What’s in a year?

Origin_of_SpeciesThis post begins with an observation: a number of very important books were published in England in 1859. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty appeared in February, followed by Alexander Bain’s The Emotions and the Will in the spring, and Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help in November. This seems striking to me, but is it? I’m tempted to see these publications as part of some kind of ‘cultural moment.’ If anything connects these disparate books, it might be an interest in free will. They all grapple with what it Bain, a prominent Scottish philosopher, calls the “Free-will controversy.” Continue reading “What’s in a year?”

On Topography and Hunger in Mary Barton

This week’s guest, Thomas A. Laughlin, has a PhD in English from the University of Toronto.

Tom1
William Wyld, Manchester from Kersal Moor, 1852

“Mrs. Gaskell could not just give what we would now call a ‘slice of life,’ partly because she wanted to offer more, but also partly because the novel as a form was felt to require movement, the progress of a story. This is the problem of form. Mrs. Gaskell has to overcome the difficulty that whereas her strength lies in evocation, description, analysis of a situation, the strength of the novel seemed to lie in the fact that it could absorb readers in a story, that is, that it worked through plot.” (Gill 22)

This is the famous contradiction and tension at the heart of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel, Mary Barton. The novel gathers more content and conflicts than its narrative can adequately process. The plot, we have to admit, isn’t the greatest. Nor is there much satisfaction to be derived from the characters, who, in my opinion, are obstinately and unbelievably single-minded in their concerns and pursuits. But personally, I like that it begins in the countryside, dwells in the twisted streets and back alleys of a Manchester working-class neighborhood, traverses both the factory floor and the union meeting, brings back news of the Chartists’ disappointed presentation of the People’s Charter to the Parliament in London, connects the working class to the wandering “lumpen” masses, involves a secret assassination plot, follows Mary to Liverpool and almost all the way out to sea, has a courtroom melodrama, and ends with Mary and Jem emigrating to Canada! There is a kind of topographic euphoria in the novel—a will to connect and “complete,” as Eric Hayot might say (see Hayot 60-67). Each topos is as vivid and valid—that is, as believable and necessary—as the previous, even if their relationship remains arbitrary, a connecting contingency of geography. Continue reading “On Topography and Hunger in Mary Barton”

Notes on the Economics of Library Economy

Stamps. From Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Bureau ...: A Handbook of Library and Office ... Library Bureau, 1890. Web. Page 49
Stamps. From Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Bureau: A Handbook of Library and Office. Library Bureau, 1890. Internet Archive. Web. 13 Dec. 2016. Page 49

While in Middlemarch, published serially in 1871 and 1872, dear Dorothea suffered great “annoyance at being twitted with her ignorance of political economy, that never-explained science which was thrust as an extinguisher over all her lights” (Eliot 42) there were many other economies being developed in the 1870s which would rely on women as employees and proselytizers. I will leave domestic economy to the side for the nonce — it’s the economy of knowledge storage devices and spelling reform that has my interest.

I have completely fallen for the late-century American passion for efficiency experts, so once again will, at the risk of taxing Victorian Studies readers, offer up a post that features more American cousins rather than British ones. I had touched earlier in this blog on the invention of the vertical file. I’d like to pick up where I left off with a few remarks about the company the marketed the vertical file, the Library Bureau and the Bureau’s founder, that great promoter of “library economy,” Melvil Dewey (Classification 5). I’ve been dipping of late into Dewey’s “Librarianship as a Profession for College-Bred Women”, published by the Library Bureau, while Dewey was Columbia University’s chief librarian. Continue reading “Notes on the Economics of Library Economy”

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.

Continue reading “Caroline Levine’s NAVSA Plenary or What Can the Victorians Teach us?”

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. Continue reading “Teaching the Dramatic Monologue”

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.

Continue reading “Sex Ed, the Aspiring Swell, and the Night Guide”

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