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CFP: “Videogames and Victorian Studies”

Submission date for Proposals : September 15,2023

The Mansion of Happiness (1842), A nineteenth-century board game. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Victorian Review invites submissions for a special issue devoted to the topic of Videogames and Victorian Studies.” This issue will consider how game texts interact with Victorian genres, aesthetics, and literary themes by commenting on or critiquing their original contexts. Articles will examine how the embodied, user-driven mode of storytelling employed by videogames can offer new engagements with the era’s many lingering legacies in the present. This includes, but is not limited to, questions of class, race, gender and sexuality, colonialism, the professionalization of science, ableist modes of reading, etc.

How do video games, from indie darlings to AAA titles, preserve the influences of the Victorian era and introduce its literature and culture to new audiences? How do games involve users with agentive play that immerse them in nineteenth-century concerns and perspectives? How can game environments, user participation, and active play enrich our understanding of the Victorian period? And how is our understanding of the period evoked, deconstructed, or reaffirmed through game narratives, design, and gameplay?

Possible topics include – but are not limited to:

  • Victorian aesthetics and the videogame.
  • Perspectives of disability studies in relation to game themes, genres or modes.
  • Queering Victorian texts through gaming form, theme or narrative.
  • Combat and colonialism (as critique or underexamined re-entrenchment) in games
  • Victorian themes and genres re-worked in unexpected ways through game worlds and environmental design.
  • Adaptations of Victorian texts, figures or histories in games.
  • Victorian-era predecessors or precursors to the videogame – texts that anticipate interactivity, games, virtual realities, etc.
  • Examinations of Victorian texts/games from a ludology or narratology critical perspective (or its debates).
  • Representations of Victorian-era historical events.
  • The use of gameplay, mechanics, and/or design to engage Victorian-era genres or themes.

Proposals of 400-500 words should be submitted along with a 60-word author biography and one-page CV to Brooke Cameron ( and Lin Young ( by September 15, 2023.

We will notify applicants of results by October 15, 2023. Following acceptance, final papers should be between 5,000 and 8,000 words and will be due by January 15, 2024.

Posthumanism in Alice in Wonderland

by Sandy Burnley

Burnley, Sandy M. “Looking Back: Posthumanism and Sympathy in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Victorian Review, vol. 48 no. 1, 2022, p. 107-123. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2022.0002.

I first engaged with other-than-human animal representations as a master’s student who had just transitioned from veterinary medicine to literature. What these domestic companions had to teach me was not to be found in a clinic but in their sociohistorical imbrication—an entanglement that began to pique my interest when I was a young child reading Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877)and Sarah Trimmer’s The History of the Robins (1786). These entanglements are ubiquitous. Every novel I opened invited interspecies encounters and companionship, but I wanted to know why. Are they simply metaphors for human existence? Or are they conduits who challenge what it means to be human, unraveling the neoliberal and immaterial imaginary that molded the concept of the human in the nineteenth century?

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland offered one possible and curious position for its infamous human character. Alice’s perpetual shapeshifting and attempts at sympathizing with other animals dismisses any stringent parameters hoping to contain the “human” and invites a posthumanist reading where the categories between human, animal, and object playfully reorient themselves. However, there was something else happening in the perimeters. I found myself less drawn to Alice and more focused on the anthropomorphized characters who consistently resisted Alice’s attempt to humanize them. Alice’s adventures evolved beyond what it means to be human and instead showcased the immaterial and imaginary mechanisms that makes one human—the sympathetic gaze.

In Alice’s well-known fall down the rabbit hole, Alice engages with a variety of species, such as a rabbit, mouse, pig, and caterpillar, to name a few. Despite Alice entering Wonderland with arguable politeness, Wonderland’s denizens resist every sympathetic attempt that Alice tries to initiate. Such resistance stands out against the backdrop of Victorians’ movement to preach kindness and sympathy for other species, which could inadvertently function off the idea that other species are vulnerable, passive, and helpless in these interspecies entanglements. Unlike in Sewell’s or Trimmer’s work, these characters were not chastising humans for cribbing or cruelty. Rather, these individuals were vehemently protesting the idea that Alice had any idea or way of imagining what it was like to be in their position and to be of their species.

This refusal to accept Alice’s sympathy led me down my own rabbit hole. I began to investigate sympathy as a mechanism in policing such encounters with the help of Audrey Jaffe’s and Rae Greiner’s scholarship and translating David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s notions regarding sympathy to more-than-human encounters. In this investigation, sympathy no longer seemed like a benevolent and noble framework, but another veiled appropriation of foreign experiences that subordinated these animals to a range of human purposes and representations. It was no wonder they refused such attempts. These sympathetic renderings are exactly what placed the infamous rabbit in a waistcoat—the paradoxical inverse of a human in fur. However, in their silence, in the Caterpillar’s truncated responses, and a kitten’s mute arrest, there is so much more to be said. In every encounter, these individuals do not and cannot teach us how to be human. Instead, they demonstrate the harm of positioning an anthropocentric and sympathetic umbrella over a biopolitically diverse population and harboring these animals solely within our domestic purview. Alice’s encounters promote readers to wonder about their own environment and teach us a kind of applicable reverence that places posthumanist thought well into the nineteenth century.

Burnley, Sandy M. “Looking Back: Posthumanism and Sympathy in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Victorian Review, vol. 48 no. 1, 2022, p. 107-123. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2022.0002.

Species Feeling in Gissing’s New Grub Street

by Jill Galvan

Gibbons mate for life. Matthias Kabel, “Pair of Lar Gibbons at Salzburg Zoo,” May 2006. Wikipedia Creative Commons License.

When I first read George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), I was startled to find how much it focuses on a miserable marriage. I had heard about everything else this novel depicts: hack writers, the literary marketplace, the ravages of capitalism, a cruel post-Darwinian world. But Edwin and Amy Reardon were a shock. Gissing devotes so much time to their home life and to showing how the scarcity economy destroys their relationship.

New Grub Street was the very first novel that piqued my interest in fictional troubled marriage, the subject of my current research. I’ve come to think that there is something about strained wedlock that lends itself to realism and reveals its aesthetics, giving us special insight into the fiction of lifelikeness. Indeed, naturalism, a subgenre of realism—with its great attention to material and biological life as such—often dwells on marital coupledom gone awry. Think of all those spouses or near-spouses in Thomas Hardy’s novels (The Return of the Native [1878], Tess of the D’Urbervilles [1891], Jude the Obscure [1895], and so on) who find coupling up a losing game. The understudied Lucas Malet (Mary St. Leger Kingsley Harrison) likewise plots Nature’s torpedoing of wedlock in Colonel Enderby’s Wife (1885). Several other works in Gissing’s oeuvre, too, hang their naturalism on the story of a bleak engagement or marriage.

With all its focus on evolution and biology and its animalization of the human, naturalism has often been treated as a rather science-y mode. Yet it, like all realism, is an artful genre, careful and formally tricky with character. This trickiness includes a sly play with spatiotemporal scale, along with a heightened awareness of the errors of human perception. Naturalism even includes a subtle perceptual misdirection of us, its human readers. (New Grub Street illustrates this especially well through its meta-treatment of language, story, and reading.)

Perception, like sensation, is both a biological and an aesthetic issue. This makes it a major source of naturalism’s artful realism. Consider a now well-established concept in animal studies, umwelt. This is an organism’s specific in-the-world, perceptual uptake and inhabiting of the environment. A snail, for instance, experiences its environment in a certain way, and this is fundamentally non-translatable to any other type of organism: a unique being-as-experience. What happens when we apply this concept to humans, as also animals? As Ed Yong says in An Immense World (in a helpful metaphor borrowed from umwelt’s original 1909 theorist, Jakob von Uexküll), the human’s inhabited perceptual “house” may be “bigger” than other animals’, but that house still has only so many windows: we are “still stuck inside . . . , looking out. Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. To us, it feels all-encompassing. It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares.”[1]

Naturalism is constantly trying to get inside the small-scale human umwelt-house—our species’ little, ordinary, perceptual experience of life, even in its illusions. It is time to think about naturalist lifelikeness in character-perceptual terms: to get down on the ground with characters. This would include lots of attention to affect—not just bodily sense-being, but also emotion, like the emotion of being in love. In naturalism, love makes characters perceive their fates as controllable, even while the text is hinting at the cruel randomness of Nature-as-Fate. This conflict between life and Life, fate and Fate is a scalar one, and it makes naturalism oscillate; that oscillation is crucial to naturalism’s form. Naturalism renders reality not in spite of human illusion, but because of it. The illusion is, ironically, essential to the realism.  

[1] Ed Yong, An Immense World (NY: Random House, 2022) 6.

To read more, see Jill Galvan, “Love Story’s Ontology: Species Feeling in New Grub Street.” Victorian Review, vol. 48 no. 1, 2022, p. 69-90. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2022.0000.

The Trollopes and Stylometry

by Eleanor Dumbill

The name Trollope is familiar to most readers of Victorian literature. It is most readily associated with Anthony Trollope, though many Victorianists are also familiar with at least the headlines of his mother’s (Frances Milton Trollope) life. There were, in fact, seven published authors in the family over the course of the nineteenth century. We wanted to see how similar the writing styles of these authorial Trollopes were, especially after our identification of particular similarities between works by Thomas Adolphus Trollope and his mother. We suspected that this may, in fact, have stemmed from the mother and son’s professional collaboration, in addition to their close personal relationship. They also acted at various times as the other’s editor. We decided to use stylometry (the statistical analysis of writing style) for a fresh perspective on the relationship between these Trollopes, and between members of the Trollope family more generally.  

After removing those family members who primarily worked in genres other than prose fiction or to whom only one novel was attributed, our corpus consisted of four authors: Frances Milton Trollope, Frances Eleanor Trollope, Thomas Adolphus Trollope, and Anthony Trollope. Rounding out the group was Charles Dickens, chosen because of his editorial relationship with the three younger members of this group and his more scandalous connection to Frances Eleanor Trollope, née Ternan. Our work was guided by two research questions. To what extent can we trace the influence of familial relations on one another’s work? How might we go about the process of untangling these influences when some of these authors are markedly more well-known by modern readers?  

Figure One. Stylometric analysis of prose by the five Trollopes.

The latter question warrants more substantial thought than is possible in an initial study of this kind. However, our results indicated several interesting conclusions about familial and editorial influence. The five authors appear in more or less overlapping clusters (see above figure). A particularly busy area of this analysis represents the similarities between the fiction of Thomas Adolphus, Frances Eleanor, Dickens, and Frances Milton. In our Victorian Review article, we explore what this busyness might mean. In the article, we also reflect on other conclusions we draw from our computational literary analysis, showing how researchers can use ‘distant reading’ techniques like stylometry to complement more traditional methods.  

For more, see Henrickson, Leah and Eleanor Dumbill. “Tangling and Untangling the Trollopes: A Stylometric Analysis of Frances Milton Trollope, Frances Eleanor Trollope, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Adolphus Trollope, and Charles Dickens.” Victorian Review, vol. 47 no. 2, 2021, p. 243-262. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2021.0032.

Ideological Contradictions and Political Power: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim

by Brian Reinken

Figure 1. “On the Road,” an illustration for Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. By John Lockwood Kipling. 1901. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web. Scanned by Jacqueline Banerjee.

A photographed plaster relief illustration that John Lockwood Kipling produced for his son Rudyard’s novel Kim (1900–01) shows Kim and the Lama strolling down the Grand Trunk Road in the company of Indian men and women (Fig. 1). The illustration portrays all of these people in the same pale shade of green, making them look very much alike. The text of the novel, in contrast, represents the Grand Trunk Road as a cornucopia of vivid colors—red, blue, pink, white, and saffron—whose profusion complements the travelers’ human diversity.

Kim is keenly attuned to the details of human difference. Although readers like Edward Said and Patrick Brantlinger have stressed the delight that the novel takes in representing the people of India, there is inevitably something sinister in the way that it observes, classifies, and separates these people into different communities. Oftentimes, the narrator implies that India’s communities reflect “natural” divisions originating in race, religion, or language. At other times, however, Kim suggests that the subcontinent’s social diversity is the product of careful imperialist engineering.

The contradiction between these two claims is difficult to miss—but, rather than revealing a fatal weakness or uncertainty within the pro-imperialist novel’s anthropology, it enables Kim to buttress British power in South Asia. By upholding different claims about Indian communities in response to different circumstances, Kipling portrays the ostensibly immutable facts of nature as protean fabrications. From the perspective of his novel, Indian communities are simultaneously organic and artificial, born and built. They grew into existence from the dawn of history, and they were invented in the nineteenth century by the British Empire’s demographers.

In effect, the contradiction at the heart of Kim empowers British administrators to dictate what it means to be “organically” Indian even while permitting them avoid entrapment in the rigid categories that they call into existence. These administrators become observers who cannot be observed and categorizers who cannot be categorized. Kim’s famously chameleonic protagonist provides the clearest example of this phenomenon. The novel’s opening paragraphs describe him as white and English, but they also invoke his dark skin and his preference for speaking Hindustani rather than his European mother-tongue. When Kim joins the Secret Service as a British spy, his proteanism becomes his greatest asset. He anticipates, manipulates, and co-opts multiple—even contradictory—categories of identity in order to disguise himself, adapt to adverse circumstances, and defend the British Raj.

Today, activists and advocates for human rights often embrace the idealistic hope that exposing the ideological contradictions within oppressive power structures will contribute to those structures’ downfall or reform. Reading Kim, however, offers a sobering reminder that ideological contradictions frequently sustain oppressive institutions rather than weakening them. In the Raj as Kipling represents it, imperial authority thrives on its own internal inconsistency, and imperialism has the potential to survive in perpetuity because it deliberately refuses to commit itself to any particular end. Ultimately, calling attention to inconsistencies within imperialist ideology does not weaken it because the inconsistencies are precisely the point.

To read more, see Brian Reinken, “Recasting India’s Organicism in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.” Victorian Review, vol. 47 no. 2, 2021, p. 263-279. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2021.0033.

Call for Submissions: Victorian Clothing and Cloth

Victorian Review invites submissions for a special cluster of essays on clothing and cloth. Eager to support exciting work on the sartorial lives of Victorians and on the textiles they created and collected, we plan to fast-track publication of accepted articles, which will appear in our Spring 2022 issue (48.2). Essays might address any aspect of Victorian clothing or cloth, from studies of specific makers and designers and artifacts, to analysis of the fabrics and fashions depicted in the literature and art of the period.

Queries can be addressed to Submissions Editor Kristen Guest at Submissions are due no later than May 15, 2022 to and should conform to the requirements of the journal (5,000-8,000 words, MLA style).

Novelistic Modes and Sociological Thought at the Fin de Siècle: George Gissing and Emile Durkheim

by Maria Su Wang

At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive to pair fin de siècle Victorian author George Gissing’s novels of lower middle class urban life with French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s writings on social theory.  After all, not only are they separated by disciplinary context but also national borders.  Upon closer examination, however, bringing these two figures together reveal surprising convergences about novelistic modes and sociological thought at the end of the nineteenth century.

I first encountered Durkheim’s writings on social theory and sociological methodology during my graduate studies, via an interdisciplinary seminar that prompted us to explore various social scientific disciplines and query their potential for literary studies.  When I read Durkheim’s discussion of social facts, which he defines in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) as “any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint” (59), I couldn’t help but be reminded of late nineteenth-century realist form.  Durkheim’s definition here emphasizes the notion of constraint, something external to individuals that exerts pressure on how they act, whether it be physical density limiting movement or internalized social norms restricting behavior.  Yet how does one grasp, much less represent, social constraint?  How does an author make legible what is presumably an internalized social consciousness into narrative form?  Social facts, according to Durkheim, are mostly visible as traces, as aftereffects – they determine and constrain individuals, but are by nature hard to capture directly.

Social facts, that is to say, exist as an invisible collective consciousness that powerfully constrains individuals.  For me, this description crystallizes Gissing’s abiding thematic interest in his novels, what he portrays so powerfully – the pathos of individuals caught within social structures and norms beyond that of their own choosing.  Gissing’s fiction focus on those who experience economic and class precarity brought about by tremendous structural changes at the fin de siècle.  In order to represent such changes, he must strategically craft his narration to show both the external structural constraints and their affective impact on the individual.  Looking at Durkheim’s notion of the social fact allowed me to pinpoint exactly how Gissing’s novels so vividly render such pathos in textual form: by deploying what I call a “constrained omniscience” as a narrative strategy in New Grub Street (1891) and The Odd Women (1893).  This narrative mode, especially in characterization, points to social constraint by performing it.

By looking at Gissing and Durkheim together, my essay reinscribes them into their respective traditions and asks, more broadly, what this comparison reveals about Victorian narrative realism and the development of sociology at the fin de siècle.  Through emphasizing the parallels between Gissing’s narration and Durkheim’s concept, this essay treats both as symptomatic of a broader interest in the fact, pointing to resonances between realist narrative technique and the longer history of disciplinary reorganization that emerges over the nineteenth century.

To read more, see Maria Su Wang, “Constrained Realism: Representing Social Facts in George Gissing’s Fiction.” Victorian Review, vol. 47, no.1, 2021, p. 97-114.

Works Cited

Durkheim, Emile. The Rules of Sociological Method. 1895. Translated by W. D. Halls, The Free Press, 1982.

The Eye, the Ear, the Tongue, the Spirit: W.T. Stead’s Unsurprising Turn to Spiritualist Journalism

by Barbara D. Ferguson

A seated woman in Victorian garb writes in a notebook.

Julia Ames, c.1880, photographer unknown. Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By the time my article about W.T. Stead’s often-overlooked spiritualist periodical Borderland found a home at the Victorian Review, it had already been a graduate seminar presentation, a semester-end essay, a VSAWC conference paper, and a guest lecture. Navigating its research rabbit holes and shifting formats, I sometimes wished I too had a collaborator, as Stead had had Miss X (Ada Goodrich Freer) and Julia for Borderland. Stead openly acknowledged his collaborators in the pages of the work, recognizing Miss X as a prolific spiritualist writer and co-editor, and Julia as the spirit of American journalist Julia Ames, dead more than a year when the periodical launched.

Of course, if I had found even one such collaborator – allowing us to eschew both Zoom and email in favour of telepathy or automatic writing – our results would have raised the same issues Stead’s did more than a century ago: as amanuensis, how would I be able to mediate between my collaborator’s thoughts and my own, or indeed discern one from the other? How would we signal on the page who had written what? And, inevitably, would anyone even take me seriously if I co-authored with a spirit, or would my friends and colleagues tell me I had taken a career-ending misstep onto the fringes of acceptable behaviour?

Stead contended with all these concerns as he and Freer launched Borderland in 1893. He had already established himself as a cultural figure, an author/editor with connections and media clout to be reckoned with, albeit also one with a reputation and a prison record from his years of investigative work. Using multiple pages of the first few editions of Borderland to reprint letters of support and criticism, where activist Josephine Butler, biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, and newspaper editor T.P. O’Connor appear alongside Members of Parliament, regional clerics, and obscure academics is typical of Stead’s social reach and willingness to court public comment (“The Response to the Appeal” pp.10-23; “Some More Opinions on the Study of Borderland” pp.103-113, etc.). Stead’s version of the New Journalism was, by his own publicized assertions, one which strove to influence audiences into action more effectively than any other communication platform. For Stead, the journalistic author was an embodied force on and off the page, present abstractly in their printed byline and voice, and more materially in their public self as a gatherer of information, “at once the eye and the ear and the tongue of the people,” and the means by which those people were represented in print (“Government by Journalism” par.7).

Given his imagining of the journalist’s role as an informational relay – a body simultaneously present and absent in the process of textual transmission – it seems to me hardly surprising that Stead accepted the role as Julia’s amanuensis with little qualm (“My Experience” pp.41-4). Wielding his familiar tools from the New Journalism, he expanded his readership into the spiritualist community by foregrounding Borderland’s collaborative ethos, printing rather thrilling tales of first-person accounts of the uncanny, and recurrently featuring a female voice as an authoritative speaker on the afterlife. On those levels, the project seems entirely in keeping with the savvy journalist Stead had long been. But resolving just how to present these dual-authored messages on the page, and how to attribute the words of each speaker when both he and she were, by his own account, writing as a single being with two consciousnesses… that proved more difficult, and indeed challenged the very tenets of the New Journalism Stead had so long championed.

For more about Stead’s reconfiguration of voice and the new journalism for spiritualist audiences, see Barbara D. Ferguson’s “‘My Spook Speaks Steadease:’ Voice, Mediation, and the New Journalism in W.T. Stead’s Borderland.Victorian Review, issue 47, Spring 2021, pp. 135-52.

Works Cited

Stead, W.T. “Government by Journalism.” Contemporary Review, vol. 49, May 1886, pp. 653–74.

—. “Some More Opinions on the Study of Borderland.” [Various authors] Borderland, vol. 1, no. 2, October 1893, pp. 103-113.

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Gentility and Sympathy in Felix Holt

by Susan Zlotnick

James Gilray, Farmer Giles and His Wife Showing Off Their Daughter Betty to Their Neighbours on her Return from School, 1809. Image Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At first glance, James Gillray’s satirical depiction of a farmer’s daughter displaying her genteel accomplishments, Farmer Giles and his Wife shewing off their daughter Betty to their Neighbours, on her return from School (1809), seems far afield from George Eliot, the most intellectually ambitious and morally serious of all the great Victorian novelists.  However, Gillray’s print captures the social ambitions of families like Eliot’s as well as the derision to which their aspirations were subjected. Growing up in rural Warwickshire as the daughter of a carpenter-turned-estate manager, Eliot was–like Betty–sent off to school to acquire the gentility that was the hallmark of the rising middle class.  One consequence of Eliot’s early training in gentility was a lifelong self-consciousness, a morbid sensitivity to the opinions of others, that was intensified by her later move into London’s elite intellectual circles, where her rustic roots led to frequent accusations that she was insufficiently ladylike.  Eliot’s sensitivity has long been noted by scholars and assumed to be a character trait, part of Eliot’s essential psychological makeup.  In “Class Affect and the Victorian Novelist,” I suggest that we consider Eliot’s self-consciousness as a class affect, or what Raymond Williams refers to as a structure of feeling.    

This essay explores the traces of Eliot’s class affect that can be discerned in Felix Holt: the Radical (1866) and through the trajectory of its heroine, Esther Lyon.  Esther not only shares Eliot’s humble background and boarding-school education in gentility, but she is also singled out in George Eliot’s Life (1885) by Eliot’s late-in-life husband, John Cross, for her resemblance to Eliot on account of her sensitivity to class rank.  While Felix Holt is ordinarily discussed in the context of debates about the extension of suffrage to working men, my analysis places middle-class gentility at the center of the novel, of equal importance to the issue of working-class voting rights, and contends that Eliot uses the trope of sugar to represent both as parallel threats to the moral advancement of the nation.  Moreover, while the titular hero, Felix Holt, has no success convincing his fellow workers to embrace education rather than electoral politics, he does reform Esther.  Under Felix’s rough tutelage, Esther unlearns the lessons of her schooling in fine-ladyism and comes to understand that true distinction, at least in Eliot’s moral universe, arises from renouncing middle-class gentility in favor of sympathy.  In doing so, Esther forgoes the self-consciousness of gentility and embraces the reparative double consciousness of Eliotic sympathy, as she ceases to worry about what her neighbors think of her and begins to think with Felix in mind. Thus, by carefully attending to Esther’s narrative, I argue that Felix Holt offers readers an origin story for Eliotic sympathy by recapitulating its development out of the self-consciousness that was a by-product of Eliot’s own instruction in gentility.  Eliot transforms the excruciating sensitivity that was gentility’s affective legacy into her most distinctive moral concept, and thereby betrays the obscured class underpinnings of her own investment in sympathy.

To read more, see Susan Zlotnick, “Class Affect and the Victorian Novelist: George Eliot’s Gentility and the Origins of Sympathy in Felix Holt.” Victorian Review, vol. 47 no. 1, 2021, p. 115-133. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2021.0012.

Guano, Night Soil, and Dreams of Sustainability

by Mary Bowden

Often seen as prim and repressed in the popular imagination, the Victorians are not usually known for their frank discussions of excrement. In nineteenth-century agriculture, however, excrement was a constant topic of public interest and debate. By the mid-nineteenth century, British farmers had become increasingly dependent on supplies of South American guano (accumulated lodes of bird and bat feces), which they praised as a potent fertilizer. At the same time that farmers scattered guano over their fields, speculators sought to revitalize an older practice in which human excrement, euphemistically termed “night soil,” was used to return fertility to exhausted agricultural fields. In public debates about these fertilizers, the contrast between guano and night soil took on outsized meaning. Critics denounced farmers’ guano dependence for implicating Britain in extractive, international trade, while praising night soil schemes for ensuring a sustainable recycling of nutrients within the British nation.

title page for “Prospectus of the Metropolitan Sewage Manure Company.” Metropolitan Sewage Manure Co., 1845.

As I show in my article, “Night Soil and Nation Building: Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the Guano Economy, and Sustainability,” the novelist Anthony Trollope responds to this agricultural debate by contrasting guano with older agricultural methods. Trollope’s 1876 novel follows Ferdinand Lopez, an arriviste adventurer who speculates in extracted guano. Lopez marries Emily Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy family who characterize Lopez as a suspicious foreigner; this marriage amounts to an extraction of Emily from her family and friends, the Whartons and Fletchers. While the novel does not directly reference excrement recycling schemes, the novel’s marriage plot contrasts Lopez’s implication in guano extraction with the Whartons’ and Fletchers’ promotion of intranational agricultural sustainability. Arthur Fletcher, who had long courted Emily, promotes older agricultural reforms that return benefits to the nation. As Trollope contrasts the Whartons and Fletchers with Lopez, he also contrasts older and newer methods of agriculture, and extractive international trade with intranational sustainability.

Trollope is typically seen as a writer interested in cultural mores and political machinations (particularly in the Palliser series, of which The Prime Minister is a part). But I suggest that Trollope’s engagement with the guano economy positions him as an environmental writer, one who is both keenly aware of attempts to achieve agricultural sustainability, and of the ways in which nationalist sentiment inflected these attempts.

To read more, see Mary Bowden. “Night Soil and Nation Building: Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the Guano Economy, and Victorian Sustainability.Victorian Review, vol. 47 no. 1, 2021, p. 79-96. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2021.0010.