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.


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