Category Archives: Uncategorized

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”

A Victorian Taxonomy of Occupations

By Alison Hedley

In Summer 2018, the Ryerson Centre for Digital Humanities launched the website for the Yellow Nineties Personography, a biographical database of persons who contributed to a number of little magazines produced in Britain at the fin de siècle, as documented by the Yellow Nineties Online. The website is a culmination (but not the final output) of many years’ research and development. One of the most theoretically challenging aspects of this work has been developing the Personography’s domain model—a formal representation of its organizational structure which describes the Personography’s knowledge domain by assigning the data classes, attributes, and rules. The taxonomy of Victorian occupations that constitutes a specific sub-structure of this ontology illustrates how digitally documenting the Victorians can enhance our recognition of the possibilities and limitations inherent in both historical and contemporary models for structuring cultural knowledge.

Continue reading

Henry Hawkins’s Newspaper Heist of 1892

By Stephan Pigeon

“March of Education.” Punch Historical Archive [London, England] 17 May 1879: 227. Punch Historical Archive, 1841-1992. Web. 3 Aug. 2018. Gale News Vault.

In the nineteenth-century newspaper marketplace, journalists and editors prized access to the latest news. Consistently delivering desirable correspondence and the most up-to-date information meant a dedicated readership. An edge on competitors meant greater sales and profits.

While many British newspapers paid for updates and intelligence through a news agency or supplied their own correspondents, some papers relied on reprinting news from articles that had already been published. Without an effective copyright in news, texts regularly circulated throughout the press. While cutting out an article and reprinting it – known as ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism – was a handy method to deliver the latest information, it still meant waiting for another paper to publish the news first. For some newspaper proprietors, this was not sufficient.

Continue reading

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.

CFP: Victorian Animals, Deadline August 15

The dormouse speaks to Alice, the birds and a crab

Illustration to the third chapter of Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel. Wood-engraving by Thomas Dalziel.

In light of the recent flowering of scholarship that brings together Victorian Studies and Animal Studies we are soliciting submissions for a cluster of essays on Victorian Animals, which will be published in our Spring 2019 issue. Essays might address any aspect of Victorian Animality, from studies of specific animals, institutions, and organizations, to readings of the figure of the animal in the literature and art of the period. Queries can be addressed to Submissions Editor Kristen Guest at vreview@unbc.ca.

Submissions are due August 15 to vreview@unbc.ca and should conform to the requirements of the journal (5,000-8,000 words, MLA style; full guidelines at http://victorianreview.org).

Island Encounters in Focus

by Carla Manfredi

Lloyd Osbourn

Lloyd Osbourne dressed as a Marquesan. Image Courtesy The Writers’ Museum, Museums and Galleries Edinburgh.

In June 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson and his family set sail for the Pacific Islands aboard the Casco. It was not long before the famous author, encouraged by his wife and step-son who had packed at least two cameras and 1200 plates, became an enthusiastic practitioner of travel photography. Over the course of three years spent cruising, Stevenson visited no less than fifty islands across the areas known as Polynesia and Micronesia and, in collaboration with his family, produced approximately 600 photographs. When the peripatetic family settled in Sāmoa in 1891, they organized their photographs into four family albums. Stevenson, however, never left the Pacific; after his death in 1894, the precious album collection remained with his family until they bequeathed them to Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum in the 1930s.

Continue reading