Caroline Levine’s NAVSA Plenary or What Can the Victorians Teach us?

NAVSA – the North American Victorian Studies Association – just held its annual conference in Phoenix, Arizona. This year’s theme was Social Victorians, a rich topic that lent itself to a wide variety of papers. When I decided that I would like to write a post for The Floating Academy on Caroline Levine’s thought-provoking plenary – which ended the conference – I had no idea that I would be writing after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, an event that has prompted an increase hate crimes and reactionary protests. It now seems that Levine’s calls to action for humanities scholars are more important than ever.

Levine’s talk, “Forms of Sociability: Novels, Numbers, and Other Collectives” began with the claim that we, as humanities scholars, typically do not deal with generalities but with singularities. Singularities are exceptions to the rule, oddities, moments or examples of strangeness. Why and how do we study singularities, she asked? Singularities are typically what humanities critics point out, through skills like close reading. Emphasizing singularities can help us to poke holes in broad arguments, to argue for nuance, and to say that things are not as they might obviously seem. But, being scholars of singularities might mean that we are on the defensive or that we don’t get to make large, important claims. Or perhaps it means – and this was one of Levine’s main claims – that we can point out social or political problems but not contribute to their solution.

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Teaching the Dramatic Monologue

If your syllabus looks anything like mine, at least once a semester you’re dusting off your Tennyson and Browning skills and teaching the dramatic monologue. My personal favourites to teach are “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” (Day One) and then “Tithonous,” “Ulysses,” and “St Simeon Stylites” (Day Two).

This semester I decided to do something a little different. I have the privilege of teaching my Victorian literature class in one of the fancy new classrooms at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary. My 40-person class has six big touch screens, and as a result we’ve been able to do a lot of hands-on work in small groups leading into discussions with the whole class.

In the past, on Day One I’ve introduced the dramatic monologue in terms of Robert Langbaum’s classic argument that we both judge and sympathize with the speaker. (The Duke is so evil! But so compelling!). Then, on Day Two, I introduce Cornelia Pearsall’s idea that the speakers of the dramatic monologue may not be bumbling fools, but might be well aware of the aims of their own rhetoric. (What if St Simeon is in on the joke that you can’t ask to be made a saint, especially by whining about the 30 years you’ve already spent atop that pillar).

This semester, in introduced a new component. We used Prism, a tool developed by graduate students in the Praxis Program at UVa that allows classes to crowdsource interpretations of a text. Students highlight portions of a text as falling into one to three categories (or facets) designated by the instructor. Then, Prism collates all of the highlights to see how most people categorized each portion of the text, which should lead to further discussion.

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Prism allows collaborative highlighting of texts.

Prism works really well when you want students to highlight for two or three specific concepts, which is exactly what I wanted for my lesson plan on the dramatic monologue.

On day one, I asked students to highlight passages in Browning where they felt sympathy or judgment for the speaker. Starting with textual annotation and close reading actually led to a much more balanced discussion than I’ve had in the past when I’ve posed the question of whether we sympathize or judge Browning’s speakers. (I don’t think many students have outright sympathized with the Duke since the 1950s when Langbaum wrote his study.)

We then did two short mock trials, in which the Duke and Porphyria’s Lover stood accused of murder. One group stood as jury, and other groups were assigned the defense and the prosecution. It seems a little silly, but it was really fun, and all the same points came out that would have in a lecture or discussion. (Thanks to my colleague Anthony Camara for the mock trial idea!)

On day two, we used Prism again to highlight Tennyson, this time for sympathy, judgment, and comedy (shorthand for self-aware, motivated rhetoric), following Pearsall’s argument. Each group worked on a different dramatic monologue and was responsible for presenting their findings to the class. The groups also read portions of their assigned monologue aloud two different ways: as if the speaker is giving away more than he realizes (Langbaum) and as if he is in on the joke (Pearsall). Reading the dramatic monologues aloud helped a lot.

Many more students have decided to write on the dramatic monologue for their final paper than has been the case in the past, so I think this was a successful lesson. We’ll see tomorrow, when we tackle “Locksley Hall.” Am I the only one who has vivid memories of being an undergraduate and not understanding at all what was going on in that poem?

Sex Ed, the Aspiring Swell, and the Night Guide

* The following is a post by Sarah Bull, the newest member of our Floating Academy collective. Sarah is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge *

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working on a project about Victorian commerce in works on sexual health. This has gotten me thinking a lot lately about what counted then—and what counts now—as a medical publication. I’ve mainly been looking at how works on topics like reproductive anatomy and physiology, venereal disease, contraception and pregnancy, and sexual desire were put into print, advertised and disseminated to readers. However, I’m discovering more and more that information about sexual health reached Victorian readers in a wider variety of forms, often through books and pamphlets that we would not consider “medical” at all.

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Dickens’s Extraordinary Traveller: Immersive Media Forms and the World as Panorama

Of all of Dickens’s prose non-fiction, the one piece that has consistently troubled me the most since I started thinking about Dickens’s journalism and its bearing on the prehistory of immersive media spectacles is “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller,” published in Household Words in April, 1850. A typical Dickensian flight of Fancy, this notice introduces readers to the figure of Mr. Booley, who at the age of 65, “left England for the first time” (511) on a series of trips around the world. “Mr. Booley’s powers of endurance are wonderful,” Dickens writes: “All climates are alike to him. Nothing exhausts him; no alterations of heat and cold appear to have the least effect upon his hardy frame. His capacity for travelling, day and night, for thousands of miles, has never been approached by any traveller of whom we have any knowledge through the help of books […] Though remarkable for personal cleanliness, he has carried no luggage; and his diet has been of the simplest kind” (511-12). Readers follow this account of Mr. Booley’s travels, which take him to such far-off locales as New Orleans in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Egypt, India, and the Arctic regions of the World, before reading in Booley’s own words the inspiration for his “roving spirit” (515): Continue reading

Drood, Ghost-Dickens, and the Fourth Dimension

* The following is a guest post by Beth Seltzer, who holds a PhD from Temple University and is an Educational Technology Specialist at Bryn Mawr College. She can be found at bethseltzer.info or on Twitter at @beth_seltzer.*

Want to know what happened at the end of The Mystery of Edwin Drood? Why not ask the author?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) was only about half completed at Dickens’s death, its many mysteries still unresolved. What’s happened to the missing Edwin Drood? Has he been murdered by his uncle John Jasper (an opium addict obsessed with crypts and with Edwin’s fiancée)? And who is Datchery—the shadowy detective figure who might be another character in disguise? Victorian and modern reading audiences have speculated on the answers through hundreds of theories and completions, often seeking authority through careful close-reading or reports from the author’s friends and family.

Others seek a loftier authority—the author himself, post-mortem. Ghost-Dickens presents a surprisingly coherent voice over different texts, testifying to the resilience of the Dickens persona. Ghost-Dickens is reassuring and occasionally playful, remains concerned about the reception of his works, writes prolifically, and actively keeps up with contemporary fiction.

Take, for example, the so-called 1873 “Spirit-Pen” edition of his novel, supposedly completed after Dickens’s death through a medium. Rather brazenly, this edition reprints the original novel alongside the new material without a break, and opens with two prefaces—one from the medium, and one from the “author.”

Ghost-Dickens has an author’s natural concern over the reception of his first posthumous work, stating: “Since the fact of this work being in preparation was first made public, I have been pained to observe the ridicule which was apparent in some published articles” (James xii). But he also finds the time to reassure his readers about the afterlife. He even offers encouragement to those who are concerned that their loved ones might be in hell, stating that spiritual communication will soon offer reassurance on this point:

…Thousands who are in this happier world…will be glad to know that the dear ones they have left behind regard their absence as a blessing certain, and so abandon the harrowing thought that it is possible a dear mother, father, sister, brother, wife, child or friend may be engulfed in a flaming sea which is to burn them for ever and ever…(James xi)

The medium’s preface gives us further insight into the work of Ghost-Dickens. The medium, Thomas Power James, first clears up some minor points about the construction of the novel (explicitly denying that Satan was involved the construction of the work, for example), and then looks forward to his continued collaboration with Ghost-Dickens’s future projects, concluding:

I am happy to announce that the first chapter of the next work,—“The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickleheap,”—is finished; and, opening with all the peculiar characteristics of its author, bids fair to equal anything from his pen while on earth. (x)

Bockley Wickleheap, alas, never materialized, and it remains a bit unclear whether the text was intended as a joke or a con (certainly, there were readers who took it seriously).

Decades later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle asked Ghost-Dickens about the Spirit-Pen edition at a séance, as reported in the October 1927 issue of Light. Ghost-Dickens is again helpful and eager to cooperate, though he here denies that he wrote the Spirit-Pen version. He is, however, understandably reluctant to cast doubt on spirit writing in general, and leaves open the possibility that another spirit might have written it:

Q. “Was that medium who finished ‘Edwin Drood’ inspired?”
A. “He was not by me.”

Sir Arthur now asked, “Is Edwin Drood dead?”
Now comes the crucial reply. “I prefer to write it all out through you. No; he is alive, and Cris [clearly Crisparkle] is hiding him” (Reuter 476, parenthetical in original)

Having offered this confirmation, Ghost-Dickens adds that he is sorry not to have rescued Edwin Drood, and notes, “I always hoped you would put Sherlock on his track” (Reuter 476). Thus “Dickens,” who died long before the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes novel, suggests that he has been following Doyle’s career from the afterlife and keeping up-to-date on his earthly reading. (For Doyle’s own report of the séance, see Doyle’s Edge of the Unknown.)

Ghost-Dickens cannot avoid a final joke, any more than Dickens could. Doyle brings up the controversial question of Datchery’s identity: was he Drood himself, the beautiful Helena Landless in drag, or the drab clerk Bazzard?

Rather than giving a name for the true identity of Datchery, Ghost-Dickens returns the elusive answer: “What about the fourth dimension?” (Reuter 476).

Perhaps Ghost-Dickens is a product of sheer frustration with the unfinished ending (only Dickens, of course, really could conclusively answer the text’s questions). Or perhaps he is exhumed accidentally, his missing presence becoming entangled with that of Edwin Drood, the real character readers seek to recover.

Even in more modern Drood writing, we find attempts to “channel” the late author when discussing his final novel. Two 2009 novels—Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens and Dan Simmons’s Drood—both weave explorations of The Mystery of Edwin Drood with fictionalized versions of Dickens’s biography, suggesting that even if he is not summoned through a medium, we still imagine Dickens as having a say in his final text.

And really, isn’t that what Dickens would have wanted?

Works Cited

James, Thomas Power, and Charles Dickens. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Complete. Part Second of the Mystery of Edwin Drood. By the Spirit-Pen of Charles Dickens, Through a Medium. Brattleboro, VT: T. P. James, 1873. Web. HathiTrust. 4 May 2016.

Reuter, Florizel. “The Edwin Drood Case. New Light on the Mystery.” Light October 1, 1927: 476-7. Print.

Uses of Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies: March 16-19, 2016

* The following is a guest post by Amy Coté, who is a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying theology and the Victorian novel. You can find her on Twitter at @amycote_ *

Uses of Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies. Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University, Waco, Tx. March 16th-19th 2016.

As I write this, I am on a plane somewhere over Oklahoma, en route from Waco, Texas to Toronto. Writing on a plane may be an all-too-familiar experience for many of us, but this time, I’m writing not a frenzied paper, but a conference report, which is an altogether more pleasant experience. I’ve just had the great privilege to attend the Uses of Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference at the Armstrong Browning Library in Waco, Texas. This conference was organized by Joshua King and his wonderful team at Baylor University, and offered 24 panelists and 5 graduate student observers (of whom I was one) a unique and inspiring opportunity to come together and discuss the broad and sometimes fraught category of religion in the nineteenth century from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Continue reading

Our Calculating Cousins

or How the Gendered Wage Gap and Child Labour Killed the British Computer Industry before it Even Started*

All I ever want to do these days is talk about late-Victorian offices (much to the chagrin of my partner and students, I’m sure), but I have already laid bare my soul on the subject of vertical files and press books on this blog, so thought I might stray a bit into a frank eye-to-eye chat about the American influence on late 19thC British census taking and the history of computing (it’s these frank eye-to-eye chats on the history punchcards, ink wells, and clerk’s stools that, I think, try my students so much, but bear with me. So far they have shown me great latitude and patience and I hope you will too. I will let you know in future posts if they ever reach their breaking point). I have a keen interest in the social history of computing, and get real pleasure from ferreting out the points where computing might have taken a left turn or a right one, giving us some other version of the colonial, gendered, or racialized state of computing that we live with today.

Hollerith Machines. IBM

Hollerith Machine. IBM

One of these pinch points was the development and commercialization of census taking technology. The British were census-takers extraordinaire. The Royal Statistical Society was formed in 1834 and they had a centralized General Register Office by 1837, led by novelist Thomas Henry Lister, who, alongside statistician William Farr, guided the 1841 census. The British continued to use Farr’s labour intensive system until 1911 when the British census was mechanized. The mechanization process was not a British affair (Campbell-Kelly). In 1894 former superintendent of the US Census Office, Robert P. Porter and his former employee Continue reading