“Leighton and Surridge do a magnificent job of illuminating the surprisingly important role of illustrations in serial fiction and challenging some of the assumptions that have dominated scholarly understanding of the serial novel. Building on a rich and growing body of scholarship on serial fiction, The Plot Thickens shows that attending to illustrations has the potential to transform our understanding of how Victorian readers consumed novels in parts.”
Mary Jean Corbett, author of Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf
In the early 1800s, books were largely unillustrated. By the 1830s and 1840s, however, innovations in wood- and steel-engraving techniques changed how Victorian readers consumed and conceptualized fiction. A new type of novel was born, often published in serial form, one that melded text and image as partners in meaning-making.
These illustrated serial novels offered Victorians a reading experience that was both verbal and visual, based on complex effects of flash-forward and flashback as the placement of illustrations revealed or recalled significant story elements. Victorians’ experience of what are now canonical novels thus differed markedly from that of modern readers, who are accustomed to reading single volumes with minimal illustration. Even if modern editions do reproduce illustrations, these do not appear as originally laid out. Modern readers therefore lose a crucial aspect of how Victorians understood plot—as a story delivered in both words and images, over time, and with illustrations playing a key role.
In The Plot Thickens, Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge uncover this overlooked narrative role of illustrations within Victorian serial fiction. They reveal the intricacy and richness of the form and push us to reconsider our notions of illustration, visual culture, narration, and reading practices in nineteenth-century Britain.
Mary Elizabeth Leighton is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. With Lisa Surridge, she coedited the Broadview Anthology of Victorian Prose, 1832–1901 and was coeditor of the Victorian Review. Her articles and book chapters appear in Victorian Studies, Victorian Periodicals Review, Victorian Literature and Culture, the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, the Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, Dickens in Context, and elsewhere. More info →
Lisa Surridge is Professor of English and Associate Dean Academic of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Victoria. She is author of Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. With Mary Elizabeth Leighton, she coedited the Broadview Anthology of Victorian Prose, 1832–1901 and was coeditor of the Victorian Review. Her articles and book chapters appear in Victorian Studies, Victorian Periodicals Review, Dickens Studies Annual, Victorian Literature and Culture, the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, and elsewhere. More info →
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Late nineteenth-century Britain experienced an unprecedented explosion of visual print culture and a simultaneous rise in literacy across social classes. New printing technologies facilitated quick and cheap dissemination of images—illustrated books, periodicals, cartoons, comics, and ephemera—to a mass readership. This Victorian visual turn prefigured the present-day impact of the Internet on how images are produced and shared, both driving and reflecting the visual culture of its time.
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