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The latest issue of JVC (24.3) is now available

2019 November 23
by Elly McCausland

The Journal of Victorian Culture is pleased to announce its most recent issue (24.3), featuring a special Roundtable, “Born in 1819”, and a Digital Forum on Digital Literacy, both of which are free access on our Oxford University Press Website.

In this first of a two-part Roundtable, editors Trev Broughton and Helen Kingstone have gathered essays on the cohort of Victorian cultural figures born in 1819. They and their contributors use this occasion to think about the idea of generation across the social scale from Queen Victoria to Chartist poet Ernest Jones. The second part of this discussion will be published in JVC 24:4.

For our Digital Forum, editors Christopher Donaldson and Zoe Alker have collected essays on the cutting edge of Digital Literacy reflecting on the digital humanities, teaching digital literacy as well as social justice issues.

Additionally, the issue features free-standing articles:  Stephen Ridgwell’s “Lurcherland: Poachers, Dogs and Animal Presence in English Life and Culture c. 1831-1901” (complemented by Alison Skipper’s review of The Victorian Creation of the Pedigree Dog by Michael Worboys, Julie-Marie Strange and Neil Pemberton) and Leo Hall and Simon Grennan’s “Literary Flaneuses: Observation, Commentary, Enterprise and Courage in Late-Nineteenth-Century Women’s Professional Lives.”

Happy reading!

Just Like Us: Victoria, Albert and the middle-class family

2019 December 10

Part 2: Taking position – ‘the look’

David Tomkins is a curator and project manager at the Bodleian Library, including on the ‘Queen Victoria’s Journals‘ project, which reproduces high-resolution, colour images of every page of the surviving volumes of Queen Victoria’s journals, from her first diary entry in 1832 to shortly before her death in 1901. In this, the first of a series of four articles, ‘Just Like Us’, David explores how Victoria’s journals showcase her would-be-middle-class identity.

The Christmas tree engraving was not untypical of depictions of the royal family in the mid-nineteenth century, a period which had in recent decades witnessed a vast expansion in the publication and distribution of popular newspapers and periodicals as a result of technical innovations in printing, distribution and communications. [1] In an analysis of Victoria’s representation in the illustrated press, Virginia McKendry argues that images of the Queen in the Illustrated London News in the first decades of her reign

focused not on the charisma of royalty but instead upon her “ordinariness”, that is, upon her femininity… The reinvigoration of the monarchy depended absolutely on a royal “ordinariness” with which members of the middle classes could identify, and the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign yielded many such opportunities for constructing the ruling dynasty of England as a virtuous family almost indistinguishable from the “respectable” families of England. [2]

Expanding on this theme, McKendry explains how this publication ‘portrayed the monarchy in a way that blurred class lines by presenting the Royals as both “ordinary” family members and dynastic symbols of nationhood… The appeal to domesticity meant that readers from varied strata and regions of English society could identify with and find common ground in images of the monarch.’ [3]

Not only did such representations appeal to middle-class sensibilities, boosting Victoria’s popular acceptance by reinforcing her image as both sovereign and as wife and mother, but they also reflected a role for Albert who, by dint of marrying a Queen, had suffered occasional crises of emasculation. Writing to Prince von Löwenstein in May 1840, he conceded that ‘the difficulty in filling my place with the proper dignity is, that I am only the husband, and not the master in the house’. [4] The complexities of Albert’s role as the monarch’s husband are well documented, from initial frustration at his exclusion from royal responsibilities – ‘For the first few months of their marriage she would allow him no part whatsoever in state business’[5] – to an increasing share in administrative duty and courtly influence. This was occasioned in part by Melbourne’s replacement as Prime Minister in 1841 by Sir Robert Peel, with whom Albert shared a greater degree of trust and mutual respect. [6] It was then continued by Victoria’s regular pregnancies, this despite having recorded in her journal only two months before her wedding ‘“Why, the measure of married happiness is to have a great number of children,” said Lord M[elbourne], which I’m sure I shall never think; that is the only thing I dread.’ [7]  These pregnancies, and their subsequent periods of confinement for the Queen, afforded Albert periodic windows of opportunity for an enhanced role in court politics.

Meanwhile, as the royal couple transitioned to royal family, they made a conscious decision that

Albert would have the authority and rights of a traditional paterfamilias. Hence it was he, not Victoria, who (after some early arguments) was the dominant voice in determining how the children were educated and brought up, who oversaw the modernization of the royal household [… ] and who romped in the nursery with his children. [8]

Indeed, in a mid-1840s mechanical print, sub-titled ‘The Queen and Prince Albert at home’,[9] in which the ornate doors to the Queen’s private apartments can be pulled aside to reveal the intimate scene inside, it is a garlanded Albert who is on all-fours being pulled this way and that by the children, while Victoria carefully balances the youngest on his back.

This role of paterfamilias in the household was to be accompanied by a gradual increase in Albert’s social presence over the next decade, yet even his  prolific achievements in the public sphere eschewed ostentatious self-aggrandizement, instead retaining something of a symbolically domestic appeal. Albert’s grand project for the new decade was the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Held in London’s Hyde Park and officially opened by Victoria on 1st May 1851, the event was intended to reflect Albert’s desire that ‘the exhibitions were [also] designed to benefit the national good. This was to be achieved by motivating the expression of pride in national products and characteristics, and through offering inclusive new forms of social experience that employed techniques of entertainment and delight that would appeal, in particular, to the middle and working classes’. [10] Victoria was to visit numerous times and appears to have been enthralled by the objects on display, recording in her journal on 7th May that

After our breakfast, we went with our guests, Vicky, Vivi, &c — to the Exhibition remaining there nearly 2 hours… full of magnificent embroideries, stuffs, metal work, &c… We were quite dazzled by the most splendid shawls & tissues… & lastly through a collection of furniture, lamps, ornaments of the most novel & tasteful kind, from Birmingham. [11]

The illustrated press was by no means the only visual medium by which the royal family dynamic was envisioned and Albert’s status emphasized. Having agreed in 1903 to act as joint editor with Lord Esher of Victoria’s letters,[12] Arthur Benson was given an impromptu tour of King Edward VII’s private rooms by his collaborator, noting ‘a ludicrous Landseer where Prince Albert sits in a drawing room in shooting clothes, with the ribbon of the Garter and a table covered with hares, ducks and kingfishers. It is high day, but the Queen stands beside him dressed for dinner.’ [13] The picture is titled ‘Windsor Castle in modern times’ [14] and was painted over a period of several years soon after Victoria and Albert’s marriage, allowing Landseer to add in the figure of the couple’s first child, Victoria, to complete the family scene. [15] In his analysis of domestic royal portraiture,[16] Simon Schama uses Landseer’s painting as the starting point for his contention that such imagery was not a mid-nineteenth-century innovation, but rather a culmination of domestic themes in depictions of royalty over several centuries, whereby ‘it came to be important that the institution [of monarchy] should be seen to be the family of families, at once dynastic and domestic, remote and accessible, magical and mundane.’ [17] Interrogating the picture itself, he argues that ‘the sharply drawn distinctions between manly sports and womanly delicacy (signified by the posy held in the Queen’s hand), and the hunting and house dogs are those of the Victorian marriage, not the Victorian crown. For in Landseer’s view of the Green Drawing Room, it is the standing wife-queen who attends on the seated husband-prince.’ [18] As the royal family grew, group portraits such as Winterhalter’s ‘The Royal Family in 1846’ [19] would continue to accentuate the conventional roles within the nineteenth-century family unit, with the seated figure of Albert acting as the picture’s fulcrum, flanked by his family while Victoria places a maternal arm around her eldest son.

In more contemporary media, the royal couple often eschewed ceremony and ostentation in favour of familiarity and a degree of intimacy. A photograph by John Mayall depicts the royal couple at ease, a seated Victoria gazing up at Albert who stands reading to her. [20] On 26 May 1857, Victoria records in her diary ‘Were occupied for 2 hours being all photographed, (we & the 9 Children) on the Terrace, by Caldesi. Dear Mama was also to have been done with us, but unfortunately she was not quite well & could not leave her room.’ [21] The society photographer Leonida Caldesi had been brought to Osborne to take a series of photographs of the royal children, and ‘The Royal Family on the terrace at Osborne’ [22] presents a grouping with Albert, standing but relaxed, in the centre; Victoria seated in front and slightly to his left, holding a swaddled Princess Beatrice (who would have been barely six weeks old); and the other eight children serried on either side.  None of the photograph’s subjects are staring at the camera; instead they look at one another.

And it would not only have been in paintings (or, more likely, reproductions of paintings), photographs, or the pages of illustrated periodicals that Victoria and Albert’s contemporaries would have encountered depictions of a prosaic domesticity not so very far removed from their own. Advances in mechanical reproduction generated a printing boom in the mid-nineteenth century, and the Victorian public was thus exposed to a more sophisticated and far more pervasive array of transitory imagery than their forebears had experienced. The power of printed ephemera ‘lay in the fact that they were frequently encountered in the quotidian experience of people of every age and of all classes’ [23] and, because such material was often produced as a means of attracting the customer in the commercial marketplace, imagery which depicted popular or aspirational themes was commonplace – royalty being one such.

Many ephemeral images would reflect the pomp and circumstance of royalty, emphasizing the ceremonial and the majestic, but others would focus on the domestic. In the course of their everyday lives, Victoria’s contemporaries might therefore be exposed to material such as a lithograph print of ‘The Royal Mother’, in which the Queen reposes in an embrace with three of her children; a puzzle picture in which cardboard trees in Windsor Great Park can be drawn aside to reveal ‘The Royal Children with their favourite dog’,  with the proud parents watching approvingly from the terrace beyond; or product placement in advertisements associating royalty, and especially Victoria, with just about any item available for sale on the High Street, from ‘My Queen Vel-Vel’ dress material to ‘Atkinson & Barker’s Royal Infants Preservative’ multi-purpose medicine. [24]

In paintings (or, more likely, reproductions of paintings), photographs, the pages of illustrated periodicals, and in all manner of printed ephemera, Victoria and Albert’s contemporaries would have encountered depictions of a prosaic domesticity akin to – if idealized versions of  – that of  many another middle-class family in the mid-nineteenth century.

Notes & references

[1] See John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First Media Monarch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] Virginia McKendry, ‘The “Illustrated London News” and the Invention of Tradition’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 27.1, (1994), pp. 7-8 <> [accessed 19 June 2018].

[3] Ibid, p. 5.

[4] Theodore Martin, The Life of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort, vol. 1 (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1875), p. 71. <> [accessed 3 August 2018].

[5] Cecil Woodham-Smith, Queen Victoria: Her Life and Times: Volume I, 1819-1861 (London: Book Club Associates, 1973), p. 251.

[6] VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) Queen Victoria and her Prime Ministers, by Lawrence Goldman (Essay) <> [accessed 7 June 2018].

[7] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 11 December 1839 (Lord Esher’s typescripts) <> [accessed 2 August 2018].

[8] VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) Queen Victoria – The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, by H.C.G. Matthew and K.D. Reynolds (Essay) <> [accessed 25 October 2018].

[9] To the Queen’s private apartments (London: Thomas Dean & Co., [1843-1847?]), Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera: Puzzle Pictures folder 3 (26), in The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera <> <> [accessed 20 July 2018].

[10] Kylie Message and Ewan Johnston, ‘The World within the City: The Great Exhibition, Race, Class and Social Reform’, in Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851, ed. by Jeffrey A. Auerbach and Peter H. Hoffenberg (London: Routledge, 2016), p27.

[11] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 7 May 1851 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) <> [accessed 28 September 2018].

[12] Arthur Christopher Benson and Percy Lubbock, The Diary of Arthur Christopher Benson, 4th edn. (London: Hutchinson & Co., Ltd, 1931), p. 69, <> [accessed 7 August 2018]. See also The Letters of Queen Victoria: a selection from Her Majesty’s correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, ed. by Arthur Christopher Benson and Viscount Esher (London: John Murray, 1908).

[13] Yvonne M. Ward, Censoring Queen Victoria: how two gentlemen edited a queen and created an icon (London: Oneworld, 2014), p. 73.

[14] Sir Edwin Landseer (1803-73), Windsor Castle in modern times (1841-43) (RCIN 406903), in Leah Kharibian, Passionate patrons: Victoria & Albert and the arts (London: Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd., 2010), pp. 74-75, and at <> Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018 [accessed 1 August 2018].

[15] Leah Kharibian, Passionate patrons: Victoria & Albert and the arts. (London: Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd., 2010), p. 74.

[16] Simon Schama, ‘The Domestication of Majesty: Royal Family Portraiture, 1500-1850’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 17.1, (1986), pp. 155-183, <> or <> [accessed 19 April 2018].

[17] Ibid., p. 183.

[18] Ibid., p. 157.

[19] Franz Xavier Winterhalter (1805-1873), The Royal Family in 1846 (1846) (RCIN 405413), in Leah Kharibian, Passionate patrons: Victoria & Albert and the arts (London: Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd., 2010), p46, and at <> Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018 [accessed 26 October 2018].

[20] John Jabez Edwin Mayall (1813-1901), Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the Prince Consort (1860) (RCIN 2907744) <> Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018 [accessed 26 October 2018].

[21] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 26 May 1857 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) <> [accessed 26 October 2018].

[22] Leonida Caldesi (1822-1891), The Royal Family on the terrace at Osborne (26 May 1857) (RCIN 2900098) <> Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018 [accessed 26 October 2018].

[23] Ashley Jackson and David Tomkins, ‘Ephemera and the British Empire’, in Exhibiting the Empire: cultures of display and the British Empire, ed. by John M. MacKenzie and John McAleer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), p. 142.

[24] The Royal Mother (London: Alfred Carlile, [1843-1846?]), Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera: Trade in Prints and Scraps 2 (43), in The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera <> <> [accessed 20 July 2018]; A peep at Windsor terrace (London: Thomas Dean & Co., [1843-1847?]), Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera: Puzzle Pictures folder 3 (27), in The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera <> <> [accessed 20 July 2018]; ‘My Queen’ Vel-Vel (London: Felstead & Hunt, [Dec. 17, 1887]), Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera: Women’s Clothes and Millinery 3 (7), in The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera <> <> [accessed 20 July 2018]; Atkinson & Barker’s Royal Infant Preservative (Manchester: R. Barker & Son, [1860-1870?]), Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera: Patent Medicines 1 (25), in The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera <> <> [accessed 20 July 2018].

Just Like Us: Victoria, Albert and the middle-class family

2019 December 3
by Elly McCausland

Part 1: Christmas past and present


David Tomkins is a curator and project manager at the Bodleian Library, including on the ‘Queen Victoria’s Journals‘ project, which reproduces high-resolution, colour images of every page of the surviving volumes of Queen Victoria’s journals, from her first diary entry in 1832 to shortly before her death in 1901. In this, the first of a series of four articles, ‘Just Like Us’, David explores how Victoria’s journals showcase her would-be-middle-class identity.

They say no Sovereign was more loved than I am (I am bold enough to say), and that, from our happy domestic home—which gives such a good example’ [1]

Queen Victoria, letter to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, 29 October 1844

During more than two decades of marriage, Victoria and Albert were to cultivate a family persona which in many ways reflected that of the mid-nineteenth-century middle class, combining the Queen’s state and ceremonial duties with a family construct that would be familiar to many of her subjects. By establishing themselves as the archetype for the nineteenth-century family – she as sovereign but also as wife and mother, and he as head of the household – the royal couple would appeal to, and identify with, a social class which recent electoral reform had endowed with political influence through increased enfranchisement. [2] Reference to primary sources such as Victoria’s extensive journals, helps to clarify and elucidate the means by which Victoria and Albert positioned themselves in the public consciousness, both through the way they were represented in various forms of visual media and in the domestic spaces they chose to inhabit. [3]

Discussion of Victoria and Albert’s domestic life as reflecting middle-class normalcy in the nineteenth century might well begin with the celebration of Christmas, a season which to the present day retains strong traditional associations with the Victorian era. Bedecking houses and churches with ‘Holm, Ivie, Bays, and whatsoever the Season of the Year afforded to be Green’ at Christmas was a tradition in England dating at least from Tudor times, when John Stow described the custom in his Survey of London, but it was to take another two centuries before the decoration of actual trees was introduced, and a further half-century or so before it became the norm. [4] Queen Charlotte is generally credited with importing from northern Germany the tradition of tree decoration as a festive focal point for the royal household in the early nineteenth century, where its place seems to have been secure during Queen Victoria’s early years. [5] In the first year of writing her journal, her entry for Christmas Eve 1832 records ‘two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the tree. I had one table for myself and the Conroy family had the other together.’ [6] At this time, few other thirteen-year-olds across the country would have enjoyed such an experience, the practice remaining largely confined to the upper echelons of society. Yet by the time Victoria reports the same event eighteen years later, this time both as a wife and mother and as Queen (and therefore at Windsor rather than Kensington) – ‘At a little after 6 we all assembled & my beloved Albert [fi]rst took me to my tree & table, covered by such numberless gifts, really too much, too magnificent’ – the custom had become considerably more widespread, at least amongst the country’s middle class. [7] This was largely thanks to the royal couple themselves, and to Albert in particular.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the narrative that it was Albert who instituted the decorating of trees as a customary Christmas convention seems to have been firmly established. Writing in the Illustrated London News in 1958, William J. Forbes asserted that

‘… there is no doubt that the custom became popular only when Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree to Windsor in 1841… Emulating the enthusiasm of the Royal family, people of all classes quickly adopted the tree which Dickens, for all his zeal for Christmas, scorned as “the new German toy”’, and that the ‘bright, sparkling tree which gave the Royal family so much joy had conquered Britain.’ [8]

The centrepiece of Forbes’ article was a reproduction of an engraving by J.L. Williams that had appeared in the same periodical a century before, depicting the royal family gathered around an ornately decorated tree. The stylized informality of the grouping does not give centre stage to the sovereign, however; rather it is Albert who seems to take precedence, standing tall to the right of the tree, half-turned toward the viewer and glancing benignly down at his children, while Victoria stands in profile to the left, almost as if in attendance, sharing pictorial space with the children’s governess. The scene firmly suggests that it is Albert who is head of the family, a dynamic that would be familiar to the journal’s largely middle-class readership, and especially to those of similar age bringing up young families of their own. Indeed, such imagery was to play an important part in the way the royal couple positioned themselves in the nation’s collective consciousness as being ‘just like us’.

Notes & references:

[1] Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria in her Letters and Journals (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000), p. 73.

[2] <> [accessed 25 October 2018].  See also Dror Wahrman, ‘”Middle-Class” Domesticity Goes Public: Gender, Class, and Politics from Queen Caroline to Queen Victoria.’, Journal of British Studies, 32.4, (1993), pp. 396–432, <> [accessed 25 October 2018] for discussion of how the concept of the ‘middle class’ might be construed pre- and post-1832.

[3] <> [accessed 26 October 2018].

[4] Strype, Survey of London (1720), [online] (hriOnline, Sheffield). Book 1, Chapter 29: Ancient Customs for Trade and Merchandise, page 252, paragraph 15, <> [accessed 29 June 2018]. A frequency visualisation shows that the term “Christmas tree” rarely appears in British Library Newspapers [online] until the mid-nineteenth century but rises dramatically thereafter, reaching its peak in 1881 when it appeared in 648 documents. <> [accessed 25 October 2018]

[5] ‘Christmas tree’, Wikipedia (17 July 2018) <> [accessed 31 July 2018].

[6] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 24 December 1832 (Queen Victoria’s handwriting) <> [accessed 21 June 2018].

[7] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 24 December 1850 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) <> [accessed 21 June 2018]. See also the watercolour by James Roberts (ca. 1800-1867), The Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle (1850) (RCIN 919812), in Pam Clark (et al), Treasures from The Royal Archives (London: Royal Collection Trust, 2014), p. 228, and at <> Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018 [accessed 1 August 2018].

[8] William J. Forbes, ‘The Story of Christmas Trees.’, Illustrated London News, 14 November 1958, p. 9, in The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, <> [accessed 30 May 2018].


Shannon Draucker, The Man Who Invented Christmas: Dickens and the Literary Marketplace

2017 December 18

Shannon Draucker is a PhD Candidate in English at Boston University.  Her dissertation project, Sounding Bodies: Music and Physiology in Victorian Narrative, explores literary responses to emerging scientific understandings of the physics and physiology of sound during the Victorian period.  Her project shows how new discoveries of the embodied nature of music and sound inform scenes in which authors grant their characters desires, pleasures, identities, and relationships otherwise unavailable to them.  At Boston University, she teaches English and Writing courses and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

“Does anybody really celebrate Christmas anymore?” asks Charles Dickens’s publisher in Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas. This festive film not only recounts the origin story of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), but how Dickens “invented” Christmas itself – or at least the Christmas traditions with which we are now familiar but that the Victorians did not necessarily practice as regularly. In the film, Dickens (Dan Stevens), reeling after three “flops” (Martin Chuzzlewit, Barnaby Rudge, and American Notes), overhears his Irish housemaid tell his children a supernatural Christmas tale and begins to develop his own “Christmas ghost story.”  In creating A Christmas Carol, the film suggests, Dickens ushered in, as he proclaims in the closing scene, the “season of hope in which we will shut out nothing, and everyone will be welcome.”

Yet, The Man Who Invented Christmas represents a powerful meditation on the act of writing itself.  In doing so, Nalluri’s film continues the tradition of “writer movies” like Little Women, Miss Potter, The Help, Midnight in Paris, and others – and rehearses all of the typical trappings of the genre: the writer’s ink-stained fingers, the scribbling quill’s scratches on the page (or, in later iterations, the typewriter’s click and hum), the hair-pulling moments of creative frustration, and the satisfying grin of the writer as he or she triumphantly scribbles “The End” across the final page.

The Man Who Invented Christmas contains all of these romanticized – some might say idealized – tropes, and more. The film opens in New York City in 1842, as Dickens rides the fame of his Oliver Twist success on his American tour.  Minutes later, however, we shift to October 1843, as Dickens – “three flops later” – struggles to devise a new novel.  Despite his early aggravations – exacerbated by commercial pressures (a house remodel, his wife’s pregnancy) – Dickens soon gathers inspiration and insight – moments often signaled by heavy-handed close-ups of Stevens’s beaming face.  He meets his inspiration for the miserly, Malthusian Scrooge after a lecture benefitting the Children’s Refuge, where a man insists that “pickpockets” and “charity-boys” – members of the “surplus population” – “don’t belong in books.”  That same night, Dickens comes across a businessman’s burial, where he first hears the “humbug!” that ignites his imagination of Scrooge’s signature phrase and precipitates a comic scene in which Dickens runs home, shouting “Humbug!  Humbug!” before locking himself into his office and beginning to scribble away.

n these moments, the film produces the fantasy that “realism,” indeed, derives from a one-to-one correspondence between life and art; the characters, places, and dialogue Dickens invents are versions of people and things he encounters in real life. These moments heighten the charm of the film, as viewers delight in recognizing details from A Christmas Carol as well as elements of Dickens’s later fiction; we learn that Dickens keeps the names “Heep” and “Magwitch” (David Copperfield, Great Expectations) tucked away in his notebook of names for future use, and in a climactic closing scene, we meet a friendly constable named “Copperfield,” whom Dickens would transform into his bildungsroman hero only a few years later.

At times, though, the film produces a refreshingly un-romanticized portrayal of the creative process. We hear Dickens’s exasperated sighs and grunts when his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) knocks at his door and disrupts his “flow.”  We witness Dickens’s procrastination habits, as he does lunges across his office, plays with his accordion, and fiddles with objects on his desk.  In such instances, the film creates a sensitive, if amusing, portrayal of the creative process – with all its interruptions, distractions, and fragmented thoughts – that any writer will recognize.

The film’s refusal to glamorize the writer’s life is most evident, perhaps, in its treatment of the literary marketplace. Unlike many narratives about writers, which either romanticize the “starving artist” or idealize the bohemian who pursues “art for art’s sake,” The Man Who Invented Christmas does not shy away from exposing the commercial pressures that hovered over Dickens’s life.  We learn of Dickens’s impatience with his father’s continued spendthrift habits, as well as the darker trauma of his father’s arrest for debt when Dickens was a child – an event that in the film occurs in the middle of Christmas dinner.  Dickens’s enduring resentment of his father culminates in a scene in which he orders him to leave London and return to Devon, though, of course, the Christmas spirit ultimately leads Dickens to forgive his father and welcome him back to his home.

We observe Dickens’s vexed negotiations with the pressures of the Victorian literary marketplace; he asks a solicitor for a pricey loan, negotiates for an advance from the publishers Chapman and Hall (Ian McNeice and David McSavage), and endures the “condolences” of William Thackeray (Miles Jupp) for Martin Chuzzlewit’s marketplace failure.  At times, Dickens appears as money-driven as Scrooge – a smart, if a bit on-the-nose, parallel; he scolds his wife for burning a new candle and decides to walk rather than pay for a ride (“being a gentleman is expensive”).  In several instances, Dickens even demands the labour of others; he begs the illustrator John Leech (Simon Callow) to produce the drawings for Carol in four weeks and pressures the printer to produce the last chapter, even though he has submitted the manuscript past the deadline.

For the most part, though, the film seems rather sympathetic towards Dickens’s entanglements with the literary marketplace – and at times even suggests that economic pressure is a necessary, and perhaps even fruitful, condition for literary production. Early in the novel, after a vexed meeting with Chapman and Hall, who are skeptical of the possibility of a Christmas release, John Forster (Justin Edwards) – who sometimes appears as simply a bumbling sidekick, but elsewhere emerges as a crucial collaborator – reassures Dickens, “You like a deadline!”  Such practical, commercial concerns often serve as the impetuses for Dickens’s creative output. Later, an advertisement for Dickens’s Christmas book in the window of Hatchard’s Bookshop induces Dickens to find the inspiration for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Caption: Dickens collaborates with Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas (Image: Bleecker Street)

Caption: Dickens collaborates with Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas (Image: Bleecker Street)

In some scenes, it is even Scrooge himself (Christopher Plummer) who urges Dickens to write. Appearing to Dickens as a vision throughout the film, Scrooge serves as a kind of creative muse and motivator, who presses Dickens to sit down and write and offers him feedback on his plot and prose.  In one scene, Scrooge complains to Dickens, “My character doesn’t get to tell his side of things” – a statement that spurs Dickens to consider having Scrooge-the-character reform.  Later, Dickens tells Scrooge, “Scrooge, you and I are going to do wonderful things together!”  As a result, when Scrooge asks Dickens, “You’re the author, aren’t you?,” the audience must take this question seriously, as the film has so insistently highlighted the production of A Christmas Carol as a collaborative effort between the two men.

The film is at its best in such moments, when it self-consciously toggles back and forth between depictions of literary genius and evocations of the realities of the marketplace. The Man Who Invented Christmas showcases the tensions between creativity and economics. It demonstrates the ways in which the two were (sometimes productively) enmeshed.  For Dickens, it was not just the hair-pulling moments of creative work and the “lightbulb” moments of inspiration and insight, but also the external pressures of the literary marketplace and the stimulation of his economically-minded acquaintances, that propelled him to create A Christmas Carol.

The end of the film leaves viewers with satisfying amounts of holiday cheer. In the penultimate scene, Dickens and his happy family (certainly a fiction for the silver screen) gather in front of the “Tannenbaum” (Prince Albert’s contribution from Germany) and toast the success of A Christmas Carol.  The group reads from Thackeray’s glowing review of the novel, though the part they quote, which deems the novel “a happy inspiration of the heart that warms every page,” was actually written by Thomas Hood, not Thackeray (and was not released until January 1844). Dickens and his family feast under their new chandelier, which, we can assume, they can now comfortably afford due to the novel’s success. Forster’s triumphant entrance with his brand-new fiancé heightens the scene’s sense of domestic bliss.

Caption: Dickens and his characters eye an advertisement for his new Christmas book in the Hatchard’s Bookshop window (Image: Bleecker Street)

Caption: Dickens and his characters eye an advertisement for his new Christmas book in the Hatchard’s Bookshop window (Image: Bleecker Street)

And yet, the film doesn’t quite leave us there. After the merry hearth scene, the camera pans out to depict a London street, on which scores of people have lined up in front of Hatchard’s Bookshop (which is apparently open on Christmas?), ostensibly waiting to purchase A Christmas Carol.  This concluding sequence – as we move from the family home to the business-lined street – encapsulates the film’s constant negotiation between creativity and commerce, art and profit, private and public.  Even as a closing caption reminds us that “overnight, charitable giving soared” upon the publication of A Christmas Carol, we are still left with an image of the consumer marketplace and a reminder of Dickens’s economic success. The Man Who Invented Christmas thus refuses to ignore the uncomfortable intersection between Christmas and commercialism in which Dickens participated – nay, perhaps even “invented.”

Claire O’Callaghan, ‘Charlotte Brontë’s Bicentenary: Revelling in Brontëmania’

2017 November 16
by lucinda matthews-jones

Claire O’Callaghan is a Lecturer in English at Brunel University, London. She has research interests in Victorian and neo-Victorian literature and culture, the Brontës, gender and sexual theory and history. She is the author of Sarah Waters: Gender and Sexual Politics (Bloomsbury, 2017), and is currently writing a book on Emily Brontë for Saraband Press to be released in 2018. You can follow Claire on Twitter @drclaireocall and/or email her at

How should we celebrate the important anniversary of an iconic writer, ponders Tracey Chevalier in an article in The Guardian newspaper in 2016?[1] ‘Apart from the usual TV drama-docs, the radio programmes, the plays, the biographies and novels, the exhibitions’, she notes, we celebrate ‘with quilts’ and ‘with knitting’.[2] And once you’ve got your knitting in order, ‘throw in some tiny books, a tea party and a quiet wreath-laying at Westminster Abbey’ and hey presto, you’ve got yourself a national literary celebration.[3] In 2017, it seems apt to reflect on the assorted activities that culminated to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most praised authors, Charlotte Brontë.

2016 was the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth and marked the inauguration of Brontë200, a five-year programme led by the Brontë Society to commemorate the two hundredth anniversaries of the famous Yorkshire siblings (2017 is Branwell’s year, 2018 is Emily’s, and 2020 will be Anne’s). Charlotte would, I think, be both honoured and humbled by the occasion. After all, though she was shy, she was fiercely ambitious, famously writing to the Poet Laurette, Robert Southey, for feedback on her poetry, and persevering despite Southey’s fierce rebuff. In this post I wish to reflect briefly on a handful of events from the Charlotte’s bicentenary and offer some observations on their significance to Victorian cultural heritage and neo-Victorianism’s place within it.


Chevalier is well-placed to reflect on what constitutes an appropriate literary celebration. As the creative curator behind Charlotte’s anniversary, she worked with the Brontë Society to find new and exciting ways to mark the occasion, ‘trying hard’, as she put it, ‘to ignore the anniversaries that surround and threaten to engulf’ Charlotte’s birth.4 The digital has played a central part in these activities, with Twitter providing a powerful means for enthusiasts across the globe to participate. On 12th July, for instance, Chevalier led a #BrontëTwitterTour of the Parsonage, a virtual peek into Charlotte Great and Small, an exhibition she curated. Items covered in the tour included images of Charlotte’s tiny gloves, her fur lined (rabbit) shoes (which show the imprint of Charlotte’s heel), and the most popular tweet of the evening, a photo of Charlotte’s tiny bodice.

Likewise, #JaneandMe asked people to take a selfie with a copy of Jane Eyre and post it on Twitter using the designated hashtag. As Chevalier notes, it was a ‘little idea’ but one that ‘took off and even trended on Twitter for a few hours’.[5] Using the digital in this way meant that in her role, Chevalier could sit back as the tour unfolded and engage with participants instead. Such offer a different experience to traditional heritage practice. Here, artefacts are not only collected and displayed statically, but rendered digitally in order to elicit responses from observers who are interacting live with other viewers as well as the curator.6 Moreover, as Chevalier notes, there is something ‘wonderful’ about ‘people getting out their dog-eared copies ofJane Eyre to photograph themselves with’ it.[7] This isn’t just fan studies in practice, but a shift towards cultural heritage as narratives, ‘practices [and] representations’ of the subject with which the audience can participate.[8]


Charlotte’s bicentenary was also celebrated through other non-traditional interpretations. The West Yorkshire Playhouse, for instance, ran a neo-Victorian production of Villette re-imagined (ah, that much-used word in neo-Victorian studies) by Linda Marshall-Griffiths. This was not Villette ‘as we know it’ (as one review put it), for the adaptation (if indeed it can be called that) was set in the future on an archaeological dig in which the characters searched for the Lady of Villette.[9] Apparently, this Villette wasn’t necessarily ‘one for the Brontë devotees’, a comment which implies limitations to the heritage practice associated with certain Victorian figures such as the Brontës and neo-Victorian participation in it.

A different though nonetheless unorthodox celebration also took place in December 2015 just prior to the anniversary year, when the residents of Haworth were cordially invited to the wedding of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nichols.[10] What, I hear you say? A wedding? Yes. On Friday 11th December 2015, residents and Brontë enthusiasts congregated in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels church to experience the re-enactment of Charlotte’s wedding, a ceremony created by the BBC for a documentary in the bicentenary year. Compared to the fun of #JaneandMe, such an event may appear contrite to many, and one may ask if this Brontëmania gone too far. But who gets to determine the answer to this? Whatever your view, such an occasion demonstrates how the cultural appetite for the Brontës remains undiminished – unsatisfied, even, but it also invites question about the limits to such endeavor? What are the parameters of Victorian cultural heritage? Where does the Victorian meet the neo-Victorian in this quest? And who determines the cultural value of these ‘artefacts’?

For me, these questions came to the fore in my visit to the two London exhibitions that ran as part of the bicentenary activities. Celebrating Charlotte Brontë 1816-1855 was held at the National Portrait Gallery from late February to mid-August and offered a chance to view original works of Brontë heritage, such as ‘The Pillar Portrait’ painted by Branwell. Meanwhile, Charlotte Brontë at the Soane curated by the neo-Victorian artist, Charlotte Cory, offered an alternative exhibition that focalized around one of the Charlotte’s dresses; the dress, it was believed that Charlotte was said to have worn to dinner with Thackeray. Like ‘The Pillar Portrait’, Charlotte’s dress was the centerpiece to this exhibition. Eleanor Houghton’s revelation that the dress is not, in fact, the “Thackeray dress” (just a dress of Charlotte’s) may have concerned for the curators.11 But does this new and fascinating discovery diminish one’s encounter with the garment? For me, the answer is no. The very fact that we can view such a personal item of property and marvel at the fact that Charlotte once wore it should please even the hardest Brontë fan.

Indeed, the cultural value of the dress was further underlined by other aspects of the Soane exhibition that drew on contemporary heritage practice, for alongside Charlotte’s dress at the Soane were assorted modern objects, including a toy giraffe. The giraffe stood in for ‘the young George Smith’ who ‘stuck his neck out and published a novel by an unknown writer that took the literary world by storm in 1847’.12 Not only is this object several times removed from the reality of Charlotte Brontë life and merely signifies a real (and very) important figure in her life, but it is a random stuffed toy. From a scholarly perspective, one may ask what place this item has in her bicentenary? Perhaps it offered a light-touch interpretation of Charlotte’s arrival in the offices of Smith Elder & Co on Saturday 8th July 1848. For others, myself included, the item lacked cultural value in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong, the giraffe looked great, but it was a disappointing end to the exhibition because it’s symbolism didn’t capture the significance of what it was said to represent. Perhaps there are limits, then, to Victorian cultural heritage and neo-Victorianism’s participation in commemorative practice? And perhaps significance is determined by a subjective perception of cultural value? Naturally, one might argue that the toy giraffe says no more about Charlotte Brontë than my own participation in #JaneandMe? After all, through the latter I articulated something of my own value and appreciation of this literary masterpiece (maybe that’s just the scholar in me?). But, I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t really what literary celebrations are for.

Author Note: I am very grateful to Tracey Chevalier for taking the time to correspond with me and give me permission to reproduce this image from her Twitter tour.

[1] Tracey Chevalier, ‘Charlotte Brontë: National Treasure for 200 Years’, The Guardian, 10 April 2016, n.p. [Accessed 1 January 2017] 

[2] ibid

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Personal correspondence with Tracey Chevalier, 26 November 2016

[6] Jeff Malpras, ‘Cultural Heritage in the Age of New Media’, New Heritage: New Media and Cultural Heritage, ed. by Yehuda Kalay, Thomas Kvan, Janice Affleck (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 13-27.

[7] Chevalier, personal correspondence

[8] Malpras, ‘Cultural Heritage’, p. 15.

[9] Ron Simpson, ‘Review: Villette’, What’s On Stage, 29 September 2016, n. p. [Accessed 3 January 2016] <>

[10] ibid.

[11] See Eleanor’s full article here:

[12] Sir John Soane’s Museum London, ‘Charlotte Bronte at the Soane’ Guide, 2016, n.p. An image of the said giraffe may be seen here:

Shannon Draucker, ‘The Queen Goes to the Opera’

2017 March 5
by lucinda matthews-jones

Shannon Draucker is a PhD Candidate in English at Boston University.  Her dissertation project, Sounding Bodies: Music and Physiology in Victorian Narrative, explores literary responses to emerging scientific understandings of the physics and physiology of sound during the Victorian period.  Her project shows how new discoveries of the embodied nature of music and sound inform scenes in which authors grant their characters desires, pleasures, identities, and relationships otherwise unavailable to them.  At Boston University, she teaches English and Writing courses and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

In Episode 3 (“Brocket Hall”) of Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria, the Queen (Jenna Coleman) attends a performance of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Covent Garden Opera House.  Though brief, the opera scene provides the context for the convergence of several storylines and characters, including the Duke of Cumberland, Victoria’s uncle who is insistent on marrying her to his nephew George; the Russian Grand Duke, whom we last saw getting a bit handsy with Victoria at her Coronation Ball in Episode One; Uncle Leopold, who is trying to marry Victoria off to Prince Albert; and Lord M, whom Victoria begs to accompany her because she couldn’t “bear a night alone with Uncle Leopold,” though, as she gently teases, she knows he prefers Mozart.

In the opera scene, the camera pans back and forth between the opera diva, who mightily belts Donizetti’s famous “Mad Scene” – a notoriously difficult soprano aria in which the heroine goes insane – and the royals in their boxes, who demonstrate interest in everything but the music, embodying what musicologists have identified as a common phenomenon among nineteenth-century audiences, before rules about proper concert comportment solidified.  As Cormac Newark and others write, Victorian concertgoers were often more interested in the fashions sported by their companions, the presence of celebrities, the prices of the seats and boxes, and the political and romantic machinations occurring around them.[1]  In Victoria, the extra-musical activities of the characters include both the Grand Duke of Russia and Lord M romantically eyeing Victoria, Cumberland’s wife spying on the Queen and her suitors through her opera glass from across the hall, George sulking in the corner of his family’s box (later murmuring,  “As long as I don’t have to stay for the second act”), and Cumberland sighing from boredom at the interminable operatic scene.

Yet, the show soon draws our attention to one notable exception to this behavior.  While those around her sigh, fidget, and glance about, Victoria remains utterly engrossed in the aria.  While viewers are likely at first enchanted by Victoria’s sartorial adornments (sparkling crown, silk dress, white gloves) – clearly meant to display her power and beauty to her subjects – we are soon captivated by her unwavering attention to the performance.  The camera slowly zooms in on her figure as she clutches her program, tears in her eyes, stunned into stillness (she does not even move to applaud).  As the curtain falls, she woefully utters to the Grand Duke, who is seated next to her, “The ‘mad scene’ always makes me cry.”

At first, the opera scene may seem to represent a simple plot device to gather the disparate characters together and to sort out the Queen’s romantic options in a heightened, melodramatic setting.  After all, Victoria’s response to the “Mad Scene” sparks a shared moment between her and the Grand Duke, who claims to also have been deeply moved by the aria, while alienating her from George, who sulkily grunts when she attempts to engage him in a musical discussion.  The opera’s conclusion also brings us to a crucial interaction between Victoria and Albert, who travels to the opera house to bring Victoria’s beloved puppy Dash to her carriage for the ride home.

However, I suggest that the actual opera scene itself is important not only to the unfolding of the plot, but also to our understanding of Victoria’s character.  This episode offers a moment in which viewers see Victoria depart from the insecure, at times childish, teen queen she appears in other moments.  In this scene, Victoria emerges as a woman who not only appreciates high culture, but also experiences deeply affective responses to art.

A brief examination of Queen Victoria’s biography reveals that there is some historical truth to this representation.[2]  Early on in her reign, she wrote in her journal, “I must say I prefer Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, etc., to anything else.”[3]  Particularly during the first few decades of her reign, the Queen frequently visited theatres such as the Drury Lane Theatre and Her Majesty’s Theatre.  According to Marina Warner, Victoria and Albert attended every performance of the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s 1847 London tour.[4]  Victoria’s notebooks and journals contain watercolors and sketches of opera singers or scenes from specific performances; she even gathered her drawings together and bound them in albums titled Souvenirs de l’Opéra, 1834-6.[5]  Though her theatre-going dwindled as time went on, upon her death, musical periodicals expounded at length about the Queen’s enduring love of music and theatre.[6]  The Musical Times recalled how “the Queen’s face blazed with approbation” whenever she heard a quality performance.[7]


Caption: Frances Elizabeth Wynne, from “Scraps ancient and modern,” July 1857. Source: The National Library of Wales. <>

Though brief, then, the opera scene in “Victoria” reminds viewers of a rich but infrequently discussed part of the Queen’s history – and leads us to imagine that perhaps her opera-going resulted not solely from a sense of public duty, but rather from a genuine passion for music.  While critics have identified Goodwin’s portrayal of Victoria as merely playful and entertaining – The Telegraph notes that “it would be asking too much for this series to delve deep into young Victoria’s psychology” – the opera scene in “Brocket Hall,” at least for a moment, delves deeper; it sets Victoria apart from those around her and highlights her willingness to give herself up to the emotional sensations that art can produce.[8]  Thus, while both Victorian and contemporary critics have deemed nineteenth-century England the “land without music” – and have questioned the extent of the Queen’s own high cultural affiliations –  “Victoria” gives us a glimpse into the life of a monarch for whom the arts represented a crucial part of her emotional life.

[1] Cormac Newark, “Not Listening in Paris: Critical and Fictional Lapses of Attention at the Opera.” Phyllis Weliver and Katharine Ellis, eds. Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2013. 35-53.

[2] Scholars such as George Rowell, Michael Booth, and Richard Schoch have long studied Victoria’s relationship to the arts.  Some critics associate the Queen with a marked distaste for opera and philistine attitudes towards “serious art” that many believed plagued Victorian England, which in 1914, German critic Oscar Schmitz famously deemed “Das Land Ohne Musik” (“the land without music”).  Schoch, for example, quotes the actor Charles Kean, who in 1855 allegedly exclaimed to Queen Victoria’s dresser Mary Anne Skerret, “The Queen […] likes farce and rubbish better than the high class drama!”  Qtd. in Richard Schoch, Queen Victoria and the Theatre of her Age (London: Palgrave, 2004), p. xiii.  Schoch writes, “Far from limiting herself to Shakespearean tragedy and grand opera – the kind of stuffy ‘high culture’ now associated with royalty – Victoria shamelessly delighted in gory melodramas, historical romances, pantomimes, farces, and even circus acts.”  Schoch, p. xiii.  Others, however, including Rowell, Booth, and Marina Warner, emphasize the Queen’s affinity for opera.

[3] Qtd. in Marina Warner, “Queen Victoria as an Artist: From Her Sketchbooks in the Royal Collection,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 128:5287 (June 1980), 412-36 (p. 423).

[4] Warner, p. 424.

[5] Warner, p. 423. Readers can view these drawings at the Royal Collection Trust’s website: <>

[6] Indeed, some, such as Schoch, have suggested that it was Albert’s death in 1861 that prevented Victoria from going out in public to cultural events.  Schoch, p. xvi.

[7] “Queen Victoria and Music,” The Musical Times 42 (1901), 374-75 (p. 375).

[8] Jane Ridley, “The young Victoria most certainly did not fancy her fat, ageing prime minister,” The Telegraph (28 August 2016). <> [accessed 9 February 2017]

Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Tennyson the European’

2017 February 27
by lucinda matthews-jones

Ann Kennedy Smith is a panel tutor at Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education. Her monograph Painted Poetry: Colour in Baudelaire’s Art Criticism was published by Peter Lang in 2011, and since then she has researched and written on Tennyson’s French reception. She is currently researching Cambridge’s university wives 1870-1914, and is a contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Her Twitter handle is @akennedysmith.



Figure 1 Alfred Tennyson, 1869, portrait by Julia Cameron

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) is often considered the most British of poets. In a recent article for The Guardian, Philip Inman claimed that Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was included on the new English GCSE syllabus to teach British schoolchildren about patriotism. Why else would Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education, and one of ‘Vote Leave’s architects in 2016, have chosen it?



Figure 2 The Charge of the Light Brigade and other poems, Dover Thrift Editions, 2000

But it would be wrong to see Tennyson as the Brexit poet par excellence. Since its inception in 2002, the ‘Reception of British and Irish Authors in Europe’ series, edited by Elinor Shaffer and published by Bloomsbury Academic, has considered how authors have been published, translated, read, reviewed, distributed and discussed on the continent of Europe. I must declare an interest, having contributed the chapter on Tennyson’s French reception to the newly published The Reception of Alfred Tennyson in Europe edited by Leonee Ormond. But it wasn’t until I had read the other chapters (on Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal) that I understood how Tennyson’s poems had an impact across Europe and, crucially, how the ways in which his poetry is read is still changing today.



Figure 3 Thomas Philips’ portrait of Lord Byron, 1813

When Tennyson’s first collections of poetry were published, in 1830, 1832 and 1842, it is fair to say that they did not make much of an impact on the continent. The main problem, as far as most European readers were concerned, was that Tennyson was not Lord Byron. Byron was seen as a deeply heroic figure, especially after his early death in 1824 in the struggle for Greek independence. His Childe Harold and Don Juan, with their clear language and heroic subjects, had struck a lasting chord with European readers and were widely translated and read. Tennyson, on the other hand, seemed tame by comparison. His youthful journey to the Pyrenees with Arthur Hallam to bring supplies to Spanish republicans was little known in his lifetime, and his poems from the expedition did not express his political views. What was worse, much of his poetry seemed obscure, difficult to understand and even harder to translate.


Figure 4 Illustration for ‘Godiva’ by William Holman Hunt, from the Moxon Tennyson 1857.

The earlier works which did attract interest were the shorter poems which had clear social messages. ‘Godiva’, with its account of the aristocratic woman riding naked through the streets of Coventry in order to persuade her husband not to increase the citizens’ taxes, was translated into German in 1846, French in 1847, Russian in 1859 and Bulgarian in 1892. ‘Lady Clara Vere de Vere’ tells the story of another, very different aristocratic woman who encourages, then rejects a poor young man who commits suicide. It was translated into French prose in the year it was published (1842), into French verse in 1859 and there were several Russian translations from 1864. In 1909 a play based on the poem was performed in Madrid, but its Spanish writer chose to change the ending to make Lady Clara see the error of her ways. Another socially aware poem, ‘Dora’, with its depiction of a modern heroine who embodied Victorian ideals of femininity, was translated into French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish between 1850 and 1890. ‘Locksley Hall’, which also deals with the social disparity between two lovers, was widely translated in Western Europe. In France, the critics Joseph Milsand and Louis Étienne maintained that this poem was equal to or surpassed ‘the best of Byron’ in its depiction of passion. But after translating long extracts from ‘Locksley Hall’ and ‘The Princess’, even Milsand (later the close friend and champion of Robert Browning) admitted that certain aspects of Tennyson’s verse might never be understood in French translation.


Figure 5 Winterhalter’s portrait of Queen Victoria,1859.

Tennyson himself was seen by Europeans as an enigma. After Queen Victoria appointed him poet laureate in 1850, he seemed an even more remote figure, and as Leonee Ormond puts it, ‘If writers were perceived as natural rebels, accepting a royal appointment was tantamount to a sell-out’ (1). One French writer joked in 1855 that ‘a Poet Laureate lives in court and is fed on wine from the Canary Islands’ (2) Other journalists and writers who visited England reported on the strange-looking poet who hid himself and his family away from public view, appearing only on rare occasions. It was known that Queen Victoria was a great admirer of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s 1850 elegy on the death of his friend Arthur Hallam and now acknowledged by many as his masterpiece, but the poem was received with little enthusiasm in many parts of nineteenth-century Europe. German critics of the 1850s found it tedious, and Hippolyte Taine, in his influential History of English Literature of 1863-4, considered it ‘cold, monotonous, and too prettily arranged’ (3), a view echoed by the first Greek commentator on Tennyson, G.M. Vizyenos, in 1891. However, Italian critics of the 1880s and 1890s defended the poem, praising its beauty and humanity, and there were more positive responses further east, in Bulgaria and Russia. Maud (1855) went largely unnoticed and the first four books of Tennyson’s Arthurian cycle of poems, The Idylls of the King, published in 1859, were regarded in some quarters as nationalistic, in others as further evidence that Tennyson was a women’s poet. They became more popular after 1867, due mainly to the international Hachette editions with Gustave Doré’s beautiful illustrations, which, many felt, almost bypassed the need for Tennyson’s poetry.



Figure 6 Gustave Doré, ‘The Body of Elaine on Its Way to King Arthur’s Palace’, 1867

In one case this is exactly what happened. José Zorilla, the poet who had been commissioned to translate the Idylls into Spanish, instead replaced Tennyson’s words with his own verse history, Los Ecos de las Montañas (The Echoes of the Mountains), rearranging Doré’s illustrations to fit his own narrative. (4) However, high production costs meant that the international Idylls were expensive, and only a relatively small number were ever sold, contributing to the eventual collapse of Tennyson’s publisher Moxon, as Jim Cheshire has shown. (5)



Figure 7 ‘Enoch Arden etc’ Tauchnitz frontispiece 1864

Everything changed after the publication of Enoch Arden in 1864. Twenty-first century readers might be surprised to learn that this, more than any other poem, did most to introduce Tennyson to European readers. It tells the story of a fisherman who spends ten years shipwrecked on a desert island. After being rescued by a passing ship, he returns home to find that his wife, assuming him to be dead, has remarried and begun a new family. Enoch decides not to reveal his identity to his wife and children, and dies impoverished and alone. An instant best-seller in Britain, it was the first of Tennyson’s poems to achieve similar levels of fame throughout Europe, aided by its simultaneous publication by Tauchnitz, the Leipzig- based publisher. The cheapness of the European edition meant that thousands of copies of the Tauchnitz Tennyson’s complete works were smuggled into Britain, leading to fewer royalties for Tennyson and added problems for Moxon.

Enoch Arden was translated into German in 1867, into French in 1868, and in 1872 it appeared as the first modern Greek translation of a complete Tennyson poem. A Bulgarian version was published in 1884, and a Russian one in 1888. Émile Zola’s novella Jacques Damour, first published in Russian in 1880, humorously reworked the story in his topical tale of a French Communard who returns to Paris after ten years’ exile thanks to a government amnesty, and tries to reclaim his wife who is notably unwilling to take him back. Zola always denied the connection, insisting that he had never read a line Tennyson, but when a dramatic version was performed on the London stage it was condemned as a ‘disgusting Enoch Arden’. (7) Bilingual translations of Enoch Arden remained an English set text in French secondary schools until 1947, which may not have made Tennyson any more loved by generations of French schoolchildren, but certainly made him a household name.

So, would Tennyson have been a Brexiteer? Probably, even though he taught himself German, Italian and French to read Goethe, Dante and Victor Hugo in their original language. But even if he could be described, then and now, as a very British poet, Europe came to love Tennyson, and continues to re-evaluate his work. In 1987 In Memoriam was included on the syllabus of the English agrégation, the prestigious competitive exam designed to select secondary school teachers in France, and a new French translation by Claude Dandréa was published in 2008. In 2011, Francisque Michel’s French translation of the first four Idylls of the King, complete with Doré’s accompanying illustrations, were reissued for the first time since 1869, this time as an inexpensive paperback.

The composer Richard Strauss’s 1897 setting of Enoch Arden as a melodrama for narrator and piano continues to be popular in many different languages throughout Europe; in 2012 Bourlos’s Greek translation was performed at the International Classical Music festival at the Cyclades on Syros.


Finally, considering its current popularity, including the placing of the last line ‘To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’ at the entrance to the London Olympic stadium in 2012, it is perhaps surprising that Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ of 1842 did not receive more attention from nineteenth-century readers. Today, however, it is the most translated and anthologized of Tennyson’s poems throughout Europe, providing proof, if proof were needed, that readers change over time and the ways in which poetry is read, distributed and translated change along with them. When it comes to literature, there are no borders, and now, more than ever, it is worth re-considering Tennyson’s poetry, not from a narrow nationalist perspective, but from the wider European point of view.


(1) Ormond, Leonee, (ed.) The Reception of Alfred Tennyson in Europe (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), p. 8.

(2) Kennedy Smith, Ann, ‘Tennyson seen from there: Enoch Arden’s French reception’ in Tennyson Research Bulletin (2014), 10.3: pp. 251–65, p. 251.

(3) Taine, H. A. History of English Literature, 2 vols ((Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1871), p. 526.

(4) Ormond, Reception, pp. 126-7.

(5) Cheshire, Jim, ‘The Fall of the House of Moxon: James Bertrand Payne and the illustrated Idylls of the King’ in Victorian Poetry, (2012) 50.1: pp. 67–90.

(6) Kennedy Smith, ‘Tennyson seen from there’, pp. 261-2.


Roisín Laing, ‘Victorian Childhood Beyond the Canon’

2017 February 22
by lucinda matthews-jones

Roisín Laing recently completed her PhD with the English Studies department at Durham University. She will be a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sydney during 2017.

This post accompanies Roisín Laing’s article ‘Candid Lying and Precocious Storytelling in Victorian Literature and Psychology’. Published here.


Virginia M. Prall, ‘Frances Hodgson Burnett, full-length portrait, seated, reading at a table’, photograph, c. 1908, Library of Congress Prints and Online Photographs Catalog <> [accessed 5 January 2017

In my recently published Journal of Victorian Culture article, I argue that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) responds to Victorian fears about the child liar. Burnett’s precocious protagonist, Sara Crewe, suggests that childhood lies are no worse than adult lies, and, perhaps just as radically, that lying is not inherently immoral. In this respect, Burnett’s novel—which was written for children—differs from contemporary child psychology, and from more canonical fiction of the Victorian period. This raises some broad questions about the range and type of evidence Victorianists might draw on in studies of nineteenth-century childhood.

The first and most obvious question raised by my analysis of Burnett’s A Little Princess is how other works of so-called ‘children’s literature’ responded to ideas about childhood being developed in other discourses in the Victorian period.

Those influential practitioners of Child Study discussed in my article did not focus exclusively on children’s lies. They were also interested in an attribute that is particularly associated with childhood, even today: the imagination. Children were (and still are) thought to have particularly active imaginations. For Victorian psychologists, this was the reason for many disorders specific to childhood, even though it was also a source of Romanticised ideas about children.[1]  

  1. Nesbit was more influential even than Burnett as an author for children, particularly because of her innovative use of a child-narrator—the unforgettable Oswald Bastable—in her three-part Treasure Seekers series (1899-1904). Oswald’s version of imaginative play makes a clear and entertaining contrast with the version offered in contemporary psychology. His account of the Bastables’ imaginative games ridicules both the Romanticised imagination, and the pathologized imagination, which emerge in contemporary psychology.

More significantly, however, in the Treasure Seekers series, the imagination is a primary characteristic not of a child, but of a competent reader: any reader who enjoys the series identifies with the imaginative child who narrates it. Consequently, the Treasure Seekers series not only undermines the nineteenth-century association between the imagination and mental pathology, but also challenges that related, and more enduring, association between the imagination and childhood.

Nesbit, like Burnett, evidently responded critically and inventively to contemporary ideas about childhood when writing literature for children. Both authors also wrote autobiographies of their own childhoods. This points to a second question raised by a study of the role of children’s literature in Victorian ideas about childhood: how did the authors of children’s literature contribute to these ideas when writing about themselves? Autobiographical work by Burnett or Nesbit might be productively compared with contemporary psychology, to examine how far the children of autobiography, like the children of fiction, contradict scientific discourse.[2]

Child psychology of the Victorian period often affirmed the teleology of individual growth. A teleological model seems also to inform Burnett’s and Nesbit’s autobiographies. In these texts, as in Child Study, the remembered child affirms the meaning of the adult self. Thus, Burnett’s autobiography, The One I Knew the Best of All (1893) ends with an account of her first publication. This account of ‘A Memory of the Mind of a Child’ ends when the child ‘crossed the delicate, impalpable dividing line’ between childhood self and adult self, between child and author. After the first publication, ‘Life itself began, and memories of her lose the meaning which attaches itself to the memories of the Mind of a Child’.[3] The child is presented as a story which ends in the adult author.

Comparably, Nesbit’s autobiographical essays for the Girl’s Own Paper (1896-1897) end by affirming the adult self, and differentiating that self from the remembered child. Most directly, these essays affirm the difference between the child and the writing adult by their context. Terri Doughty suggests that the Girl’s Own Paper ‘increasingly [featured] information on new educational and professional opportunities for women’.[4] Nesbit was therefore writing explicitly as a successful and well-known professional author when she contributed her recollections of the childhood which preceded this adult.

Through their fictional precocious children, Sara Crewe and Oswald Bastable, Burnett and Nesbit contest adult ideas about childhood through their precocious storytelling. When writing about the remembered children of autobiography, by contrast, neither author seems to present such an energetic challenge to the idea of childhood progress, and adult end, which is evident in so much scientific and canonical literary discourse of the period.

One final question is raised in any discussion of Victorian ‘children’s literature’. Although the genre is almost always understood as literature for children, it could be taken to refer to literature by children instead. Neither literature for children nor autobiography of childhood experience have received sufficient attention in studies of Victorian childhood, but literature by children has been neglected almost entirely. Victorian interest in children inevitably extended to works produced by children themselves. These works are an essential but, as yet, ignored part of the picture of childhood in the Victorian period.


Bain News Service, ‘Daisy Ashford’, photograph, n.d., Library of Congress Prints and Online Photographs Catalog <> [accessed 5 January 2017].

The diaries of Marjory Fleming and the fiction of Daisy Ashford (pictured here as an adult) are two highly entertaining examples of such work. The works of both authors significantly complicate current understandings of Victorian childhood. The editorial practices with which these works have been treated, and the adult-authored commentary about them from the Victorian period to the present day, reveal the tenacity of certain ideas and assumptions about childhood. The works themselves—which are explicit and even, at times, profane, on the very subjects about which an innocent child should know nothing—reveal the extent of the disjunction between those powerful ideas about children, and children themselves.

Ideologies are not genre-specific, so an analysis the ideology of childhood in the Victorian period requires an analysis of a range of the genres in which that ideology was produced. Increasingly, scholars analyse scientific and canonical literary discourses about childhood in dialogue rather than in isolation. However, autobiographical accounts of childhood have not yet been fully integrated into the study of Victorian childhood, while so-called ‘children’s literature’ is still, generally, treated as a separate discourse. The contribution to Victorian ideas about children made by children themselves, meanwhile, has barely been registered.

The study of Victorian childhood has already uncovered much about the Victorian period, and about our own debt to that era. By broadening our textual base to include non-canonical authors and texts, scholars of Victorian childhood might further enrich this productive area of research.


[1] See Sally Shuttleworth, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 60-74. 

[2] See Shuttleworth, ‘Inventing a Discipline: Autobiography and the Science of Child Study in the 1890s’, Comparative Critical Studies, 2/2 (2005), 143-63, for a comparison of psychology with Burnett’s and other autobiography of the period.

[3]The One I Knew the Best of All: A Memory of the Mind of a Child (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1893), p. 325.

[4]‘Introduction’, in Selections from The Girl’s Own Paper, 1880-1907, ed. by Terri Doughty (Plymouth: Broadview Reprint Edition, 2004), pp. 7-14 (p.7).

Bain News Service, ‘Daisy Ashford’, photograph, n.d., Library of Congress Prints and Online Photographs Catalog <> [accessed 5 January 2017].

Martin Willis, ‘Are we sure we want evolutionary psychologists telling us what Victorian novels mean?’

2017 February 13

Martin Willis is Professor of English Literature at Cardiff University, Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science, Editor of the Journal of Literature and Science and head of the Cardiff University ScienceHumanities research team.

 I noted with interest, and some dismay that the Journal of Victorian Culture was drawing attention, via Twitter, to the Guardian’s old article on evolutionary psychology and the Victorian novel that described, without criticism, the work of Joseph Carroll and his fellow literary Darwinists.[1] Heartened by responses that pushed back against the “likes” for this work I immediately realised that Twitter was not adequate to say why this kind of literary criticism (I hesitate even to give it this name) is both reactionary and dangerous.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example from the Guardian report. The evolutionary psychologists, we are told, understand the data from the small number of readers who responded to questions about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to show that Heathcliff has both good and bad traits and that this illuminates the complexity inherent in recognising and selecting altruistic genes. Might they be missing something here? Indeed, might they be missing almost everything interesting about both Heathcliff and Brontë’s readers? Heathcliff, as we know from the many valuable critical interventions on the novel from leading literary critics, is representative of the diverse social and cultural interactions of the early Victorian period. Heathcliff enables generative studies (and understandings) of slavery, of the Irish Question, of race and class in Victorian Britain, of the stigma of cultural difference, and the social constraining of sexual and gendered self-expression.[2] We also know, from the excellent work of experts in the periodical literature of the period, of the first responses to the novel in journals and newspapers. We know, for example, that G. H. Lewes was struck less by Heathcliff’s badness and more by the depiction of transgressive sexuality in his relationship with Cathy.[3] We might also acknowledge that this response was likely to have emerged from Lewes’s own experience of different forms and structures of romantic love. This excess of knowledge – so valuable in placing Wuthering Heights in its own context and considering it in our own – is reduced entirely to the selection of genes in the work of evolutionary psychologists, and more worryingly this becomes, for Joseph Carroll, symbolic of the difficulty, but necessity, of maintaining a particular kind of “social order” rather than exploring the possibilities and politics of difference.

It strikes me that seeking to validate a certain form of reactionary status quo, disguised as gene selection that aids progress (another problematic idea), is very much the opposite of what literary studies, and indeed humanities practices across our disciplines, aims to do. Further, to make assumptions about readers (both now and in the Victorian period) is equally problematic: it is simply not possible to accept that multiple readers gained the same knowledge from novels nor that they respond in predictable, and uniform, ways. Not all readers are seeking Joseph Carroll’s conservative social order.


I am far from the first to be critical of the work of literary Darwinists as they attempt to promote their anti-critique, right-leaning scientism in the study of literature. As a Tweet from Stephanie Hershinow noted, James Kramnick has responded robustly to previous work in this area in his excellent article “Against Literary Darwinism”.[4] In my own book, Literature and Science, I noted particularly Kramnick’s assertion that literary Darwinist analysis most often, despite its apparent scientific basis, ends up with “mushier notions of moral cultivation and strikes an ethical note reminiscent of F. R. Leavis.”[5] Also striking is how poor its literary criticism actually is. As both Kramnick and George Levine have noticed, their analysis of Victorian fiction tends to be “tone deaf”.[6] Certainly, I don’t imagine any of us would be giving our undergraduate students lavish praise for suggesting only that Heathcliff was both good and bad.


But there is a greater danger in this kind of work, and in promoting it as a valuable way for literary studies, or perhaps the humanities more widely, to engage with the sciences (something that seems always to be on the agenda in the academy, and always regarded as “a good thing”). At Cardiff University, with my colleagues Keir Waddington and James Castell, I have been leading the ScienceHumanities initiative, a project designed to draw together the different disciplines of the humanities in order to examine the sciences from our perspectives and on our territory, and to ask how it is we do that.[7] There is a real urgency to this. If, as I would argue, literature and other products of the arts that the humanities study (such as painting, music, historical texts, philosophical discourse and legal documents) produce truth filtered through aesthetics, there is no need at all to try to force them into other forms of knowledge that access their truths in different ways. The application of evolutionary psychology to Victorian fiction, as the literary Darwinists apply it, not only denies and attempts to undermine the existing truths that humanities scholars have long sought to uncover and examine but also re-positions these fictions politically in ways that we should want to resist in the strongest terms. Seeing Heathcliff as a marker of genetic characteristics that might help the Victorian woman choose a mate rather than as a child refugee growing up in rural England denudes him of the cultural power that makes him so provocative and interesting now as in 1847. Likewise it reduces our efforts to understand our selves as we exist within society rather than as scientific objects bound to our primitive biology.

It is worth thinking a little on subjects like this before we re-tweet and disseminate this kind of work. If we continue to “like” analysis of this kind we will ultimately be pressing the button on our own diminution and ultimate dissolution as a subject. Valuing the humanities, and the study of the Victorians as a vibrant part of the humanist project, should not be about promoting research that distrusts its findings and mocks its decades of careful knowledge-building. If you see this again on Twitter, use your head and avoid the heart.

[1] “Victorian novels helped us evolve into better people, say psychologists.”

[2] See, for instance, the range of views on Heathcliff surveyed by Peter Miles in his Wuthering Heights: Critics Debate (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990) and Matthew Beaumont’s JVC article “Heathcliff’s Great Hunger: The Cannibal Other in Wuthering Heights.” Journal of Victorian Culture 9.2 (2004), pp.137-63.

[3] See, for example, the range of contemporary responses collected in either of these scholarly editions of the novel: William M. Sale, Jr & Richard J. Dunn (eds), Wuthering Heights (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990); Beth Newman (ed.), Wuthering Heights (Ontario: Broadview, 2007).

[4] James Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism.” Critical Inquiry 37 (2011): 315-47 (pp. 345-6)

[5] Martin Willis, Literature and Science. Reader’s Guides to Essential Criticism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 72.

[6] George Levine, “Review of Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories.” British Society for Literature and Science Reviews. Web.

[7] Cardiff ScienceHumanities:

Kristina Hochwender, ‘Tourism as Pedagogy: Part 2’

2017 January 17

Part 2: ‘Postcard project: Pilgrimage and Pedagogy’

Kristina L. Hochwender is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Evansville, where she also serves as the Director of General Education. Alongside her interest in literature for children, her research centers on the Victorian clerical novel, and particularly the ways in which the clergyman–in the words of Samuel Butler, “a kind of human Sunday”–mediates national and religious identities and crises in novels that captured the Victorian imagination. Some of her work on the clerical novels of Margaret Oliphant can be found on the Victorian Web ( ).

Read Amber Pouliot’s ‘‘Tourism as Pedagogy: Part 1′ for an introduction to the project here.

For many of my students, separated from nineteenth-century English literature by both time and space, Oxford and Wonderland can seem equally dreamlike, Bath as fantastic as Neverland. Most semesters, I rely on the usual ways to bring literature ‘to life’ – lively discussion, journals, investigation into context and criticism, and very occasionally, judicious use of social media.  Students read with attention to structure, character, theme and literary device. They watch (and debate the quality of) film adaptations of their favorite works. But none of it quite prepares them for standing in the places where those works were born.  This is the privilege that Harlaxton affords.

I had the great pleasure of teaching three courses at Harlaxton in the spring of 2016. As I planned my syllabi, I looked for ways to anchor the works we read in a tangible environment. Alongside traditional exams and essays, I wanted a student-centered, experiential assignment that would combine intellectual consideration with reflection, emotional response, and personal choice. Placing the Author’s Postcard Project fitted perfectly.


Students in each class were required to visit a place associated with the semester’s reading, and to create a 1000-word summary and reflection, with a shorter version submitted to the Placing the Author website.  Students also submitted a photograph of themselves at the chosen spot. Each course syllabus identified several possibilities, and students were invited to propose others if they wished to do so. Since Harlaxton encourages exploration by organising both free and reasonably-priced trips to pertinent areas, students were easily able to fulfill the assignment, and many visited multiple sites. The assignment was worth around 10% of the final grade.


Every week saw students travelling, so information about where to go and what train to catch became part of the ‘pre-talk’ for many class periods. Such conversation was informal; if it touched on the readings, it did so lightly. Yet it served to remind us that the works we discussed in class – whether Romantic poets, Austen novels, or Victorian children’s literature – existed beyond the windows of our classroom. As the semester progressed, discovery and reflection continued to enlarge course discussion.

Almost immediately, students felt that they better understood the authors whose works they read. While students sometimes skip the biographical notes in their anthologies, during their Postcard Project, they worked to inhabit the author’s world by walking the same streets, visiting the same places, sitting at the same table. One student opted to walk three miles each way between the rail station at Alton, Hampshire, and Jane Austen’s residence at Chawton. For her, the walk provided a more intimate sense of Austen’s landscape and the pace of her time. A student visiting Grasmere was moved by the beauty of the Lake District: ‘Taking a glance at the surrounding mountains near Dove Cottage’, she wrote, ‘I can imagine Wordsworth using that view as inspiration’. Expressions like these were common. Walking where authors or characters had walked made the connection between intellectual and visual perspectives, between literary setting and physical terrain.

Students also began to consider the authors as people like themselves engaged in the process of writing. Often, students looked for the familiar in authors’ lives. A student at Newstead Abbey, Byron’s ancestral home, was attracted to Byron’s affection for his dog, while the student visiting Percy Shelley’s monument at Oxford was struck by his youth, noting that ‘he was just a few years older than me when he wrote “Ode to the West Wind”’. The same student was ‘inspired…to be more intentional about my own writing’. A student viewing Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein at the Bodleian, took heart from ‘a single page that was crossed over with scratches in revision’. ‘Seeing her imperfections’, the student wrote, ‘reassured me that in the imperfections something great can be created’. In nearly every case, this awakened sense of the author as ‘real’ and ‘like me’ led to a closer attention to the act of writing, both the author’s and the student’s own.

One of the most interesting results of the Postcard Project was the way in which it created dissonance between what the students thought they would see or feel and what they encountered. The student who visited Newstead Abbey because she loved Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’ expected the Abbey to be correspondingly gloomy and was surprised to find a friendly peacock and beautiful grounds. The student who visited Burghley House at the end of the semester felt more prepared for what she saw because she’d read Austen’s novels. At the same time, she called attention to the number of staff needed to run such a large establishment, something Austen’s novels ‘never really talked about’. Students who had spent time with golden summers and October ales in Howard Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood visited Sherwood Forest on a cold, gray day, and found the romance severely diminished. Pyle, who never mentions winter, had also never been to Sherwood.

In the end, the Postcard Project served as the kind of high-impact, low-stakes assignment that enriches the classroom and extends beyond it. A minor disadvantage of making the Postcard Project into a formal class assignment is that students may have felt obliged to emphasize the positive and skirt past any dissonance in the written element. Gaps and complexities in student response did emerge in classroom, however, as well as in personal conversation, raising important issues about the texts. Students practiced writing and reflection, invested more deeply in the course texts, and developed a stronger sense of physical and social context. For me as the instructor, the benefit was clear. In end-of-term evaluations, students themselves often identified the Postcard Project as one of the highlights of the semester. It gave them the power, in one student’s words, ‘to paint a picture in person of a literary world’.

You can read the student postcards mentioned here in the Postcard Gallery of the Placing the Author site. The Postcard Project is ongoing and we welcome both contributions and suggestions for bringing the Project to new audiences. Please get in touch at