Bodily Sympathy, Imitation, and Victorian Literature

Disdain and disgust from Darwin's Expression of Emotions...

From Darwin’s Expression of Emotions… From: Wellcome Library, London.

Sympathy is perhaps the most frequently discussed emotion among scholars working in Victorian literature and culture. Many have argued how important notions of sympathy and later empathy were to the development of nineteenth-century subjects and the novel as a genre. Most of these critics understand sympathy as cognitive, or as a kind of mental feeling. In Scenes of Sympathy, for instance, Audrey Jaffe draws from Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments when she explains that “sympathy ‘does away’ with bodies in order to produce representations, replacing persons with mental pictures, generalized images of ease and of suffering” (11). Yet for many Victorian thinkers, sympathy did not ‘do away’ with the body. In fact, in Victorian scientific and philosophical writing, as well as in much literature of the period, sympathy was often understood as an affective response that was deeply physiological and embodied. Henry George Atkinson, writing to Harriet Martineau in their collaborative text Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development in 1851 called sympathies between individuals, “the influences of one organized body upon another” (117-18). If scholars working on nineteenth-century literature have been so invested in notions of sympathy as a cognitive and ultimately ethical response to reading, how might we read literary texts alongside a more embodied and potentially more ambiguous understanding of sympathy?

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Teaching the Yellow Nineties Online

Screenshot shows the homepage of the Yellow Nineties Online.

Screenshot of the Yellow Nineties Online.

A couple of years ago, Connie introduced us to The Yellow Nineties Online, a project edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra and Dennis Denisoff at Ryerson University dedicated to producing a TEI-edition of late Victorian periodicals including not only the Yellow Book but also periodicals like the Evergreen and the Pagan Review. Since that post, I’ve used The Yellow Nineties Online in two of my courses this past winter term (we don’t even pretend to call it a spring term here in Calgary!), and I thought it would be a good follow-up to blog about my experiences in the classroom here.

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Victorian Bodies and Disability’s Centrality to Victorian Scholarship

* The following is a guest post by Kylee-Anne Hingston, who recently defended her dissertation on disability and narrative form at the University of Victoria *

In a 2006 article in Victorian Literature and Culture, Julia Miele Rodas lamented that, at that time, “disability [was] still generally regarded as an isolated concern, of literary or cultural significance only insofar as it may serve as a convention or an icon of affect” (378). The article, “Mainstreaming Disability Studies?,” reviewed two seminal works in Victorian disability studies (Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction and David Wright’s Mental Disability in Victorian England) and provided an overview of disability studies in the humanities for the journal’s readers. More importantly, however, it encouraged scholars to acknowledge disability’s centrality to Victorian studies and the humanities.

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Stuttering in Victorian Studies

I’ve been working on a book project about Victorian representations and narratives of speech dysfluency for a number of years now, and I’m starting to see a dim shape for the entire project. I think it now has an introduction and a skeleton of chapters, but who knows if I’ll radically blow things up and completely reorganize the thing. As of today, I’m staring, with excitement, at what I hope will be a summer of relatively uninterrupted writing, so I thought I would give our readers a glimpse at some extraneous material from my introduction and early chapters. Basically, some of this material is in the book, some of it isn’t, and some of it is in the book but written in different ways. In a sense, the following paragraphs attempt to outline what I see as some fundamental problems in the ways in which Victorian studies and cultural studies appropriate or misuse metaphors of stuttering and stammering, or dysfluency in general. This is my contribution to thinking about speech dysfluency both within the paradigm of disability studies and more broadly in current critical practices in Victorian studies..   Continue reading

A Pressing Problem and a Vertical Solution

Mr Squercum's office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web

Mr Squercum’s office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web

One of Lionel Grimston Fawkes’ engravings for Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now, features Mr. Squercum, a lawyer, lolling in his office. His desktop is a mess of paper, with more sheets affixed with push pins to the office walls, and still others spilling out of pigeonholes. It doesn’t look as though any of the papers on his desk are bound save, perhaps, those in either books or folders of some sort resting atop the pigeonholes. Trollope had, of course, been writing about office life for years, chiefly in sympathy with the much put-upon clerks, those responsible for “the management of little details, the answering of big men’s letters, the quieting of all difficulties” (The Three Clerks 36). Even the most odious office workers, such as Mr. Kissing in The Small House in Allington (1864), get Trollopian compassion (I say this tongue firmly in cheek) for the weight of their work: Kissing’s “hair was always brushed straight up, his eyes were always very wide open, and he usually carried a big letter-book with him, keeping in it a certain place with his finger. This book was almost too much for his strength, and he would flop it down, now on this man’s desk and now on that man’s, and in a long career of such floppings had made himself to be very much hated” (545 emphasis added). Continue reading

Twitter in the Victorian Studies Classroom

For the past few semesters, inspired by Joshua Eyeler’s post on “Teaching with Twitter; or Adventures in Student Engagement,” I’ve had a social media participation component in my classroom. I’ve now used Twitter at all levels, from the freshman writing seminar to the graduate classroom. It’s worked well in all of these settings, but I think I’ve had the most success at the 400-level, with third and fourth year university students studying Victorian literature. The reason for this success, I think, is two-fold. One, third and fourth year students are sophisticated and engaged enough with literature that they get the possibilities of the medium immediately: they use Twitter to respond in real-time to plot developments (there’s a madwoman in the attic!), to comment on versions of Victorian texts that have entered the cultural mainstream (Please sir, can I have some more?), and of course, to raise questions for class discussion. The second reason for this success, I think, is that third and fourth year university students are not yet too worried about formulating identities as professional literary critics on the web, which leaves room for a freewheeling discussion.

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The Leftovers; or, Anecdote and the Serious Academic

* The following is a guest post by Sarah Bull, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University *

"Holywell Street and the Strand" from _London. Compiled And Engraved By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S. John Dower, 1866. Updated by Bacon to 1868.  London: G.W Bacon & Co., 1868. Image courtesy of

“Holywell Street and the Strand” from London. Compiled And Engraved By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S. John Dower, 1866. Updated by Bacon to 1868. London: G.W Bacon & Co., 1868. Image courtesy of

London. May 5, 1871. Great crowds gather on Holywell Street one Friday afternoon as more than 30 policemen prepare to raid shops reputed to deal in “obscene books, prints, photographs, and other things so vile they cannot for decency’s sake be described” (10).

The army of officers first enters a Mr. Tyler’s premises, at 31 Holywell Street. Tyler’s bookshop connects with several others via communicating doors, like those one might find between 21st century hotel rooms. Holywell Street booksellers are rumoured to use these doors to swindle their customers: they bind lurid divorce-court reports together and dress them up as spicier offerings, selling them “in sealed wrappers [with] questionable covers half exposed to view. When the cover is broken the witling who has made his purchase, and has found the book not what he thought, has no opportunity of quarrelling with the shopman who served him, as he generally passes through a private door into the next shop,” trading places with its proprietor (10).

Now, Tyler uses his private exit for another purpose—escape! He bolts through a series of communicating doors into a house on the Strand. Knowing that the police will not be far behind, he makes for a window and jumps forty feet down, down, down into the street. Severely injured, but with his sense of self-preservation intact, Tyler somehow, amazingly, succeeds in his break for freedom. Undeterred, the officers get on with the business of raiding, and carry “a fearful amount of obscenity” away from the crowd in Holywell street at the end of the day (10).

 “Extraordinary Seizure in Holywell Street.”
Nottinghamshire Guardian 12 May 1871: 10.
Gale Newsvault. Accessed 8 February 2015

 Anecdotes like this are the reason I’m an academic.

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