Tag Archives: Victorian studies

On Topography and Hunger in Mary Barton

This week’s guest, Thomas A. Laughlin, has a PhD in English from the University of Toronto.


William Wyld, Manchester from Kersal Moor, 1852

“Mrs. Gaskell could not just give what we would now call a ‘slice of life,’ partly because she wanted to offer more, but also partly because the novel as a form was felt to require movement, the progress of a story. This is the problem of form. Mrs. Gaskell has to overcome the difficulty that whereas her strength lies in evocation, description, analysis of a situation, the strength of the novel seemed to lie in the fact that it could absorb readers in a story, that is, that it worked through plot.” (Gill 22)

This is the famous contradiction and tension at the heart of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel, Mary Barton. The novel gathers more content and conflicts than its narrative can adequately process. The plot, we have to admit, isn’t the greatest. Nor is there much satisfaction to be derived from the characters, who, in my opinion, are obstinately and unbelievably single-minded in their concerns and pursuits. But personally, I like that it begins in the countryside, dwells in the twisted streets and back alleys of a Manchester working-class neighborhood, traverses both the factory floor and the union meeting, brings back news of the Chartists’ disappointed presentation of the People’s Charter to the Parliament in London, connects the working class to the wandering “lumpen” masses, involves a secret assassination plot, follows Mary to Liverpool and almost all the way out to sea, has a courtroom melodrama, and ends with Mary and Jem emigrating to Canada! There is a kind of topographic euphoria in the novel—a will to connect and “complete,” as Eric Hayot might say (see Hayot 60-67). Each topos is as vivid and valid—that is, as believable and necessary—as the previous, even if their relationship remains arbitrary, a connecting contingency of geography. Continue reading

Dickens’s Extraordinary Traveller: Immersive Media Forms and the World as Panorama

By Daniel Martin

Of all of Dickens’s prose non-fiction, the one piece that has consistently troubled me the most since I started thinking about Dickens’s journalism and its bearing on the prehistory of immersive media spectacles is “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller,” published in Household Words in April, 1850. A typical Dickensian flight of Fancy, this notice introduces readers to the figure of Mr. Booley, who at the age of 65, “left England for the first time” (511) on a series of trips around the world. “Mr. Booley’s powers of endurance are wonderful,” Dickens writes: “All climates are alike to him. Nothing exhausts him; no alterations of heat and cold appear to have the least effect upon his hardy frame. His capacity for travelling, day and night, for thousands of miles, has never been approached by any traveller of whom we have any knowledge through the help of books […] Though remarkable for personal cleanliness, he has carried no luggage; and his diet has been of the simplest kind” (511-12). Readers follow this account of Mr. Booley’s travels, which take him to such far-off locales as New Orleans in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Egypt, India, and the Arctic regions of the World, before reading in Booley’s own words the inspiration for his “roving spirit” (515):


Interview with Chris Kent at VSAWC 2015

Dr. Chris Kent, one of the founding members of Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada (VSAWC), met with us at the 2015 conference of VSAWC to talk about his current and past research as a historian and Victorianist.  At this conference, his paper discussed a topic from his latest project, which focuses on the Anglo-American artist Matthew Somerville “Matt” Morgan. Dr. Kent explained to us that Morgan’s work as an artist was in fields often neglected by historians: commercial art, poster art, and theatrical scene painting. In the video below, Dr. Kent comments on the source of interdisciplinarity in his historical research.

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Dr. Kent also mentioned how the development of women’s and gender studies has been one of the most productive avenues in Victorian studies and described how they have fundamentally influenced his research.

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Interview with Juliet McMaster at VSAWC 2015

At the 2015 conference of Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada, we were given the opportunity to speak with Dr. Juliet McMaster about VSAWC’s origin, inaugural conference, and role in Western Canada. Dr. McMaster told us that in 1971, following the Middlemarch Centennial Conference held in Calgary and organized by University of Calgary professor Ian Adam, Dr. Adam suggested that they begin a Victorian studies association for Western Canada, since there was a similar organization in Toronto. They decided that, while Toronto’s organization met on a single day, VSAWC would need to hold a longer conference to make it worth the extra travelling that attendees would need to do. Dr. McMaster organized the conference for the following year. “It was a very congenial, happy event,” she said, adding, “In those days, we did conferences about stars. We had six speakers and that was it.” In the video below, she describes that first conference and comments briefly on how the organization has since developed.

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In this second video, Dr. McMaster reads from a speech given by her late husband, Dr. Rowland McMaster, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the organization. Both Juliet and Rowland note that the core characteristic of the VSAWC, in addition to its high-quality scholarship, has been geniality. Of the VSAWC’s keynote address, newly named the McMaster lecture in honour of both Juliet and Rowland, Dr. McMaster commented, “I would like it to exemplify the best in Victorian studies, by the best.”

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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 Bodies and Disability’s Centrality to Victorian Scholarship

By Kylee-Anne Hingston

The following is a guest post by Kylee-Anne Hingston, who recently defended her dissertation on disability and narrative form at the University of Victoria

In a 2006 article in Victorian Literature and Culture, Julia Miele Rodas lamented that, at that time, “disability [was] still generally regarded as an isolated concern, of literary or cultural significance only insofar as it may serve as a convention or an icon of affect” (378). The article, “Mainstreaming Disability Studies?,” reviewed two seminal works in Victorian disability studies (Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction and David Wright’s Mental Disability in Victorian England) and provided an overview of disability studies in the humanities for the journal’s readers. More importantly, however, it encouraged scholars to acknowledge disability’s centrality to Victorian studies and the humanities.

At the beginning of my academic career in the late aughts and early teens, my experiences as a disability studies scholar attending conferences attested to Rodas’s statement that “most scholars continue to think of disability as a non-central issue” (378). At smaller Victorianist conferences, I was often the only person or one of two people speaking about disability. At a larger humanities conference I attended in 2011, there were two Victorianist papers on disability (including my own) and one only disability-studies panel, which focused on Spanish literature and film and which I happily sat in on, in spite of not speaking Spanish, simply for the sake of fellow feeling. The panel’s attendees felt the marginalization of disability particularly sharply: the panel was held in a room wholly inaccessible to wheelchair users due to a two-step rise from the rest of the floor where the conference was held.

But I have since witnessed changes in conference culture that demonstrate a movement to “mainstreaming disability studies.” For instance, at the Victorian Studies Association of Canada’s recent annual conference, which took Victorian Bodies as its theme, not only were there a panel, a plenary lecture, and a workshop devoted to Victorian disability, but also several papers in other panels that incorporated disability studies into their arguments. (Tweets from the conference are storified here.)

Poster for VSAWC 2015 conference

Poster for VSAWC 2015 conference

During the conference, what struck me most forcefully about the increased representation of Victorian disability studies was the fruitfulness of intersections between disability studies and other approaches to Victorian literature and culture. Martha Stoddard Holmes demonstrated how childhood studies and disability studies shed light on each other in her plenary lecture, “Liminal Children: Making Disability and Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” In the lecture, Holmes traced the interconnected development during the Victorian era of disability and childhood’s “otherness,” which was identified by presumed vulnerability, asexuality, and inability to labour. Examining Victorian representations of childhood, Holmes noted a frequent denial of “futurity” in depictions of disabled children. In Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, for example, while readers discover that Tiny Tim Cratchet “does NOT die,” they find out nothing about his adulthood; therefore, in spite of readers’ joy that Tim lives, the bulk of their emotional investment in him occurs through imagining him die earlier in the story.

Kristen Guest’s paper “Mr Peter’s Dirty Hands: The Policeman’s Body in The Trail of the Serpent” likewise modelled this kind of fruitfulness. Guest brought disability studies into her work on Victorian portrayals of police officers’ liminal class status to reveal how Mary Elizabeth Braddon probes Victorian anxieties about the bodies of policemen and criminals. Guest’s paper unfolded how the dirty hands of the novel’s detective, Mr Peter, signify his disability as a user of alphabet sign language and his working-class position, but they also provide a map for misreading his character as incompetent.

Moon Type Edition of the June, 1935 issue of Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind. Photo by Paisley Mann.

Moon Type Edition of the June, 1935 issue of Matilda
Ziegler Magazine for the Blind. Photo by Paisley Mann.

Moon Type Edition of the June, 1935 issue of Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind. Photo by Paisley Mann.

The most collaborative union of disability studies with other discourses occurred in the SSHRC-funded workshop, “Books Without Ink: Raised Print and the Reading Body,” led by Vanessa Warne. In “Books Without Ink,” workshop participants visited several stations displaying rare artefacts that related to blind reading in the Victorian era. The artefacts, generously loaned by the University of Manitoba’s Archives & Special Collections, included raised print books and magazines, and illustrations and photographs of blind students reading raised print globes and sheet music. Participants were encouraged to touch the artefacts (after having washed their hands thoroughly first!!!) and to bring their own special knowledge and expertise to investigating and interpreting the items. In the last twenty minutes of the workshop, after having viewed each station, the participants reconvened to discuss their observations and to ask Warne questions. In this session, the participants brought their special knowledge on Victorian literacy and education, on media, on nineteenth-century print culture, on illustration, and so on, while Warne brought hers on Victorian disability and blindness, having a productive and illuminating conversation about what the artefacts can tell us about disability and the Victorian era.

Rodas foresaw this kind of fruitfulness in 2006, saying, “it seems that more may be accomplished when the voice of disability, or the voices that interrogate the constructs of disability, are mingled with and heard by a larger set of discourses” (383–84). As an attendee of Victorian Bodies, I was privileged to witness the rich scholarship produced when disability studies mingles with other discourses.

Works Cited

Guest, Kristen. “Mr Peter’s Dirty Hands: The Policeman’s Body in The Trail of the Serpent.” Victorian Bodies. Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. Kelowna, BC. 10–11 Apr. 2015. Conference Paper.

Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. The Corporealities Series. Ann Arbour: U of Michigan P, 2004. Print.

—. “Liminal Children: Making Disability and Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Victorian Bodies. Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. Kelowna, BC. 10–11 Apr. 2015. McMaster Lecture.

Rodas, Julia Miele. “Mainstreaming Disability Studies?” VLC 34.1 (2006): 371–84. Web. 24 Feb. 2010.

Warne, Vanessa. “Books Without Ink: Raised Print and the Reading Body.” Victorian Bodies. Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. Kelowna, BC. 10–11 Apr. 2015. Workshop.

Wright, David. Mental Disability in Victorian England: The Earlswood Asylum, 1847–1901. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford UP, 2001. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

Floating Academy: A Pressing Problem and a Vertical Solution

By Constance Crompton

Mr Squercum’s office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web

Mr Squercum’s office. Image
courtesy of The Victorian Web

One of Lionel Grimston Fawkes’ engravings for Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now, features Mr. Squercum, a lawyer, lolling in his office. His desktop is a mess of paper, with more sheets affixed with push pins to the office walls, and still others spilling out of pigeonholes. It doesn’t look as though any of the papers on his desk are bound save, perhaps, those in either books or folders of some sort resting atop the pigeonholes. Trollope had, of course, been writing about office life for years, chiefly in sympathy with the much put-upon clerks, those responsible for “the management of little details, the answering of big men’s letters, the quieting of all difficulties” (The Three Clerks 36). Even the most odious office workers, such as Mr. Kissing in The Small House in Allington (1864), get Trollopian compassion (I say this tongue firmly in cheek) for the weight of their work: Kissing’s “hair was always brushed straight up, his eyes were always very wide open, and he usually carried a big letter-book with him, keeping in it a certain place with his finger. This book was almost too much for his strength, and he would flop it down, now on this man’s desk and now on that man’s, and in a long career of such floppings had made himself to be very much hated” (545 emphasis added).

Letter Press. Image courtesy of the Canada Science and Technology Museum

Letter Press. Image courtesy of the Canada
Science and Technology Museum

I am not so interested here in office rivalries or the little interpersonal difficulties that needed quieting, but in solutions to the difficulties created by the unmanageable amounts of paper in late-Victorian offices. Kissing makes enemies of the other clerks by wielding a heavy letter book and the none-too-amiable Mr Squercum is certainly not in control of his office papers. According to JoAnne Yates, at the end of the 19th century and through the start of the 20th, letter books were increasingly impractical. Letter books, sometimes called press books, contained between 300 and 1000 sheets of tissue paper designed to fit into a letter copying press. Each outgoing letter was written using special copying ink so that the letter’s contents could be transferred to the tissue paper in the press book before the letter was sent out, leaving the sender with a copy of outgoing correspondence (an improvement, to be sure, on the older copy book which was the responsibility of a copy clerk who entered a copy of outgoing correspondence by hand). Press books were perfectly practical for small single-office businesses that, before the correspondence boom made possible by cheap rail and up to 12 mail deliveries daily, only needed to record a trickle of external correspondence; however, as companies grew, required inter-branch communication, and developed internal communications via what would later be called memoranda, letter books, with their chronological content became impractical. Anyone who wanted to look up a particular outgoing letter would have to know almost precisely when it had been sent. Furthermore, letter books did not help correlate outgoing letters to the corresponding responses.

Pigeonholes and pasteboard boxes for storing loose-leaf letters offered a partial solution. Loose-leaf filing let office workers control the order and sorting of correspondence, arranged not chronologically, but, perhaps, by topic or by correspondent, eliminating or reducing the need for indices (the key to all press books!); however, as Fawkes’ illustration suggests, it was difficult to organize loose-leaf files. The nineteenth-century solution, one which we still use today and which, through the power of metaphor, shapes how we interact with computers, was the vertical file. As Martin Campbell-Kelly points out, without a way to organize loose-leaf paper, 20th century businesses would not have been able to build up the facts, knowledge, and managerial expertise created by their very own records (25).

Melvil Dewey’s library furniture supply company, The Library Bureau (whose famous decimal system we know and love) first exhibited vertical files at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Vertical files required only 10% of the space taken up by pasteboard boxes, which stored papers flat rather than on their edges. The Library Bureau’s vertical files won a gold medal at the World’s Fair, not just because they saved space, but because they also allowed for the topical arrangement of contents, by subject, by place, or by correspondent. Since they allowed companies to more readily “build up a body of knowledge on some issue, whether from internal or external sources, and … [gave] manager[s] rapid access to that body of knowledge” it would be well worth the study to see how odious managers, like Kissing, deprived of their letter books, used this new power and new office equipment to make nuisances of themselves (Yates 20).

For more see,
Campbell-Kelly, Martin et al. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. 3rd ed. New York: Westview Press, 2013.
Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Department of Library Bureau. N.p., 1890. Print.
Trollope, Anthony. The Small House at Allington. London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1865.
Trollope, Anthony. The Three Clerks. London: Richard Bentley, 1858.
Trollope, Anthony. The Way We Live Now. London: Chapman and Hall, 1875.
Yates, JoAnne. “From Press Book and Pigeonhole to Vertical Filing: Revolution in Storage and Access Systems for Correspondence.” Journal of Business Communication 19.3 (1982): 5–26.

I can’t resist a sidebar: before writing this post, I hadn’t visited the Canada Science and Technology Museum website for years. If you, like me, haven’t seen their collection’s beautiful online documentation (be still my archivalphilic heart!) I recommend heading over to their site.

Behind the Scenes: On Being an Undergraduate Research Assistant

By Reba Ouimet

At the beginning of the fourth year of my English Bachelor’s degree at UBC Okanagan, I came across a research assistant position at the Victorian Review by way of a happy coincidence. Over the summer months, I had a meeting with my honours thesis advisor, Dr. Constance Crompton, digital dissemination editor of the Victorian Review blog. I had taken several classes at UBCO with Dr. Crompton previously, and as we were discussing my academic interests and my desire to seek an academic job, she told me of an available position as the digital dissemination and outreach coordinator position at the Victorian Review. I consequently applied for the job, and the rest was history.

Before working with the team behind the Victorian Review blog, I’d had rather little exposure to nineteenth-century literature. Prior to accepting the position, I had only taken two or three courses that covered the works of nineteenth-century authors. Upon beginning my work at the blog, however, my interest was piqued, and I began to further investigate Victorian literature. My research interests currently lie at the intersection of nineteenth-century literature and children’s literature. I am writing my honours thesis on female evil in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and soon hope to begin a master’s in English literature, with a thesis that explores developing adolescent sexuality in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

My duties as research assistant include the maintenance of the Victorian Review WordPress site and the upkeep of the journal’s social media accounts. My work comprises copyediting and polishing previously-written rough drafts, as well as transcribing VSAWC conference footage and interviews. I write and post original articles, and I am also in the midst of producing materials, maps, and Victorian studies exhibits for this year’s VSAWC conference, which will take place in Kelowna, BC, in April. I also assist in coordinating the collaboration of the Floating Academy blog collective and the Victorian Review blog so that we may host Floating Academy scholars’ work on our website.

Floating Academy: The Leftovers; or, Anecdote and the Serious Academic

* The following is a guest post by Sarah Bull, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University *

“Holywell Street and the Strand” from London. Compiled And Engraved By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S. John Dower, 1866. Updated by Bacon to 1868. London: G.W Bacon & Co., 1868. Image courtesy of http://london1868.com/

“Holywell Street and the Strand” from London.
Compiled And Engraved By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S.
Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By
John Dower, F.R.G.S. John Dower, 1866. Updated
by Bacon to 1868. London: G.W Bacon & Co., 1868.
Image courtesy of http://london1868.com/

The army of officers first enters a Mr. Tyler’s premises, at 31 Holywell Street. Tyler’s bookshop connects with several others via communicating doors, like those one might find between 21st century hotel rooms. Holywell Street booksellers are rumoured to use these doors to swindle their customers: they bind lurid divorce-court reports together and dress them up as spicier offerings, selling them “in sealed wrappers [with] questionable covers half exposed to view. When the cover is broken the witling who has made his purchase, and has found the book not what he thought, has no opportunity of quarrelling with the shopman who served him, as he generally passes through a private door into the next shop,” trading places with its proprietor (10).

Now, Tyler uses his private exit for another purpose—escape! He bolts through a series of communicating doors into a house on the Strand. Knowing that the police will not be far behind, he makes for a window and jumps forty feet down, down, down into the street. Severely injured, but with his sense of self-preservation intact, Tyler somehow, amazingly, succeeds in his break for freedom. Undeterred, the officers get on with the business of raiding, and carry “a fearful amount of obscenity” away from the crowd in Holywell street at the end of the day (10).

“Extraordinary Seizure in Holywell Street.”
Nottinghamshire Guardian 12 May 1871: 10.
Gale Newsvault. Accessed 8 February 2015

Anecdotes like this are the reason I’m an academic.

I’m not completely serious, of course. My research, which focuses on the publication of sexually explicit writing in Victorian Britain, is certainly motivated by my desire to understand how competing personal, economic, professional, moral and state interests have impacted how sexual knowledge circulates, and how our thinking about sexuality has changed over time as a result. I can’t deny, though, that much of the pleasure I derive from the research process is from the discovery of fragments of history like the one above—stories, images, moments that don’t necessarily push my research forward, but that do fascinate me, amuse me, or inspire me. I file these fragments away, in my memory and on my hard drive. I tell my friends about them incessantly, half-blind to the fact that some of my stories have fairly limited entertainment value to those working outside my research area.

I want to figure out what to do with these fragments beyond this exercise in continuous retelling.

If I’m lucky, they eventually illuminate some aspect of my research and find their way into my finished work as illustrative anecdotes, which rightly have a long and venerable history in academic discourse: as we all know, a well-chosen story or two can really drive a point home. In a recent public lecture, for example, Lynda Nead masterfully deploys an 1863 piece from the Penny Illustrated Paper, which recounts how women removed their voluminous crinolines and abandoned them in the streets to escape from thick crowds gathered in London to celebrate the Prince of Wales’s marriage, to introduce her argument that the so-called “crinoline cage” could act, by virtue of its sheer enormity, as a symbol of presence and power for Victorian women. But what of those intriguing stories, images, moments that we come across during the research process that never do fit neatly into a public lecture, an article, or a book chapter? What are we to do with the ‘leftovers’ that seem to be an inevitable by-product of performing research on a period that produced an ever-expanding mass of information and artefacts, a mass that can often feel excessive and unmanageable?

Many wonderful research projects are borne of, or are eventually enriched by, such research ‘leftovers’. A serendipitous discovery guides the focus of the next research project, or one scholar’s stray find—following the axiom that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure—turns out to be another scholar’s smoking gun. Given that we can’t study everything, though, it seems to me that these fragments more often serve as tools for engagement—with the nineteenth century, and with each other. In the classroom, tired students perk up in response to an anecdote about racy Victorian letters, or manage to make it past the halfway point in Bleak House having been promised an episode involving spontaneous human combustion. In the blogosphere, researchers engage with one another as a social community by discussing Victorian valentines and cookery, despite our diverse research interests. And although popular histories have long served to engage the general public with historical research, the sharing of historical tidbits over the internet has become a significant way in which the public engages with major humanities research initiatives. Witness one of the most shared of the 7,500+ letters digitized and transcribed by the Darwin Correspondence Project on Twitter, Charles Darwin’s amusingly bloodless pro/con list on the topic of marriage.

“Holywell Street, Strand (Demolished 1901).” Frontispiece to The Fascination of London: The Strand District by Sir Walter Besant and G.E. Mitton. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1903. Image courtesy of http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25508/25508-h/25508-h.htm

“Holywell Street, Strand (Demolished 1901).”
Frontispiece to The Fascination of London:
The Strand District
by Sir Walter Besant
and G.E. Mitton. London: Adam & Charles
Black, 1903. Image courtesy of

Despite the huge range of opportunities we now have to share our research with others, though, I remain uncertain about what, and how, and when to share, especially when my findings fall outside the bounds of my research projects and aren’t easy for me to put into context. I also wonder what uses, aside from engagement efforts and inspiration for new research projects, these orphan findings might serve. I’d love to know what counts as a research ‘leftover’ to you, if anything at all. Do you organize the findings that ‘don’t fit in’ to your academic work in some way? What do you do with them, and how do you choose which ‘leftover’ findings to do these things with? Has the explosion of the blogosphere and social media changed this?

And, is it excessively Victorian of me to try to find a purpose for something that provides so much pleasure?

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.