(Re)presenting the Victorians: How contemporary popularity helps to balance a distorted cultural history.
I recently wrote a post on Victorian Parasites & Dr. Who for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online, in which I explored the presence of authentic Victorian anxieties in modern representations of the nineteenth century. Far from playing to stereotypes, Mark Gatniss (the writer for the episode “The Crimson Horror”) embarked on an enlightened and jocular adventure into the Victorian psyche with a seemingly contemporary twist. However what appeared to be a modern addition (the threat of an alien parasite) was in fact, as I discussed, a cultural fantasy entirely at home in the 1890s setting. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve addressed the modernisation &adaptation of Victoriana in the wake of the recent popularity for all things nineteenth century, and in doing so I find myself more and more intrigued by the concept of the Victorians re-lived.Despite sometimes upholding Victorian stereotypes (think: stuffy & serious, top hats & monocles, joyless Dickensian workhouses) adaptations and modernizations are increasingly highlighting the fallacy of such overplayed notions. Gatniss’ “The Crimson Horror” (and in fact most of the recent flurry of ‘Victorian’ Dr. Who episodes) do just this by including ‘cheeky’ contemporary allusions and quirky characters that serve to subvert the very culture they appear to represent. In my other post, I talked about House and The Mentalist, shows which perform the same subversion by interrogating the fraught moralities of their nineteenth century-inspired protagonists. Amid all this cultural re-writing, sites like Smiling Victorians show us rare photos which undermine the stiff upper-lip rhetoric of yesteryear (note: the rarity of such images are not due to less happiness, but longer exposure rates!). Other sites celebrate their quirky and timeless sense of humour by finding congruence between the long-standing internet fascination with funny cats and the c19th equivalent . Other stories speculating on the Victorian origins of LOLcats can be found here and here.
It is this sense of humour and sharp-tongued wit which has always struck me about the Victorians, but which is often lacking in representations, except when used to poke fun in a post-modern aside. In my archival work, Ronald Ross’ wry tongue comes through in his annotations on news reports (“official tosh!”), his sarcastic scribbles on funding rejections (“The discovery of the causes of sickness and death is evidently not a ‘charitable object’!”) and his use of subtitles (A list of the causal agents of skin disease in his notebook is given the heading: ‘Villain Classification’). Ross’ doodle-ridden notebooks prove that people have been procrastinating with stickmen and silly faces for centuries, but moreover they expose the ‘man behind the myth’. He is a joy to read: sharp, scathing, poetic, a little neurotic, and disarmingly honest.
After a long series of colds he writes:
Sunday 22nd March: apparently influenza. Depressed. Wine for dinner.
His diaries expose a man who dined regularly with H. Rider Haggard at the Athenaeum Club, had tea with the Conan Doyle’s, loved fly-fishing and writing poetry, enjoyed spending time with his wife and children and made sure to mark the anniversary of his career-making discovery every year with the words “Mosquito Day”.
His heart-breaking words on the death of his daughter Sylvia:
Friday 9th October: …Saw my dear daughter dead but beautiful.
Are offset by his delight at seeing the sun “today is the most beautiful day!” and spending his 60th birthday having tea at the zoo. In short his diaries paint not a Scientist or a Victorian, a writer or a Nobel Laureate, but a man – something all too often lost when we teach history. Hats off to those screenwriters and directors who strive to (re)present the Victorians as more than two-dimensional stereotypes, and have the courage to paint history in all its unconventional honesty.