Disability and the Victorians

Scouts at the Guild of the Brave Poor Things. © Brave and Poor Ltd

When we think of ‘the Victorians’, we’re actually often thinking of a very specific group of people.

This is a usually a representational issue. White, upper-class, able-bodied people are the ones we see in most photographs of ‘the Victorians’ (though not all). These are ‘the Victorians’ most often depicted on-screen, or written about in neo-Victorian fiction.

If these are the ‘typical’ Victorians in our view, what was it like to be an atypical Victorian?

In posterity, the Victorians are not known for their kindness towards those who were ‘different’. Freak shows and asylums spring readily to mind—and these were also a part of the equation. The historical reality is (as always) more complicated, however. Looking at the daily lives of the disabled in the Victorian era, Historic England has the following to say:

In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”

The writer had a sting in the tail for the jeering boys. While cripples might be made “bright and beautiful” by God on judgement day, wicked able-bodied children who laughed at them could be “burned in a fire that will never be put out”. These were the ambivalent Victorian attitudes towards disability—a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement.

This is not, on the whole, a positive perspective.

In practice the situation was a bit more optimistic. The Victorian era was, after all, the birth of the British welfare state:

There were charitable bodies for the blind, the ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘lunatics’, ‘idiots’, ‘epileptics’ and ‘the deformed’. They offered education (Association for the Oral Instruction of the Dumb), work (Liverpool Workshops and Home Teaching Society for the Blind), hospital treatment (National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic) and many other services.

 

Making hay to at the back of the Worcester College for the Blind, courtesy of New College Worcester Archives.

Some societies even turned to their own Victorian propaganda machines:

Many disabled people simply lived their lives purposefully in their communities. In 1894 the first branch of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things (motto: ‘Happy in My Lot’) was formed as a self-help group for people with physical disabilities. They described themselves as a group to “make life sweet for the blind and crippled folk of all ages”.

Conveying a sense of pride and solidarity, they used popular military imagery of the period to create positive feelings about their disabilities, referring to themselves as “a great army of suffering ones”. Their annual report in 1902 described how they “go out daily into a battle-field, where pain is the enemy to be met and overcome”.

If you’re interested in reading more about disability in the Victorian age, The Victorian Web has several resources and reviews on the topic.

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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Stereophotography: The Victorians in 3D

A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.
A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.

One of the joys (and sorrows) of research is all the interesting information you find on one topic while doing research on something completely different. While researching spirit photography, for instance, I came across this fascinating account of the Victorian stereoscope in the art book for National Museums Scotland’s exhibition ‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation’.*

If you think the 3D film craze is a new thing, think again. The stereoscope is one of its many historical predecessors. Essentially a pair of fancy spectacles, the device allowed you to view two nearly identical images side-by-side in a way that would make them appear three-dimensional. Alison Morrison-Low describes how enthusiastically the Victorians took to the technology:

Hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic images were sold […] in a major craze which reached every middle-class Victorian drawing-room. The demand appeared insatiable. In 1854, George Swan Nottage (1823-85) set up the London Stereoscopic Company. ‘No home without a stereoscope’ was its slogan. It sold a wide range of stereoscopes, costing from 2s 6d to £20 (about £10 and £1550 today), and became the largest photographic publishing company in the world. [p. 63]

A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives
A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives

The vast numbers of stereo photographs can be divided into four main categories: travel, news, social scenes and comedy. By far the largest group was that of travel. […] The beauty of the English, Welsh or Irish countryside was frequently illustrated, as well as that of Scotland. Rural poverty and derelict cottages were seldom shown, as a Romantic portrayal of scenery prevailed. [p. 67]

 Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 - 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 – 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

And speaking of the Romantics…

Charles Breese (1819-75) of Birmingham and Sydenham sold his highly thought-of quality slides at 5 shillings (£20 today) each. Entitled ‘Breaking Waves’, 1870s-80s, it comes with a quote from Lord Byron: ‘Sea with rocks and a half moon / the deep blue moon of night, Lit by an orb / Which looks like a spirit or a spirit’s world’. [p. 76]

Photograph of 'Breaking Waves' by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Photograph of ‘Breaking Waves’ by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

*All page citations refer to Alison Morrison-Low, Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2015).

Welcome to the Asylum

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

Image © Joe Slatter
Image © Joe Slatter

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

Image © Stitches of Time
Image © Stitches of Time

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

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Some scheduling decisions were tougher than others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image © Chahinez Loup‎
Image © Chahinez Loup‎

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.

Dan Hillier’s Neo-Victorian Fever Dreams

'Towards Death', © Dan Hillier

‘These forgotten images and discarded memories re-write a gorgeously dark period of history, one full of elephant men and taxidermy, death and medicine. The resulting pieces are like postcards coming from Beardsley from a Victorian mansion – if the mansion was populated by circus freaks and Werner Herzog.’ (Dazed and Confused Magazine, April 2007)

A few weeks ago I posted about the artwork of Travis Louie, and its resemblance to Augustus F. Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits. This week I’m doing some research on a very different artist indeed, who I nevertheless hope to compare with Louie in the chapter I’m working on. This artist is Dan Hillier, born in Oxford (far from Louie’s hometown in Queens, NY), now living in Hackney, London. Like Louie, Hillier’s work appropriates Victorian aesthetics and narratives, and depicts fantastical beasts or monsters in this style. The ‘mystery, wonder and amazement’ that Hillier is trying to put into his work also resonates with what Louie communicates.

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Taking prints and pages from old issues of the Illustrated London News, magazines, anatomical textbooks, and ‘various bits and pieces from all over the place’, Hillier’s work is arguably much more deserving of the term ‘mashup’ than Louie’s is. Though much of his collage is done in Photoshop, however, Hillier also does extensive pen-and-ink work – sometimes on top of these collages, sometimes on its own, always in an impressive level of detail.

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If I had to compare Hillier’s work to something in terms of aesthetics, it might as well be the surrealist collages of Max Ernst. Hillier himself cites Une Semaine De Bonté (A Week of Kindness) as a particular source of inspiration. In addition, there are several contemporary artists who have drawn comparisons to Hillier, including Claudia Drake, George K. (alias olex oleole), and, my personal favourite, Mad Meg. Hillier also has a gif series devoted to his work. Naturally though, like all artists, Hillier’s work is ultimately unique.

BeautifulBizzare has some insightful comments on the way he transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar:

Some of Hillier’s most popular work is found in his hybrid figures, mixing ornate Victorian styled subjects with the cosmic and bestial imagery that he is so fond of, challenging our perception of identity and ego. Using images in his collage work from 19th century prints and medical dictionaries, Hillier presents us a discontented and uncomfortable realism that sits uneasy on the eye, but demands our attention to all the wonderful detail. With a third eye present in humans and beasts alike, Hillier takes the Victorian’s thirst for knowledge and strips it away, until all we have is the terror of knowing too much.

Rather than being photorealistic, these images approach reality from the perspective of the anatomical textbook – a Victorian staple almost as evocative as the photograph. Although the subject matter of Hillier’s work is often grotesque or macabre, and the finished image almost always a somber black-and-white, the scenes he presents always manage to make an oddly cheerful – even gleeful – impression.

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If you’re keen to have a closer look at Dan Hillier’s work, you can catch it at the 2016 summer ‘Wonder’ season at Shakespeare’s Globe, or at The Other Art Fair in London (7-10 April, Victoria House). Or you can just pop by his stall at the Sunday Upmarket one weekend.

[EDIT: Any (Neo-)Victorianists reading this post may be interested to know that Dan Hillier’s work was part of Sonia Solicari’s ‘Victoriana: The Art of Revival’ exhibition in 2013. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend, but I did manage to score an art book. You may also know Hillier’s work from this 2010 music video (Losers’ ‘Flush’, featuring Riz MC & Envy), or his cover art for Royal Blood’s debut album in 2014, which won the Best Art Vinyl award.]

Victorian Monsters? Strategies of Appropriation in the Neo-Victorian Mashup

Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition
Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition

This post originally appeared on the Victorianist, the postgraduate blog of the British Association for Victorian Studies, on 18 May 2015. It is reposted here with the kind permission of the editors.

I should probably preface this post by admitting that I’m not a real Victorianist. The Victorians were one of my undergraduate passions, and I continued to read and write all about them during my MA, but somehow I was always more interested in how we speak about the Victorians today than in how they actually spoke to themselves or to us. It was the fantasy of the Victorians that I found most intriguing. For the purposes of today’s post this works out well, because although the texts and subcultures I’m currently researching are often set in the nineteenth century, borrowing Victorian politics and aesthetics, they aren’t really Victorian either.

Specifically, I’m talking about the monster mashup, in this case the kind that appropriates objects, texts and contexts from the long nineteenth century and combines them with a very twenty-first century monster culture. These mashups come in many flavours, and can be found in virtually every artistic medium. You’ve got computer and console games like Fallen London or The Order: 1886. There are monster mashups in film and television, like Van Helsing (2004) and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014). They’re also in the fine arts, and a rich selection of monster mashups found themselves displayed at the recent Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition in 2013.

You’ll also find monster mashups, perhaps more predictably, among the ranks of comics and graphic novels – consider Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999) or Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer (2009). And of course there are novels, like Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (1992|2011) or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009). Arguably the best-known monster mashup in novel form is the ‘novel-as-mashup‘, popularised with 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and continuing with such groan (or grin) provoking titles as Wuthering Bites (2010) and Grave Expectations (2011). These mashups lift the very words, sentences, and chapters from the texts they appropriate, changing a word here, a paragraph there to create a new (if ultimately very similar) text. From lowbrow to highbrow, drama to comedy, there’s a monster mashup for everyone.

'Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.'
‘Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.’

The targets of these mashups aren’t exclusively from the nineteenth century, but an overwhelming number have thus far turned to the Regency and Victorian eras of Britain’s literary history for their source material. Copyright laws are no doubt partly responsible for this, as is the fact that we’ve got so much physical and visual material to draw on from the nineteenth century onward. The public education system is another likely culprit, as the most popular mashups (and the ones that attract the most media attention) tend to involve the classics of art and literature that most children in the Anglo-American world are introduced to during their early education. These are also the texts that have been kept alive by a seemingly endless series of adaptations, whether on the stage, by the BBC, or in cinemas.

A few weeks ago one of my fellow Cardiff PhDs, Daný van Dam, shared a post on Gail Carriger’s ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series (2009-2012), another monster mashup set in Victorian London. She wrote the following about the series’ Victorian appropriations:

Like many other neo-Victorian novels, Carriger’s books return not so much to the Victorian period and its history as to contemporary ideas about the Victorians, projecting present-day concerns upon an earlier period.

The precise nature of the relationship between neo-Victorian fiction and the past it references is something neo-Victorian studies is very interested in. In her book History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction, Kate Mitchell puts the situation this way:

‘The issue turns upon the question of whether history is equated, in fiction, with superficial detail; an accumulation of references to clothing, furniture, décor and the like, that produces the past in terms of its objects, as a series of clichés, without engaging its complexities as a unique historical moment that is now produced in a particular relationship to the present. […] Can these novels recreate the past in a meaningful way or are they playing nineteenth-century dress-ups?’ Kate Mitchell, History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 3.

With the monster mashup, answering this question is usually fairly straightforward: this is clearly a case of dress-up. In appropriating historical texts and contexts, these overtly fantastical monster mashups don’t necessarily seek to restore or revise the past, but rather to bring it back to life as a new text, and in a new context. They are twenty-first century texts in a Victorian coat. Regardless of their apparent superficiality, these kinds of creations and discussions are important in postmodern culture. Dress-up and performance serve their own purposes, and nostalgia can be an end as well as a means. 

Screenshot from Failbetter Studios' browser-based game 'Fallen London'.
Screenshot from Failbetter Studios’ browser-based game ‘Fallen London’, which allows you to play as a citizen of this monstrous city.

Postmodern theorist and critic Fredric Jameson has frequently returned to the subject of historicity and nostalgia in his work, often in conjunction with utopia. Both nostalgia and utopia, he argues, paradoxically evoke a kind of perpetual present by fetishising either the past or the future. Unfortunately, both are doomed to creative and subversive failure – nostalgia because its narrative of the past ultimately only serves to circumscribe the present, and utopia because its totalising narrative of the future inevitably morphs into dystopia. It is the failed deployment of these two elements that has resulted in postmodernism’s stagnation or end of history.

Nevertheless, Jameson continues to pursue these twin impulses of utopia and nostalgia, aiming to contribute to:

[T]he reawakening of that historicity which our system – offering itself as the very end of history – necessary [sic] represses and paralyzes. This is the sense in which utopology revives long dormant parts of the mind, organs of political and historical and social imagination which have virtually atrophied for lack of use, muscles of praxis we have long since ceased exercising, revolutionary gestures we have lost the habit of performing, even subliminally.

For Jameson, in other words, though nostalgia and utopia are both doomed to failure and stagnation, the urge to imagine, to fantasise, and to create using these impulses remains vitally important. In this sense the creation of history-saturated fantasies is much more for the sake of present-day culture than it is an homage to history. Neo-Victorian fantasies help keep both history and imagination alive in popular culture, giving them a much-needed stretching.

Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.
Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.

As a side effect of the way they ‘stretch’ history, monster mashups also manage to revitalise history, mythologise it, and even change it in a sense. These texts encourage discussion between disparate groups of people. They also force old texts into new contexts, revealing our historical and hermeneutical distance from (and closeness to) the old contexts. This recontextualisation of the Victorians can sometimes have productive results.

To give one example, these reality-blurring and genre-bending monster texts often draw attention to the constructed nature of the self, and the problems inherent in contemporary representations of identity and otherness. Monstrous others have stood in for racial, sexual, and social minorities for hundreds of years, but in the words of Judith Halberstam, in contemporary Gothic the monster is no longer totalising:

The monstrous body that once represented everything is now represented as potentially meaning anything – it may be the outcast, the outlaw, the parasite, the pervert, the embodiment of the uncontrollable sexual and violent urges, the foreigner, the misfit. The monster is all of these but monstrosity has become a conspiracy of bodies rather than a singular form.

In contemporary Gothic, monsters are us, and we are all monstrous. In any case, through this ‘conspiracy of bodies’, neo-historical monster mashups can call out cases of imperialism, colonialism, or patriarchy without singling out a particular minority victim. Monsters represent otherness, but not a particular Other. Symbolically they oscillate between the centre and the margins, endlessly deferred. Consider Travis Louie, for example, with his fantastical portraits of Victorians. These both call us to identify with the characters they depict and present those characters as alien. Louie has a whole series of these ‘Victorian cryptozoology‘ images as well, which evoke discourses of imperialism and colonialism.

© Travis Louie
© Travis Louie

Naturally this oscillation doesn’t automatically mean that using monsters in mashup texts is unproblematic. Specific monsters are still socially marked in different ways – the homoerotic male vampire, the sexy female robot, the lower-class zombie – but monsters do add a layer of mediation, a buffer between audience and story. Texts like these open discussions of otherness that might otherwise be met with resistance or increasingly negative accusations of ‘political correctness’. And, as always, imagining difference in the past potentially creates space for difference in the present. History and its cultural traces provide the foundations and reference points for today’s ideologies.

Roland Barthes has a great deal to say about the way history and tradition become myth. For Barthes, mythologies are formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media. Mashups, as part of the domain of popular culture, certainly contribute to the perpetuation of society’s myths (the nation, heterosexuality, gender, etc.). They are rarely subversive in the traditional sense, but because of their appropriative nature it is difficult for anyone to control which ideas and ideologies are communicated to audiences and readers. There is always ample room for divergent interpretation.

anno-draculaIn writing about the process of mythologisation, Barthes also refers to the tendency of socially constructed notions, narratives, and assumptions to become ‘naturalised’ in the process, or taken unquestioningly as given within a particular culture. Monstrous or fantastical history inherently resists such naturalisation, because it refuses to be taken entirely seriously, though certainly possible to politicise it. Monster mashups make history strange – or sometimes reveal the strangeness of history. Kim Newman has claimed that he initially decided to write Anno Dracula in response to Thatcherism and the rise of neo-Victorian political sentiment in the late 80s. This novel describes a Victorian England in which Dracula had succeeded in Bram Stoker’s novel, and come to rule over Great Britain. In this alternate history, which can be read as ironically similar to our own, Newman re-evaluates stereotypically ‘Victorian values’ as monstrous, ultimately showing that we often see what we want to see where the Victorians are concerned.

In a discussion of the Neo-Victorian graphic novels of Alan Moore, also extremely political, Jason B. Jones argues that what makes such mashups subversive is not their disregard for literary categories or forms, but their potential redefinition of our very identities and cultural spaces. He states: ‘[s]uch game playing foregrounds the extimate aspects of historical change, as something neither wholly external nor subjective’. In other words, texts that mix history and fiction while also playing with genre convention make the reader more readily aware of the constructed nature of even the most serious history. 

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