Tag Archives: Tara MacDonald

Caroline Levine’s NAVSA Plenary or What Can the Victorians Teach us?

by Tara MacDonald

NAVSA – the North American Victorian Studies Association – just held its annual conference in Phoenix, Arizona. This year’s theme was Social Victorians, a rich topic that lent itself to a wide variety of papers. When I decided that I would like to write a post for The Floating Academy on Caroline Levine’s thought-provoking plenary – which ended the conference – I had no idea that I would be writing after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, an event that has prompted an increase hate crimes and reactionary protests. It now seems that Levine’s calls to action for humanities scholars are more important than ever.

Levine’s talk, “Forms of Sociability: Novels, Numbers, and Other Collectives” began with the claim that we, as humanities scholars, typically do not deal with generalities but with singularities. Singularities are exceptions to the rule, oddities, moments or examples of strangeness. Why and how do we study singularities, she asked? Singularities are typically what humanities critics point out, through skills like close reading. Emphasizing singularities can help us to poke holes in broad arguments, to argue for nuance, and to say that things are not as they might obviously seem. But, being scholars of singularities might mean that we are on the defensive or that we don’t get to make large, important claims. Or perhaps it means – and this was one of Levine’s main claims – that we can point out social or political problems but not contribute to their solution.

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Floating Academy: Earthworms, Thomas Hardy, and Touch as Knowledge

by Tara MacDonald I’m teaching a upper-level undergraduate Victorian literature class this term that focuses on bodies, ghosts, and technologies. Typically in a class like this I would assign a number of Victorian texts as well as critical articles. While I picked some great articles for the students to read alongside Wuthering Heights, Lady Audley’s Secret, A Laodicean, Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, and In the Cage, as I put the syllabus together, I realized that I also wanted my students to be aware of what Victorianists were researching right now. As Moscow, Idaho (my new home) isn’t exactly the center of Victorian studies in the US, I opted to have students listen to lectures recorded for the London Nineteenth-Century Seminar, posted on the website of the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. They listened to Sue Zemka’s talk “Prosthetic Hands and Phantom Limbs,” (Thursday 28 May 2015) and Anna Henchman’s “Darwin’s Earthworms and the Sense of Touch” (Wednesday 11 March 2015). Both talks connected to our reading but also presented interesting experiments in listening without any visual cues. We all admitted that it was more challenging to stay focused listening rather than reading. It was also a bit tricky following all of Sue Zemka’s lecture as she used so many images to explain the history of artificial limbs (if I do this next year, I’d show students some of the images she refers to before they listen to the lecture rather than after). Anna Henchman’s talk was also hard to listen to at times because there were a few sound issues and many people coughing in the audience! Despite these challenges, our own experiences nicely related to the talks’ emphasis on senses other than sight. Both focused in the sense of touch in particular; indeed, this seems to be a topic attracting attention from many Victorianists at the moment. Continue reading

Floating Academy: Bodily Sympathy, Imitation, and Victorian Literature

Three images of facial expressions of disdain and disgust from Darwin's Expression of Emotions.

From Darwin’s Expression of Emotions… From: Wellcome Library, London.

By Tara MacDonald Sympathy is perhaps the most frequently discussed emotion among scholars working in Victorian literature and culture. Many have argued how important notions of sympathy and later empathy were to the development of nineteenth-century subjects and the novel as a genre. Most of these critics understand sympathy as cognitive, or as a kind of mental feeling. In Scenes of Sympathy, for instance, Audrey Jaffe draws from Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments when she explains that “sympathy ‘does away’ with bodies in order to produce representations, replacing persons with mental pictures, generalized images of ease and of suffering” (11). Yet for many Victorian thinkers, sympathy did not ‘do away’ with the body. In fact, in Victorian scientific and philosophical writing, as well as in much literature of the period, sympathy was often understood as an affective response that was deeply physiological and embodied. Henry George Atkinson, writing to Harriet Martineau in their collaborative text Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development in 1851 called sympathies between individuals, “the influences of one organized body upon another” (117-18). If scholars working on nineteenth-century literature have been so invested in notions of sympathy as a cognitive and ultimately ethical response to reading, how might we read literary texts alongside a more embodied and potentially more ambiguous understanding of sympathy? more

Floating Academy: Victorian Insect Bodies

By Tara MacDonald

Beatrix Potter, ‘Studies of nine beetles’ © Frederick Warne & Co. 2006. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Beatrix Potter, ‘Studies of nine beetles’ © Frederick
Warne & Co. 2006. Image courtesy of the Victoria
and Albert Museum.

Recently, I was giving a talk on Victorian sensation fiction and I wanted to stress the ways in which this genre emphasizes materiality and the experiential dimension of the body. I linked the genre’s investment in the matter of the body to what some critics have called ‘the material turn.’ Many contemporary critical fields – feminist theory, ecocritism, postcolonial theory, critical posthumanism, and social and cultural geography – have seen a renewed interest in embodiment and the senses. Theorists in these fields frequently engage with phenomenology, referencing and building upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the body as a phenomenal, changing, and lived body that alters as it interacts with an environment to which it both responds and shapes. Yet such an emphasis is also visible in Victorian writing, as critics like William Cohen, in his excellent Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (2009), have shown. So what many contemporary critics have called the materialist turn is in some senses, a material return.

In my current work, I’m specifically interested in the ways that sensation fiction puts into practice – or at least into representational form – a materialist understanding of the body in the world. An example that demonstrates this comes from Thomas Hardy’s first novel Desperate Remedies (1871). In this scene, the heroine’s clothes touch those of a man to whom she is attracted and send “a thrill through” her. The narrator explains:

His clothes are something exterior to every man; but to a woman her dress is part of her body. Its motions are all present to her intelligence if not to her eyes; no man knows how his coat-tails swing. By the slightest hyperbole it may be said that her dress has sensation. Crease but the very Ultima Thule of fringe or flounce, and it hurts her as much as pinching her. Delicate antennae, or feelers, bristle on every outlying frill.

There is much to say about this passage – and what I consider (maybe optimistically) to be the tongue-in-check sexism of the narrator – but what is striking here is the way in which the heroine seems to be all sensation; the materiality of her body extends into her clothing, which itself mimics the behavior of insects. This reminded me of a passage I came across while reading Cohen’s book: it’s a description by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which he wrote after visiting the Victorian writer Harriet Martineau in 1854. Hawthorne records his impression of Martineau, who was nearly deaf and used an ear-trumpet:

all the while she talks, she moves the bowl of her ear-trumpet from one auditor to another, so that it becomes quite an organ of intelligence and sympathy between her and yourself. The ear-trumpet seems like a sensitive part of her, like the feelers of some insects. If you have any little remark to make, you drop it in …

In this wonderful description, Martineau’s prosthesis is a part of her body, but it also extends to her auditor’s body, creating a sympathetic connection between them and allowing him to “drop in” his words. In my talk, I emphasised that these two examples demonstrate the body as extended, dynamic, and indiscrete in ways that are largely positive: both Cytherea’s and Martineau’s “feelers” allow for an intimacy with another body that is marked as either sexually exciting or sympathetic.

Yet after receiving some great questions, I was lead to think a bit more about the surprising language of insects creeping into these passages. Hardy writes that Cytherea’s clothing mimics “[d]elicate antennae, or feelers” and Hawthorne describes Martineau’s ear-trumpet as like “the feelers of some insects.” I’m still puzzling over these associations between women and insects. The insect feelers seem to present the women as susceptible and sensitive, but rather than dehumanizing them (though this is debatable with Hardy), they seem to emphasize another way of sensing and feeling that extends human capabilities. Another, if slightly different, example that comes to mind is from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which was published in 1874 but began serial publication in 1871, the same year as Hardy’s novel. The narrator famously calls the various narratives in the novel a “web,” but also compares gossip to pollen: “News is often dispersed as thoughtlessly and effectively as that pollen which the bees carry off (having no idea how powdery they are) when they are buzzing in search of their particular nectar.” These comparisons to insect life seem to offer both Hardy and Eliot a way to think about human communication and touch in a post-Darwinian world. I’m curious to hear if you have encountered other human-insect comparisons in Victorian (or nineteenth-century American) literature and what they enable writers to say about human interaction and the body.

Floating Academy: Conference Report: The Local and the Global in Venice

By Tara MacDonald

I’m just back from the NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA Conference in Venice, where I did see the William Morris painting that Eddy discusses in his post below (will add a comment this week, Eddy!). It was a really wonderful conference, with a wide range of papers. As a conference running over four days, with seven panels at any one time, it’s impossible to sum up just one or two specific threads that ran through the talks. What I can say, though, is that the joining of these three different Victorian Studies Associations – from North America, the UK (and the rest of Europe, if you include people like me), Australia, and Asia made for a very exciting, diverse group. It was a real pleasure to meet colleagues from Australia, many of whom remarked how isolated they felt from other Victorianists and what a treat it was to join forces in Venice. I spoke to one conference-goer who was going to visit London after the conference for the first time. Having taught nineteenth-century British fiction for years, it would be her first chance to see the city that she knew so much about but had never experienced for herself. Pretty exciting.

The conference theme lead to a rich variety of papers: I heard Jessica Howell discuss the lives of nurses in colonial Africa, Ross Forman speak about queer relationships and sex scandals in the colonies, and Nina Harkrader discuss the architecture of workhouses in London. In an intriguing paper, Anne-Marie Beller explored the depiction of Italian characters in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s little-known poem Olivia, arguing that Braddon played with, but ultimately challenged, stereotypes of both the English and Italians. In fact, Beller argued that the Italian figure, Angelo, actually emerges as the most tragic figure the text. Braddon depicts a duel between the Italian and English men in the poem – both of whom are competing for Olivia – but when the Englishman accidentally kills Angelo, he brings the Italian man’s body back to Italy and stays to care for his grave. The poem, then, is fascinating as an example of male compassion (Olivia has already moved on with a new lover, so readers need not worry about her) but also as a text that establishes a bond between these two countries. Not surprisingly, papers on the British understanding and representation of Italy were popular at the conference. One aspect of Beller’s paper that was striking, though, was her comparison of Braddon’s poetry, and her depictions of Italy, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s; these are writers whose work is not often compared but Beller’s juxtaposition was enlightening.

Pamela Gilbert also offered an unusual pairing in her reading of Victorian skin and subjectivity, discussing Hegel alongside Wilkie Collins. I was lucky enough to attend Gilbert’s Work-in-Progress Seminar, entitled Victorian Skin: Surface and Self. She allowed the participants to read a chapter from her book project on this topic and explained that she began the project without a set, strict theoretical framework. Interested in the normative, rather than deviant body (though aware of the murky lines between such designations), Gilbert began by asking herself questions like, what did the Victorians talk about when they talked about skin? How is skin figured as identity, a boundary, or even an object or relic in the nineteenth century? Given changing conceptions of the body, new medical developments, and fluctuations in gender, class, age and racial identities throughout the Victorian period, human skin, as a cover for the body but one that always risks being influenced by outside sources and other bodies, certainly emerges as an important and wide-ranging topic. Her project is one of those that is so exciting and, even, necessary that it’s surprising that no one has explored this topic in depth until now. I’m reluctant to say too much about the chapter that we read, as it is still a work in progress, but I look forward to reading the book when it comes out!

Tara MacDonald

Dr. Tara MacDonald is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Amsterdam. Her interests include sensation fiction, Victorian masculinity, and neo-Victorian novels. Dr. MacDonald holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Dalhousie University, a Master of Arts Degree from Dalhousie University, and a Ph.D. from McGill University. She has also completed her postdoctoral work at the University of Toronto.