Author Archives: vr_wpadmin

Elizabeth Missing Sewell and the Challenges of Reserve

by Lauren Simek

“Morning Prayer” by William Holman Hunt,1859, Photogravure of original oil on canvas Swan Electric Engraving Co. sc” — text beneath image Source: Pre-Raphaelitism, facing I, 60. Scanned image and text by George P. Landow from the Victorian Web.

The Victorians had strong opinions about the public expression of religious belief. Nineteenth-century Evangelicalism found sincerity in expressions that came straight, as it were, from the heart, unpremeditated and unprompted by the strictures of ceremony. High Church Tractarianism on the other hand rejected Evangelical outpourings as too solicitous of an audience. As Isaac Williams, author of the two tracts that formalized the notion of “reserve” into doctrine, put it, “A want of reserve, an artificial religious tone in conversation or prayer is…proof that the person is wishing to be, or wishing to persuade himself that he is, rather than that he really is religious” (“Tract 87” V: 8). Significantly, both religious traditions advocated unselfconsciousness as key to sincerity, but they had opposing methods for achieving it.

This unselfconsciousness was not only a religious but also an aesthetic mandate, one that women writers had a particularly conflicted relationship with. Literary unselfconsciousness appeared everywhere in the nineteenth century, from William Wordsworth’s claim that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and John Stuart Mill’s assertion that “eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard” to John Ruskin’s notion that “the most perfect human artists” work “without boasting,” possessing “an inner and involuntary power which approximates literally to the instinct of an animal.” Within this framework, writers who embraced a more didactic style were often accused of egotistical moralizing. Women writers most often received such criticism, but didacticism had been thrust upon them, in a way, as the lesser of two evils. Properly domiciled within the home, middle-class women writers were required to have an overt moral stance in their fiction lest they be accused of unladylike self-display for venturing into the public sphere. An embrace of a quieter modesty always threatened to associate them, ironically, with the self-knowledge of moral vanity and even licentiousness.

Nevertheless, primarily concerned with their own relationship with God, Tractarian writers like Williams and John Keble looked to women as models of the reserved unselfconsciousness they aspired to. High Church women writers like Christina Rossetti and Charlotte Yonge found this association with reserve allowed them a particular authority as women to represent religious issues in their work. But an embrace of women’s “natural” passivity always had its drawbacks, of course. In The Experience of Life (1852), Tractarian novelist Elizabeth Missing Sewell examines the difficulties posed by reserve, which required a lack of consciousness of other people and oneself in order to become closer to God. Sewell confronts the criticisms of pretentiousness that her fellow Tractarians faced for attempting such a state of reticence. Whereas Williams in his tracts on reserve ignores the impossibility of ever becoming purely unselfconscious, Sewell is compelled to address this problem head-on, having been perceived, like other women authors of the time, as trying to be selflessly unselfconscious only to impress others. Sewell’s strong connections to Tractarianism keep her committed to the idea of reserve, but a reserve that recognizes the limits of extreme unselfconsciousness and that allows for the subtle role other people play in one’s relationship to God. Forgoing her counterparts’ preference for poetry as the ideal genre for cultivating reserve, Sewell finds that the novel, with its implied relationship between author and reader, achieves a more realistic mode of reserved self-consciousness. In doing so, Sewell reveals the nuanced motives shaping her didactic literary style.

For more see Lauren Simek, “Revising Tractarian Reserve: Elizabeth Missing Sewell, Victorian Didacticism, and Novel Form.Victorian Review, vol. 46 no. 1, 2020, p. 101-121. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2020.0005.

Prophecy and Pluralism in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Curse for a Nation”

by Denae Dyck

Figure 1: Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Engraving by T.O. Barlow (1871) based on a photograph by Macaire Havre (1859). Image Courtesy Wikipedia under a Creative Commons License.

Today, many people remember Elizabeth Barrett Browning (hereafter, EBB) primarily for her collection Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). But in addition to this romantic sequence composed for Robert Browning, EBB wrote a wide variety of poems that responded to a range of social, religious, and political issues. Perhaps the most controversial of her politically engaged compositions is “A Curse for a Nation.”

This lyric poem begins with a prologue in which the speaker recounts a dream vision about an encounter with an angel who summons her to write a curse pronounced against an offending (and unnamed) nation. The speaker initially protests, but she concedes after the angel challenges her understanding of what it means to curse. She then issues the curse as a powerful combination of warning and promise—a moral awakening that implicates the speaker and ultimately reaches toward readers as well. What is most striking to me about this poem’s religious and political rhetoric is its adaptation of the prophetic voice. Rather than rebuke a single “chosen people,” the poem uses the framework of prophecy to advance a pluralistic understanding of social justice, one that redefines conventional ideas about both cursing and nationhood.

The poem’s international scope is immediately apparent in its publication history, but I suggest that this work of redefinition invites close attention to its linguistic and structural patterns. “A Curse for a Nation” first appeared in the 1856 issue of the Boston abolitionist The Liberty Bell, a context that made the poem’s anti-slavery message apparent: the nation in question is clearly the United States of America. However, a few years later, EBB republished this poem in Poems before Congress (London: Chapman and Hall, 1860), a volume that focused on the struggle for Italian unification and independence known as the Risorgimento (Italian for “resurgence” or “rebirth”). In this context, many of EBB’s initial British reviewers interpreted the poem as a malediction against England for its failure to aid the Italian cause. EBB protested that this reading was a misinterpretation, yet “A Curse for a Nation” aligns in notable ways with the cosmopolitanism advanced elsewhere in Poems before Congress by this expatriate poetess, who lived primarily in Florence from 1847 until her death in 1861.

As signalled by the two indefinite articles in the poem’s title, “A Curse for a Nation” is ambiguous—but productively so. Through the conversation that unfolds between the angel and the speaker, the poem progressively redefines what a curse is, how it is delivered, and who may utter it. Like many other nineteenth-century writers, such as Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, EBB uses prophetic discourse for the purpose of social critique. Even so, EBB is unlike many of her contemporaries because she portrays this divine revelation not as a static denunciation but as a transformative dialogue. Whereas Carlyle takes up the prophetic voice to call attention to “the condition of England” question in Past and Present (1843), EBB addresses what might be better termed “the condition of humanity” as she calls her readers to take up their ethical obligations to a worldwide community. The poem’s performative language compels us to wrestle with challenging issues of identity, authority, and citizenship.

To read more, see Denae Dyck, “From Denunciation to Dialogue: Redefining Prophetic Authority in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘A Curse for a Nation.’” Victorian Review vol. 46 no. 1 (Spring 2020), pp. 67-82.

Victorian Hairwork and the Brontës

By Heather Hind

Snake hair bracelet circa 1840-60. Platt Hall (Manchester Art Gallery). M/C CAG: 1950.8

Hairwork—the art of crafting decorative objects, such as jewellery, from human hair—produces a uniquely tactile token of the body. It is hair made to bear the marks of exchange and possession. While locks of hair may be cut, exchanged, and kept as mementos of family, friends, or romantic partners, hairwork codifies the dynamics of these relationships in a way that unworked hair does not. The way hair is carefully plaited or coiled and tied becomes a metaphoric anchor for complex and sometimes contrary meanings and ideas, identities and alliances. Hairwork makes manifest touch, labour, creativity, and the desire to beautify and preserve in anticipation of distance or death. Yet, as a material memento, it also evidences the signs of wear, friction, pressure, and damage that follow its use and display.

In the course of my research on Victorian hairwork, I have come across many elaborate and impressive examples of the craft in museums: necklaces, bracelet, cufflinks, earrings, brooches, hat pins, lockets, decorative flowers, and embroideries. But the objects have caught my attention are not the most skillfully worked, pristine artefacts sometimes still in their original boxes from the hairworker. Rather, it is the simple, sometimes home-made and worn and broken pieces that, lacking a box, label, letter or engraving, raise more questions than they answer. First, how is one to deduce the identity of the donor, their relationship to the recipient, and the context in which the hairwork was made? And second, how did this hairwork come to be splintered or broken, and what implications does this carry for its metaphoric signification?

For some hairwork, framed in the context of a family’s personal effects, such as the many articles of hair jewellery in the Brontë Parsonage Museum, these initial questions may be partially or hypothetically answered. This pale blonde plait was likely Anne’s, cut by her father to remember her childhood. Perhaps this dark hair belonged to Emily and was worked and worn by Charlotte following her death. Yet the issue of the use and damage of this hairwork remains at once a warm and cold sign. Multi-strand bracelets with broken plaits stand apart as particularly well-worn and well-loved, yet reveal the susceptibility of this form of memento to breakage. Loose hairs that splay out from chains and clasps show at once the apparent vitality of the matter, the crimp of the hand that worked them, and the eroding effects of use and time. By tracing the desires and anxieties that such marks of use or misuse might encode, I argue that worn and broken hairwork at once denies and endorses the threats of distance, death, and decay it was intended to ease.

To read more, see Heather Hind, “‘I Twisted the Two, and Enclosed Them Together'”: Hairwork, Touch, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.” Victorian Review, vol. 46 no. 1, 2020, p. 31-47. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2020.0014.

Brothers in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel

by Anna A. Berman

A woman looks through a window at two men.
“Vae victis!”  Wood engraving by Joseph Swain, based on the artwork of George Du Maurier, for Gaskell, Elizabeth. Wives and Daughters, The Cornhill Magazine 10 (October 1864): facing 385. Scanned by Simon Cooke.

Think of a nineteenth-century English novel that features a significant sister-sister or sister-brother pair.  Easy, right?  Now think of an English novel about two brothers. 

As someone who began by studying Russian literature—which is full of brothers—it came as a shock to me when I realized that there are virtually no canonical English novels that focus on a brother-brother pair.  Given the Victorians’ reverence for the sibling bond, why is strange omission?  And why do the rare novels about brothers almost always have the same plot: two brothers—the “most faithful of friends”—fall in love with the same woman? (think of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch, or Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Like and Unlike)

Comparing the English with the Russian tradition gave me my first clue to the answer. One of the primary differences between the two nations—as far as brothers are concerned—is that the English honored primogeniture, while the Russians split their estates amongst all their children.  This has major implications for the types of plots authors in each nation could create. Courtship is central to English family novels, and with wealth as a requirement for single men in want of wives, only one brother had a desirable place in the English marriage plot.

This fact goes far in explaining the standard English brother-plot of romantic rivalry. Having a single beloved for the brothers helps maintain the linearity of the family and plot. While the Russians thought of family as a conglomeration of kin in the present and wrote “loose and baggy monster” plots that sprawl in all directions, the English focused on the family’s progression through time; wealth and title were to be kept together and passed on to a single heir who would continue the family line.

Brothers offer a challenge to this focused structure, but that challenge can be mitigated if only one marries and produces heirs. In the English novel, the brother who loses the romantic competition is removed from the family’s linear progression to restore harmony at the novel’s close.  Most often he dies, or else he is turned into a “sister” who remains unwed and cares for his brother’s children (e.g. Seth Bede or John Martindale in Charlotte Yonge’s Heartsease or Brother’s Wife).

The two-brother-one-lover triangle also suggests mimetic desire at work.  When—in novel after novel—brothers who describe their relationship as “something more than affection” and consider the other to be “an angel” fall in love with the same woman, it opens room for speculation that such romantic triangulation might be a strategy for displacing an illicit form of desire onto a “safe” object. The brothers’ romantic rivalries could be seen as a way of neutralizing an initial threat of incestuous, homosexual desire entering the family by replacing it with the more openly addressable threat of jealousy and hatred, which could then, in turn, be resolved.  In essence, this resolution is the primary plot for English brothers.

The role of brothers is but one example of what looking comparatively at the Russian and English family novel can reveal. Such an approach forces us to rethink existing theories of the novel that assume a conservative function for the family, driven by the genealogical imperative and linear descent, and offers a new understanding of how family structure shapes plot in the nineteenth-century novel.

To read more, see Anna A. Berman, “The Problem with Brothers in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel.” Victorian Review, vol. 46 no. 1, 2020, p. 49-66. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2020.0008.

Covid-19 and Convalescent Masculinity

by Hosanna Krienke

A man lays in a bed in a cluttered room.
“Franco-Prussian War: soldiers convalescing in the Palais Royale Military hospital.” Etching by H. Tissot, 1870. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The year 2020 has repeatedly witnessed male world leaders struggle to appear virile and masculine in the midst of physical illness and recovery. Britain’s Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and of course the United States’s Donald Trump have all fallen ill with the coronavirus, a development that appeared to necessitate a shoring-up of their hyper-masculine political personas. In April, Boris Johnson’s aides insisted that the hospitalized prime minister was “still in charge of the government” even on the very day he was moved into intensive care. In July, Bolsonaro also contracted the “little flu” he previously dismissed, though he went on to tout his own recovery as a sign of his athleticism. Most recently, the White House counteracted the apparently unmanly optics of Trump’s hospitalization by releasing photos of him signing paperwork within the hospital, images that circulated on Twitter with the tag #TrumpStrong.

In each case, our cultural expectations surrounding a man’s experience of illness have played out predictably. Men perform their masculine resilience by refusing to give up work even as they fall ill; then, when no longer able to work, they redirect this strength to the Herculean task of achieving a speedy recovery. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, science journalist Ed Yong analyzed how the omnipresent metaphor of “strength” in the Trump recovery narrative is an inappropriate image for physiological illness, and particularly the biology of the immune system. Yet as I watch this narrative play out again and again within the news cycles of 2020, what I am struck by is the utter lack of alternative metaphors or values for the process of physical recovery, particularly for men. Though the work of Susan Sontag as taught us the dangers of using terms like “battle,” “fight,” and “strength” when it comes to physical disease, the question remains: if we abstain from these metaphors, what other language do we even have?

My essay in this edition of Victorian Review actually uncovers an alternative, forgotten history of men’s recuperation or (as it was more commonly termed) convalescence. Far from a battle or fight, convalescence in the nineteenth century represented a welcome relief from the stresses and demands of modern life. Many Victorian male writers—including W.E. Henley, George Whyte-Melville, and Wilkie Collins—even described their convalescence a beneficial reprieve from the taxing demands of masculinity itself, particularly the norms of overwork. These writers unabashedly reveled in the leisure of convalescence: the medical directive, as so many put it, “to do nothing.” In fact, this luxurious respite prompted an ethical awakening for some authors. Wilkie Collins, in particular, described how convalescence made him recognize the unsustainable work pressures—not of his own gender and class—but of the maids-of-all-work who provided his care. Using this context, I discover how Collins’s The Moonstone refashions novel-reading itself as a kind of ethical, restful convalescence: a necessary and illuminating respite from one’s average routines and social roles.

Such imagery of leisurely, pleasurable, and unexpectedly ethical ideals of prolonged physical recovery may seem utterly unfamiliar today. Yet we are seeing more evidence every day of our desperate need for new—or perhaps very old—narratives structures to describe the opportunities and responsibilities of bodily recuperation.

To read more, see Hosanna Krienke, “”The Wholesome Application” of Novels: Gender and Rehabilitative Reading in The Moonstone.” Victorian Review, vol. 46 no. 1, 2020, p. 83-99. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2020.0016.

“I wrote them all”: Forgery and Forms of Classification in Trollope’s Orley Farm

by Katherine Anne Gilbert

A woman in Victorian crinoline in the foreground has three men behind her, and the town main street in the background.

‘Lady Mason going before the Magistrates’. Source: 1981 Dover Orley Farm, ii, p. 96 Hall, AT and His Illustrators, pp. 29-40.

As Victorianists, we often turn to sensation fiction as the genre in which disruptive challenges to social, legal, and gendered structures were narrated in the nineteenth century. Victorian condemnations of sensation fiction are read as traditionalist calls for conservation of the status quo, one in which individuals remain clearly organized into categories that reinforce inequities in class, gender, and wealth. Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm (1862), however, troubles such easy categorization. Trollope, long considered a consummate realist, tells the story of Lady Mason, the young, second wife of the deceased Sir Joseph Mason, who forges her dying husband’s will to redirect the line of inheritance to her son. Lady Mason is tried–twice—first for forgery and then perjury, and found innocent both times. Yet Trollope, while simultaneously detailing Lady Mason’s crimes, encourages readers not to judge Lady Mason too quickly. How might we read this novel in light of the categories of realism and sensationalism, continuity and disruption, gender and inheritance? And, how might we understand forgery in this light, a crime that brings to the fore concerns about how to classify something as original and true or an imitation and dishonest?

I suggest that it is not the acts of crime that bring together Trollope and sensation fiction in Orley Farm, but a near obsession within the novel with forms of classification themselves. Strikingly, this fixation on classification permeates the novel from the more sensational (is a beautiful Lady capable of crime?), to the mundane (is a lawyer a professional or a commercial man, and should he be allowed in the commercial men’s lounge at a traveler’s Inn?), to class and race (can Lady Mason’s son, Lucius, devise a new system of classification of humans, one that intertwines an analysis of the structures of languages with a racial mapping through history?). Building on the work of others such as Susan David Bernstein, who demonstrates that sensation fiction’s interest in classification intersects with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, I trace the ways that classification, and threats to it, appear repeatedly in Orley Farm, and argue that it is this interest in forms of classification and their permeations that the novel shares most forcefully with sensation fiction. Taking up Marlene Tromp’s recent problematizing of our own contemporary interest in classifying realism and sensation fiction even now, I then ask, what does it mean to contextualize Lady Mason’s acts as realistic or sensational? Whose stories, as Tromp suggests, are presented to us as within the realm of the likely and the everyday, and what are the political stakes of such classifications?

To read more see Gilbert, Katherine. ““I Wrote Them All”: Forgery and Forms of Classification in Trollope’s Orley Farm.” Victorian Review, vol. 45 no. 2, 2019, p. 307-323. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2019.0061.

The Man of Letters as Criminal: Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell and Henry Labouchère’s Truth

by Alexis Easley

On October 5, 1881, Inspector Henry Moore arrived at the Langham Hotel in response to a suicide threat. He found a forty-four-year-old baronet, Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell, sitting in room 170, a bottle of poison at his side. “It is perfectly impossible for me to live,” Campbell told the inspector, and then explained that he fully intended to take his own life the next day at noon if the Alliance Assurance Company did not give him an advance upon his life insurance policy. He was broke and homeless and needed just enough money to get him “through the bad season.” The inspector apprehended Campbell and took him to the Marylebone Police Station, where he was charged with “being an insane person and not under proper control.” It soon became clear that Campbell’s supposed suicide attempt was a money making scheme. Indeed, his appeal to the Alliance Assurance Company had been a thinly disguised attempt at blackmail. His death would be a “bad thing for the Alliance,” he threatened in a money-begging letter to the company. Once in police custody, Campbell made no further suicide threats and acknowledged that he “had made a fool of himself.”

Figure 1. “Bogus Literary Agents in the Dock of the Old Bailey,” Penny Illustrated Paper, 24 Sept. 1892, p. 198.

This was just one of many criminal episodes in the life of Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell. In October of 1892, he was convicted of conspiring to defraud the public by co-managing a bogus literary agency that offered fake diplomas, promises of publication, and editorial assistantships in exchange for cash payments. The agency was particularly successful in fleecing amateur writers, who paid for their manuscripts to be read and published only to find weeks later that the agency had closed shop and its managers were nowhere to be found. The case revealed the dark side of the literary marketplace, where unscrupulous men such as Campbell could capitalize on the oversupply of literary aspirants, defrauding them of their money and creative work.

What made Campbell’s story unique was the fact that he was also a writer, editor, and translator. As a translator, he was responsible for introducing cheap editions of the works of French writer Emile Gaboriau, today acknowledged as the father of the detective novel genre. Campbell also published his own detective stories in Christmas annuals and wrote a handful of mystery novels, including The Mystery of Mandeville Square (1888) and The Vanishing Diamond (1890). In 1890, he became editor of Lambert’s Monthly, which published serialized sensation novels and detective fiction. At the same time that Campbell was translating, writing, and editing detective fiction, he continued to pursue a life of crime.

Campbell’s exploits probably would have gone unpunished if it were not for Henry Labouchère’s weekly newspaper Truth, which investigated the case and transformed it into a gripping serial. Truth was of course complicit in the cases it investigated since it relied on a steady flow of crime narratives to sell papers. It also engaged in editorial practices focused on disguise and manipulation that echoed the actions of the criminals it claimed to criticize. On the one hand, Truth seemed to construct a clear line between the heroic editor and the aristocratic literary villain. Yet it also indirectly revealed affinities between literary criminals and the journalists who investigated their crimes.

To read more see, Alexis Easley, “The Man of Letters as Criminal: Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell and Henry Labouchère’s Truth.” Victorian Review, vol. 45 no. 2, 2019, p. 253-270. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2019.0058.

Mapping Minor Characters in the Penny Periodical Press

by Kristen Starkowski

Throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s, penny serialists like Edward Lloyd, George W.M. Reynolds, and Thomas Peckett Prest published works with titles adapted from Charles Dickens. The Pickwick Papers became The Penny Pickwick, Oliver Twist became Oliver Twiss, and Nicholas Nickleby became Nikelas Nickelbery. As a Center for Digital Humanities Graduate Fellow at Princeton University, I set out to examine just how similar these spinoffs were to Dickens’s originals.

After trips to the British Library and Bodleian Library, I realized that while these hack writers adapted Dickens’s characters and titles, they also took the stories in new directions, particularly in terms of character. But I needed a way to quantify my sense of character space in these spinoffs compared to Dickens’s originals, so I turned to the digital humanities and, specifically, to social network analysis.

I started out by examining Oliver Twist and two penny spinoffs of the novel, both called Oliver Twiss (one by “Poz” and the other by “Bos”). The two spinoffs were not equally successful in the working-class literary market, with Bos’s Twiss running seventy-nine weekly numbers and Poz’s running only four. The storylines are also incredibly different, even though both writers tailored their serials to a working-class readership.

Over the two terms of my fellowship, I collected data about the three texts in a spreadsheet. I divided the serials up by scene, and took note of which characters appeared in each scene, and whether they spoke, were part of the setting or background, or were merely mentioned by another character. I counted scenes based on the setting in which plots and sub-plots unfolded. When the narrative or action moved elsewhere, I started collecting data about that segment of the text under a new scene. In some scenes, specific characters appeared or were mentioned by other characters several times, and in these cases, I only counted the character once per scene. After gathering this data, I imported it into Cytoscape, an open source program that generates network visualizations.

Here is an image of the network I generated based on Bos’s Oliver Twiss.

Figure One: Network Graph of Oliver Twiss by the author.

In this network, major characters are shown in green, minor characters are shown in dark purple, and the scenes that connect characters are shown in light purple. A larger circle means that a character is connected to more scenes in the novel, relative to all of the other characters.

When read alongside the network of Poz’s Twiss, this visualization shows that minor characters in Dickens’s novels often became major characters in the penny spinoffs. For example, after examining the network above, we see that the equivalents to Mr. Brownlow’s (Mr. Beaumont’s) domestics emerge as relatively major figures when character space is determined by scene. Such characters include Mrs. Tidy, Mr. Beeswing, and Tom Trot. Oftentimes, characters who earn more page space in the spinoffs were flattened in the originals. More notably, the characters who emerge as more central in these visualizations were often servants or vagrants. When combined with close reading, then, this digital project helps to illuminate the extent to which penny publishers re-wrote Dickens’s minor characters in ways that would have resonated with their lower and working-class readership.

To read more about this project, see Kristen Starkowski, “‘Our Delectable Works’: Characterological Novelty in Penny ‘Plagiarisms’ of Oliver Twist.Victorian Review 45.2, pp. 271-292.

Horse-racing Fraud, Then and Now

by Nancy Henry

This past March, twenty-seven people involved in U.S. horse racing, including trainers and veterinarians, were federally indicted for doping racehorses with banned substances. A New York Times article by Benjamin Weiser and Joe Drape reported: “To avoid detection of their scheme, the indictment said, the defendants routinely defrauded and misled federal and state regulators ‘and the betting public.’”

Three bookmakers are watching a horserace. Lithograph by Tom Merry, 7 September 1889. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This ongoing case is part of a long, troubling history of horse-racing fraud. In Victorian Britain, attempts to cheat sometimes erupted into full-blown scandals. For example, the 1844 Epsom Derby was compromised by a series of deceits that included entering a four-year old as a three-year old. There are many ways to “fix” a race, but drugging or injuring the horse is particularly shocking because it involves a betrayal of trust, as well as physical harm. Fiction is uniquely able to create sympathy for the horse, and in some cases, imagine his thoughts. In Ouida’s Under Two Flags (1867), for example, the steeplechaser Forest King has his bit painted with poison, and we see the ensuing delirium through his eyes.

In Victorian fiction generally and racing fiction in particular, there is tension between the horse as a living, feeling creature and the horse as source of monetary value. Jane Smiley observes that in the eighteenth century, “horseracing, fiction, and capitalism came to form a mutually nurturing threesome” (44). In the nineteenth-century racing plots are also financial plots; horses are characters and commodities. Forest King’s loss results in financial ruin for his owner Bertie Cecil, and it redirects the novel’s plot. In Anthony Trollope’s The Duke’s Children (1880), Lord Silverbridge’s horse Prime Minister has a nail driven into his hoof on the morning of his race, causing Silverbridge to lose the tremendous sums he had bet on the horse.

In Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), Little Nell attends the races, reflecting, “how strange it was that horses who were such fine honest creatures should seem to make vagabonds of all the men they drew about them” (157). Later novelists like George Moore in Esther Waters (1894) agreed. More recently, The Sport of Kings (2016) by C.E. Morgan explores the economic cultures of racing and breeding horses in Kentucky.   

While many tracks closed temporarily, horse racing is one of the few sports that remained available for live viewing (and betting) in the US throughout the Covid-19 pandemic shut downs. For many gamblers, racing is entirely removed from the horses, who are represented by statistics in the racing form and numbers on a screen. Outrage over doping is apt to be more about financial loss than animal cruelty. Victorian literature is a good place to start when considering how horse racing, literary criticism and Animal Studies might intersect in order to bring attention to the harm done to horses when humans put money above the integrity of the sport and the safety of the horses.

This post forms part of a special issue on “Fraud and Forgery in Victorian Culture.” To read more see Nancy Henry, “Horse-Racing Fraud in Victorian Fiction.” Victorian Review, vol. 45, no. 2, Fall 2019, pp. 235-251.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop. Ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Smiley, Jane. “The Fiction of Horseracing.” Cambridge Companion to Horseracing, edited by Rebecca Cassidy. Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 44–56.

CFP: Victorian Posthumanism

Call for papers for the Victorian Review


Victorian Posthumanism

Editor and Contact E-mail:

Lara Karpenko, Associate Professor of English, Carroll University:

Submission Date:

Please send articles of 5,000-8,000 words to  by March 31st 2021. Articles should be in MLA format and not under consideration at any other journal. Queries or letters of interest are welcome.

Issue Description:

Victorian Review invites submissions for a special issue devoted to the topic of Victorian Posthumanism. While many prominent theorists of the posthuman associate the plastic and prosthetic posthuman human body with mid-to-late twentieth-century scientific and aesthetic productions, such genealogies miss the visionary, surprising, and sometimes disconcerting aspects of much nineteenth-century literature, art, and science. As concurrent scientific advancements (such as evolutionary theory or early experimentations in robotics) emphasized the uncertain delineations of the very category of the human, Victorian literature featured boundless, pliable, and liminal bodies ranging from androids that would pass any Turing test to murderous plants to nightmarish animal hybrids.

This journal issue will not only provide a forum for discussing these fascinating yet overlooked cultural and aesthetic productions, but will also offer an alternate history of posthumanism, one that promises to nuance our understanding of Victorian and postmodern subjectivities.

Potential Topics (others welcome):

  • Androids and robotics.
  • Animal-human, plant-human, or animal-plant hybrids.
  • Industrial utopias and dystopias.
  • Tech-human fusions.
  • Mind-body cohesions and fractures.
  • Non-human sentience.
  • Technology as entertainment and spectacle.
  • Evolutionary and devolutionary theories and cultural representations.
  • Technological innovations and failures concerning embodiment, sentience, and/or ways of knowing.
  • Non-normative or extraordinary bodies, minds, and subjectivities.
  • Disability / ability.
  • Popular cultural responses to technological and scientific innovations/crises.
  • Technology and its intersections with gender, race, and/or national identity. 
  • Bodily plasticity and transformation.
  • Prosthesis and prosthetic imaginings.