November 2008

Okay, so hopefully these trends haven’t become totally passé in the time that it’s taken me to finish the last instalment of my navsa post-mortem. Tanya Agathocleous moderated the panel and made the interesting observation that not too long ago, it was possible to describe one’s approach along the lines of one or more “-ism”s: Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, New Historicism, etc. However, nowadays, defining oneself as an -ist of whatever sort, if possible at all, is more likely to provoke a debate on just what that -ism means now, rather fighting a good old-fashioned battle of opposing -isms.

Here’s each of the panelists on the roundtable on “New Directions in Victorian Studies” along with a brief summary of their comments.

Caroline Levine: CL appeared to undermine Tanya’s introduction by calling herself a New Formalist, but quickly noted that there are at least three identifiable kinds of New Formalists (and naturally, she says she takes the best of all three). First, there are those, represented by Monique Morgan, who identify themselves as politically oriented without an ortho-Foucauldian bent, saying, no, Victorians weren’t unwitting ideological dupes, but experimented with different kinds of form in order to counter hegemonic stuff. Second, there are those like Garrett Stewart and Franco Moretti, who pay close attention to form but emphasize how they reflect ideological configurations rather than the conscious attention of writers. Third, there are those like Nicholas Dames and Yopie Prins who look at form from a new angle, examining temporal aspects like suspense (hello, Anne) instead of spatial ideals like the “well-wrought urn.” What was really interesting was when she asked some really smart questions about just what form is and how we use it and how we can think about it. Is gender a form? What is historical, by necessity, about form? What is ahistorical, equally by necessity, perhaps, about form?

Amanda Claybaugh: AC declared herself a transatlanticist, but gave a provocative meditation on why that particular -ism hasn’t really crystallized, despite growing numbers of job descriptions in search of double-duty Victorianists, and a generally favorable disposition by Victorianists to expanding our borders. She claimed that transatlanticism hasn’t changed Victorian studies the way it should because we lack a minimal consensus on what American literature means to Victorian literature. For Americanists, everybody can begin with the assumption that the British tradition represents something that American writers revered but sought to define themselves again, but there’s no cocktail-napkin characterization of American lit for us Anglicists. She also noted that Americanists don’t like it when people evangelize transatlanticism. For them, it sounds old-fashioned, and they like to call it the “White Atlantic” (referring to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic).

Elaine Freedgood: Elaine prefaced her five minutes with a warning that her two new directions would involve hideous neologisms that should never leave the confines of the Linly-Chittenden lecture hall, nor that anybody would want to. Well, I’m doing it now. The first is “de-demonization.” Instead of assuming that Victorians were evil bastards and interpreting texts to show just how evil they were, we’re more likely now to suspend our judgment before, say, re-demonizing them (which, naturally, we should do at some point. The second, even worse neologism is “de-derisionalization.” Closely related to de-demonization, de-derisionalization questions our feeling of feeling of superiority towards Victorians, not on moral grounds, but just on plain sensible grounds. EF pointed out that nobody laughs at our field of study as much as we do–“Can you imagine a modernist laughing at Virginia Woolf during a modernist get-together? She’d probably do something”–but that we’re more inclined to take a careful look at what we consider silly, to ask why we think it’s silly, and and think about why Victorians didn’t or actually did think it was silly.

John Plotz: In my notes, I’ve got this list of five alliterative terms about what’s definitive about Victorian studies these days, which I think JP said he gave as a list at some other event which I didn’t write down. The list goes: Facticity (including material culture), Foucault (I don’t see this–anyone care to clarify?), Form (nod to CL), Theatre (which didn’t get discussed that much–does anyone know of some cool work on Victorian theatre?), and Theorizing (in particular, how the Victorians theorized). The rest of my notes are an indecipherable mess.

Andrew Stauffer rounded off the panel with a discussion of digital research. We’re heading into a new phase, which I think is right, of thinking about digital scholarship. The first phase was the golly-gee-whillikers moment–I can get how many articles about premature burial from the nineteenth century? Now we’re starting to ask questions about who has access to those articles on premature burial (i.e. not CUNY!), and how people, be they commercial providers like Gale or ProQuest, libraries like UVa, or independent folks, are filtering that archive, both in terms of the “back end” of OCR and mark-up and the “front end” of search and browsing interfaces. (I might be messing up terminology here.) How can we fight to get as high quality archival material out there accessible to scholars of all stripes? One figure that I took away from the talk was that the OCR on these databases is pretty “dirty”–it has about a 10% error rate. So this means that, you may think you’re searching a whole decade of _Household Words_, say, but you’re likely missing 10% of the words–and it might be very hard to actually see what 10% that is.

This year’s NAVSA centred around two buildings: the Yale Center for British Art (where that miracle of miracles happened–the transformation of a conference registration fee into decent coffee, and enough to feed an army of Victorianists) and the Linsly-Chittenden Building (where the registration desk was located and many of the conference panels). For some reason I can’t really explain, I think it’s fantastic that in between these two buildings is located this edifice:


It’s the Skull and Bones “Tomb”–the secret society (founded in 1832–there must be a connection to the Reform Bill!) which was the subject of so many conspiracy theories in that election of which we shall not speak when two “Bonesmen” competed for the Presidency of Ohio. [Weird sexual trivia follows, repressed Victorianists be warned!: I heard something from another conference goer that sounded too good to be true–that the initiation ceremony involved initiates being masturbated upon by members of the Bones–meaning that the 41st and 43rd President would not legally be allowed to donate blood, at least according to Canadian regulations. However, this seems an exagerration of a rumour reported in more reputable circles (here from the Washington Post): “Some accounts say each member lies naked in a stone coffin and describes his most intimate experiences while masturbating, but Robbins speculates that the coffin confessions went out of style decades ago and Bonesmen now fess up more civilly.”]

I came across two other windowless buildings owned by Yale secret societies, but I won’t waste your bandwidth with the pictures I took…

So here’s my tell-all account of the day’s ultra-secret Victorianist activity:

The panel on “Defining Styles” and “Ephemeral Arts” were two of the best panels I’ve seen, both in terms of the quality of the individual papers and the numerous connections between the papers. Each of the papers on style offered fresh takes on what I had kind of assumed was an antiquated and etiolated category of evaluation.  Catherine Maxwell’s talk contrasted the aesthetic of the vague and the aesthetic of the definite, with particular attention to Walter Pater and Vernon Lee, who definitely prefered the vague. What intrigued me the most though was Maxwell’s genealogy of the aesthetic of the vague–one which would extend back to Shelley and go forward all the way to Pound with the Metro poem. And during the Q & A, she cited our very own Gerhard Joseph’s Tennyson and the Text as an inspiration for her work. Vanessa Ryan did the improbable and made me want to read not just one, but perhaps more than one George Meredith novel. She compared Meredith’s novels with sensation fiction–not in terms of content, which has been done, but in terms of the physical effects on the reader. In contrast to the quick read of the sensation novel, Meredith’s “effortful style” produced the “blood-heat of feeling” in the reader because of the cognitive demands required to piece together events related by the elliptical narration. Victorians thought thinking hard was a physical action with physical demands, as anybody who’s read Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain can confirm. Finally, William McKelvey’s paper on “The Last Duchess” took the line “Fra Pandolf’s hands / Worked busily a day” and suggested that it should be read according to the undergraduate intuition (painted in one day) rather than the scholiasts’ gloss (painted day after day). This stylistic contrast was between traditional portraiture using oils (which my studio arts friends tell me perfectionists like because it takes days to dry, so touch-ups can be performed long after the paint hits the canvas) and painting a la fresco, where a large area of wall needs to be painted quickly in a day so it can be plastered over. I can’t comment fairly on how it works as a reading of the poem, because my prosaic mind balks at Browning (although now Vanessa Ryan’s made a case for the “Robert Browning of prose,” I’ll work harder), but I love the idea of speed of execution being a central problematic in early and mid-Victorian aesthetics.

I’m going to have to be brief with the Ephemerality panel, as this post has not been as hastily executed as I originally intended. Laurel Brake’s presentation provocatively argued that Victorian periodicals were not the ephemera we take them to be. Publishers carefully prepared bound volumes of issues, removing issue covers and adverts (more truly ephemeral), and adding outer covers and an index. There was lots more going on to the talk, but I took awful notes, as always, so I’ll leave it there. Rachel Buurma’s talk seemed to pick up right where Laurel Brake’s left off: her paper was on reprints of reviews, and the qualities of both timelessness and datedness that periodical articles paradoxically had to have to be reprinted. Dagni Bredeson’s paper (which was actually in between the ones above) found some ridiculously cool stuff about mid-Victorian female detectives, most importantly, that they actually existed in both fiction and in real life. She also mentioned that Old Bailey records were a source–I’m looking forward to seeing what other scholarship comes out of that resource. Finally, Paul Fyfe’s paper dealt head on with the digital research that was present in all of the previous papers, either in methodology or in actual paper content. We, like the Victorians, are embarking on a new era of different forms of random access. I’m glad that my love of randomness is shared by many, although I don’t know quite what I’d do if I found somebody who appreciated random wikipedia-style quite as much as I do.

Okay, so I’ve just put a bunch of hot new links on to the sidebar which I got at the conference.

I got some great ones from a workshop on digital research. There are tons and tons of images out there being digitized by libraries and museums and being made available to the general public. I never thought too much about this since I don’t know how to read images, but I realized that it would be great for teaching.

Valancourt Books had a table at the book fair. They specialize in non-canonical and lesser known novels (especially “genre” fiction, like Gothic, mystery, the fantastic) in scholarly editions with intro, note on text, chronology, bibliography, and Broadview-style contextual appendices. Ouida and Corelli fans take note! Their covers are beautiful, based on original designs on first editions. Below is the cover from the copy of The Beetle which I purchased.


Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition has digitized six 19th century newspapers, and made them available to all. Laurel Blake is involved with it, and she plugged it before her talk, which was stunningly informative. She’s really a wonderful scholar, and worth checking out even if periodical research online isn’t your cup of tea.

I mentioned At the Circulating Library yesterday. Troy Bassett is working on a database of as many Victorian novels as possible in order to research the kinds of questions Jonathan Sutherland raises.

If I feel up to it, I may post on some amazing commercial databases out there, which institutions like CUNY, and many much better funded institutions, do not subscribe to. But first, I’d like to rehash some of the talks, especially the last session on “New Directions in Victorian Studies” I went to, chaired by Tanya Agathocleous, to whom quite a few of us owe many thanks for her amazingly successful workshop on conference abstracts. But that’ll have to wait until after I get back to New York. But I’ll note now that one of the speakers, Andrew Stauffer, said that the interface for NINES will be vastly improved in about a month, or at least before MLA. (He observed that if anyone in the audience had been on NINES, they had probably been confused by the interface and then went away, to which I vigorously nodded.)

Just a side note: I’ve found this conference post mortem to be immensely useful for me in thinking concretely about what I’ve gotten out of attending NAVSA. If you attend a conference or some other scholarly event, I’d highly encourage you to do something similar.

From The Guardian:

It is the ultimate, infallible tribute to a Briton: placing their portrait on a banknote alongside images of their life and work. But now a leading UK biologist has announced that pictures on the £10 note, which commemorates the achievements of Charles Darwin, are ‘little better than fiction’.

Professor Steve Jones, of University College London, said putting a hummingbird on the current £10 note was a blunder. ‘The note is supposed to encapsulate Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos, with him looking at a hummingbird as a source of inspiration. But there are no hummingbirds on the islands,’ said Jones at last week’s opening of the Natural History Museum’s exhibition, Darwin.

Expect another post soon on Days 2 and 3 of the conference–notably, I’m going to be discussing and adding a few exciting links. But first, I’ve got hours to sleep before I compute.

177 speakers, 3 days. 450 Victorianists. Yale undergraduates wondering wtf are all these weird people doing here. It’s all been quite overwhelming, so I’ll resort to a bullet point listing of things I did today:


  • Learned that microscopically small writing was measured in Bibles per square inch. (from a talk by Meegan Kennedy)
  • Introduced two people to Talia Schaffer (Susan E. Colon and Karen Bourrier) because they were really excited about Charlotte Yonge (one was a nice coincidence, two was spooky–I don’t know how I feel about living in, as Tamara Wagner calls it in her recent CFP, a “Yongean moment)
  • Found about forty Victorian novels with a question mark in the title via Troy Bassett’s “At the Circulating Library” database project
  • Thought about John William Waterhouse (I’ve pasted a less reproduced painting below) both as the visual arts version of The Beatles/Nsync (wow, that was really satisfying slashing them together) in terms of consumer demographics, and as an erudite occultist obsessed with the number 7 (plenary talk by Elizabeth Prettejohn)
  • Sang along during an extended magic lantern story extolling the necessity of prayer and proper railway signals (presentation, recitation, and chorus leading by Joss Marsh, lantern magic by David Francis, piano accompaniment by Phil Carli)    

    The Remorse of the Emperor Nero After the Murder of His Mother

    The Remorse of the Emperor Nero After the Murder of His Mother

One of the central themes of last night’s Victorian Seminar at the Grad Center was that of how and why we identify ourselves with certain literary characters, particularly in Victorian novels, and how those characters end  up being the frames through which we understand our experience of self. Not surprisingly, the conversation continued at dinner as sort of a party game–who do you identify yourself with, and why?

Here are the ones that I came up with:

* Madame Max Goesler, a recurring character in Trollope’s Palliser novels (also, occasionally, Lady Laura Standish Kennedy, of the same)

* Lydia Gwilt from Wilkie Collins’s Armadale

* Lyndall in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm

* Cynthia Kirkpatrick in Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell’s final novel (though also–at a certain level–Molly Gibson)

I present this list without too much commentary, save for the caveat that my identification with Lydia Gwilt does not extend to poisoning, bigamy, or opium addiction. (Though if it did, I would be unlikely to mention it on this blog.) The treacherous thing about this game–call it Truth or Dare for Literary Scholars–is of course that you will inadvertently reveal too much about yourself, that you will, when put on the spot, forget the one crucial detail that makes that character an inappropriate affiliation. Indeed, one of the issues that came up in the talk and discussion last night was what it means to realize that your mother identifies herself with Becky Sharp. And, of course, partial identification is only a partial answer. Once the qualifications and limits build up, it’s a different game, and you’re just as liable to make the kinds of inappropriate personal revelations that you were trying to avoid in the first place. Yet it’s an interesting exercise, I think, to be more explicit about the kinds of not-precisely-academic investments we make in our reading (especially of novels and other narratives). I do, for instance, think that references to certain characters in certain situations can be a convenient shorthand for describing some of the more complex interpersonal entanglements that one might find oneself in. (Of course, these shorthands tend to be less effective when one is speaking to non-Victorianists.) At the same time, I often find myself frankly ambivalent about a criticism that’s based explicitly on articulating those investments. It makes sense to me as pedagogy–and it does sort of resemble much of the tone of my oral exam–but I don’t see it as a legitimate generic option when it comes to writing my dissertation, though much of that will no doubt be autobiographical in a different way.

The other question I have about all of this has to do with genre. We don’t, by and large, identify with poetry in the same way, even with 19th century narrative poetry. Except when I do, and here I’d add the speaker of Tennyson’s Maud to the top of my aforementioned list. But I don’t know if that’s the same thing, and I can’t quite articulate why. I’m sure it has something to do with a different configuration of author and text (especially in a lyric poem), but can that explain why those identifications don’t come as readily to mind, even for those of us who are familiar with Victorian poetry? Why Lydia Gwilt and not Aurora Leigh? (This is one articulation of the question of the chapter I’m intending to write on Barrett Browning’s poem….)

Okay, now it’s your turn. Meme me up, Scotty. Tell me the characters you identify with, Victorian or not, as a child or an adult–or maybe characters you identified with at a previous time but who leave you cold or more ambivalent now (for me: Maggie Tulliver and to some extent Lucy Snowe). Are you more transgressively gendered than I was? Are you willing to admit to reading this way–or to not reading this way?