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

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 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

Earthworms, Thomas Hardy, and Touch as Knowledge

I’m teaching a upper-level undergraduate Victorian literature class this term that focuses on bodies, ghosts, and technologies. Typically in a class like this I would assign a number of Victorian texts as well as critical articles. While I picked some great articles for the students to read alongside Wuthering Heights, Lady Audley’s Secret, A Laodicean, Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, and In the Cage, as I put the syllabus together, I realized that I also wanted my students to be aware of what Victorianists were researching right now. As Moscow, Idaho (my new home) isn’t exactly the center of Victorian studies in the US, I opted to have students listen to lectures recorded for the London Nineteenth-Century Seminar, posted on the website of the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies.

They listened to Sue Zemka’s talk “Prosthetic Hands and Phantom Limbs,” (Thursday 28 May 2015) and Anna Henchman’s “Darwin’s Earthworms and the Sense of Touch” (Wednesday 11 March 2015). Both talks connected to our reading but also presented interesting experiments in listening without any visual cues. We all admitted that it was more challenging to stay focused listening rather than reading. It was also a bit tricky following all of Sue Zemka’s lecture as she used so many images to explain the history of artificial limbs (if I do this next year, I’d show students some of the images she refers to before they listen to the lecture rather than after). Anna Henchman’s talk was also hard to listen to at times because there were a few sound issues and many people coughing in the audience! Despite these challenges, our own experiences nicely related to the talks’ emphasis on senses other than sight. Both focused in the sense of touch in particular; indeed, this seems to be a topic attracting attention from many Victorianists at the moment. Continue reading

The Transatlantic Digital Moonstone

the title page of the Moonstone shows an illustration of a naval scene.

The Moonstone, Harper’s Weekly, 1868-05-23. Image digitized by Melanie Radford, courtesy of Special Collections University of Calgary Library.

In my senior seminar on “The Victorian Bestseller,” we’ve just finished a big class project. When I found out that our Special Collections at the University of Calgary holds both of the periodicals in which Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) was originally serialized–Harper’s Weekly in the U.S. and All the Year Round in the UK–the opportunity to get students into rare books and thinking about the material culture of the text was too good to pass up. In conjunction with Special Collections, the assignment I devised asked each student to take on one of the thirty-two parts The Moonstone originally appeared in, and to compare and contrast its publication in Harper’s and All the Year Round. Students selected and annotated about half a dozen images from the periodicals–which could be anything from advertisements, to illustrations, to the articles and fiction that appeared alongside the novel–to make an argument about the difference the publishing context makes to the reading experience. They then used Omeka to mount a digital exhibit showcasing what they had found in the archives. Our class archive now explores 13 out of 32 parts of the novel, leaving room for another class to try this project again.

The results were fascinating. Students found everything from advertisements for diamonds to articles on the colonies and knots and riddles–important contexts for a mystery story about a gem stolen from India! This project was both more work, and I think more rewarding, than the traditional research essay for all involved. It was only possible because of the tremendous support we had from Annie Murray, Kathryn Ranjit, and Catelynn Sahadath at the University of Calgary Library. Here are a few of my takeaways from the project:

  • This project required a lot more organization on my part as instructor. I started planning with our Head of Special Collections, Annie Murray, back in July, and it took a lot of co-ordination to book time for students in rare books, the digitization studio, and in a special metadata session. By contrast, I just wrote the prompts for our final research paper in an hour yesterday afternoon.
  • The project also took more time. We spent two class sessions on learning about Omeka and metadata, and I held extra office hours in case any technical problems cropped up for the students. Amazingly, other than some images being very slow to load, we didn’t have a lot of technical problems. But this also wasn’t a project where I felt comfortable just handing out the assignment and seeing what students turned in. (Actually, after having spent several years teaching writing, I don’t do that for essays either, but that’s another story!)
  • Having a small class size (in this case thirteen students) was essential to the project’s success given the organizational challenges and demands for time. I haven’t yet figured out how I would do this with a larger class (for example, one of our Victorian literature survey classes that typically have 40 students). Suggestions?
  • Although the technology turned out to be pretty easy for the students to navigate in the end, it was harder for them to complete the project without seeing an example. Many of us know what a successful essay looks like, but what does a successful digital exhibit look like? Hopefully, the next class won’t have this problem, since there are now many successful examples in our class archive!
  • Many students found the project more meaningful than essays they’d written in the past. In our final wrap-up session, several students commented on how this project felt like it meant more since it was for a public audience online, and not just their professor reading it. They even asked me to let them know if they’d “done anything wrong” so that they could fix it. I’ve never had students ask to revise their papers for no extra credit before!
  • I always build in the potential for anonymity when I require digital projects, but almost no one ever takes me up on it. One of the biggest thrills for students was seeing their projects indexed in a Google search, and students were also happy to have me tweet about it.

I want to stress that I still think writing research papers is essential to our discipline–my class is just starting to write their final research papers now. But it was a lot of fun to do something different, and it stretched both me and the students in new ways. Even if they’re not digital, I’d love to hear about assignments you’ve done in the Victorian studies classroom that depart from the traditional term paper. Let me know in the comments!