Close Reading Christmas Comedy

Mr. Fezziwig's Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of  Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/carol/1.html

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/carol/1.html

One of my Digital Humanities classes is working on a digital archive of A Christmas Carol. In addition to encoding and annotating each stave, they will be creating introductions to the text, to John Leech’s illustrations, and to a few key early 20th-century adaptations (from the first film version (1901), to Edison’s adaptation (1910/1911), and Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore’s radio play (1939) to a TV version narrated by Vincent Price (1949). I will spare you the rationale for these particular choices (“why no Victorian theatre adaptations?” you ask, to which I say “is there no copyright? Are there no license fees?”) and will zip right along).

I have given many Victorian Studies lectures in Digital Humanities classes. I am a Victorianist by training and passion, and while Digital Humanities classes tend to focus on digital methods and building as a methodology, they rely on a deeply humanist engagement with the material and cultural past. In short, the humanities part of Digital Humanities mandates that DH projects, while D, must be about and through H. This time ‘round, I decided to give the students a contextual lecture about class, the workhouse, and early Victorian childhood, with a little excursus on early-Victorian Christmas traditions (or lack of them—Cratchit and his daughter Martha only get to pick their employers’ pockets, as Scrooge put it, on the 25th of December and not on the day before or after, as they might have 100 years on). Not all my students have a background in Victorian literature and culture, or even in English, but the child Dickens, Tiny Tim, and indeed, even junior Scrooge make for very sympathetic lecture material, so all went well. Continue reading

New media’s ghosts: an experiment in composite photography

The Victorian-era mansion Hill House, from Robert Wise's classic film The Haunting (1963; avoid the remake)

The Victorian-era mansion Hill House, from the classic 1963 film The Haunting (avoid the 1999 remake)

The modern form of Hallowe’en isn’t particularly Victorian in its origins (unlike Christmas and Valentines Day), but there’s something very 19th-century about it nonetheless. Any holiday that celebrates ghosts is one that calls attention to the past’s uncanny tendency to manifest itself in the present, like the unquiet dead. Hallowe’en’s aesthetics are thoroughly Victorian, gothic, and pseudo-medieval, drawing our attention backward in time. It’s at this time of year that I’m most reminded how much of our present world, especially architecture and infrastructure, is composed of layers sitting atop what was laid down in the 19th century. For example, my neighbourhood in Toronto has several infamous leaning houses (scroll down at the link), whose foundations are sinking due to a buried creek beneath them, the result of a badly implemented infrastructure project begun in the late 19th century. At Hallowe’en, however, these crooked houses look just right. They’re a reminder that the past has unfinished business with the present, and Hallowe’en is its appointed reckoning day.

In that spirit, I thought I’d write a  ghost-themed post about a curious photographic artifact that I recently encountered in my research, in which layers of past images coalesce into a strange apparition. In 1885, one Walter Rogers Furness (the son of Shakespeare Variorum editor Horace Howard Furness) undertook an experiment to reveal Shakespeare’s true face from among the various surviving portraits and sculptures, as well as Shakespeare’s death mask. Furness attempted to do this by taking semi-transparent photographs of all these images of Shakespeare’s face, and then layering them over each other in different combinations to produce a composite. That composite, so the theory went, would reveal the true face behind the representations, channeling the long-dead subject like some photographic Ouija board (another 19th-century new medium, so to speak).

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The Things We Do to Books

Review of Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton University Press, 2012; 350 pp.)

Two of my favorite marginalia examples from my local rare book library show annotators doing unexpected things with books, both very much in the spirit of Leah Price’s innovative approach to the topic. In one example (below), an English translation of a French drawing manual, published in 1777, an unknown annotator has drawn a musical staff with a melody and numbers representing intervals in a D-major scale.

image of music marginalia

Musical marginalia in a copy of Gerrard de Lairesse, The Principles of Design for the Curious Young Gentlemen and Ladies (London, 1777). Image courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, call no. B-13 03651.

image of manuscript diary in margins of printed book

Entries from Samuel Maude’s diary, written in the margins of Samuel Johnson, The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1747). Image courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, call no. E-10 01333.

In the other example (right), one Samuel Maude apparently decided in the summer of 1792 to keep a diary in the margins of a 1747 copy of Samuel Johnson’s Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language. You can see how Maude used his limited writing space economically, winding his entries around pages and leaping over gutters like a hurried graduate signing a high school yearbook. Yet the experience of reading Maude’s diary all the way through is surprisingly natural, provided you doesn’t get distracted by Johnson’s text, and are willing to keep rotating the book as you turn the leaves.

H.J. Jackson has described the marginalia of annotating readers as a “contested goldmine” for scholars looking for evidence of reading environments and readers’ experiences of texts—”contested” because marginalia aren’t always the windows into readers’ minds they might appear to be.[1] What I like about these two marginalia examples is that neither annotator seems interested in the printed texts of the books. Rather, they used these books for their basic material qualities as ready-to-hand writing surfaces. The musical annotator clearly found an aptly shaped blank page in the writing manual, whose oblong octavo format suits musical notation, just as it suited the book’s content when printed in 1777. The diarist Samuel Maude’s thinking, by contrast, is less easy to reconstruct. Instead of purchasing one of the numerous ruled blank-books that made up a good chunk of the book trade in the eighteenth century, he selected a thin printed book that was already 45 years old, and contorted his entries into limited space, while sometimes leaving other margins unfilled. Studies of marginalia almost always focus on notes that comment upon the texts at hand, as evidence of reading, but Leah Price calls us to think about unreaderly uses for books, like Maud’s, and their implications for cultural history and reception studies. Continue reading

In Defence of Smaller Conferences: VSAWC 2015 in Kelowna BC, Canada.

I’ve attended the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada’s annual conference countless times since I was a Masters student at the University of Victoria fifteen years ago (that number is disgusting to look at, but it’s true). Something about the smaller size of the conference and its intellectually generous and supportive participants always brings me back. Now, the CFP is available for VSAWC’s 2015 conference on the topic of “Victorian Bodies,” and I think anyone who reads this should seriously consider submitting a proposal and attending the conference. Here’s why: Continue reading

Digitizing Women Writers: Part Two

Mary Russell Mitford by John Lucas, after Benjamin Robert Haydon.  Image Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery.

Mary Russell Mitford by John Lucas, after Benjamin Robert Haydon. Image Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery.

Last fall, I posted about two projects that take different approaches to digitizing women’s writing:  one on Charlotte Yonge, and one on Oliver Schreiner.  This spring, I was lucky to participate as an editor in the second annual meeting of the Digital Mitford Project.

Around 15 of us gathered on the beautiful University of Pittsburg at Greensburg campus in the first week of June to talk about digitizing the literature and letters of popular nineteenth-century woman writer, Mary Russell Mitford.  Led by Elisa Beshero-Bondar, the project is currently in a testbed phase to digitize the works of Mitford from 1821 to 1826, a fruitful period for Mitford, who wrote several plays and innumerable letters during this time.  Continue reading

On Forgotten Paragraphs

We’ve stalled on The Floating Academy of late, for a variety of reasons. But there’s still life in this floating collective, so I’m hoping to resurrect the not-yet-dead a little bit. I thus offer to readers the following paragraph, which I hope will be the first of an ongoing series of excised, deleted, or forgotten paragraphs from scholars in Victorian studies. Without giving away too much context, I should say that this was an almost-deleted paragraph from the introduction of a book project on Victorian narratives of stuttering and speech disfluency that I’ve been working slowly on for a few years now. We all have such forgotten words that don’t fit or no longer seem to make sense. If you’re a Victorian scholar and you have similar paragraphs somewhere in a lonely file on your desktop, please feel free to send them my way and I’ll see if we can revitalize them a little bit in the near future. Here’s my forgotten paragraph:

While sifting through vast amounts of material, and often lacking a narrative to unite the archaeological messiness of stuttering research from the 18th to the 21st centuries, I came to one fundamental conclusion (of course, one that not-coincidentally corresponds with my literary training in nineteenth-century British literature): the Victorians were intensely preoccupied with the psycho-physiological phenomenology of the stutterer in ways that current popular discourse is not. More particularly, Victorian medical, elocutionary, and literary knowledge of stuttered speech introduced an “incitement to discourse” (to use Foucault’s words) that would make the stutterer speak, and be spoken about, and would ensure that the stutterer confess his most melancholic, traumatic, and private sufferings, even while maintaining a sensitivity to the stutterer’s melancholic, inward-turning, and lonely disposition. My research project thus introduces a cultural criticism of stuttering that resists the self-help bias of much current thinking about stuttering as a speech disorder.

Digitizing Nineteenth-Century Women: All or Nothing?

Olive Schreiner, National Portrait Gallery (NPG x128457)

Olive Schreiner, National Portrait Gallery (NPG x128457)

Over the past couple of years, my attention has been caught by new projects that digitize the letters of Victorian women writers.   I’d like to share two of them here, The Olive Schreiner Letters Project and the Letters of Charlotte Mary Yonge.  To me, these projects fulfill the best promises of the digital humanities, to make texts by marginalized writers freely and widely available.

The Olive Schreiner Letters project makes almost 5000 letters of the feminist and socialist writer, best known for the novel, The Story of an African Farm, freely available online.  The letters, held in 16 archives across three continents, have been transcribed, double-checked, and marked up in TEI.  The editors describe their impressive workflow here. (For more on the technical aspects of editing a digital edition of letters, see Miriam Posner’s helpful blog post, How Did they Make That?). Similarly, Charlotte Mitchell, Ellen Jordan, and Helen Schinske have collaborated to offer for the first time the unpublished letters of Charlotte Mary Yonge, carefully transcribed and double-checked, as an antidote to the partial information we have had about this popular mid-Victorian woman writer.  I wish this archive had been available a few years ago while I was writing a chapter on Yonge, and can only say that it has already proven helpful to me in contextualizing women’s writing in the mid-nineteenth century marketplace.

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