The few folk who have come upon my intermittent blog will have gathered that one of my favourite authors is the English novelist Thomas Hardy. Like many readers, the “reading copies” I have of his works are no longer the battered paperbacks strewn around my house but the digital editions I have on my iPad. These digital texts do have great advantages, not least that you can read them in the dark and that many of them are free. So why then are the several thousand books I have in my house not diminishing in number but rather increasing? There are at least a couple of reasons. One is that I have a fascination for older books and editions and another is that these books often contain wonderful illustrations which usually feature neither in modern battered paperbacks nor in digital copies.
So when my long-suffering postman wearily knocks on my door to unburden himself of yet another vast parcel, and my nearest and dearest call out “What on earth have you bought now, you sad old man?”, they naturally despair when I proclaim: “Well, it’s another copy of the Mayor of Casterbridge.” And when they declare “But you’ve got five copies of that already!”, I can proudly say – as I unravel the packaging of a book well over a foot in height – “Yes. But not this one!”
And what is so great about this edition of the frequently published Mayor? Well it is the very first publication of the great work serialised in the wonderful Victorian magazine The Graphic; and serial publication in Victorian times usually means, of course… illustration.
In the 1886 publication of the Mayor in The Graphic, over a period of almost five months, each of the 20 weekly instalments carried a splendid illustration by Robert Barnes.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles was illustrated in its first serial publication in The Graphic in 1891. Similarly, the (even more) controversial Jude the Obscure (or as it was initially entitled – The Simpletons and then Hearts Insurgent) contained illustrations by William Hatherall when first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1894-95.
Hardy was so taken by Hatherall’s illustrations that he wrote to him in November 1895 expressing his “sincere admiration” for the illustration of “Jude at the Milestone”.
“The picture is a tragedy in itself: & I do not remember ever before having an artist who grasped a situation so thoroughly… Would that I possessed a copy or photograph of it!”
Hatherall sent Hardy a complete set of the illustrations which Hardy liked so much he had them framed and hung in his study at Max Gate. He will have seen them every day when he sat down to write.
Hardy was often engaged with the practicalities of the illustration of his work, providing advice and sketches of his own. As an architect drawing up plans to renovate churches he could – and did – sketch and draw. At times he even contributed and published his own illustrations, the prominent example being the first edition of his Wessex Poems.
Typical of Hardy, so prone to infatuations with the opposite sex, he even appears to have developed a romantic attachment to one artist, Helen Paterson, who illustrated Far from the Madding Crowd in the Cornhill Magazine. Helen Paterson married the poet William Allingham (the same year that Hardy wed Emma Gifford), hence the change in the illustrator’s name during the publication of Madding from H. Paterson to H. Allingham. How characteristic that some 30 years later “with his memories – imaginatively inflated” – so described by biographer Michael Millgate – Hardy could declare in a letter to Edmund Gosse in July 1906 that this was the woman he should have married “but for a stupid blunder of God Almighty”. He even penned a poem about this attachment (The Opportunity). What, if anything, Helen Allingham or Emma Hardy knew of this “romantical” (Hardy’s own word) attachment, I do not know. But he could now declare that Helen was: “the best illustrator I ever had”.
And so I can at least turn to my 1877 edition of Madding which, happily, contains some of these illustrations to get a glimpse of what had captivated Hardy; and certainly the last illustration in the volume, depicting the dramatic scene where Troy unmasks himself immediately prior to being shot by the hapless Boldwood, has much to recommend it.
There is a fascinating interplay between the images in the illustrations and the text and any serious study of the illustrations to Hardy’s works reveals in them some curious traits and inconsistencies, but they make a significant accompaniment to the text, even – and perhaps now particularly – for the modern sophisticated reader. Anyone wanting to delve more should have a look at the detailed insights offered on the splendid Victorianweb.org website
And there have been at least two books written specifically about Hardy’s illustrations, which I have yet to explore.
The mid 19th Century was a time rife with the serialisation of novels by established writers of the day – Dickens, Eliot, Collins, Trollope, Thackeray, Hardy to name but a few. Most magazines which published such works employed or hired illustrators to depict key scenes. Although a publishing convention, these illustrations were more than artistic icing on a verbal cake. For the unsophisticated readers of the day these illustrations and accompanying vignettes were an integral part of the presentation of the fiction, helping readers to visualise the narrative. Indeed it seems to have been these copies, bound into volumes, that the libraries on occasion purchased for their general – unsophisticated – readership in preference to the unillustrated book-form editions.
However, if a novel had not been serialised, then likely it would not be illustrated; and when full first editions were produced, purchased by the more affluent and educated reader, if there were illustrations, then they often went by the wayside. And subsequent editions tended to omit the illustrations. So if the avid reader of today wants to get a taste of what the first serialised (and often bowdlerised) editions looked like, that reader needs to seek out copies of the magazines which first carried them.
Throughout the years many publishers have – fortunately – sought to produce new illustrated editions of Hardy’s novels, notably, for example, the edition of Tess with the wood engravings by Vivien Gribble.
Nora Lavrin illustrated some translated editions of Hardy. Illustrations are a feature of the Folio editions too, and not just of Hardy. There is, of course, a whole tradition of writings across a plethora of works where illustration is integral to the production of the work, from William Blake, to the Moxon edition of Tennyson, to the Russian Futurists, to W. G. Sebald, not to mention the wonderful illustrated editions of books for children and young readers. For some writers illustration was an intensely integral part of their work. For others it is a practical or inspirational enhancement or adornment.
For me, whatever the images that have formed in my own visual imagination (enhanced or diminished by our cinematic presentations), with my own copy of Harper’s magazine for 1895, I can return to an image of the desperate Jude, of which Hardy himself was so enthralled he framed it on his wall. And no wonder the illustration of his work preoccupied him. He had, after all, a supremely visual imagination. References to paintings and pictures abound in his works. He had a stunning capability to paint a picture in words, not just in his poetry but in his novels too. I recall Melvyn Bragg on the radio being bowled over by Hardy’s Tess. “He’s Constable. He’s Turner. He’s amazing.” Not even I can top that.