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Review of 'Transforming Anthony Trollope'

Transforming Anthony Trollope, a volume in the series ‘Studies in European comics and graphic novels’(Leuven University Press) contains scholarly essays on the adaptation of literature in graphic novels and on visual culture in the nineteenth century. The main focus of the collection is on Simon Grennan’s graphic adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel John Caldigate.

The discussed graphic adaptation, called Dispossession, is an art research project commissioned by Leuven University and Grennan himself is one of the editors of the collection of essays about the project. This means that Transforming Anthony Trollope isn’t totally neutral. Still it contains much of interest for those interested in graphic novels, literature, Trollope, adaptation theory, (neo)Victorianism and visual culture.

Adaptation of literature in graphic novels is still sometimes looked down on, because comics supposedly couldn’t do justice to the original. Some of the authors in this collection seem to look upon comics of the Classics Illustrated type this way, complaining of ‘bowdlerization’, the purging of literary texts from anything offensive for readers that are deemed not ready. The project of Grennan is compared favorably to these kinds of efforts.

Scholar Jan Baetens remarks that Grennan’s project ‘breaks with two conventional types of literary adaptation’, the ‘didactic’ and the ‘hagiographic’. (16) A modern adaptation is an art work in itself, with its own virtues, rules and ways of depiction, not necessarily a watered down version of the original.

Criticism of Classics Illustrated is somewhat elitist. It could be argued that didactic comics about literature have a real function, alongside more refined, literary adaptations. Didactic comics don’t (often) strive to be art, unlike the graphic adaptations discussed in the collection. The function of Classics Illustrated is to communicate the main elements of the original stories to readers who otherwise wouldn’t come in contact with the classics. For some readers these comics may stimulate the wish to explore the sources. These attempts to communicate culture to the general public seem to be more beneficial that harmful.

Grennan’s Dispossession however is ‘an independent work, which has to be studied and evaluated according to the values and norms of its new context’ (Baetens 15) The project is a statement on what an adaptation in another medium could also be. Baetens’ discussion is the main chapter of the first part of the book which deals with comics adaptation. A second part of Transforming Antony Trollope is about the role of the visual in Victorian culture and a third part deals with what is called neo-victorianism in the present.

Trollope’s original work is about ambiguity and ambivalence: is the main character a bigamist or not? The answer is not given. For the artist (and scholar) Grennan this aspect of the novel was the main challenge in adapting it. He calls it ‘drawing the idea of ‘’perhaps’’ (p. 18) In comics (and other visual media) it seems to be difficult to do justice to ambivalence: pictures tend to establish how things are. They show the choice of the author for one version of the story above another, whereas in written fiction the reader has more freedom to come to his or her own interpretation. Trollope’s story is about ‘the effect of a secret on an individual’ rather than ‘the secret itself’ (Van Dam p. 76). It is not a detective story but a psychological novel.

In an interview in the collection Simon Grennan establishes a difference between the visual language of movies and that of comics and graphic novels. He states that comics are often more theatrical than cinematic, because physical activities are ‘often depicted in highly stereotypical ways’ (Miers 45). The pictures are a series of single moments, more than a movie without movement.

The second part of Transforming Anthony Trollope is about the role of visuality in Victorian culture. Topics that are discussed are the social role of illustrated texts in relation to cultural taste and class and also the way ‘complex meaning’ is established in illustrated literature in the nineteenth century. In one of the chapters David Skilton e.g. discusses the so called ‘problem pictures’ in which ‘an enigmatic or ambiguous social situation is portrayed, and made more complex by a cryptic title’ (p. 98). The picture reader is invited to come up with his or her own interpretation.

The third part of the collection is about neo-victorianism. The reinterpretation of the Victorian past tells the reader as much about the present as it does about the nineteenth century. Marie-Louise Kohlke writes about ‘repression-envy’ (166) among neo-victorianists. They are supposedly longing for a period in which there were taboos and restrictions to which one could rebel. This neo-victorian need is sometimes more than a need for ‘gratuitous sexploitation’ (159) in which ‘sex in historical fancy dress’ is displayed; it is a more complex need to feel repressed in times that, according to some, are too much liberated.

Transforming Anthony Trollope is an intellectually stimulating book of essays that deals with very diverse topics. This diversity is a potential weakness, because of a lack of thematic focus. But this is compensated by the richness of what the editors have collected. The collection shows that research on the crossroads of cultural historical mentalities studies and visual culture studies can be very fruitful.

Simon Grennan and Laurence Grove (eds), Transforming Anthony Trollope. Dispossession, Victorianism and nineteenth-century word and image, Leuven University Press, ISBN 9789462700413.

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