‘Every stroke of the book will be from my pen’
: Aubrey Beardsley’s Reimagining of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur

  • Emily Kinder

Student thesis: Master's ThesisMaster of Philosophy (MPhil)

Abstract

This thesis re-examines Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (J. M. Dent, 1893-94) from a Malorian perspective, to demonstrate how Beardsley reimagines the medieval narrative for the fin-de-siècle. With the largest exhibition of Beardsley’s work since 1966 held at Tate Britain in 2020, it is timely to reconsider the Morte illustrations, which launched his career as an artist. Previous approaches to the Dent edition have typically been broad in scope and underestimated the reader’s role in the construction of meaning. By employing Gerard Genette’s theory of paratexts and approaches from Illustration Studies, this thesis constructs a model of the edition’s contemporary reader to argue that Beardsley’s illustrations parody and challenge key elements of the narrative, and thereby significantly shape the reader’s experience of Malory’s text.
Chapter 1 analyses Dent’s publishing practices and other contemporary editions of Malory to establish a model of the typical reader as a bibliophile or connoisseur who is not necessarily an expert in Malory. Using Malory’s chivalric ideal and depiction of knighthood as a lens through which to compare text and image, the subsequent chapters each address different types of illustration. Chapter 2 discusses Beardsley’s material paratexts and front matter, arguing that they enable him to claim artistic control over Malory’s text. Chapter 3 analyses the full-page illustrations, arguing that through them Beardsley creates an alternative narrative which parodies and subverts Malory’s chivalric ideal. Chapter 4 turns to Beardsley’s vignettes, analysing his non-Malorian figures to demonstrate the distinct ways in which he debunks the chivalric ideal and reiterates his authority and individual artistic vision. In sum, the thesis demonstrates that the Dent edition privileges image over text, allowing Beardsley’s aestheticized, Decadent reimagination of the medieval narrative to significantly shape the reader’s perception of Malory’s Morte.
Date of Award29 Jun 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorSamantha Matthews (Supervisor) & Leah Tether (Supervisor)

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