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Hannah Field, Tennyson Fan Art: Some Deviations

2016 November 22

Hannah Field is a lecturer in Victorian literature at the University of Sussex, where her research spans book history, material culture, and children’s literature. Her first monograph, provisionally titled Novelty Value: The Child Reader and the Victorian Material Book, grows out of her doctoral work with the Opie Collection of Children’s Literature at the Bodleian Library, and will be published by the University of Minnesota Press. Her Twitter handle is @arcane_project.

Fan art: ‘art of any form, usually electronic or drawn free hand, that uses characters or settings from a popular television show, novel, cartoon, anime, or movie as the subject.’ This definition, taken from Urban Dictionary—the OED Online has draft entries for fanfic and fanboy, but not fan art—points the reader to DeviantArt, an online gallery that includes a substantial number of fan-made artworks. Sometimes the submissions, called deviations, are curated into handy lists. ‘A Guide to Good-Looking Fire Breathers’, for instance, collates dragon fan art: images of Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion from A Song of Ice and Fire alongside Tolkien’s Smaug.

Fig 1. Frances Gwenllian Bishop illuminated Enoch Arden in the 1880s. Tennyson Research Collection, Lincolnshire County Council.

Fig 1. Frances Gwenllian Bishop illuminated Enoch Arden in the 1880s. Tennyson Research Collection, Lincolnshire County Council.

The Tennyson Research Collection in Lincoln, the best single-author archive in the United Kingdom, is perhaps an unlikely home for the Victorian equivalent of these works. However, nestled among successive editions of Tennyson’s poems (and the monographs that deal with them) is an array of fan-made objects: albums in which Tennysonian verses have been inscribed and then illustrated by amateurs. These addenda to the official, printed record of the laureate’s poetry take his output and make something new. The verses may be illuminated—lavish gilding and bold crimson taking a cue from Tennyson’s own medievalisms (as well as Victorian how-to manuals for heraldry). They may include printed images alongside hand-drawn flourishes. There may even be dragons, as in the fetching gargoyle that adorns a rendition of the sleeping palace in ‘The Day-Dream’. [1]

Fig 2. A page from a fan-made album containing the bugle song from Tennyson’s revised Princess of 1850. Tennyson Research Collection, Lincolnshire County Council.

Fig 2. A page from a fan-made album containing the bugle song from Tennyson’s revised Princess of 1850. Tennyson Research Collection, Lincolnshire County Council.

When the TRC archivist, Grace Timmins, showed me these objects—objects made by Tennyson’s Victorian readers—I was immediately drawn to them as a possible resource for the history of the book. First of all, the TRC albums complicate straightforward assumptions about the relationship between print and manuscript: they recall important work in book history, such as Peter Stallybrass’s ‘Printing and the Manuscript Revolution’, which questions the idea that the latter straightforwardly gave way to the former. [2] Second, they provide sustained responses to Tennyson’s poetry of a sort not found elsewhere. Fan artists often engage with the whole length of a poem rather than a single, standalone quotation, as is more common in sister objects such as scrapbooks and commonplace books. Third, these objects show fans engaging actively and creatively with Victorian media: a key tenet of fan studies, most influentially voiced in Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers (1992). [3] Indeed, some of Jenkins’s key examples recall Tennyson, as fan artist Jean Kluge overlays the Arthurian mythos onto Star Trek in the cover image  to Jenkins’s book. By this logic, Tennyson himself practices a sort of fan fiction as he remakes an existing bank of subject matter in Idylls of the King.

Fig 3. Album-maker ‘MJM’ decorates Tennyson’s sleeping palace with a dragon—a family resemblance with the contemporary dragons at DeviantArt? Tennyson Research Collection, Lincolnshire County Council.

Fig 3. Album-maker ‘MJM’ decorates Tennyson’s sleeping palace with a dragon—a family resemblance with the contemporary dragons at DeviantArt? Tennyson Research Collection, Lincolnshire County Council.

Most of all, though, I was intrigued by the ways that fan-made albums might offer distinctive readings of Tennyson’s poetry. The fan artist’s take on Tennyson’s poetry is implicit (because shown visually), and private (because circulated largely to family and friends). As such, these illustrations offer, like contemporary fan-art ‘deviations’, a sort of sideways reading of Tennyson’s poems: a reading that might not have been acceptable in another medium, or another forum, at the time.

Take, for instance, the final example I discuss in my article: an illustration of Vivien, from an album produced by three sisters just after the publication of the 1859 Idylls. As I discovered, the sisters probably include Ella Taylor, a celebrated amateur whose works are held in the Royal Collection. (See the left-hand corner of Taylor’s sketch The Cambridge Family around the Christmas Tree for an oblique self-portrait.) The image of Vivien from the Taylors’ album is arresting in large part because it emphasizes Vivien’s jubilant mastery—the aspect of the poem that seems most involved in Tennyson’s recall of the trial issue of the poem in Enid and Nimue: The True and the False. [4] Vivien dances for joy, utterly unrepentant, as she traps Merlin.

Fig 4. This triumphant illustration of Tennyson’s Vivien comes from an album made by Ella, Rose, and Emmie Taylor around 1860. Tennyson Research Collection, Lincolnshire County Council.

Fig 4. This triumphant illustration of Tennyson’s Vivien comes from an album made by Ella, Rose, and Emmie Taylor around 1860. Tennyson Research Collection, Lincolnshire County Council.

What does it mean to show Vivien in this way? Why did these fan artists and amateur illustrators make Vivien so powerful and active, where most professional illustrators—the Camelot Project provides a nice sample—did not? How does fandom for Tennyson himself combine with fandom for Tennyson’s poems and characters? [5] And how does the image interact with the lines from ‘Vivien’ copied alongside it in the Taylors’ album?

While a number of the TRC’s other amateur illustrators produced their images after professional illustrations had appeared, this album predates the official illustrated editions of these particular poems. As such, it demonstrates a group of women readers coming to terms visually with Tennyson’s female-oriented Enid—Vivien—Elaine—Guinevere Idylls: a cycle of poems persuasively read by Linda Peterson as a meditation on woman’s character, by way of female characters. [6] The Taylor sisters’ response to Vivien remains ambiguous, but this ambiguity is itself a minor scandal: whatever this image does, it does not condemn Vivien.

 

Fig 5. Ella Taylor’s sketch of a Christmas party at the home of Prince George, second Duke of Cambridge. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

Fig 5. Ella Taylor’s sketch of a Christmas party at the home of Prince George, second Duke of Cambridge. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

Recent initiatives charting readers’ responses to texts, such as the national Reading Experience Database, bring the Victorian reader closer than ever before. This is no mean feat, considering how elusive the thoughts and experiences of actual readers have proven to be in literary history. Amateur illustration, as a visual response to texts, forms a valuable resource in this ongoing quest. And the TRC albums are one place to start.

References

[1] For further images from TRC albums, see Tennyson Transformed: Alfred Lord Tennyson and Visual Culture, ed. by Jim Cheshire (Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2009), p. 103 ff.

[2] Peter Stallybrass, ‘Printing and the Manuscript Revolution’, in Explorations in Communication and History, ed. by Barbie Zelizer (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 111–18.

[3] Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992). There have been a number of subsequent editions, including an updated twentieth-anniversary one in 2013.

[4] See The Poems of Tennyson, ed. by Christopher Ricks, 2nd edn (Harlow: Longman, 1987), III, p. 260.

[5] For Tennyson as nineteenth-century star, see Victorian Celebrity Culture and Tennyson’s Circle, ed. by Páraic Finnerty, Anne-Marie Millim, and Charlotte Boyce (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[6] Linda H. Peterson, ‘Tennyson and the Ladies’, Victorian Poetry, 47 (2009), 29–43.

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