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Rossetti Week

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Here we go. Week 2 of writing up, and I’ve been spending my time with Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Comparatively, this chapter has been through the most iterations beforehand, so the way forward seemed pretty clear when I began. Again, there was lots of building up my methodological framework and plenty of interweaving with other chapters to be done, and now I’m a little worried that it might be the chapter with the most work still to do when I come back to doing round two of this process.

Still, the week was a pleasure. Some of the highlights included:

  • Enjoying what might be the original Victorianist digital humanities project, the Rossetti Archive. What it lacks in an up-to-the-minute appearance, the site more than makes up for in comprehensive detail. It’s an invaluable resource for images of printed texts, manuscripts, and paintings, as well as summarising some of the key foundational critical works dealing with Rossetti’s work.
  • Taking advantage yet again of the wealth of texts and information available on Monoskop.org. This week it was a quick canter through Umberto Eco’s The Open Work as well as Gérard Genette’s Paratexts. Not only does it offer full texts in PDF form, but they’re searchable too. I promise, it’s one of the sexiest research tools on the web!
  • Coming back to a close reading and just thinking, “Nope. Plain wrong!” It’s wonderful quite how many interpretations a sonnet might hold, particularly if it has the convoluted and condensed syntax and imagery of a Rossettian one! In case you’re wondering, the misreading involved ‘A Superscription’, one of sonnets from “The House of Life” with some real pronoun problems! I think I have now satisfied myself as to what “that” in “the glass” is, but I may have changed my mind again by the time I come back to this chapter, so watch this space.

 

Image (c) Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University

Online publishing and pedagogy: some thoughts from working on NAVSA’s COVE

I have been working on various parts of NAVSA‘s Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE) for six months now, and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the experience, as well as on how COVE might serve educators in the future.

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Wylder’s Hand (Le Fanu) — book review

Putting together my new page of reviews reminded me that I used to put up book reviews a lot more frequently than I have been doing recently, so I thought I would put up a review of this classic mid-Victorian sensation novel, which I read alongside The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.

Review below the fold.

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Neo-Vic-Lit: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

I’m not quite sure how or when Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street ended up on my Kindle app, but when searching for something to read on my long commutes, it seemed the perfect thing. Despite being a Victorianist, I don’t read a huge amount of neo-Victorian fiction, as much of it feels flimsy to me. However, this is the best example of the genre that I’ve read since Jane Harris’ The Observations (which is excellent, and definitely worth a read!).

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‘Carmilla’ and Dracula’s Legacy

I read an excellent post by Miranda Butler on ‘Carmilla’ on YouTube a little while ago, and I thought it would make an excellent addition to my blog series on Dracula’s legacy. I watched the first two seasons a little while ago and have just finished the first half of Season 3, which only recently came out (the second half is due next week). What follows attempts to avoid spoilers as far as possible, but don’t proceed if you want to watch the whole show without any details about it at all.

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Swinburne, 150 years on

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To mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Swinburne’s first Poems and Ballads, Cambridge hosted a two-day conference that might best be described as ‘whither Swinburne?

It can be rare to find a conference, particularly a two-day one, so focused on a single volume, but the panels across the two days were rich and varied. What I particularly enjoyed was the strong focus on form, initiated by Herbert Tucker‘s opening keynote. Tucker asked us as readers to attend to ends: end-stopped lines, closing punctuation, the closing of poems, and the use of the word itself. This focused highlighted the intensity in Swinburne’s verse of what might appear to be poetic commonplaces, and I think also invites us to think about the poet’s experience: the relief of finding a good rhyme, the natural breaks where the mind can be allowed to wander, the feeling of having finished one poem but already having to write another. A keynote about ends was a wonderful beginning to the event.

The first panel focused on Poetry, the Body and the Senses, and featured some of Catherine Maxwell‘s interesting work on scentand a quick glimpse into some of the working that will form part of her monograph on perfume in Victorian literary culture (forthcoming from OUP). She distinguished the Baudelairean fascination with heavy, musky, Decadent scent with Swinburne’s interest in lighter, fresher scents, such as eau de cologne. Alongside Maxwell were two graduate students, Kate Snelson, on physical, somatic sympathy, and David Womble, on hyloidealism. Womble’s presentation was thought-provoking, asking how dead speakers display embodied modes of thought in Swinburne’s work. The approach, I think, bears application to some other poets of the era, such as the Rossettis.

The final two panels of day one focused on Affinity and Influence, with a fascinating array of different angles taken. Some papers, such as Jan Marsh‘s comparison between Swinburne and Christina Rossetti, and Oliver Goldstein‘s (@OliverGoldstein) focused attention to Hardy’s reading and annotations of Swinburne, offered a nuanced take on influence and influencing through attention to biographical detail. Others attended to Swinburne’s relationship with other literary traditions, including French (Andria Pancrazi), Italian (Robin Kirkpatrick), and US (Alison Rosenblitt). Particularly interesting was Michael John Craske’s focus on the musical legacy of Poems and Ballads, in the light of TS Eliot’s criticism of Swinburne’s musicality.

Day two took us back to questions of form, with a panel on modes of address. Two papers, from Jason Boulet and Andrea Selleri, addressed Swinburne and the dramatic monologue genre, while Justin Sider attended to the notability of Swinburne’s style, as attested to by contemporary critics. The final panel of the day attended to morality in Swinburne’s volume, with a fascinating examination of the emergence of dystheism, antitheism, monotheism and polytheism by Stéphane Sitayeb, followed by Nathan Hensley‘s exploration of some of Swinburne’s manuscripts, including his unpublished ‘The Birch’, and invites us to consider that work in juxtaposition with contemporary political events, such as the Morant Bay rebellion. Sitayeb’s insights into the use of the words “God”, “God(s)”, etc., were further illuminated by a digital humanities approach from John Walsh, creater of The Swinburne Project. Walsh looks at Swinburne’s indexicality, his paratextual references and bibliographic tendencies, as well as identifying statistically some dominant lexical choices in the volume, like the use of “sweet”, “god”, etc.

Following a second keynote by Peter Nicholls on the relevance of Swinburne for modern-day poetics, the day rounded up with a reflection on the conference as a whole, led by Michael Hurley and Marion Thain (@MarionThain). Some key themes that arose were Swinburne’s multiplicity, as evidenced by the range of conference papers, and whether the field of study has changed significantly in the past decade. Chip Tucker asked the most provocative question: how can we teach and read Swinburne so that he remains relevant to pressing issues facing the academe over the next fifty years? The conference didn’t answer this question, but invited us to wonder why we had chosen to attend the conference, and what we might take away with us to develop the interest of our students and colleagues in Swinburne.

At the level of conference organisation, one thing that did surprise me was the ratio of men to women, which was almost 2:1. It made me wonder whether there is something about Swinburne that might account for what feels like an odd ratio at an English conference.

The Historian and Dracula’s Legacy

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As part 2 of a series of posts about how we might apply some of Friedrich Kittler‘s media theory insights and reading of Stoker’s Dracula to modern vampire tales, I thought I would look at Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005).

Kostova’s text is concerned with how history is represented, in particular in book form. As I noted in my post about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is an inclination for vampire narratives to focus on old media, manuscripts and books, and the histories that they contain within their pages, legible hundreds of years after the fact of their production, perhaps because these media in some way mirror the ageless and unaging central characters. In his essay on ‘Dracula’s Legacy’, Kittler notes this similarity—with a difference—in observing that “the race of the Count” in Dracula “is the history of Transylvania, his blood a different sort of memory than reference works” (p.150). The Historian seeks to complicate this distinction by producing a vampiric cult that is mediated by texts, and a master vampire who is an obsessive collector thereof.

Although published in 2005, the novel chooses to return to the 1970s as its dominant ‘present day’, with the 1950s and 1930s featuring heavily as flash-backs. There are various personal (and political-historical) reasons why the author felt drawn to these time-periods, but as with Buffy, there is a deliberate authorial choice that limits the possible impingement of technology on the vampire narrative. The real lives of academics in the early 2000s—Google, JSTOR, digital archives, mobile phones, in short, Discourse Network 2000—are deliberately avoided, and the narrative proceeds on the (nostalgic but false) basis of what Kittler has called the “monopoly of writing”, to the extent that the novel often draws on manuscripts, a vellum-bound book inspiring Rossi and Paul, her father’s letters inspiring the narrator.

The Historian does not deny the supernatural power of the vampire, but chooses to inscribe Dracula within the same discourse network in which his foes exist. The Historian goes a step beyond Stoker’s Dracula’s destruction of letters and wax phonograph cylinders in an effort to control the flow of information. Instead, vampires invade the library, and as Paul correctly deduces, seek to impede research into Dracula. Helen is almost killed by a vampire librarian early on in the narrative, who follows them throughout most of their travels, and ipon discovering Rossi, near death, his big revelation is that Dracula too is a scholar who has founded his own secret library.

In a way, then, we can say that Kostova’s Dracula becomes like Kittler’s caricature of Jacques Lacan, who had his seminars recorded and then transcribed for him to read ahead of the next lecture. Kittler notes that in such circumstances “speech has become, as it were, immortal” (‘Legacy’, p.143). Like Lacan, Kostova’s Dracula has become a consumer of his own narratives; he holds a copy of Stoker’s novel in his library and takes an inordinate interest in the writings about him, whereas Stoker’s Dracula hoarded documents only that might prove useful to him (railway timetables and the like). Kittler notes that, “in order to replace the Id with an Ego, to replace violence with technology, it is necessary that one first fall into the clutches of this violence” (p.149). In his analysis of Dracula, this refers to the travels of the characters to Transylvania. Kostova, however, provides a more psychoanalytic account of Dracula’s own development of an Ego, having emerged from the “clutches” of violence into a figure of a literary man. Unlike Dracula, which posits the vampire as backwards and having a “child-brain”, The Historian suggests that even this most bodily and blood-y of demons, the vampire, is inscribed within the discourse networks in which he finds himself. Dracula is a librarian because books have come to rule the world.

We have here, too, what was almost entirely absent in Buffy, with its isolated Slayers and controlling Watchers Council. The Historian proposes a geneology of vampire hunting. The unnamed narrator is at the end of a line of academics who have hunted Dracula: Professor Rossi, his daughter, Helen, and his protege, Paul. This invisible blood connection with vampire hunting combines with the secret societies that are familiar from Buffy. One of the academics who help Paul and Helen gain is Professor Bora, who reveals himself to be part of a secret organisation, derived from the elite of the Janissaries, set against the secret organisation associated with Dracula, the Order of the Dragon. While imprisoned in Dracula’s library, Rossi writes an account of it, which he conceals within the archive. He employs, in lieu of the traditional crucifixes and garlic the same “modern defensive techniques of espionage” as Jonathan Harker (p.152).

While Kittler opposed text and geneaology in his reading of Dracula, reference works and blood are intertwined in The Historian‘s narrator. Dracula has begun to incline towards the former alone, while his hunters are connected through the latter. Espionage against the vampire—Rossi’s account, the novel itself—becomes, involuntarily, counter-espionage; the texts become part of the vampire’s own library, part of his own power, and the Order of the Dragon and its vampiric scholars continue to taunt each new generation of vampire hunters; the novel ends with the narrator, an academic in 2008, receiving the same book that led her father and grandfather towards Dracula. The Historian blurs the lines between vampiric and human modes of knowledge and draws into question the tools at the disposal of those on both sides.