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?”

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?”

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 “Earthworms, Thomas Hardy, and Touch as Knowledge”

Victorian Insect Bodies

B Potter
Beatrix Potter, ‘Studies of nine beetles’ © Frederick Warne & Co. 2006. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Recently, I was giving a talk on Victorian sensation fiction and I wanted to stress the ways in which this genre emphasizes materiality and the experiential dimension of the body. I linked the genre’s investment in the matter of the body to what some critics have called ‘the material turn.’ Many contemporary critical fields – feminist theory, ecocritism, postcolonial theory, critical posthumanism, and social and cultural geography – have seen a renewed interest in embodiment and the senses. Theorists in these fields frequently engage with phenomenology, referencing and building upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the body as a phenomenal, changing, and lived body that alters as it interacts with an environment to which it both responds and shapes. Yet such an emphasis is also visible in Victorian writing, as critics like William Cohen, in his excellent Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (2009), have shown. So what many contemporary critics have called the materialist turn is in some senses, a material return.

Continue reading “Victorian Insect Bodies”

Conference Report: The Local and the Global in Venice

I’m just back from the NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA Conference in Venice, where I did see the William Morris painting that Eddy discusses in his post below (will add a comment this week, Eddy!). It was a really wonderful conference, with a wide range of papers. As a conference running over four days, with seven panels at any one time, it’s impossible to sum up just one or two specific threads that ran through the talks. What I can say, though, is that the joining of these three different Victorian Studies Associations – from North America, the UK (and the rest of Europe, if you include people like me), Australia, and Asia made for a very exciting, diverse group. It was a real pleasure to meet colleagues from Australia, many of whom remarked how isolated they felt from other Victorianists and what a treat it was to join forces in Venice. Continue reading “Conference Report: The Local and the Global in Venice”

Call for Papers: Neo-Victorian Networks: Epistemologies, Aesthetics and Ethics

I’m currently organizing a conference at the University of Amsterdam with a colleague and I hope it will be of interest to writers and readers of the Floating Academy.

Neo-Victorian Networks: Epistemologies, Aesthetics and Ethics

University of Amsterdam

June 13-15, 2012 Continue reading “Call for Papers: Neo-Victorian Networks: Epistemologies, Aesthetics and Ethics”

Victorian Curiosities at the Courtauld Gallery

Back in May, I went to see the exhibit, “Life, Legend, Landscape: Victorian Drawings and Watercolours” at the Courtauld Gallery in London. Many were works apparently shown for the first time. There were some beautiful Turner watercolours depicting Swiss scenes, such as “The Fall of the Rhone at Schffhausen” and “Brunnen, Lake Lucerne.”

I was most struck, though, by the female portraits, like William Etty’s chalk drawing “Female Nude with a Cast of the Venus De Medici” from 1835-7. An exploration of the real and the ideal, the illustration shows a nude model standing next to, and embracing, the cast of Venus. Oddly, though, the female forms are almost entirely identical, so that the painting doesn’t seem to reveal the shock of the real woman in contrast to the idealized sculpture. Continue reading “Victorian Curiosities at the Courtauld Gallery”

Sensation vs. Gothic

I’ll be teaching a new MA course on Sensation and Gothic fiction at the University of Amsterdam next year, and I would love to hear suggestions about what Victorian novels I should include. I am also hoping the course will help me answer some of the questions I have about the differences between these two genres. A key difference seems to be setting, as sensation novels typically take place in England, with Gothic fiction more often adopting a foreign setting; yet the urban gothic novels of the late-nineteenth century (novels like Dracula, for instance) seem to blur these lines. Is it the element of the supernatural or fantastic that defines a novel as gothic vs. sensationalist?

Neo-Victorian Experiments: A Humument

In April, I attended a seminar on Neo-Victorian Literature at King’s College London. The event allowed for a lively, informative discussion regarding the current state of neo-Victorian writing and scholarship. One of the main questions asked was, is there something distinct about neo-Victorian literature, as opposed to historical fiction more generally? I’m inclined to consider neo-Victorian fiction as a sub-category of historical fiction. That said, I think there are perhaps two categories of neo-Victorian fiction Continue reading “Neo-Victorian Experiments: A Humument”

Neo-Victorian Monsters Run Amuck

As Karen’s post on Alice in Wonderland demonstrates, there is no shortage of Victorians in film these days. I haven’t had a chance to see Burton’s new film yet, but I did see Sherlock Holmes, which was entertaining despite being more like a combination Holmes-tribute, action film and Dan Brown novel than an actual Conan Doyle story. I stumbled across an even stranger example of twenty-first-century revisions of nineteenth century works today. Many of you will have heard of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 2009), which imagines the Bennet sisters battling the undead. Continue reading “Neo-Victorian Monsters Run Amuck”

“Playing with Pictures”: Victorian Photocollage at the Met

A current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York showcases a little-known, playful, and funny form of Victorian art. Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage features a collection of photocollages created by Victorian women (and a few men), in which they integrated photos of family members and friends with watercolour paintings, sketches, and writing to create strange new worlds. I wish I could see them in person! Roberta Smith gives the show a positive review in the New York Times, contextualizing the work within the history of photography. Continue reading ““Playing with Pictures”: Victorian Photocollage at the Met”

Reflections on Adam Bede. Part II.

As English lecturers, we often have to remind our students to move from emotional to critical readings of texts. I once had a student who had trouble discussing Dickens’s Great Expectations in our tutorials because she hated Pip so much. Despite working to develop a critical voice over the years, I certainly have emotional reading experiences and am pleased that after reading countless Victorian novels, they still make me laugh out loud or cry. The moment in Adam Bede that I find most affective is when Dinah comes to see Hetty in her prison cell and Hetty, after showing no emotion or real awareness of her circumstances, breaks down and embraces Dinah: Continue reading “Reflections on Adam Bede. Part II.”

Reflections on Adam Bede. Part I.

I am reading Eliot’s Adam Bede for the first time since I read it in graduate school, in a class that focused on Victorian representations of masculinity and the male body. And it certainly is a novel that seems to revel in describing the body of its hero, Adam. Eliot’s narrator begins the novel in the Bede brothers’ workplace, recording the sonorous voice of one of the workmen: Continue reading “Reflections on Adam Bede. Part I.”

Dr Marigold and Mr Chops: Dickens Reprised

Two years before his death, in 1868, Charles Dickens famously toured the United States, giving public readings of his work. Mark Twain was in the audience in New York and admitted to being “a great deal disappointed” at Dickens’s performance. He records, “what a bright, intelligent audience he had! He ought to have made them laugh, or cry, or shout, at his own good will or pleasure — but he did not. They were very much tamer than they should have been.” Continue reading “Dr Marigold and Mr Chops: Dickens Reprised”

An Embarrassment of Riches…

I’m putting together a syllabus for a general course on the Victorian novel, and am finding it difficult to decide what 5 or 6 novels to include. This syllabus is for a job application, so it is a course that I’d like to teach someday, rather than one that I will actually be teaching soon. I need to keep it general, but have decided to include a broad focus on representations of the family, especially alternative families (surrogate parents, siblings living with in-laws, adults living with parents, etc). Continue reading “An Embarrassment of Riches…”

Victorian Bodies Exposed: Visiting the Wellcome Collection

I recently moved to London, England. For a Victorian scholar, living in England’s capital certainly has its perks, including the fact that I get to visit wonderful exhibitions, like the Wellcome Collection’s “Exquisite Bodies.” The Wellcome collection brings together the artefacts of entrepreneur and traveller Henry Wellcome, showcasing his interests in medicine, health, and sexuality. Continue reading “Victorian Bodies Exposed: Visiting the Wellcome Collection”

Drawing Serially

In her last post, Jennifer raised a number of possible connections between contemporary blogging and nineteenth-century serial writing. After reading a recent article by Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge in Victorian Studies, “The Plot Thickens: Toward a Narratological Analysis of Illustrated Serial Fiction in the 1860s,” I think one of the ways that Victorian serial fiction may differ from contemporary blogging is in the complex and reciprocal relationship between serial writing and illustration. Continue reading “Drawing Serially”

The Tensions of Neo-Victorianism

I recently taught Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (1992) in an introductory-level English class. It is both a neo-Victorian novel and a postmodern rewriting of Frankenstein. There are many narrative strands, some of which refute one another, and it is a great example of what Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction.” One of the narratives tells the story of Bella Baxter, a woman who is created by a love-deprived doctor named Godwin Baxter. Baxter finds a pregnant woman’s body after she has committed suicide by drowning and replaces her brain with that of her unborn fetus. She is now (creepily) the Victorian man’s dream: the body of a woman with the brain of a child. Continue reading “The Tensions of Neo-Victorianism”

ACCUTE Roundtable on Academic Blogging

Two weeks ago, along with Floating Academy members Eddy Kent and Emily Simmons, I attended a roundtable on academic blogging at ACCUTE hosted by Rohan Maitzen, Victorian professor at Dalhousie University and academic blogger. I had the good fortune to take one of Prof. Maitzen’s classes as an undergraduate, so it was a real pleasure to see her again and hear her thoughts on this burgeoning forum for literary critics. Continue reading “ACCUTE Roundtable on Academic Blogging”