Surprenant_Pet Book Report #6: Helen by Maria Edgeworth

My pet book includes several different illustrations, and I realize that I have initially been describing them as woodcuts. However, after our discussion on Wednesday, I believe them to have been created with the intaglio process. The images of women include much more detail and shading than would be produced with a woodcut, as we have observed. The book does not include any additional illustrations other than the two found in the beginning pages, but they both include captions of what is supposed to be happening, along with attribution to the artist (artists?) who created the images.

The first image includes the caption “Beauderc’s dog, Nelson, came bounding toward her, and the next moment her master appeared, coming down the path from the wood.” It is attributed as “J. Franklin pinx (t) & W. Greatbatch sculp*.” The second image is captioned “There is Helen in the Line Walk” and it is attributed as “J. Franklin pinx & W. Greatbatch, sc.” While the attributions are apparently to the same person, the notation is slightly different. I am assuming that they were created at two different points in time, which may be the reason for the slight discrepancy.

In “How to Look at a Printed Flower,” Juliet Fleming proposes three modes of interpreting these illustrations, one of which I believe directly applies to the two images in my pet book. She writes that “Flower’s are said to ‘rest the eye,’ or alternatively, to focus concentration” and that such ornamentation was helpful to readers (169). In this mode, the illustrations of of a young woman in the beginning of the book provide a framework in which the reader can experience the novel. It provides a visual representation of the type of woman the reader is to envision when imagining Helen.

In our class discussion of literacy, we discussed the importance of visual elements on the reader’s experience. While literacy rates have steadily increased, not all of the population could read at the same level. These illustrations help to serve as visual cues for those who may not have fully understood the context of the novel itself. Whether or not they were helpful to understanding the novel in its entirety is a different matter, but they do serve to provide a framework.

Alternatively, they may serve the notion of helping the book to appear more sophisticated. I have written about the appearance of the book seeming to be more ornamental than the text inside, and this could perhaps be another sign of that. The illustrations are quite detailed and look like small works of art. They add to the already faux-high-brow feel that the book exudes on a material level. As I have noted, Edgeworth’s novels were known to have a moral slant to them, and by dressing up the material object in new clothes, perhaps the publisher sought to re-brand Edgeworth in a way that made her material new and fresh instead of what she had achieved notoriety for in the first place.

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