Insects & Undergrads: Neo-Victorian Novels in the Classroom

“There is something wonderful about naming a species. To bring a thing that is wild, and rare, and hitherto unobserved under the net of human observation and human language…” – William Adamson, “Morpho Eugenia”

still from Angels and Insects (dir. Philip Haas, 1995)
still from Angels and Insects (dir. Philip Haas, 1995)

In one of her first postings for the Floating Academy, Tara MacDonald discussed her experiences teaching Alasdair Gray’s neo-Victorian novel, Poor Things (1992), in an introductory-level literature class. This year I decided to teach Angels & Insects (published the same year as Gray’s) in an upper-year undergraduate class, bookending the term with Byatt’s pair of novellas. Our department’s program offers a couple of classes on the Victorian novel, and devotes another two to the study of poetry and prose from the period. In my experience, the latter courses require a much more careful hand in the selection and curation of materials. I felt Byatt’s novellas, composed as they are from fragments of Victorian texts and glimpses of historical perspectives, offered a creative example of the kind of collage we were undertaking as a class. Continue reading “Insects & Undergrads: Neo-Victorian Novels in the Classroom”

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Portrait of a Novel: Great Expectations, Page One

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones…

Pip at gravestone, from David Lean’s 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations

Dickens’ Great Expectations opens with a poignant consideration of the limits of a medium, then shows us how a keen imagination can vault over these bounds. Young Pip has already a sense that the images he’s produced are “unreasonably derived” from these letterforms, but his act of creative misinterpretation allows him, in his childish and charming way, to mitigate the absolute loss of his parents. The “engraved” names appear to him as imprints of his parent’s bodies upon the stone: Pip explains that the “shape of the letters on my father’s” stone “gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.” From his mother’s inscription, he “drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.” Continue reading “Portrait of a Novel: Great Expectations, Page One”

Darwin and the Mechanisms of Human Expression

from The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy
Duchenne de Boulogne and Patient, from The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy

A recent bout of research on photography and duplicity has led me back to Cambridge’s indomitable Darwin Correspondence Project. This editorial project is an extraordinarily valuable resource for Victorianist researchers, but I’m especially impressed by the compelling points of access the site provides into a mass of information that might otherwise seem quite imposing. I imagine that many curious but casual readers have been drawn in by the site’s weekly blog posts.

One especially intriguing item popped up a couple of weeks ago. It’s an interactive quiz that recreates an experiment Darwin conducted on his own friends and acquaintances. The DCP takes you through a series of Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne’s famous photographs of electrically induced emotions, first collected in his Mechanism of Human Physiognomy (1862), and later included in Darwin’s Expression Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). (Have a look at the photos here.) Continue reading “Darwin and the Mechanisms of Human Expression”

Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

I’m teaching a course in Victorian culture this summer, and planning to open the class with a chapter from Charles Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (on “Natural Theology”). His mathematical speculations in this text seem to me perfectly representative of the anxious and industrious Victorian desire to apprehend every incident and accident of the physical world. In his chapter  “On the Permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the Globe we Inhabit,” Babbage theorizes that an exhaustive and precise archive of past events would give us an exact vision of our future (to the extent that the latter unfolds as the accumulated consequence of the former). Continue reading “Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box”

Steampunk Bodies

Steampunk machines are real, breathing, coughing, struggling and rumbling parts of the world. They are not the airy intellectual fairies of algorithmic mathematics but the hulking manifestations of muscle and mind, the progeny of sweat, blood, tears, and delusions. The technology of steampunk is natural; it moves, lives, ages, and even dies” (4).

Colin Thompson, Steampunk GelaSkin

This is an excerpt from Professor Calamity’s “Steampunk Manifesto,” published a few years ago in SteamPunk Magazine. Though the argument is precipitous and somewhat hastily historicized (as I suppose every manifesto must be), it’s still my favorite statement on a mostly subcultural development that has yet to coalesce into an easily definable genre/movement/aesthetic. This particular passage addresses the steampunk project of de-sublimating technology through imaginative labour that returns bodies to machines. Continue reading “Steampunk Bodies”

Tangled Up in Blue

 Illustration from the 1875 Chatto & Windus Piccadilly Novel
Illustration from the 1875 Chatto & Windus Piccadilly Ed. of Poor Miss Finch

A striking coincidence: while writing a funding proposal for a project on epilepsy in the Victorian imagination, this interview popped up on The Huffington Post. It’s a segment from The Today Show with Paul Karason, the “blue man” who’s been treating a skin condition with colloidal silver for over a decade. (The show seems to have a penchant for curious bodies—just yesterday they featured an young girl who’s been sneezing ten times a minute for the past two weeks.)

Anyway, I was particularly struck by Karason’s story because I’ve reading Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch, a highly original meditation on the intersections of disability and visibility.  Continue reading “Tangled Up in Blue”