I’ve reviewed the new film of The Invisible Woman for the Journal of Victorian Culture online; I consider some of the issues in turning biographical research into a film, look at how the film handles the mistress figure, and think about Nelly Ternan’s place in Dickens’s history post-bicentenary.
What do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why?
This was the question with which Lynda Nead began her keynote at Dickens and the Visual Imagination this week, and one which I kept coming back to over the last few days, with a couple of instances prompting further reflection on Nead’s talk.
The first instance was watching David Lean’s Great Expectations, having realised this week that I’ve never seen the film in full; crucially though, I felt as though I had because its key images are so familiar – as Nead said, it’s so much a part of our visual imagination of Dickens. On reaching the scene in which Pip arrives in London for the first time, I was reminded of an instance a few years ago when my memory of the text had become confused by memory of the film, which previously I’d seen fragments of in undergraduate lectures. At the time, I was writing a section of my PhD thesis on arrivals into London, and dug out Great Expectations intending to write about Pip’s entrance into London and the foreboding vision of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral that looms over his arrival. Upon re-reading the book, I was surprised to find that the episode is only a slight, brief mention in which Pip recounts “I saw the great black dome of St Paul’s bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison” (chapter 20); a mere handful of words for what had become, for me, a strikingly visual image.
Image of Pip’s arrival in London in Lean’s Great Expectations
I was convinced that the episode was textually described in far more vivid and lengthy detail; it wasn’t the text, but the image from Lean’s film that I had in mind. The image had mingled into my memory of the text to create a new, composite image existing, for me, somewhere between text and film. Nead spoke this week about how the visual imagination isn’t so much a process of “geological layering” but rather one of creative transformation which explodes the boundaries of both text and image and creates new imaginative forms in its wake; it’s a description that seemed more than fitting for my memory of Great Expectations.
In watching Great Expectations this week I was particularly attentive to a further point of Nead’s talk, in which she noted that we never see a complete vision of the exterior of Miss Havisham’s house, only partial fragments – the clock tower, the gate, the steps. We might think that we have a complete vision of the house, but in fact this is largely constructed through the house’s interior; so powerful are the images of Miss Havisham’s rooms that they work to build a vision of the house from the inside out.
The interior of Miss Havisham’s house
This resonated strongly with the theme of Andrew Sanders’s talk on Dickens’s rooms, in which it was notable that so many of the illustrations from the novels depict interiors; rarely (at least, from what I can think), do we see exteriors of the houses. And today, as I was reading Julian Wolfreys’ Writing London, these ideas came to mind again. Discussing a passage from Our Mutual Friend, he notes the resistance to the whole, complete vision in Dickens’s architectural description: ‘the entire architectural meaning is brought into question, deconstructed as it is into a series of ambiguously architectural details… The eye is moved from piece to piece, but the gaze is ultimately refused an overall meaning, a monumental, organized presence on which it can fix’ (p. 150)
How often does Dickens give us a description of the exterior of a house? When are we given the complete perspective of the whole, or is Nead’s idea of Lean’s construction of Satis House from “inside-out” true also of the written descriptions in Dickens’s novels? How often are buildings constructed only from within or with a view to partiality?
And, to reorient Nead’s question, what do we imagine when we think of Dickens’s houses, and why? That is to say, what role does film play in the visual imagination of Dickens’s buildings? Where do film/tv adaptations give us the complete exterior perspective that the text denies, and how does this play into our visual idea of Dickens’s houses and other architectural forms?
David Lean, Great Expectations (1946)
Julian Wolfreys, Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens (Palgrave, 1998)
Day 2 of Dickens and the Visual Imagination took us to the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Artin London. The wonderful cavern of an underground library provided the perfect setting for a day of papers that focused more specifically on art and film historians’ perspectives on Dickens.
The day began with Lynda Nead’s keynote “‘To let in the sunlight’: Dickens, Lean and the Chiaroscuro of Postwar Britain”, a fascinating analysis of David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations. Nead started with some stimulating questions that pushed at the wider frameworks of the conference: what do we mean by “the visual imagination”? What is our “visual imagination” of Dickens: what do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why? Nead began by thinking about how we read the relationship between text and film, arguing for a reciprocal relationship in which neither text nor film is privileged but rather seeing adaptation as a process of creative transformation evolving new forms and opportunities – this, she suggested, might offer one way in which to understand the concept of a visual imagination. With this in mind Nead moved on to read Lean’s Great Expectations in the context of postwar Britain, providing a detailed analysis of a selection of stills from the film which focused on the complexity of Lean’s use of black and white.
The use of chiaroscuro – the interplay between light and shadow- constructs a subtle “language of shadow” which achieves a rich depth to images, and constructs an aesthetic of decay and ruin which was highly resonant with the postwar Britain in which the film was produced. Nead seemed to be suggesting that the aesthetic language of the film is not “Dickensian” as such, but rather creates a visual language of its own that very much belonged to the moment in which the film was made.
The next panel on Perception and Perspective began with Andrew Mangham’s paper (read by Greg Tate) on Dickens, Hogarth and Perspective, an interesting analysis that took Dickens’s references to Hogarth in the preface to Oliver Twist as a starting-point for identifying a Hogarthian sense of visual perspective in Dickens’s realism. Janice Carlisle followed with an exploration of Great Expectations and JMW Turner’s painting; this worked towards centring Estella in the novel’s visual economy, particularly in terms of how Estella constructs Pip as artist. Aleza Tadri-Friedman presented on “Art Appreciation and Visual Perception in Dombey and Son“, considering the recurrence of art throughout the novel with a particular focus on how the transgressive Edith Granger is positioned within wider debates about art and perception in the nineteenth century; in another indicative text-illustration reading, Tadri-Friedman looked at the interplay between the narrative construction of Edith through Dombey and Carker, and the illustration that accompanies one key scene in this narrative.
Panel 2 explored Dickens and Painting, beginning with Dehn Gilmore’s “Reading the Dickensian Gallery” which suggested ways in which art and artistic vocabulary in Dickens might offer a new way of understanding Dickens’s relationship to his early reviewers. Pat Hardy’s Dickens and Portraits looked at the ways in which Dickens employs the language of portrait painting, focusing on Bleak House which represents a key moment in engaging with ideas around portraiture, exploring key ideas about physiognomy and using this not only as a way in which to read individuals, but also with an interest in how people see one another. Vincent Alessi finished with a paper on the influence of Dickens on Vincent van Gogh, offering a complex examination of van Gogh’s development as a painter and analysing particular paintings of or influenced by Dickens.
The day concluded with a final keynote presentation by Kate Flint on the subject of “Pavement Art”. Flint began with a short story by Dickens, “His Brown Paper Parcel” (“Somebody’s Luggage”; All the Year Round, 1862 Christmas edition), in which the narrator is a pavement artist: why, Flint asked, would such a figure be so interesting to Dickens? In what followed, Flint offered a wonderfully rich exploration of pavement artists in the nineteenth century and explored the questions raised through this unique form of visual culture. Pavement art occupies an interesting, often contradictory, space: it is emphemeral yet immobile/immoveable; outside of institutions and the marketplace, yet necessarily public and invites the viewer to participate in a form of artistic patronage; often produces a copied image but never produces a definitive replica and depends upon being constantly reproduced; creates delight amongst its audience through the process of its creation more than in existing as a finished product. Pavement art troubles and challenges the definition of art and artist, and in turn raises complex questions about the relationship between author and art work, raising issues of ownership and authorship, creation and performance, and the position of art in the public sphere- all especially important to Dickens at a time when he was touring the country performing extracts of his own work in his final years. Ideas were raised here too about the mobility of the artist and the circulation of art, resonating with the rise in print circulation throughout the nineteenth century and Flint picked up on this relationship, as well as questions around the legitimacy of wandering and loitering.
Illustration of a pavement artist from The Graphic, September 1874
Flint’s talk provided a stimulating end to the day, and in its analysis of a different form of culture also spoke to some of the issues that Lynda Nead had raised in questioning the idea of the visual imagination: there was here an idea about how we might define the visual imagination as being, like pavement art, something transient, ephemeral and almost impossible to truly grasp, something forged and re-forged in different contexts and places, resisting (or defeated by) the permanence of the art forms that it tries to get a hold of, and always part of a process of creative transformation that evolves, adapts, and opens up new possibilites for interpretation.
My latest podcast with the Knowledge Centre has been published with an accompanying article this morning.
Titled “A Novel Idea: the Victorian Books that TV Forgot“, I discuss the limited range of nineteenth-century novels which are taken up by film and tv producers. However, the recent Wuthering Heights film is a good example of how new adaptations of familiar texts can add value to wider understanding and interpretations of novels; Andrea Arnold’s casting of a black Heathcliff opened up postcolonial critical perspectives that are now well established in literary criticism but, judging by the media response to the film, are not so familiar to wider audiences. As literary criticism continues to develop new perspectives, new possibilities continue to arise even for those texts that have already been frequently adapted. That said, I do have a few suggestions for other texts that would make for good tv – you’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out which ones!
“With regard to the rusticity of Wuthering Heights, I admit the charge, for I feel the quality. It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of heath.”
In Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights,these reflections by Charlotte Brontë on her sister Emily’s novel become more pertinent than ever: not so much in that it is moorish, wild, knotty, rustic, but in the suggestion that we “feel the quality”. In Arnold’s stripped-bare adaptation it is feeling, both physical and emotional, that dominates this Wuthering Heights.
It is, from the start, a violent film: raw and bleak, muddy and bloody. The film doesn’t shy away from a brutal violence either amongst its characters, or in its depictions of rural life. The landscape is, throughout, prominent – more so, perhaps, than in Brontë’s novel – but not sentimentalised, idealised or romanticised. Here, the landscape simply is; through camera-angles burrowing through the heath or focusing on a grub, the land is left to speak for itself. The absence of music – or even much speech –contributes to this: detailed sights are accompanied by sharply focused sounds that further add to the effect of not just seeing, but really feeling the landscape.
Likewise, the emotions here are raw, bleak, simple; characters simply are rather than given the feeling of being “interpreted” or presented. They are left largely unexplored in terms of psychological depth, driven by emotion – not so much in terms of there being explicit, recognisable forces or motivations, but that there is little other than response and feeling behind each action and movement. Interpretation seems to take a back seat for both actors and viewer; it’s a strange experience to watch this film, as we’re not asked to interpret, question or even engage in the way we might usually with a film or text. It’s a form of realism which, whilst appearing to strip back technique, or mediation simultaneously persists in making us aware of the process of viewing.
As a result, the film seems to resist much of what we might want to read into it in terms of its depiction of gender and race. In the first half of the film the young Cathy and Heathcliff, both individually and together, resist being interpreted as raced/ gendered types and, as with the rest of the text, simply exist in and of themselves; individual mannerisms, behaviours, emotions surface here.
This in turn complicates how we read what has become the most talked-about aspect of the film, that this Heathcliff is the first non-white Heathcliff; but how significant is this in the film’s presentation? The problem with so much critical interest in this aspect of the film is that the viewer goes in with an expectation and, perhaps, an agenda to focus on the portrayal of race and what interpretation this lends to the text. This is, to an extent, always true in so far as a film of Wuthering Heights has to take a critical judgement on the most interesting ambiguity of the text, Heathcliff’s unknown origins. One of the most interesting and anxiety-ridden elements of the text is that the question of Heathcliff’s origins resist interpretation: it’s the fact that Heathcliff could potentially be from anywhere that lingers as the text’s most pervasive yet unspoken fear.
Equally, it isn’t impossible that Heathcliff “could” be black: his origins are unknown and he is variously read as being Chinese, Indian, Spanish, American, or African. As critics such as Susan Meyer have argued, regardless of his “actual” origins, Heathcliff is read by others in the text as “black”, positioned as the black subject through the treatment by other characters who subject him “to the potent gaze of a racial arrogance derived from British imperialism” (Imperialism at Home).
Here, Heathcliff’s origins remain a subject of some doubt: the film retains lines in which he’s referred to as a “little Lascar”, or speculating that he might be “the son of an African prince or Chinese queen” (slightly altered from “your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen” in the text). This brings to the surface the nineteenth-century Imperial perspective in which all non-white subjects are collectively grouped together as “black”, regardless of actual origins; the brutality of violence enacted on Heathcliff here served to reiterate the power dynamic within this. But beyond this, it didn’t feel as though the film was working to make a particular point “about” race and the nineteenth century; the violence extends throughout all characters and, as with other elements of the text, his race is presented in a matter-of-fact manner.
If the film does anything to make this about Heathcliff, it’s that it centres him as narrative perspective. This gives more structure and coherence to a text which is notably unstable in its narrative perspective, and for that reason this becomes a narrative of Heathcliff. Perhaps as a result of this, the blurred relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff felt less prominent and less intense; and of Cathy’s most famous lines “he’s more myself than I am” and“Nelly, I am Heathcliff”, the first is cut short and the latter omitted. Interestingly, this therefore serves to break what Susan Meyer notes as a recurrent motif in the nineteenth-century novel of a representational yoking of white women with people of non-white races.
In terms of structure, the film follows most other adaptations in only focusing on the first half of the novel. Having said that, it’s still very much a film of two halves, with the switch in actors when Cathy marries and Heathcliff leaves and then returns. As others have noted, whilst Solomon Grave and Shannon Beer are excellent, the second pairing of James Howson and Kaya Scodelario doesn’t maintain much of what the younger actors achieve so well, and the relationship lacks the earlier chemistry; but in some ways, this discontinuity and jarring seemed right to me. Heathcliff returns changed by his journey away, and to find Cathy socialised as Edgar’s wife; the connection of their youth is clearly lost, and the stilted atmosphere that now existed between the two reiterated the inability to recapture what had been lost and the new maturity of the characters. There’s a commentary here, too, about the social impossibility of their relationship, something the text doesn’t engage so much with in its focus on the passion between them. This half of the film therefore operates in the way that the second half of Bronte’s novel does, holding up the first half to scrutiny.
These are just some initial reflections on a film that offers much both in terms of its interpretation of Bronte’s text and in terms of wider ideas about adaptations of nineteenth-century texts; but I’ll be thinking more about both the film and adapations of nineteenth-century texts in general in a piece for the Knowledge Centre with Francesca Scott.