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
“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

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”

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”

Out-of-place technological artifacts and productive unease

time travelling cell phone user
An alleged time-travelling cellphone user caught on film in 1928

Gregory’s last post on Babbage and railroads, illustrated by that arresting Montparnasse train wreck photo, got me thinking about Victorian visual technologies and their ability to register accidents as phenomena. At the same time, Daniel’s analogy between aircraft data recorders (black boxes), on the one hand, and Babbage’s proposal for their 19th-century railroad equivalents, on the other, got me thinking, too, about technologies with unexpected histories. We know that 19th century technologies like film and photography changed how people thought about time and experience, but there’s also something about 19th century technologies that makes them seem, themselves, prone to accidents of chronology. The conspiracy-theory subgenre of pseudoarcheological “out-of-place artifacts” seems like good fodder for the kind of alt-history thinking that Victorian studies has absorbed from steampunk. Continue reading “Out-of-place technological artifacts and productive unease”

For Your Weekend Amusement: Museum Links Roundup

The Frothingham's tobogganing on photographer William Notman's set (1869-70). Image property of the Musée McCord

In keeping with the levity that Alan introduced in his first post yesterday, I’d like to point you to some fun Victorian-related features at various museum and gallery websites.

First, at the Musée McCord’s website, there is a “Victorian Period” online game that tests your knowledge about social customs and dress. I reached a level that the game called being a “picture of politeness.” How about you? Will you be ejected from the ball for inappropriate dress? Continue reading “For Your Weekend Amusement: Museum Links Roundup”

“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”

Horses, Trains, and Francis Blake

Shutter test (Agnes Blake), ca.1888.
Shutter test (Agnes Blake), ca.1888. Image property of the Massachusetts Historical Society

My recent research on the history of the telephone has led me to learn more about Francis Blake (1850-1913), an American scientist who experimented with early sound technology and worked with Alexander Graham Bell.  Blake, who was also interested in photographic technology, made significant shutter-speed advances to improve high-speed photography. Like Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, Blake used high speed-photography to capture a moment within a movement and to trace stasis amidst speed. The Massachusetts Historical Society’s website has a wonderful exhibition of Blake’s photography including the requisite high-speed photographs of horses and trains. Their publication also contains an article by Keith F. Davis on “The High Speed Photographs of Francis Blake” that is illustrated by an array of Blake’s photographs.

Gothic Optics

"Mr. Mansfield." Double-exposure photograph of stage actor Richard Mansfield as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
"Mr. Mansfield." Double-exposure photograph of stage actor Richard Mansfield as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

A couple of weeks ago, I returned from Lancaster, where the International Gothic Association held its Ninth Biannual Conference: Monstrous Media / Spectral Subjects. I couldn’t have found a major conference so perfectly attuned to my interests, and the papers did not disappoint. The shortest route to explaining to friends just what “Gothic Media” might be tends to cut through the flesh-eating-television and killer-cellphone movies we’ve been bombarded with over the past few years, but nineteenth-century technologies were well represented at the conference as well. Continue reading “Gothic Optics”

One Face From a Crowd

composite photographs
composite photographs

Fiona’s last post left me musing about Francis Galton’s composite photography. Galton proposed the process as a simple method, inspired by Herbert Spencer, for achieving a photographic average. In an article, “Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons into a Single Resultant Figure,” Galton describes a method for exposing a photographic plate to several photographs, each containing the image of a face. The result, he suggested, “represents no man in particular, but portrays an imaginary figure possessing the average features of any given group of men” (132-133). He suggests, however, that his readers might be able recognize someone who is likely to commit a crime, based on that person’s resemblance to the composite photograph. Continue reading “One Face From a Crowd”