Author Archives: vr_wpadmin

Wilkie Collins and Trans Studies

by Jolene Zigarovich

Collins, Wilkie. The Law and the LadyThe Graphic, 26 September 1874-13 March 1875; Harper’s Weekly, 10 October 1874-27 March 1875.  

The currently unprecedented visibility of trans characters, issues, and lives seems to be part of a larger political conversation and movement, especially in the United States. While issues such as bathroom bans, workplace discrimination against the trans-identified, housing discrimination, lack of access to health care and social services, and other legal and political debates abound, the intersex and transgender community has received sustained national, and now global, attention. As Stephen Whittle puts it, “a trans identity is now accessible almost anywhere.” Third-gender (or gender variant option) categories are emerging on government documents and applications in Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The familiar woman/man binary in global bureaucratic and administrative structures is seeing a distinct shift and reassessment. However much transgender, like other contemporary categories of identity, “operates within neoliberal conditions,” Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura recognize that it has also offered powerful critiques of both homo- and hetero- nationalisms and normativities, as well as critiques of gender regulation itself as a tool of biopolitical governmentality.”  With this political context, formulating an approach with which to interpret literature and culture with the trans prefix has added cultural weight and understanding to utilize and deploy. Thus my essay, and this special issue of “Trans Victorians” curated by Ardel Haefle-Thomas, seeks to illuminate the productive ways transgothic bodies, identities, and rhetorics contribute to a wide variety of critical and necessary interpretations.

In taking up the gender nonbinary and transgender characters in The Law and the Lady I’m not suggesting Collins was directly aware of his culture’s medical and scientific approaches to what we would now term the transgender and intersex populations, but his novel seeks to subvert gender norms through nonbinary characters. In part, my essay shows that the sensation genre allows for and celebrates these subversions and creates spaces for sympathizing with non-normative characters. As the essay examines proto-trans characters and transgender potentialities in The Law and the Lady, we can better understand Collins’s overt and covert rejection of rigid gender binaries, noting that sensation fiction often portrayed a society in which secure gender identity was being questioned. Specifically, I’m claiming that these trans possibilities are dramatically developed in this text as the medical investigation of genderqueer and transgender people was growing in social interest. The Law and the Lady exploits and fetishizes trans characters, and in several instances institutionalizes or punishes them for their difference. For example, Dexter and Ariel are mutually coupled in their disabilities, gender variance, and sadomasochistic tendencies. Caregiver and devoted servant and partner, Ariel cannot exist without her mutually “strange” counterpart, and both she and Dexter are ultimately victimized by and sacrificed to the prevailing heteronormative social structure. Yes, their violent love is erotic and interdependent; yet Dexter and Ariel have created a private world where their nonconforming gender identities are accepted and mutually supported. Acknowledging the benefit of disability studies and crip readings of the novel, my approach seeks to illuminate the novel’s transgender characterization, showing how Collins’s non-normative characters are (if only temporarily) provided trans spaces, lives, and families.

For more, see Jolene Zigarovich, “A Strange and Startling Creature” Transgender Possibilities in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady.” Victorian Review, vol 44, no 1, 2018, pp. 99-111.J

A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies

by Lisa Hager

Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. “Portrait of Abigail Allen. Portrait of the female husband!” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1829.

As someone who is both a Victorian studies academic and a partner to a trans masculine person, I see my recent article on “A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies,” as in many ways, a love letter to both the academic and trans communities that occupy such important places in my life. It began with a seemingly simple question that Joseph Bristow asked me many years ago as I was telling him what I was currently working on: “Where is the trans studies work in all of this?” In the moment, I brushed aside the question, telling him that my current Victorian studies work didn’t intersect with trans-focused activism and communities of my personal life. Fortunately, like many important questions, the question wouldn’t go away, and I kept hearing it in my head as I continued to work on other projects.

As I went about the usual business of my academic life—attending conferences, writing articles,  teaching classes—I couldn’t help but notice how Victorian studies as a discipline had yet to deeply engage with the core trans studies idea that assigned-at-birth-gender does not equal a person’s (or a character’s!) gender. In short, Victorian studies had yet to fully grapple with the existence of transgender people in our time and throughout history since gender itself has existed.

In particular, this absence of a trans-inclusive conception of gender was made especially clear to me when I came across scholarly discussions of nineteenth-century “female husbands” that assumed without question that such people were women who masqueraded as men in order to marry other women. Instead, as my article argues at length, we must parse out relationship between the gender identities and sexualities of these people to better understand the highly mediated narratives about them. In doing so, the persistence with which the men whom the periodical press termed “female husbands” (usually after the so-called “discovery” of their designated at birth gender) insisted on and fought for their gender identities as men, even the absence of a partner, calls on present-day academics to honor their identities as men and to situate them within transgender literary history. Moreover, this approach enables us to see how the commonalities and connections between the narratives created around such men not only shape modern-day discourses around trans identities but also our understanding of gender itself.

To read more see Lisa Hager, “A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies: “Female Husbands” of the Nineteenth Century,” Victorian Review, vol 44, no 1, pp. 37-54.

Fanny and Stella

by Simon Joyce

“A Retrospect of the Boulton and Park Case: From Bow Street Station to the Van, April 10th 1870.” From Illustrated London News (9 April 1870), p. 147.

I’m finishing a book called LGBT Victorians which presents a larger body of evidence of non-normative genders and sexualities and more tolerant attitudes than the Wilde trials might suggest. I’ve been considering whether there were Victorians that we might now call transgender, and how to identify them in the archives given that no such term existed then. I became interested in a trial a quarter century before Wilde’s of two people that historians always refer to as “crossdressers,” who were arrested in women’s clothing at a London theater in 1870, charged with conspiracy to commit sodomy, and ultimately exonerated. Based on images of the pair, who called each other “Fanny” and “Stella,” I wondered if they might qualify as transgender Victorians. We now make a distinction, after all, between cross-dressing and being transgender, and I knew that they used female pronouns in letters, had supportive parents who bought them dresses, and were frequently photographed in them.

They came from privileged backgrounds and could pay for lawyers and medical experts to help defend themselves. Because it was a jury trial, transcripts were taken down by hand in massive volumes that are housed in the Public Records Office in London, near the Kew botanical gardens. I visited in January 2016, a strange time because it was the week that Bowie died. Fanny and Stella’s case has been pored over by many scholars interested in the history of sexuality and I recognized pencil marks in the margins as the groundwork for various accounts. I was looking to make another argument, however, and was drawn to information that had been overlooked by historians who assumed they were crossdressers, gay men, and therefore actually guilty. The transcripts gave me significant insights I couldn’t have known otherwise. Even though Fanny and Stella appeared, after their initial arraignment, in clothing we associate with men, witnesses and court personnel kept using female pronouns even when they were trying not to—so the transcripts are dotted with misstatements and self-corrections. Here’s an inadvertently funny piece of testimony as transcribed:

What was it that excited your suspicion about Mr. Boulton being a woman?

It was because she appeared so effeminate.

Anything else?


Transcript excerpt from Fanny and Stella trial.  U.K. Public Records Office (Queen v. Boulton and Others), DPP 4/2: 171.

In these moments, what people thought they knew was at odds with what they saw in front of them, so they misspoke in what we might now recognize as Freudian slips.

Other information confirmed my research instincts. Fanny and Stella had been under police observation for over a year, and scholars have wondered why they were finally arrested; in an eerie foreshadowing of the current obsession with transgender people’s access to bathrooms, what precipitated it was that Fanny went to a women’s cloakroom to fix her dress. Prosecutors thought this important enough to track down the cloakroom attendant, although it was hard to see how it helped their case: as Fanny’s lawyer sensibly put it, “does a man go into a Ladies Retiring Room for the purpose of committing the detestable crime charged here?” Moments like this bring the past into an immediate and shocking dialogue with our present, which is one of the effects I hope to accomplish with my research.

To read more, see Simon Joyce, “Two Women Walk into a Theatre Bathroom: The Fanny and Stella Trials as Trans Narrative,” Victorian Review, vol 44, no 1, pp. 83-98.

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 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

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.


[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” (

[4] Mary Mullen, “Teaching Under Trump: Historicizing the Present,” See also Ryan Fong, “Connection as Confrontation,”