Waiyee Loh is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. She is also an Early Career Fellow at Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study. Her PhD thesis examined representations of Victorian Britain in contemporary British historical fiction and Japanese girls’ comics (shōjo manga). Her work on Japanese neo-Victorian manga has appeared in Mechademia and the Journal of Postcolonial Writing. She is currently working on a new project on popular culture in East Asia and the formation of transnational communities.
At the recent BAVS 2016 annual conference, I attended a workshop on nineteeth-century practices of illustration held in the Special Collections and Archives room in the Cardiff University library. With the help of richly illustrated books and newspapers from Cardiff’s archives, Professor Julia Thomas and archivist Alison Harvey outlined the development of illustration printing technology in Britain in the nineteenth century. We traced the history of image reproduction from rough woodblock prints on “broadside ballads” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to copper etchings in expensive illustrated books, and then to the game-changing invention of wood engraving techniques during the Victorian period.
The workshop made me think, now that photos have replaced pictures in newspapers and illustrations are often reproduced digitally, have nineteenth-century practices of illustration become a thing of the past? Far from being of interest only to historians and archivists, Victorian illustration lives on in the form of a distant cousin: Japanese girls’ comics (shōjo manga).Set in Britain in the 1870s, Lady Victorian [Redii Vikutorian] (1999-2007) by Moto Naoko makes the Victorian periodical press, and especially Victorian illustration, a central focus of narrative interest. The story of Lady Victorian revolves around the life of a governess called Bell and her avid consumption of a fictional nineteenth-century women’s magazine called the Lady’s Magazine. However, the manga’s references to the history of the periodical press in the nineteeth century is more than period detail. Lady Victorian draws a genealogy that connects earlier British practices of illustration – earlier, in fact, than the 1870s, the period in which the manga is set – with the present-day medium of Japanese shōjo manga. In doing so, Lady Victorian positions shōjo manga as a medium that translates “high culture” into an accessible form for the “edification” of its popular audience. Lady Victorian encourages the reader to see the Lady’s Magazine, the magazine that the protagonist Bell reads regularly, as a metaphor for shōjo manga. It does so by drawing parallels between the magazine and the manga itself. Both the Lady’s Magazine and Lady Victorian are targeted at women readers, and feature stories about romantic love in serialised form. The Lady’s Magazine features romance novels written in a serialised format. Lady Victorian was similarly published in instalments first in the manga magazine Princess, and then as tankōbon (“single-story”) volumes. Lady Victorian also often deliberately blurs the distinctions between the fictional world of the romance stories serialised in the Lady’s Magazine and the “real” world that its characters inhabit. By doing so, the manga reminds the (implied female) reader that “reality” in Lady Victorian is a fictional construct as well. This makes the (implied female) reader conscious that Bell’s reading of the Lady’s Magazine mirrors her reading of the shōjo manga, Lady Victorian.
At the end of the series, Lady Victorian makes the parallels between the Lady’s Magazine and the genre of shōjo manga overt. After Bell’s fiancé Noel is forced to forfeit his publishing rights to the Lady’s Magazine, he decides to publish a new magazine catered specifically to the desires of shōjo (“adolescent girls”). Noel’s decision to move on from publishing a generic women’s magazine to an age-specific girls’ magazine allegorises the historical development of shōjo manga, which evolved partly out of prewar shōjo magazines. The title of Noel’s new magazine, the Girls’ Dream, in fact resembles that of the well-known shōjo manga magazine, Hana to yume [Flowers and Dreams]. By drawing these various parallels, Lady Victorian encourages the reader to see the story it tells about nineteeth-century British women’s magazines as a story about Japanese shōjo manga.
Lady Victorian suggests that shōjo manga are consumed by a wide range of readers because the genre is able to bridge the gap between female readers of different social status. Shōjo manga, Lady Victorian implies, performs this democratising function by mediating between high art and popular culture. The Lady’s Magazine/shōjo manga in Lady Victorian has popular appeal because it translates the elite Western cultural capital associated with Western art forms into a form that is accessible to the majority of (Japanese) consumers.
In the Victorian narrative world of the manga, the Lady’s Magazine narrows the divide between aristocratic ladies and middle-class women by teaching the latter how to behave like the former. Bell recommends the Lady’s Magazine to a fellow governess as “having good taste” (sensu ga ii), thus highlighting the magazine’s role in passing on what Pierre Bourdieu calls “aristocratic taste” (Distinction 3, 42) to middle-class female readers. For example, the lower-middle-class Bell refers to the Lady’s Magazine for beauty advice on how to achieve fair skin like that of her idol Lady Ethel. Bell’s enthusiastic reading of the fashion pages in the Lady’s Magazine also enables her to give her opinion on which hat suits Lady Ethel best in Whiteley’s, even though she has no experience in shopping for luxury goods. The manga implies that, by reading the Lady’s Magazine, and by extension, shōjo manga, ordinary girls like Bell can learn how to appreciate Western-style luxury goods for their aesthetic qualities rather than their practical functions.Lady Victorian also suggests that the Lady’s Magazine and shōjo manga teach their (implied Japanese female) readers this aristocratic form of cultural knowledge through the aesthetics of their visual layout. Lady Victorian represents the Lady’s Magazine/shōjo manga as a form of popular culture whose visual style mediates between high art and popular culture. This mediation, the text suggests, enables the Lady’s Magazine/shōjo manga to translate the aesthetic sensibility that is characteristic of elite cultural capital into a form that is easy for ordinary readers to understand and internalise.
The visual style of the Lady’s Magazine follows a tradition of commercial art design first established by the engravings of William Blake, whose method of “illuminated printing” produced texts that were neither quite works of high art nor mass-produced commodities. It is also significant that within the narrative world of Lady Victorian, the publisher of the Lady’s Magazine, Noel, originally trained as a wood engraver. The illustrated title page of the novel Lady Bell, which is serialised in the Lady’s Magazine, shows the main character sitting sideways on a tree branch with a grassy field and a pavilion in the background. The image of the main character is framed by a rectangular arch composed of wooden branches, leaves, flowers, and vines. The title of the novel is written in English in an ornate, cursive font that resembles handwriting. Some of these motifs reappear in a coloured illustration on the back jacket cover of Vol. 14.The illustration shows Noel as a child sitting on a chair partially framed by a rectangular border that appears to be made out of rattan twine. The space between the two vertical bars of twine on the left side of the border is filled with assorted flowers and leaves set against a light blue background. Bell appears in the illustration in the form of a fairy sitting on top of the large pink rose in the middle of the left border.
The pastoral motifs, decorative borders, the organic integration of text and image, and the depiction of magical creatures inhabiting the same world as human figures are more in line with Blake’s visual iconography in Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) than with the pictures of grisly murders and bizarre occurrences that appeared in the Illustrated Police News and other tabloids. Significantly, the Illustrated Police News makes an appearance in Lady Victorian, where it stands for the vulgarity that Bell (and the reader) is supposed to discard in her quest to become a lady of taste.
The colouring in the back jacket cover shown above also closely resembles that of Blake’s illustrations in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The illustration was most probably done in Copic colour markers, which work on the same principles as watercolour paint. Manga artists who use Copic colour markers usually leave white spaces uncoloured, and apply layers of the same colour on top of the base layer to achieve darker shades and greater intensity of colour. Moto Naoko, the manga artist who drew Lady Victorian, seems to have avoided adding layers of colour, thereby allowing more of the white paper to show through the colour. This give the image a de-saturated tonal quality that looks very much like the light washes of watercolour that Blake sometimes uses in his “illuminated books.”
Blake printed the outlines of the text and drawings in his illuminated books, but finished details by hand with pen and watercolour (Bindman 10; Viscomi 55). He also published a very small number of each book he made, so he was “never . . . able to produce a sufficient number for a general Sale by means of a regular Publisher” (Blake, qtd. in Viscomi 60). Nonetheless, he was able to produce multiple copies to disseminate to a wider audience, and thereby make his reputation as an artist (Viscomi 60). By combining the technology of printing with the techniques of painting by hand, and by publishing a limited number of his works, Blake produced books that were neither quite mass-produced publications nor unique works of art (Bindman 7-8; Viscomi 60). By employing a Blakean aesthetic, Lady Victorian implies that shōjo manga, like Blake’s “illuminated books,” is an “aestheticised” popular cultural form that translates high art into an accessible medium for a popular audience.
List of Works Cited
Bindman, David. Introduction. William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books. By William Blake. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000. 7-11. Print.
Blake, William. The Lamb. 1789. Relief and white-line etching with hand coloring. British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, London. Morris Eaves, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi, eds. The William Blake Archive. Library of Congress, 1996. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. 1979. London: Routledge, 1984. Print.
Moto, Naoko. Lady Victorian [Redii Vikutorian]. 20 vols. Tokyo: Akita Shoten, 1999-2007. Print.
Viscomi, Joseph. “Illuminated Printing.” The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Ed. Morris Eaves. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 37-62. Print.