Exploring the Visual Qualities of Literature
Today marks almost exactly a year since I set up the Literary Visuality blog. Originally conceived of as a reflection of my wider research interests, I now find myself looking back over the mixum-gatherum of entries of which it’s comprised and contemplating what they represent. I have recently begun teaching a seminar on Literary Visuality to second year undergraduates, as well collaborating on another blog and research venture, The Samuel Forde Project, and it’s my experience of these that has prompted me to reaccess the direction of this blog.
I came to Literary Visuality indirectly and over many years. My favourite (and best) subjects all through secondary school were English and Art. When it came to selecting my subjects for my BA, English and History of Art were unsurprisingly an organic choice. After a number of attempts to combine the two in my research (and being told I really could only focus on one) I finally happened on a version of my current doctoral research topic while Inter-railing through Europe. It was August 2007 and, having just finished reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I searched downtown Sarajevo (Bosnia & Herzegovina) for an internet café. When I found one, I immediately set about searching for writers of the London Blitz. It wasn’t long before a familiar name appeared in my searches: Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973). Mentioend in passing in McEwan’s novel, and having studied Bowen’s The Last September (1929) during my undergraduate and subsequent postgraduate classes, I was nonetheless surprised to find her mentioned within a different context. I discovered that Bowen was probably the writer of civilian experience during wartime 1940s England. What’s more, it gave me a glimmer of opportunity to connect my two loves – literature and art – and to hopefully gain a PhD in the process.
My idea had been to complete a parallel study on Bowen’s wartime writings and contemporaneous visual culture, namely the propaganda posters of Fougasse (Cyril Bird). His posters, among others, had once been the focus of an undergraduate essay topic of mine which, regretfully, took a different turn and never came to fruition as originally conceived. I was excited then to discover that one of Bowen’s short stories collected in The Demon Lover (1945) entitled “Careless Talk” is derived from, and lampoons, Bird’s “Careless Talk Costs Lives” posters which were mainstays of wartime Britain. During my research, however, and like many doctoral scholars, I happened across a chance phrase which shifted my outlook completely: “Much (and perhaps the best) of my writing is verbal painting.” In this seemingly passing remark made by Bowen at the end of the 1940s, I found a whole world of possibilities opening up before me and the focus of my research changed completely in that instant.
Jump forward four-and-a-half years and I’m editing the drafts of five chapters spawned from that moment and teaching a seminar on the expanded field of which my research forms a focused corner. Having conducted her own research, one of my students asked recently if I had invented the term ‘Literary Visuality’. While flattering, the answer is no. It is a composite term, however, that I put together prior to finding references to it elsewhere. That said, Literary Visuality is not a field that has yet been defined in scholarly discourse; rather it is an emergent one which forms part of a broader research culture that addresses the links between image and word.
In returning to the reasons and paths that led me to Literary Visuality I hope to press the reset button on this blog. Some of the entries I have made previous to this are entirely appropriate, while others sit somewhat outside of its remit. Rather than simply remove them, however, I think it better to consider them a prehistory of the blog, sketches of possibilities tangentially related to its central aims. These aims are to explore the points at which visual culture intersects with literature and to debate the function of art, artist and art aesthetics within a literary context. And what better day to refocus and recast this than today, the fortieth anniversary of Elizabeth Bowen’s death. Her absence is felt but her great artistry remains…