Author Archives: vr_wpadmin

A Matter of Style

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea 1871 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903 Bequeathed by Miss Rachel and Miss Jean Alexander 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01571. Used with permission from the Tate under a Creative Commons License.

by Sharon Smulders

During the first phase of his career, Oscar Wilde composed a series of lyric impressions informed by what he subsequently called “the new aesthetics” (Complete Works 4: 102). Involving an erasure of the seer (“I”) so as to illuminate the seen, these curiously impersonal poems demonstrate, above all, the centrality of form within fin-de-siècle art. They also offer some insight into the politics of beauty. The impetus for examining Wilde’s verse, particularly his objective lyrics, came initially from teaching standard anthology pieces like “Symphony in Yellow” and “Impression du Matin.” In the classroom, I found James McNeill Whistler’s paintings useful for helping undergraduate students to understand Wilde’s poems while also introducing them to aesthetic debates like the one ignited by exhibition of Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket and Nocturne in Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge. These two works, among several on display at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, famously provoked John Ruskin to denounce the painter as a fraud. Even Wilde, in a review for The Dublin University Magazine, mocked his sometime friend’s “colour symphonies” as “certainly worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute” (Complete Works 6: 8). Wilde’s poetic impressions nonetheless owe much to Whistler’s work.

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Daniel Deronda and #MeToo

by Doreen Thierauf

For the past two years, #MeToo activists have insistently argued that rape culture prevents the maturation of a strong sexual subjectivity, especially among girls and young women. Such subjectivity is necessary for the realization that you own yourself—that you are, in fact, a person. Feminist critics like Frances Ferguson have long studied the psychological and legal intricacies of the rape plot as well as that plot’s power to help bring about the modern novel form. Eighteenth-century scholars often highlight the important role of Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) in pitting the pressures of heterosexual social configurations against the heroine’s longed-for, but ultimately impossible, claim to liberal self-possession. Yet some nineteenth-century works such as George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1878), imagine rape—marital rape, to be precise—as a way for willful women to ascend into moral selfhood, to become more fully human by being dispossessed of their own person in marriage.

The insight that rape in the nineteenth century—as today—functions as an occasion to create liberal subjects, an occasion that proves that women ‘have’ interiority to begin with and that they deserve some form of state recognition, is slowly being integrated into the larger scholarly project of fighting rape culture. We must foster stronger awareness among scholars that rape is not a singular occurrence attributable to isolated agents, but a system of behavior for which all parts of the societal system are, in some part, responsible and whose harmful effects we should center in our analysis. Rape is not an individualized phenomenon that is repeated randomly across societies; it’s not a private crime of passion or the result of natural sexual urges. It is a politically significant, “group-based injustice that constitutes a violation of the victim’s civil or human rights,” as Susan Brison noted in 2013. The fact that we often don’t perceive rape to be a random anomaly, but that rape testimonies appear plausible and predictable, means that we have naturalized, maybe even neutralized, rape culture, even as we try to counteract it. The pervasive psychological, physiological, and material fallout of misogyny in all its forms is a collective one.

George Eliot knew this. In my essay on marital rape in Daniel Deronda, I trace the extent to which Eliot held systemic, rather than merely individual forces, responsible for marital rape, a symptom of and contributing factor to the demise of upper-class moral power. When Eliot confronts the representational barriers erected by legally entrenched gender and class privileges, she depicts the female body as animalistic or pathologically hysterical, or uses Gothic, sensational imagery. Eliot’s narrative techniques negotiate married women’s claim to greater legal independence and tell stories for which public intellectuals had not yet developed a language. However, such stories were so well known by the late 1870s that the registers available to Eliot risked literary triteness, barely disguising a reality of systematic elite marital violence.

To read more, see Doreen Thierauf, Daniel Deronda, Marital Rape, and the End of Reproduction.” Victorian Review, vol. 43, no. 2, 2017, pp. 247-269.

A Christmas Carol

by Aubrey Plourde

Marley's ghost appears to Scrooge.
“Marley’s Ghost” by John Leech, 1843, Hand-coloured steeling engraving. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham for the Victorian Web.

As part of his campaign for education and against child labor, Charles Dickens imagined A Christmas Carol as an antidote to the poverty he saw on his visit to Manchester. The book, he believed, would present the plight of the poor in a way his readers could understand, and it would motivate them to do something about it. The book was so phenomenally popular from the moment it was published in December 1843 that it earned Dickens the title “the Man Who Invented Christmas.”

The extent to which A Christmas Carol really did accomplish the social benefits Dickens hoped for was up for debate. Some readers received it as a “new gospel,” supplement or substitute for the scripture that was, perhaps, losing its mass appeal. Others, like Ruskin, bemoaned the Carol’s lack of real sacred truth. While lay readers were drawn in by Scrooge’s conversion, others, including many of its critics, have seen it as a cheap trick, an enchanting but flimsy tale of a hastily-reformed moneyman.

But the novel itself is, in some ways, about enchantment in reading. In my article in “‘Another Man from What I Was’: Enchanted Reading and Ethical Selfhood in A Christmas Carol,” I explore the textual relation between enchantment and ethics in A Christmas Carol. Typically, “Scrooge,” evokes something along the lines of “cheap.” Stingy, miserly, close-fisted, ungenerous, Scrooge has become the mascot of the one-percent. But his criminal frugality, is born of his suspicion. My essay is built on a small premise: Scrooge is a miser because he is a skeptic. If he hoards his wealth and resources, he does so as an outgrowth of his insistence on a materialist epistemology. In fact, he’s a lot like a skeptical reader, taking in the ghosts’ vignettes at first with a guarded sense of suspicion—alert for enchanted humbugs that might hoodwink him—and, I show, ultimately with a performed suspension of disbelief.

The ethical change of A Christmas Carol—a change Dickens explicitly envisioned as not just the reform of Scrooge but in fact the transformation of an entire generation—requires a change in worldview, in standards of truth, and methods of interpretation. In this novel, the imagination is not precisely a better way of getting at truth than materialist logic, calculation, or science—but in fact becomes a method by which epistemologies—visions of past and present, ways of reconciling the self and the other—could be imagined to coexist.

To read the full article in the Victorian Review 42.3, click here.

Nineteenth-Century Auction Narratives

newspaper column
Auction advertisements, the Times, Sept. 19, 1838, p. 8.

by Elizabeth Coggin Womack 

For almost two hundred years, advertisements in the Times of London combined listings of real estate and secondhand furnishings with oblique references to deaths or bankruptcies. The gossipy subtext of these advertisements made them a particularly rich source for satirical allusions in nineteenth-century novels. Yet for Thackeray and Dickens, this form of satire is also an invitation to read more sympathetically. When Thackeray and Dickens use hackneyed commercial phrasing such as “Capital Modern Household Furniture, &c.” to describe a family’s tragic loss, they ask us to reconsider the habitual schadenfreude that gossipy advertisements might encourage, and instead to bring a novel-reader’s sympathy to bear on the most mundane section of the daily newspaper.

While Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Dickens’s Dombey and Son are the primary sources for my work on nineteenth-century auction advertisements, my unofficial inspiration has always been a scene from When Harry Met Sally (1989). Strolling with Sally on a crisp autumn day, the ever-cynical Harry recommends using the obituaries to find a New York City apartment.  “What they can do to make it easier is to combine the obituaries with the real estate section. Say, then you’d have ‘Mr. Klein died today leaving a wife, two children, and a spacious three-bedroom apartment with a wood-burning fireplace.’” What Harry means as a morbid joke was once an established convention for auction advertisements.

To learn more, see Elizabeth Coggin Womack: “Nineteenth-Century Auction Narratives and Compassionate Reading”

Victorian Review, vol 43, no 2 (2017)

Forum: The Anatomy of a Victorian Periodical

CFP: Fraud and Forgery

Submission due date: 15 January 2019

Victorian Review invites submissions for a special issue devoted to the topic of fraud and forgery in the long nineteenth century (1789-1914). This issue will consider representations of fraud and forgery in British literature and culture, ranging from thematic representations of these subjects in literature, their pervasiveness in economic cultures and discourses, to their entanglement with the processes of literary, artistic and cultural production.

Possible topics may include (but are not limited to):

  • The body: disguise; mistaken identity; the signature; impersonation; evidence of the senses; the body as text; misleading the senses; the body as evidence; sexual fraud and forgery; forged signatures
  • The child: illegitimate children; fraud and forgery in children’s literature; the child as forged ‘text’; children and trickery; child fraudsters
  • Love and marriage: bigamy; polygamy; fraudulent marriage contracts or vows; marital falsehoods; inheritance and the ‘marriage market’
  • Death: fraudulent deaths; death and authority; inheritance
  • Politics: political fraud and forgery; acts of censorship; mendacious politicians; political satire
  • Gender: cross-dressing; the gendering of fraud; gendered susceptibility to fraud and forgery
  • The spiritual and supernatural: spiritualism as fraud; the legitimacy of supernatural phenomena; spiritual means of divining ‘truth’; religion as moral economy; discursive overlap between religious ideas and the semantics of finance
  • Financial fraud and forgery: speculation; gambling; counterfeit money; relationship between financial writing and fiction; ideas of credit; paper money and the gold standard; financial bubbles and joint stock companies; trust formation and advertising
  • Counterfeit natures: Replacement food products; false medicine; fraudulent trade in livestock and animals
  • Genres and authorship: poetry and the poetics of monetary meaning; the authority of fiction; periodicals and authorship; financial narratives and ‘it-narratives’; pseudonyms
  • Paratexts: images and documents as evidence in literary narratives; maps; forged documents
  • Neo-Victorian and other anachronistic narratives: imitations of Victorian style and genre; adaptations or dramatisations of Victorian works.

Articles must be between 5000 and 8000 words and formatted according to MLA (8th edition) guidelines. Please submit manuscripts in Word-compatible format to the editors, Dr. Elly McCausland (University of Oslo, Norway) and Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen (Aarhus University, Denmark) by 15 January 2019 at fraudforgeryconference@gmail.com

A Crisis of Liberalism

Fosco pets a dog

“Count Fosco and the Dog” from The Woman in White (New York: Harper, 1873). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

by Sophia Hsu

Like the Victorians, we in the contemporary West are not as liberal as we think. The idea that the West is the world’s timeless arbiter of freedom is a myth that has been ingrained in our thinking since at least the nineteenth century. Whig historians such as Thomas Macaulay were largely responsible for creating this myth by obscuring English liberalism’s violent, erratic past—a myth that twenty-first-century Britons, Americans, and other Western peoples have inherited and rewritten for their own stories about their respective nations’ foundings.

In my article, I show how Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White disrupts the liberal fantasies Victorians liked to tell about themselves. Through its Italian characters Pesca and Fosco, the novel shines a light on English liberal hypocrisy, exposing the fallacy of England’s self-perception as a liberal sanctuary. Collins might seem like a strange figure to discuss to problematize the West’s liberal narratives. For a while, Victorianists viewed his sensation novels and the sensation genre in general as complicit in liberal ideology.[1] More recently, however, scholars argue that sensation fiction is more critically sophisticated than previously believed.[2] With my article, I join these scholars in illuminating the critical capacity of sensation fiction. Through my rereading of The Woman in White, then, perhaps we can not only reconsider the political function of the sensation genre but also remind ourselves of liberalism’s entanglement with violence, thus providing us with a model to unsettle our own complacencies about our national histories and identities.

Indeed, in revisiting my article to write this blog post, I’ve become increasingly struck by the continued relevance of Collins’s critique. As a Victorianist living in the U.S., I find myself thinking a lot about what it means to do Victorian studies in the age of Trump. I know I’m not alone in such contemplation. In addition to the many conversations I’ve had with friends, family, and colleagues, I’ve read numerous articles and blog posts that tackle this very question: what role do we as scholars of Victorian literature and culture play in what feels like a heightened time of racism, white nationalism, sexism, distrust, etc.?[3] My first answer usually lies in the significance of teaching and modeling critical thinking. Entangled with this is my second answer: teaching students how to think critically means giving them the tools to “historiciz[e] the present.”[4]

The importance of historicizing is, of course, not new. But historicizing gains a new sense of urgency now when both sides of the political spectrum appeal to popular but categorically false myths about the U.S. as a beacon of liberty, democracy, and order. For example, just before drafting this post, I spent my morning reading news articles that reported how Trump supporters and opponents alike are using the idea that the U.S. is a land of laws and equality in order to defend or attack the administration’s recent policy to separate immigrant families. While it may seem contradictory that these factions can appeal to the same national narrative, their appeal makes sense when we consider how and why this narrative persists. In exposing the beginnings of this myth, The Woman in White might not be the story we (or the Victorians) want to read, but it is perhaps the story we desperately need.

Read more.

Hsu, Sophia. “The History of Liberal Violence in The Woman in White,” Victorian Review
vol 43, no 1, Spring 2017, pp. 111-128.

Notes

[1] See, for example, Jonathan Loesberg, “The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensation Fiction,” Representations 13 (1986): 115–38 and D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police, Univ. of California Press, 1988, 146–91.

[2] See, for example, Anna Maria Jones, Problem Novels: Victorian Fiction Theorizes the Sensational Self, Ohio State Univ. Press, 2007.

[3] For a recent example of this literature, see the latest V21 series on pedagogy, “Victorian Teaching Now: Teaching Under Trump” (http://v21collective.org/victorian-teaching-now-teaching-trump/).

[4] Mary Mullen, “Teaching Under Trump: Historicizing the Present,” http://v21collective.org/teaching-trump-historicizing-present/. See also Ryan Fong, “Connection as Confrontation,” http://v21collective.org/connection-as-confrontation/.

Hamilton Prize Winner

We’d like to congratulate the Hamilton Prize winner for 2017, Scott Thompson of Temple University. Thompson’s prize-winning essay is entitled, “Subjective Realism and Diligent Imagination: G. H. Lewes’ Theory of Psychology and George Eliot’s Impressions of Theophrastus Such“; it will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of the Victorian Review.

Wilkie Collins and the Sensational Baby

Black and white photograph of a baby in a bonnet.

Baby ‘Pictet,” by Julia Margaret Cameron, image courtesy wikimedia commons.

by Tamara Wagner

The Victorian baby is generally thought of as a cliché, a useful icon of domesticity, an accessory in idealisations of motherhood, childhood, or the family. Once one takes a closer look, however, the baby of nineteenth-century popular culture emerges as a very volatile and flexible figure that appears in surprising forms and undertakes a range of narrative functions. The most provocative manifestation of odd literary babyhood in Victorian fiction is indisputably the sensational baby. Sensation novelists were aware of the controversial potential and often played out striking instances of incongruity, and yet the most revealing instances push the placements of infants in sensational scenarios beyond their usefulness as emblems of innocence that enhance – through sheer force of contrast – a sensational incursion into the domestic. Instead, babies are central to mysteries or import a potential threat. Wilkie Collins not only features infants in startling moments that play with the baby’s expected sentimentalisation; he challenges conventional representations of such controversial issues as illegitimacy, child-stealing, or adoption. In the process, he exposes the precariousness of childcare at a time when blended families were fairly common, but there was little to no legal protection for informally adopted or fostered children. He also interrogates normative conceptions of breastfeeding, for example, and in his early sensational novel Hide and Seek (1854), a clown’s wife offers to suckle a starving infant at the roadside, drawing attention to the wide variety of very visible breastfeeding scenes in Victorian literature. In his later novels, he explores the distress of birth mothers who have given up or lost their babies and creates one of the most explicit evocations of a baby-farmer in nineteenth-century fiction. Collins’s fictional babies indeed offer a compelling entry-point into a revealing re-examination of the ambiguities and contestations that lay underneath the Victorian iconography of babyhood.

Wagner, Tamara S. “Wilkie Collins’s Sensational Babies: Lost Mothers and Victorian Babyhood,” Victorian Review, vol 43, no 1, Spring 2017, pp. 129-142.

To read more, click here.

On Ravens and Writing Desks: Alice’s Adventures in Taxidermy

taxidermy cats hold a tea party


“The kittens at tea – Miss Paulina singing“, Hermann Ploucquet, 1851.

by Lin Young

Touring the world of Victorian taxidermy inevitably leads you down a number of strange, otherworldly rabbit holes. Although grim and garish by today’s standards, Victorians were enchanted by stuffed animals in waistcoats, and animal taxidermy could be found both in natural history museums and private studies. In my own research, I came across plenty of stories of Victorians wandering the grounds of the Great Exhibition, taking in the sights of Hermann Ploucquet’s animal taxidermy tableaux of frogs at their shaving-tables and kittens sipping tea. There’s also Walter Potter, arguably the most famous Victorian taxidermist, whose popular ‘masterwork’, The Death of Cock Robin, was produced in 1861—exactly one year before Lewis Carroll first entertained Alice Liddell with his own stories of anthropomorphic rabbits.

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