Friends, colleagues, and monsters: the time has come. Angels and Apes is going on hiatus over the summer, while I put the finishing touches on my PhD thesis. In a few short weeks, Frankenfiction: Adaptations of the Monster and Monstrous Adaptation in Twenty-First Century Remix Culture (hopefully) comes to life.
I will be back again at some point with regular updates. While you wait, why not check out some of my favourite posts from the past few years:
Here’s another great-looking conference CfP, for an event at the University of Pennsylvania, from 29-31 March, 2018:
Since its inception, the Gothic has been a favorite aesthetic of artists exploring extreme states, whether psychological, political, or numinous, at times of imperial expansion, social protest, world war, global revolution, and government oppression. At the same time, its history dovetails with the emergence of new media from early modern tragedy to eighteenth-century travel writing and circulating library fiction, nineteenth-century melodrama, early photography and cinema, comics and graphic novels, popular music and television, and digital entertainment. Even today, the Gothic thrives as a viable, living language for those features of the psyche, the social order, or the cosmos that are least susceptible to representation and least liable to be controlled and assimilated.
Our chosen theme (‘Gothic States’) brings together these concerns by asking scholars to consider the Gothic’s function across differing ‘states’ as a language for addressing incipient nationalisms, whether to endorse or to critique them, as well as for representing divided consciousness, whether sexual, political, filial, or religious. The most powerful Gothic texts, in fact, place these concerns in dialogue with one another, depicting individuals and communities under duress in times of social and political upheaval. We therefore aim to galvanize our understanding of the Gothic as a single aesthetic tradition and invite scholars to create new perspectives on the Gothic in a transnational, trans-media, and comparative context. What role has the Gothic played in how we imagine the constitutions of both individuals and nations? How has the mode been visualized across different media and technologies of representation? Finally, what lends the Gothic its power? What produces the ruptures, fears, and anxieties we associate with it? What fuels its ability to cross media with such opportunistic ease?
Robin Furth, Marvel Comics, co-author of the Steven King Dark Tower series
Diego Saglia, University of Parma
Angela Wright, University of Sheffield
The conference is sponsored by the Center for Italian Studies and the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania, with generous support provided by the School of Arts and Sciences, University Research Foundation, the Penn Humanities Forum, the Program in Comparative Literature, the Program in Cinema Studies, the Restoration-Victorian reading group, and the Gen-Sex Reading Group.
Though I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to submit something to this conference, it looks like a very tempting post-summer project. You can find the original abstract here.
SIIBS and The Centre for the History of the Gothic are pleased to announce an interdisciplinary one day conference exploring the theme ‘Gothic Bible’. Since the creation of the Gothic genre in 1764, religion and the Bible have proved to be major influences on Gothic fiction, and our event aims to explore this important and enduring relationship. The conference will take place at the University of Sheffield on Tuesday 31st October 2017.
This event is part of the Gothic Bible project, which is an ongoing research theme at SIIBS and in partnership with The Centre for the History of the Gothic and The University of Auckland. The project seeks to explore the relationship between the Bible, theologies, and the Gothic, and we hope to encourage existing and new academic interest in this area. We welcome papers that examine the Bible, religion, and theology within the Gothic—including but not limited to: novels, plays, poems, films, TV shows of any period—as well as papers that examine passages or narratives within the Bible or other religious texts that can be read through a Gothic lens. We welcome and encourage papers that approach this theme using interdisciplinary methods.
The Gothic Bible conference is open to researchers from any level (including, but not limited to, undergraduates, postgraduates, and Early Career Researchers) and from any discipline. We invite the submission of abstracts of no more than 250 words to be sent to GothicBible@sheffield.ac.uk along with a short bio. The deadline for submissions is Monday 14th August.
Topics may include, but are not limited to:
Theological explorations in Gothic texts
Gothic readings of Biblical passages or narratives
Gothic appropriations and adaptations of biblical characters and narratives
Depictions of The Wandering Jew, Lilith, or other mythological/religious characters
Depictions of religious communities and identities within Gothic fiction
Biblical vampires and other supernatural characters and phenomena
Biblical influences in contemporary horror film and TV
Apocalypse and End Times narratives
In conjuction with this event, and as part of the Gothic Bible project, Sheffield Gothic will also be hosting an ongoing Gothic Bible blog series exploring the broad theme of ‘Gothic Bible.’ As always, blog posts can be an informal and fun way to explore a topic that interests you, whether it be through a TV series, a film, a book, or a particular bible passage, narrative, or character. Extensive knowledge of the Bible, Biblical Studies, or the Gothic is not required – so if you want to explore the Gothic Bible theme, and want to blog for the Gothic Bible series, get in touch!
This excursion report was first shared on the Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth-Century Seminar (CRECS) blog. You can find the original post here.
On 1 March, 2015 the Walpole Trust reopened Strawberry Hill House to the public. As the former home of Horace Walpole, famed (and famously eccentric) author of the first Gothic novel, the house has been a popular tourist destination since it was first built up in 1749.
At noon on 16 May, 2017, twenty-three students and scholars from Cardiff University stepped blinking into the parking lot of Strawberry Hill House, out of the darkened bus that had carried them from rainy Wales. The weather in Twickenham was hardly Gothic-appropriate, but since the tour of the house had been arranged for the late afternoon, we had several hours to eat our bag lunches, stretch our legs in Strawberry Hill’s gardens, and snag a leisurely drink along the sunny banks of the Thames. By the time we returned to the House at 4 p.m., the group was happy, slightly sunburnt, and ready to be thrilled, amazed, and educated about Walpole’s ‘little Gothic castle’.
Our guide was Carole, a soft-spoken woman with a sharp wit and extensive knowledge of Strawberry Hill’s history, heritage, and restoration. The tour began outside the house, where we learnt how Strawberry Hill went from a small cottage to the massive, three-part castle it is today. Following Walpole’s death in 1797, the residence passed to various relatives, many of whom led quite dramatic lives. The stories Carole shared included the Engilsh sculptor (and wealthy widow) Anne Seymour Damer, illegitimate heiresses, a ‘slightly illegal wedding’, and a fall into debt that resulted in the sale of most of the house’s contents.
In 1861, the thrice-married Countess Frances Waldegrave took up residence. She established the House as a thriving social salon after her fourth marriage to Liberal politician Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue, who encouraged her to buy back some of the auctioned-off estate. In 1923 the House was bought by St Mary’s University, which still has its campus in the western wing.
Through this intricate history, Strawberry Hill House was rebuilt and redecorated again and again. When the Walpole Trust set about restoring it to its original glory in the twenty-first century, the first question was how to go about it. After all, there was nothing ‘original’ about the House to begin with—from its revivalist architecture to its papier-mâché walls and ceilings, Strawberry Hill House is fake through and through.
In this, it is utterly Gothic. As Catherine Spooner notes, ‘[t]he construction of fake histories is integral to Gothic texts’. Jerrold Hogle, likewise, writes that the Gothic is ‘grounded in fakery’ from its earliest origins. Walpole himself famously stated that ‘my buildings, like my writings are of paper, and will blow away ten years after I am dead’, but today the House seems as solid as ever.
Gloomth and Glory
Our Cardiff tour group took the same route Walpole’s own guests would have, entering onto the base of a dark, curving staircase and ending in a series of glorious gold and blood-red chambers on the upper levels. Virtually every room is decorated in a different, vibrant colour, though all radiate that wonderful ‘gloomth’ (Walpole’s own word, a counterintuitive combination of ‘gloom’ and ‘warmth’) which continues to be so characteristic of both his house and the Gothic genre he initiated. One bedroom, painted a deep lilac and ornamented in pale wood, was apparently never even used. Of the libraries—Walpole had three at Strawberry Hill—the opposite was true. He read voraciously, and none of his books were just for show.
The Castle of Otranto is visibly linked to the house in which its author first dreamt of it, and Walpole himself described Strawberry Hill as ‘the scene that inspired’ the novel. The play between light and dark in the house alone is fascinating, as sunlight and candlelight cast marvellous shadows through the intricate designs in the windows, walls, and balustrades. At the top of Strawberry Hill’s gloomth-laden staircase, Carole read us a passage from the Castle of Otranto, inviting us to imagine walking through the house’s halls at night, by the light of a single candle.
One of the tour’s undergraduate attendees, Laura Robinson, comments on this aspect of the House as well, suggesting: ‘It cannot be doubted that Horace Walpole’s eccentric and unique Strawberry Hill House reflects the Gothic literary tradition that began in the Romantic Period. Strawberry Hill’s architecture and the atmosphere created inside the house itself through the manipulation of light—particularly surrounding the staircase—creates a Gothic impression that we still recognize today’.
Restoration and Revival
Throughout the tour, we saw signs of the restoration project still underway. Teams of volunteers have re-painted, re-woven, and re-embroidered the House’s various embellishments, using historically accurate techniques. The House also contains several pieces of furniture built to spec by the students of a nearby design school. The restoration workers were able to reproduce these designs so faithfully both because Walpole describes them extensively in his records, and because he commissioned a series of watercolours detailing each of the rooms. Even when it was brand new, then, Strawberry Hill House was already busy writing its own history.
Ironically, the pieces of the restoration that felt most faithful in light of Strawberry Hill House’s elaborate self-performance and fakery were not the painstakingly hand-embroidered bedclothes, but the digitally-reproduced sketches and paintings, machine-copied down to the last bump of oil paint. In one of the bedrooms hangs a magnificent, 3D-printed picture frame, which was then gilded and retouched using traditional methods. It perfectly embodies the elaborate, delightful sham that is Strawberry Hill House.
All in the Details
In addition to the grand history Carole shared with us, small details and stories gave us a glimpse into Walpole’s own person and psyche. A muted, pastel-green room once contained Walpole’s curio collection, including numerous heirlooms from his beloved mother. In the dining room hangs a portrait of Walpole’s deceased aunt, who allegedly haunted the house. The legend varies: she either died of smallpox or was pushed down the stairs. Through the window of the best bedroom, we even got a glimpse of the cottage where Walpole would hide himself away during tours of Strawberry Hill House.
As Josie Powell, one of the undergraduate students on the tour, relays: ‘Strawberry Hill embodies all the typical Gothic conventions; vast spaces and dark colours create a sense of entrapment. Yet Walpole’s Strawberry Hill is more than just a Gothic building. It contains so much attention to detail that it is an invaluable example of social history’.
We are very grateful to CRECS (who generously organised and funded the tour), to Learning and Education Coordinators Sally Stratton and Charlotte Hawkes, and to our fabulous guide Carole, who made the house and its tales come alive for us in all their Gothic glory.
 Jerrold E. Hogle, ‘The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection’, in A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), pp. 496–509 (p. 497).
Dr Alexia L. Bowler, Dr Adele Jones & Dr. Claire O’Callaghan are putting together an edited collection on ‘nasty women’ in popular culture:
Donald Trump’s now infamous phrase ‘such a nasty woman’, uttered about his then rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential debates, was rudely used to patronise and belittle Clinton, who is known for being a strong, independent (and feminist) politician.
In reality, Trump is not the only figure to characterise today’s women in this manner. Indeed, the alt-right commentator and Trump supporter, Milo Yiannopoulos, argues that feminism is ‘a cancer’ and suggests that fixing the so-called online gender wars is merely a matter of women exiting public space. Similarly, in the ‘community beliefs’ section of his Return of the Kingssite, the neo-masculinist, self-styled pick-up artist and infamous internet misogynist, Roosh V, suggests that the elimination of traditional sex and gender roles increases female promiscuity and diminishes the rightful centrality of the nuclear family, for which he blames, among other things, women and feminism.
Nonetheless, in a demonstration of the power of the internet, the phrase was rapidly taken up (and continues to be used) by social media as a rallying cry for feminists, women’s rights groups and their supporters. The result of Trump’s comment was a spectacular subversion of his attempts to discredit Clinton and marginalise women’s voices. Alongside existing feminist slogans such as the Fawcett Society’s ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ and Laura Bates’s the #everydaysexism project, the ‘nasty woman’ slogan has gone viral; used in Twitter hashtags, on a range of merchandise, and as memes. It has inspired poems, theatre, exhibitions, music and collected responses, as well as sparked political activism, visible in the global Women’s Marches that took place across the globe in 2017 at which banners celebrating feminist ‘nastiness’ could be seen: ‘Stay Nasty’, ‘The Future is Nasty’, and ‘I am a Nasty Woman’
Alongside this, the rise in visibility of strong, complex and vocal women in popular media, including television and film, suggests that the time of the ‘nasty woman’ is not over but about to begin. This collection will interrogate and contribute to this ongoing debate by bringing together new scholarship focusing on the idea of the ‘nasty woman’, and the embrace of this label, in late 20th and 21st century popular media and culture. The collection will ask how can we best theorise ‘the nasty woman’? What characterises or who is the ‘nasty woman’ and where can we find her? Is her central characteristic anger, strength, crudity, power, or all of these things? Finally, it will consider the question of whether she bears responsibility for others and what, if anything, makes her different to previous iterations of the arguably feminist female figure?
The collection will both celebrate and problematise the application and endorsement of the term, considering recent debates, responses and trends in popular culture and feminist scholarship.
We seek contributions that engage with the notion of the ‘nasty woman’ in all forms of media (including recent film and television) and popular culture in late 20th and 21st century sex and gender politics.
Possible topics could include but are by no means limited to:
Theorising the ‘nasty woman’
Television and Film (e.g. Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Claire Underwood in House of Cards, Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag)
Relationship with other feminist movements such as ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ movement and everyday sexism projects, among others
Nasty women and bad language
The ‘nasty woman’ of comedy (e.g. Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sharon Horgan, Phoebe Waller-Bridge)
Nasty women of pop (e.g. Madonna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus)
Nasty women of fashion, TV, film, theatre, gaming
Nasty women of history as viewed by contemporary culture
Issues of responsibility and shared identity
Politics, the media and the nasty woman
Controversial commentators and the idea of the nasty woman (e.g. Roosh V, Milo Yiannopoulos, Katie Hopkins, Ann Coulter, Camille Pagilia)
Abstracts of 500-600 words, for chapters of between 6,000-7,500 words, along with a short biographical note, should be emailed to both editors by 1st August 2017. Successful proposals will be notified by 1st September 2017. Completed chapters will be due by 31st January 2018.
This article by Hilda Bouma originally appeared (in Dutch) in Het Financieele Dagblad on 15 April, 2017. It has been translated and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the paper. The copyright for this article is reserved by Het Financieele Dagblad, and it should not be reproduced without express written permission. To read the original article, click here.
The Dutch duo Jaap Sinke (1973) and Ferry van Tongeren (1969) have taken taxidermy to a new level. Their work is on display in a museum for the first time. Does it have a message? No, say Jaap and Ferry, of the duo Darwin, Sinke & Van Tongeren (DS&vT). Their taxidermied creations are not, for instance, a statement on the loss of biodiversity.
‘That’s not the artist’s responsibility’, says Ferry.
‘Our job is to make beautiful things’, Jaap adds.
‘Our job is to create an emotional effect’, suggests Ferry. ‘That’s the message: that it can also be beautiful. We polish up the truth’.
Rarely has there been such great contrast between creators and their work. These two bearded Haarlemmers are dry as dust. ‘We don’t really do “art talk”’, says Jaap. But the animals they stuff are exotic, posed, and stylised. They are mounted onto antique objects that have nothing to do with their original habitats. In terms of composition they evoke famous paintings rather than nature. When DS&vT photograph their work, they also drape the animals in an ‘unfamiliar pose’. Essentially, they throw all of taxidermy’s rules overboard.
DS&vT does things differently in other ways as well. They never use a pre-formed mould, kneading and shaping a new body for every animal. They don’t use a spray, but always a brush, painting on layer after layer until the beak or hoof shines. This is more than the conservation of dead animals. It is ‘fine taxidermy’.
After all, it’s not for nothing that their work is sold at Jamb, a posh antiques shop in London, and on the website 1stDibs.com—in Jaap’s words, ‘the marketplace for million dollar decorators’. Both Jaap and Ferry are former advertisers, who have worked together for twenty years: Ferry sold his business in 2000 to become a taxidermist, and Jaap followed him. They have identified their market well. When their first collection went on sale at a London gallery in 2015, it was bought up in its entirety by artist Damien Hirst, for his own personal collection. This is now memorialised on every website where DS&vT display their work.
For the first time their creations are now in a museum: the 18th-century estate of Museum Oud Amelisweerd (MOA), where Armando’s art has also found a home. ‘It all came together so well here’, says Ferry, almost surprised, as though he hadn’t expected it after a year and a half of preparation. Besides a piece of chimney featuring seven deadly snakes, lent from Damien Hirst, all the other taxidermied pieces were made specially for these spaces. Ferry is right—the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. The exhibition is a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk of country house, animals, and painting. DS&vT’s iridescent peacock seems made to stand with Armando’s shimmering, blue-green landscape, against a backdrop of 18th-century bird wallpaper.
DS&vT’s work functions as a wonderful link between Armando’s paintings and the house itself. The Amelisweerd estate was built at a time when people were excited to classify and catalogue the nature around them: the wonder of God. From the walls to the wall hangings, the whole estate is a hymn to nature, which man can bend to his will. Armando has a very different perspective. For him nature is unapproachable and unforgiving. The landscape itself is guilty—for instance, in the case of a concentration camp. There is no point in resisting it.
The pieces DS&vT have created fit precisely in between. On the one hand, they romanticise life on earth. Though gathered together in the Pheasant Room, the crown pigeon, red ibis, rhea, and Reeves’s pheasant have never ‘met’ in real life. They lived in completely different parts of the world. On the other hand, these artists certainly don’t idealise nature. Their depictions are full of cruel twists. On the Chinese wallpaper we see humans hunting a snow leopard. In DS&vT’s installation, which hangs in the same room, the roles have been reversed: their tiger crushes a starling under its claws. When you look into the eyes of this giant stuffed cat, chills run down your spine.
Taxidermy is trendy in the interior decorating world. A shop chock-full of stuffed beasts and natural history curios even opened recently in Amsterdam. Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren take things a step further. Both are art academy graduates, and their pieces form an ode to the work of 17th-century painters like Rubens, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, and Jan Weenix. Their work ‘elevates taxidermy to a higher plane’, as the British Telegraphconcluded.
‘I think that we do have a signature style’, says Ferry cautiously. ‘But that thought is also scary. A style is a set of walls you have to work between, and we left advertising in the first place to be liberated’.
Darwin, Sinke & van Tongeren only work with animals that have died a natural death, and which come from European zoos, shelters, or breeding programmes. All the animals are legal, and DS&vT hold the relevant paperwork.
You can visit DS&vT ‘s exhibition at Museum Oud Amelisweerd until 10 September, 2017. For more information (in Dutch), click here.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the mythologisation of great women writers, artists, and other historical figures.
As feminist scholar Christine Battersby points out, writing against the postmodern impulse to declare the author or great genius ‘dead’:
The concept of genius is too deeply embedded in our conceptual scheme for us to solve our aesthetic problems by simply amputating all talk of genius, or by refusing to evaluate individual authors and artists. Before we can fundamentally revalue old aesthetic values, the concept of genius has to be appropriated by feminists, and made to work for us. [Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics, 1989, p. 15]
In other words, Battersby frames the mythologisation and popularisation of female historical figures as inherently good, and feminist. In her book this is a convincing argument, and I believe representation is a very necessary part of equality. Naturally things are usually more complicated in practice than they are in theory, though.
Recently, in watching television shows and films set in the past I’ve begun noticing a proliferation of female feminists who are eventually aided by male feminist characters in the quest to be treated equally and I can’t decide if I like this new trend…. or not.
So as a feminist and as a writer, you’d think I’d love to see the kinds of feminists that are popping up on several new historical fiction shows I’ve found on Netflix recently — women detectives like:
Phryne Fisher and Dorothy Williams in 1929 Australia on Miss Fisher’s Mysteries or female medical doctors like Julia Ogden and Emily Grace in 1898 Toronto on Murdoch Mysteries or Samantha Stewart in 1940s London on Foyle’s War — or perhaps the most famous recent historical fiction feminist on television — Sybil Crawley in 1912 England on the wildly popular Downton Abbey.
Those last 2 shows I found thanks to PBS, which was our only window into international television before the advent of Netflix so I wanted to make sure and give credit where credit is due. The other thing that sparked my mind about this idea of ‘fake frequent feminists’ was an interview with Alan Rickman [on] a film he directed and co-wrote (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan ) called A Little Chaos. Apparently, it’s set in the court of Louis XIV and involves two landscape architects involved in designing the gardens — one male (who existed in real life) landscape artist André Le Notre, and one female — who is entirely fictional.
In an interview with Variety Rickman said he enjoyed the historical inaccuracy of the story:
“But there was something unmistakable about the dialogue and the fact she’d created a leading female character who couldn’t possibly have existed then — it’s a complete fantasy. But that’s what the movies can do, you can take a period of history that’s incredibly male dominated and you can inject into it a very modern independent woman and make a point about feminism through a prism of history. So if anyone says the story’s implausible, you just say: Well, yes.”
Rickman gave us one of the many reasons for the many feminist characters we are encountering these days. Another is that post-Buffy (which I discussed a couple of shows ago) women want to see empowered women, rather than victims — and the networks and studios know this. Also, writers know that characters need to be active to be interesting, not passive. They also know that stories need to focus on unique and dramatic events, not boring average everyday living. So what’s the problem with that?
I fear all these feminists in the past are giving young girls the idea that it’s always been easy to demand and receive our rights in various countries around the world, when nothing could be farther from the truth.
You can read the rest of Welch’s piece (which contains a few more examples and some suggested solutions) over on Medium.
Three scholars from Leeds Beckett University are inviting chapter submissions for a new edited collection on gender and horror. The call for papers is below.
This edited collection aims to re-examine horror in an era of remakes, reboots and re-imaginings. There have been many developments in the horror genre and whilst much of it has been reliant on previous material, there are also many shifts and changes such as:
cross-over of genres (for example, teen romance paired with vampires and werewolves, or horror in space);
new formats such as Netflix, and cinema no longer being the only place we see horror;
a resurgence of stories of hauntings and ghosts;
and the popularity of ‘found footage’.
We wish to focus specifically on horror from 1995 to the present, as after a brief hiatus in the mainstream, the 1990s saw the return of horror to our screens – including our TV screens with, for example, Buffy The Vampire Slayer – and with horror and its characters more knowing than before.
We are happy for you to compare older material with newer versions, such as the recent Netflix version of The Exorcist (2016) with the original film The Exorcist (1973). The main requirement is that you interrogate whether the portrayal of gender has changed in horror – it may look like something different (more positive?) is happening, but is it?
We hope to encourage diverse perspectives and we welcome early career researchers and new voices to offer a different light on classic material, in sole- or multi-authored chapters.
We’d also like to gently remind potential authors that ‘gender’ doesn’t only apply to women, it applies to men and masculinities, and it encompasses non-binary identities and experiences, as well as issues about ‘race’, ethnicities and class.
The schedule is as follows:
You send your chapter title, 200 word abstract and brief bio by the end of May 2017.
The finalised proposal will be sent to the publisher Emerald in early summer.
Your final first draft chapter (approx 7000 words) should be sent to us by January 31st 2018 (reminder/s will be sent).
We will return any comments/revisions by the end of March 2018, and ask that you send us the final revised chapter by the end of June 2018.
The completed manuscript will be submitted in July 2018 for publication in early 2019.
Please send your chapter titles, 200 word abstracts and a brief bio to the book editors by the end of May.
If you have any queries, or would like to contribute but need to tweak the schedule, please email us.
If you are not familiar with the publisher, Emerald are an independent publisher, established by academics in 1967 and committed to retaining their independence.
And for your future reference: All hardback monograph publishing will be available in paperback after 24 months, and all books are available as ebooks. Emerald commission and cover the cost of indexing if authors don’t want to do it themselves; use professional designers for each individual book jacket; and aim to exceed the royalties of other publishers. They have international offices, but pride themselves on not being a ‘corporate machine’.
In 2014, Mina was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. One of the significant symptoms is a weakness of the muscles which meant she required living aids to assist her with raising her son. “I went into the local mobility shops and was dismayed to see that the limited range of aids were all fashioned towards elderly people or people with little appreciation of the more alternative ways of fashion,” said Mina. “My main issue came when I was invited to a wedding. I had a great outfit but my living aids make it look so ghastly! So I had to go without and suffered, leaving the event early.” It was then that she struck on the idea of modifying them herself. She did the same thing with her wrist and knee supports.
In the light of last week’s post, which described Victorian attitudes towards the disabled as ‘a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement’, it was encouraging to see that the neo-Victorian update doesn’t share these feelings in any way, shape, or form. The steampunk subculture’s love of crafting has effectively turned disability—often a marker reserved for evil or monstrous characters in popular culture—into a superpower.
It turns out that this topic (like many topics) has been on the steampunk community’s collective mind for a while. Steampunk Touristtalks about why this subculture is a better fit with disability than others:
When it comes to Steampunk […] one isn’t restricted to that sort of rigid rule set. Rather than being a predetermined cast of characters, Steampunk is an artistic style. While it can stand alone, it can also be added to other things to make them Steampunk. You don’t have to be someone else; you can create your own character. What that means to a person with a physical disability who relies on a device is that their device – be it a wheelchair, cane, oxygen tank, leg braces, or even glasses – can be dressed up and blended into a costume, or even made the centerpiece of it. […] Within the world of Steampunk, those things don’t make them stand out as “others”; they’re merely smart, fashionable accessories. And one can easily imagine that were someone brave enough to dress up a prosthetic limb with Steampunk flare, they would most likely find themselves the belle of the ball at any event, and for all the right reasons.
Steampunk literature is a disruption of the historical narrative. When I’m creating a universe for my characters, I treat history like the icing on the cake. Or, sometimes, the rosettes. I am creating a world with airships, sky pirates, auto-baubles and appropriated Victorian aesthetics. I pick and choose which parts I borrow from our history and which parts to embellish.
So, in a steampunk setting, what does accessibility look like?
In the Tales of the Captain Duke, Professor Sewell is the morally-ambiguous Tony Stark figure. She becomes one of the first students at Lovelace University, a school founded by Mary Somerville and funded by the heirs of Ada Lovelace. She pioneers the field of biomechanical engineering with her incredible prosthetics and reshapes the Victorian understanding of disability. The classic image of the crippled, impoverished veteran pushing himself on a scooter is undone, reshaped into a foreman supervising work at a factory on eight-foot legs. The Professor disrupts society with her inventions, and challenges her peers’ understanding of the possible.
Do you have an example of how steampunk approaches disability? I would love to hear about it!
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.