On Topography and Hunger in Mary Barton

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

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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”

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 bethseltzer.info 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. Continue reading “Drood, Ghost-Dickens, and the Fourth Dimension”

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 “Uses of Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies: March 16-19, 2016”

Victorian Bodies and Disability’s Centrality to Victorian Scholarship

* The following is a guest post by Kylee-Anne Hingston, who recently defended her dissertation on disability and narrative form at the University of Victoria *

In a 2006 article in Victorian Literature and Culture, Julia Miele Rodas lamented that, at that time, “disability [was] still generally regarded as an isolated concern, of literary or cultural significance only insofar as it may serve as a convention or an icon of affect” (378). The article, “Mainstreaming Disability Studies?,” reviewed two seminal works in Victorian disability studies (Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction and David Wright’s Mental Disability in Victorian England) and provided an overview of disability studies in the humanities for the journal’s readers. More importantly, however, it encouraged scholars to acknowledge disability’s centrality to Victorian studies and the humanities.

Continue reading “Victorian Bodies and Disability’s Centrality to Victorian Scholarship”

Muffin, anyone?

A Guest Post by Emily Simmons

At the recent VSAWC/VISAWUS conference I heard a fascinating paper on the cultural signification of the muffin in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. The presenter, Susan Cook, offered a nuanced account of the muffin’s origins, its ingredients (I had no idea they were made using potatoes), and, of course, the dubious connotations of the muffin man’s residence on Drury Lane (very much an area of mixed social repute in the 1830s).  In Nicholas Nickleby the muffin is on an upward social trajectory, yet it still speaks to an economic disconnect between the muffin sellers and their own product, which they cannot afford.  After the paper I began thinking about another Victorian novel that is a favourite of mine for its food —  Cranford. Continue reading “Muffin, anyone?”

Serialized Reading, in Two Parts. Part II.

A Guest Post by Emily Simmons

One of the fun things about posting with a title like this one is that I knew I was coming back to it sooner or later.  Well, The Law and the Lady is finished, and we’ve had another meeting to discuss its attractions (many) and repulsions (some, yes).  Of the serialized reading experience I have little else to say. At the end of my forced hiatus I finished the novel in one gulp; it certainly wasn’t lacking in page-turning sensation.  Continue reading “Serialized Reading, in Two Parts. Part II.”

Sublime Penmanship

A guest post by Emily Simmons

This week my research has taken me on a brief foray into the cultural history of handwriting. I’d like to think about the forms and functions of handwriting in a print culture.  How, for example, might penmanship education and practice have changed in an age where print was prevalent, but hand-written letters were still the main form of daily correspondence? Or, how might would-be authors have viewed handwriting (or been judged by it) as they composed with an eye to ‘getting into print’? Continue reading “Sublime Penmanship”