A Little Bit of Ivory:
Use of Visual Technology in Marvel’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice
When Jane Austen writes a letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen, and describes her medium of the written word as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour” (Letter to James Edward Austen, 1816–12–16), it can be interpreted several ways. One, it refers to the high level of detail that she brings to her characters and story in such a precise manner, her fine brush working in such minute motions so as to produce the desired effect. However, Austen was never known for her vivid physical details and descriptions of people and places. It is interesting, then, that she has often been compared to visual artists, despite not being well-known for her vivid physical detail. She has been compared to Flemish painting, American precisionists, and to photography (Nigro). Although her visual descriptions are a bit lacking, her suggested visual images, settings and use of space and temporality are important to her work, and since comics utilize all of these things as well, it seems like a good fit to adapt Austen’s work into a graphic novel.
The way I would like to interpret this phrase is an anxiety of Austen’s own admission over her skills in providing physical details due to her medium of choice. Austen was, indeed, a master of the written word, but the book constrained her in certain ways that forced her to describe her characters through actions, dialogue, and metaphor. As Mary Chan states, “space itself produces meaning. Henri Lefebvre notes that space is active, that it can act upon unaware subjects…and though both films and novels are heavily mediated forms, their visibility on screen grants filmic spaces an immediacy that descriptive spaces in novels lack” (Chan). Comics provide this advantage in narrative and descriptive immediacy.
In Marvel’s graphic novel version of Pride and Prejudice, written by Nancy Butler and inked by Hugo Petrus, we see an opening of opportunity to depict characters’ natures and personalities as well as other details of the story through the use of visuals. Pride and Prejudice is a particularly apt selection to discuss the possibilities these two genres and text technologies provide because of the issues Austen’s work has with visual depiction, which rather acutely points out limitations—limitations that perhaps apply more to Austen than to other authors—of the book as a text technology. Austen must use her writing in different ways, usually through one of her character’s lens, in order to produce the desired effect on the reader, instead of making a direct connection between what is represented on the page and the reader. The graphic novel, being heavily reliant on visuals to depict a narrative, approaches the same characters and issues in a way that is unique to the comics form.
The comics form is an interesting medium and genre for the adaptation of a novel. As Walter Ong has said, of the ways of representing speech, the alphabet is “the most radical of all scripts,” and has had the largest consequences (Ong 77). Due to the proliferation of the written word and the increased use of the alphabet in order to tell a narrative, the eye becomes the primary organ used for interpretation of storytelling and language, and the voice-ear becomes less significant (Jackson 10). The comics form takes this eye-dependent literacy and uses visuals in a narratively efficient and effective way in order to depict narrative. The visuals on the page are able to directly show the reader what is to be represented in the narrative, and combines an alphabetic storytelling literacy with a visual one.
Jackson writes, “Showing, on the most basic level, means making meaning visible to the eye. Telling means communicating in words (Jackson, 20, his italics). Comics both makes this distinction obvious, with the separation of visuals and text on the page, and at the same time intertwines them to a great degree in order to create meaning. Jackson goes on to say “drawing inferences is not the same as the experience of seeing the story with the eye” (20). Comics combines the two in order to make meaning. It is this very intertwining and the way the combination of text and visuals can use each other in order to play with temporality, spatiality, description, character, setting, etc. that makes comics such a unique form to transform a primarily alphabetic story.
In a Benjaminian sense, the comics form is even better suited for the adaptation of an alphabetic story than other mediums such as film or photography, especially one that is notably devoid of specific visual description such as Pride and Prejudice because the technology of printing drawn or painted visuals allows for the artist to more easily draw or paint something that is abstractly represented and essentially non-visual while still being able to mass-produce and distribute in much the same way books are (Benjamin). The comics form allows for text to take care of some things, such as dialogue, location, time, while the image takes care of others, like physical detail, visuals, objects, setting.
Character Representation Through Setting
To see the different ways that a comics artist might approach the same characters as Austen, let us look at the different ways in which certain characters’ homes are represented. In absence of using representative physical descriptions to portray her characters, Austen employs using the characters’ residences to symbolize their character. Each residence is symbolic of its resident, displaying “a complex of social, economic, and intellectual realities” of that character (McCann 88). From McCann’s essay “Setting and Character in Pride and Prejudice:
Thus, the pretentiousness of Rosings reveals Lady Catherine, as the nondescriptness of Netherfield does Bingley. To the extent that she employs the country house emblematically Jane Austen can characterize obliquely (88).
In lieu of actual physical descriptions of the homes, we usually get praise or description through the lens of one of Austen’s characters, as in Mr. Collins’s perception of Rosings:
But of all the views which his garden, or which the county, or the kingdom could boast, none were to be compared with the prospect of Rosings, afforded by an opening in the trees that bordered the park nearly opposite the front of his house. It was a handsome modern building, well situated on rising ground (154; II, v).
The comically exaggerated praise of Mr. Collins, attributing his view of Rosings to be the best of any view in all the kingdom, is typical of his character, which Austen routinely plays on as someone hopelessly devoted to Lady Catherine and hopelessly devoid of common sense. We are to take this praise, then, with a grain of salt, and perhaps, as is commonly viewed, as ironic in a sense, since Austen routinely deploys irony in order to make commentary on the nature of her characters and the “disparity between appearance and reality,” and in this case it is on the nature not only of the foolish Mr. Collins, (in Elizabeth’s, and thus, the reader’s eyes) but also of the pretentious Lady Catherine, generous and gracious benefactor of the wonderful Mr. Collins (Boles 12). If Mr. Collins’s view of Rosings is one of inequitable beauty, class and elegance, then we can expect the actual Rosings, and thus its resident as well, to have all the artifice of such.
What the comics version of Pride and Prejudice is able to do, in contrast, is much simpler in nature. In our first view of Rosings, we see an outside shot of the manor at night, a large dome on top, tall windows and archways, a winding staircase leading up to the front door and a soft light glowing from the windows, and the simple narrative box in the top left corner of the frame reading “Rosings.”
Elizabeth, Charlotte and Mr. Collins are minuscule in scale to the house as they are walking up the staircase. The image could be fitting for a scene in a horror film, and the image is very daunting and intimidating. Roanne Bell and Mark Sinclair, in their introduction to the “Single Panel” section in Pictures and Words, explain the single panel as a way of focusing on one singular point in time and using that one frame with an image in order to tell a larger story (Bell). They were, of course, talking about single-panel, full-page comics, but the idea still functions in certain panels for graphic novels. This frame certainly functions this way, as temporally the panel is a jump ahead in time to their arrival at Rosings, and since the surrounding frames are neither immediately before nor immediately after this frame (the next frame is inside the drawing room), it serves further to isolate this frame and focus on the imposing image of Rosings.
The very next frame is an inside look at the drawing room where the party is seated.
The entire room is filled with a soft red light coming from ornate gold candelabra, the residents of Rosings and Mr. Collins are seated in a tight circle on straight-back leather chairs. There is a piano in the corner and there are two mirrors with ornate frames on the back wall. The overall feeling of the room is that of stuffiness and snobbishness, which is likewise reflected in the stiff posture of Lady Catherine herself.
It is fitting that these two images, shown in quick succession on the same page, are our first clear images of Lady Catherine and Rosings (the previous one a rather nondescript image of Lady Catherine in a coach outside Mr. Collins’s cottage on the facing page). In fact, it is in keeping with Austen’s use of people’s estates as emblems of their characters that Rosings is shown before we get a clear view of Lady Catherine’s face. These two images serve to provide the reader with a good sense of Lady Catherine’s character through visual representation in a similar way Mr. Collins’s bumbling praise of Rosings does in the novel.
Up until the time when Elizabeth sees the grandeur of Pemberley for herself, we get only vague allusions to it, such as Wickham’s memories of the house and Mrs. Gardiner’s. The praises for Pemberley are given in contrast to these characters’ opinions of Darcy’s seemingly incorrigible character, which is in keeping with Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy thus far.
But, as soon as Elizabeth begins to approach Pemberley, “her spirits [are] in a high flutter” (235; III, i). The descriptions of Pemberley that follow suggest that it is a grand and admirable place, as is fitting with Elizabeth’s unexpected reaction despite approaching “with some perturbation” (235; III, i). However, the descriptions are actually quite vague. Austen provides these descriptors:
the park was very large…a beautiful wood, stretching over a wide extent…a considerable eminence…It was a large, handsome, stone building” (235; III, i).
It seems that Austen is struggling to purvey the grandeur of Pemberley using only her “little bit of ivory.” What is important for the reader to know is that Elizabeth is impressed. Since this is seen all through Elizabeth’s eyes, we glean the important information from Elizabeth’s first impressions of Pemberley; that is, that Elizabeth finds it breathtaking. This is Austen’s way of conveying the information about Pemberley that is crucial to the narrative and to determining Darcy’s character. We connect our view of Pemberley to Elizabeth’s, and though we can’t picture what she is seeing, we understand that it is impressive.
As McCann remarks, “if we are to follow the logic of the novel we must see Darcy’s setting before we truly see him” (McCann, 95). And indeed, when Elizabeth sees Darcy’s setting, she does not find it overly pretentious or callous. She notices:
A stream of natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by awkward taste (235; III, i, my italics).
It seems now that we are seeing the first true representation of Darcy’s character. Upon seeing Pemberley, we finally see former impressions of him disputed. Whereas previously Darcy had seemed all pretention and artifice, his manor shows him to be a man of exquisite taste and elegance, without being “falsely adorned,” or having “any artificial appearance.”
In the comics version, our first view of Pemberley coincides with Elizabeth’s. We get a similar long-distance view of the grounds and the manor, just as with Rosings.
Elizabeth and the Gardiners are approaching across the front lawn, with tall hedges and reflecting ponds on either side, and two fountains and a wide reflecting pond in front of them. The house itself is large, with tall columns in front and stately statues crowning the front arch. The whole of the lawn is a vivid green, and it is a bright, cloudless day, emphasizing the naturalness of the site, though perhaps not as natural as the winding road and rolling hills as in Austen’s brief account. There is a thought bubble coming from Elizabeth’s tiny character saying “What a remarkable house. To be mistress of such a place might be something indeed,” a similar sentiment to the one expressed in the novel version. What really sets the mood of this image is its contrast to the image of Rosings. Rosings was earlier depicted as dark, imposing, coldly austere, whereas the long green lawn and fountains of Pemberley in clear daylight seems elegant, beautiful, but at the same time inviting.
The other contrast of these two frames is in Elizabeth’s thoughts. Her only thought in her approach to Rosings is “Lady Catherine…” further emphasizing the imposing nature of the estate and Elizabeth’s apprehension at meeting its mistress. In her approach of Pemberley, Elizabeth’s thought is that of being mistress herself. The combination of the relatively warmer and more inviting image of Pemberley as compared to that of Rosings and Elizabeth’s own first impressions suggests that perhaps the master is quite the same as his manor. We see in Elizabeth’s visit to Rosings in the novel as well as the comics version that Elizabeth’s first impressions, apprehensions and the earlier representations of Rosings were in keeping with the reality of its mistress. At this point we can reasonably assume that this pattern holds true for Darcy as well, and that perhaps his character is not what we once thought it was.
In the novel, as Elizabeth tours the house, she finds that:
The rooms [are] lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings (236; III, i, my italics).
The interior of Pemberley, like its exterior, shows Pemberley to possess the genuine qualities that Rosings and its mistress purport to possess. Here is real high class, elegance and importance, without being “uselessly fine.” Pemberley does not try hard to impress upon its visitors qualities that it or its master do not possess.
The interior of Pemberley in the comics version gives much the same impression as the outdoor scene. Again we are given a long distance shot above the characters, emphasizing the scale and grandeur of Pemberley as opposed to the close stuffiness of Rosings’ interior, and clean white walls and statuary with elegant red carpeting.
In a Marxian sense, the actual visual representations of Pemberley in the comics version allow for a fetishization of Pemberley to translate into Darcy’s status, character, and personality in a way that we cannot do with an alphabetic narration as in the novel. Collecting all of the manor as well as the possessions inside in frames of a comic creates a visual representation of Darcy’s character through our fetishization of what we see in the picture, something that would take much more explaining, through Elizabeth’s eyes, in order to achieve in the novel.
With the visual technology that the graphic novel is capable of, we do not even need to view it through Elizabeth’s eyes; we can use our own. When we see Pemberley and its interior represented on the page for us, our relationship to Pemberley becomes a physical one, as we are seeing a direct representation of it on the page, and this is what allows the comics version to have an immediacy with the reader that, when reading the novel, takes a bit more insight from the reader into the way Austen is using homes and possessions as symbols for her characters.
Of course, in comics, because they are drawn from abstraction and not dependent on a physical source to represent, the artist can choose which visuals to represent and which ones to leave out in order to make a point. After all the visuals of Pemberley and its lavish interior, in the frame of the graphic novel when Elizabeth and Darcy finally come face to face outside, Pemberley’s landscape surrounding them is visually stripped away, leaving only a halo of white surrounding the characters and a bit of blue and green backdrop as an abstract representation of ground and sky.
This visually strips away the commodities, the fetishization of Pemberley, and leaves only Elizabeth and Darcy, emphasizing a real connection between the two, devoid of Pemberley’s grandeur and Elizabeth’s thoughts of perhaps one day being mistress of the manor.
The frame forces the reader to focus on Elizabeth and Darcy alone in a scene where they are not alone but in the company of the Gardiners and it focuses on their two figures next to each other, connected only as two human beings in a scene where they are actually surrounded by all the reminders of Darcy’s wealth and importance. It is in this single frame that all of Elizabeth’s admiration for the grounds, for the material possessions and for Pemberley as a whole are transferred onto Darcy as a person and Elizabeth, helped into her carriage by Darcy in a frame on the opposite page, is smiling widely, as is emphasized by an inlaid frame in close-up of her beaming face.
Narrative and Temporality
These two narrative forms also have different ways of using temporality in their narrative. The scene in Chapter vii of Volume I wherein Jane goes on horseback in the rain and catches a cold is very important in setting up interactions between Jane and Bingley, Elizabeth and Bingley, and Elizabeth and Darcy. Although the scene itself is not of particular importance, the interactions it makes possible are necessary to the development of these different relationships in the story, at the forefront of which is that between Elizabeth and Darcy. If Jane does not get sick in the rain, Elizabeth has no reason to visit Bingley while Darcy is visiting.
Austen chooses to suggest rather than portray the scene by using a letter that is sent to the Bennet household, which is read by Elizabeth at the breakfast table:
“My dearest Lizzy,
I FIND myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning home till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and excepting a sore-throat and head-ache there is not much the matter with me” (32; I, vii).
Austen here uses the play with temporality which her medium affords to her in order to relate to the reader a necessary detail without shifting narrative perspective from Elizabeth to Jane. The letter functions to suggest rather than depict the scene without wasting much time or shifting perspective.
The comics version likewise employs a technique in order to not waste much narrative time or change perspective, only through visuals. The graphic novel depicts all necessary information in two frames (one of them inlaid with the other) that takes up only about one third of one page. In the main frame, we see Jane riding on horseback through a torrential downpour, hood so far up her head that we cannot see her eyes, and her cloak trailing behind her, suggesting that she is in quite a hurry to get to her destination and out of the rain. The ground beneath her is muddy and water is splashing around the horse’s hooves. There are many lines of falling rain that reach all the way from the top of the frame to the bottom, suggesting that the rain is coming down quite hard. All of the environment surrounding Jane is grey and dreary and in bright yellow, jagged lettering is “KRAKKKA BOOOM.” All of this immediately portrays through a combination of visuals and text that Jane is caught in a rather serious rainstorm. In the inlaid frame, we see Jane arriving at Netherfield. The horse’s mane is laid flat from the rain, Jane’s head is hung slightly, and everything is still grey, with the rain falling just as heavily, with a light halo of splashing rain surrounding Jane’s figure atop her horse. A text bubble is coming from Jane that reads “:sniff:.” The next frame depicts the family at breakfast learning that she must stay at Netherfield. The frames that depict Jane’s ride through the rain at nighttime depict all the information that the letter does in the novel, and accomplishes the same feats of keeping the narrative’s pace going and not shifting the perspective too far away from Elizabeth. After all, Jane’s plight is only important to the narrative insofar as it brings Elizabeth to Netherfield.
In these frames, we see the use of the comics form’s ability to use sequential static images in order to form a dynamic story. The “KRAKKKA BOOOM,” written in a very graphic way, forming the rough shape of a lightning bolt, creates, in cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer’s terms, a “visage de synthése.” The visage de synthése refers to an interdependence between image and text, and the krakkka booom combines with the context of Jane riding through the rain to tell us what is happening, just as the next image of her arriving at Netherfield and the sniff coming from her tell us that she has apparently caught a cold (Bettley 124). Without the interplay of the text and visuals, the storm is less intense and Jane is arriving in perfect health. Through creating this interplay, the comics version relates all the information that the letter in the novel does in two images.
All of this textual and visual representation is possible due to the comic’s unique treatment of time:
The most noteworthy aspect of the comic may be its idiosyncratic treatment of time: One frame in any comic can include sounds, smells, and dialogue, as well as several consecutive actions. This means that the frames of a comic have an even more complex temporal nature than ordinary pictures, quite simply because several events are depicted, all of which take time and not all of which happen simultaneously (Berning, Ecke and Haberkorn 2).
We see all this at play, particularly through the technique of inlaying the frame where Jane arrives at Netherfield. The comic plays with the very temporality of the narrative, whereas Austen chose to represent a past even while keeping a regular temporal sequence in the narrative.
Without either one of these images, the necessary story is not told and we lose all meaning. As Scott McCloud explains, “the heart of comics lies in the space between the panels, where the reader’s imagination makes still pictures come alive” (McCloud, 1). The separation of the images through the use of the inlaid frame allows these two otherwise separate images to tell a story between one and the next. In this way, the comic is able to tell the same story that the letter to Elizabeth does in the novel.
It is through the comic’s unique use of temporality that we are able to understand these two images as connected in time, one directly following the other, with the action and the story occupying that space in between the two frames. In comics, “the picture exists in a magical world in which time is not a line but a complex loop…Thus, pictures are not simply frozen evens, but rather complex circumstances” (Berninger, Ecke, Haberkorn 2). The way the text and visuals interplay with each other on the page allows us to understand it as a moving narrative without actually telling us outright that one occurs very soon after the other. The way comics are able to lay out visuals allow us to see the moving of the narrative.
This provides a great example of the nature of telling in the novel versus that of the comic. The novel is essentially dependent on telling, through the lens of the narrator. The narrator must tell us everything that happens in the narrative because we cannot see it for ourselves due to the nature of alphabetic print on the page (Jackson 41). The letter is a clever device in that Austen does not need to tell us “Jane rode through the rain, etc.” She is able to tell us what has happened with Jane without shifting her focus from Elizabeth.
Jane Austen may only have worked with “a little bit of ivory,” but she was able to use different techniques that are quite specific to alphabetic storytelling and to the novel form specifically in order to communicate to the reader the necessary emotion, symbolic representation, or sequence of actions despite her struggle over the physical and temporal restrictions that working with an alphabetic language and the technology of print present. Butler and Petrus, in their graphic novel adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, approach the same issues that Austen did in the telling of her narrative, but use the advantages that the visually-based technology of the comics form provides in order to overcome those issues in narrative. It is through the comic’s unique combination of text and visuals that allows Butler and Petrus to adapt well to a primarily alphabetic narrative form while utilizing visuals to represent what is a rather non-visual narrative.
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