July 2010


There’s nothing like reading dreary novels to see if you just might write on them. I’m thinking I need a chapter on sensation novels and China, but problem is, I haven’t read any of the sensation novels that have China in them. So I’m starting with Charles Reade’s Hard Cash, serialized as Very Hard Cash (1863ish), which Google Books informs me is partly set in China. The first 150 pages were pretty tough going. I think Reade wins some kind of asshat award. Here’s a random helpful footnote:

Perhaps even this faint attempt at self-analysis was due to the influence of Dr. Whately [author of a Logic book the character’s reading to help her Oxonian brother]. For, by nature, young ladies of this age seldom turn the eye inward.

And, while all the manly men are sailing their ships and fighting pirates, there’s of course an annoying lady on deck, and some amazing (ahem) prose:

[B]eneath a purple heaven shone, sparkled, and laughed a blue sea, in whose waves the tropical sun seemed to have fused his beams; and beneath that fair, sinless, peaceful sky, wafted by a balmy breeze over those smiling, transparent, golden waves, a bloodthirsty Pirate bore down on them with a crew of human tigers; and a lady babble babble babble babble babble babble babbled in their quivering ears.

Oh, the joys of being a Victorianist!

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I think I need to feel my way through the intro chapter of the actual diss before doing the prospectus. Here are some more odds and ends:

  • The longue durée: How does the Victorian relationship between China and England fit into the history of Anglo-Chinese relations starting from, say 1500 to now? One of the large motivations of my project has been the work of the so-called California School of Andre Gunder Frank, Pomeranz, and Roy Bin Wong. These economic historians argue that modernity is not the story of a European center spreading modernity to the periphery (nor the center’s exploitation of the periphery) but that before 1800 China and Europe were on par in terms of economic development. Frank argues that if anything, pre-1800, China ought to be considered the center and Europe the periphery.
    This is reflected in European representations of China from largely positive pre-1800 to largely negative post-1800. So, the Victorian period is particularly interesting as the time when the image of the inferior Chinese is being constructed, replacing earlier more positive constructions.
    So is China then demonized in Victorian literature? Not really, I’ve found. In fact, it doesn’t show up all that often, especially during the mid-Victorian period. Consider:

    • None of the major Victorian writers paid much attention to China. Contrast this with the eighteenth century, when you’ve got Leibnitz writing Novissima Sinica (1697), Defoe setting the sequel to Crusoe partly in China (1719), Voltaire’s play l’Orphelin de la Chinebased on a translated Chinese drama (1755), and Oliver Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (1760), a series of fictional letters of a Chinese traveller in England. In the twentieth century, you’ve got Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, and the Tel Quel crew (Eric Hayot’s Chinese Dreams is about these). In the nineteenth century, you’ve got Charles Lamb’s “Old China,” but that’s earlier in the century, and that’s about it, at least as far as my research has gone so far.
    • From around 1810-1830, there was a spat of Chinese literature translated into English (when they were first able to translate Chinese). Then, not so much until the end of the century.
    • There’s lots going on in China in the middle of the nineteenth century: two Opium Wars, and the Taiping Rebellion, by far the largest war of the nineteenth century. And there’s the “Opening of China” after the first Opium War.
  • “From China to Peru,” from Dr. Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), it shows up quite a bit in Victorian lit. Interestingly, according to a quick Google Book Search digging, it only becomes a popular expression after 1820 or so, perhaps because the poem had been heavily anthologized. I assume that the good doctor chose China and Peru more or less arbitrarily, but in terms of global commerce, the Spanish galleon trade to China from Peru’s silver mine was immensely important. See what I mean about random bits of information that will work well in an intro chapter but not a prospectus? **sigh**
  • “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay”: from Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.” See, there’s totes poetry in my dissertation!

I wrote the previous about a week or two ago. I’m not thinking of any other odds and ends at the moment–perhaps it’s time to start the prospectus?