Sunday, October 30, 2011

Exit the Actress (2011)

Exit the Actress, by Priya Parmar (2011), certainly caught my attention as I was walking through the bookstore-that-shall-not-be-named. I rarely find anything worthwhile there, but my hubby loves the history section. Having stayed at the Nell Gwyn house this summer, I instantly picked the book up and took it to the register.

It’s difficult to read a historical fiction text about the time period you love and study intensely. I usually get frustrated by historical missteps and have, once or twice, thrown a book across the room in pure rage. Parmar’s novel, though, captivated me until the end. Perhaps it’s because Parmar is a doctoral student at Edinburgh, or perhaps it’s the fast-paced journal-like format of the novel, or perhaps it’s that she characterized some of my favorite eighteenth-century figures in subtle ways I hadn’t thought of, but still ring true to the research.

The novel is about Nell Gwyn, her rise to fame on the London stage, and her love affair with Charles. It encompasses many historical events and factoids, but they’re all related though Nell’s eyes, which makes them come to life. In sum, I enjoyed it both for the historical reality and the plot. I’m looking forward to her next endeavor!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ennui Overcome

Okay, I’ll admit I’ve been a bit lost since England. With vacations, and weddings, and kids, and, well, life, I lost focus. After a month worth of negative critique (but deserved), rejection of articles (again, deserved), and stagnancy on the dissertation in general, I’ve fallen into a scholarly tail-spin.

Today, I begin refreshed. An amazing friend of mine (and one of my eighteenth-century angels) told me about her mentor’s advice: when you’ve hit a wall, write about it. Focus on the positives and the reasons you love what you’re doing, even if you don’t love it at the moment.

So here goes…

1. I get paid to read books and share my joy with others.

2. On any given Monday, I can log on to ECCO and find titles such as The adventures of Lucifer in London (1799); Adventures under-ground. A letter from a gentleman swallowed up in the late earthquake to a friend on his travels (1750); News from the dead: Or, the Monthly Packet Of True Intelligence from the Other World (1756); A burlesque translation of Homer (1770); and Sighs from hell; or, the groans of a dying soul (1760). Then I can write about them.

3. I love introducing new topics into conversation. I love researching. I love primary sources. I love eighteenth-century legal reforms. I love long, rambling novels. I hate domestic femininity. My dissertation brings all of these things together. (With a little Foucault added in for pizzazz.)

4. I get to do most of my work sitting down.

5. Violence against women still exists. Maybe my work will—in some small way—influence change by discussing the ideological and legal roots of the problem.

The next time you see me moping in the halls, remind me of these things. And I’ll remind you of them too.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

City of Sin

While passing some time in the National Archives (in a break between staring at a computer screen and staring at awful courtroom handwriting), I happened upon Catharine Arnold’s City of Sin: London and Its Vices (2010). Since the second chapter of my dissertation is on sexual violence, I thought Arnold’s book would come in handy, providing me with a general outline of London’s sex scene, and I was right.

City of Sin starts with the Roman invasion and works its way through cybersex of the twenty-first century. Arnold includes many intriguing anecdotes that are worthy of further study. Particularly interesting to me were her discussions of Marlowe’s poetry, the history of individual prostitutes and bawds, why lesbians were not persecuted in Victorian England, and references to the English Collective of Prostitutes (still active in London). I also appreciated how she tracked “deviant” sexuality across the geography of London, showing how the hot-spots moved throughout history.

My main complaint was that certain areas lacked the thick description necessary to prove her points. Obviously, the later chapters have more information (likely due to better record-keeping and access to records). Chapter Two, for example, focuses on the Catholic Church’s link to prostitution during the middle ages. I found this illuminating and would have liked more discussion on this point. At times, her readings of literary texts also lack substance (this is probably my own hobby-horse as an English major, though). Her pairing of Cleland’s Fanny Hill and Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress—and the subsequent conclusions she comes to—needs more development, including discussion of purpose and genre. But, then again, this is a popular history overview, and not an “academic” article.

The only seriously troubling part of the text comes in her final chapter, where Arnold makes some sweeping generalizations about prostitution and women’s rights. She seems to claim that since prostitution has always existed, it should be legalized (or, at the least, not prosecuted) because it’s a business that provides a livelihood for many women who can’t make as much money elsewhere (here she cites modern examples, such as PhD students who strip to pay for grad school). She also shows how attempts to abolish prostitution only hurt prostitutes, as they are driven further and further underground into settings where they can be harmed (she also discusses this in her section on Jack the Ripper, where she argues that his attacks were predicated on the fact that Victorian culture pushed prostitutes out of the view of the public, away from help and surveillance of police).

Obviously, I take issue with this. While I agree that prostitution is a means of survival for many women, we have to question our cultural structure and ask why women can’t survive by other means. Of course, there’s no easy answer to this. But accepting prostitution seems to be a subversive way of empowering women within a flawed system, rather than a progressive shift in the system itself. Or maybe that’s just my radical feminism coming out.

Despite my qualms with its conclusions, City of Sin was an interesting, easy read that provided a great overview of sexuality in London. I learned a lot from Arnold and intend to read her other two studies on London, Necropolis and Bedlam, as soon as I can.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Wherein Samantha Learns about Artists other than Hogarth

I’ve never really understood art. I can look at a picture or sculpture or painting and tell you whether or not I like it, but I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to genres and movements. When you’re in London, though, you learn to sink or swim pretty quickly in the art world. Thanks to Kellye (my art guru), I’ve learned a great deal more and can hopefully apply it to my classes in the future.

It’s really amazing how visual art is in constant conversation with the literary movements that coincide with it. Somehow, I knew that this was true, but never valued exactly how it worked. I’m still a work in progress, but my trip forced me to look at art from a different perspective, and I feel better for it.

Here are some of my favs (some of them I took myself, and others I ganked from the internet, as we weren’t allowed to bring cameras):

This is an “exquisite corpse,” a surrealist game where a paper is folded into thirds. Each person draws on a third, not knowing what the person before him has drawn, other than the edge lines. This one, featuring a creepy Alice was my favorite at the Tate Modern.

Dalou’s Peasant Woman Nursing a Baby (1873) caught my attention straight away. I was confused when I saw it in two different locations in the Victoria and Albert Museum. After reading the plaque (a good idea), I learned that there were actually two of them (and not that they were moving it around…). Dalou constructed the mold and then made different renditions in various mediums: this one is terra cotta, but there are also bronze and plaster ones throughout the world.

When we went into the Impressionism room at the National Gallery, I was confused. I couldn’t figure out what that painting of ugly sunflowers caused such a ruckus. I walked quickly around the room to avoid the throng. Then I turned around. From the other side of the room, the Van Gogh’s illuminated off the wall and seemed almost three dimensional. It looked like the were producing light. I was in awe. I’m glad I had the experience, as the paintings don’t translate into reproductions well. (Here’s A Wheatfield, with Cypresses anyway, my favorite.)

For obvious reasons, the following are some of the 1660-1900 paintings that caught my eye:

Canaletto’s London: Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh (1754). The build-up on this one is exquisite and it almost looks three dimensional.

Reynold’s Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons (1773).

Ingres’s Madame Moitessier (1856). You can’t see a single brush stroke on it. This is, quite possibly, the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen.

Egg’s Past and Present (1858), a triptych.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What I did on my London vacation...

I took a class on Shakespeare's History plays as an undergrad. On the first day of class, Dr. Willis made us place one hand on our Bevington and raise the other, repeating, “I will not learn history from Shakespeare.” The same can be said about Stephen Clarke’s 1000 Years of Annoying the French. Yet, like Shakespeare’s history plays, Clarke’s book should definitely be read nonetheless.

I struggle at times to explain Franco-English relations to my students, often referring to them as the “Tom and Jerry of Europe.” (And I find this reference becoming more and more out of date with each new semester.) Clarke’s book illuminates some particulars that will prove helpful in my future endeavors to explain the relationship.

The title says it all: 1000 Years of Annoying the French starts with William the Conqueror (a French-hating Norman, according to Clarke) and runs up to the War in Iraq, focusing on how the British aggravate the French and vice versa. The book is certainly one sided, which readers are made aware of from page one, so citing it as a serious reference wouldn’t fly. But it makes reading “history” entertaining (I read all 645 pages in my “off time” in a week).

Clarke’s attention to detail and biting commentary made me laugh out loud (on the tube, at times, as I hid the cover as not to annoy any Frenchmen myself). While I know the facts are being presented through a Union Jack-colored lens, I find myself wanting to learn more about the events in the book.

Some of the notable points he brings up that I didn’t know about, and that I can share with my classes when teaching Brit Lit include, subversive messages stitched into the Bayuex Tapestry, Mary Queen of Scots’ heart-wrenching biography, exactly who was (or wasn’t) liberated on Bastille Day, the French taxis of Marne’s involvement in World War I, why French wine owes its existence to American wine (this one’s a bit of a stretch, but funny nonetheless), and more about Charles de Gaulle than I ever wanted to. (Actually, I didn’t know who de Gaulle was, but Clarke tells me why, as an American, I wouldn’t know.)

Of course, I reveled in the facts that I probably won’t share with my students: the fight over Napoleon’s penis, Edward VII’s fellatio chair, Charles VI’s glass delusion (countered by George III’s discourse with trees), and, my personal favorite chapter, “Charles II: The Man Who Taught Everyone to Distrust French Motives for Doing Absolutely Anything; The English fop who sought political asylum in Paris, betrayed his own country and then accidentally tricked the French into betraying themselves.” Or, maybe when I have tenure, I will share them…

The details make the book an easy read, and the overall purpose of illuminating a problematic relationship built on a thousand years of distrust is certainly beneficial for anyone wanting to know more about (or just brush up on) English and French history in general.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Researching London

I had intended to be a good girl and blog more while I was in London to update everyone. Somehow, though, time slips away here. So, this is your mid-trip update.

We’ve been quite busy in the archives here. There is so much to see, and so little time to do it. I feel like I could easily spend a month at each of our locations. (Follow up trip soon?)

The Guildhall was our first stop. It’s a gorgeous fifteenth-century building and houses records from the city of London, especially in regards to the guilds. This is a GREAT place for research, as it is smaller and the scholars tend to lean towards the British Library and the genealogists like the National Archives. They have much of their catalogue online and many broadsides and ephemera. The turn-around time on requests is something like eight minutes, but I’ve never waited more than five (which, if you’ve been to London research sites, you know is incredible).

Our second trip was to the National Archives. Located outside of central London, this is a bit of a tube ride, but I appreciated not being in the thick of things. Like the name says, the NA is the repository for government papers from the UK. You could spend a lifetime here and never get through everything. The number of court documents alone (held from the medieval period to the present) can make a researcher’s head explode. I have to admit I was a bit lost for the first day, but it became a little easier to navigate the second day.

We followed the NA with the London Metropolitan Archives, which was a central spot for information on my dissertation. They are the central location for London-based organizations and government. One of the best points about this research site is that they let you take pictures of the material for free. (They’re also currently running an exhibition on Jewish East London, which is fascinating.) I ran into the problem of having many of my documents only available on microfilm, but the fires of London and poor archival techniques of the past can’t be helped. If you’re lucky, you may get to go into the document repair room, where they show you how they repair documents. Right now, they’re trying out an infrared camera that can read through the cover of books that can’t be opened anymore (pretty amazing).

What literary scholar can come to London without paying a visit (or two, or three, or four) to the British Library? I got to experience being in the same room as Dr. Backscheider and Dr. Doody, who were sitting next to each other at the study desks. Having a reading pass is akin to having a backstage pass at a concert. I spent all of my time there in the rare book collection and on the databases. They have, in addition to hundreds of others, ECCO, EBO, Eighteenth Century Journals Online, and the Burney Papers (which could take up a month of my trip alone). Unfortunately, I found out too late that the newspapers are held at another site, but I found plenty of information to keep me busy. I have yet to venture to the manuscript collections, but have been told they’re amazing. I have several marked for reading next week. (Printing, here, is a major pain in the butt, though.)

The Victoria and Albert museum was one of my favorite places to see; however, researching there was difficult. They have one centralized computer database, but the items are scattered throughout the UK. You definitely have to be prepared before you visit. Most of the information there is nineteenth-century and geared towards art history. They also have a theatre site at the Blythe house (which feels like a mental institution). I had problems accessing the material, but, then again, it’s not my field. Art historians and dramatists will find these more helpful than those focusing on novels and poetry.

The Bodleian (in Oxford) was another wonderful place to visit, but less helpful in research. Most of the information they hold is also held at the British Library, so, if you’re staying in London, you might not want to take the trouble of travelling. You also have to pay to use the facilities, and the information is (like the V&A) scattered through town. However, for ambiance, you can’t beat it.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to for the most part. We’ve also done some fun “extra-curricular” things that I’ll save for another post. My next two weeks will be relegated to the Lambeth Palace Library and the Court of Arches records. This is a post in and of itself, as it was a bit of a comedy of errors to get there (and get in the building).

Another update soon to come. I miss you all (but not the weather).