In which the author writes about railways, bigamy, and Mrs Ellen Wood

George Stephenson built the first viable steam engine railway in 1821. Rudimentary railways existed before this, but they were generally built near mines and the cars were pulled by horses. They weren't used for traveling between great distances.
This limited travel -- i.e., horse-drawn railways -- proved to be a hitch in the giddyup of many nascent bigamists. Bigamy was difficult to pull off effectively (though not impossible, of course, isn't that right Mr Rochester?) within the village where you were born, grew up, and never left. Bigamy was also difficult, before 1821, even if you did leave your village because it generally took quite a bit of time to get far enough away to places where everyone didn't know your name and your business. But, come 1821 and Stephenson's steam engine, all of that changed.
A few more words about bigamy before I write some more words below about bigamy: Bigamy was more of an issue for the middle and upper classes than it was for the poor working class. In fact, in many small villages, bigamy wasn't necessarily a big deal -- as long as the bigamist had a good reason for marrying again; as long as all parties knew what they were getting in to; and as long as the new relationship didn't put undue financial hardship on the previous relationship. Divorce, as we've discussed before, was expensive and difficult and, for the poor, nearly impossible. Many villages decided to look the other way on bigamous relationships. For those of a wealthier persuasion, though, bigamy proved less socially acceptable (if you allow "less" to really mean "absolutely not at all"). And, again, if the bigamist (or potential bigamist) had to rely on his own feet, or his own horse's feet, to get far enough away to find a community of people who didn't know about the other wife back home -- that bigamist could be walking or riding a long time.
That is, until the steam engine comes along.
Now, travel is fast and efficient, and journeys that would, once upon a time, take months, could now be accomplished in, at most, a matter of days. "Goodbye old, sucky family; helloooo ladies!"
The Victorians were obsessed with bigamy -- well, upper class bigamy. It was either terribly romantic or terribly exciting when the bigamist was found out. Victorians could sate their bigamous appetites by reading transcripts of bigamy court cases; additionally, a subset of the sensation novel dealt almost entirely with the subject of bigamy in the middle class household.
The heyday of the bigamy novel runs from 1862 through 1865 -- about the same time as a scandalously delicious true bigamy case was making the rounds: The Yelverton Case. The Yelverton Case was an especially rich stew of all kinds of marital mishigas. Theresa Longworth is an English Catholic; her beau, Charles Yelverton, is an Irish Protestant. Under the law at the time (they met in 1852), though, there love could not lead to marriage. Any marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant, or a marriage between two Protestants celebrated by a Catholic priest, was null and void.
You can see Chuck and Theresa's problem.
Yelverton kept telling Theresa that they couldn't get married (which they couldn't), but could live together. Theresa kept telling Yelverton that there would be no "living together" without a marriage. Yelverton comes up with a plan for a secret ceremony which involves a Catholic priest and the two of them -- Yelverton and Theresa -- simply stating, for the record, how much they loved each other. Theresa had her "marriage." Charles insisted that the "marriage" remain secret.
Things go on, as they do. Theresa suffers a miscarriage in 1858. Charles, being the sensitive guy that he is (isn't that what keeping your marriage secret is all about? Sensitivity?), hooks up with another lady, Emily Forbes. Charles really wanted to marry Emily, and he really wanted Theresa to renounce any "wifely" claims she had on him. He even offered to pay for her passage to New Zealand, because Charles is nothing if not a fine, upstanding guy. Theresa refuses, and begins legal actions against Charles for what we would call "alimony" today. Charles counter-sues, claiming, among other things, that every single step of his "marriage" to Theresa was a sham: he's Protestant, she's Catholic, and they were married by a Catholic priest. Three strikes, Charles is hoping. (Against hope, as it turns out. The courts found in favor of Theresa. If you can read PDFs, here's a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times from 1864 that Theresa wrote.)
The public, of course, were entranced. And why wouldn't they be? Here was a crazy relationship sort of imploding in real time. Periodicals and newspapers couldn't run enough stories about the Yelverton case. And then, to keep up with the demand, they started running bigamy novels serially.
As I said above, the heyday of the bigamy novels ran between 1862 and 1865. So, it's odd that, in 1866, an already-floundering literary magazine, The Argosy, thought to run its own bigamy story. Public taste had, for the most part, moved on; that was one problem. The other problem is, the novel that The Argosy chose to run, Griffith Gaunt, was a flop.
It's not the bigamy that the novel concerns itself with that troubled the Victorian readers. It's not the seduction and the sexual prurience. However, many readers felt that Reade, rather than using those episodes to show how vile they are, and how they should be punished, instead sides with the villains. And that was a little too much for the scandalized Victorians. Readers stopped buying The Argosy, and the magazine failed. (Here's a letter Reade writes, trying to defend himself and the novel.)
Mrs Henry Wood finds herself a widow in 1866. She was supporting her family before her husband died, having written some 14 novels (including East Lynne in 1861). Mr Henry Wood was a dreamer, of sorts, with a hat full of terrible business ideas which he insisted on seeing through to the end. After the failure of several business ventures, the family found itself relying more and more on Mrs Henry. She's able to do this fairly well; her novels and stories are successful and while the family is never relaxingly comfortable while Mr Henry is alive, the family isn't scandalized by poverty, either.
In 1866, Mrs Henry Wood is in the market for a magazine. She is tired of the small returns she's receiving on her stories, especially when she starts to understand the higher profits a successful periodical can bring in. She's also touchy about editors, and longs for the opportunity to be her own boss completely. Mrs Henry heard of the failing Argosy (the straight-laced publisher was horrified and scandalized by the effect Griffith Gaunt on the reading public and began looking for a buyer for the magazine around the time Mrs Henry Wood was looking for a magazine to buy. Ah, kismet...) and was able to pick it up for a song. From that point on, most all of her novels ran serialized in The Argosy (which proudly proclaimed "Under New Management"), and Mrs Henry Wood herself became a publishing and literary force to be reckoned with on her own account.

In which the author writes to his Library Ladies

Christiane Rochefort wrote: "A man's book is a book. A woman's book is a woman's book." And I think that is almost definitely the case today. Chick-Lit is a genre, with its candy-colored covers, and is predominantly written by women. When men venture into "chick-lit" territory, though, either writing about women (when they're praised, like Wally Lamb, for "getting" women, as if understanding another human being was (a) impossible; or (b) surprising in a writer) or writing about men within the context of chick-lit tropes (Nick Hornby comes to mind), it's rarely under the auspices of the pastel cover and kookie cursive font. They're just books, and they're shelved under general fiction.
We see similar gender stratifications with the Victorians, of course. Many women felt they needed to write under male pen names to be taken seriously (George Eliot, all three Brontes). And yet, not all women published under a pseudonym, male or otherwise, and certainly Victorian readers didn't stratify in the way modern readers do. Men as well as women enjoyed the novels of George Eliot, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, Elizabeth Gaskell.
It might be because the novels of the nineteenth century were social novels, interested in exploring and testing the rules and morals of the time. Everyone was at risk of class embarrassment and ruthless social climbers. (Today, however, not everyone is at risk of falling in love with her yoga instructor while trying to balance a vague career at the "office" like so many rom-com chick-lit books try to pass off.) Last night, Judith brought up how Mary Elizabeth Braddon, in Lady Audley's Secret, took pains to report how new everything in London was, working the shifting landscape of the city into the plot of her novel. It makes sense, then, that people with no geography to depend on would turn, instead, to rigid codes to protect and guide them. And it also makes sense, of course, that novelists would explot these codes.
It's why I think that Lady Audley's Secret is so important as a catalog of class subversion. (That it's also just a super well-written story doesn't hurt, either.) I also think we, as modern readers, have a better understanding of the anxieties of the time because of this entire class of "sensation novels." One of the points I made during our Wilkie Collins unit our first year together is that you can learn a lot about a society by what frightens it. Without sensation novels, it's easy to assume that Victorians were simply moralistic prudes. This would make them deeply uninteresting. Sensation novels show us the struggles going on in almost all homes and minds. My hope is also that it reminds us that the Victorians are just about as priggish as we are. Save for dress, maybe, and some formality in speech, we're not much different from our bustled and top-coated forebears.
I really loved last night's discussion. I feel like I understand the novel even better now, and could even bear to re-read it with a lot of last night's insight to guide me. I never thought about Clara as the motivating force behind Robert's investigation, which is probably why his snubbing of Alicia and eventual marriage to Clara surprised me so much. I'd like to think some more about why Robert would keep Lady Audley's son a secret from Clara and George's father. (Maybe he thought it would be too much for Clara to bear, on top of the likely death of her brother; and maybe he just assumed that father Talboys could give a rat's tuchus.) And I really liked Bethany's insight into the not-mad Lady Audley being locked away in an asylum (under another assumed name, by the way) casting an interesting pall over the otherwise too-idyllic ending.
We're meeting next month, on 21 April, to discuss Mrs Henry Wood's East Lynne. For those interested in following along serially, this site will start running installments of East Lynne starting this Friday. Even if you're not planning on the serial approach, I recommend visiting the site at least once to take a look at some of the illustrations from the book that are on the site.
One thing I'd like you to keep in mind while reading the novel is how Wood never lets a transgression go unpunished. Though perhaps not as gifted a writer as George Eliot, she is as moral as Eliot is, if not more so. However, Wood's moralizing is definitely more stereotypical, and appears to be paying duty to common thought rather than to any sort of thinking through. (By which I mean that I believe that Eliot reaches her moral conclusions through deep philosophical debate with herself. I think Wood is just channeling what's already in society without necessarily giving it too much second-thought.)
East Lynne has been a favorite of mine, even with some of its faults. I thought of it as a weekly soap-opera, and allowed some of the more ridiculous aspects (there's a pair of blue-tinted glasses that do a lot of work later in the novel) to go unchallenged. I think it's worth the time -- and I hope you feel the same.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

I want to see that movie. The one this guy is writing about. He thinks it's the version that's on the screen now, but it's not the version that's on the screen now because the version that's on the screen now is pretty awful. We're not technologically at the point that Dr Manhattan can look anything other than ridiculous (the Uncanny Valley business ruined a lot of the Manhattan scenes for me) (and also, on one hand, kudos for showing a lot of blue dick throughout the film, but that penis frightened me in its sort of play-dough rigidness. I'm assuming I've seen more penises than you in my life, and penises don't move the way that penis moved), and I'm not sure why they cast one of Xena's stunt doubles after she suffered head trauma. (Zach turned to me and said, "It appears they've cast my apathy and disinterest in this movie as that one lady.")
Having not read the book, I can say that the film isn't for the uninitiated. But this makes it a less-than-perfect film. I wanted to see more of that lezzie lady with the Ann Jillian bob, and could have used a whole lot less Richard Nixon. (That nose. My god. I whispered to Zach, "Wait, is that Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf? Are we now watching The Hours?) If one of the arguments is that you wouldn't want to really know superheroes in real life because they're sort of dicks and assholes and sociopaths, then I needed to see more of that than just The Comedian shooting a pregnant lady in Viet Nam. You could point to Ozymandias, but he's the de facto villain, so he's already compromised. (And I knew he was the villain from the beginning because (a) I know my Shelley; and (b) along with the Cold War plot lifted from 1985, they also lifted the "all bad guys have slight accents" trope, too.)
And about that Cold War plot. It doesn't work in 2009. I read in the "trivia" section for the film at IMDb that one director wanted to update it so that the war the Watchmen (and by the way, when and why did they go from being the Minutemen to the Watchmen? That's not explained, I don't think, in the film) helped in was one of our more recent wars, and the crisis Manhattan averts has more to do with terrorism. That solves the relevancy problem, but then it fundamentally misunderstands radical Islam, who would be more than happy to destroy the entire earth.
There's a conception that's missing a "mis-" out there that graphic novels are just a video camera away from a film anyway, since they take the work of reading words and easy-ies it up for you by making them pictures. All you're responsible for is some dialogue and some expositionary boxes with randomly bolded pronouns. But graphic novels are very much a thing in their own right, and not just an easier path to film. What works in a novel may not make a good graphic novel or film. What works in a graphic novel may not work in a film or a novel. (However, I'm pretty sure a film would survive in either novel or graphic novel form very easily. Unless you're going to throw Koyaanisqatsi at me.)
Worst-case scenario, someone out there is peddling a script for the movie-adaptation of Maus. And that person needs to be stopped.

In which the author writes about Charles and Mary Lamb

In our day, he's best known for the Tales of Shakespeare he wrote with his sister, Mary. (And let's talk about that phrase structure: "with his sister, Mary." Because the truth is, Mary wrote 15 of the 20 stories. "Oh, but, silly: she only wrote about the comedies. Chuck had to do the heavy lifting with those tragedies." To which I say: "Dude? Fifteen." Fifteen is more than five. Of course, maybe it was in deference to Mary's madness that Charles assigned the comedies to Mary, rather than the bleak tragedies. However, to that I say, "Making anyone -- mad or not -- write about The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the worst Shakespeare play ever (I won't even hear it about Titus Andronicus) is unconscionable." But I digress.) He's also known as the provider of the opening quotation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird: "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once."

In his own day, Charles was better known as an essayist. Lamb was hoping to be better known as a poet; however, that wasn't in the cards for him. He did publish a fairly famous poem, "The Old Familiar Faces." A little back-story first: Charles sister Mary stabbed their mother to death. The entire Lamb family -- mother, father (who spent the last years of his life incapacitated by a stroke), grandmother, siblings -- all lived in a tiny apartment above Lamb pere's employer. Neither Charles or his sister Mary were terribly well mentally; Charles spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital in 1795 and Mary suffered herself from bouts of depression. In 1796, "worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery by attention to needlework by day and to her mother at night," (according to Charles), Mary had finally had enough of her mother's complaints about the table setting and dispatched her quickly to a Better Laid Table. Mary would spend the remainder of her life in and out of asylums. Charles would purchase a straight-jacket for those anxious moments at home.

When first published, "The Old Familiar Faces" opened with these lines:
I had a mother, but she died, and left me,
Died prematurely in a day of horrors -
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

Perhaps thinking better of it, he excised the opening stanza of the poem, so that it now begins:

I have had playmates, I have had companions,
In my days of childhood, in my joyful school-days—
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

Later in "The Old Familiar Faces" Lamb has a stanza that says:

I loved a Love once, fairest among women:
Closed are her doors on me, I must not see her—
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

This, more than likely, was in reference to a woman named Ann Simmons, with whom Charles fell -- one hesitates to say madly in relation to this family -- deeply in love. Charles wooed Ann forever. It may have been this extended wooing, with no sign of any attempts at winning, that finally encouraged Ann to search for a man in robust-er pastures. She eventually married a man named Bartram and Lamb called the whole episode his "Great Disappointment."

His final stab at matrimonial love happened towards the end of his life, when he was 44 (he died at age 59). He fell in love with an actress, Fanny Kelly, who, too, refused him. Charles Lamb died a bachelor on 27 December 1834. He is buried next to his sister.

From a letter of Wilkie Collins's

"The hybrid and Mary don’t agree. I am sorry to lose the hybrid. She sees me into the water-closet and out of it regularly – and tries the door every time I make water. I have reason to believe that the hybrid must have seen My Person!"

-- from a letter to Charles Ward, 14 August 1860

In which the author reads disgusting things.

I enjoy any history book with a section of photographs in the middle, and this one that I'm currently reading (Restoration London: From Poverty to Pets, from Medicine to Magic, from Slang to Sex, from Wallpaper to Women's Rights) doesn't disappoint. One of the pictures is of a page from a newspaper. It's the weekly "Diſeaſes and Caſualties" mortality section. (Click here and scroll down to see an example; it's not the one that's in the book I'm reading, but it's exactly what mine looks like.) It's set up alphabetically in columns; on the left of each column is the disease or casualty, and on the right is the number. So in this particular week from 1665, for instance:

And then there are very specific instances:
Burnt in his Bed by a Candle at St. Giles Cripplegate......................1

Some of the diseases I hadn't heard of. I sort of chuckled as I typed the word "chrisomes" into Google, assuming it would be something both silly and disgusting, the way old-timey diseases can be. Turns out, it's the death of a child in the first month. (The helpfully macabre Wikipedia didn't have an entry on chrisomes. Instead, it cheerily wanted to know "Did you mean Christmas?") Only one person died of apoplexy -- something I think would be marvelous to expire from. Three people died from fright. I've learned that an impostume is an abscess, and that 11 people died from it. There's also something called "Kingsevil" -- a type of tuberculosis thought to be curable via the touch of a king. (This must have been tough pre-Restoration.) Eleven people expired from "Rising of the Lights" (which could be any number of disgusting things, according to this website I found. Among them, "putrid sore throat" or -- and, if you can believe it, even worse -- "flatulent dyspepsia with frequent eructations." Several self-cures involved swallowing "shot" -- or iron bullets -- in order to keep the "light from rising.") However, my two favorite diseases and casualties: three people died from "Winde" and 15 died from "Wormes."

(Also, in that week from 1665, there were 8,297 burials; 7,165 of which were plague.)

In which the author requests the pleasure of your company

Hey, 'member that resolution you made, after "lose weight" and "learn Esperanto"? The one about attending more lectures about Victorian literature? Yeah, that one.

Have I got a talk for you.

I'll be giving a free-and-open-to-the-public lecture on the nineteenth century novel at the Bethesda Library (7400 Arlington Road, Bethesda MD) at 7:00 p.m. on January 7. You should totally come because (a) who doesn't want to hear about "Jane Eyre" or Mudie's library? And (b) there'll be cookies, I think. At least, I hope. Because actually, the more I write about this, the less I feel that I'm going to be the main draw and I need these cookies as my safety.

Anyway -- for more info, email me: mbevel2002 at yahoo dot com.

In which the author can finally flush his toilet

"Did we install a fountain? A fancy fountain? I ask because there appears to be a fountain in our living room."

The "fountain" Zach was referring to was a beautiful cascade of water washing down the banister. Our ceiling dripped water like the beginnings of stalactites. Brown stains bloomed amidst the stucco. As the handier of the two of us, I began crying.

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