Useful, Beautiful, Toxic

Jesse Oak Taylor’s recent article in Novel makes a bold claim about modelling, realism, and the project of representation. He suggests that Dickens’ novel “performs a kind of fictional ‘greenhouse effect’ in which the real is severed from its stabilizing lifeline to the natural, giving way to the paradoxically artificial nature of the Anthropocene” (1). Among the things I learned from reading it was the range of Victorian attitudes to urban pollution, including the belief “that coal smoke could be beneficial in combating [the] noxious vapours…killing off the organic components of miasma, sterilizing the fog” emanating from the natural marshes upon which London sat (13). I’m skeptical that very many Victorians held this view—every era has its fringe theorists—but Taylor’s article supports the view that Victorians were deeply aware of and interested in the effects of their industrial lives upon the landscape. Continue reading “Useful, Beautiful, Toxic”


“We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold”

Though I could not go to Venice this year — where NAVSA/BAVS 2013 is about to begin — Venice, it seems, came to me, by way of Toronto’s Globe and Mail. Last Saturday’s edition featured on the cover of its arts section an image taken from the “buzz” piece at the 2013 Venice Biennale, Jeremy Deller’s “We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold.”


Image courtesy of British Council. Jeremy Deller’s British Council commission is at La Biennale di Venezia until 24th November and will tour national UK venues in 2014.

“Hey,” I said to my partner before reading the piece, “that looks like William Morris throwing that yacht!” I’m both proud and ashamed of my nerdiness in this regard. Continue reading ““We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold””

NVSA 2013: “1874”

The Northeastern Victorian Studies Association’s annual conference next year (in Boston, currently scheduled to overlap with the home opener of the Red Sox) is proposing something unusual, departing from the conventional thematic approach and opting instead simply for “1874.” You can read the full call by clicking here

While I’m sure most who read this blog will find the NVSA call along the usual channels, I’m devoting a post to this one because I’m really not sure how I feel about their decision. I’m genuinely interested to see how it will turn out.

The reason I’m so interested stems from the way NVSA decides its annual conference topic. Every year they devote one lunchtime session of the current conference to a lively (read: collegially snarky) debate about the next year’s topic. Suggestions are taken from the floor; proponents have a minute or two to pitch their idea; and the floor then votes, Highlander-style, for favourites. Basically, it’s a hybrid of an Athenian democracy and a reality television shows like Survivor. It’s a pretty fair process–as often as not, the winning idea comes from a grad student or a junior scholar. Continue reading “NVSA 2013: “1874””

George Eliot and Spinoza; or, Felix Holt, the Marrano.

Lauren Goodlad’s paper at the latest NAVSA conference in Montreal, “The Mad Men in the Attic: Seriality and Crypto-Identity in Narratives of Capitalist Globalization,” got me thinking once more about the importance of detachment, unbelonging, and cosmopolitanism within Victorian thought. More specifically, Goodlad’s presentation inspired me to reconsider George Eliot’s novel Felix Holt, the Radical (1866).

In The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (Chatto & Windus, 1970) Raymond Williams called Felix Holt a turning point not just in Eliot’s work, but in the history of the novel for its sustained engagement with what Williams named “the crisis of the knowable community.” In the eponymous protagonist, Williams argues, Eliot represents the tension between individual and communal identity “as a problem of relationship: of how the separated individual, with a divided consciousness of belonging and not-belonging, makes his own moral history” (84). Continue reading “George Eliot and Spinoza; or, Felix Holt, the Marrano.”

Finding Hope in Victorian Studies

I thought I’d use my first blog post to introduce some of the ideas that have lately preoccupied my thoughts about Victorian culture. These ideas hover around their attitudes towards change. To my mind, Victorian Britain was the first community to endure what Walter Benjamin called “the crisis of experience,” that state of shock brought about by the interruptive time-consciousness of modernity. Continue reading “Finding Hope in Victorian Studies”