Replication in the Long Nineteenth Century: Re-makings and Reproductions (2018), ed. by Julie Codell and Linda K. Hughes

Sep 20, 2019 | Reviews

Emily Bell

When we think about replicas now, our perception is often clouded by a sense, explored in such detail in Walter Benjamin’s text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), that replicas are worse than their originals, somehow lacking in aura, regardless of how materially similar they might be. In this kind of cultural discourse, a replica is nothing but a knock-off and has nothing to offer in comparison to its original. However, Julie Codell and Linda K. Hughes’ wide-ranging selection of essays challenges that assumption – or, rather, resituates itself against a historical understanding of what replication means in a nineteenth-century context, where artists might make their own replicas for patrons, and scissors-and-paste journalism enshrined replication in the public consciousness.

This volume takes a wide-angle look at replication (used interchangeably in different chapters with terms including repetition, reproduction and reduplication), making it distinct from medieval and Renaissance copying through a narrower focus on the act of reproduction as an opportunity to re-evaluate and reshape. Nevertheless, it approaches the question in a transdisciplinary way that explores replication and networks, technology, authenticity and time in four sections, each of three or four chapters. In the first section, contributors consider the role of material reproduction in wider networks: Sally M. Foster’s chapter on copies of early-medieval archaeological material in Scotland takes a cultural-biographical approach through a series of case studies, while Codell’s chapter similarly charts the journey of autograph replicas (reproductions of paintings by the same artist, often with some variation) across the Atlantic. This convincingly argued chapter highlights the role of such replication for artists, dealers, collectors and museums, emphasising the cultural role played by the practice within this network as a reciprocal exchange, rather than a linear one. Chapter 5, “Portraying and Performing the Copy, c. 1900”, is also revealing in its discussion of the reciprocity inherent in the process, considering what replication might indicate about a network of individuals and the society of which they form a part, centring on a series of photographic tableaux vivants by William Merrit Chase. The analysis goes beyond the idea of photographs as reproductions of life in fascinating ways, exploring the many layers of replication these images represent.

Chapter 4 takes for its subject Ronald Ross, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, to argue for his ambivalent relationship with replication as method and ideology; this approach is mirrored in chapter 14, “The Origins of Replication in Science”, which, although grouped with chapters relating to time, presents a parallel to Emilie Taylor-Brown’s discussion, but here with a focus on Michael Faraday. Such threads can be found in several of the chapters, bringing the collection together in insightful ways across sections: chapter 9’s exploration of the marketing of patriotism in the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-48) forms a dialogue with Suzanne Daly’s chapter on the Paisley shawl and the conflicting responses to Scottish reproduction of a Kashmiri design, with the original and the copy holding contradictory and contested associations in the periodical press and in fiction. Hughes’ chapter in section 2, “Replication and Technology”, discusses Alfred Tennyson’s poem The Princess (1847) and provides an engaging account of the material history of mid-century editions of the text through an exploration of the interplay between layout and textual changes, while the chapters in section three are perhaps the most focused on literature, beginning with “Literary Replication and the Making of a Scientific ‘Fact’: Richard Owen’s Discovery of the Dinornis”, which demonstrates how Owen staked his claim to the discovery of the existence of the moa in New Zealand. This chapter considers the role of scissors-and-paste replication and its role in establishing ‘fact’ in the press and, together with chapter 11, gestures towards the negative possibilities of replication; Will Abberley analyses the inability to recognise reproduction in Grant Allen’s An African Millionaire (1897) in light of the author’s scientific views, particularly of mimicry in nature, and how Allen’s approach might reflect his feelings about capitalism. There is some striking literary analysis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) in chapter 12, “The Failure of Replication in Nineteenth-Century Literature: Why It All Just Comes Out Wrong”, which weaves the Turing Test into its argument, while James Mussell’s chapter “‘Seeking Nothing and Finding It’: Moving On and Staying Put in Mugby Junction” provides a multifaceted analysis of repetition in the serial that will also be of value to those more broadly interested in Dickens and periodical studies. Occasionally, the shift between tightly focused literary analysis and cultural-historical discussion of scientific development makes the threads holding the volume together harder to keep hold of, but ideas recur across the chapters in revealing ways. Literary scholars with an interest in Lewis Carroll or Charles Dickens will find these chapters can also stand alone, for those interested in the literary rather than the scientific or historical.

With central philosophical questions concerning the nature of the ‘original’, the boundaries of art, to what extent delineating a genre means a process of mapping replication and exactly what we might understand by the ‘original’ and the ‘copy’, Codell and Hughes have made a clear attempt to thematically unite the essays. It is a challenge to unify very different approaches that by necessity understand (and define) replication in different ways, and the range of topics and approaches shows the potential of further exploration into this topic, rather than being exhaustive. The afterword reflects, as several of the chapters do, on links between the nineteenth-century idea of replication and today, focusing primarily on the digital (e.g. digitised collections and artificial intelligence), pushing us to revisit our connections with the nineteenth century and our understanding of the role of the process. What is striking about this volume is its success in framing replication as a largely positive process, when it is so culturally associated with the creation of a hierarchically lesser object. As such, this is a thought-provoking read for Victorianists working in the field as well as students and those new to Victorian studies and makes a clear argument for re-evaluating how we stand in relation to the question of reproduction, both historically and in the present.