For Books’ Sake Talks To: Mary Talbot

21st Feb 2012


The beautiful graphic novel parallels Mary’s childhood as the daughter of the Joycean scholar, James Atherton, with the story of Lucia, Joyce’s own daughter.

The double bildungsroman then sails effortlessly between Talbot’s memories, in a sepia tint, and her research, awash with hazy blue illustrations, to narrate the tales of two young women and their ‘cold mad feary’ fathers.

FBS: You have written several academic works on language and gender. How do you think the combination of words and pictures in graphic novels interacts with masculine and feminine linguistics?

The study in gender and language can be enriched by a combination of words and pictures. I’ve always tried to add interest to lectures by incorporating visual elements as appropriate, for example.

As a matter of fact, I’ve recently written a chapter on ‘Language, gender and popular culture’ that includes a section on critical engagements with gender issues in cartoons and graphic novels. It’s for a second edition of the Handbook of Language and Gender.

FBS: The multi-panelled page means that the graphic novel is far less linear than a traditional novel. Do you think the anticipation of illustration adds a spatial dimension to your script?

I enjoyed writing with the additional visual dimension in mind. It felt quite liberating, actually.

FBS: Do you think there is an element of reading stolen from the mind’s eye when graphics are visualised rather than imagined?

Passages of textual description replaced by beautiful illustration is hardly a loss. If I’d wanted to write a novel I’d have done so. The result would have been completely different.

FBS: Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes is particularly interesting in terms of language and gender for the added dimensions of a marital collaboration. Do you think your ‘N.B’ interjections are an attempt to reassert your own language and correct Bryan’s drawings?

Yes of course. I was contesting his interpretations of the script. We made a joke of it, adding a level of meta-commentary that highlights the marital collaboration rather well, I think.

FBS: At one point you remark that ‘I had the wrong cultural and linguistic capital for the playground’, and that you existed in the ‘Twilight zone’, when you were scolded for the playground language that seeped into the family home. Do you think Lucia Joyce struggled with a comparable linguistic ‘Twilight zone’?

I imagine so, though she was operating in a multilingual environment. On page 38, I mention a rude remark by a family friend in Paris about her being ‘illiterate in four languages’. Can you imagine? Her first two languages were Italian and English, then she went into High and Low German at school, then they moved to Paris. No wonder she struggled with spelling!

FBS: Your father’s Latin joke, whose punch line excludes women without a classical education, is a perfect illustration of gender-specific linguistic barriers. Do you think similarly exclusive language still has currency today?

Far less clear cut these days. Wherever there’s a traditionally male enclave, however, there’ll be some kind of linguistic hurdle around it. Take the House of Commons. It was an upper-class all-male club for 600 or so years.

Apparently women MPs have great difficulty with the peculiarities of ‘parliamentary language’ used in it (many men too, I believe). It’s a gendered and classed kind of behaviour that’s hard to acquire.

FBS: Finally, is the graphic novel world a gender-specific culture?

The broader comics culture certainly has been very masculine. Things are slowly changing, though. I think the rise of the graphic novel format has a lot to do with it.

There’s a much wider range of genres available now (including so-called ‘non-genre’). That attracts a much more varied readership, which in turn encourages someone like me to join in.

For more from Talbot, try Language and Gender, or Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, released in hardback today. Mary is currently working on the script for a historical graphic novel set in Edwardian England.

Eve Lacey