Tag Archives: Victorian Review

Wilkie Collins and the Sensational Baby

Black and white photograph of a baby in a bonnet.

Baby ‘Pictet,” by Julia Margaret Cameron, image courtesy wikimedia commons.

by Tamara Wagner

The Victorian baby is generally thought of as a cliché, a useful icon of domesticity, an accessory in idealisations of motherhood, childhood, or the family. Once one takes a closer look, however, the baby of nineteenth-century popular culture emerges as a very volatile and flexible figure that appears in surprising forms and undertakes a range of narrative functions. The most provocative manifestation of odd literary babyhood in Victorian fiction is indisputably the sensational baby. Sensation novelists were aware of the controversial potential and often played out striking instances of incongruity, and yet the most revealing instances push the placements of infants in sensational scenarios beyond their usefulness as emblems of innocence that enhance – through sheer force of contrast – a sensational incursion into the domestic. Instead, babies are central to mysteries or import a potential threat. Wilkie Collins not only features infants in startling moments that play with the baby’s expected sentimentalisation; he challenges conventional representations of such controversial issues as illegitimacy, child-stealing, or adoption. In the process, he exposes the precariousness of childcare at a time when blended families were fairly common, but there was little to no legal protection for informally adopted or fostered children. He also interrogates normative conceptions of breastfeeding, for example, and in his early sensational novel Hide and Seek (1854), a clown’s wife offers to suckle a starving infant at the roadside, drawing attention to the wide variety of very visible breastfeeding scenes in Victorian literature. In his later novels, he explores the distress of birth mothers who have given up or lost their babies and creates one of the most explicit evocations of a baby-farmer in nineteenth-century fiction. Collins’s fictional babies indeed offer a compelling entry-point into a revealing re-examination of the ambiguities and contestations that lay underneath the Victorian iconography of babyhood.

Wagner, Tamara S. “Wilkie Collins’s Sensational Babies: Lost Mothers and Victorian Babyhood,” Victorian Review, vol 43, no 1, Spring 2017, pp. 129-142.

To read more, click here.

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.


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.


2014 Publication Workshop for Emerging Scholars

By Sabrina Schoch and Reba Ouimet

The Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada (VSAWC) was fortunate to have  Drs. Lisa Surridge and Mary Elizabeth Leighton host a publication workshop at the 2014 conference.  Drs. Leighton and Surridge are co-editors of the Victorian Review and have hosted one other professionalization seminar, making the 2014 Publication Workshop for Emergent Scholars their second professionalization workshop. The workshop was intended to give “cumulative advice that enables career growth” to junior faculty, graduate, and pre-tenure scholars in Victorian studies. Dr. Surridge stated that in an academic setting, students are taught to write essays but not articles, and in the publishing world, there is a significant difference. The seminar was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), which meant that the workshop was free of charge. The goals of the publishing seminar were to help participants understand “what to do to get published and the differences between an essay, a chapter, and an article.” Each of this year’s eight participants received 25 minutes of one-on-one tailored constructive criticism from Drs. Leighton and Surridge on their works in progress. At the end of the seminar, the participants redrafted large portions of their work based on the hosts’ suggestions.

Two of the 2014 seminar participants also attended last year’s workshop, but there were many fresh faces. The participants came from diverse backgrounds: scholars from various disciplines and of various levels of their scholarly careers, from students to junior faculty members, were in attendance. Drs. Surridge and Leighton reviewed a range of topics at this year’s seminar, about different “authors (Charlotte Bronte), genres (animal studies), and historical situations (pornography, law).” Dr. Surridge briefly discussed the jointly assumed risk in hosting a seminar during which such honest critique is to be expected and for which participants must bravely submit their research for advice and suggestion. The workshops are provided in an environment in which the “professor is in a position to make a class successful, but it’s the students’ willingness and participation that makes it a success.” Dr. Surridge also stressed her great respect for students at both this and last years’ conferences, as it takes great determination and courage to submit a paper for critique.

The 2014 publication workshop was held in Banff, Alberta.  Last year’s workshop was held at the VSAWC conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dr. Surridge briefly mentioned that the location and the students provided a great atmosphere and stated that the 2013 and 2014 seminars were “tremendously exciting.” Drs. Surridge and Leighton look forward to hosting next year’s seminar in Kelowna and to providing students and junior faculty with information about how to strategize when it comes to publishing academic papers.


The dates of the 2014 workshop were Friday, 25 April, 9-5, and Monday, 28 April, 9-12.

Florence Nightingale: A Comparison to Qatar’s Muslim Nurses

By Sabrina Schoch and Reba Ouimet

Dr. Elyssa Warkentin’s article “An Unexpected Resonance: Teaching Florence Nightingale in Qatar” describes her journey to the Middle East shortly after the University of Calgary opened a nursing campus in Doha, Qatar, in 2007. In 2009, Dr. Warkentin arrived ready to teach Muslim nursing students about Victorian and gender studies, genres with which she was concerned the students would struggle, considering the distance between Victorian literature and the students’ own cultural experiences and chosen career path. Although Dr. Warkentin worried that the nursing students would not relate to the Victorian literature, she found that when she taught a unit about Florence Nightingale, her students immediately gravitated towards the character, as their cultural and career struggles were often reflected within Nightingale’s writings. While the nursing students were separated by geographical location, a century, and cultural norms, the students empathized with Florence Nightingale, the “undisputed mother of modern nursing,” through her persistent struggle for cultural acceptance and against societal norms.

In the nineteenth century, the Victorians placed greater emphasis on women as mothers and homemakers than as working professionals, and Warkentin’s nursing students face a similar stigma in Qatar. In the Middle East, nursing remains one of the few professions available to women. The Muslim nursing students in Warkentin’s forum piece in The Victorian Review (38.1) struggle with expectations of respectability, a patriarchal culture, and familial objections to the nursing uniform, which is considered immodest by many of the students’ families. Dr. Warkentin’s teaching about Victorian nurses in the Middle East allowed the Muslim nursing students to form parallels between their own cultural experience and Victorian literature, particularly in regards to Florence Nightingale’s struggle to make nursing a respectable profession for women.

Warkentin’s “An Unexpected Resonance: Teaching Florence Nightingale in Qatar” depicts the striking similarities in the  cultural attitudes, particularly concerning women in the nursing profession, of Victorian society and current Middle Eastern society. Dr. Warkentin acknowledges the success of the Nightingale writings with the students and states that the class “showed [the] students the potential for self-discovery in literature” and allowed her to experience the literature in ways she never had before. Dr. Warkentin’s article presents an interesting case for the comparison of Victorian culture to the lives and cultures of those interested in Victorian literature, as well as demonstrating the relevance of Victorian literature today.

Elyssa Warkentin

Dr. Elyssa Warkentin attended the University of Manitoba and holds a PhD in English and film studies from the University of Alberta. She has taught in multiple fields at several international campuses, including the University of Calgary’s Qatar campus in Doha and Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.