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This essay argues that “The Lady of Shalott” mirrors a moment in Britain’s age of industrialization when two machines in particular--the steam-press and the power-loom--had transformed ideas about intellectual and physical labor. Taking as a point of departure the poem’s well-documented visual canonization, I contend that non-verbal illustration is also a crucial historical category for understanding how the poem initially came to be. In this context, the many visual interpretations of “The Lady of Shalott” reflect Tennyson’s concerns about writing at a time when an illustrated print media had harnessed new powers of representation and replication.
In his journalism and novels (particularly Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend), Charles Dickens presents London as a writer’s necropolis, a city of disintegrating paper and dead letters, a failed archival space. This essay examines a nexus of images in Dickens’ work – involving dust, Egyptian ruins and mummies, and paper – as revealing characteristic Victorian concerns regarding the changing status of paper and the archive. With reference to developments in papermaking technologies and the beginnings of Egyptian archaeology, I demonstrate some of the ways that nineteenth-century authors were newly troubled by the archival as such. Dickens is particularly haunted by an urban vision of paper as everywhere and everywhere turning into blank, wasting forms. I connect this phenomenon to the British reception of the material legacies of ancient Egypt, particularly the mummified dead. The Victorian era was the great age of paper, as technological developments transformed the industry and multiplied its productivity many times over. Read in the context of these changes, and in relation to Egyptology (that other burgeoning industry of records and remains), the work of Dickens reflects deep anxieties regarding the whelming flood of precariously fragile paper—anxieties that have a center in the necropolitan library.
Because Augusta Webster’s poetry involves explicit cultural critique, particularly in relation to gender ideology, it is important to turn to the textual history of her work in order to understand how these poems functioned within their original historical context. Her 1870 collection of dramatic monologues entitled Portraits foregrounds its own textual situation and the process of interpretation in its organization and material design. Read together as a collection, these poems suggest that discovering and then following a particular life path is a process of discerning, accepting, or choosing among different possibilities. Webster represents these possibilities as competing discourses, some of which are actual or imagined texts, whereas others are the ideological commonplaces of Victorian culture. Each of the speakers in Portraits explores his or her subjectivity through a process of discursive analysis and interpretation, which parallels the reading process that the structure of the volume encourages.
Meredith’s poetics, explicitly articulated and theorized in his poem “The Woods of Westermain,” are diametrically opposed to those of New Criticism. Always conscious of its own incompleteness, Meredith’s poetry calls out its reader as an active co-producer of meaning. For this reason, like Robert Browning’s, Meredith’s work has been haunted by critical accusations of obscurity and incoherence since its earliest publication. This essay argues that Meredith’s poetry dissolves the customary imagined boundaries between poem, text and reader – between perceiving subject and perceived object – in order to produce an expanded sense of consciousness that can broadly be termed “environmental.” Such a poetics, moreover, constitutes an integral part of a broader environmental philosophy running through Meredith’s poetry. This philosophy challenges limited concepts of “text” that often govern scholarship today. In Meredith’s hands, “text” includes not merely the poem on the page but the larger situation within which the poem comes into being – the reading scene, the book of poems, and above all the graphic media (paper, ink, typeface, illustrations, etc) that constitute the poem’s literal environment.
In his own time, Robert Louis Stevenson was admired as a careful technician of language, a stylist to be put in the company of de Quincey or Pater. In our time, he is known primarily as the author of potboiling plot-driven Gothic tales and adventure yarns. Stevenson himself saw no contradiction in pursuing what Lionel Johnson called his “stylistic nicety and exactitude” in fiction aimed at the mass market, but critics both then and now have largely sidestepped the question of how to reconcile these twin allegiances. In this essay I read The Wrecker (1892), arguably the most densely plotted of Stevenson’s novels, as an extended meditation on the historicity of words. The novel continually calls attention to the “refractive” quality of certain keywords around which the story is structured. At the same time, The Wrecker is concerned with the dynamics of narrativity. It is concerned not just with the procedures by which fictional events are translated into intelligible story, but also with the many ways in which narratives are generated through collaboration: between writers and the literary traditions they work in, between writers and words in their historicity, between writers and their readers—real, imagined, and unforeseen.
Although the Modernist repudiation of things Victorian was a perfectly understandable response to postwar trauma, it is one that we still understand imperfectly at best. As the oldest and highest literary vindication to which a culture in postwar crisis could aspire, epic enjoyed an undiminished prestige that attracted some of Modernism’s best energies; but seeing Ulysses or the Cantos for what they are means affiliating them with their recent generic antecedents. A case in point, The Dawn in Britain (1906) anticipated, in its own key as a distinctly Victorian poet’s strange Edwardian epic, several problems and solutions that would engross its successors. For Doughty too meant to purify the dialect of the tribe – no matter what peculiarities of vocabulary and syntax the purge might entail – in the interest of a fearlessly direct episodic rendition of conquest and migration, always embedded within a patriotic plot of Eurasian scope and endowed with deep classical and biblical resonance. Embracing the site-perspectivism of his generation, and evincing a surprising cultural relativism to match, Doughty won among the Modernist generation who were his epic’s most impressionable first readers a following substantial enough to fund ample skepticism, in our time, about those defensive anti-Victorian slogans of theirs.
This essay offers a rationale for the design of Collex, the social software and faceted browsing system that powers NINES, a “networked infrastructure for nineteenth-century electronic scholarship.” It describes how Collex serves as a clearinghouse and collaborative hub for NINES, allowing scholars to search, browse, collect, and annotate digital objects relevant to nineteenth-century studies from a variety of peer-reviewed sources. It also looks forward to the next version of Collex, which will include a sophisticated exhibits builder, through which scholars can “remix” or re-purpose collected objects into annotated bibliographies, course syllabi, illustrated essays, and chronologies – and contribute these resources back into the NINES collective. A detailed guide to using Collex, complete with screenshots, is included. This article frequently links directly into the NINES system (in which, by virtue of its publication in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, it is already included), thereby gesturing at the future of networked, “born-digital” scholarship.