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.

‘Embrace Your Dark Side’: Penny Dreadful‘s Season 3 Trailer

PrintAbout two weeks ago a proper trailer for the next season of Penny Dreadful was released. Various other obligations have kept me from looking at it properly, but this week I’ve finally been able to sink my teeth into it. Without further ado, then, my take on this 1-minute-and-45-second trailer.

(Note: there will be spoilers for seasons 1 and 2).

To start, you can watch the whole thing here on Penny Dreadful‘s YouTube channel:

The trailer starts out strong with a shot of the much-touted star of the series Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), before swiftly introducing us to an exciting new location (North America?):

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We’re then treated to a none-too subtle shot of the moon, in case we needed a reminder that everyone’s favourite Penny Dreadful werewolf was last seen bound for the New World:

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Let’s hope Penny Dreadful handles the skinwalker associations better than J.K. Rowling did.

Also returning are ‘world-renowned explorer with an axe to grind‘ Malcolm Murray, (Timothy Dalton), American werewolf in London Ethan Chandler (though, as we discovered last season, that’s not his real name; played by Josh Hartnett), Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monstrous creation Caliban/John Clare (Rory Kinnear), the depraved Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and the delightful Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper).

Newcomers to season 3 include Dr. Seward – presumably a nod to Dracula’s Jack Seward – played by Patti LuPone (who also played the cut-wife in season 2),  Dr. Henry Jekyll (followed by Edward Hyde?) played by Shazad Latif, and a Native American warrior played by Wes Studi.

And apparently this girl?
And apparently this girl? Nice addition to the long-running Gothic tradition of creepy women in white, in any case.

We can only hope that Shazad Latif and Wes Studi’s characters fare better than Sembene (Danny Sapani), who died brutally last season – in what was sadly only the last of several appearances that were apparently only designed to help move the storylines of the white characters along.

Don't hold your breath,
Don’t get too attached.

We also get to see some obligatory hints about the Showtime-level sex scenes we’ll be treated to:

Naturally when Vanessa says she's been 'touched by Satan' she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously bloody) sense. 
Naturally when Vanessa says she’s been  ‘touched by Satan’ she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously gory) sense. It’s Showtime, dammit!
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Is the woman sleeping with John Clare in this scene black? In a trailer where the tagline is ’embrace your dark side’? If so I see a series of thesis paragraphs on unfortunate colonial subtext in my future.

Not a bad trailer by any means, but some of the things it teases are worryingly familiar to me. I’ve written before about how, despite that fact that I absolutely love the show on a personal level, on an academic one it has some issues with the way it represents monstrosity. Specifically, it capitalises on a number of the characteristics of monsters established by critical theorists, without actually delivering on most fronts. It also has a problematic relationship with its LGBTQ characters, despite show runner John Logan’s frequent linking of monstrosity and his own homosexuality.

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Except the cheesy classic werewolf font. The show delivers all the way on that one.
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Also (potentially) the Bride of Frankenstein front. Give me more of Lily Frankenstein – but less, please, of the ‘prostitute with a heart of gold‘ stereotype and the ‘Strong Female Character with a sexually traumatic past‘ stereotype.

For Judith Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act’ between a series of binary oppositions, frightening precisely because they stood poised to transgress established identities and social parameters (Skin Shows, p. 1). Ultimately,  despite its self-advertised exploration of identity binaries, Penny Dreadful uses monstrosity (and its Victorian setting) in a way that constructs a false sense of diversity, disturbance, and change. In its attempts to represent ‘everyone’, it instead shuts out all but the privileged minority it represents on-screen.

Rather than using the past to discuss present-day issues, as it claims, the show instead presents the issues of certain Victorian outcasts – many of whom are now far from marginalised. In a sense, then, Penny Dreadful uses its Victorian setting to reclaim monstrosity for the privileged.

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For instance, what is this tasty bit of Orientalism? ‘We may be monsters, but those foreign monsters are way scarier’.

In addition to the predictable issues and reveals, there are a number of scenes where I genuinely have no idea what’s going on:

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Who is this creepy dude and why is he smelling Vanessa? Tell me more.
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…Dorian and Lily take down a sexual slavery ring? Again, intrigued as to the context of this scene.

I am, however, very interested to find out. With just under two months to go until the premiere of season 3, and a few months more until it’s spun out all nine episodes on broadcast television, Penny Dreadful has plenty of time to change my mind about its politics of the monstrous.

And let’s be honest – they’ve already gone a good way towards placating my non-academic brain with this shot of Timothy Dalton in a cowboy hat:

Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.
Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.

What do you think? Are you excited for the new season of Penny Dreadful?

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer

For my PhD research into monster mashups, I’ve ended up reading a lot of things with cheesy titles. Jane Slayre, Wuthering Bites, Grave Expectations, Mr Darcy, Vampyre – I could list them all day. Compared to these, Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer isn’t too bad, but it’s got the same gleeful level of camp and (ir)reverence for classic stories as the rest on the list. As one might expect, Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer follows the exploits of our favourite wooden boy, and takes place in the world of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883). When a pack of the undead disturb Geppetto’s workshop, Pinocchio discovers that his nose doubles perfectly as a vampire stake. All he has to do is tell a lie.

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The bigger the lie the better.

 

Not only does this premise make for some great one-liners, but it also makes a surprising amount of sense. Of course Pinocchio would make an amazing vampire hunter, just as it makes perfect sense that even the zombie apocalypse can’t stop class struggle in Pride and Prejudice, or that Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Rochester is a werewolf. I’m constantly amazed at the ease with which the supernatural can be injected into classic stories, and I always have to wonder whether this is primarily due to the skill of the contemporary remixer, the willingness of present-day readers to accept genre bending, or the underlying fantasticality of the classics themselves.

This is one reason why it’s tricky to analyse mashups in terms of how ‘comedic’ or ‘serious’ they are. The collected edition of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer has a nice little foreword by comic book writer Mike Carey, who seems to appreciate the peculiar blend of humour and sincerity that mashups like this tend to exhibit:

On one level, this is a preposterous piss-take. Of course it is. Pinocchio kills vampires, and he uses his famously adjustable nose as a stake, which means (spoiler alert) all he’s got to do to make a kill is tell a really big lie […] it’s when Jensen and Higgins start to take the story seriously – and to question its premises – that it grows wings. (p. v-vi)

The entire premise of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is a joke, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do serious things along the way. Or that traditionally ‘silly’ things like monster or genre fiction are less culturally valuable than literary or artistic fiction. As a culture we still tend to look at drama and realist fiction as somehow better than humour and the fantastic, but it’s a preconception that’s now changing, albeit ever-so-slowly.

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This comment from Cricket reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s take on fantasy.

 

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is illustrated in beautiful black and white – a bold choice for a comic marketed primarily to teenagers, as my edition clearly states, but also a choice that works well with the source material. This is especially true of the storybook ‘flashback’ pages, which are more stylised than the rest of the comic, and have a lovely woodcut feel to them. Pinocchio‘s monochromatic images give it an old-timey quality, and make it seem more like a visualised fairy tale than a run-of-the-mill superhero comic. The visual sombreness also helps to counterbalance the (very, very sad) jokes throughout, and keeps the characters from becoming too garish.

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Very, very sad.

 

With comic books (or graphic novels, if you will), I often find the distinction between ‘adult’ and ‘young adult’ material to be pretty arbitrary. Most often it’s the sex that earns imprints like Vertigo the ‘Suggested for Mature Readers’ warning, but officially adult comics definitely aren’t the only works dealing with ‘adult themes’, however we define that term. There’s not a lot of sex in Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer (beyond the mandatory love interest and occasional innuendo), but violence and gore abounds. This includes one particular scene that reminds me of another text I just looked at for my research, Wolfcop (2014). Let’s just say both involve skin-tearing and leave it at that.

Pinocchio gets away with all this a bit easier because the gore is in black and white like the rest of the comic, but it’s not afraid to embrace the gruesome hyperbole that traditionally characterises both vampire stories and fairy tales. It also alludes to its film and literary heritage whenever it can. Quotes from the Collodi version are peppered throughout the text. There was a fun moment in the middle of the narrative when, during a long carriage ride, Cricket offers to help pass the time with some music. He gets as far as ‘When you wish upon…’ before the surly driver interrupts him with a stern ‘No singing’. The moment served both to recall how indebted our knowledge of the Pinocchio fairy tale is to the 1940 Disney version, and to humorously highlight the differences between that version of the story and this one. There’s even a visual echo of another monster mashup, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), in the troupe from the Grand Puppet Theater.

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See any resemblance?

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it makes a particularly poignant nod to the original Collodi fairy tale that really highlights how differently we approach both fantasy and storytelling today.

In the end Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is a lot of fun, and it uses that fun both to reintroduce us to a classic story, and to forge new connections with other stories. I would definitely recommend it to fans of vampire fiction, as well as to most fairy tale fans. If you love both, then you’ll be able to fully appreciate its weird and wonderful way of remixing this story of a magical puppet who wanted to be a real boy.

And if all else fails, there are ‘rabbits of ill portent’ to entertain you:

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Everyone loves a creepy rabbit of doom or two.

 

Well and Unwell: The Body in the Nineteenth Century (possibly NSFW)

George Goodwin Kilburne junior (1863-1938), A Game of Tennis (1882).
George Goodwin Kilburne junior (1863-1938), A Game of Tennis (1882).

Last week Thursday I flew from Cardiff back to the Netherlands, where I’ll be whiling away the holidays with my partner. It’s not all oliebollen and ice skating, though. I am determined that there will be at least some thesis work conducted during this break.

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‘Her Majesty’s Corset’ from the H. O’Neill & Co. 1897-8 Fall & Winter Fashion Catalogue

On Friday (the day after I arrived) I made a trip into Amsterdam for my very first Dutch-language conference – Well and Unwell: The Body in the Nineteenth Century.This was the most recent in an annual series of conferences, hosted by the Werkgroup De Negentiende Eeuw, which also publishes a journal. Because I figure some of you might be interested in the proceedings (but unable to speak Dutch), I thought I would translate some of the highlights for you and post them here.I was especially interested to experience how the nineteenth century is studied outside of the Anglophone world. Most of the day’s lectures focused on Dutch, German, French, or Belgian sources, which offer a very different perspective on ‘Victorian’ culture than British or American ones. Though all of the papers were excellent, the notes I took were naturally biased by my own research interests. Hopefully you’ll have a decent overview of the seven papers we heard, including the names of the presenters in case you’re interested in learning more.

From the very beginning of the day it was clear that the group of academics gathered for this conference was extremely diverse (skin colour being the only visible exception) and interdisciplinary. We had people working in history, literature, archeology, visual arts, and sports studies, focused on multiple time periods. There were seasoned scholars and MA students, old and young, from all over the country – and from the neighbouring Belgium.

After the requisite cup of coffee (who says you can’t have a coffee break before the conference starts?) we launched into the day’s lectures with a short introduction by Professor Wessel Krul, the president of the workgroup. He emphasised the link between the body and culture, and revisited the nineteenth-century prevalence of the idea that one’s physical, external body reflected one’s internal, spiritual, or mental state.

In her paper ‘Representations of Homosexuality in the East around 1900’, Professor Mary Kemperink from the University of Groningen used travel journals and literature to examine the development of ideas about homosexuality during that period. Specifically, she cited Charley van Heezen’s 1918 novel Anders (‘Different’), in which two men from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are united in their sexual orientation, and are also described by others as having a strangely similar appearance due to their shared ‘femininity’ and ‘sensuality’. For a good period at the turn of the century homosexuality was apparently conflated with the Orient, or the ‘inverse’ side of the globe. Here Kemperink also cited British Orientalist and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), who suggested a relationship between pederasty and the area around the equator (which he called the Sotadic Zone). Towards the end of the 19th century homosexuality moved from being recognised a tourist attraction for Europeans in the Orient (and here the French author Gustave Flaubert was cited as an example) to a state of being that was not only unique to the East, but united people in all parts of the globe.

A Victorian woman, drawn by Luke Fildes and published in 1880
A Victorian woman, drawn by Luke Fildes and published in 1880.

Following this came Utrecht University‘s Dr Willemijn Ruberg, who spoke about ‘Menstruation in Court: The Female Body and Forensic Medicine in the Nineteenth Century’. At the beginning of the nineteenth century (before 1860), menstruation was part of the humours school of medicine, in which the bodies four fluids (or humours: ) had to be in balance in order for a person to be healthy. Problems with menstruation were theorised to cause blockages in the head or genitals, causing temporary madness (called ‘monomania‘). This kind of temporary madness was a common defense in nineteenth-century courts, especially for young girls. By way of example, Ruberg shared some Dutch arson cases (including that of Marretje Moonen in 1840) where problems with menstration were linked to pyromania, and sometimes resulted in the girls being absolved of direct responsibility for their actions. After 1850 people began to criticise the idea of pyromania as temporary madness, and menstruation came to be seen as a sickness, less directly linked to the psyche.

 A 'Venus' medical mannequin from the 'Anatomie des Vanités' exhibit at the Erasmus House in Brussels, Belgium
A ‘Venus’ medical mannequin from the ‘Anatomie des Vanités’ exhibit at the Erasmus House in Brussels, Belgium

The last paper before lunch was by Tinne Claes and Veronique Deblon, PhD researchers at KU Leuven. Their paper (‘Bodily Confrontations in Popular Anatomical Musea: 1850-1870’) dealt with Dutch and Belgian anatomical exhibits, and the changing ways these marketed themselves over the decades. In addition to shifting focus from religion (the human body as the pinnacle of God’s creation) to discipline (the abnormal human body as a warning against deviant behaviour), the audience for anatomical exhibits broadened in the 1860s to include women and the lower classes. Claes and Deblon pointed out an interesting contrast here with anatomical exhibits in the UK, where publicists had long used the fact that their visitors included women to emphasise the wholesomeness of their displays. There was also (to my uncontainable glee) a section of the talk dedicated to freak shows and the ‘abnormal’ body, which usually took up a separate section in these exhibits and would require that you pay an additional fee.

Portrait of a man with tribal scarification, Bahia, Brazil, 1860 © Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Portrait of a man with tribal scarification, Bahia, Brazil, 1860
© Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

After the lunch break (sandwiches and milk all around), we carried on with the last four papers. The first was Erasmus University Rotterdam‘s Professor Alex van Stipriaan on ‘The Enslaved Body’. Van Stipriaan prefers the term slaafgemaakt (enslaved) to slaaf (slave) when speaking about a person or people, as it places the emphasis on the state a person is placed in (he was enslaved), rather than associating that state directly with the person (he is a slave). He dealt with an extremely broad range of topics – and actually went quite a bit over time – but gave a good overview of the ways the enslaved body (in this case the black body) was portrayed and perceived in nineteenth-century Holland and its colonies. Some points that particularly stood out were the comparison between the brand as a symbol of slavery and scarification as a symbol of resistance, the mass ‘lightening’ of the coloured population in Suriname as a form of upward mobility, and the fact that unlike enslaved men, who were often described purely in bodily terms, as machines or animals, enslaved women were typically written about or envisioned in terms of their characters or actions, humanising them in a small sense.

In a completely different tone, Jelle Zondag from the Radbound University in Nijmegen presented on the writings of C.M.J Muller Massis (1870-1900), who published extensively on sports in the context of national health and nationalism. The material he presented is difficult to translate into an English context (though Muller Massis apparently cited sports teams at English boarding schools as the reason for their success as an empire), but it involved an interesting discussion of the concept of a ‘natural’ and ‘national’ body, and the emergence of the bicycle as a Dutch national icon.

"Dear diary, today I was indisposed..."
“Dear diary, today I was indisposed…”

Dr Leonieke Vermeer, also from Groningen, is working on a long-term project examining nineteenth-century diaries to learn more about the way sickness and health care was experienced by the patients, which represents a gap in the current, professionally dominated discourse. She has already discovered some interesting uses of terms and remedies, including the fact that most diary keepers describe illness (from mild to serious) using the word ongesteld (literally ‘indisposed’, but used today only to describe menstruation). Although she only had time to mention it briefly, one aspect of Vermeer’s research that I found very interesting was the use of ‘silence’ or empty space in diaries, particularly following traumatic events or entries. One woman left an entire blank page after an entry on the death of her mother. Using examples of the ways diary writers record illness to help them deal with emotion, for reflection, or simply to make themselves feel better, she explained how a ‘bottom up’ approach to studying illness in the nineteenth century has a lot to offer us. Among other things, it shows us how the medical discoveries of the nineteenth century were actually being implemented, and the kinds of things patients would have expected (and accepted) from medical professionals.

Finally, we had a lecture by Dr Marjan Sterckx from the University of Ghent on female artists from Belgium, France, and the Netherlands who created nude sculptures. Nude sculpture was still quite scandalous in the nineteenth century, though less so in France, and female sculptors of nudes generally either sculpted children or used classical tropes, both of which were less controversial. You can actually read an article by Sterckx in English on what seems to be a very similar topic at this link. Specifically, Sterckx looked at the work of French/Belgian sculptor Marie-Louise Lefevre-Deumiers (1812-1877), in particular her 1861 La Nymphe Glycera and her 1865 Diana, which was also exhibited in the Hague. Sadly no photographs of Diana exist (that we know of.

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This is actually a nineteenth-century drawing

We closed the session with a general 45-minute panel discussion on the body in the nineteenth century, which mainly consisted of several rounds of questions. All in all it was a productive day, and I can’t imagine where else I could have heard papers on such vastly different topics in so short a span of time. Also, where else but the Netherlands do you get books like Seks!… in de negentiende eeuw (‘Sex!… in the nineteenth century’) with awesome covers like the one pictured here. The conference book stand was full of interesting titles, though I didn’t take any home this time around.

And naturally, we wrapped up the day with a good borrel, where we could mingle with each other and with the speakers over a glass of something tasty. I managed to get in a couple of questions that I would never have been brave enough to ask the speakers in the public, post-lecture rounds, and I got some great blog suggestions (Quigley’s Cabinet and Morbid Anatomy anyone?) from Tinne Claes and Veronique Deblon, who also blog themselves (in Dutch).