This review is reproduced here by kind permission the online inter-disciplinary journal Cercles, where it was first published. The original text has been reformatted, linked to other material on the Victorian Web, and illustrated by Jacqueline Banerjee. [All images other than the first are from this website, rather than the book under review. Click on the thumbnails for larger images and information about their sources and whether they can be reused.]

How old should Susan E. Cook’s readers be in order to share her nostalgia for a time when a darkroom was still needed to make photographic images appear? “At the center of the process stood the negative – that essential inversion that made the print possible” (137). While the presence of photography in Victorian literature has already inspired a considerable bibliography – Cook singles out Owen Clayton’s Literature and Photography in Transition, 1850-1915 (Palgrave, 2015), as methodologically close to her own work – the volume published in 2019 by SUNY Press focuses more specifically on the negative as a central characteristic of the most widely used photographic devices during the second half of the nineteenth century. An Associate Professor of English at the Southern New Hampshire University, Cook shows an in-depth knowledge of the material and intellectual aspects of photography in the Victorian age, which allows her to distinguish between various processes and genres, instead of taking the invention as a monolithic block. As opposed to the Daguerreotype, which could only deliver one original picture at a time, negative-based techniques made it possible to endlessly multiply the same image, once the reversal of light and darkness had been captured on a glass plate. Reproducibility and inversion were the two main features of negatives, hence a whole lot of ethical and aesthetic problems. Cook quite brilliantly explores the different meanings of the word “negative”, its photographic use being here examined in relation with its moral or even grammatical value. The writers she studies expressed “how negative technologies erode older ideals of representational truth as well as ideas of singularity and artistic control. They do this by featuring failed or troubled photographic reproduction within their works and challenging visual objectivity obliquely and metaphorically across their oeuvres” (xvi).

Charles Dickens, from a daguerreotype by Mayall, c. 1853.

Paradoxically enough, the first chapter of Victorian Negatives is devoted to the Daguerreotype, a negative-less technique, as said above, in relation with A Tale of Two Cities. Cook starts with a digression about celebrity culture as favoured by the development of photography: Dickens contributed to his own worldwide fame by posing repeatedly for professionals like John Edwin Mayall, but he also perceived as dangerous the exposure linked to the circulation of endlessly multiplicable photographs. Even if duplication is a central topic in A Tale of Two Cities, Cook finds in it what she calls a “Daguerrean sensibility” [15] notably because Dickens’s Anglo-French novel, which relies heavily on the opposition of light and darkness, provides the reader with the same experience as the bright surface of Daguerreotypes offered to viewers: “Dickens allows us to see the present in his vision of the past, just as we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirrored surface of a daguerreotype” (25).

"And they were married with the sun shining on them through the painted figure of Our Saviour on the window." Illustration by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) of the marriage scene at the end of Little Dorrit, 1857.

Another Dickensian chapter follows, associating Little Dorrit with solarization, a form of extreme overexposure which long remained an accidental blunder before it was taken up as a deliberate technique by such photographers as Man Ray. Just like solarized prints mix qualities of positive and negative images, “Dickens circumvents inversion through an implicit challenge to photographic objectivity more broadly” (28) in a novel where light is not “metaphorically stable,” as confirmed by Phiz’s illustrations.

"The King stared at him in amazement. “Irene’s photograph!” he cried. “Certainly, if you wish it.”

Both a devoted amateur photographer (he published a dozen articles in the British Journal of Photography and other periodicals in the 1880s) and, later, an ardent supporter of spirit photography – a great embarrassment to his admirers who believed him to be a rational mind – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle curiously makes little use of this technology in his Sherlock Holmes stories, or even undermines its power. A Scandal in Bohemia shows “the failure of visual evidence” [61], the compromising photograph of Irene Adler with the King representing “the threat of a woman – a woman who cannot be contained through vision alone – and the threat of celebrity through uncontrollable photographic reproduction. It also represents the threat of inversion by showing the inversion of gender roles and roles between detective and subject” since Holmes is eventually defeated by Adler disguised as a man (72).

A celebrated instance of a photo-hoax for which Doyle himself fell: Frances and the leaping fairy.

As a photographic process, double exposure enjoyed an ambiguous status too, since it could be either a trick used to create “spirit photographs” with supposedly otherworldly apparitions, or a blunder committed by clumsy photographers who superimposed two negatives one over another. Cook considers that it functioned just like a grammatical “double negative.” Linguistically, “two negatives emphasize the negation, . . . cancel each other out, or . . . produce an alternative that is not quite the same as a mere reversal of the negative idea expressed” (74), and the same is true for photography: two different negatives could be juxtaposed to strengthen the resulting positive (as in stereoscopic views); their combination could ruin the picture, resulting in an illegible image; and double exposure could also reveal interesting new scenes. Moving away from realistic literature, Cook applies this theory to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Hyde is not simply the negative of Jekyll, since he is pure evil, while the doctor is a more complex figure, having a knowledge of both good and evil; the superposition of the two characters does not produce a convincing whole. In Wilde’s Gothic story, neither is the portrait the mere negative of the young man who posed for it; there is no symmetry between the original and the reproduction, and it is not quite clear which is which. Even though they may appear as negatives of commonly received wisdom, Lord Henry’s aphorisms do not make a new positive appear. And just like Dorian could not control the reproduction of his physiognomy, Wilde himself was dispossessed of his image when New York photographer Napoleon Sarony asserted his rights over his “creation.”

A photograph of Oxford High Street standing in for the fictional "Christminster" in the frontispiece to Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure.

In his Wessex novels, Thomas Hardy suggests that photography is “an index of emotional attachment, but one that may easily be misinterpreted” (115). This applies in particular to Jude the Obscure, in which the different characters liberally distribute photographs as gifts to be later bartered away or destroyed. And Cook wonders about the lack of any postmortem photograph of Jude’s children: if this totally democratized means of memorizing the dear departed had been resorted to, as was quite common between the 1840s and 1880s, why should Sue need to uncover the faces of her freshly buried children in order to see them again? Hardy uses photography as a sign of absence, whose very absence becomes significant, just like the (photographic) frontispieces of the 1912 collected edition of his Wessex novels seem to show a reality which does not exist in fact, “fictions of verisimilitude – lies of presence” (123).

Cook concludes with a character who cannot be photographed: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Inversion and reproducibility already existed before 1839, but those qualities were highlighted by the invention of negative-based techniques, and her stimulating book invites the reader to take such effects into account. “Photography allows us to see that realism is an illusive / elusive whole constructed of the very things it purports not to be: contingency, interpretation, the subjective, and the fragmentary” (xxv).

Related Material


Cook, Susan E. Victorian Negatives: Literary Culture and the Dark Side of Photography in the Nineteenth Century. Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. SUNY Series. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2019. Hardcover. xxxiv + 184 pp., 16 ill. ISBN 978-1438475370. $95

Last modified 24 January 2021