Historical Feminists (and Feminism) in Modern Television

Our lady Jane (Austen)

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.

Screenshot from Harlots (2017)

Dr. Rosanne Welch has written (/podcasted?) about some of the recent depictions of historical feminists in popular television, and raises related concerns:

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.

Screenshot from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-2015)

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.

Publicity still from Downton Abbey (2010-2015)

 

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.

Publicity image from the forthcoming Mary Shelley biopic.

CfP: Penny Dreadful, Gothic Reimagining and Neo-Victorianism in Modern Television

2000x2667_nmc5h5It’s been less than a year since Penny Dreadful ended dramatically in its third season, but this week brings the announcement of a collection of academic essays dedicated to the show. Edited by Manchester Metropolitan University‘s Jon Greenaway and Stephanie Reid, the collection looks to explore the show’s Gothic and Victorian heritage, as well as its contemporary contexts.

If you’re working on Penny Dreadful, do consider submitting an abstract to Penny Dreadful: Gothic Reimagining and Neo-Victorianism in Modern Television. The deadline is 15 May. Click here to download a Word version of the CfP. Text version follows:


Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) has become one of the most critically well-regarded shows of the post-millennial Gothic television revival, drawing explicitly on classic tropes, texts and characters throughout its three-season run. However, despite the show’s critical success and cult following, a substantive academic examination of the show has yet to be undertaken.

This edited collection seeks to address the current lack within Gothic studies scholarship, and situate Penny Dreadful as a key contemporary Gothic television text. This collection will seek to trace the link between the continued expansion of Gothic television, alongside the popular engagement with Neo-Victorianism. In addition, the collection seeks to examine notions around the aesthetic importance of contemporary Gothic that become particularly prominent against the narrative re-imaginings that occur within Penny Dreadful. This collection explores exactly where Gothic resides within this reflexive, hybridized and intertextual work; in the bodies, the stories, the history, the styling, or somewhere else entirely?

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Possible contributions could include, but are no means limited to the following:

  • Gothic adaptation and/or appropriation?
  • Pastiche and parody and Gothic aesthetics
  • ‘Global Gothic’ in the sense of its commercialisation
  • Neo-Victorianism (styling, politics, economics); as well as explorations of the impact of ‘historicizing’ Gothic
  • Representation of gender within the text, specifically female monstrosity
  • The Post/Colonial context, as well racialized characterisation and presentation
  • The reworking/restyling of monsters in contemporary Gothic
  • Consideration of a ‘Romance’ aesthetic and how this alters conceptions of ‘Gothic’ texts and the influence of ‘romantic’ themes/styles in contemporary Gothic

What the proposal should include:

An extended abstract of 500 words (for a 6,000-word chapter) including a proposed chapter title, a clear theoretical approach and reference to some relevant sources.

Please also provide your contact information, institutional affiliation, and a short biography.

Abstracts should be sent as a word document attachment to j.greenaway@mmu.ac.uk or stephanie.m.reid@stu.mmu.ac.uk by no later than May 15th 2017 with the subject line, “Penny Dreadful Abstract Submission.”

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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?

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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?

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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.

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.

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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’!

Bustle Envy (Steampunk Meets Sir Mix-a-Lot)

1875-La-Beau-Monde-Covent-GardenIt’s been a rough couple of weeks in the world. You deserve something light and playful to take your mind off it all.

Further to my recent post on poetry and cultural appropriation, I though I would gift you with one of the most bizarre and wonderful things I have seen this month – Katherine Stewart’s ‘Lady Got Bustle’, the steampunk parody of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’.

In this video, a group of (mostly) white people sing about how ‘when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky / Then you don’t need to ask why / You just swoon’. Is this a case of cultural appropriation? Why or why not? This certainly isn’t the first music video to appropriate Sir Mix-A-Lot’s well-known ‘Baby Got Back’, but it is the only one I know from steampunk, which may be one of the whitest subcultural trends ever (with some very noteworthy exceptions).

Here’s a definition of cultural appropriation from actress Amandla Stenberg (appropriately, on a website called Bustle):

Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.

With that definition in mind, have a look at the video below (lyrics pasted beneath for your reading pleasure).

 

LYRICS:

Oh good heavens, Rebecca! Gaze upon her posterior. It is vulgar in the extreme. She resembles one of those airship-captain’s doxies! But honestly, who can comprehend those roguish adventurers? Certainly, they only associate with her because she bears the common stamp of a draggle-tailed guttersnipe. It strains credibility how very – noticeable, how prominent – I say! – it’s deplorable! She’s quite simply… Steampunk!

Men favor large bustles and I cannot fib
You gentlemen may find me glib
But when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky
Then you don’t need to ask why
You just swoon, take out your salts
Now claim her for the next waltz
She’s bold and her fashion’s daring
You know that you can’t stop staring
These ladies are worth the hype
So take their daguerreotype
Those old boys try to counsel you
But that bustle creates such voodoo

Ooh, handsome bounder
Don’t be tempted to try to hound her
Just woo her, woo her
Don’t you even think of trying to fool her
You see her dancing
She’d appreciate some romancing
For she’s sweet, neat
And that bustle is packing heat
She’s tired of being told
That her fashion sense is old
Take a roguish man and see him smirk
She has to wear a skirt

So gents! (Yes?) Gents! (Yes?)
Has your lady a bustle dress? (Oh yes!)
Tell her to twirl it! (Twirl it!) Twirl it! (Twirl it!)
Twirl that party dress!
Lady has bustle!

(Tea-party face with an airship ruffle)
Lady has bustle!

They like them flounced, and long
And made of fabric strong
And when she goes up stairs, you must be careful sir
That you don’t step on her
For she’ll box your ears
Oh my! and again, Oh! My!
I shan’t tell you again sir
For that behavior is for the birds

You like a challenge?
Then chivalry’s a must sir
Find a girl with bustle
And then you’re in for a tussle

You may watch a kinetiscope
And see scrawny women thin as a rope
A real man wants ruffles
They know they need a bustle
A word to the genteel fellow, you know we like you
We won’t ever spite you
But we must be quite frank when we say that we want
A debonair man
Steampunk is most sublime
A lot of punks won’t like this rhyme
For they’re too busy trying to define it
While the rest of us want to play
For we’re here from far and near
And we wish to have a lovely time, dear

So, Darlings! (Yes?) Darlings! (Yes?)
Have we made our point at last? (Oh yes!)
Then turn around! Show it off!
And no one will dare to scoff!
Lady has bustle!

Lady has bustle!

[Director: Katherine Stewart
DP and Editor: Christopher Sheffield
from an idea by Katherine Stewart and Sue Kaff]

You’re welcome, internet.

This parody is certainly funny, but I don’t think it’s a case of appropriation. It’s not taking something negatively associated with Black culture and using it to try and be cool (unless the definition of that word has changed since I was a kid). It also definitely understands the significance of the symbol it’s appropriating (booty) and how to humorously translate this to steampunk culture (bustle) without being mocking or condescending. As always, you are welcome to disagree with me in the comments.

While I was researching this question, though, I did turn up some very interesting facts about bustles and booty.

bustles

Yomi Adegoke argues that the recent mainstream popularity of the booty is a condescending, ‘belated thumbs up from white society’ to a part of Black culture ‘now deemed good enough’ for mass respectability. In her book Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (2013), Janell Hobson hints that the late Victorian fondness for bustles might have been motivated by a similar politics. She writes about how the Hottentot Venus’s prominent posterior was rendered more ‘deviant’ because it provoked lust in white men:

[White women] themselves were regarded as “prostitutes” in the late nineteenth century if they exhibited this feature (Gilman, 1985, 94–101). Thus, white men and women both, when labeled “deviant,” were paralleled with “black” sexuality. Such associations, however, did not prevent middle-class white women of the period from donning bustles. This appropriation of a “big behind”—a sign of grotesquerie, later connoting a sign of luxurious beauty in the bustle—illustrates the complexities of white responses to racial and sexual difference, which elicit both repulsion and desire. (p. 101, emphasis mine)

So, it seems as though Katherine Stewart isn’t the first to make the connexion between the booty and the bustle. The Victorians (as always) were way ahead of everyone in cultural appropriations of Black bodies and fashions. If any of you Victorianists out there happen to know more about the parallels between these two beauty icons, please – let me know in the comments.

The world will thank you.

Now Reviewing Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist

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© VikPiratenholz

This post is a teaser for my weekly review series on Penny Dreadful season 3, starting this Friday (6 May) and featured over at the Victorianist. [UPDATE: You can now find my first review in all its glory at this link.]

When the first season of Penny Dreadful was announced in 2013, we were unsure what to expect. Initially, it drew comparisons to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, which also weave characters from classic literature into an original story. The similarity soon proved to end there, however. Trace Thurman of Bloody Disgusting recently called Penny Dreadful ‘one of the best horror shows currently airing on television’, and it’s hard to argue with this assessment.

Wonderfully atmospheric and deeply unsettling, Penny Dreadful delivers its horror without straying too far into the camp and gore that have become staples of contemporary horror (though the first few episodes are relatively gruesome). This is not to say that camp and gore don’t have their place – I’ve enjoyed few shows more than Ash vs Evil Dead this year – but it’s been difficult to find a good example of finely balanced terror and suspense.

The first season draws its plot indirectly from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mina Murray has gone missing and her father assembles a team to search for her. As this tangential relationship might suggest, Penny Dreadful is often more interested in exploring where characters have been than where they are going. Both superficially and fundamentally, this is a show about the past, and its central characters are all running from it. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) – Mina’s father – and his manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani) are scarred by their colonial experiences in Africa. Their colleague Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) has committed a terrible transgression, by which she is haunted literally, as well as metaphorically.

American gunman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is running from his family, and naturally carries another dark secret as well. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) are … well … Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein (I won’t spoil the reveals for you). Some additional characters come and go over the course of the series’ first two seasons, all with similar stories. Will any of them be able to come to terms with who they are, and what they have done?

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In the ‘last season on Penny Dreadful’ segment this week, we were reminded of the centrality of this question to the show’s overall message. ‘Do you believe the past can return?’ asks Miss Ives. ‘It never leaves us,’ replies Sembene. ‘It is who we are’. So, with the first episode of season 3 fresh off the airwaves, will the third season demonstrate a similar historical awareness? Will it continue what we loved about the first two, while also correcting some of their flaws? And to what extent can it be labelled ‘neo-Victorian’? I will be exploring these questions with each new episode, and sharing my thoughts with you on the Victorianist, starting this Friday (6 May, 2016).

In the meantime, if you’re eager for more Penny Dreadful, I highly recommend the show’s YouTube channel and production blog. Both are chock-full of engaging and informative material. Depending on your location, you can even watch the season 3 premiere for free right here.

Postcolonial Steampunk

1888 American cartoon of the Imperial Octopus, its greedy squid arms reaching out to grasp the world’s various regions.

Steampunk is a popular aesthetic these days, though it’s still too early to comment on its long-term staying power as a movement. Either way, the subculture still caters to many different groups of fans in many different countries. This past weekend the Emporium Vernesque opened its doors for a Dutch gathering of steampunks. A few months ago, the UK’s largest and longest-running steampunk festival, The Asylum, saw hundreds of steampunk enthusiasts flood the city of Lincoln. San Diego’s annual Gaslight Gathering draws similar crowds.

Most of these people are white.

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A group of very lovely, very white steampunks gathered in Lincoln for the 2011 Asylum Festival.

I say this not to comment on the skin color of steampunk lovers per se, but rather to highlight a different problem in the subculture: the visual heritage of colonialism. Namely, in how far can we appropriate the Victorian aesthetic without paying unwanted homage to the period’s legacy? I’m far from the only person to address this difficult question. People both inside and outside the steampunk community have shared their thoughts on the (in)separability of steampunk aesthetics and ethics, and have come down on both sides. Some dismiss steampunk outright as culturally elitist and politically impotent. This couple is a good example of how neo-Victorian sentiment can get out of hand. Other commenters on the aesthetics of steampunk see no problem donning a pith helmet, smoking jacket, and monocle, arguing that dressing like a coloniser is not the same as supporting colonialism. Still others see the aesthetic as a direct critique of colonialism, appropriating it to subvert and reshape its meanings. This issue of cultural appropriation is also something we’ll hopefully be discussing at next year’s British Association of Victorian Studies conference.

For me, the most interesting response to this issue is in the increasing amount of postcolonial cosplay taking place in and around the steampunk community. In a variety of different ways, these interpretations of the steampunk aesthetic imagine the Victorian period from a perspective other than the white, Western norm. I’m hoping to write more on this topic in the near future, but here are a few great articles and websites dedicated to the subject of multicultural or postcolonial steampunk, which should tide you over in the meantime.

Below are just a few examples to get us started.

Steamfunk

One of the first images I came across when I Googled ‘multicultural steampunk’ was this:

steampunk-sista-6

The image was in an article by Balogun, who writes in a genre he calls ‘steamfunk’, defined as follows:

Steamfunk is narrowly defined as “a person, style of dress or subgenre of fiction that seeks to bring together elements of blaxploitation films and merge it with that of Steampunk fiction”. A broader definition is A philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or  steampunk fiction.

Visually it works as a combo of genteel nineteenth-century styles and the powerful fashions of the 70s funk movement. I have yet to find many concrete examples of this type of cosplay in the steampunk world, restricted as I am to Google Image searches, but am fascinated by the potential of the aesthetic. If you know anyone who has worked in this area, I would love to hear about it!

Alternate Empires

More common in the steampunk cosplay world is the visualisation of alternate empires. Britain wasn’t the only nation with a large international presence in the nineteenth century. Austin Sirkin has a great post to this effect called ‘adding a multicultural touch to steampunk without being an insentsitive clod’. He also includes some of the better-known examples of this kind of cosplay:

[W]e have the well-known Steampunk blogger/scholar, Ay-leen the Peacemaker:

[…]Next we have another familiar face in multicultural costuming, Jeni Hellum:

This Turkish Steampunk outfit doesn’t incorporate many “Western” elements, though whether you consider Turkey Eastern or Western likely depends largely on what era you live in. Still, this is an excellent example of portraying a culture that you don’t belong to.

Do check out his article for more examples.

Native Tech

In addition to referencing some of the other international powers of the nineteenth century, Sirkin’s post also looks at those nations and peoples who were on the losing side of history. He provides the following three images of Native American cyberpunk, though as he points out, despite their attractiveness as examples of postcolonial cosplay, these images have problematic, commercial origins:

While in this case the images are rendered problematic by their status as ads for the company ColourChiefs, they do provide an interesting launchpad talking talk about Native Tech. Monique Poirier wrote the following about her own foray into Native American steampunk back in 2010, describing what she enjoys about the subculture’s opportunities for neo-historical revision:

Monique Poirier
Monique Poirier

Part of the fun of Steampunk is the aspect of alternate history; of deliberate anachronism and the application of alternate timelines and technological developments and the ration of ‘Steam’ to ‘Punk’. It means having the chance to create alternate histories in which Native Americans maintain sociological primacy and control over the North and South American landmass, if we so choose–my own Steampunk persona is an Air Marshall in a timeline in which Tecumseh’s Rebellion was successful and resulted in the creation of a Native American confederacy of nations that holds most of North America, as well as parts of Mexico and several island nations in the Pacific (most notably the Kingdom of Hawaii). She carries a ray gun–and as far as I’m concerned, this is still entirely Native Tech.

Though I really like this idea of intentionally anachronistic history and revisionist mythmaking, I can imagine that the line between respectful and disrespectful uses of this aesthetic is a fine one. This is a problem Monique Poirier does mention frequently in her writing, and is something blogger Miss Kageshi also discovered following negative responses to her own post on Native American steampunk.

And the rest

What do you think? Can steampunk escape its colonial heritage? What should postcolonial steampunk look like?

I’ve included a slideshow of more postcolonial steampunk cosplay below. Please note that, like the images above, these images each have their own context and nuances, which should be researched before re-posting them elsewhere. Where possible, all images link to their source, but if you spot someone you know who isn’t credited, please contact me:

 

Consuming (the) Victorians

Image from BBC One's The Paradise © BBC, photographer: Jonathan Ford
Image from BBC One’s The Paradise © BBC, photographer: Jonathan Ford

Are you a Victorianist, or do you just love all things Victorian?

Then feast your eyes on the 2016 British Association for Victorian Studies’ Call for Papers: ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, brought to you with the help of the invaluable Tom de Bruin! At this 3-day conference, hosted by Cardiff University, we’ll be looking at Victorians practices of consumption, as well as how the Victorians are consumed today. Send your proposal to BAVS2016@cardiff.ac.uk by 1 March, 2016:

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 10.52.29

The Victorian age saw the emergence of ‘modern’ consumer culture: in urban life, commerce, literature, art, science and medicine, entertainment, the leisure and tourist industries. The expansion and proliferation of new mass markets and inessential goods opened up pleasurable and democratising forms of consumption while also raising anxieties about urban space, the collapse of social and gendered boundaries, the pollution of domestic and public life, the degeneration of the moral and social health of the nation. This conference is concerned with the complexity and diversity of Victorian consumer cultures and also seeks to consider our contemporary consumption of the Victorian/s.

We welcome proposals for individual papers, and encourage proposals for panels (3-paper sessions), on, but not limited to, the following topics:

Urban spaces and city life: the flâneur/flâneuse, the steam/trolley bus, the rise of suburbia, street cultures

Transformations of the countryside: the Victorian pastoral, the country retreat, the farm, garden cities and model villages, alternative communities

Commerce: the department store, fashion, retail and advertising

Politics: new political mass movements, Chartism, feminism, Fabianism, ‘Victorian values’ in the present

Art: Pre-Raphaelitism, Impressionism, arts and crafts, photography, illustration

Science and technology: the railway, the Great Exhibition and exhibition cultures, the lecture, the gramophone, physics, biology

Science, spectacle and performance: taxidermy, the magic lantern, the diorama, the cinematograph

Literature: the magazine, newspaper, sensation, railway, crime and other popular fiction markets, self-help, religious tracts

Consuming life styles: the Girl of the Period, the Aesthete, the Dandy, the Decadent, the New Woman, the Lion/ess, the fashionable author, interview cultures

Cultures of entertainment and leisure: oper(ett)a, theatre and melodrama, the recital, music halls and concert halls, sheet music and instrument manufacture, the amateur, the club and associational culture, the bicycle, sports, boating

The tourist industry: sightseeing, the preservation of and popular attraction to historical buildings (e.g. National Trust), Baedeker, new (imperial) travel cultures

Medicine and the market place: medical treatments and therapeutics, medical advertising, professional practices, public and private treatment practices, institutional medicine, alternative therapies

The pleasures and perils of consumption: music, food cultures, cooking, chocolate, alcohol, addiction, opium, fashion, smoking, sex

Consuming bodies, moral contagion, social reform and the law: the city at night, prostitution, homosexuality, pornography, the ‘Maiden Tribute’ and trafficking; censorship, temperance, Obscene Publications Acts, Contagious Diseases Acts, National Purity Association, social purity activism, feminism, social welfare movements

The ‘other’ Victorians: the Victorians through the lens of their 19th-century contemporaries; the Victorians and 19th-century Europe; European Victorians

The Victorians and their pasts/Victorian consumption of earlier periods: Victorian medievalism in art and architecture, the Victorian Renaissance

Victorian afterlives: how the Victorian/s have been consumed by subsequent periods, such as the Modernists, Leavisites, faux/retro/post- and neo-Victorianism, heritage film and costume drama, the Victorians in contemporary architecture, art, interior decoration, music

Reception in the Impressionist galleries, with access to the Victorian art gallery, followed by an organ recital and conference dinner, National Museum Cardiff.
House tour of Cardiff Castle, with interior decoration by Victorian architect William Burges.

 

For further details consult our website: BAVS2016.co.uk

All conference presenters are required to be members of BAVS or an affiliated organisation (e.g. AVSA, NAVSA).

Please submit an individual proposal of 250-300 words OR a 3-4 page outline for a 3 paper panel proposal (including panel title, abstracts with titles, affiliations and all contact details, identifying the panel chair), to BAVS2016@cardiff.ac.uk by the deadline of 1 March 2016. Papers will be limited to 20 minutes. All proposals should include your name, academic affiliation (if applicable) and email address.

Enquiries should be directed to Professor Ann Heilmann (BAVS2016@cardiff.ac.uk).

Conference organisers
Megen de Bruin-Molé (PGR, Cardiff), Rachel Cowgill (Music, Huddersfield), Daný van Dam (PGR, Cardiff), Holly Furneaux (English, Cardiff), Kate Griffiths (French, Cardiff), Catherine Han (PGR, Cardiff), Ann Heilmann (English, Cardiff), Anthony Mandal (English, Cardiff), Akira Suwa (PGR, Cardiff), Julia Thomas (English, Cardiff), Keir Waddington (History, Cardiff), Martin Willis (English, Cardiff)

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 10.53.28

 

Past, Present, and (Retro)Future

Source: meccanismocomplesso.org
Source: meccanismocomplesso.org

Things are happening in the world of popular (neo-)Victorianism! This week not one, but two calls for papers graced my inbox. The first is for a symposium (a.k.a. a one-day conference) in Amsterdam on historical and neo-historical fiction, and the second is for a symposium in Portsmouth on Victorian materiality and the material object. If you’re interested in alternate history, material culture, steampunk, period drama, retrofuturism, nostalgia, or just the past (or the present) in general, do submit an abstract.

If you’re not in the business of giving conference papers, you can come along and listen for free, or, since I’m likely to attend both of these events, you can follow my experience at the symposium on Twitter, and read my thoughts about the event here, after the fact.

And now the CFPs!

640px-GrimburgwalAmsterdam1. Reading the Present through the Past: from Historical to Neo-Historical Fiction

One-day symposium, 4 March 2016
The Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies
University of Amsterdam

Ever since the turn of the twenty-first century, literary and cultural returns to earlier periods have become increasingly frequent and visible. Novels on past eras dominate the shortlists of literary prizes and the number of historical films and TV series has exploded. The popularity of Hilary Mantel’s books about Henry VIII’s court, the success of TV series like Sherlock and The Americans and of graphic novel series like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are cases in point. Many of these works, however, seem to relate to the past in ways that are different from earlier historical novels and films.

According to Elodie Rousselot, editor of the recent collection Exoticizing the Past in Neo-Historical Fiction (2014), literary contributions to this trend belong to a new subgenre of contemporary historical fiction, the ‘neo-historical novel’. Even though it is set in the past, ‘neo-historical’ fiction aims to discuss and mediate the concerns and occupations of our current age. In establishing overt connections to the present day, these works display an awareness of their own constructedness and open ways for a critical reflection on exoticizing approaches to the past. For this one-day symposium, we invite contributions that take up the challenge to think about the continuities and specificities of contemporary (neo)historical fiction and explore it as a literary and cultural phenomenon.

Keynote speakers:

Dr Elodie Rousselot (University of Portsmouth)
Prof Dr Elisabeth Wesseling (Maastricht University)

Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to:
• the neo-historical imagination as a literary movement and/or broader cultural phenomenon (literature, film, TV, art, adaptations, etc.)
• comparisons between (re)constructions of different historical periods (neo-Victorian, neo-Gothic, neo-Tudor, neo-medieval, neo-Golden Age, neo-WWI/WWII, alternate history, etc.)
• theoretical and conceptual approaches to neo-historical fiction (postmodernism and post-postmodernism, mashup, cultural memory, affect, postcolonialism, posthumanism, utopia/dystopia, etc.)
• connections within and across national and linguistic borders and communities; world literature and cosmopolitan memory

Please submit abstracts of 250 words for 20-minute papers in English, together with a short biography, to Daný van Dam at vandamhd@cardiff.ac.uk by 18 December 2015.

 

28742. All Things Victorian: Exploring Materiality and the Material Object

Call for Papers one-day symposium, 19 March 2016
The Centre for Studies in Literature
University of Portsmouth
Keynote Speaker: Dr Nadine Muller (Liverpool John Moores University)

The rapid industrialisation of the nineteenth century, with its unprecedented increase in the mass-production, proliferation and consumption of machine-made material objects and things, forced a reconsideration of the relationship between the self and the physical world in Victorian culture. Since then, neo-Victorian re-imaginings of the past have recurrently appropriated Victorian materialities as both a means of re-fashioning the past for contemporary consumption and of engaging with the past through haptic communication. This interdisciplinary conference seeks to explore the material object, its invested meaning and the ways in which this has been presented and re-presented in Victorian culture and contemporary neo-Victorian re-imaginings.

We invite delegates to submit abstracts exploring Victorian materiality and the material object in literature, cultural studies, the visual arts, film, television adaptation, fashion and consumer culture. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:
•  The representation of Victorian things, objects and artefacts in: Victorian and/or neo-Victorian literature; film, television and drama adaptations; fashion and textiles; Victorian and/or contemporary consumer culture.
• The material object: Victorian clothing, jewellery, furniture, architecture, photographs, mementos, keepsakes, memorials, archives etc.
• Human interactions and engagements with materiality and the material object.
• Theories of material culture: thing theory, object theory, cultural memory theory, trace theory.

Please submit proposals of 250-300 words for papers of no more than 20 minutes along with a 50-70 word bio-note to cslpgconf@port.ac.uk. The deadline for accepting proposals is 31 December 2015 and acceptance will be notified by 15 January 2016.

Anatomy of a Cover

0ec06a8b4e7a3c88a15b846bf68cbb5dWe’re always told that we should never judge a book by its cover, but the truth is that a lot of work goes into making sure we do. A cover generally gives us an immediate idea of the genre, register, and target audience of a book. A good cover will also generate excitement and interest, and make a book stand out from the texts around it. Book design may even save the independent publishing industry, where according to The Independent publishers are ‘springing up to provide a certain kind of reader with what they want, more than ever: the book as beautiful, covetable, keep-able object’.

Because the cover is such an important part of selling books, often the same book will have multiple different covers for various countries and age groups. Take the ever-increasing variety of Harry Potter covers as an example. Book covers also generally get an update when they’re reprinted many years later, as was the case with the subject of today’s blog post: Kim Newman’s series of alternate-history vampire novels, Anno Dracula. You may recall that I posted a few weeks ago about the second book in this series, The Bloody Red Baron, and how it deals with the balance between entertainment and ethics in its reproduction of WWI.

These books were originally released in the ’90s, when they were marketed to a very different audience. As you can see below, the original cover for Anno Dracula (the first book in the series; 1992) has a distinct Anne Rice feel to it:
Anno Dracula

The reprinting from Titan Books, however, has a very contemporary feel, and taps into the growing neo-Victorian market. In a blog post on Titan Books, illustrator Martin Stiff of Amazing 15 talks about how they arrived at the new cover, and what was discarded along the way. Martin was kind enough to let me reprint the post for you here:


For a series of books where the characters and plot span the entire twentieth century it was always going to be tough to come up with a series design which could evoke the period while also being consistent across the range.

We tried some more traditional approaches to begin with, a half-and-half style cover with a lady vampire and an image which suggests the particular decade the book is set but these felt a little boring, like we’d seen them a million times before.


Mulling it over we struck upon the idea of a continuing series of posters, with each designed in the style of the period. The first, Anno Dracula, is set in the 1880s, so I mocked up a faux Victorian music-hall poster. This sat nicely with the adult nature and looked quite sophisticated – and the central idea of the poster fashion changing with each title was a great concept. But for some reason the idea never struck home with everyone and it got shot down. But like any good vampire it was soon to rise from the dead…

Our next round of covers used a simple framing device and an ‘object’ – a blood-stained locket on Anno Dracula, an Iron Cross on The Bloody Red Baron and so forth. For a while this was the cover Titan used for sales purposes and it seemed for a while it was going to be the final cover too. Never completely comfortable with the concept we continued to fiddle with the cover and tried some versions which combined the ‘object’ idea and the ‘poster’ idea but again, nothing really worked as well as we wanted it too.





It’s very easy, after producing so many different ideas, to get a little bogged down with the approaches you’ve already tried so we went back to the drawing board and tried some entirely new directions. The concept with these were to use a well-known building which could illustrate the plot of each book (hence Buckingham Palace for Anno Dracula). We kicked about the illustrated church cover for a while, with different logo treatments and different colour ways, but again it fell at the final fence.


Finally – and as frustrating as this may seem – we went right back to the beginning! The original music-hall poster concept seemed to have lodged into people’s imaginations and more we deviated from it with the other ideas the more we all realised how much we liked it. We brought it back to the table and continued working on it (we rejigged some of the text, added new quotes, etc. – and we actually made it look like a real poster on a wall) and suddenly we had our final cover!

Part of designing a series of book covers is ensuring any ideas you might have will work across the entire range. So, using the principle concept for Anno Dracula, we worked up the second book – The Bloody Red Baron. We were lucky enough to find an evocative (and out of copyright) WWI German propaganda poster and with a little twist (the black clouds turning into bats) we hit upon a really eye-catching cover!


As you can see below, the final cover for The Bloody Red Baron ended up being slightly different, though the overall idea is the same:

AnnoDracBloodyCv

The next two books in the series, Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998) and Johnny Alucard (2013), follow a similar pattern:

anno_dracula_chachacha

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What do you think? Do these covers make you want to pick up a copy?

If you’re interested in learning more about book cover design, BBC Radio 4 has a 30-minute podcast on The Art of Book Cover Design, with John Wilson. There’s also a nice TED Talks on the subject with Chip Kidd, associate art director at Knopf, and a video from Random House where they interview some of their designers. You may also want to check out Lousy Book Covers, a Tumblr account dedicated to sharing some of the best of the worst.