When we think of ‘the Victorians’, we’re actually often thinking of a very specific group of people.
This is a usually a representational issue. White, upper-class, able-bodied people are the ones we see in most photographs of ‘the Victorians’ (though not all). These are ‘the Victorians’ most often depicted on-screen, or written about in neo-Victorian fiction.
If these are the ‘typical’ Victorians in our view, what was it like to be an atypical Victorian?
In posterity, the Victorians are not known for their kindness towards those who were ‘different’. Freak shows and asylums spring readily to mind—and these were also a part of the equation. The historical reality is (as always) more complicated, however. Looking at the daily lives of the disabled in the Victorian era, Historic England has the following to say:
In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”
The writer had a sting in the tail for the jeering boys. While cripples might be made “bright and beautiful” by God on judgement day, wicked able-bodied children who laughed at them could be “burned in a fire that will never be put out”. These were the ambivalent Victorian attitudes towards disability—a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement.
This is not, on the whole, a positive perspective.
There were charitable bodies for the blind, the ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘lunatics’, ‘idiots’, ‘epileptics’ and ‘the deformed’. They offered education (Association for the Oral Instruction of the Dumb), work (Liverpool Workshops and Home Teaching Society for the Blind), hospital treatment (National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic) and many other services.
Many disabled people simply lived their lives purposefully in their communities. In 1894 the first branch of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things (motto: ‘Happy in My Lot’) was formed as a self-help group for people with physical disabilities. They described themselves as a group to “make life sweet for the blind and crippled folk of all ages”.
Conveying a sense of pride and solidarity, they used popular military imagery of the period to create positive feelings about their disabilities, referring to themselves as “a great army of suffering ones”. Their annual report in 1902 described how they “go out daily into a battle-field, where pain is the enemy to be met and overcome”.
If you’re interested in reading more about disability in the Victorian age, The Victorian Web has severalresources and reviews on the topic.
One of the joys (and sorrows) of research is all the interesting information you find on one topic while doing research on something completely different. While researching spirit photography, for instance, I came across this fascinating account of the Victorian stereoscope in the art book for National Museums Scotland’s exhibition ‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation’.*
If you think the 3D film craze is a new thing, think again. The stereoscope is one of its many historical predecessors. Essentially a pair of fancy spectacles, the device allowed you to view two nearly identical images side-by-side in a way that would make them appear three-dimensional. Alison Morrison-Low describes how enthusiastically the Victorians took to the technology:
Hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic images were sold […] in a major craze which reached every middle-class Victorian drawing-room. The demand appeared insatiable. In 1854, George Swan Nottage (1823-85) set up the London Stereoscopic Company. ‘No home without a stereoscope’ was its slogan. It sold a wide range of stereoscopes, costing from 2s 6d to £20 (about £10 and £1550 today), and became the largest photographic publishing company in the world. [p. 63]
The vast numbers of stereo photographs can be divided into four main categories: travel, news, social scenes and comedy. By far the largest group was that of travel. […] The beauty of the English, Welsh or Irish countryside was frequently illustrated, as well as that of Scotland. Rural poverty and derelict cottages were seldom shown, as a Romantic portrayal of scenery prevailed. [p. 67]
And speaking of the Romantics…
Charles Breese (1819-75) of Birmingham and Sydenham sold his highly thought-of quality slides at 5 shillings (£20 today) each. Entitled ‘Breaking Waves’, 1870s-80s, it comes with a quote from Lord Byron: ‘Sea with rocks and a half moon / the deep blue moon of night, Lit by an orb / Which looks like a spirit or a spirit’s world’. [p. 76]
*All page citations refer to Alison Morrison-Low, Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2015).
The PhD is a strange thing. You spend three years (or four, or seven, depending on where and how you’re working) fixated on a single topic. You read lots of things you don’t need to read, and explore many avenues that will turn out to be dead ends. Your time is largely yours to spend how you choose, although there are more than enough obligations to choose from. In many ways, it represents a kind of academic freedom that you’re unlikely to ever see again.
After your PhD, potential employers seem interested in everything but your thesis. They want to know what you have published, what you have taught, and what additional impact and engagement skills you can bring to the table. The interstitial space between the PhD and the mythical academic job is feared, densely populated, and vigorously prepared for. Speaking to those who are there already, it can also be incredibly soul-crushing. Applications require a great deal of time and effort, but you are competing against hundreds of other highly qualified people, often your friends, and your chances of success are slim. The sea of tick-boxes, online forms, and buzzwords can be depressingly dehumanising.
Most people at the training day were what we call ECRs (Early Career Researchers), and many were in that uncertain space between the PhD and full-time employment. The first thing that became immediately clear was how much everyone cared about their research. Yes, we exchanged the usual banter about the dire state of the job market, the gruelling commutes between part-time teaching jobs, and our lack of future prospects, but the subject always turned back around to the work. Most had a clear idea of why the research they were conducting into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was still important and relevant. If the world couldn’t see that, we would find a way to show them.
This was one important difference Mark Llewellyn, research director at the AHRC and one of the speakers, identified between scholars of his generation and ours. Where some established academics don’t see the need to make their research directly relevant to the public, ECRs tend to immediately see the benefits of getting their research out there. This willingness to get out there and do the work is partly born out of necessity, of course, but Llewellyn sees this as vital to the future of the humanities.
Llewellyn and the other speakers (full programme here) also did a great job of breaking down the meaningless buzzwords that circulate around funding and public events. What does ‘engagement’ actually mean, for instance? Addressing the neo-Victorianists in the room, Llewellyn asked whether the Victorians even mean the same thing to us as they do to the people we’re trying to engage. In the mad dash for employment we often feel it’s our job to somehow make people care about our work, but the process is much more organic than that. It requires connecting with specific people and communities, learning about their needs, and building up a relationship that is fulfilling for both parties. We need the public to engage, but they also need us to be engaged.
Sound a bit saccharine? Fortunately the tone of the day wasn’t at all patronising or abstract. Claire Wood had a few useful tips about identifying who this mystical ‘public’ actually is, and who we should really be talking to. Gillian Dow, Mary Guyatt, and Holly Furneaux all shared direct examples of the strengths and pitfalls of public engagement. The presenters also did a brilliant job of dispelling the Romantic myth of the scholar, who dispenses knowledge from an irony tower to the ignorant masses. For each speaker, engagement had impacted their own research in profound and resoundingly practical ways. It was precisely the act of doing something for and with the public, without worrying about the immediate relevance to the research, that yielded new and unexpected results.
The training day also did a remarkable job of making us, the participants, feel like human beings again—no mean feat for an event with so many big names attached. Each speaker was very approachable, and was not only excited to talk about our ideas, but also keen to offer help and advice. The staff at Chawton House were kind and very professional, and the day was organised without a hitch. Because there weren’t too many of us—several dozen in total—there was just enough opportunity to chat without making the networking feel like a chore. The location itself was also quiet and intimate, and made the whole thing feel like a relaxing retreat rather than an ideas mill.
The only thing I would have liked more of were the workshops, for which we split into small groups based on our research and expertise. I’m still in the early stages of my public engagement plan, and so was matched with a group designed to generate some ideas for how to bring your research to specific groups of people. Our research was randomly paired with two categories: a target group and a type of project. Target groups included easier audiences (retired adults) and more challenging ones (youth not in education or employment), and it was interesting to think about which groups fit best with which topics. The projects also ranged the gamut from exhibitions to podcasts to board games. Everyone in my group was encouraging and full of ideas, and though we had to move quickly from project to project, many of us exchanged contact information so we could take these ideas further after the event.
Despite the renewed confidence in both academia and in public engagement this training day has given me, I remain convinced that the current state of affairs is not a good one. As Furneaux pointed out during her talk, the ability to build bridges outside of academia and engage in impact research still requires a fair amount of privilege. It is often done out of pocket or in a volunteer capacity, and not everyone has the luxury of that kind of free time or disposable income. Researchers are still required to be jacks of all trades—extroverts, scholars, teachers, self-publishers—which ignores the realities of twenty-first-century academia and the value of individuals who don’t fit this mould. Until we figure out how to build a fairer system, however, it’s good to know that people on both sides of the job divide are committed to being there for each other, and ensuring that this important research has a future.
‘I’m afraid the truth is vastly overrated’ – Lord Melbourne, ‘Doll 123’ (Victoria, episode 1)
After a busy summer, I’ve spent the last few weeks catching up on all the reading and viewing I had on hold. Last week, a scathing review by James Delingpole sent ITV’s Victoria to the top of my must-watch list. The show, he wrote, is ‘silly, facile and irresponsible’, and its popularity is all down to the ‘feminisation of culture’. Delingpole may well be right, but not for the reasons – or with the effects – that he imagines.
Rampant sexism of the article aside (it’s essentially clickbait), Delingpole does make one point worth commenting on. It deals with the question of historical accuracy, and the responsibility entertainers have to what he calls ‘the known biographical facts’:
Taking the odd liberty is one thing but doing so with such brazen shamelessness feels to me like one giant upraised middle finger to all those of us — we’re a minority but we do exist — who value history and who want to be informed at least as much as we want to be entertained.
With ‘brazen shamelessness’, Delingpole seems to be referring to Victoria‘s tendency to sexualise and sensationalise its characters. The show is indeed guilty of both, and we’ve only had five of the promised eight episodes. While the historical Queen Victoria, Lord Melbourne, and Prince Albert could all have been described as comely in their time, they were no match for actors Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, and Tom Hughes. The passion virtually oozes from every garment, glance, and camera angle, with frequent cuts between faces and eroticised body parts – hand, neck, lips – all designed to emphasise the physical as well as emotional attachments between characters. The scene that concludes the third episode (‘Brocket Hall’) is particularly evocative (talk to Daný van Dam about the sexual connotations of the piano in neo-Victorian fiction), not to mention the royal wedding night. Episode four even contains a quote that I will absolutely be using at next year’s BAVS conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’. Stopping Victoria from retying her hair after their forest romp (with all the sexual tension, but none of the sex), Albert tells her: ‘I like to see you unbound. You are not so much a queen.’
Sexiness aside, if we stick to bare facts Victoria is no more or less informative or historically accurate than the highly acclaimed biopic Lincoln(2012). But because the latter is ‘dignified’ in its emotion rather than giddy or indulgent, it is deemed superior. Why should it enrage viewers like Delingpole if a piece of historical fiction chooses to view its object from a sexual and emotional perspective, rather than a cerebral or rational one? The answer, of course, is that these perspectives are not assigned equal levels of value in contemporary culture. The rational is privileged above the emotional, just as other traditionally masculine traits are still praised over traditionally feminine ones. By focusing on sex and sentiment rather than traditionally interpreted historical evidence, the show doesn’t just turn off male viewers, Delingpole argues, it also betrays the objective truth of history, which is based not on sentiment but on cold, hard facts.
This is not a new way of looking at history. It’s not a view held by many contemporary historians, however. Though the historian has a certain level of responsibility to ‘the facts’, reassembling these facts into a coherent picture of the past always involves some measure of narrativisation. Take historian Robert Rosenstone, who has argued that ‘the history film […] helps return us to a kind of ground zero, a sense that we can never really know the past, but can only continually play with it, reconfigure, and try to make meaning out of the traces it has left behind’ (p. 163-4). The absolutist (or ‘rationalist’) view of history is also one that many neo-Victorian authors (male and female) have built their success on challenging.
In a recent blog post, Victorianist Barbara Franchi reflects on the symmetry between Victoria‘s title character and its subject matter:
With its intertextual references to literary classics, its serialised form and its self-reflexive tones on the epoch taking its name from the series’ protagonist, Victoria is a feast of nineteenth-century literature and culture brought to our screens. One could hardly find a more apt place to reflect on the contemporary fascination for the nineteenth-century past than the fictionalised story of the woman who, with her name alone, has made consuming the Victorians possible.
Victoria is neo-Victorian fiction at its purest, engaging with and under-writing our perception of the era’s most recognisable figure, who has already been sold to us in a thousand forms. It even employs all the stereotypical tools of the neo-Victorian novel to do so. Franchi argues that Victoria uses this narrative vocabulary to comment on contemporary society as much as on the historical Victorians.
If Victoria is interested in contemporary politics as well as nineteenth-century ones, what exactly is it trying to tell us through this particular retelling of history? The show manages to remain about as politically neutral as its main character (i.e. not very – nobody wants to align themselves with slavery, after all), though it also manages to avoid siding firmly for or against Tory conservatives, past and present. It can do so mainly because the party it does support, the Whigs, has itself faded into history, and the show makes little effort to give it a contemporary parallel in the Labour Party. The show does an interesting dance with the subject of immigration, given how much of Victoria’s family could not strictly be considered ‘British’, but it remains to be seen how the issue will ultimately be handled. Will Albert adapt to England through integration, or will the court and country learn to accept him in his difference?
Exoticised foreigners? Check. Erotic corset-lacing scenes? Check. Obligatory prostitute with a Heart of Gold? Check. The show is thus firmly neo-Victorian, bringing us emotionally close to Victorian characters and issues without necessarily replicating the period worldview. This second type of distance is very important. In an insightful post that also reflects on the recent ‘BAVS 2016: Consuming (the) Victorians’ conference, Birmingham-based lecturer Serena Trowbridge explains why emotional engagement must be tempered not just by fact, but by temporal detachment. The past, she reiterates, can never be fully recaptured:
[E]motions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.
In conclusion, Trowbridge raises several of her own concerns about Victoria’s sexualised portrayal of the young queen:
As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and [Theresa] May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.”
Trowbridge raises an important issue here, though it will be necessary to see how the rest of the series plays out before coming to a more definitive conclusion. In addition, to dismiss Victoria as frivolous and sentimental just because its heroine often is – something Trowbridge herself never does – would be to miss the point. The young queen, perhaps like many modern viewers, is somewhat ignorant of the politics of her time. As a ruler, Victoria has a great deal of power, but most of the men in her life still look down on her (literally and metaphorically). She is currently no more in charge of the era that will be named for her than the viewer is. She is also still a human being, with human desires and appetites. Victoria embodies traditionally female virtues and vices in the ITV series, but the same could also be said of its male heroes. Lord Melbourne is every inch the feminine, Byronic type so praised by the Romantics, and Albert’s quiet sensitivity and devotion to Victoria (and Victoria alone) stands in contrast to his brother Earnest’s confident, womanising, and traditionally masculine ways.
I’ll be most interested to see how the show develops as an analogy for contemporary gender politics. Will Victoria succeed in balancing her public and private lives, and will the male characters on the show be held to the same standard? How will ITV’s Albert come to terms with being the husband of the most powerful woman on Earth, and (more interestingly) what will it tell us about the roles of men and women in the twenty-first-century workplace?
Lauren Porter, who curated a Windsor Castle exhibition from the Royal Archives in 2014, comments that a love letter from Albert to Victoria (quoted in ITV’s Victoria), ‘provides a fascinating personal insight into the depth of Prince Albert’s thoughts and feelings for his bride-to-be. Such a heartfelt expression of love and devotion is particularly striking as it sits in contrast to the popular idea of the Victorian era being a period of emotional restraint.’ If nothing else, Victoria makes a valiant (and very neo-Victorian) effort to ensure that the stereotype of the austere and supremely rational Victorian does not persist into the twenty-first century.
These days we could all use a bit more Victorian love, and a bit less Victorian austerity.
Last week Thursday I flew from Cardiff back to the Netherlands, where I’ll be whiling away the holidays with my partner. It’s not all oliebollen and ice skating, though. I am determined that there will be at least some thesis work conducted during this break.
On Friday (the day after I arrived) I made a trip into Amsterdam for my very first Dutch-language conference – Well and Unwell: The Body in the Nineteenth Century.This was the most recent in an annual series of conferences, hosted by the Werkgroup De Negentiende Eeuw, which also publishes a journal. Because I figure some of you might be interested in the proceedings (but unable to speak Dutch), I thought I would translate some of the highlights for you and post them here.I was especially interested to experience how the nineteenth century is studied outside of the Anglophone world. Most of the day’s lectures focused on Dutch, German, French, or Belgian sources, which offer a very different perspective on ‘Victorian’ culture than British or American ones. Though all of the papers were excellent, the notes I took were naturally biased by my own research interests. Hopefully you’ll have a decent overview of the seven papers we heard, including the names of the presenters in case you’re interested in learning more.
From the very beginning of the day it was clear that the group of academics gathered for this conference was extremely diverse (skin colour being the only visible exception) and interdisciplinary. We had people working in history, literature, archeology, visual arts, and sports studies, focused on multiple time periods. There were seasoned scholars and MA students, old and young, from all over the country – and from the neighbouring Belgium.
After the requisite cup of coffee (who says you can’t have a coffee break before the conference starts?) we launched into the day’s lectures with a short introduction by Professor Wessel Krul, the president of the workgroup. He emphasised the link between the body and culture, and revisited the nineteenth-century prevalence of the idea that one’s physical, external body reflected one’s internal, spiritual, or mental state.
In her paper ‘Representations of Homosexuality in the East around 1900’, Professor Mary Kemperink from the University of Groningen used travel journals and literature to examine the development of ideas about homosexuality during that period. Specifically, she cited Charley van Heezen’s 1918 novel Anders (‘Different’), in which two men from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are united in their sexual orientation, and are also described by others as having a strangely similar appearance due to their shared ‘femininity’ and ‘sensuality’. For a good period at the turn of the century homosexuality was apparently conflated with the Orient, or the ‘inverse’ side of the globe. Here Kemperink also cited British Orientalist and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), who suggested a relationship between pederasty and the area around the equator (which he called the Sotadic Zone). Towards the end of the 19th century homosexuality moved from being recognised a tourist attraction for Europeans in the Orient (and here the French author Gustave Flaubert was cited as an example) to a state of being that was not only unique to the East, but united people in all parts of the globe.
Following this came Utrecht University‘s Dr Willemijn Ruberg, who spoke about ‘Menstruation in Court: The Female Body and Forensic Medicine in the Nineteenth Century’. At the beginning of the nineteenth century (before 1860), menstruation was part of the humours school of medicine, in which the bodies four fluids (or humours: ) had to be in balance in order for a person to be healthy. Problems with menstruation were theorised to cause blockages in the head or genitals, causing temporary madness (called ‘monomania‘). This kind of temporary madness was a common defense in nineteenth-century courts, especially for young girls. By way of example, Ruberg shared some Dutch arson cases (including that of Marretje Moonen in 1840) where problems with menstration were linked to pyromania, and sometimes resulted in the girls being absolved of direct responsibility for their actions. After 1850 people began to criticise the idea of pyromania as temporary madness, and menstruation came to be seen as a sickness, less directly linked to the psyche.
The last paper before lunch was by Tinne Claes and Veronique Deblon, PhD researchers at KU Leuven. Their paper (‘Bodily Confrontations in Popular Anatomical Musea: 1850-1870’) dealt with Dutch and Belgian anatomical exhibits, and the changing ways these marketed themselves over the decades. In addition to shifting focus from religion (the human body as the pinnacle of God’s creation) to discipline (the abnormal human body as a warning against deviant behaviour), the audience for anatomical exhibits broadened in the 1860s to include women and the lower classes. Claes and Deblon pointed out an interesting contrast here with anatomical exhibits in the UK, where publicists had long used the fact that their visitors included women to emphasise the wholesomeness of their displays. There was also (to my uncontainable glee) a section of the talk dedicated to freak shows and the ‘abnormal’ body, which usually took up a separate section in these exhibits and would require that you pay an additional fee.
After the lunch break (sandwiches and milk all around), we carried on with the last four papers. The first was Erasmus University Rotterdam‘s Professor Alex van Stipriaan on ‘The Enslaved Body’. Van Stipriaan prefers the term slaafgemaakt (enslaved) to slaaf (slave) when speaking about a person or people, as it places the emphasis on the state a person is placed in (he was enslaved), rather than associating that state directly with the person (he is a slave). He dealt with an extremely broad range of topics – and actually went quite a bit over time – but gave a good overview of the ways the enslaved body (in this case the black body) was portrayed and perceived in nineteenth-century Holland and its colonies. Some points that particularly stood out were the comparison between the brand as a symbol of slavery and scarification as a symbol of resistance, the mass ‘lightening’ of the coloured population in Suriname as a form of upward mobility, and the fact that unlike enslaved men, who were often described purely in bodily terms, as machines or animals, enslaved women were typically written about or envisioned in terms of their characters or actions, humanising them in a small sense.
In a completely different tone, Jelle Zondag from the Radbound University in Nijmegen presented on the writings of C.M.J Muller Massis (1870-1900), who published extensively on sports in the context of national health and nationalism. The material he presented is difficult to translate into an English context (though Muller Massis apparently cited sports teams at English boarding schools as the reason for their success as an empire), but it involved an interesting discussion of the concept of a ‘natural’ and ‘national’ body, and the emergence of the bicycle as a Dutch national icon.
Dr Leonieke Vermeer, also from Groningen, is working on a long-term project examining nineteenth-century diaries to learn more about the way sickness and health care was experienced by the patients, which represents a gap in the current, professionally dominated discourse. She has already discovered some interesting uses of terms and remedies, including the fact that most diary keepers describe illness (from mild to serious) using the word ongesteld (literally ‘indisposed’, but used today only to describe menstruation). Although she only had time to mention it briefly, one aspect of Vermeer’s research that I found very interesting was the use of ‘silence’ or empty space in diaries, particularly following traumatic events or entries. One woman left an entire blank page after an entry on the death of her mother. Using examples of the ways diary writers record illness to help them deal with emotion, for reflection, or simply to make themselves feel better, she explained how a ‘bottom up’ approach to studying illness in the nineteenth century has a lot to offer us. Among other things, it shows us how the medical discoveries of the nineteenth century were actually being implemented, and the kinds of things patients would have expected (and accepted) from medical professionals.
Finally, we had a lecture by Dr Marjan Sterckx from the University of Ghent on female artists from Belgium, France, and the Netherlands who created nude sculptures. Nude sculpture was still quite scandalous in the nineteenth century, though less so in France, and female sculptors of nudes generally either sculpted children or used classical tropes, both of which were less controversial. You can actually read an article by Sterckx in English on what seems to be a very similar topic at this link. Specifically, Sterckx looked at the work of French/Belgian sculptor Marie-Louise Lefevre-Deumiers (1812-1877), in particular her 1861 La Nymphe Glycera and her 1865 Diana, which was also exhibited in the Hague. Sadly no photographs of Diana exist (that we know of.
We closed the session with a general 45-minute panel discussion on the body in the nineteenth century, which mainly consisted of several rounds of questions. All in all it was a productive day, and I can’t imagine where else I could have heard papers on such vastly different topics in so short a span of time. Also, where else but the Netherlands do you get books like Seks!… in de negentiende eeuw (‘Sex!… in the nineteenth century’) with awesome covers like the one pictured here. The conference book stand was full of interesting titles, though I didn’t take any home this time around.
And naturally, we wrapped up the day with a good borrel, where we could mingle with each other and with the speakers over a glass of something tasty. I managed to get in a couple of questions that I would never have been brave enough to ask the speakers in the public, post-lecture rounds, and I got some great blog suggestions (Quigley’s Cabinet and Morbid Anatomy anyone?) from Tinne Claes and Veronique Deblon, who also blog themselves (in Dutch).
So as of this week I’m a freshly minted PhD candidate. This means I’m finally going to have to get around to putting all those thoughts and scribbles I’ve been accumulating over the last couple of years into what is essentially a book on monsters. In the PhD application I just submitted to the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) research institute, my project proposal starts something like this:
This project examines 21st-century parodies of 19th-century Gothic monsters (bodily deviations from an idealised human norm), part of a phenomenon I refer to as ‘neo-historical’, constituting a symbolic re-formulation and appropriation of the past. This project will consist of a narrative analysis of such monsters, attempting to answer the research questions of why these figures are so prevalent in 21st-century culture, and how they inform contemporary ideas of subjectivity, memory, and history.
So. What does this all actually mean? And what the hell do monsters have to do with history or with today’s culture? Over the next few posts I’ll be unpacking the introductory bit of my proposal. I’ll also take a closer look at the ideas behind the proposal. In explaining it to the internets, I also hope to get a better grasp on everything myself.
I can start by explaining that we’re dealing with two different kinds of monsters here: 19th-century ones, and 21st-century ones. In the 19th century you had a whole collection of monster novels, from Frankenstein (1818) to the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) to Dracula (1897). Funny enough, we still have these same characters hanging around in the 21st-century—consider I, Frankenstein(2014), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series (1999-2014), or the most recent Dracula TV series (2013)—but you can’t be part of popular culture for that long without being reinvented a few times.
Every time we ‘reboot’ a character, it adds to our culture’s collective understanding of that character. We know that the Frankenstein’s creature from I, Frankenstein isn’t the creature, but I dare you to go back and read Mary Shelley’s original novel without having Aaron Eckhart chopping up gargoyles in the back of your mind. What I’m saying in my thesis is that all this rebooting is ultimately a good thing, especially if it’s as silly as I, Frankenstein. Here’s why: today’s monster mashups let us put meaning back into monsters.
In 19th-century culture, monsters represented things that, put simply, were not us. Not part of Western, white, upper-middle-class, and in this case English culture. Let me give you an example of what I mean. If you’ve been to a few English lit classes (or are something of a horror fan), chances are you’ll know all about the homoeroticism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The text is very man-heavy, and whether or not it’s a main theme of the novel, remakes tend to play that up. You’ll probably also have noticed that the good Count is a foreigner, and that he not only threatens Jonathan Harker, but also all of England if Harker fails to stop him.
Dracula is clearly a bad dude. He’s even badder because he’s one of them. A foreigner with an ambiguous sexual identity.
We still see this happening today, but something has shifted. Now we live a globalised culture, and assuming someone is evil just because of their race or sexuality has become a tired cliché, not to mention kind of discriminatory. Today we still have villains who are distinctly not us in some clear way (it’s generally pretty easy to spot them), but we’re a lot more conscious about what it is authors and filmmakers are doing to us. And they know that we know. That leads to some interesting dynamics, and it also lets us look at the role of monsters in culture in a different way.
There are loads of films now where someone’s obvious evilness is the source of the movie’s humour. Take Despicable Me‘s Gru, for example—the whole movie is built on the fact that he looks and sounds like a villain, but is actually a hero on the inside.
More often than not, the monster isn’t in the movie to scare us, but he or she is the character we’re meant to identify with. In contemporary culture, monsters don’t really mean one particular thing any more—at least not in the sense that they did in the 19th century. They’re just regular people who look a little different, and who were misunderstood all along.
So what that first couple of sentence of my thesis proposal means is that we should look at 21st-century monster mashups to see how they change our perspectives on those 19th-century stories they’re parodying. Why are those old monsters still interesting to us if they don’t represent things we’re afraid of, or that are strange to us? How do they change the way we look at old texts, where those monsters did represent those things? And why should we care about these questions at all seeing as neither 19th-century monsters or 21st-century monsters are even real?
Find out in the next post (and the one after that).