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”

Advertisements

Insects & Undergrads: Neo-Victorian Novels in the Classroom

“There is something wonderful about naming a species. To bring a thing that is wild, and rare, and hitherto unobserved under the net of human observation and human language…” – William Adamson, “Morpho Eugenia”

still from Angels and Insects (dir. Philip Haas, 1995)
still from Angels and Insects (dir. Philip Haas, 1995)

In one of her first postings for the Floating Academy, Tara MacDonald discussed her experiences teaching Alasdair Gray’s neo-Victorian novel, Poor Things (1992), in an introductory-level literature class. This year I decided to teach Angels & Insects (published the same year as Gray’s) in an upper-year undergraduate class, bookending the term with Byatt’s pair of novellas. Our department’s program offers a couple of classes on the Victorian novel, and devotes another two to the study of poetry and prose from the period. In my experience, the latter courses require a much more careful hand in the selection and curation of materials. I felt Byatt’s novellas, composed as they are from fragments of Victorian texts and glimpses of historical perspectives, offered a creative example of the kind of collage we were undertaking as a class. Continue reading “Insects & Undergrads: Neo-Victorian Novels in the Classroom”

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?

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”

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”