ITV’s Victoria is Neo-Victorian Fiction at its Purest

‘I’m afraid the truth is vastly overrated’ – Lord Melbourne, ‘Doll 123’ (Victoria, episode 1)

Image © ITV Plc

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.

From ITV VICTORIA Embargoed until 16.30 11th August 2016 Pictured: JENNA COLEMAN as Victoriaand TOM HUGHES as Albert. This photograph is (C) ITV Plc and can only be reproduced for editorial purposes directly in connection with the programme or event mentioned above. Once made available by ITV plc Picture Desk, this photograph can be reproduced once only up until the transmission [TX] date and no reproduction fee will be charged. Any subsequent usage may incur a fee. This photograph must not be manipulated [excluding basic cropping] in a manner which alters the visual appearance of the person photographed deemed detrimental or inappropriate by ITV plc Picture Desk. This photograph must not be syndicated to any other company, publication or website, or permanently archived, without the express written permission of ITV Plc Picture Desk. Full Terms and conditions are available on the website www.itvpictures.com For further information please contact: Patrick.smith@itv.com 0207 1573044
Image © ITV Plc
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.

Image © ITV Plc
Image © ITV Plc

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?

victoria-episode-3
Image © ITV Plc

Exoticised foreigners? Check. Erotic corset-lacing scenes? Check. Obligatory prostitute with a Heart of GoldCheck. 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.

Image © ITV Plc
Image © ITV Plc

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?

106751228-victoria-culture-xlarge_transeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengruma
Image © ITV Plc

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.

Welcome to the Asylum

On a beautiful long weekend at the end of August, I experienced my very first major steampunk event.

Image © Joe Slatter
Image © Joe Slatter

The Asylum Steampunk Festival – so-named because of the converted mental asylum that forms one of its key venues – takes place every year in Lincoln, and is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the UK. I went to learn more about the musical acts performing there, and also to steep myself in the subculture, for context.

Image © Stitches of Time
Image © Stitches of Time

When I tell people about going to a steampunk festival, the first question from many people’s lips is ‘what did you wear’? Alas, I spent the Asylum as a civilian in jeans and t-shirts (and occasionally a flaming red rain parka, to combat the weekend showers). I wasn’t the only person underdressed for the occasion, but the extent of the costumes ranged from a simple pair of brass goggles to a dress inspired by Gothic cathedrals (pictured). No one’s attire really felt out of place, and no one was excluded from an event based on what they were wearing. Of course, those with especially fabulous costumes had a harder time than the rest getting from place to place, since everyone wanted to take their picture.

img_6396
Some scheduling decisions were tougher than others.

There was no shortage of things to do and see at the Asylum festival, and most of the daytime features were free to wristband holders. There were crafting workshops and live performances, galleries, exhibitions, and markets, competitions and roleplaying events. Many of these involved the participation of the attending steampunks, who had signed up for particular events in advance or been selected to participate because they had won an event at another convention. In one event, participants raced the wheeled contraptions they had built down the castle promenade.

Behold my giant slice of 'Steampunk Cake' (with absinthe-flavoured icing).
Behold my giant slice of ‘Steampunk Cake’ (with absinthe-flavoured icing).

In addition to the steampunk vendors who had come to Lincoln specially for the festival, the city’s regular shops had gone out of their way to appeal to the steampunk community. In some shops this meant a steampunk-themed window display. Others offered special discounts to wristband holders. Many food vendors had steampunk-themed cakes, drinks, and other treats. Favourite flavours were absinthe (aniseed), lemon, and gin.

The city itself was no slouch. Within a very small radius were a castle, a cathedral, a lovely old town and more modern shopping area (separated from each other by the mother of all hills), as well as a myriad other historical buildings and attractions.

I also very much enjoyed the evening concerts I attended at the Engine Shed – an appropriately named venue for the occasion. I got to experience the bands I had been researching for the past few months up close, and discover some new bands in the process. I will definitely be picking up albums by Frenchy and the Punk for my own collection, and Before Victoria is now at the top of my research list.

The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.
The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.

In addition to the research on steampunk music I originally went to Lincoln to conduct, I came back from the Asylum with a few things to mull over.

The first thing that struck me about the festival was the age of the attendees. Specifically, the steampunk community is older than I had expected. The vast majority of the steampunks at the Asylum seemed to be somewhere between 40 and 60, though there were also a good number of attendees outside of that age range as well. It was pretty spectacular to see a 60-year-old, moustachioed gentleman in a pith helmet walking around the same events as a 12-year-old steampunk Rey. Having been to very few events of this kind, I can’t comment on whether this age distribution is usual or not (let me know if you can!).

img_6403Other features and themes that stood out for me over the weekend had do with steampunk’s traditional bone of contention: its glorification of colonial and imperial imagery. One workshop I attended, given by crafter and copyright lawyer Peter Harrow, discussed the challenges inherent in adapting Star Wars characters to the steampunk aesthetic. This is something that happens quite frequently, as creative fans bring their love of one world into another. The sculptures Harrow displayed during the workshop, however, all shared a rather disturbing theme that was largely glossed over – a bell jar containing the shrunken head of Jar Jar Binks, an Ewok-skin rug, the mounted head of a Sand Person, wearing a Foreign Legion fez.

img_6405These sculptures attempt humour by tapping into the strong (and often negative) feelings Star Wars fans have for these characters, but in doing so they also strongly evoke tribal and colonial imagery. This representation of natives as trophies a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away has two effects. It glorifies the Imperial Army responsible for taking the trophies in the Star Wars universe, and associates it with the imperial British army responsible for oppressing native peoples in our own universe.

On several occasions present-day politics also came to the forefront at the Asylum. Many of the political opinions voiced at the festival came from left-leaning, anti-royalist, and anti-imperialist steampunks, particularly at the musical concerts. It was clear that not everyone shared these views, however. When Marc Burrows, frontman for Before Victoria, described Princess Charlotte as being ‘like Kate Middleton except she had a point’, boos could be heard throughout the audience. These quickly turned to laughter as Burrows added, ‘uh oh – if you’re booing that, you’re really not going to like this next song’.

img_6385

At the Queen’s Parade (an event where steampunk societies could march together and present themselves to a Queen Victoria impersonator at Lincoln Castle), the organisers stopped to offer a word on ‘all the people in uniform serving today’, which may well have rubbed some of the non-British participants the wrong way. These were all grouped under a banner naming them ‘The Most Honourable Legion of Extraordinary Foreigners’, with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘We are not asylum seekers – we’ve already found The Asylum!’.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a steampunk festival without copious amounts of tea (another colonial product). There was tea drinking, tea duelling, and even a tea referendum, to answer the burning question: ‘Milk: Before or After’? (‘Milk After’ was the eventual winner, to the dismay of many a ‘Milk Before’ steampunk).

The most civil of all referenda?
The most civil of all referenda?

For me, despite the many sights to see and issues to ponder, the real highlight of the festival was the warm, polite atmosphere that prevailed. Everyone seemed cheerful and enthusiastic, and genuinely accepting of the wide range of ‘doing’ steampunk practiced by those in attendance. Whatever the issues on the table, it always felt like there was space to discuss them civilly and honestly. I would certainly go again, and I may even get the chance: next year it will overlap with the British Association for Victorian Studies conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’.

I may have to pack my parasol and pith helmet this time.

Image © Chahinez Loup‎
Image © Chahinez Loup‎

Reflections on BAVS 2016

bavs-poster_castleThe 2016 British Association for Victorian Studies annual conference, ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, officially closed at Cardiff University on Friday. Today, I finally put in a full and productive day of work again after a long weekend of post-conference recovery. It’s one thing attending a three-day international conference. It’s a whole different thing organising one. Despite a fantastic organising team – and an equally fantastic bunch of delegates – four days of conference mode (preceded by a year’s worth of planning) takes its tole. Fortunately, it was still an amazing experience overall, and one I would gladly repeat… though perhaps not immediately.

Today I spent several hours putting together Storify threads of all the Twitter highlights from each day of BAVS 2016, and got to re-live the moments that made it special. I was also overwhelmed by just how many tweets there were. Just counting those I retweeted from the official @BAVS2016 account, there were more than 3000 tweets between 31 August and 2 September. On the first day, the #BAVS2016 hashtag was among the top fifty Twitter trends in the UK. Not bad for a group of 350 Victorianists – especially given that their presence on Twitter mostly consisted of PhD students and early-career scholars.

Without further ado, then, the Storify feeds for BAVS 2016:

BAVS 2016 – Day One (31 August, 2016)

BAVS 2016 – Day Two (1 September, 2016)

BAVS 2016 – Day Three (2 September, 2016)

BAVS 2016 – Aftermath

We couldn’t have achieved all this without our team of bursary tweeters, who volunteered their skills in exchange for a small subsidy (which in turn was graciously provided by BAVS and Cardiff University). They produced around a third of the live tweets during the conference.

crvkxrlwyaeipsi-jpg-large
Image by @KeiWaiyee (‘Marxist Baking’), a BAVS 2016 delegate

It was a fantastic three days, but now it’s time to turn my thoughts back to all the projects I’ve been neglecting in the run-up to the conference – and to BAVS 2017: ‘Victorians Unbound’!

Consuming (the) Victorians

IMG_6342 (1)Today I won’t be posting a new research blog, because I’m busy running the international Victorianist conference ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ (BAVS 2016). In addition to being a co-organiser, I’m behind all the conference website and social media for the event.

So check out our website, look us up on Twitter (@BAVS2016), and see what we’re up to (or chat to us) using the hashtag #BAVS2016!

I will be back next week with more historical monster mashup research.

Photographs from Aeroplanes

IMG_3597This week I’m taking a break from research blogging to celebrate an important milestone. It’s been two years since I accepted a PhD bursary at Cardiff University, and also two years that my partner and I have been living apart. Happily, after much job hunting, he also found work in the UK, and we have just recently moved back in together, but the past 24 months have involved a lot of planes, buses, trains, and other forms of travel.

During that time I’ve casually snapped a lot of travel photos, many of them from the windows of airplanes, and flipping back through them now I found the simultaneous difference and sameness strangely calming. Sometimes you can spot the location from the image, but sometimes the new perspective renders things alien and unplaceable. It’s another world up there, and it looks new with every trip.

So without further ado, here’s what two years’ worth of photographs from aeroplane windows looks like:

 

Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948

IMG_6089‘There’s nothing like a photograph for reminding you about difference’, reads a quote by Professor Stuart Hall, printed large on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. ‘There it is. It stares you ineradicably in the face’.

The images that form the ‘Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’ exhibit this quotation adorns represent ‘difference’ in various ways for the people gathered to view them. For some, it’s primarily a temporal difference. For the most part, the images show people who are long dead. For others, it’s a racial difference – and the absence of visual representations of black individuals from this period in history is part of what The Missing Chapter, an ongoing archive research programme supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to remedy.

I was in London over the weekend, and decided to pop in for a visit. I deal a bit with photographic representations of otherness in my thesis, and it’s an area of research I find particularly interesting. Travis Louie, one of the artists I’m researching, has explicitly tied his decision to reproduce the Victorian photographic motif to the ‘the immigrant experience in North America from the late 18th century through the early 20th century’, which he sees as ‘a convincing record of such things’.  Himself a descendent of Chinese immigrants, Louie recalls seeing old, black-and-white photographs hanging in the homes of childhood friends, and wondering why his family had none. Quite simply, he discovered, his ancestors were too poor to afford this kind of historical capital, and so their image has since faded from memory. For Louie, this lack of retrospective representation contributes in part to present-day racism and discrimination. You can read a bit more about Travis Louie’s work here.

IMG_6100

On the exhibition homepage, the National Portrait Gallery explains the importance of making these images visible:

These portraits of individuals of African and Asian heritage bear witness to Britain’s imperial history of empire and expansion. They highlight an important and complex black presence in Britain before 1948, a watershed moment when the Empire Windrush brought the first large group of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. Research is ongoing and new information emerges continuously.

The exhibition is smaller and less obtrusive than I expected – except for the first room, which contains the quotation by Professor Hall and a number of enlarged photographs. This room is intentionally arresting; walls painted black, instantly visible from the stairway. The images themselves also stop you in your tracks, enlarged and printed in incredibly high quality. Unless you were to read the captions (or, in some cases, to note the clothing) you would never assume they were more than 100 years old.

IMG_6088

The images can be found in three rooms of the gallery, and in the last two rooms you have to spend a moment or two searching. Despite the added trouble, I actually found this to be a very apt choice, as it makes the photographs feel like an important, embedded part of the gallery as a whole. While the first room holds a series of enlarged portraits, the rest of the collection mainly consists of smaller photographs and cabinet cards. These, like the larger images, seem chosen to evoke a sense of connection between the viewer and the picture, and I found myself eager for more information about these people, beyond the brief descriptions offered alongside the photographs.

IMG_6099Too often in historical representation, perhaps especially in Victorian representations, we get only one, very narrow perspective on the past. Now, certain movements and moments – neo-Victorianism, postcolonial steampunk, this exhibition – are confronting us with the narrowness of out experience. The result, in my opinion, is extremely rewarding.

‘Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’ will continue to run until 11 December 2016, and I highly recommend it – not least because it’s completely free. There will also be a one-day conference on 21 October, which will mark the end of the project’s three-year funding.

 

Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion

Programme for the performance of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion
Programme for the performance
of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion

This week’s guest post was written by Daný van Dam, who recently submitted her PhD on postcolonial neo-Victorian fiction at Cardiff University.

Together with Megen and with Akira Suwa, she is putting together a special issue of the online journal Assuming Gender on the theme of ‘Consuming Gender’ (submission deadline 16 October 2016, see here). At present, Daný is setting up a new research project on non-English-language neo-Victorian writing. 

Five women are missing. One was last seen when visiting a travelling circus. A well-off family notified the police when their daughter went missing after meeting someone in town – not long after, the girl’s mother also disappeared. A fourth woman, struggling with mental health issues, hasn’t been heard from since her first visit to a psychiatrist. Considering her state, the police are concerned about suicide. The fifth woman disappeared close to an old cemetery – people in the neighbourhood claim the cemetery is used for dark and satanic rituals. The police are looking for clues. The only name that links all five women is Dr. M…

A few weeks ago, we went to the theatre for my birthday present – a performance. At this point, my birthday was long past, but due to a bout of the flu, I’d missed my original gift. I chose to drag my partner, who’s less of a classical music buff than I am, along to a performance of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion by the Dutch, The Hague-based company OPERA2DAY. This blog provides some details about the show as well as my opinion about it.

OPERA2DAY are known for their alternative approaches to classical performances – in 2012 and 2013, they performed a collection of ‘lamenti’ – melancholic songs – by different composers in an old and empty hospital building in The Hague under the title Dolhuys Kermis. The title, which can be translated as ‘madhouse fair’, refers to asylums and madhouses in earlier centuries being open to the (paying) public for visiting, so people could gape at the supposed madness within.

The old hospital bathing room, with Martin Snip performing as Patrick, who wants to go to sea (photo: Roelof Pothuis)
The old hospital bathing room, with Martin Snip performing as Patrick, who wants to go to sea (photo: Roelof Pothuis)

Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion was performed in the Royal Theatre in The Hague, but here, too, OPERA2DAY didn’t limit themselves to the stage. The performance was preceded by a selection of ‘side programmes’ in the different foyers of the theatre. The indefinability and repetitiveness of these mini-performances pointed back to the madness of Dolhuys Kermis – and of course, the theme of madness returns in Dr. Miracle, with one of the five women disappearing after a visit to a psychiatrist.

Dr. Miracle's last illusion - Side programming at the Royal Theatre with violinist Isobel Warmelink and Lorris Eichinger (photographer unknown)
Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion – side programming at the Royal Theatre with violinist Isobel Warmelink and Lorris Eichinger (photographer unknown)
Dr. Miracle's last illusion - Side programming at the Royal Theatre with violinist Isobel Warmelink and Lorris Eichinger (photographer unknown)
Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion – side programming at the Royal Theatre with theremin player Thorwald Jorgenson (photographer unknown)

 

Dr. Miracle’s potential victim is not the only one in the performance who may be mad – another candidate is the good doctor himself. Dr. Miracle is a travelling illusionist. During one of his shows, he makes a mistake, leading to the death of an unknown young woman he asked to participate in the act. As she dies, Dr. Miracle catches a glimpse of what he thinks is the eternal light of the hereafter. Inspired by this experience, Dr. Miracle continues to experiment in an attempt to capture the moment of transition between life and death, but his attempts become increasingly cruel. As he becomes more and more willing to risk the lives of others, Dr. Miracle loses his own grip on life and the everyday world, no longer able to distinguish between the real and the illusionary.

 

Dr. Miracle heading into the light, as his five victims look on (photo: Morten de Boer)
Dr. Miracle heading into the light, as his five victims look on (photo: Morten de Boer)

With Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion, OPERA2DAY wants to bring to life the period from the fin de siècle to the early twentieth century. While spiritualism was still a popular form of entertainment at this time (and taken seriously by many of its followers), scientific developments also rationalised what was before seen as mysterious and magical. Illusionism and spiritualism became increasingly close, with illusionists seemingly knowing things beyond what was normally possible and offering communications with the dead.

Dr. Miracle’s first (and accidental?) victim (photo: Morten de Boer)
Dr. Miracle’s first (and accidental?) victim (photo: Morten de Boer)

Dr. Miracle is played by Woedy Woet, a prize-winning Dutch illusionist who performs the tricks taking place on stage. His role is a silent one, though Tom Jansen provides a voice-over representing the doctor’s thoughts. In the programme booklet of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion, director Serge van Veggel provides a historical background for the performance. Writing about opera, he states that, like many things, operas mirrored the concerns of their age. Magic, psychology and spiritualism, as well as a touch of horror, played a large role in nineteenth and early twentieth-century opera. The pieces sung and performed in Dr. Miracle do not come from one opera. Instead, the performance can be considered a ‘pasticcio’ – the Italian word for pasty, in which various elements become one coherent dish. Pieces from operas and ballets from, among others, Bellini, Offenbach, Verdi, Wagner and Stravinsky are brought together to create a new narrative with different meanings. At the same time, the familiar pieces evoke their original contexts, providing the performance with additional layers.

Director Van Veggel also engages with performance history, seeing nineteenth and twentieth-century developments in recording imagery and sound as a way for performers to be given a life beyond death. The three sopranos taking the roles of three of Dr. Miracle’s victims perform in the ‘bel canto’ singing tradition, which focused on refinement and elegance, singing in the service of the text and the performance as a whole. They provide an homage to legendary opera singers from Dr. Miracle’s age, especially Nellie Melba, Lilli Lehmann and Adelina Patti.

Pavilion set up before the entrance to the theatre for the performance of Dr. Miracle (photo: Daný van Dam)
Pavilion set up before the entrance to the theatre for the performance of Dr. Miracle (photo: Daný van Dam)

While Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion is a wonderful piece of work, the performance itself (the actual opera and dance pieces, taking place on stage) did not live up to the standard set by the larger whole around it. To be fair, this may have been because my expectations were very high. Nevertheless, the show as a whole was definitely worth visiting.

If you happen to read this from the Netherlands and are willing to invest a few hours of your time: for each performance, OPERA2DAY needs several volunteers for a moment of audience-participation. These volunteers get to attend the performance for free. For more information, see here (in Dutch).

The Musical Monsters of Steampunk

A few weeks ago I introduced you to ‘Lady Got Bustle’, a steampunk rendering of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’. This video was just a bit of fan-made fun, but steampunk is a musical genre in its own right. Happily for my research, it’s chock full of monsters and strange creatures.

a0848551422_10There’s actually not as much ‘punk’ in steampunk music as you might expect, though a few bands fit the bill. I’m currently writing about a band called The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing. Their name comes from the graffiti chalked near the scene of one of the Jack the Ripper murders, and they describe their own music as ‘Crusty punk meets cockney sing-songs meets grindcore in the 1880s’. The subjects they sing about are your typical anti-establishment fare (take ‘Doing it for the Whigs’ or ‘Not Your Typical Victorian’), but they’ve also got a number of songs about the supernatural and the fantastical.

One of my favourites is ‘Victoria’s Secret’, which describes how the widowed Queen Victoria tried to resurrect Prince Albert. Naturally, it all goes very badly:

Victoria’s secret, she couldn’t let go
When death came a-calling

For Albert, her beau
All manner of Voodoo
Or Witchcraft she tried
To bring back her Albert
To be by her side
Now Albert is back
But Albert has changed!
Albert is hungry for commoner’s brains!

Zombie Albert!
Zombie Albert!
Zombie Albert!

You can listen to the full track on Bandcamp.

There are also plenty of steampunk bands making other kinds of music, even within the genre of historical monster mashup. Steam Powered Giraffe, an American band, performs a variety of different musical styles on the basis that they are 100-year-old automata. Initially pressed into service as war robots, they quickly gave up violence for a life on the stage. They do folk, pop, rock, and vaudeville, all in their own version of close harmony.

One of their best-known songs is ‘Honeybee’:

You can see that, as with much of the subculture, story and costuming play very important roles in steampunk music.

Last but not least, there’s also a specific subgenre of steampunk called ‘chap hop’, which is essentially hip hop done in an RP accent. Chap hop focuses on stereotypically British subjects like tea and cricket, and includes artists like Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, Poplock Holmes & DJ WattsOn, and Sir Reginald Pikedevant, Esquire. My personal favourite is Professor Elemental. He, too, makes an appearance in my PhD thesis.

professor-elemental-profile
In all his glory.
There are many monsters and fantastical creatures in Professor Elemental’s universe, from zombies to dinosaurs to Jeffrey the orang-utan butler. He has also invented an eclectic collection of augmented trousers with various functions, including (most notably) fighting and time travel. His songs (see ‘Fighting Trousers’) verge on parody – as, to be honest, does most of chap hop – but can also be unexpectedly sensible at times (‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’).

I’ll leave you with the video for ‘Sir, You Are Being Hunted’, in which Professor Elemental’s Inter-dimensional Trousers have malfunctioned, trapping him and the viewer in a monster-infested forest that looks suspiciously like the some back wood in Brighton:

 

Calling All Aphantasiacs

This week’s post may at first blush seem entirely unrelated to my research on monsters, mashups, and popular culture, but it has more to do with these topics than you might think.

It will also blow your mind.

maxresdefault-3

A number of years ago I discovered that a member of my immediate family could not visualise things in their mind, or bring to mind what something tasted or sounded like. We both assumed that this was a well-documented phenomenon, like colour-blindness or other altered perceptions. Last year, we learned that no one had actually bothered to study it before, and that it apparently affects a surprisingly large number of people – perhaps one in fifty. It’s called ‘aphantasia’, literally ‘without mental image’.

By far the most insightful (and humorous) piece I’ve read on the subject is ‘Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind’ by Blake Ross, one of the co-creators of the web browser Firefox. Ross describes his inability to create a mental image as follows:

If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.
Ross’s writing process is equally interesting to those of us who are used to imagining a scene by visualising it. In the (rather lengthy) excerpt below, he describes how he imagines scenes when he is writing general prose:
First I think of a noun in my milk voice: cupcake. Then I think of a verb: cough. Finally an adjective: hairy. What if there was a hairy monster that coughs out cupcakes? Now I wonder how he feels about that. Does he wish he was scarier? Is he regulated by the FDA? Does he get to subtract Weight Watchers points whenever he coughs? Are his sneezes savory or sweet? Is the flu delicious?
If I don’t like the combination of words I’ve picked, I keep Mad Libbing until the concept piques my interest.
This has always struck me as an incredibly inefficient way to imagine things, because I can’t hold the scene in my mind. I have to keep reminding myself, “the monster is hairy” and “the sneeze-saltines are sitting on a teal counter.” But I thought, maybe that’s just how it is.
Later Ross describes how he feels about writing fiction:
Overall, I find writing fiction torturous. All writers say this, obviously, but I’ve come to realize that they usually mean the “writing” part: They can’t stop daydreaming long enough to put it on the page. I love the writing and hate the imagining, which is why I churn out 50 dry essays for every nugget of fiction.
Perhaps my favourite part of Ross’s account is where he explains how hard he found it to believe that a ‘mind’s eye’ actually existed:
Even after the Exeter study, I was certain that what we had here was a failure to communicate. You say potato, I say potato. Let me be clear: I know nobody can see fantastical images through their actual eyes. But I was equally sure nobody could “see” them with some fanciful “mind’s eye,” either. That was just a colorful figure of speech, like “the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s pajamas.”
For Ross, it was the people who could picture things in their minds who were unusual. ‘Imagine your phone buzzes with breaking news’, he writes. ‘WASHINGTON SCIENTISTS DISCOVER TAIL-LESS MAN. Well then what are you?’

U. Exeter’s Adam Zeman, who coined the term last year, remains adamant that aphantasia is ‘not a disorder’, though ‘it makes quite an important difference to their experience of life because many of us spend our lives with imagery hovering somewhere in the mind’s eye which we inspect from time to time, it’s a variability of human experience.’

a3004045906_16

‘We have known of the existence of people with no mind’s eye for more than a century’, writes the New Scientist:

In 1880, Francis Galton conducted an experiment in which people had to imagine themselves sitting at their breakfast table, and to rate the illumination, definition and colouring of the table and the objects on it. Some found it easy to imagine the table, including Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin, for whom the scene was “as distinct as if I had photos before me”. But a few individuals drew a total blank.

Zeman’s speculation about whether the ‘mind’s eye’ is a key part of human experience is part of what interests me so much about the condition. What perception do we define as human perception, and how do we account for natural variability in that perception? Are the people who saw a gold and white dress somehow less ‘human’ than those who saw a black and blue dress? Ross comments on this question as well:

I think what makes us human is that we know we’re the galactic punchline, but we can still laugh at the setup. The cosmos got me good on this one. How beautiful that such electrical epiphany is not just the province of the child. And were the bee’s knees real, too? And have the cats worn pajamas all along?

Are people who can’t picture things ‘inhuman’ or ‘disabled’ in some way. Of course not, you’re probably thinking, but why does their existence (or ours, from Ross’s perspective) surprise us so much? Furthermore, how do they then consume popular culture, which is intensely reliant on familiar modes of phantasia, and what does a piece of art geared towards a person with aphantasia look like? For me the question immediately becomes: ‘How many people with aphantasia are working in the arts, and how many have sat before me in an English Literature classroom?’

book_of_imagination_by_t1na-d7mlgj9-1160x653

The answer potentially has huge implications for the humanities, and as someone teaching in English Literature I wonder how effective our current methods of approaching reading and meaning actually are. When I mentioned the condition to my colleagues at Cardiff University, many jokingly responded with something along the lines of: ‘What, you mean someone without an imagination?’A recent article by Mo Costandi in the Guardian explores the potential impact of aphantasia on education. He writes:

One study shows that using mental imagery helps primary school pupils learn and understand new scientific words, and that their subjective reports of the vividness of their images is closely related to the extent to which imagery enhances their learning. Visualisation techniques are also helpful for the teaching and learning of mathematics and computer science, both of which involve an understanding of the patterns within numbers, and creating mental representations of the spatial relationships between them.

While Costandi’s article is fascinating, the title (‘If you can’t imagine things, how can you learn?’) is poorly found. People with aphantasia still imagine things, they just do so very differently than people without aphantasia. Their experience is not inherently less rich, or less creative. It is simply rich and creative in a way the rest of us cannot imagine.

The article essentially concludes the same thing – aphantasia is not a disability in any traditional sense:

“We know that children with aphantasia tend not to enjoy descriptive texts, and this may well influence their reading comprehension,” says neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter who, together with his colleagues, gave the condition its name last year. “But there isn’t any evidence directly linking it to learning disabilities yet.”

While it’s good to know that aphantasia doesn’t affect reading comprehension more generally, current evidence says little about how metaphorical language is perceived. Descriptive passages in novels may be out, but what kinds of description? My aphantasiac family member is an avid reader, and passages like this one, from the opening of Iain Banks’ A Song of Stone (1997), are no problem:

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 18.35.00

So comparing things to ideas still seems to carry impact and emotion, while comparing things to other things, as in the opening passage of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume (1985), becomes more problematic:

 

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.

702ad7447c84edb6593bed99c04c6a94

Even more interesting to me (especially in the light of Tom Robbins’ prose) is the question of how aphantasiacs comprehend poetry and poetic imagery, which often relies heavily on a direct link between words and images, senses, or feelings, rather than abstract concepts. What poetry do aphantasiacs prefer, how do they make sense of the poetry they don’t? What does an aphantasiac make of Alison Croggon’s ‘The Elwood Organic Fruit and Vegetable Shop’, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, or K. Schippers’ ‘Things You Only Need to Remember Briefly’? How can we teach aphantasiacs to read sensory images in an educational system where our most common response is ‘Just read until you feel it’?

Illustration © Maurice Vellekoop
Illustration © Maurice Vellekoop

This is part of what Adam Zeman’s AHRC project, ‘The Eye’s Mind’, aims to discover, but I suspect there’s enough work on this subject to go around for a good long while. I would be fascinated to know if any of you reading this identify as aphantastic, especially if you happen to work in the arts or creative industries. You can take an abridged version of the aphantasia test at this link.

Or, better yet, let me know if any of you are researchers at Cardiff, Exeter, Bristol or Bath, and would want to set up a GW4-funded project with me to explore these questions. (You can also contact Adam Zeman about his neurological research into aphantasia at a.zeman@exeter.ac.uk.)

Scream Queens: Women and Horror

woman-screaming-261010-large_newAs part of the final chapter of my PhD thesis, which takes a fan studies approach to historical monster mashups, I’ve recently been researching audience statistics for Pemberley Digital’s various series. Pemberley Digital is an online broadcasting company that specialises in serialised YouTube adaptations of classic literature. Specifically, I wanted to know whether Frankenstein, MD, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), had a different audience than their other productions. Unlike Pemberley Digital’s other shows, Frankenstein, MD represented a genre shift from drama to horror. How might this affect their viewership?

Pemberley Digital’s representatives were very happy to send over screenshots of their YouTube demographics data, which yielded some very interesting results. Below are the audience demographics for the two most popular Pemberley Digital series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice) and Emma Approved (based on Austen’s 1815 novel Emma).

LBD Demographics
LBD Demographics
Emma Approved Demographics
Emma Approved Demographics

As you can see from the infographics, the audience for these series overwhelmingly identifies as female, and most are under the age of 24.

Unlike its other shows, Pemberley Digital produced Frankenstein, MD in cooperation with PBS Digital Studios, part of the online arm of the American Public Broadcasting Service (a free-to-view, non-profit, and largely educational media platform). This meant that while I could obtain demographics for all the extra videos produced for Frankenstein, MD (spinoff vlogs by Iggy DeLacey and Eli Lavenza) from Pemberley Digital, I would need to approach PBS Digital Studios for statistics on the main episodes. Fortunately, they too were happy to provide the information I needed.

Frankenstein MD Vlogs Demographics
Frankenstein, MD Demographics (Bonus Content, Pemberley Digital)
Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.28.41 AM
Frankenstein, MD Demographics (Main Episodes, PBS Digital Studios)

As you can see, viewers for Frankenstein, MD content skew slightly older and identify more often as male – especially on main episodes of the series. Part of this difference in demographics is no doubt due to the diverse makeup of PBS audiences more generally. It’s likely that, due to its more diverse content, PBS Digital Studios simply has more men in its audience than Pemberley Digital, and these viewers were attracted to the show because it was broadcast on the PBS YouTube channel. The Frankenstein, MD production team, which is composed much more heavily of men than the average Pemberley Digital production, may also have helped skew the demographic. As a social network, YouTube users are split pretty evenly between male and female, though many gender stereotypes prevail nonetheless.

FMDSlider

While I’m still working out what exactly this data can tell me about the audiences of historical monster mashup, it also led me to the question of who generally watches horror. Surely, as one Flavorwire list of ‘50 Must-See Horror Films Directed by Women’ points out:

Genre filmmaking has a reputation as a man’s field. That goes for audiences as well as filmmakers. To the novice, it’s easy to see why. For a long time women’s bodies have been used to titillate male adolescent horror fans — shrieking, squirming, disposable ciphers.

As it turns out, however, the audience for horror on big screen and small is not as male-dominated as one might expect. In fact, several recent studies have suggested that it’s pretty much 50/50 (these studies tend to stick pretty strictly to a binary gender system).

6302de20-77bc-adf5.

Of course, this information will likely come as no surprise to scholars of the Gothic, a genre with a strong history of female readership (and viewership), but it’s worth noting that horror’s popularity with women crosses into visual media as well as textual media. In a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, Lorenza Munoz argues that female support for horror not only fuels its box office success, but ‘has revolutionized the genre’:

No marketing decision on these horror films is made without considering how to attract girls and women younger than 25, added Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for New Line Cinema, which distributed “Texas.”

“This young audience has been such a boon to movies over the past five years,” he said, noting that “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” reinvigorated the genre and introduced it to a new generation of girls. “They can go in groups on a Friday night.

“It becomes a pack thing, the same way an action movie is a pack thing for guys.”

gal-scream-drew-barrymore-scream-jpg

The article continues:

 

Weinstein, who began distributing Barker’s “Hellraiser” movies starting with the third in the series after he launched Miramax’s Dimension Films label, said Barker had to convince him that females should be targeted in the marketing campaign.

“I questioned that,” said Weinstein. “I didn’t realize that women were as big an audience as men. It’s not perception of action or violence” that draws them. “What you are selling is fright.”

[…] “The girls run the show.”

If these excerpts interest you, then I strongly recommend you check out the entire article (it’s a short read).

Of course, the fact that women make up 50% of the audience doesn’t mean that women are well represented behind the scenes of horror cinema. You may be aware that women only make up 4,7% of the Hollywood film directors in the past five years. Horror is lurking at the very back of the industry, with the crews on these films just 9% female on average. There have been numerous calls for female-led horror in the past few years, but it remains to be seen whether things will actually improve for women making horror as dramatically as it has for horror’s audiences.

TexasChainsawMassacreMarilynBurnsLSBryanstonDistributionCompany