Victorian Insect Bodies

B Potter

Beatrix Potter, ‘Studies of nine beetles’ © Frederick Warne & Co. 2006. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Recently, I was giving a talk on Victorian sensation fiction and I wanted to stress the ways in which this genre emphasizes materiality and the experiential dimension of the body. I linked the genre’s investment in the matter of the body to what some critics have called ‘the material turn.’ Many contemporary critical fields – feminist theory, ecocritism, postcolonial theory, critical posthumanism, and social and cultural geography – have seen a renewed interest in embodiment and the senses. Theorists in these fields frequently engage with phenomenology, referencing and building upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the body as a phenomenal, changing, and lived body that alters as it interacts with an environment to which it both responds and shapes. Yet such an emphasis is also visible in Victorian writing, as critics like William Cohen, in his excellent Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (2009), have shown. So what many contemporary critics have called the materialist turn is in some senses, a material return.

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Teena Rochfort Smith: the Ada Lovelace of the digital humanities

Teena Rochfort Smith portrait

Teena Rochfort Smith, as pictured in F.J. Furnivall, Teena Rochfort Smith: A Memoir (1883). Available on Google Books.

In 1883 a young woman named Teena Rochfort Smith created a prototype of an experimental edition of Hamlet which, to this day, remains the most visually complex presentation of the play ever attempted.[1] Even present-day digital interfaces such as the Enfolded Hamlet are less ambitious than what Rochfort Smith envisioned, which pushed Victorian typography and printing technology to its limits. Given Hamlet‘s unique complexity within the Shakespeare canon, and Shakespeare’s textual complexity within the larger canon of English literature, Rochfort Smith’s prototype should rank among other great experiments in humanities interface design, including Origen’s Hexapla, the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, Robert Estienne’s 1550 edition of the Greek New Testament, the New Variorum Shakespeare begun by Horace Howard Furness in the 1870s, the BBC Domesday Book project (an experiment, if not a great success), and more recent digital humanities projects such as the Versioning Machine, which visualizes the relationships among variant texts of the same literary work. Although Rochfort Smith’s story is a tragic one—she died very young, and has been remembered mainly as Frederick Furnivall’s mistress—she was nonetheless a proto-digital pioneer in an area that’s booming in the digital humanities today. She accomplished all this as a Victorian woman in a male-dominated field, and she did so by the age of twenty-one.

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NAVSA 2014

Banner for NAVSA 2014, "Classes and Classifications, showing butterflies

The banner for NAVSA 2014,

Along with other Floating Academy bloggers, including Daniel Martin, I’ve just returned from NAVSA 2014 in London, Ontario.  It was a wonderful conference as always, and we all owe a huge thanks to Chris Keep and the conference organizers at Western.  I realized that I have now been attending NAVSA for ten years.  Where did that time go?  I attended my first NAVSA as a graduate student and observer back in 2004, when it was at the University of Toronto.  As a Canadian, I have to say that it’s great that NAVSA, the North American Victorian Studies Association, is in Canada every three years or so.  Little did I know in 2004 that NAVSA was a young organization at the time, founded in 2002.  This year, the presidency was handed over from the inimitable Dino Felluga to Marlene Tromp.  As I remarked to a grad school friend, we pretty much came of age in the profession as NAVSA did.  Now that I’m a few years out of grad school I value NAVSA not only for the intellectual exchange but also as an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues and scholars I’ve met throughout the years.  Though, as I noted back in 2012, it’s a big conference, and if you want to make sure you see people it pays to make plans for coffee or dinner in advance!

A few trends that I noticed at this year’s NAVSA were many papers touching on animal studies (including Gillian Beer’s keynote), the great popularity of Dickens (even more so than George Eliot) and the increased presence of social media.  But, rather than trying to summarize the whole conference myself, I thought I’d do something different and make a Storify of all the tweets.  Enjoy!

Close Reading Christmas Comedy

Mr. Fezziwig's Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of  Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web

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), 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