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November 19, 2007

“Curioser and Curioser”

Writing about web page http://www.bbk.ac.uk/eh/research/research_centres/research_cncs

This seminar approached the subjects of curiosity and wonder through text and through photographic images of the nineteenth century. Both speakers gave full-length research papers followed by a chaired discussion.

Professor Hilary Schor (University of Southern California, English)

Arguing that ‘curiosity’ is a knowledge that looks doubly and pertains to a different way of seeing, Professor Schor highlighted the curious elements of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and proposed reading the novel in terms of the magic lantern, the sea voyage to the Orient that Thackeray made in 1844, and the story of Bluebeard.

Schor suggested that the motif of the magic lantern show and the method of superimposing of one image over next, causing the first to slowly dissolve away as the next comes into focus, forms a central concept in Thackeray’s fiction. His 1847-8 novel, Vanity Fair, she argued, envisages an ever dissolving view of a world of people in motion. Highlighting the influence that Vanity Fair held over the novels of Eliot and Dickens, Schor drew attention specifically to the ways that Middlemarch and Bleak House utilize its narrative methods. Considering the references in Middlemarch to the scratched pier glass and magic-lantern pictures, she contended that Thackeray’s seminal presence in nineteenth century literature needs to be brought to the fore and his influence more closely examined.

In 1844, the P & O Company allowed Thackeray to travel on one of their mail delivery boats to the Orient. In 1846 he published his account on the journey, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo. Schor argued that his travels from Cornhill Street, a place associated with Opticians and makers of optical apparatus to the Orient, a realm of theatrical-like illusion and spectacle formed the basis for many of Vanity Fair’s scenes of ‘curiosity.’

‘In Vanity Fair, Bluebeard is called Becky Sharp’, Schor moved onto argue. In chapter III, using the language of oriental spectacle, Thackeray describes how Becky imagines herself as a sort of Bluebeard as she mounts an elephant to the sound of the march in Bluebeard. He writes:

She had a vivid imagination; she had, besides, read the Arabian Nights and Guthrie’s Geography; and it is a fact that while she was dressing for dinner, and after she had asked Amelia whether her brother was very rich, she had built for herself a most magnificent castle in the air, of which she was mistress, with a husband somewhere in the background (she had not seen him as yet, and his figure would not therefore be very distinct); she had arrayed herself in an infinity of shawls, turbans, and diamond necklaces, and had mounted upon an elephant to the sound of the march in Bluebeard, in order to pay a visit of ceremony to the Grand Mogul. Charming Alnaschar visions! it is the happy privilege of youth to construct you, and many a fanciful young creature besides Rebecca Sharp has indulged in these delightful day-dreams ere now!

Bringing her own ‘sharp’ optical apparatus to the novel, Schor suggests that the parody of Bluebeard that Becky offers is one with which the Victorian public can identify. On Rawdon’s return in Chapter LIII, Thackeray links Becky with Bluebeard more thoroughly as he alludes to the keys, locked doors and closets of the fairytale. The episode reads:

“Come upstairs,” Rawdon said to his wife. “Don’t kill me, Rawdon,” she said. He laughed savagely. “I want to see if that man lies about the money as he has about me. Has he given you any?”
“No,” said Rebecca, “that is—”
“Give me your keys,” Rawdon answered, and they went out together.
Rebecca gave him all the keys but one, and she was in hopes that he would not have remarked the absence of that. It belonged to the little desk which Amelia had given her in early days, and which she kept in a secret place. But Rawdon flung open boxes and wardrobes, throwing the multifarious trumpery of their contents here and there, and at last he found the desk. The woman was forced to open it. It contained papers, love-letters many years old—all sorts of small trinkets and woman’s memoranda. And it contained a pocket-book with bank-notes. Some of these were dated ten years back, too, and one was quite a fresh one—a note for a thousand pounds which Lord Steyne had given her.

Schor argued that the fact of Rebecca giving Rawdon ‘all the keys but one’ aligns her with Bluebeard as well as his persecuted wife. It is this locked cabinet or chamber of Bluebeard’s castle that brings the Bluebeard story most prominently into the literature of the nineteenth century. For instance, in Chapter 11 of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane comments that the third floor of Thornfield is ‘looking, with its two rows of small black doors all shut, like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle.’ Locked rooms also feature throughout Eliot’s novels- most notably in Daniel Deronda, Middlemarch, and Romola.

Considering Vanity Fair in the wider context of the Victorian novel, Schor finished her paper by highlighting the different narrative techniques and the various kinds of psychological and panoramic realism used by Thackeray.

Professor Lindsay Smith (University of Sussex, English)

Considering Lewis Carroll’s words and photographs, Professor Smith’s paper highlighted the complications inherent in the medium of photography, the metamorphic status given to the subject, and the concept of childhood. Speaking of how Carroll’s photographs of pre-adolescent girls petrify a moment in time and discreetly allude to the future, she argued that the photograph forms a nascent medium for the contingent category of childhood. Drawing attention to the double photographs of Alice Liddle dressed up as a beggar-maid and a rich girl, and Alexandra Kitchin on an off duty as a Chinese tea-merchant, Smith spoke of the transference, onto images, of the temporal metaphoric shape-shifting that Carroll used throughout the Alice books.


July 30, 2007

Matters of Memory

Victorian Studies, Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2007. Papers and responses from the Fourth Annual Conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association

Athena Vrettos, ‘Displaced Memories in Victorian Fiction and Psychology,’ pp. 199-207

Thomas Hardy recounts why it might be disturbing to rent a furnished house in his observation that ‘articles…are saturated with the thoughts and glances of others,’. Not least because I am just about to rent a furnished flat myself, I found Vrettos’ analysis of Victorian representations of displaced and dissociated memories fascinating.

‘To what extent to do we possess our own memories?’ she asks. ‘Can memories be transferred between, or exist outside of human minds?’ By tracing the theories of F.W.H. Myers, Samuel Butler and William James and by recounting how their ideas were echoed in literature, Vrettos offers an insightful glimpse into the debates that were being played out in nineteenth-century British, continental and American narratives.

After recognising that ‘James sees the psychological fusion of bodies and things as evidence of how thoroughly individuals assimilate aspects of the material world into a fragile conception of self’ and that Butler and Myers understand ‘a perpetual interaction between the self and the material world’ to break ‘down the boundaries of identity,’ Vrettos maps their ideas onto the work of novelists. She analyses the complex boundaries between the self and the material world as demonstrated in Conan Doyle’s 1903 story ‘The Leather Funnel’. In this, she recognises that the theories of Lionel Darce, a collector of antiques, are almost identical to those of Myers. She quotes Darce’s argument:

According to my theory, any object which has been intimately associated with any supreme paroxysm of human emotion, whether it be joy or pain, will retain a certain atmosphere or association which it is capable of communicating to a sensitive mind.

‘Proved’ by the terrifying incident of his friend’s dream of torture, Darce is able to confirm the leather funnel as a channel for transmitting traumatic memory. After this analysis, Vrettos notes how ‘material possessions bear the physical residue of their previous owners’ lives’ in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Recognising that Thomas Hardy’s fiction offers a subtler account of the ‘displacement of memory through the haunting power of material things,’ Vrettos speaks of ancestral memory and traces signs of the ‘retrocognitive’ nature of memory as demonstrated throughout Tess of the D’Urbervilles. After considering the memory-saturated rooms of the D’Urberville mansion where Tess and Angel spend their honeymoon, she moves onto argue that

Angel’s somnambulism and re-enacted burial of Tess among her ancestors registers not only his psychological distress at Tess’ revelation, but also his pervasive sense of being haunted by traces and memories of a past that belongs to Tess but now inhabits his own mind.

Alexandra Nell, ‘”A Something-Nothing Out of Its Very Contrary”: The Photography of Coleridge’ pp. 208-217

For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Nell argues, Hartley’s theory of association ‘assumes an impoverished model of human agency best represented by the camera obscura: a hollowed out, mechanical object that simply reflects “materials ready made” from the outside.’ Rather than just illustrating the passive human agent, however, Coleridge speaks of exceeding representation and propelling the active poetic imagination. Mapping Coleridge’s theories of representation and transformation onto The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Nell traces the Mariner’s passive fancy and the active imagination necessary for the author and writerly reader. Outlining the limitations of taking the camera obscura for a model of the poet, she moves onto speak of the visuality of the poem itself and the mechanistic way of fixing images that Coleridge seeks to critique and transcend.

Mandell, Laura, ‘Imagining Interiority: Photography, Psychology, and Lyric Poetry,’ pp. 218-227

In this essay, Mandell considers William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) and William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798). Arguing that these poems provide a similar model for imagining interiority to that which propelled the photographer’s desire to capture inner states, she suggests that ‘romantic interiority may be understood as…a byproduct of literary authors’ investigations of the limitations of printed media before 1810.’

Outlining the contradictions inherent in contemporary romantic criticism, Mandell writes of the debate over the importance of the graphic and the aural in the composition of poetry. Arguing that Blake and Wordsworth knew that most would encounter their work as silent and graphic, she suggests that ‘their poems thematize their own soundlessness while offering compensatory images.’ One of these compensatory images, she writes, was the lexical illustrations Blake used to decorate his poems.

Mandell encourages us to look at Blake’s plate, Holy Thursday from Songs of Innocence and Experience and recognise how the ‘marks engender difficulty for the eye and therefore require that other sense be brought into the reading process: sound and perhaps even touch.’ For this reason, she argues, ‘Blake’s Songs challenge Hegel’s vision of poetry as the “universal medium” that translates the materiality of other arts into the nonmaterial, by refusing to remain silent and nonsensous.’

Considering the dynamics between depth and surface that function in our understanding of poetry, Mandell moves onto compare William Henry Fox Talbot’s picture of his wife Constance with the passage from “Tintern Abbey” in which Wordsworth poetically draws a portrait of his sister Dorothy.

Turning from an analysis of the photograph to ‘Tintern Abbey’, she speaks of how the ‘tension between aura and mastery, between sight and sense’ enables Wordsworth to transform an image of Dorothy into ‘meaning-laden graphical marks.’ To conclude, Mandell writes that

As readers-and as viewers of a photography-we become seers seeing without sound. Poetic narrators struggling to see printed words or human figures reproduced graphically…They teach us…to warm up graphic marks by anthropomorphizing them into a voice, the voice that is similarly conveyed by figures in photographs or photographers’ ways of seeing, carved in light.

Deidre Lynch, ‘Matters of Memory: Response,’ pp. 228-240

Apposite here, Lynch suggests, is the observation made by Helen Groth in her book Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia (2003) that ‘the experience of reading was injected by the Victorians with a new time-consciousness and a new sense of the disparity between “poetic time” and “photographic time”’ (45). After briefly considering the ‘disparate accounts of the formalizing of subjectivity’ in the three essays in this cluster, Lynch looks at the complex feelings of the Victorians about the medium of photography and the ways in which the technological advancement of the daguerreotype set them apart from the romantics.


Victorian Memories Conference

Writing about web page http://www.lhds.uce.ac.uk/english/?page=victorian-memories

Victorian Memories: A one day interdisciplinary postgraduate conference hosted by the University of Central England in Birmingham

Entitled ‘The Materiality of Memory in Christina Rossetti’s Poetics,’ my paper will focus on Rossetti’s explication of individual memories through the architectural metaphors of the house and castle.


July 22, 2007

Ruth

Book front cover
Title:
Ruth (Oxford World's Classics)
Author:
Elizabeth Gaskell
ISBN:
0192834762
Rating:
Not rated

Published in 1853, Elizabeth Gaskell’s second novel deals with issues of identity, religion, and with the dilemmas that surrounded unmarried mothers. After being seduced by the wealthy albeit cowardly Bellingham as a naive sixteen year old, a future of adversary and trial is decided for Ruth. As an orphan working as a badly treated dressmaker’s assistant, Ruth is shown to have no power in her relationship with Bellingham nor any choice over her subsequent pregnancy. Nevertheless, typically, it is her who is classified as the ‘impudent and hardened’ (p 89) party capable of trapping an innocent male in her clever artifices. After being heartlessly abandoned by Bellingham, Ruth’s despair reaches its peak. Subsequently, rescuing her from suicide, Mr Benson, a dissenting minister takes her back to live in his house which he shares with his sister. The decision to disguise Ruth as a widow to prevent any outbreaks of scandal establishes her as a pure and inoffensive member of the community. With her change of circumstances and her change of name, Ruth is able to bring up her son Leonard and work as governess in relative security despite the demons of her past. It is only when her true identity is discovered that her troubles are escalated and the full force of what it meant to exist as an unmarried mother in Victorian Britain is made explicit. Redemption does eventually come at a cost. Ruth’s place in the heart of the community is secured by her willingness to put others first as she nurses the victims of the typhus fever that was sweeping the country. A twist of fate sees her giving up her life to nurse Mr Bellingham back to health. Although the novel becomes increasingly sentimental at this point, it is nonetheless poignant. Biblical themes and motifs abound and the plight of the unmarried mother is considered in a sympathetic light.


June 22, 2007

Disciplines of Feeling workshop

Thought this workshop looked good. I will probably go depending on how I get on next week with other work commitments.

Disciplines of Feeling
Thursday 5th July, 2-5pm
Birkbeck, University of London
30 Russell Square, Room 101

This half-day workshop for postgraduates will explore interdisciplinary approaches to affective knowing from the perspectives of cognitive psychology, history of science, literature and cultural history. Discussion will range from the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility, through nineteenth-century sentimentalism and mechanical analogues of feeling, to the unconscious as an affective domain, artificial intelligence, and the present-day concept of the ‘emotional’ computer.


June 20, 2007

NAVSA Conference, Victorian Materialities

NAVSA conference

Click on the image to see the details of the 2007 NAVSA conference at which I will be presenting a paper entitled ‘Architectural Metaphors in Christina Rossetti’s Poetics.’ The details of the keynote speakers and information about the various sessions have recently been added. They all look very interesting so I’m really looking forward to going.


Rethinking Victorian Sentimentality

Writing about web page http://www.19.bbk.ac.uk/

This new edition of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Ninteenth Century, which focuses on Victorian Sentimentality, is well worth reading. Certainly it provides an insight into the important place of sentimentality in Victorian literature and culture. I won’t say much much more as all the articles can be read in full online (see the link above).


June 18, 2007

Reading: Images, Texts, Artefacts

Reading: Images, Texts, Artefacts, Graduate School of Humanities, Cardiff University, 28-29 June, 2007

The principal aim of this conference is to encourage doctoral researchers from across the humanities to consider how the concept of reading may come to bear on their own subjects of research. ‘Reading’ here is intended to be interpreted in a wide sense, to include the reading of, e.g. images, buildings, inscriptions, theatre or dance performances or other creative productions as well as books and manuscripts. This approach both allows participation by students from many humanities disciplines and topics, and also provides a framework for interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation. Beyond this tangible ‘cross-fertilisation’ a secondary aim will be to foster skills and confidence in presentation and communication among postgraduates.

The paper I will give at this conference is entitled ‘Writing and Reading the Rhetoric of Femininity in Christina Rossetti’s The Face of the Deep.’

Written in 1892, The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on The Apocalypse is Christina Rossetti’s last published work. Few scholars have taken it seriously enough to conduct a through survey of the ideas presented. Although hugely popular in the late nineteenth century, such dismissal is understandable when the relentless self-mortifying comments that Rossetti makes about her own hermeneutics are taken into account. Certainly, her claim that all she can do is ‘but quote both texts’ is not a great incentive to engage in a comprehensive study of its hermeneutics. Whist Joel Westerholm suggests that the constant reminders of the humility of the author may have influenced the book going through seven editions ; it is difficult for a modern readership to appreciate such self-deprecation.

With a specific focus on The Face of the Deep, my paper will examine the extent to which Rossetti sought to muffle her more controversial and challenging messages within an overtly traditional ‘feminine’ discourse in which she positioned herself as a ‘reader’ rather than an interpreter. Insistently fearing that she was being ‘overbold’ (551) and crossing the elusive line between performing a ‘surface study’ and probing of the depths of the un-revealed mysteries surrounding the nature of God, she resorted to denying any authorial responsibility.

As I expand on Rossetti’s hermeneutical interrogation of the term ‘reader,’ I consider her self-deprecating remarks in the context of her medieval fore-mothers such as St Teresa of Avila. Alison Weber suggests that the use of “feminine” features in St Teresa’s work are to be seen as the means by which she broke the Pauline silence and asserted her authority whist at the same time defended herself against any charges the Inquisition could bring against her. Despite the gap of three centuries between the writings of St Teresa and those of Christina Rossetti, the insights that Weber’s book bring are of an immense help when considering the language of obfuscation that is shared by both writers. Although Rossetti did not have a death threat hanging over her for interpreting the scriptures, her authority was, as this paper will demonstrate, similarly severely hampered by the fact of her gender.


Hidden Burne–Jones

lucretia

The Hidden Burne-Jones exhibition, on at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until July 1st, is definitely worth visiting. I’ve always admired Burne Jones and to see his finished paintings alongside his preliminary sketches heightened my interest in his work. I was especially interesting to see his designs for stained glass windows and tapestries. The size these images in which numerous symbolic meanings could be identified were fascinating.

Nonetheless, I found the most remarkable aspect of Burne-Jones’ work, as displayed in this exhibition, in his depictions of garments. Revealing as well as concealing features of the body, his numerous studies of various forms of drapery highlight the ways in which the garments which appear in his final masterpieces were carefully thought out.

Since I have recently been writing about Christina Rossetti’s 1858 poem entitled, ‘“Rivals”: A Shadow of Dorothea,’ it was interesting to see Burne-Jones’ depictions of the legend which relates how St Dorothea, in AD 303, was mocked on the way to her execution by a young man, Theophilus who had heard her say she would soon be in a garden. He asked her to send him fruits from her ‘garden.’ When Dorothea subsequently knelt to pray, a child-like angel came with a basket of roses and apples, which Dorothea asked to be sent to Theophilus. He was converted to Christianity and later became a Christian martyr (Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems [London: Penguin, 2001], 1139). In Burne-Jones’ sketches of the scene with the dead Dorothea wrapped in her shroud, Theophilus looking down upon the numerous mourners gathered beneath his house, and the child-like angel standing beside him, the focus on the folds of drapery is highly wrought.

Alongside many of the works on permanent display in the Museum, such as two of the four ‘Pygmalion and the Image’ paintings, Burne-Jones’ sketches were on display. Like those of the legend of St Dorothea these sketches help trace Burne-Jones’ composition processes and enable a deeper understanding of his final works.

Since visiting the exhibition last month, I’ve found the Burne-Jones resource site accompanies it a very useful resource.


May 28, 2007

The Victorian House

Book front cover
Title:
The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed
Author:
Judith Flanders
ISBN:
0007131895
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

‘It is the Englishman who wishes to be by himself in his staircase as in his room, who could not endure the promiscuous existence of our huge Parisian cages, and who, even in London, plans his house as a small castle, independent and enclosed…he is exacting in the matter of condition and comfort, and separates his life from that of his inferiors.’ (The French philosopher Hippolyte Taine writing of his time in England, p.xxxvii).

This is the most compelling examination of life in a Victorian household that I’ve read. Throughout, Flanders offers interesting insights into the daily grind of a typical middle-class family and their servants. Especially in her chapters on ‘The Nursery’ and ‘The Kitchen,’ she brings many of the roots of our post-modern conceptions to light. For instance, in her examination of child-care she highlights the beginning of the shift from a parent-centred universe to our own child centred one (33) and in her discussion of cultural spaces she traces the growth of suburbia.


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