In a previous blog post, I mentioned the Ellis Island immigrant portraiture of Augustus F. Sherman. I wrote:
Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.
Recently, Wolfgang Wild, the creator and curator of the Retronaut website, and Jordan Lloyd, the director of the colour reconstruction team at Dynamichrome, have teamed up to create The Paper Time Machine. This book, which they are currently crowdfunding over at Unbound, takes famous black-and-white photographs (including Sherman’s) and renders them in full colour. The project description promises both historical accuracy and a tantalising level of historical engagement:
Each element in the monochrome images has been researched and colour checked for historical authenticity. As the layers of colour build up, the effect is disorientatingly real and the decades and centuries just fall away. It is as though we are standing at the original photographer’s elbow.
In the gallery below, you can also view some of the black-and-white images I displayed in my original post in all their full-colour glory:
The book describes itself as ‘a collection of historical “remixes” that exist alongside the original photographs but draw out qualities, textures and details that have hitherto remained hidden’. Wild and the team at Dynamichrome have also added their own annotations to the photographs, explaining the rationale for selecting these particular images and offering some insights into material features like clothing or architecture. Where the colorisation process brings the images to life for contemporary audiences visually, these descriptions add a sense of touch, as well as the occasional sound or smell.
‘I’m afraid the truth is vastly overrated’ – Lord Melbourne, ‘Doll 123’ (Victoria, episode 1)
After a busy summer, I’ve spent the last few weeks catching up on all the reading and viewing I had on hold. Last week, a scathing review by James Delingpole sent ITV’s Victoria to the top of my must-watch list. The show, he wrote, is ‘silly, facile and irresponsible’, and its popularity is all down to the ‘feminisation of culture’. Delingpole may well be right, but not for the reasons – or with the effects – that he imagines.
Rampant sexism of the article aside (it’s essentially clickbait), Delingpole does make one point worth commenting on. It deals with the question of historical accuracy, and the responsibility entertainers have to what he calls ‘the known biographical facts’:
Taking the odd liberty is one thing but doing so with such brazen shamelessness feels to me like one giant upraised middle finger to all those of us — we’re a minority but we do exist — who value history and who want to be informed at least as much as we want to be entertained.
With ‘brazen shamelessness’, Delingpole seems to be referring to Victoria‘s tendency to sexualise and sensationalise its characters. The show is indeed guilty of both, and we’ve only had five of the promised eight episodes. While the historical Queen Victoria, Lord Melbourne, and Prince Albert could all have been described as comely in their time, they were no match for actors Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, and Tom Hughes. The passion virtually oozes from every garment, glance, and camera angle, with frequent cuts between faces and eroticised body parts – hand, neck, lips – all designed to emphasise the physical as well as emotional attachments between characters. The scene that concludes the third episode (‘Brocket Hall’) is particularly evocative (talk to Daný van Dam about the sexual connotations of the piano in neo-Victorian fiction), not to mention the royal wedding night. Episode four even contains a quote that I will absolutely be using at next year’s BAVS conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’. Stopping Victoria from retying her hair after their forest romp (with all the sexual tension, but none of the sex), Albert tells her: ‘I like to see you unbound. You are not so much a queen.’
Sexiness aside, if we stick to bare facts Victoria is no more or less informative or historically accurate than the highly acclaimed biopic Lincoln(2012). But because the latter is ‘dignified’ in its emotion rather than giddy or indulgent, it is deemed superior. Why should it enrage viewers like Delingpole if a piece of historical fiction chooses to view its object from a sexual and emotional perspective, rather than a cerebral or rational one? The answer, of course, is that these perspectives are not assigned equal levels of value in contemporary culture. The rational is privileged above the emotional, just as other traditionally masculine traits are still praised over traditionally feminine ones. By focusing on sex and sentiment rather than traditionally interpreted historical evidence, the show doesn’t just turn off male viewers, Delingpole argues, it also betrays the objective truth of history, which is based not on sentiment but on cold, hard facts.
This is not a new way of looking at history. It’s not a view held by many contemporary historians, however. Though the historian has a certain level of responsibility to ‘the facts’, reassembling these facts into a coherent picture of the past always involves some measure of narrativisation. Take historian Robert Rosenstone, who has argued that ‘the history film […] helps return us to a kind of ground zero, a sense that we can never really know the past, but can only continually play with it, reconfigure, and try to make meaning out of the traces it has left behind’ (p. 163-4). The absolutist (or ‘rationalist’) view of history is also one that many neo-Victorian authors (male and female) have built their success on challenging.
In a recent blog post, Victorianist Barbara Franchi reflects on the symmetry between Victoria‘s title character and its subject matter:
With its intertextual references to literary classics, its serialised form and its self-reflexive tones on the epoch taking its name from the series’ protagonist, Victoria is a feast of nineteenth-century literature and culture brought to our screens. One could hardly find a more apt place to reflect on the contemporary fascination for the nineteenth-century past than the fictionalised story of the woman who, with her name alone, has made consuming the Victorians possible.
Victoria is neo-Victorian fiction at its purest, engaging with and under-writing our perception of the era’s most recognisable figure, who has already been sold to us in a thousand forms. It even employs all the stereotypical tools of the neo-Victorian novel to do so. Franchi argues that Victoria uses this narrative vocabulary to comment on contemporary society as much as on the historical Victorians.
If Victoria is interested in contemporary politics as well as nineteenth-century ones, what exactly is it trying to tell us through this particular retelling of history? The show manages to remain about as politically neutral as its main character (i.e. not very – nobody wants to align themselves with slavery, after all), though it also manages to avoid siding firmly for or against Tory conservatives, past and present. It can do so mainly because the party it does support, the Whigs, has itself faded into history, and the show makes little effort to give it a contemporary parallel in the Labour Party. The show does an interesting dance with the subject of immigration, given how much of Victoria’s family could not strictly be considered ‘British’, but it remains to be seen how the issue will ultimately be handled. Will Albert adapt to England through integration, or will the court and country learn to accept him in his difference?
Exoticised foreigners? Check. Erotic corset-lacing scenes? Check. Obligatory prostitute with a Heart of Gold? Check. The show is thus firmly neo-Victorian, bringing us emotionally close to Victorian characters and issues without necessarily replicating the period worldview. This second type of distance is very important. In an insightful post that also reflects on the recent ‘BAVS 2016: Consuming (the) Victorians’ conference, Birmingham-based lecturer Serena Trowbridge explains why emotional engagement must be tempered not just by fact, but by temporal detachment. The past, she reiterates, can never be fully recaptured:
[E]motions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.
In conclusion, Trowbridge raises several of her own concerns about Victoria’s sexualised portrayal of the young queen:
As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and [Theresa] May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.”
Trowbridge raises an important issue here, though it will be necessary to see how the rest of the series plays out before coming to a more definitive conclusion. In addition, to dismiss Victoria as frivolous and sentimental just because its heroine often is – something Trowbridge herself never does – would be to miss the point. The young queen, perhaps like many modern viewers, is somewhat ignorant of the politics of her time. As a ruler, Victoria has a great deal of power, but most of the men in her life still look down on her (literally and metaphorically). She is currently no more in charge of the era that will be named for her than the viewer is. She is also still a human being, with human desires and appetites. Victoria embodies traditionally female virtues and vices in the ITV series, but the same could also be said of its male heroes. Lord Melbourne is every inch the feminine, Byronic type so praised by the Romantics, and Albert’s quiet sensitivity and devotion to Victoria (and Victoria alone) stands in contrast to his brother Earnest’s confident, womanising, and traditionally masculine ways.
I’ll be most interested to see how the show develops as an analogy for contemporary gender politics. Will Victoria succeed in balancing her public and private lives, and will the male characters on the show be held to the same standard? How will ITV’s Albert come to terms with being the husband of the most powerful woman on Earth, and (more interestingly) what will it tell us about the roles of men and women in the twenty-first-century workplace?
Lauren Porter, who curated a Windsor Castle exhibition from the Royal Archives in 2014, comments that a love letter from Albert to Victoria (quoted in ITV’s Victoria), ‘provides a fascinating personal insight into the depth of Prince Albert’s thoughts and feelings for his bride-to-be. Such a heartfelt expression of love and devotion is particularly striking as it sits in contrast to the popular idea of the Victorian era being a period of emotional restraint.’ If nothing else, Victoria makes a valiant (and very neo-Victorian) effort to ensure that the stereotype of the austere and supremely rational Victorian does not persist into the twenty-first century.
These days we could all use a bit more Victorian love, and a bit less Victorian austerity.
Warning: this week’s post may have been produced under sleep-deprived conditions. It may or may not also have provoked me to revisit the series, and buy Stephanie Meyer’s gender-swapped anniversary edition of Twilight, entitled Life and Death.
Part of my thesis deals with the overtly political aspect of monstrousness. When we make monsters, we often rely on aspects of politicised otherness (blackness, as with the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, or femininity, like in Species) to cue us in to the fact that these creatures are ‘evil’ or ‘unnatural’. More recently, in film, television, and other popular culture, we’ve used monsters for a completely different reason: to try and make immigrants cool again.
In the wake of the not-so-recent announcement that Twilight is getting a new instalment of sorts (in the form of six short films), I’ve been doing some thinking about the ups and downs of the franchise. Where does Twilight fit into the contemporary monster scene, particularly given its depictions of monstrosity and otherness?
You could safely say that I am not a Twilight fan, though I’ve read most of the novels and seen all the films. My bachelor’s thesis, entitled ‘The Horror of Dracula: Twilight and the 21st-Century Vampire’, looked at how Twilight and related tween vampire productions metaphorically de-fang traditional vampire narratives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a huge vampire fan growing up (the more evil the vampire the better), I found it difficult to connect with the new sparkly, vegetarian variety I was seeing everywhere. Like others, I worried that the days of the ‘real’ vampires were behind us.
A few years down the line, however, my attitude towards the Twilight franchise has mellowed. It may not represent my favourite kind of literature or film, but if nothing else the antics of its fans (and the slow death of Robert Pattison’s soul) have given me lots to think, talk, and write about. Twilight also spawned the hugely successful 50 Shades of Grey, which in turn led to a film adaptation that saw a massively successful opening weekend at the box office (if not with critics). Without this former fanfic, where would I turn for my go-to example of the commodification of amateur art?
Likewise, my attitude about the representation of race and foreignness in Twilight has shifted slightly in the face of my recent research into the role fan and audience response plays in the reception of a text. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely many issues with the way gender, race (specifically people of colour), class, and sexuality are portrayed in the Twilight franchise. I see how Twilight, like many other contemporary cultural products, either ignores or openly mocks the many people who do not belong to the cultural majority.
Despite the whiteness of its main characters, however, the Twilight series also has a surprisingly tolerant stance on immigration and integration compared to most of the attitudes out there these days. In horror fiction, the vampire is also generally not very welcome in the country he or she decides to set up residence. At worst, the vampire is a bloodthirsty entrepreneur who wants to suck that country (and its inhabitants) dry. At best, the vampire does little more than leech off the people he meets and the economy that supports him. Neither is really the model citizen.
The Twilight series even has more than one model of the resident alien, and the multicultural government. There are the Native werewolves who quietly if doggedly (pun intended) stand by their traditions, protecting their land against antagonistic outsiders. You’ve got the Volturi, who are essentially a vampire mafia, and who, from their base in Rome, impose their own strict laws upon all vampires for the ‘greater good’. The final instalments of Twilight even feature the equivalent of a vampire United Nations, in which the free exchange of cultures and resources is portrayed in an unabashedly utopian light. Twilight (both book and film) certainly promotes many unhealthy stereotypes about the people of colour it depicts, but unfortunately the racial diversity of its characters and casting still puts much of contemporary entertainment to shame.
To me, however, the white, Western vampires in Twilight are also immigrants of a very specific sort. Though sometimes they segregates themselves from the culture of Forks, Edward and his family largely integrate. Edward and his vampire ‘siblings’ attend the local high school, his ‘father’ holds a respectable position as a doctor at the nearby hospital, and the Cullens regularly enjoy a game of baseball, the American pastime. If anything, Edward and his vampire family are frighteningly normal, not Other. Twilight’s vampire characters are all white, yes, but read from a certain perspective their whiteness is taken to an extreme that is arguably no longer identifiable with (or is even a caricature of) mainstream ‘whiteness’. Playing baseball, driving Volvos – are these things eighteenth-century Americans would have appreciated? Is it not terribly, temporally colonialist of the twenty-first century to assume that American hobbies and consumer values would remain inherently unchanged for hundreds of years?
Do I think that this engagement with themes of immigration and integration makes up for the other flaws in the series? No.
Does this mean that the Twilight franchise represents a positive response to the typically racist and classist portrayals of vampires in fiction? I’m unconvinced. I do find it to be an interesting line of thought, however.
Do you agree? Are you also disturbed by the fact that the Twilight series is looking increasingly progressive in the light of current Western politics? Let me know in the comments.