by Marianne Fisher
My introduction to CEIR came in the summer of 2008, in the form of a month’s research placement. Funded by the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CUROP) scheme, a fellow-student (Simon Eckstein) and I were tasked with investigating the relationship between text and illustration in various mid-Victorian media, including novels, serials, short stories, poems, magazines, and newspapers. Our main repository of images was the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration, itself the result of a recent CEIR project which had been funded by the AHRC.
Arriving in the office on our first day, we soon discovered what a complex task we had been set. The relationship between text and image had been little studied, and so there was no established research framework. We had to start from scratch, devising a strategy, methodology and projected outcomes. What were we looking for? How were we to go about finding it? What was important? How could we record what we found? These were the sort of questions which presented themselves—all very different from the security and structure of the undergraduate degrees we had just completed. As an introduction to the fluid nature of humanities research, it could hardly have been better.
It was decided between our mentors in the Centre and ourselves that we should start by choosing a novel each (Trollope’s Orley Farm for Simon, Bronte’s Romola for me), and working through illustration-by-illustration to see what patterns appeared. By trial and error, we created a form for recording salient points: size of image, position in relation to pertinent text, differences between textual and pictorial representations etc. As we did so, certain features began to emerge: illustrations can act as frontispiece ‘spoilers’ to advertise magazines; they can encapsulate several pages of description in one moment, or depict scenes which the text does not mention; they may clarify ambiguities, or create them; they introduce time-loops, errors, echoes, foreshadowings, and anachronisms; they cause any reader’s response automatically to be mediated not only through the mind of the author, but through that of the illustrator as well. Illustration renders a text simultaneously more immediate, and more distant. Gradually, we began to recognize the need to establish a specific vocabulary for to describing these issues and trends.
Having studied about 250 images each, we moved to Phase Two of the project: converting our hard copy into digital format. The form was fine-tuned, and a new database created into which we put our findings. Although still only factual data with no narrative behind it, it was at least now possible to search and quantify the results efficiently. Though the official placement ceased long ago, the research is ongoing. Qualitative analysis continues to yield results and, thanks to a new grant from the AHRC, the DMVI continues to expand. One possibility is to merge the databases, so as to integrate the text–image findings into the DMVI framework.
This was a wonderful introduction to research in general, and to CEIR in particular. Quite apart from making very good friends in the Centre, it broadened our horizons and put us as at the cutting edge of an emergent field. The experience clearly whetted our appetites for academic research: Simon and I both went on to read MA degrees at Cardiff and are now doctoral candidates in Swansea and Cardiff respectively. More specifically, the project fed directly into my own academic interests, raising questions which have implications well beyond 1862 and the images on the DMVI. My whole Masters dissertation sprang from a trend in medieval manuscript illuminations of Merlin, and the general considerations of reception, text–reader relations and responses, editorial practice, and intertextual communication continue to inform my doctoral research.
Marianne Fisher (BA, MA Cardiff) is a second-year doctoral candidate at Cardiff University, whose AHRC-funded thesis examines ‘Middle English Romance and Chaucer in Context’, offering a contextual account of the movement of insular romance from French to English, informed by the theories of Pierre Bourdieu and Raymond Williams. It then considers Chaucer’s position within, and use of, those social and generic contexts in The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde. Her involvement in CEIR began with a research placement during the summer of 2008 and continued through her Masters. As well as teaching on the first-year Medieval and Renaissance programme at Cardiff, Marianne also helps with communication and publicity for CEIR’s visiting speaker series and is a contributor to the Cardiff Book History blog.