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?

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.

Re-reading Tom Brown

I recently re-read Tom Brown’s Schooldays to revise my book chapter on muscular Christianity and disability.  Now, I know as a good historicist reader I’m supposed to get totally into the mindset of the mid-Victorians and never judge, but there was one thing that really had me going.

Has anyone else noticed how often the boys taunt working-class men and then bribe them not to tell?  And how this receives no comment whatsoever from the narrator, who is prone to moralize on everything from how fighting is healthy for boys to the proper use of the fagging system?

Two examples:

1)  East recounts to Tom the adventures of “Stumps,” the tuck shop proprietress Sally Harowell’s ne’er do well  husband.  “Amongst his other small avocations, he was the hind carrier of a sedan-chair, the last of its race, in which the Rugby ladies still went out to tea, and in which, when he was fairly harnessed and carrying a load, it was the delight of small and mischievous boys to follow him and whip his calves. This was too much for the temper even of Stumps, and he would pursue his tormentors in a vindictive and apoplectic manner when released, but was easily pacified by twopence to buy beer with.”

2)  After “Velveteens” catches Tom fishing off school property one day, Tom presents him with a half crown and they become “sworn friends”  The narrator continues, “I regret to say that Tom had many more fish from under the willow that May-fly season, and was never caught again by Velveteens.”  (Note the regret is for Tom breaking school rules and fishing, not for the bribe–and that the narrator also calls the groundskeeper “Velveteens”)

I know boys will be boys, but really?

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.”