Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1857 verse-novel Aurora Leigh entered the cultural and social-political life of the Netherlands in the 1870s and 1880s through the work of three Dutch people: a literary critic, a social reformer, and a novelist. Conrad Busken Huet, the country’s leading literary and cultural critic, first brought the poem to Dutch attention in 1873 by showcasing it as a model of great art with high social and moral purpose, from which Dutch contemporary poetry could learn. Hélène Mercier, one of the leading social reformers of the country, then translated the poem into Dutch in 1883 to inspire the country’s social reform efforts. Its prophetic voice, Mercier declared, spoke as directly to the social conditions of the Netherlands in the 1880s as it had to those of England in the 1850s. Arguing that it was not necessary to retain Aurora Leigh’s poetic form for this voice to have effect, she translated the poem as prose. But Dutch novelist Martina van Walcheren did not agree. She produced a poetic translation in 1885 that her publisher supported at least in part because he opposed the emerging art-for-art’s sake movement. All these literary, social reformist, and aesthetic developments or debates were also fueled or complicated by national and international book economies and copyright questions.
The Ceylon National Review (1906-1911) was the official organ of the Ceylon Social Reform Society, an organization founded by the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy in an effort to combat colonial influence and reinvigorate Ceylonese cultural production. Coomaraswamy also served as an editor at the Ceylon National Review. This essay focuses on the manner in which Coomaraswamy, in the essays he contributed to and solicited for the journal, fostered transethnic Ceylonese nationalism and anticolonial resistance as well as transnational engagement with British countercultural movements and radical thought. Paying particular attention to Coomaraswamy’s interest in socialist aestheticism, Theosophy, and British discourses concerning vegetarianism, I foreground the highly cosmopolitan inflection of Coomaraswamy’s brand of Ceylonese nationalism as expressed in the pages of the Ceylon National Review. In the essays he wrote and selected for publication in the periodical, Coomaraswamy integrated the discourses of anticolonialism and socialist aestheticism and allowed British and Ceylonese vegetarians and Theosophists to speak in relation to one another, engendering a rich and surprising form of Ceylonese nationalism inflected by late-Victorian radicalism.
Nathan K. Hensley and John Patrick James, “Soot Moth: Biston Betularia and the Victorian End of Nature”
The darkened form of the common peppered moth, biston betularia f. carbonaria, known colloquially as the “soot moth,” was virtually unknown in England prior to 1800. The first reliable field specimen was collected outside of Manchester in 1848, plucked from the heart of Victorian England’s rapidly expanding coal economy. With their black abdomen and wings, these darkened morphs contrasted starkly with what had once been the more frequent form: a white-bodied moth lightly speckled with black and brown. As scientific studies now show, the black morph appeared as a result of industrial manufacture, first around major production centers and later around London. This article traces those studies to argue that the emergence of this particular form of melanistic moth signals a sharp pivot in Britain’s environmental history: its appearance augurs a new fossil modernity, in which coal replaces wood and animal fats as the primary source of English energy, and as stored sunlight, archived as coal, takes center stage as the driver for an endless steam-powered project of worldmaking. Tracing studies of “industrial melanism” to its origins at the beginning of this extractive, fossil-fueled modernity helps us see the soot moth’s emergence as a watershed moment in the history of life and a new chapter in humankind’s relationship to the category of nature.
Shannon Draucker, “Hearing, Sensing, Feeling Sound: On Music and Physiology in Victorian England, 1857-1894”
This entry focuses on new developments in the burgeoning field of acoustical science that emerged in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. During this time, sound science began to flourish in England, particularly through lectures by Hermann von Helmholtz and John Tyndall at the Royal Institution. The publications of Helmholtz’s Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music) (1863, trans. 1875) and John Tyndall’s Sound (1867) also contributed to the transmission of acoustical theory mid-century. This entry traces the reception of these scientific ideas in musical, medical, educational, and literary circles in Victorian England. Focusing especially on new discoveries about sound’s capacity to incite physiological sensations, this essay argues that acoustical science fundamentally transformed the ways that Victorians conceptualized the relations between aesthetics and the body.
The series of annual international exhibitions held during the early 1870s at South Kensington, London, were not particularly successful, or popular, but they were influential in the history of exhibitions. The alleged failures and the cancellation of the final annual exhibition halfway through the intended decade-long series of events provoked considerable discussion about the purpose, scale and expectations for exhibitions, which were no longer novel or limited to a particular city or nation-state. There were some successes, notably for the Australian colonies and British India, and for very specific trades and exhibitors, but the public discussion and those limited successes have generally failed to capture the attention of scholars. These events are rarely mentioned in books and articles about exhibitions and, when discussed, are considered to be failures without merit. This BRANCH contribution recognizes that other exhibitions were more popular and more successful, but also recognizes that the South Kensington shows were significant in addressing criticisms of exhibitions in general and in the generational history of both the shows and their organizers. The 1870s proved to be a pivotal period in the history of such exhibitions and the consideration of what merited public culture. The mantle was passed from Sir Henry Cole to his successors and the ambition of holding annual international exhibitions was replaced by more thematic shows in Britain and bold international shows in the Australian colonies. Amidst the general impressions of failure, there were also successes at the shows and those highlighted how inter-national exhibitions could prove useful in a changing world.
Jill R. Ehnenn, “On Art Objects and Women’s Words: Ekphrasis in Vernon Lee (1887), Graham R. Tomson (1889), and Michael Field (1892)”
Studies of women’s ekphrasis prior to modernism have, so far, tended to focus on individual women writers rather than attempt to identify trends that female authors from a particular time period might share. This essay intervenes in this gap in the scholarship by analyzing ekphrastic prose and poetry by Vernon Lee, Graham R. Tomson, and the co-authors who wrote as Michael Field. As female Aesthetes well-versed in art history and art criticism, as well as contemporary market practices, these nineteenth-century women writers anticipate today’s feminist theorists in the ways in which they were quite conscious of woman’s role as art object and the various functions of that role.
Here I examine Vernon Lee’s somewhat well-known novella Amour Dure (1887) as a foundational case study and then turn to two considerably lesser studied poems: Graham R. Tomson’s “A Silhouette” (1889) and Michael Field’s “Saint Katharine of Alexandria” (1892), for which I also identify the long-lost ekphrastic referent. These three texts all demonstrate how a specific form of aesthetic intertextuality—ekphrastic representational friction—operates as a powerful vehicle for early feminist criticism. In the examples I discuss, gendered critiques drive representational friction between the word, the visual medium, and its original referent—slippages that these art-savvy authors would have easily recognized and had opinions about in the work of others, and intentionally created and/or appropriated in their own work. Importantly, I also argue that a helpful way to think about ekphrastic writing by women writers associated with nineteenth-century British Aestheticism is to consider representational friction with particular regard to how their texts treat objects—seemingly unimportant objects—associated with their subjects.
This article considers Regency actor Edmund Kean’s presence as a figure in the theatrical news of the day, arguing that Kean’s acting style, coupled with changes in periodical print culture, reframed the relation between the British theatrical tradition, the actor’s stage performance, and audience reception. Emphasizing an “illegitimate” grammar of representation characterized by gesture, mobility, and emotional transition, Kean enacted new forms of subjectivity that aligned with emerging modes of theatrical criticism to shape readers’ concepts of their own private experience and their imagined engagement with public events.
Kathleen Frederickson, “British Writers on Population, Infrastructure, and the Great Indian Famine of 1876-8”
This article examines British writing about the 1876-8 famine in southern and western India. In British newspapers and journals, the turn to thinking about famine in terms of the total population obscured the extreme variations in food access that worsened with rising economic inequality. When the British press in the late-1870s turned to human causes of famine, they either argued that India’s population overburdened India’s land, or suggested that more rail construction would prevent enough deaths sufficiently to mitigate British responsibility for famine conditions. The turn to population-based arguments helped either to perpetuate the belief that famine was a quasi-natural part of India or to parse the sudden increase in the frequency and severity famines in India under British rule.
Nicholas Daly, “Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (April, 1894) and the Rise of Ruritanian Fiction”
Anthony Hope’s bestseller of 1894, The Prisoner of Zenda, inspired a subgenre of adventure romances set in imaginary, semi-feudal European countries, of which Ruritania is the original. English and later American protagonists stumble into plot-driven narratives that usually feature some combination of schemes against the throne, doubles or mistaken identities, swordplay, and love at first sight. Since the 1890s, Ruritanian backdrops have been reworked for a variety of purposes, from Balkan spy novels, to interwar operetta, to Cold War satires, in such fictional territories as Ixania, Krasnia, and Grand Fenwick.
Shanyn Fiske, “Modeling Masculinity: Engendering the Yellow Peril in Fu-Manchu and Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights”
This entry deals with the event of the Yellow Peril, which generated fears of “Chinamen” as sexual predators, savage murderers, and criminal masterminds plotting world domination. Curiously, while these images lend Chinese men an aura of powerful virility, popular fiction credited with sensationalizing the Yellow Peril often depicted them as asexual or effeminate. Focusing on the first three novels of Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu series and Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights (1916), I challenge the common critical assumption that the feminization or desexualization of Chinese men served to symbolically disempower a political threat. Instead, I suggest that in their interactions with their white counterparts, effeminized and / or desexualized Chinese male characters highlight problems in turn-of-the-century reconfigurations of masculinity. Such problems included recalibrating the Victorian balance between gentlemanly restraint and soldierly aggression in an unstable imperial context; redefining a sense of autonomy in a mechanized world; and renegotiating gender relations in a feminist environment. More broadly, I venture that the critical apparatus of Orientalism, which a number of theorists have applied to Rohmer’s works, is inadequate in explaining the complex interactions between Chinese and Britons in the early twentieth century. In examining the entangled racial and sexual tensions in these works, this entry historicizes the Yellow Peril within a broader context of Western male self-fashioning.