Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

Archive for the category “Pop Culture”

(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.

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[Photo source: E Taylor-Brown]

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”.

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[Photo Source: E Taylor-Brown]

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.

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Top Doctors & Police Psychics: A Victorian Legacy.

I had a conversation recently with a friend and colleague about Victorian legacies. Whether subtle or overt, echoes of the nineteenth century are found everywhere in the twenty-first. The contemporary penchant for Victorian adaptations, Dickensian-inspired dramas and facsimile Victoriana reflects the modern obsession with a time rich in cultural intrigue. But some of these engagements are less conspicuous, elegantly paying homage to the era, all the while maintaining a separate and complex identity.  One such example is the celebrated American television show, House. This 8 season medical drama takes its premise from Conan Doyle’s famous literary detective, paying homage to Sherlock Holmes with the programme’s title character. His kindred sidekick Dr John Watson is reimagined as Oncologist Dr James Wilson, continuing the ‘true friend’ motif and position as some-time flatmate. Watson’s psychosomatic leg pain is transferred to House and made a very real injury, which provides the basis for his addiction to the painkiller Vicodin (parallels here with Holmes’ Cocaine use). Holmes’ distaste for people and awkward social skills are inflated to almost sociopathic levels, underscored by his love of puzzles. His musical talent is upheld, exchanging the violin for the dulcet tones of the piano and the more rock and roll appeal of the electric guitar. The iconic pipe is usurped by a now equally iconic cane, and the deerstalker replaced variously with a backwards baseball cap and motorcycle helmet.

Interestingly, the programme inverts the protagonist’s occupation, paying homage to its original inspiration. In a voice recording held at the British Library, Doyle credits his conception of Holmes to his Edinburgh medical mentor’s ‘great powers of observation’. Noting the prominence of detection in scientific inquiry and the absence of methodology in detective fiction, he decided to combine the two, successfully reinventing the figure of the detective as an enlightened and starkly scientific icon: ‘…the hero would treat crime as Dr. Bell treated disease, and science would take the place of chance.’[1] Thus Holmes’ was to treat crime as disease, in the same way that House treats disease as crime. House’s patient histories are more like witness statements, searching their homes for clues and interrogating their alibies with the supposition (and show’s tagline) that ‘everybody lies’.

Further parallels might be drawn between Holmes’ rocky relationship with the police and his interactions with Princeton Plainsboro’s Dean of Medicine. His position as ‘consulting detective’ could almost replace ‘head of diagnostics’ on House’s office door. This hired-out consultancy puts me in mind of another US television show, The Mentalist. Returning to the realms of solving crime, Patrick Jayne is an independent consultant to the fictional California Bureau of Investigation. Jayne’s powers of deduction are exaggerated to the point of psychic powers, the extent of which is never fully ascertained. This might be interpreted as a reference to Doyle’s later interest in spiritualism.[2] Nevertheless, a rational explanation accompanies Jayne’s apparent mind-reading, the suggestion being that he is an incredibly intuitive reader of body language and like Holmes’ reads people and situations like a doctor might read symptoms. The eponymous Sherlockian figure ‘Professor Moriaty’ might even be found in Jayne’s archenemy ‘Red John’, a serial killer with intelligence and cunning to rival Doyle’s criminal mastermind. However, Jayne’s character is softened by his subversive charisma, and the replacement of cold truth-chasing for a personal vendetta (Red John killed Jayne’s wife and daughter five years before the setting of the show).

These brief examples go some way to exposing the wealth of historical literary engagement in the twenty-first century and the ingenuity of classic adaptations retuned for modern audiences. Engagement with the cultural products of the nineteenth century continue to find new and diverse forms, and Victorian legacies persevere with meaningful poignancy. If this teaches us anything, it’s that a well-written narrative, regardless of cultural context, really is, timeless.


[1] A. Conan Doyle, Early Spoken Word Recordings (1930) Published online by the British Library; available at: <http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Early-spoken-word-recordings/024M-1CL0013693XX-0100V0>

[2] David Oldman, Spiritualism. Arthur Conan Doyle: An Online Exhibit published online by City of Westminster Libraries at: <http://www.westminsteronline.org/conandoyle/Spiritualism.html>

Geeks, Knights and Popular Science: The Commercialisation of the Scientist.

Like any good LitSci scholar the basis for much of my work stems from the notion that nothing occurs in isolation. Science and literature both take inspiration from the cultural zeitgeist, or as my supervisor recently put it ‘stuff that happens’. This may seem like an oversimplification, and it is, but there’s still no getting away from the fact that the things we do are influenced by the ‘stuff that’s happening’ or spirit of the times. The chapter I’m currently working on explores the professional identity of parasitologists in the late-nineteenth century and the ways in which they marketed themselves.

Interestingly, the period in which professional institutions were set up to study parasites coincides with the nineteenth century medieval revival, and this can be seen in their choice of language. Parasitologists are dubbed ‘knights of science’, their research expeditions: chivalric adventures into foreign lands. At his Nobel prize ceremony in 1902, Ross is described as ‘a hero from Africa […] occupied in a war against the most insidious enemy to mankind.’[1]  This battle metaphor works on multiple levels, particularly the polarisation of host and parasite. Host bodies are often understood in terms of geography in the nineteenth century, as T. Spencer Cobbold writes:

Each animal or ‘host’ may be regarded as a continent and each part or viscus of his body may be noted as a ‘district’. Each district has its own special attractions for particular parasitic forms; yet, at the same time, neither the district not the continent make suitable localities as a permanent resting place for the invader.[2]

This analogy might be seen as equating parasitic migration within the host body with colonial exploration; if the British Empire is seen in terms of a body, in a reversal of the analogy, then the tropics might be seen as organs infested with parasites. But I don’t want to get too bogged down in the contexts of interpretation, or indeed the framing of scientific narratives with cultural preoccupations [PhD Spoiler alert!]. What I’m interested in today is the use of zeitgeist to frame popular understanding.

What’s the modus operandi of 21st century science? No longer manipulated to reinforce British greatness, modern science is framed with modern concerns. The in vogue status of physics, with advocates like the eloquent and photogenic Prof. Brian Cox, or the notoriously brilliant Stephen Hawking, have made the celebrity scientist a very real figure in the public sphere. Cox’s involvement in BBC’s Stargazing live and educational television series like ‘Wonders of the Universe’ have led to the run-away success of amateur astrophysics. Award-winning American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, endorsed by Hawking with his multiple cameo appearances (The Hawking Excitation; The Extract Obliteration) has happily reinforced the scientist as a venerated, relevant and trendy figure consumed by a modern audience. The latest government funding directives, steering financial support away from the humanities, have instigated a push to get children interested in science, however – in tandem – science has been redefined as a discipline no longer in isolation. Science has a public face, appearing on television, radio debates, and social media sites; in comedy and documentary form. The scientist is no longer alone in a laboratory, but in front of a camera, evolving from chivalric agents of Empire to celebrity role models promoting a new tagline: science is sexy.


[1] ‘Liverpool’ British Medical Journal 1(1903)2192, p. 48.

[2] T. Spencer Cobbold, Entozoa: An introduction to the study of helminthology, with reference, more particularly, to the internal parasites of man. (London: Groombridge & Sons, 1864) p.4.

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