“A vagrant of the sea”: Introducing Morgan Robertson

I teach at a beautiful campus on the southern shores of Lake Ontario in Oswego, New York. Oswego is a place of remarkable history. Its geographical position relative to waterways and other supply routes through central New York made it the target of military tussling between French and British forces during the Seven Years’ War and between American and British forces during the War of 1812. The Oswego Canal, completed in 1828, connected the epic Erie Canal system to Lake Ontario, thus accelerating Oswego’s contribution to the anthropogenic remaking of the Great Lakes ecosystem that’s been ongoing since the seventeenth century. Oswego was a launching-point to Canada for those traveling on the Underground Railway; its library, founded in 1853 on a principle of universal access for all persons, regardless of “their race, complexion, or condition,” is the oldest continuously operating public library in New York State (“About Us.”). In 1943, Oswego became the site of the single World War II refugee camp in the United States.

Continue reading ““A vagrant of the sea”: Introducing Morgan Robertson”

Teaching the Dramatic Monologue

If your syllabus looks anything like mine, at least once a semester you’re dusting off your Tennyson and Browning skills and teaching the dramatic monologue. My personal favourites to teach are “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” (Day One) and then “Tithonous,” “Ulysses,” and “St Simeon Stylites” (Day Two).

This semester I decided to do something a little different. I have the privilege of teaching my Victorian literature class in one of the fancy new classrooms at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary. My 40-person class has six big touch screens, and as a result we’ve been able to do a lot of hands-on work in small groups leading into discussions with the whole class. Continue reading “Teaching the Dramatic Monologue”

Our Calculating Cousins

or How the Gendered Wage Gap and Child Labour Killed the British Computer Industry before it Even Started*

All I ever want to do these days is talk about late-Victorian offices (much to the chagrin of my partner and students, I’m sure), but I have already laid bare my soul on the subject of vertical files and press books on this blog, so thought I might stray a bit into a frank eye-to-eye chat about the American influence on late 19thC British census taking and the history of computing (it’s these frank eye-to-eye chats on the history punchcards, ink wells, and clerk’s stools that, I think, try my students so much, but bear with me. So far they have shown me great latitude and patience and I hope you will too. I will let you know in future posts if they ever reach their breaking point). I have a keen interest in the social history of computing, and get real pleasure from ferreting out the points where computing might have taken a left turn or a right one, giving us some other version of the colonial, gendered, or racialized state of computing that we live with today.

Hollerith Machines. IBM
Hollerith Machine. IBM
One of these pinch points was the development and commercialization of census taking technology. The British were census-takers extraordinaire. The Royal Statistical Society was formed in 1834 and they had a centralized General Register Office by 1837, led by novelist Thomas Henry Lister, who, alongside statistician William Farr, guided the 1841 census. The British continued to use Farr’s labour intensive system until 1911 when the British census was mechanized. The mechanization process was not a British affair (Campbell-Kelly). In 1894 former superintendent of the US Census Office, Robert P. Porter and his former employee Continue reading “Our Calculating Cousins”

A Pressing Problem and a Vertical Solution

Mr Squercum's office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web
Mr Squercum’s office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web

One of Lionel Grimston Fawkes’ engravings for Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now, features Mr. Squercum, a lawyer, lolling in his office. His desktop is a mess of paper, with more sheets affixed with push pins to the office walls, and still others spilling out of pigeonholes. It doesn’t look as though any of the papers on his desk are bound save, perhaps, those in either books or folders of some sort resting atop the pigeonholes. Trollope had, of course, been writing about office life for years, chiefly in sympathy with the much put-upon clerks, those responsible for “the management of little details, the answering of big men’s letters, the quieting of all difficulties” (The Three Clerks 36). Even the most odious office workers, such as Mr. Kissing in The Small House in Allington (1864), get Trollopian compassion (I say this tongue firmly in cheek) for the weight of their work: Kissing’s “hair was always brushed straight up, his eyes were always very wide open, and he usually carried a big letter-book with him, keeping in it a certain place with his finger. This book was almost too much for his strength, and he would flop it down, now on this man’s desk and now on that man’s, and in a long career of such floppings had made himself to be very much hated” (545 emphasis added). Continue reading “A Pressing Problem and a Vertical Solution”

Wondering at Then-New Media

The countdown is on, the ball is dropping—I am almost ready to holler “Happy New (School) Year!” and head into the classroom. I am teaching a Reading Popular Culture course this semester, and, so between rounds of rubric and syllabus design have been wracking my brains to figure out how to get my students engaged not only with new media, but also with old media.

Alan’s most recent post got me wondering how to get my students to engage with Victorian and twentieth-century media in a way that helps them see a medium as new, cutting edge, the Google glasses of its time (or indeed, perhaps more exciting than Google glasses. The glasses seem, by and large, to be met with a world weariness: “Another gadget? They look so terribly uncool”). Alan, quite rightly, warns against being sucked in by nineteenth-century newspapers’ celebratory accounts of then-new media. That said, while I would Continue reading “Wondering at Then-New Media”

Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader

Screenshot of 19thC Disability:  A Digital Reader
Screenshot of 19thC Disability: A Digital Reader

Following up on Connie’s post on “Editorial Traces:  The Yellow Nineties Online“, I’d like to take this post to introduce another digital project, Nineteenth-Century Disability:  A Digital Reader.  The project is an interdisciplinary, open-access scholarly resource on physical and cognitive disability in the long nineteenth-century.  Leading and emerging scholars in nineteenth-century disability studies (including the Floating Academy’s own Jennifer Esmail and Daniel Martin), have chosen texts and objects important to the field, and annotated them with introductions, footnotes, and suggestions for further reading.

Continue reading “Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader”

Canadian premiere of Linotype: The Film

Date: Wed, 2012/11/21 – 7:30pm – 9:00pm
Place: Room 205, Bissell Building, 140 St. George Street, University of Toronto

image of Linotype machineFrom cave sketch drawings, to fountain pens with ink wells, to writing with a pencil to a pen, to typewriters, to printing materials, to using computer typesetting, we’ve moved from an oral society, to a written one, to a digital one.

From the late 19th century to the 1970s, Linotype was the industry standard for typesetting and printing newspapers, magazines and posters. Now, the publishing industry uses offset lithography printing.

The Linotype type casting machine was called the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ by light bulb inventor, Thomas Edison. The Linotype revolutionized printing and society. To celebrate what the machine allowed us to do, the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto is pleased to present the Canadian premiere of Linotype: The Film, a feature-length documentary centered around the charming and emotional story of the people connected to the Linotype and how it impacted the world. Already, premieres from around the world have been sold out. Continue reading “Canadian premiere of Linotype: The Film”

Victorian “Text Message Poetry” at the British Library’s site

"Emblematic Poetry" (British Library's English Timeline)

The British Library’s Interactive English Timeline presents fascinating glimpses of important moments in the evolution of the English language. I think this could be a really interesting teaching tool for a Victorian literature course and I would especially want to point my students to what the BL has called “Nineteenth-century Text Message Poetry” from 1867: Continue reading “Victorian “Text Message Poetry” at the British Library’s site”


I have made the resolution to use software to manage my citations more than once.  At the beginning of my MA I took a course on Endnote and dutifully used it to produce my master’s dissertation, which probably wasn’t necessary seeing as it was a twenty-five page dissertation with about thirty works cited.  At the beginning of my PhD, I took a course on Refworks and started gathering material there, but didn’t stick with it.  All in all this was okay; I actually found the recent week I had to spend sorting out my references for that project rather soothing on the whole.  I think it gave me the feeling of being productive without having to reflect on the quality of my arguments and analysis. Continue reading “Zotero!”

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”

CFP of Interest: ACCUTE/NAVSA Joint Session: Victorian Technologies and the Technologies of Victorian Studies

From railways to telegraphy, typewriters to telephones, Victorians were engaged with new, and developing, technologies of connection and communication. Innovations in technology over the course of the Victorian period influenced wider cultural ideas of connection, of scale and of human capacity. Like the Victorians, researchers in Victorian Studies are using new technologies of reading, writing, research and social connection that are changing the nature of our work and its dissemination.

This call is for papers that critically address Victorian Technologies and/or the technologies of Victorian Studies. Whether you are interested in the Blackberry or the trans-Atlantic cable, you are invited to submit a proposal for a 20 minute paper to be presented at the ACCUTE/NAVSA joint panel at the 2012 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities in Waterloo, Ontario. Continue reading “CFP of Interest: ACCUTE/NAVSA Joint Session: Victorian Technologies and the Technologies of Victorian Studies”

E-Reader Update

About this time last year, I acquired an e-reader, which I blogged about here, and I thought it might be time for an update on whether the technology was really worth the $150 I shelled out.  Without a doubt the answer is yes.

I have learned a few things about myself with this e-reader. First, I am careless with my possessions in a way that I’m sure would get me called a “slattern” or something equally unflattering in a Victorian novel (I’ve lost the electronic pen and the cover that went with the reader.  It still works.)  Second, despite being trained in close reading, I will read almost any Victorian novel, no matter how garbled the text.  I have read entire novels where Google Book’s character identification software has substituted a question mark for an apostrophe.  Even whole un-paragraphed books.  No matter.  I still enjoyed Oliphant’s Phoebe Junior, Charlotte Yonge’s The Trial, and the first volume of Oliphant’s Hester.  Google Books didn’t digitize the second volume.  I like to think this replicates the experience of the circulating library, you know, when the next volume of the novel you were reading was out.

The number one thing that has changed my use of the e-reader has been renewing my acquaintance with Project Gutenburg.  I had previously used this purveyor of plain vanilla electronic texts to search for passages by keyword that I knew existed and needed to quote, but couldn’t find in my physical copy of the book.   Once I found the passage, I’d check the chapter and flip back to my physical copy.  But, as it turns out, Project Gutenburg now has their texts up in formats to suit every e-reader: ePub, HTML, and even the propriety Kindle format.  And because someone physically typed them in and proofread them, there are no garbled characters.  And if a novel has more than one volume, they’re all there!

Unfortunately they haven’t put up Hester yet.  But I think it’s safe to say that she marries her cousin.  (The brooding one, not the dapper one she turns down at the end of Vol. 1).

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”

Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

I’m teaching a course in Victorian culture this summer, and planning to open the class with a chapter from Charles Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (on “Natural Theology”). His mathematical speculations in this text seem to me perfectly representative of the anxious and industrious Victorian desire to apprehend every incident and accident of the physical world. In his chapter  “On the Permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the Globe we Inhabit,” Babbage theorizes that an exhaustive and precise archive of past events would give us an exact vision of our future (to the extent that the latter unfolds as the accumulated consequence of the former). Continue reading “Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box”

Victorians and the Art of Photocollage

Reprieve! I’ve been steeped in regret at not having posted a review of Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage when it was on at the AGO over the summer. My impressions have liquefied and dribbled off somewhere in the intervening months. Let me offer the Elizabeth Siegel’s curatorial lecture in their stead. In July I would have said that Victorian ephemera was ideal for the summer months, but now that patio season is over, I’m more inclined than ever to get out my pinking sheers in solidarity with Siegel’s subjects.

Grants and Victorian Studies

I just read a fascinating article by Russell M. Wyland, Assistant Research director at the NEH, about the symbiotic relationship between the development of Victorian studies and the development of the NEH as a federal grant agency in the 1950s and 1960s.  I had never thought about the vast amount of resources, especially financial, that it took to get a project like the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals up and running, or the impossibility of doing interdisciplinary work in Victorian Studies without these resources.  The article also made me think of the place of collaborative scholarship that enables other scholarship, like editions and indexes and maybe now web-archives, in the academy.  The NEH is now funding projects like the Nines, which are making scholarly editions and articles even more accessible by putting them online.  I wonder if this is a modern-day equivalent to the Wellesley Index or something even more?

I am also reminded of the importance of scholarly indexes and archives in an era when the Google search can make them seem superfluous.  But, if like me, you’ve ever spent an hour trying to Google whether a portrait of Dinah Mulock Craik still exists to no avail, when, if you’d just gone to the library and looked it up in the catalogue of Holman Hunt’s work you’d have had the answer in less than ten minutes, you know how valuable this work is.

Here’s the link, from the August 2009 issue of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, if you’re interested in following up:


p.s. Holman Hunt didn’t finish the portrait, and it doesn’t exist anymore!

It’s not a Kindle

I recently made the plunge and bought an e-reader last month, and following Jen’s and Daniel’s excellent posts about the digitization of books, I wanted to add in my two cents.

I bought the e-reader before taking a trip to visit family and it was fabulous to travel with–the screen is almost easier to read than a book, and I was able to carry many “books” with me.  As a scholar who works on a lot of non-canonical novels, I’m grateful for easy to access to authors (like Dinah Mulock Craik and Charlotte Yonge) whose complete works aren’t so easy to find.  My copies of Craik’s or Yonge’s or even Charles Kingsley’s novels are often more than 100 years old, and needless to say they don’t travel well!

I wonder, in fact, how much of the reason for the canon is material rather than about “quality”–only so many Victorian novels are in print at any given time, which limits what we can read and think about to some extent.  I think that projects like Google books and devices like e-readers are doing a great thing in making these books more democratically available.  It can only add to the richness and diversity of scholarship in Victorian studies to have this kind of access.  I wonder if we will see a renaissance in work on lesser-known novels as this access increases.  Or, if more ordinary people will start reading more Victorian novels simply because they’re out of copyright and free on the web.

I’ve read a lot of (usually print) articles worried about the demise of the book with the advent of the Kindle.  I don’t see these two things as being in conflict.  I have both a shelf full of beautiful old books which certainly have an aesthetic and cultural value that the e-reader doesn’t, and an e-reader to take with me when I don’t want to damage those beautiful books.

Another benefit to the e-reader is environmental–I have yet to start reading articles on my e-reader, but it is pdf-compatible and I could see this really cutting down on my printing.  There’s even a disability studies angle to this book technology–the option of increasing the font-size makes the technology accessible to the visually impaired, and it’s easier for people with difficulty with fine motor skills to press a button than to turn a page.

The biggest detraction I’ve found so far in reading Google books on my e-reader is that the software they use to decode the fonts and convert it to e-pub format produces some junk characters.  This would be a problem if I was doing a close-reading of one of the novels or quoting from it, and for that I would switch to my print editions.  But for an initial reading of a novel it’s really not a problem.

Do any of you have a Kindle or other reading device?  What has your experience been?

p.s. I personally decided on a Sony because it has a touch screen that allows me to scribble notes on the text and is compatible with Google books, and it didn’t hurt that it was on sale for $150 and red!–but really this could all apply to any device on the market.

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”

Victorian Pop

I’ve been living in the U.S. for a few years now, and one Canadian holiday I really miss is Queen Victoria day. Or, “fireworks day,” as we used to call it when I was little. I think we were missing the point, though I bet Queen Victoria liked fireworks. Maybe.

In the U.S., we have Memorial Day instead. I’m not really sure what it’s about, but Victoria Day should be self-explanatory to any self-respecting Victorianist. Aside from the fact that it doesn’t fall on her real birthday almost ever in the interests of having a long weekend. Continue reading “Victorian Pop”