitly, this final set of essays also sheds light on Grennan's novel. For example, Hague's invocation of Groensteen's notion of "tressage" ('braiding', a technique that creates visual links between non-contiguous panels) helps to illuminate the enigmatic recurring images of Hester Bolton in Dispossession, and the novel's deliberate elusiveness can be plumbed with the aid of Wilkins's essay on Moby Dick, which is said to exemplify what Umberto Eco terms the "open work" : one that challenges us to create meaning as we read.

Likewise, Part II illuminates the broader milieu of nineteenth-century visual culture that Grennan evokes at various points in Dispossession: he visually alludes, for example, to paintings by Robert Braithwaite Martineau, Honoré Daumier, and Ford Maddox Brown. Illuminating motifs of visual (mis)perception in Trollope's oeuvre, Van Dam shows how Grennan's adaptation finds visual equivalents for narrative "equivocation" in John Caldigate. Indeed, in scrutinizing the nexus between verbal and visual storytelling (including in Grennan's work), Van Dam's essay shrewdly applies traditional narratological theory to graphic adaptation. Though John Caldigate was not itself illustrated, Skilton's essay on literary illustrations in the late nineteenth-century usefully examines the hermeneutics and class politics of a range of texts produced during Trollope's lifetime. Further, in their typological studies of nineteenth-century comics, Sabins and Postema authoritatively scrutinize a range of British, continental European, and US contexts of production and circulation.

While Parts II and III thus shed indirect light on Grennan's novel, Part I richly elaborates the contexts most directly relevant to its conception and production. Central to this topic is Miers's interview with Grennan himself. While explaining the crucial stylistic and narratological choices he made during the process of adaptation, Grennan also describes the visual constraints he designed to replicate equivocation: the equivocal stance adopted by Trollope's narrator on the subject of Caldigate's alleged bigamy. Trollope's work was published during a period in which, as Irving Howe has observed, the novel "maintained a deeply critical relation, even a subversive relation, to the social milieu in which it thrived" ("'History and the Novel," New Republic 3 September, [1990] 30). Miers's interview illuminates how Grennan's adaptation of John Caldigate preserves this critical stance by means of visual strategies such as showing only what the characters do and say, without any framing narrative, and showing them only at a distance, never "up close." These visual strategies re-enact the verbal strategies of Trollope's narrator, who consistently avoids passing direct judgement on Caldigate's putative actions. By dispassionately reporting a wide array of (often contrasting) opinions and moral judgements expressed by the characters, he leaves the burden of interpretation to the reader.

Miers's interview is effectively bookended by the essays of Baetens and Frey. While introducing contemporary adaptation theory, Baetens identifies some of the key stylistic features of Grennan's work (complementing the material in Miers's interview), and Frey persuasively shows how Grennan's graphic tale creates visual illusion (reinforcing the ambiguity surrounding the matter of Caldigate's alleged bigamy) as well as replicating Trollope's orientation towards period realism. In making the plot of his novel hinge on a fraud surrounding a stamp and a postmark, Trollope draws on his own career with the postal service.

As Frey notes, Grennan augments Trollope's careful attention to sociohistorical detail by adding visual details about the material conditions of life on board emigrant ships, and specifically about the experience of working-class emigrants who are largely absent from Trollope's original narrative. In a subtle plot thread involving the death and sea-burial of an infant, Grennan sheds light on a context that would likely have been considered irrelevant by Trollope's readers.

Another of Grennan's subplots involves what Gayatri Spivak calls "the subaltern." As Howe notes of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, readers' responses to social conditions represented in a literary work can vary significantly from one era to another: while Austen's original audience may well have found an amateur theatrical morally dubious, contemporary readers are much more likely to be troubled by the slavery that stands behind Sir Thomas's wealth but is barely acknowledged in the novel ("History and the Novel," 34). Reflecting this contemporary concern with the subaltern even while preserving many of the original elements of Trollope's narrative, Grennan adds a subplot of his own. He reinstates the indigenous Australian and Chinese "underclass" that would have been widely present on the Australian goldfields and in the towns visited by Trollope's central characters, but is absent from Trollope's original narrative.

Besides adding this new subplot, Grennan's adaptation cuts out most of Trollope's lengthy discursus on legal process, for like the protracted lawsuit in Dickens's Bleak House, Trollope's legal details may seem tortuous to many contemporary readers. By contrast, Grennan's aboriginal subplot (discussed in detail by Frey) enriches his adaptation. Focused on the Wiradjuri people of central New South Wales, the subplot serves not only as a parallel to (or commentary upon) the love triangle within the main plot, but also as a critique, though skilful visual juxtapositions of white and aboriginal characters, of the process of indigenous "dispossession" that underpinned the white settlement of Australia. Additionally, Grennan's deliberately ambiguous representation of Euphemia Smith -- who has been viewed as contrastingly culpable and vulnerable by my own student readers of the adaptation -- also resonates with second- and third-wave feminist debates around gender and matrimony in the nineteenth-century novel. Frey's essay thus shows how the Wiradjuri subplot underscores the gender politics of Grennan's novel.

These opening chapters in the volume, therefore, comprehensively survey the complex layering of visual and narrative elements within Grennan's text, which is shown to be simultaneously rooted within the context of contemporary comics culture and within the historical and visual modalities of Trollope's own era. While the volume as a whole could have been more tightly integrated through judicious cross-referencing (as noted above), each chapter is richly embedded in relevant scholarly debates. This compelling volume will engage readers from a range of disciplinary fields, particularly nineteenth-century literary studies, adaptation studies, and theories of the graphic novel and comics.

Michelle Keown is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.


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