Franklin Expedition

October 6, 2009 at 12:23 pm (General Victoriana, Nineteenth-century novel)

I owe Monica (I think it was) an apology. In last week’s Novel class (on David Copperfield) I asked if anybody knew what was especially memorable about the year 1848. Several people offered suggestions, and Monica brought up the Franklin Expedition. I pooh-poohed, but I had my dates wrong: indeed, as you’ll see if you click the link, in that last sentence there, the Franklin Expedition (two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, jointly under the command of a naval veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, Sir John Franklin) set off in 1845 to sail round the north of Canada to the Pacific, and thereby establish a less circuitous and less dangerous route to the lucrative Pacific than going south round South America — which is to say, they were searching for the fabled ‘Northwest Passage’. They were hoping their journey would be like this:

In fact it was like this:


They all died.  By 1848 people were aware that the expedition was lost, but it was still hoped that it, or survivors from it, might still be located. By the mid 1850s, after various search-and-rescue expeditions, it became clear that there were none. Dickens was particularly interested in this expedition. In Autumn 1854 the Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor Dr. John Rae brought back Inuit reports of cannibalism among Franklin’s men; Dickens refused to believe that Englishmen would sink so low, and debated the matter with Rae in the pages of his weekly journal, Household Words. Two years later, he and his friend Wilkie Collins put on a performance of a play based on the expedition, The Frozen Deep.
Collins ‘wrote’ the play, although Dickens’ input was so pronounced (he rewrote stretches of it, adapted it, acted in it) that it is sometimes cited as co-authored by the two of them. At the centre of the play is an act of noble self-sacrifice, out on the arctic wastes, by a character called Wardour; a dry-run for the same device (in a very different environment) in Tale of Two Cities.

Here’s a facsimile of the Times from 1859, reporting the fate of the expedition. And here’s more newspaper coverage, this time from 2008, proof that for some the story is still news.


So, the Franklin Expedition was contemporaneous with 1848 (sorry Monica!) although it’s unlikely it fed into the cultural climate behind Copperfield. What I was actually angling for was the ‘year of revolutions’. [AR]


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Welcome 2009-10 students!

September 23, 2009 at 12:13 pm (Aestheticism, Core Course, General Victoriana, Nineteenth-century novel, Uncategorized)

Welcome to the RHUL Victorian MA blog.

We use this site to post materials and weblinks related to seminar texts and to post notices of interest to RHUL Victorianists, including notices of relevant exhibitions and talks in and around London.

There’s also a facility to post your comments so it’s a great place to follow up on seminar discussions and continue your conversations outside of class.

We look forward to meeting you at the MA Induction, Thurs 24th.

The RHUL Victorian MA team.

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National Gallery study day: the city (London and Paris) in 19thC art

February 24, 2009 at 1:40 pm (Aestheticism, Core Course, General Victoriana, Nineteenth-century novel)

Dear All,

Please see below for notice of an interesting study day at the National Gallery on depictions of the city in 19thC art.


Student Study Day

Thursday 30 April 2009
Sainsbury Wing Theatre, 10.30am–4.15pm
Tickets £6


Concepts of modernity and Modernism inform this study day as we explore the seamy underbelly of these two cities. We will focus on Ideas of town and country, leisure and pleasure, and the inventions and innovations which impacted so dramatically on life and art throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. National Gallery works by Hogarth, Courbet, Monet and Manet will be placed in their social and artistic context drawing on notions of gendered spaces, radical techniques and ‘the gaze’.


10.30–11am Registration and coffee

11–11.15am Introduction to the Day
Colin Wiggins – Head of Education, National Gallery

11.15–11.45am Whores, Colourmen and Coffee Houses: Hogarth’s London and London in Hogarth
James Heard – National Gallery

11.45am–12.15pm Many Little Harmless and Interesting Adventures…’ Men, Women and Streets in Victorian London
Lynda Nead – Birkbeck

12.15–1.15pm Talks in the Gallery

1.15-2.15pm Lunch (not provided)

2.15pm–2.45pm Two Women on the Banks of the Seine: Courbet and ‘The Gaze’
Jo Rhymer – National Gallery

2.45–3.15pm Manet and Morisot: Modern Life and Modernism in Late C19th Paris
Kathleen Adler – Independent Scholar

3.15-3.45pm Degas’ Little Ballet Dancer Aged 1 Desire, Contempt and the Fate of the Rat Girl
Colin Wiggins

3.45-4.15pm Questions/Plenary discussion

To book

For further information Tel 020 7747 2891 Email
Lee Riley, Education Department, The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN.
For institution group bookings, contact Lee Riley to arrange invoicing.

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Dr Margaret Reynolds lectures on George Eliot

January 14, 2009 at 11:59 am (General Victoriana, Nineteenth-century novel)

To all Victorian MA students: you are all invited to the Dabis Lecture by Dr Margaret Reynolds, Broadcaster and academic at Queen Mary, University of London:

‘George Eliot and the Classics’

Thursday 5 February

Windsor Building Auditorium, 6pm

2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Adam Bede, the first novel by George Eliot, who studied at Bedford College. This lecture addresses the inspiration which she found in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, especially Greek tragedy.

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Chesterton on Scott and Dickens

December 6, 2008 at 3:26 pm (General Victoriana, Nineteenth-century novel)

My favourite passage from Chesterton’s (still) excellent 1906 monograph on Dickens is quoted, and very briefly discussed, here. [AR]

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Adam Bede

November 11, 2008 at 11:47 am (Nineteenth-century novel) ()

Gearing up for the Adam Bede class on Thursday, I thought I’d direct your attention to the Valve reading group on George Eliot’s novel convened by Rohan Maitzen earlier this year.  It’s finished now (though there’s nothing to stop you adding to the debate in the comments boxes), but it remains posted:

June 16: Chapters I-V

June 23: Chapters VI-XI

July 1: Chapters XII-XVI

July 8: Chapters XVII-XXI

July 15: Chapters XXII-XXVI

July 22: Chapters XXVII-XXXV

July 29: Chapters XXXVI-XLVIII

August 5: The Whole Novel

August 11: Conclusions

It’s a very detailed series of reactions to the work by a number of different readers, some of them academic and some of them not, and I think you’ll find it not only very interesting, but conceivably useful as far as reading this novel, Eliot more generally or Victorian Fiction as a whole. [AR]

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Rigaud and Louis Napoleon

October 29, 2008 at 10:00 am (Nineteenth-century novel) (, )

This will be my last post on Little Dorrit for a bit, I think (I must say I enjoyed the first episode of the BBC version last Sunday). But before I leave the topic: I mentioned in last week’s seminar that I’ve been doing a little work on representations of Napoleon III in the 1850s-70s.  Who he?  Napoleon Bonaparte‘s nephew, that’s who; an individual who took advantage of the political turmoil following the 1848 revolution to seize power in France by coup-d’état in 1851. He promised to restore ‘the family, the church and social order’, and a national plebiscite seemed to endorse his position (the name ‘Napoleon’ was politically a very useful one in France) and he ruled until 1870; but many were outraged by the violence of his rise to power.

Karl Marx wrote his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) about him, seeing the 1851 coup as a sympton of class struggle, and characterising it famously with the assertion: “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The tragic history of Napoleon Bonaparte was now being farcically aped by Napoleon III. Victor Hugo, perhaps the greatest French poet of the century, was particularly outraged by the way Louis Napoleon used the army to quell unrest in Paris, shooting and killing civilian men, women and children. He went into voluntary exile on the channel islands, vowing not to return to France until Napoleon III was dead or deposed (a vow he kept). He also wrote the first of his great epic masterpieces, a poem called Les Châtiments (1853) — the title means ‘The Chastisements’ or ‘The Punishments’. It’s an extraordinary piece, an immense satiric-epic of sustained vitriolic denunciation of Napoleon III and (presciently, I think) what Hugo considered he stood for: tyranny, military dictatorship, corruption, demagoguery, the scapegoating of vulnerable groups, propaganda. All lamentably familiar from dictatorships in the twentieth-century, of course; but I’d say Hugo was ahead of his time in identifying it as the political malaise of his age.

As I mentioned (I think) in the seminar, one of the things I’ve been doing — after being boggled to discover that Les Châtiments has never been fully translated into English — has been posting English versions of the poem in an on-going blog called Translating Hugo. Check it out, if you’re interested. I’m about a third of the way through, and hope to finish by next summer.

What has all this to do with Dickens? Well, because Napoleon III is buzzing around my head, I tend to see him everywhere; and there’s something very Napoleon-III-esque, I think, about Dickens’s descriptions of Rigaud:

His eyes, too close together, were not so nobly set in his head as those of the king of beasts are in his, and they were sharp rather than bright—pointed weapons with little surface to betray them. They had no depth or change; they glittered, and they opened and shut. So far, and waiving their use to himself, a clockmaker could have made a better pair. He had a hook nose, handsome after its kind, but too high between the eyes by probably just as much as his eyes were too near to one another. For the rest, he was large and tall in frame, had thin lips, where his thick moustache showed them at all, and a quantity of dry hair, of no definable colour, in its shaggy state, but shot with red. The hand with which he held the grating (seamed all over the back with ugly scratches newly healed), was unusually small and plump; would have been unusually white but for the prison grime. [LD I:i]

Here’s what the famously, and fastidiously, aristocratic mass-murderer (or, if you prefer, Saviour of Family, Church and Society) Louis Napoleon — a man who had spent a stretch of the 1840s in the prison of Ham, after an earlier coup attempt — looked like:

Contemporaries did comment on how narrow and close together Napoleon III’s eyes were (Hugo calls him ‘l’homme aux yeux étroits’). Here’s an official portrait, in all his bling:

Resemblance? What do you reckon? How does Rigaud describe himself (when going under the name Lagnier) in chapter 11? “I am sensitive and brave, and it is my character to govern.” Sinister fellow.

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BBC Little Dorrit Adaptation

October 25, 2008 at 4:07 pm (Nineteenth-century novel, Uncategorized) ()

The Andrew Davies version of Little Dorrit starts tomorrow (Sunday 26th October); it’ll be interesting to see how they do it. There’s boy-man Matthew Macfadyen, above, in the Arthur Clenham role (a little too young, maybe?): and L.D. herself is being played by Claire Foy, about whom I know nothing. Have a look at the whole Radio Times cast picture gallery, if you like: not a bad set of actors, although I’d say Anton Lesser is wrong for Merdle (who is described in the book more like a charisma-free blonder Boris Johnson); and I feel a bit sorry for Ruth Jones, whose audition must have gone something like: ‘yes, we need someone who used to be attractive when she was much younger, but now she’s all blowsy and ugly and absurd … hey, you’d be perfect!’ Perhaps acting is not the profession to go into if your feelings are easily hurt.

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Bleak Dorrit

October 16, 2008 at 4:05 pm (Nineteenth-century novel) ()

This morning’s nineteenth-century novel class was on Bleak House Little Dorrit, and we covered some interesting ground: prisons, fathers and daughters, financial speculation, France (or foreignness) and the different sorts of houses in the book. We picked up from Hannah’s sense of anticlimax about the ending to explore ways in which the book is precisely about anticlimax, disappointment and falling away.

One niggle of mine (we talked about this) is that I ended up in effect suggesting an anachronistic reading of the text, by talking about it as if it were actually a Modernist novel published, by a freak of timetravel, fifty years early. Certainly the passages we looked at in more detail (the final paragraphs, and ‘The Evening of a Long Day’ chapter in which Merdle selects the tortoiseshell penknife with which to kill himself) do have a wonderfully desolated, downbeat tone, and use a sort of expressively fractured aesthetic of blankness, repetition and a flattened affect, to achieve their effects. That’s not entirely characteristic of the mid-Victorian novel.  Tom talked about how he thought of Kafka when he read the Circumlocution Office sections; I suggested that Merdle’s reply to Fanny’s banal questions, viz:

‘Oh! I am very well,’ replied Mr Merdle, after deliberating about it. ‘I am as well as I usually am. I am well enough. I am as well as I want to be.’ [Book II: chapter 24]

Put me in mind of Samuel Beckett; and the discussion of the deliberate hollowing out of interiority in the novels’ characterisation (the reification of external mannerisms and tics of speech into the whole sum of character in, for instance, Mr F.’s Aunt; the way Merdle doesn’t seem actually to exist inside his over-large coat), and in the larger sense Dickens’ critique of a society all facade and sham with nothing behind it, might make us think of this:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.

(‘Between the desire and the spasm’ Eliot wrote ‘falls the shadow’: there’s lots of thematic play with light and with shadow in Little Dorrit …) There may of course be a danger of misrepresenting the novel by doing this; although I do think there’s a lot going on in Dorrit in terms precisely of trying to apprehend the alienation and objectification of subjectivity of modern urban life, something that also haunted a good deal of Modernism.  On the other hand Dorrit is also pretty much hilarious pretty much all the way through, where ‘The Hollow Men’ isn’t.

A couple of suggestions for further reading. If you’re interested in the trope of the financial bubble and bankruptcy in the novel, a good study is Barabara Weiss’s The Hell of the English: Bankruptcy and the English Novel (1986), which usefully is available for a ‘limited’ but actually fairly full viewing here on google books. Good on ‘detachment’ is Chapter Two of Amanda Anderson’s The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment (2001): you can start reading that here. It’s hard, but rewarding.

Next week:  Little House.  That doesn’t sound so desolate, now, does it?  [AR]

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October 10, 2008 at 7:34 am (Nineteenth-century novel) ()

People don’t seem, yet, to have gotten into the habit of commenting on this blog. It’s just a question of getting over your initial reticence. Now’s your chance; this is a post that specifically requests your comments. Don’t be shy!

So: yesterday’s Nineteenth-century novel class on David Copperfield and the ‘Autobiographical Fragment‘ (reprinted by Forster in his posthumous Life of Dickens) threw up some contentious readings of the novel. I’ll run through one of the areas of our discussion, and you–whether you’re taking this particular option or not–can click on ‘comments’ to contribute your ha’pennorth to the debate.

We talked about various things linking Dickens’s autobiographical fragment and his fictionalised version of the same material in David Copperfield, including food, externalisation, his mother and other stuff. But we also discussed the MOOR EEFFOC:

The coffee shops to which I most resorted were, one in Maiden Lane; one in a court (non-existent now) close to Hungerford Market; and one in St Martin’s Lane, of which I only recollect that it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an oval glass plate with ‘COFFEE ROOM’ painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood. [Forster, Life of Dickens, I:ii, ‘Hard Experiences in Boyhood 1822-4‘]

We talked about the ‘principle of inversion’ that Dickens often uses in converting life to art; the life of CD becoming the life of DC; pleasant helpful young Bob Fagin from the Blacking Factory becoming the evil elderly Fagin in Oliver Twist, the great number of children who are compelled to act as adults in Dickens’s novels, and the equally large number of adults who, in various ways, are nothing more than superannuated children. Then we talked about the way some women, like Betsey Trotwood, act as men, and the way some male characters–David himself, say–are feminised (Betsey acting out upon him her fantasy of having a girl child by renaming him, for instance). This is where the group became less minded to follow my suggested reading: which is to say, a queer reading of the novel as, in a buried, secret way, being the love story of David and Steerforth, or perhaps even more counter-intuitively the love of David and Uriah Heep: the weirdly unsettling and strangely (repulsively) sensual quality of Heep— that wriggle he has. We discussed the not-so-buried violence against women that sees the major female characters in the novel either killed-off or packed away to Australia. I tried to link this in with a reading of the notions of ‘secrecy’ and ‘shame’ in the novel, specifically the hyperbolic rather unaccountable shame that CD felt about the blacking factory incident and that prompted him to keep it secret throughout his life from everybody except Forster. Why was he so ashamed? Was it a (social, class-based) shame? Or was it a more complicated, buried or repressed guilt? If so, of what? What is it, precisely, that sends the ‘shock’ through the blood of the adult man? I then, tentatively, floated the idea that Moor-eeffoc, in addition to being a rebus of reversal and inversion, connects in CD’s punning method with a repressed homosexual yearning for ‘more he-fuck’. The group as a whole was, shall we say, unconvinced of this reading. Does it go too far? Is there a buried narrative in which eros and thanatos are intertwined running through the novel? Or does it import a post-Freudian, 21st-century perspective to read the novel in these terms? What do you think?  [AR]

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