Conference review: The Impact of Distribution and Reading Patterns of the Novel in Britain, 1880-1940, Reading, 24-25 March 2012
Actually getting your hands dirty in the archive – presuming it exists and you can get access to those usually uncatalogued files – was the main discussion this Saturday with a great deal of innovative, optimistic and exacting research to be presented. In his introduction to the symposium Patrick Parrinder reminded us of the otherworld experience of being faced with carbon copies during the digital age. He also declared that the aspects of publishers’ archives which had been trawled were very narrow. Therefore the University of Reading’s AHRC funded project ‘The Impact of Distribution and Reading Patterns of the Novel in Britain, 1880-1940 (Parrider, Nash and Wilson) wanted to bring together the study of literature and the material history of the book. This period had been chosen as significant because the development of the novel involved libraries and changing attitudes in publishing houses during the drive to access new reading publics.
Nicola Wilson gave an example of two case studies from the publishers’ archives held at Reading, the Hogarth Press and Chatto and Windus, which offered more than just surveying the material and looking for famous names. From this evidence Wilson was able to examine in detail the interactions between publisher and writer as they responded to their sense of a reading audience and negotiated the impact of revision, censorship and editorial pressure. She was also able to see how the subscription libraries, particularly Boots and WH Smiths, responded to these books and planned to present them or restrict them depending on their perception of readers’ tastes and timidities. Andrew Nash looked at the correspondence and contractual wrangling between Tillotson, a company which bought the rights and controlled syndicated popular fiction through the provincial press in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the bestselling nautical writer William Clark Russell (The Wreck of the Grosvenor, 1877). This research was presented in the context of the formation of the Society of Authors and changing opportunities and pitfalls for writers of commercial fiction at the end of the nineteenth century.
Archives, then, provide access to the workings of professional decision making, but a lot of the discussion was about cultural practice that was invisible largely because of its popular nature. Simon Frost (University of Southern Denmark) presented research on the the largely unacknowledged success of Clavering Gunter’s popular narratives of the American Dream for the potential European émigré, to be consumed during their years of preparation for the voyage following economic recession and then on-board ship. These books , such as Mr Barnes of New York (1887), Miss Nobody of Nowhere (1890) Miss Dividends (1892), located success, reversals of fortune, inheritance, new homes and business empires in a mythologised America, the land of opportunity. Gunter circumvented existing publishing systems by distributing his work through Gunter’s Magazine, his own Home Publishing Company and many probably pirated European translations; the cultural resonance of the fiction ensured commercial success until the formula could no longer respond to collective anxieties and desires.
The Readers’ Library, sold for sixpence through Woolworths, claimed a readership in the millions which is difficult to substantiate, but Mary Hammond (University of Southampton) argued that the books are indicative of a reading practice which involved both print text and film to fully realise narrative pleasure. Access to a collection of the fragile volumes and the correspondence of the company, held at the University of Reading, allowed Hammond to understand the cultural work of producing the text, which met an immediate niche market, for the time in which it was successful. The synchronic consumption of these contemporary adaptations of film allowed the reader to record, expand and supplement memories of the cinematic event during a period when screenings were brief, unrepeated and subject to technical disaster.
Another AHRC funded project, the Middlebrow Network, has also yielded dividends for studies in popular fiction. Sheffield Hallam University has established a 700 novel archive, the “Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 Special Collection”. Erica Brown spoke about future plans and the co-production of cataloguing to suit community interests and new paradigms in the research of literary taste and popular culture. Connected with this initiative is a community funded oral history project, managed by Mary Grover, which is aiming to complete 50 reading histories with Sheffielders who became adults between 1945-65 in a city characterised, Grover argues, by its unbookishness.
To conclude the conference, Shafquat Towheed reminded us of the contribution of the Reading Experience Database, noting that some types and patterns of reading remained invisible and that readers are often typified by diversity rather than conformity of response suggesting shifting and constantly variable literary tastes. The example he gave were some of the few reactions to Marie Corelli recorded in RED:
- Lady Sutherland, with a tray of sole and partridge on her lap, alternating between Ruskin and Corelli. Close reading of the text when our model is that people skimmed Corelli’s books.
- Arnold Bennett reading her for the first time and acknowledging why she would be so popular but earn the critics’ contempt.
- Rupert Brook advising that he had read The Sorrows of Satan, which had left him a positive wreck, so others did not have to.
- V.S Pritchard divulging that earlier in his life he’d found Corelli more moving than Shakespeare.
In contrast to their sales and audiences entries on Corelli, Mudie’s library and popular fiction are sparse, reading for pleasure superseded by literary propriety. The response to a question about the presence of Ethel M. Dell on the database was regretful in that she probably didn’t feature at all.
Game Studies, in an organised scholarly sense, celebrated its tenth birthday in 2011. As with most fields of academic endeavour, there are several claims to parentage and disputes about chronologies such as I have advanced. My attempt at genealogy sees the study of computer and video games taking recognisable disciplinary shape in 2001 with the launch of the online peer-reviewed journal Game Studies under the editorial control of Espen Aarseth (available at http://gamestudies.org/1102). In the first issue Aarseth called for the emergence of a distinctive field of Game Studies, drawing upon existing academic traditions, such as Sociology, Film and Media Studies, but not colonised by their approaches and assumptions. Aarseth’s opening editorial made a strong claim for Games Studies as a specific discipline, rather than a subset of existing fields of study.
Today we have the possibility to build a new field. We have a billion dollar industry with almost no basic research, we have the most fascinating cultural material to appear in a very long time, and we have the chance of uniting aesthetic, cultural and technical design aspects in a single discipline (Aarseth, 2001, para. 12)
Aarseth’s opening editorial makes the case for the study of games as games, arguing that they are not a monolithic cultural form designed simply for viewing, but rather a multiplicity of interactive forms for playing, either alone or socially. The diversity of games available and types of interaction possible challenged researchers to find a foundational commonality for the study of games. A number of researchers, who chose to call themselves ludologists, claimed that what was unique and distinctive about games, whatever their type, was the existence of rules. Ludologists suggested Game Studies should examine the rules of the game and how the player interacts with them. Issues such as representation and storytelling, although interesting, might best be thought of as subservient to these rules.
In the early issues of Game Studies the ludologists met stiff resistance from narratologists, keen to study games as they would other forms of narrative. Most emerging disciplines are subject to the sort of intellectual land grabbing of the ludology vs. narratology debates, but in time, most disciplines see the virtue of studying complex phenomena with a range of theoretical and methodological approaches. Game Studies has recently embraced cross and inter-disciplinary approaches. The broadening of the discipline is apparent in contributions to the journal Games and Culture, which was established by Sage in 2006. Articles have appeared focusing on race and representation, the study of community in the online game World of Warcraft, gender identity in games and of gamers, older gamers, casual game and ethnographies of game-playing.
The diversity of approaches that constitute contemporary Game Studies makes it a lively and increasingly inclusive discipline. There are many possible objects of study and a similar number of theoretical and methodological means with which to study them. My own recent article in Games and Culture perhaps illustrates the openness of the discipline. I was interested in the ambience of fear in horror video games – both how it is rhetorically expressed and experienced by the gamer. I chose to use Kristeva’s work on the abject and Freud’s notion of the uncanny as my theoretical touchstones. My article was interested both in the rules of the games and the way that narratives of fear are employed as shared resources by game designers and gamers. Despite the apparent flexibility of my approach I felt compelled to include a short passage entitled ‘the limits of analysis’ in which I positioned my research as a necessarily partial and circumscribed attempt to study a game text and its highly variable interactive relationship with several million potential players. My motivation for including the section was not simply a humble recognition of the limited scope and validity of my research but a wish for the new discipline to leave theoretical and disciplinary approaches as open as possible. Hopefully the coming generation of Game Studies researchers will continue to avoid simplistic and reductive accounts of their objects of study and remember the limits of their own analyses.
Aarseth, E. (2001). Computer Game Studies, Year One. Game Studies, 1(1), retrieved 15th August 2011 from http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html
Spittle, S. (2011) “Did This Game Scare You? Because it Sure as Hell Scared Me!” F.E.A.R., the Abject and the Uncanny, Games and Culture, 6(4), 312-326
Dr. Steve Spittle, Media and Cultural Studies, Liverpool John Moores University
Are conferences about a good argument or meant to be a more wide ranging form of inspiration? Recently I have become frustrated by a tendency in the humanities to hide reference to method in favour of interpretation. Previously this was outweighed by an obsession present in media research from a social science perspective that revelled in methodological procedure without worrying too much about what this might actually mean. Lisa Holdeman’s 2008 edited collection Common Sense: Intelligence as Presented on Popular Television is an interesting mixture with a first chapter reaching over 100 pages in its attempt to present in detail the book’s methodological underpinning. Ultimately the argument reveals its origin in the desire to explain the public vilification of intellectuals and the lack of respect afforded to academics which occurred during the commodification of higher education in the twentieth century. However, the application of interdisciplinary theory takes place alongside the rigorous gathering of data and innovative research design which is wholly beneficial.
The study of entertainment media needs to encompass different media forms and necessarily embrace a range of methods and research perspectives. At the Victorian Popular Fiction Association (VPFA) conference, held earlier this month in London, I could see seasoned researchers who work in print media headed towards the popular films of the early twentieth century at an exciting pace, only to be pulled up short by an interdisciplinary forcefield. They hadn’t been trained to read film or work with the visual, so felt that the new territory was off limits. Collaboration is an answer and often a very successful one, but another way is to start declaring rather than mystifying our workings.
In the early 90s I started to use a database to work through 700 ghost stories, moving from the trusty card indexes – which I still prefer – in order to try something new and write a piece on women’s supernatural writing from a popular perspective. The first draft contained an extensive commentary on the technique, which was then reduced to a footnote and subsequently excised. The mechanics, although fascinating to a social scientist, had no place in a literary collection. Conferences, especially those hosted by ARPF, became the space for making visible where the authority for assertions about popular fiction comes from. They serve to remind participants that a field of study which has varied (although often undeclared) methodological perspectives is strengthened by them and this shouldn’t be thought threatening. In a challenge offered during an ARPF roundtable, a member of the audience gave a dramatic pause when asking if there was anything we wouldn’t study. We all thought he would say pornography and considered our reply, but what he considered to be beyond the pale was Mills and Boon provoking laughter as all of us had published on the brand at some point in our careers. I didn’t have the guts then to continue the debate about asking where we would draw the line and the broader purpose of research in popular culture.
So the ARPF conference for 2011 is there to discuss “noises off” the backstage of academic work: critical reflection on the nature of research, selection processes, prioritisation and gaining access to the material that we study is the focus of presenting new and ongoing projects. This might well prove a valuable activity in preparation for the completion of grant applications, at local and national level, during a period of austerity. How were research questions formulated and modified? What constitutes a representative sample and how can we generalise from it? How significant is empirical research? How do we engage with other disciplines and people who will make use of the material that we disseminate? What are our responsibilities as researchers? Are there particular ethical considerations that we need to adhere to or establish? Is the flawless research design a mythical entity?
Exchange and broadening the literature review is often the way to resolve research problems. Those of us working with twenty-first century ephemera can learn from the painstaking analysis and recovery of material undertaken by Victorian and early twentieth-century researchers. In turn Jennifer Hayward’s (1997) use of media theory in Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences from Dickens to Soap Opera allows her to interrogate Dickens’ narrative and its reception. There are salutary lessons and insight which can motivate future research. Jennifer Phegley’s comparative account of electronic dating services and the Victorian print genre of marriage ads and responses from the editor is a case in point. Stage, television & film do have interesting distinctions in the way they are studied and offer illuminating cross-overs regarding production and consumption. Therefore this conference wants to look at shared and divergent methodology, consider future aspirations for this field of research, debate preoccupations and emerging or recurrent themes, and fortify us for the year ahead.
The call for papers for ARPF’s annual conference, to be held in Liverpool this November, can be found here. The closing date for proposals is 1st September.
In the current British educational climate, will the special collections that actually do contain popular fiction continue to survive and grow? Louis James, arguably the founder of research in popular literature, remarked when he began his study over fifty years ago that “only a moiety of this literature has survived” due to its disposability, fragility and inherently ephemeral nature. He was able to work with an unlisted case of books left to the British Museum by the music hall artist ‘Barry Ono’. As a private collector Ono had been fascinated by the penny dreadful and left 700 books and magazines, many of which were from the 1840s and 50s, which formed a major part of James’s (1957) survey Fiction for the Working Man, 1830-1850. But James also describes being on the trail of private collectors in their natural habitat: “I first knocked at the scratched and grimy door of a condemned house of an East End Square” […] “A magnificent collection of Victorian periodical literature was piled dusty and damp, around the walls”. James was able to meet and view the unique collection of a recluse who had started his days as an East End wastepaper collector, before it was sold to an American University. Other private collections that he consulted were fated to be dispersed on their owners’ death. Finding research material, he advised, needed resolve, patience and good fortune. Nowadays it often needs a travel grant as well.
At one ARPF conference I was told by an American researcher that she had an appointment to visit Oxford University’s bunker, in an undisclosed rural location, where they housed their Mills and Boon holdings. I’m not sure that I quite believed her but the notion of that secret repository for the popular has often intrigued me. I am also reminded of Marina Warner’s description of how she examined Cambridge University’s sample of ectoplasm whilst being overseen by a librarian who was obviously dubious about her research. But at least it was seen as valuable enough to be preserved. Often at study days or when meeting postgrads working on popular fiction, the lack of an archive determines the development of their research, or tales of horror are shared about the trunk of letters or manuscripts from a writer whose family had decided to dispose of them, which are either just missed, or alternatively rescued from near incineration in the nick of time. Even the electronic manuscripts and correspondence of contemporary writers will have to be indexed and conserved, so where will the archives of contemporary popular writers go?
Delegates at the recent Jane Webb Loudon and nineteenth century women and science conference, held at Leeds Trinity University College, spent quite a bit of time discussing where sources might be located. Significant gaps in Jane Webb Loudon’s personal biography mean that we don’t fully understand her professional writing career. The basis for other research projects discussed at the conference alluded to the loss of contextual material (Loudon burnt all of hers on her death bed) related to the study of women’s writing. Other women writers, especially those working in science, were also concerned with managing their reputation, and original letters and other types of documents appear to be absent or overlooked by archivists regarding their relevance or value.
However archivists and curators are more often than not a friend to the dedicated researcher, locating material and tenuous connections which the catalogue alone may not reveal. One of the archivists at The Bill Douglas Centre (BDC) at the University of Exeter found a handbill advertising an Egyptian diorama placed smack in the middle of an Old English Cavalcade – St George and the Dragon meets King Ptolemy, not something that I would have found on my own. Professor Lisa Hopkins was contacted by a member of the public about something which had been bought on eBay because she was the only person he could find who had written on Jane Webb Loudon. She gave a presentation about a very curious artefact now generously housed at Sheffield Hallam University Special Collection to prevent it from disappearing again from public view. Described as Jane Loudon’s wedding album, it raises more questions than it answers but they are very interesting connections to pursue. One of the main problems with it is that we don’t know how it was used and the cultural practice that it represents. Nevertheless its value could be immeasurable. There is only one known portrait of Jane Webb Loudon but it is possible that this album contains another pen and ink drawing of the writer on her wedding day by her friend Isabella Martin. One of the problems that this item presents for special collections is that, unsurprisingly for a horticultural writer, it contains dried plant material, adding to the problems for its continued care.
So is digitisation the key? At the Marie Corelli conference in Stratford upon Avon in 2006 ARPF members were introduced to an early digital collection of popular women authors. Emory University’s Women’s Genre Fiction Project, funded by a three year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, digitised female-authored and female-centred texts drawn from the library’s extensive collection of detective, crime and romance fiction in the form of yellow backs and dime novels. Various international members of the audience for this presentation also commented on the availability of popular women writers in their libraries and their surprise that these books were on open shelves. At Emory digitisation had been undertaken with the dual aims of making the texts accessible and preserving them. Overall the project wanted to increase scholarly engagement with popular women’s writing, open up popular texts as a resource for the study of British and American culture and expand undergraduate teaching. The original text selection of the Emory project had some very interesting themes: seduction, temperance novels, western brides, American orientalism, abolition, and regionalism, some of which are evident in a fascinating subject list for the 140 titles currently in the collection.
Do we share or jealously guard our sources? Are we doomed to remain individual archive hunters, unable to locate the funding to preserve personal research collections or the private collections that we encounter while carrying out individual projects? One way to build up the significance and importance of the archiving of ephemeral, commercial and entertainment media is to talk about the big special collection projects and about personal experiences, which is something that can be hosted on this site. Discussions that help us, as a research community, to locate and evaluate collections may be the best way forward in a climate where funding will be hard to come by. We would welcome guest contributions on the subject, either here in comments or as ARPF blog entries, as a start.
Today it would be zombies. The study of popular fiction requires us to identify the trends of a particular cultural moment, not just the bestseller per se but its influence and impact on popular narrative media, its retail management, audience reception and interaction with the social construction of knowledge. Ten years ago it was chicklit and Joanne Knowles, in her introduction to the special issue for the ARPF journal Diegesis, predicted: “The next steps in chicklit research should be exciting ones. Without a Radway-style examination of the readers of these fictions, it remains difficult to comprehensively evaluate the way these fictions fit into, distort or influence women’s everyday lives, conceptions of culture and views of feminism. I am confident, however, that more work on analysing chicklit’s readers, markets and generic developments will appear in the coming years, and hope that this collection forms a useful starting point for debate. The ephemerality of the genre will, I am sure, continue to be proclaimed; however, investigations of the continuing media debate about these representations of contemporary female experience – its authenticity, anxiety and sociological reality – need not be thought of as trivial concerns any longer”. I certainly did not expect that demands for this issue would outlive its print run.
Amongst several provocative and challenging ideas that Sean Cubitt presented to a recent seminar about studying film in an age of digital reproduction was the notion that our generation, by committing to digital ephemera, will leave nothing accessible to future cultural historians. The electronic versions of Diegesis: The Journal of the Association for Research in Popular Fictions are even within ten years either lost or corrupted and as the print editions become exhausted, I have resorted to photocopying the archive copy of the Knowles special issue to send out to new researchers. The issue on chicklit was the first to go out of print and is the one that is most often in demand. Whilst preparing to upgrade to a new system I found that there was an earlier pre-publication version stored inadvertently on an elderly laptop and thought that it would be useful to put the issue online and save on the photocopying. To do so has required reproducing the final corrections and relearning an earlier approach to producing copy. Therefore I am prepared to agree with Professor Cubitt and on the way to producing the pdf, now on the Romance section of the ARPF website, I frequently contemplated just typing the whole thing out again as a quicker and more accurate process.
The issue, as its editor Joanne Knowles explains, grew out of a colloquium held on or around Valentine’s Day in 2003. Knowles felt that “the open, questioning atmosphere was refreshing. Media and academic discussions of chicklit often tend to become consumed by the question of how chicklit can be stopped in its tracks, rather than looking at what it actually does, and how”. Although Knowles was thinking of the significance of journalists as cultural critics, I think that the comment also marked an attitude to researching the popular through validating singular, exceptional artefacts rather than a willingness to explore the dynamics of mass culture, which is still integral to its reception in more polite academic circles. The issue was put together using Diegesis “as a forum where the longevity or otherwise of chicklit does not have to be justified as a pre-requisite to analysing it as a cultural symbol. Its significance as part of a particular moment in the cultural landscape and the popular fiction market can be acknowledged without negotiating its canonical value” and researchers still turn to it because although chicklit is a cultural reference point, active publishing concern and influence on emerging formulae for women’s writing it lacks informed debate in everyday academic life and work. ARPF hopes to act as one possible conduit for this debate, which even in the digital age is often conducted in a fragmented fashion by researchers working alone and seeking out connections with points of reference like the chicklit edition of Diegesis. At our conference on research methods and themes later this year, we may also be able to further such debates about cultural moments, whether they relate to chicklit, zombies or whatever comes next.
Note: ARPF would be very interested to hear from researchers working on chicklit. Please leave comments here or, if you wish, email your contact information and details of your project to us at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Better known for her provocative journalism, campaigning and tenure as Britain’s best known agony aunt, Clare Rayner was also a prolific popular novelist. She contributed to the family saga genre as it came to prominence in the 1970s and 80s. Her most popular series the ‘Poppy Chronicles’ was structured about public events and collective experience exploring massive social change in women’s lives from the early twentieth century to the accessibility of birth control in the 1960s. Trained as a nurse in the 1950s, Rayner drew upon her extensive knowledge of the NHS to write the George Barnabas series and individual novels in the 80s and 90s which featured medical professionals and transitions in health care. One of these novels, The Virus Man (1985), was a medical thriller about how hospitals and researchers were coming to terms with an unknown fatal epidemic disease. It was written at the time Britain had started to acknowledge HIV/AIDS through graphic public information campaigns. It stood out from many other treatments of the same themes because of its perspective, recording the horror and near despair of those who saw increasing numbers of ordinary patients suffering from a disease that appeared to be totally resistant to treatment or cure. Clare Rayner was a guest speaker at one of the early ARPF annual conferences, ‘Medical Fictions: The body, the profession and dis-ease’ in 1997 where she spoke about the relationship between her campaigning and her fiction. Several members of the association have contacted me this week, recalling her talk and expressing regret at her death.
Medical fictions are rarely about health; rather they concern the social awareness and acknowledgement of sickness and disease. Clare Rayner’s fiction considered hierarchies of knowledge that prevented freedom of choice and patients’ assumption of responsibility over their bodies and the health of their families. She offered something more than the usual preoccupation of medical fiction with representing sexuality as pathological, dangerous and in need of social regulation. Fiction in this field responds very readily to popular opinion and shifts in cultural values, and this was particularly evident during the 1990s and the regular occurrence of dramatic health scares. Rayner used medical topics as a means of expression for experience, desires and concerns on the borders of public life which challenged their usual representation as part of a discursive practice of repression.
In an interview with the BBC last week her husband Des Rayner spoke of his pride in the way that she was able to save lives as well as bringing change for the better especially “ by talking frankly about the importance of safe sex in the 80s which almost nobody else would discuss”. This is an issue that is still treated with ambiguity, with popular fiction anxious not to disrupt the discourse of spontaneity in the narrative of romantic love. Her non-fiction addressed many different aspects of health and well being from the early popular sex manual People in Love: Modern Guide to Sex in Marriage (1968) to books about professional nursing, family health, early years development, grandparenting and her autobiography How Did I Get Here from There (2003).
She was awarded an OBE in 1996 for services to health matters particularly for women’s health and wellbeing. The award recognised her contribution as an activist and work as a member of many different committees and charities. She was a commission on ‘The Prime Minister’s Commission on Nursing’ which reported in March 2010. The commission followed the principles of Rayner’s lifelong interest in improving people’s lives through knowledge and allowing them to take a rational approach to health choices as it offered extensive opportunities for consultation. The chair of the Commission, MP Ann Keen, stated “the debate exposed many myths and misunderstandings about nursing, perhaps above all the mistaken idea that compassion can be separated from competence”, an attitude which Rayner had striven to contest in many different forms through her journalism, public speaking and popular fiction.
We now have a provisional programme for the 15th annual ARPF conference, ‘Popular fictions: Selling culture?’ Please see the ARPF tab under ‘Networks’ above for full details including travel guidance and the booking form.
We’re delighted to welcome such a variety of disciplines to the conference.
Please send us details of relevant publications, conferences and announcements for inclusion in the conference pack, or on the website. These can be emailed to email@example.com .
The department of Media and Cultural Studies at LJMU has just taken charge of a magic lantern. Last year, for the delectation of delegates to the International Gothic Association Conference on ‘Monstrous Spectacle’ at the University of Lancaster, the programme included an evening magic lantern show given by Mervyn Heard. The event demonstrated not only the importance of performance in presenting visual media but the continuity of late eighteenth century phantasmagoria images (the dance of death, imps, Egyptian iconography, the magician and gothic heroines) which reappear in nineteenth century temperance narratives and then early European film. Kember (2009) argues that the success of the commercial magic lantern show rested on one of two performance rituals: the lecturer who had knowledge of the subject they narrated and the showman who engaged the audience with a discourse of knowingness that made the fantastic permissible. (See Magic Lantern bibliography). Catalogues of magic lantern slides are vast and although dominated by religious imagery they are connected to the playfulness of all other forms of nineteenth century popular culture. How did this translate into domestic storytelling, how important is it to understanding the reception of nineteenth century popular fiction and how do you study it?
Our magic lantern appeared on arrival not to work but after an hour’s cleaning and bravery regarding Victorian engineering “it’ll all go back together again if we take it apart”, we restored all 6 lenses and were able to project the departmental slide (a singularity resulting from ultimate failure to secure others in ebay auctions). The intensity of glass projection immediately focuses attention on expression rather than the narrative legibility of the image. The academics in the room read the slide as a Dickensian tale of profligacy while the administrative staff (who’d come to see what was taking us so long) challenged us, working harder on the cues of dress, staging and contingency.
So most of the conferences that I have attended this summer have been to try and make sense of the magic lantern as a form of visual narrative media. I can connect it to the work of the nineteenth century bestselling writer Marie Corelli via Sieber’s argument concerning the narrative significance of the tableau vivant, in print fiction. On the stage and as a parlour game the practice refers to “figures posed, silent, and immobile in imitation of well-known works of art or dramatic scenes from history and literature” (Chapman, 1996:24). In a similar manner to the magic lantern slide. an emphasis is placed on the demonstration of virtuous behaviour (Chapman, 2006:27) and therefore is an improving activity. However the still image raises controversy because its narrative legibility is open. In the context of the tableau vivant Chapman argues, subjects chosen included paintings that negotiated instances of violence either perpetrated by or made towards women, that needed to be carefully managed by the performance to remove any element of subversive content and close down the consideration of male violence. On the stage, tableaux presented at moments of dramatic revelation complicated the meaning of the image rather than anchoring social values.[i] This is point similar to contested popular vs canonical reading strategies for narrative paintings i.e. The Awakening Conscience (Hunt, 1853). Reading the popular requires us to consider resistant readings which are often the most pleasurable.
Finding an archive of magic lantern slides in order to consider how they were interpreted and presented in domestic storytelling is difficult: although they were numerous, they are also extremely fragile. I visited The Bill Douglas Centre (BDC) at the University of Exeter which holds a public collection of all kinds of items that encompass the history, pre-history and folklore of the cinema largely acquired by Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell. The Magic Lantern Society has an extensive collection of the readings which accompanied slide sets that could be given or adapted by the presenter according to their engagement or skill. The BDC has a home made book of readings, which I imagine was the work of a scout master; these alternate between naval and military history and adventure stories such as Ali Baba and Robin Hood. These are annotated to emphasise pronunciation, rearrangement and inclusion of other slides and the connection with non-fiction lectures. But it was not until I visited real as opposed to virtual auctions, and took possession of personal collections as they came out of house clearances, that I came to understand how sets and slides could be interlaced to respond to prevailing narrative archetypes and just how exciting ‘Perils and Adventures in Central Africa’ might have been to its audience.
[i] A discussion presented by Sos Eltis at ‘The “Sister Arts” in the Popular Theatre c. 1820-1910 conference 2010 at the University of Birmingham
Late in the day I agreed to contribute entries on gardening magazines for the Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism. This led to many pleasant hours in the University of Reading periodicals archive and the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library, where I made my re-acquaintance with Jane Webb Loudon. I knew her as the author of The Mummy! a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827), an extraordinary novel written to support herself in her late teens, which imagined not only the fashion and invention of the far future but the social change that would accompany them. The strict word count meant that I had to leave out the heated exchange between George Glenny, the contentious and argumentative editor of horticultural magazines in the 1830s and 40s, and Webb’s husband, JC Loudon:
“[…] his old woman is a mischievous beldam, and that the plates in question never appeared anywhere till they were published in the Horticultural Journal. We hate old women at the best of times, but a lying old woman is abominable, and the sooner Loudon shakes the hag off the better” (Desmond, 1980:90)
No-one else speaks of Jane Webb Loudon in this way but little is really known about her. Her daughter reports that she burnt all her personal papers just before her death and any reference to her own accomplishments in her husband’s biography is brief and modest. However, the evidence of the vituperative nature of early popular periodical publishing, which JW Loudon entered as the editor of The Ladies’ Magazine of Gardening (1841), caught the imagination of Andrew King who asked me to research more about early professional women writers in this field for Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies. While doing so, and feeling that I was working on something relatively obscure, I came across three other colleagues who I know from studies in twentieth century science fiction, gothic and the supernatural and children’s literature, who have all worked on Loudon and all bemoaned the gaps in our knowledge. So Andy Sawyer and I met for our long awaited Loudon Lunch to see how we could bring researchers together to resolve this situation.
Andy Sawyer, the librarian for the Science Fiction Foundation collection at the University of Liverpool, is particularly interested in the relationship between Mary Shelley and Jane Loudon as they formulate an English vocabulary for speculative accounts of the future. “You can’t”, Sawyer says, “mother science fiction twice, so there has to be a more nuanced way to think about the early contribution these women writers made to science fiction”. Both of us are interested in Loudon’s early years as a writer, her role as a salaried contributor for the prominent editor Jerdan, her friendship with Catherine Crowe, and her early involvement with a number of cultural figures: John Martin and his family, Wilkie Collins, the Howitts and the Landseers as well as the editor Tom Taylor who would be so important for Punch. Andy Sawyer directed me to the Crowe/Larken collection at the University of Kent and to Lucy Sussex, who has a chapter on Crowe in her forthcoming book for Palgrave Macmillan, Women Writers and Detectives in the Nineteenth Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre.
Tracking down materials as well as finding experts in the different fields in which Loudon wrote has proved an interesting trail to follow. Bea Howe’s popular biography of Jane Webb Loudon (which Heath Schenker describes as highly fictionalized) had the benefit of drawing on her adolescent daughter’s diary. However, just beginning to contact researchers who might be interested in contributing to a conference on Loudon’s life and work has revealed a manuscript which has recently come into the possession of Sheffield Hallam University. Alan Rauch, contemporary editor for the The Mummy and author of Useful Knowledge, The Victorians, Morality and the March of Intellect, is hopeful that someone will find the correspondence between Loudon and Walter Scott. It would be interesting to know more about Loudon’s father and his possible connections with scientists in eighteenth-century Birmingham. Further investigation of Loudon’s dealings with the publishers Bradbury and Evans might reveal unknown creative ventures from her later years.
I am very fortunate to be working not only with Andy Sawyer but also Georgina O’Brien Hill, who had originally planned a conference on later nineteenth century women and science fiction. Her colleague Michelle Parslow has worked on both Loudon and fin de siècle women’s science fiction and was inspired by the discussion at the ‘Utopian Spaces of British Literature and Culture 1890-1945’ conference held at the University of Oxford in September last year. By combining fictional and educational engagements with science, we can bring together several different academic approaches and areas of knowledge in order to understand women’s contribution to these genres during the nineteenth century. The life, work and example of Jane Webb Loudon has enabled us to compose a call for papers that should be meaningful to a large number of different networks: those interested in popular science, the periodical press, the articulation of social reform across the nineteenth century, gardening, education, natural history, professional writing, the development of science fiction and the formation of Victorian domestic sensibility. So a conference is set for 27th -28th June 2011 at Trinity University Leeds and we are very fortunate to have Matthew Beaumont, Alan Rauch, Andy Sawyer and Ann Shteir as plenary speakers.
For me it is Loudon’s tales of fauna rather than flora which have stayed with me as she addressed myth and anecdote with her own observations. The tales she tells of natural history look at the place of domestic animals in everyday life, during a time in which their cultural welfare undergoes immense social change. She notes “the agacity of the cat in detecting criminals” (1851:50) and their need to revenge human cruelty. In doing so she reveals her own life in her writing: “my mother had a servant who disliked cats exceedingly, and particularly a large black cat which we had, which she was in the habit of beating whenever she had the opportunity. The cat disliked the girl but was always afraid of her: one day, however, when the girl was carrying some dishes downstairs into the kitchen, and had both her hands full, the cat flew at her, and scratched her arms and face severely” (1851:51).
Nickianne Moody, ARPF Convenor, Liverpool John Moores University.
For references see Loudon bibliography; additions gratefully received.
WBD isn’t quite as commercialised as Christmas, but its sponsors – The Publishers’ Association, The Booksellers’ Association and National Book Tokens – definitely want to establish reading and book buying as a habit at an impressionable age. WBD is a celebration of reading for pleasure. Originally designated in 1995 by UNESCO, it is usually celebrated on the 23rd April, following the local custom in Catalonia where roses and books were given to loved ones on St George’s Day. In Britain and Ireland it is usually celebrated in the first week of March and since 1998 has been associated with the donation of free £1 book tokens for children. World Book Day Ltd is a registered charity which encourages schools and libraries to hold events and some of the most innovative events this year are an ‘Extreme Reading’ photo competition being held by a school in Wales where staff and students are hunting for weird and wonderful places to enjoy a book; WBD parades (I wonder just how many will dress up as Harry Potter or the Gruffalo); a competition to design a bookbag; and a ‘Can’t Read Won’t Read’ event to help the struggling reader. All of these events might be relevant topics for the 14th Annual ARPF conference ‘Popular Fictions: Selling Culture’.
WBD is one of a range of initiatives to entice the reluctance reader into the bookshop which have been promoted by the book trade, i.e. reading groups, government strategies such as the ‘Year of Reading’ and literacy charities which enable authors to meet their young readers. The most successful of these has to be The Big Read in 2003. The BBC’s involvement was central for this community outreach programme as it offered high profile television coverage alongside other media platforms, with participation by the general public at external events, such as those still being continued by WBD. The Big Read promoted the message that celebrities and ordinary people were passionate about reading and confident about the pleasures of popular books.
Discussions during that year as the nation debated its favourite books, found that participants regularly commented on disappointing comparisons between childhood and adult reading; they saw adult reading as governed by a literary paradigm that legitimates intellectual pleasure but dismisses the emotional pleasures of childhood experience of books. Research which had informed the government’s 1999 Reading and Literacy Campaign adopted a strategy of jettisoning books and the chore of a book at bedtime in order to motivate parental involvement and support for a far more functional approach to their child’s reading (Broadbent, 2000).
So although WBD focuses on children and very young potential readers, who may enjoy the bounce and rhyme sessions held today at local libraries, the charity is also thinking of the third of people in the UK identified by a 2005 Bookseller survey as never reading books. The research discovered that readers were polarised between being non-readers (34%) and heavy readers who read on average over half an hour a day and bought between 30 to 40 books a year (Dean 2005). So WBD Ltd returns us to the pleasures of reading. The cartoon motifs for the pages of the charity’s website affirm the relationship between reading and consumption, showing a girl eating sweets but not taking her eyes from the comic in her lap. Books are larger than the children who read them, and a boy in a car is surprised by the book he is reading, while one girl reads while flying accompanied by her co-pilot cat. That reminds me: WBD heralds the coming of another important feast day, for Gertrude of Nivelles, the patron saint of cats and catlovers, on March 17th. I hope that you enjoy either or both of these celebrations.
Nickianne Moody, ARPF Convenor, Liverpool John Moores University.
Broadbent, T (2000) ‘Reading and literacy- how advertising mobilised parents to help improve the reading ability of their children’ Advertising Works 11 World Advertising Research Centre, Henley-on-Thames
Dean, J (2005) ‘Readers like us’ The Bookseller, February 11 ‘Expanding the Market Supplement’