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 “Dickens’s Extraordinary Traveller: Immersive Media Forms and the World as Panorama”

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”

The Leftovers; or, Anecdote and the Serious Academic

* The following is a guest post by Sarah Bull, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University *

"Holywell Street and the Strand" from _London. Compiled And Engraved By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S. John Dower, 1866. Updated by Bacon to 1868. London: G.W Bacon & Co., 1868. Image courtesy of http://london1868.com/
“Holywell Street and the Strand” from London. Compiled And Engraved By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S. John Dower, 1866. Updated by Bacon to 1868. London: G.W Bacon & Co., 1868. Image courtesy of http://london1868.com/

London. May 5, 1871. Great crowds gather on Holywell Street one Friday afternoon as more than 30 policemen prepare to raid shops reputed to deal in “obscene books, prints, photographs, and other things so vile they cannot for decency’s sake be described” (10).

The army of officers first enters a Mr. Tyler’s premises, at 31 Holywell Street. Tyler’s bookshop connects with several others via communicating doors, like those one might find between 21st century hotel rooms. Holywell Street booksellers are rumoured to use these doors to swindle their customers: they bind lurid divorce-court reports together and dress them up as spicier offerings, selling them “in sealed wrappers [with] questionable covers half exposed to view. When the cover is broken the witling who has made his purchase, and has found the book not what he thought, has no opportunity of quarrelling with the shopman who served him, as he generally passes through a private door into the next shop,” trading places with its proprietor (10).

Now, Tyler uses his private exit for another purpose—escape! He bolts through a series of communicating doors into a house on the Strand. Knowing that the police will not be far behind, he makes for a window and jumps forty feet down, down, down into the street. Severely injured, but with his sense of self-preservation intact, Tyler somehow, amazingly, succeeds in his break for freedom. Undeterred, the officers get on with the business of raiding, and carry “a fearful amount of obscenity” away from the crowd in Holywell street at the end of the day (10).

 “Extraordinary Seizure in Holywell Street.”
Nottinghamshire Guardian 12 May 1871: 10.
Gale Newsvault. Accessed 8 February 2015

 Anecdotes like this are the reason I’m an academic.

Continue reading “The Leftovers; or, Anecdote and the Serious Academic”

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”

VSAWC

VSAWCThe Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada conference, Victorian Humanity and its Others, has come to a close. It was held at Coast Hotel in Vancouver, a location that has, ladies and gents, left me feeling a little nostalgic. I attended my first VSAWC meeting at the Coast in 2009 — my first visit to Vancouver. Fellow Floating Academician Daniel Martin gave me a tour of Stanley Park over a lunch hour and was kind enough to introduce me to the Victorian Studies who’s who of Western Canada.

Since then Daniel has moved east and I’ve moved west. It was great to have mini FA reunion at the conference: Daniel, Jennifer Esmail, and I Continue reading “VSAWC”

Sandowing and Other Resolutions

I’ve spent the last three years writing about the origins of bodybuilding as a middle-class pursuit. The project has been a pleasure: I’ve been able to splosh about in seas of Victorian ephemera, most of which did not turn out to be immediately germane, but which were still well worth the wade. As we head into what I consider the cruelest month (really, Eliot, winter may have kept us warm, but the fight to stick to new year’s resolutions is fraught with more potential for heartache than wet feet are in April), here’s some advice from the comic song Oh, Mr. Sandow! (Father’s Been Sandowing in his Gown). Lampooning the famous strongman Eugen Sandow, the song warns about the perils of too much exercise:

At last [Father] left off practicing
But that was worst of all,

For quickly though his muscles rose

More quickly did they fall!

And ere a day or two elapsed 

The change in dad [sic] was dire,

For all his muscles had collapsed

Just like a punctured tyre!



Oh, Mr. Sandow, you’ve a lot to answer for!

Now none of father’s clothes will fit.

They all want “taking in” a bit!

We all thought father’s cranium

Would soon be turned, so mother burned

His model gymnasium.

Do be careful, and happy new year!

Victorians in The New Yorker

I’m a little behind on my New Yorker reading these days, which is too bad because there have been a huge number of Victorian-related articles lately. (I’m counting one on H.G. Wells from the October 17th issue as Victorian, never mind that he published most in the 20th century.)

Henry James was a through-line in the article, and one sentence that really struck me compared the two men’s sexuality: “Henry James’s famous celibacy is more fertile for our imaginations than Well’s amorousness–just as James’s artistry is more compelling than Wells’s productivity” (85).

One thing I learned in the article was that Wells slept around a lot. Now, I’m used to critics rather problematically linking prolific women writers to unconstrained sexuality and maternity (as in, “Margaret Oliphant wrote too much and had too many kids to support!”) but this one about men’s sexuality and writing productivity was new for me. What do you think? Have you seen this before?

Reading Postures

I attended the Harvard English Institute two weeks ago, and intended to blog about it immediately.  Better late than never I hope!

The conference draws scholars from all around Boston as well as the U.S. and Canada, and makes me wonder if this is what a more local conference culture is like, rather than geographically spread out conferences North Americans often attend.  Of special interest to those of us who work on nineteenth-century literature and culture was a talk Patricia Crain (NYU) gave on “Postures and Places,” which was about children’s practices of reading in the U.S.–or, more literally, what nooks children in read or were depicted as reading in, and what physical postures they took up as they read.  Crane concentrated on the child curled up in the window seat (or sitting cross-legged in the window seat as Jane Eyre does); and on what I learned was a new practice of reading in the 1870s, the bed-time story, where a (middle-class) child is read to in bed.  This practice seemed so natural from my own middle-class childhood that it was fascinating to learn it had a history, though I suppose I should be used to that sort of revelation by now!  Crain’s talk also reminded me of Robyn Warhol’s discussion of the reading postures we take up now and the embodied experience of reading in Having a Good Cry.

Probably either of the postures Crain outlined is preferable to the way that I often read now—hunched up over my computer.  I’d be curious as to what postures and places others read in, and how it affects the experience.  Does it depend on what genre you’re reading?  Does fiction entail a more relaxed posture than criticism?

Modern Times, Nervous Men

George Beard.  This image is in the public domain

I’m testing out some ideas about neurasthenia, my favourite nineteenth-century nervous complaint. Mark Micale and Elaine Showalter have argued quite convincingly that neurasthenia was polite metonym for male hysteria. I, however, am interested in the ways that it differs from hysteria – the particulars that made it non-feminizing. The following are some of my musings to that end. Yet again I am sucked into the American context (“really,” the lady protests, “when I’m not splashing about with humanities computing, 98% of my research is on the British, not that you can tell from this blog”): the term neurasthenia was coined by American nerve specialist, George M. Beard, and popularized by his two books Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) (1880) and American Nervousness: Its Causes and the Consequences (1881).

The central distinctions between Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) and American Nervousness arise from the books’ tone and audience. While Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) was written for the medical community, and excerpted and summarized in the periodical press, American Nervousness was, in Beard’s own words, “of a more distinctly philosophical and popular character than [Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia)] which was specially addressed to the professional and scientific reader” Continue reading “Modern Times, Nervous Men”

Scientific Boxing: Gentlemen in the Ring

James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, heavyweight champion from 1892 to 1897.  Image is in the public domain.
"Gentleman Jim" Corbett
I’ve been working through the various models of masculinity on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. One of the Exposition’s most popular entertainments (alongside the first Ferris wheel, Buffalo Bill’s Rough Riders, and movable sidewalks) was a daily boxing demonstration by heavyweight champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Corbett used multiple venues –the ring, the stage, the press, film– in his attempt to use popular science to make the strong male body signify as genteel. Continue reading “Scientific Boxing: Gentlemen in the Ring”

Form, Function, and Facial Fur

The "facespanner" from the Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century blogI’ve spent the last week mulling over how mark-up languages’ form and function encode knowledge into a text – but have been sidetracked by an amusing site devoted to nineteenth-century mustaches. Drawn from the University of Kentucky archives, these are almost exclusively American mustaches. I’ve been trying to divine each sitter’s nationality by reading his whiskers (John Wilkes Booth from the May 25th post features a distinctly Clemensesque soup strainer). Which makes me wonder, in keeping with my reading on mark-up languages, do Victorian mustaches have a function, symbolic or otherwise, or are they pure form?

I’m feeling relieved – I’ve reached my whimsy quota for the week, and it’s only Wednesday.

Aesthetics Old and New

Molly Porkshanks Friedrich's Mechanical Womb on display at the Oxford History of Science MuseumI expected to be able to hear Molly Porkshanks Friedrich’s Complete Mechanical Womb tick. It didn’t look as though it should pulse with life, but I did anticipate a mechanical buzzing or whirring. I was alone in the basement of Oxford’s history of science museum, at what the museum billed as “the world’s first museum exhibition of Steampunk art.” I’m sure the little figure in the gravid pneumatic tube was honoured by the Continue reading “Aesthetics Old and New”

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”

A Blow from Bewick: Brontë’s Projectile Online

Bewick, Thomas et al. A history of British birds. Printed by J. Blackwell and Co., for R.E. Bewick, 1847. 161
Bewick, Thomas et al. A History of British Birds. Printed by J. Blackwell and Co., for R.E. Bewick, 1847. 161

I’ve just returned to my online search for John Gould’s bird lithographs. I haven’t had any luck, but I have found a copy of Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds – the volume whose letterpress Jane Eyre disliked so much. Assuming that she was reading the first volume of the1847 edition, then we can all go to Google books to give the offending letterpress the once-over.

The online reproduction of British Birds doesn’t quite afford me the affective pleasure that I’m looking for (let me nod to your post from October, Daniel). I think I’d flinch if I handled a physical copy of the edition with which John Reid brained our heroine, but I can’t tell how large or heavy a more material rendering of Google’s reprint would be.

Alice in Wonderland

Even if the Disney Film isn't out of copyright--the Tenniel surely is!

I’ve just seen the new Alice in Wonderland (And got caught in a thunderstorm on the way home.  I feel like the dormouse in the teapot! Or something like that.)  The new movie is sort of an Alice-meets-The Wizard of Oz action-fantasy, with the Red Queen pitted against the White Queen and Alice as Jabberwock-slayer.  Not what I was expecting, but I had fun seeing it over Spring Break anyway, and it’s generated a few random questions for me: Continue reading “Alice in Wonderland”

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.”

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”

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”

Character-Building: Disraeli and the “Physiognomy of Writing”

Emily’s fascinating post on Sublime Penmanship works hand in glove with research I’ve been conducting on graphology in Victorian Britain, as part of a chapter on the role of handwriting in R. L. Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde. The first book-length study of handwriting analysis was published in 1622 by Camillo Baldi, an Italian doctor of medicine and philosophy. However, the most broadly read text within England upon the subject was most likely the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater’s Physiognomy. (Published in German in 1775, this study had gone through fifty-five editions by 1810, at least twenty of which were available in England.) Continue reading “Character-Building: Disraeli and the “Physiognomy of Writing””