Posted by: rebeccakilroy | September 10, 2021

Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Victorian Black Celebrity.

We know very little about the early life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter. She was born in West Africa of Yoruban descent, the daughter of a tribal leader. Her birth name was likely Aina although only one written record of this name exists. In 1848, King Gezo of Dahomey captured her home city of Okeden, killed her parents and took her captive. 

In 1850, Captain Frederick Forbes of the British Royal Navy attended the court of King Gezo on a diplomatic mission to persaude the king to abandon the practice of slavery. Not only was Forbes unsuccessful in this mission, among the diplomatic gifts he accepted at the end of the mission was the young girl Gezo held captive. It’s difficult to imagine an anti-slavery mission justifying the gift of a captive child. In his journal, Forbes wrote that Gezo was known for sacrificing high-status captives and that “To refuse, would have been to have signed her death warrant which, probably, would have been carried into execution forthwith” (Rollerson, et. al.) Forbes had Sarah baptized, giving her his last name as well as Bonetta, the name of the ship that took her to England. Although Sarah lived with his family in England, he wrote that he knew “the government would consider her as the property of the crown” (Rollerson, et. al.)

Soon after arriving, Sarah was presented to Queen Victoria. The queen agreed to pay for Sarah’s education and became her godmother. Shortly after her arrival in England, Sarah developed a cough which was attributed to the change in climate. A year after arriving in London, she was sent to a school for girls in Freetown, Sierra Leone. When Sarah was twelve, Victoria summoned her back to England and lodged her with a white family of former African missionaries in Chatham. Sarah was by this time fluent in English and French and an extremely talented musician.

In her late teens, Victoria removed Sarah from the family she was living with and sent her to Brighton to be formally introduced to society. The English Heritage Society, which presented an exhibit on Sarah last year, reports that the move to Brighton went against Sarah’s wishes. In the fashionable city, she had to present her talents and accomplishments as all young women on the marriage market did. However, Sarah faced another level of scrutiny as a black woman and a royally-connected figure. Her abilities were a source of wonder and a frequent source of commentary in the press. Reports of her talent were used to justify the imperialist work of missionaries seeking to impose English culture on native people around the world.

Not only Sarah’s talent but also her image was co-opted for use by pro-imperialist and pro-colonial arguments. Several photographs of Sarah exist and are held in the Royal Collection Trust and the National Portrait Gallery. The example below was taken when she was in her mid-teens. Sarah wears typical Victorian dress and assumes the common photographic pose of a middle class visitor to a portrait studio. The message is that of successful assimilation into British society. These images were very popular and circulated widely, especially among high society. While still a child, Sarah became a public figure and the face of several causes without her agreement. 

Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

At age nineteen, Sarah married James Pinson Labulo Davies, a widower in his thirties. Her private letters reveal that she was hesitant about the match, but Queen Victoria endorsed it. Davies was a prominent black businessman. Like Sarah, he was frequently held up as an example of the achievements of black people made possible by the “civilizing” effects of British society. Historian David Olusoga, in a 2019 episode of the BBC Sounds podcast “The Essay,” said that their wedding was widely viewed as a symbol of “the perceived accomplishments of Britain’s civilizing mission.” The wedding itself drew tremendous attention in both high society and the press. London newspapers, including the Illustrated News and The Times, reported that the wedding procession included ten carriages and sixteen bridesmaids. They were married by the Bishop of Sierra Leone. 

Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

About a month after their wedding, the couple sat for portraits with photographer Camille Silvy. Silvy was widely known at the time for photographing celebrities including many members of the royal family. It’s possible that Victoria herself commissioned these portraits, two of which are now held in the National Portrait Gallery. In the example above, Davies looks directly at the camera while his wife looks off into the distance, neither at her husband nor at the book open in her lap. The painted background of foliage mimics the sweeping estate backdrop of aristocratic portraits while also suggesting a facsimile of the West African landscape. Silvy seemed to want to capture the Anglicanized dress and poses of the couple while still suggesting a difference or visible distance.

The couple settled in Lagos, Nigeria and had several children including a daughter named in honor of Victoria. Sarah continued to suffer from respiratory illness, likely tuberculosis. She moved to Madeira in the hopes that the climate there would help her. She died there at the age of 37. 

Queen Victoria continued to maintain an interest in the family. In particular, Victoria Davies, later Victoria Randles, was a favorite of her namesake and also became the queen’s goddaughter. In part, this was because of Victoria’s resemblance to Sarah. In a journal entry from 1873, the queen described Victoria as “wonderfully like her mother, very black, & with fine eyes” (Queen Victoria, Journal (RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 29 March 1873). To the queen, mother and daughter were virtually interchangeable. Their resemblance is visible in a portrait of Victoria in the Royal Collection from around the time the journal entry was written. Victoria’s pose, standing behind a chair, mirrors the teenage portrait of her mother. While Victoria did not have the same celebrity status as her mother, her connection to the royal family ensured she was a topic of curiousity and interest to the press. As late as 1900, a year before Queen Victoria’s death, The Globe reported that “Quite recently the Bishop of Lagos escorted Mrs Randle, an African lady, and her two little children, by Royal command, to Windsor Castle, where Her Majesty received the visitors with the utmost cordiality, and gave presents to the negro children, whom she kissed” (Royal Collection Trust). The two mentions of race in the same sentence overemphasize that the press was still fascinated by the idea of the royal family connecting themselves with black people.

Victoria Davies as a girl
(Image courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust)

In October 2020, English Heritage, in an effort to recognize the historical contributions of black British people launched an exhibit at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s vacation home on the Isle of Wight. The exhibit featured a portrait of Sarah by artist Hannah Uzor based on the early teenage portrait of Sarah. While Sarah’s image was often used during her life to demonstrate the supposed benefits of imperialism for indigenous people, her portrait now serves as a visual reminder of the often overlooked contributions of black people to the history of Britain. Sadly, very little correspondence or writing from Sarah exists today. Her legacy is made up of the words and perceptions of others. However, I hope that this way of honoring her memory would make her proud.

Image courtesy of English Heritage Society

Sources/ Places to Read More

Olusoga, David. “Legacies of 1619: Sarah Forbes Bonetta.” The Essay, BBC Radio.

Rollerson, 02/05/2016 by Deborah, et al. “The African Princess: Sarah Forbes Bonetta.” Black History Month 2021, 19 Feb. 2021,
“Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies).” National Portrait Gallery,
“Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Family.” Royal Collection Trust,
“Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen VICTORIA’S African Protégée.” English Heritage,

Posted by: Lingyu He | December 28, 2020

Arthur Conan Doyle and Spiritualism

What is really not science is the laying down of the law on matters which you have not studied. It is talk of that sort which has brought me to the edge of spiritualism, when I compare this dogmatic ignorance with the earnest search for truth conducted by the great spiritualists. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1926)

PC: The Many Man of Arthur Conan Doyle. Sir Arthur with the spirit of his son, Kingsley, who was killed in World War I (1914 – 1918). 

Conan Doyle gave his first series of speeches on Spiritualism during October, 1917. He wished to present to the public the facts as he knew, for the betterment of human life. He was aware that his reputation and career would suffer for him being an outspoken advocate for the spiritual movement (“Conan Doyle and Spiritualism”). It was observed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s public declaration of his belief in Spiritualism has attracted fierce contention and considerable confusion from his readers who couldn’t reconcile between the intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, the character of supreme rationalism, with its creator’s leading position in a doctrine at odds with his education and literary ideals (Homer 97). Those people haven’t realized that Doyle saw no contradiction between his embracement of Spiritualism and Sherlock Holmes’s rationalism. In fact, Doyle believed that his prowess in reasoning had allowed him to pursue the true religion. 

Psychologist and magician Matthew Tompkins in his article “The Two Illusions That Tricked Arthur Conan Doyle” claims that psychic abilities are the product of metacognitive illusions, which happen “when people hold mistaken beliefs about their own cognitive systems” and change blindness, “the phenomenon in which viewers fail to detect – sometimes surprisingly dramatic – changes to a visual scene” (Tompkins). Tompkins explains that the key difference between a magician and an imposturous medium is that the former is an “honest deceiver” who performs illusions for entertainment, and their audience is fully aware of the deceitfulness of their tricks. Honest deceivers have accurate understanding of their cognitive systems and dexterously manipulate visual changes to make them less discernible to the audience. 

PC: Alamy. People sit around a table holding hands together in an automatic writing seance. 

Wondering how Doyle would respond to Tompkins’s idea? In an audio recording that Doyle made in 1930, he had already given a likely answer to the question:

The press unfortunately usually only notices spiritualism when fraud or folly is in question. Fraud and folly do exist, as in everything. But the press does not mention, as a rule, that thousands of cases where consolation and proof have been brought to suffering hearts. We bring important facts, new facts, which will revolutionise the all thought of the human race, both in religion and in science. It is the great question of the future, and it will end by making religion a real living thing so that all doubt of god’s goodness or of the destiny of mankind will be forever banished. Since we shall each be in actual touch with what is higher than ourselves. And the communion of Saints will at last be an established fact. (Doyle)

Doyle emphasized that “fraud and folly” existed in everything, not just in spiritual practices. Tompkins and Doyle define “fraud and folly” in two different dimensions. Tompkins’s argument is based on the premise that everyone’s cognitive systems are the same and it is people’s recognition of the same quality of information truly differs; while Doyle, by referring to experiential success of psychic abilities, suggested that qualified mediums could access to new layers of information through their “expanded” cognitive processes. Doyle also believed that “important, new facts” about Spiritualism would console thousands of wounded hearts and revolutionize the thinking of mankind. Whether or not some people, especially mediums, have “more advanced” cognitive abilities than the majority that bestow them with excess strands of information is still hotly debated and inconclusive in the scientific community today. This unsettlement over cognition makes judging who’s right and who’s wrong particularly difficult for ordinary audiences, if at all possible. 

However, it is clear that Doyle’s spiritual belief has long been misunderstood by many as an escapism from the death of his son Kinsley in 1918, whereas in reality, Doyle’s spiritual inclination originated thirty years earlier in 1886 well before the birth of his son when he read a book written by the US High Courts Judge John Worth Edmonds (1816-1874), one of the most influential early American Spiritualists (Diniejko and “The Many Man”). Michael W. Homer investigates the formation of Doyle’s belief in Spiritualism and suggests that “Spiritualism offered Doyle what he had been seeking since he had lost faith in traditional Christianity and since the materialism of his medical training had eliminated the possibility of proving that there was life after death.” (Homer 105). A Roman Catholic father would say that “Doyle, like Watson, failed to ascertain the conjuror’s tricks and was therefore overly impressed by the medium’s claims.” (Homer 118). Homer agrees with Tompkins that Doyle was tricked by mediums and their judgement is supported by the fact that many spirit photos are fake, forged by overlapping multiple films that respectively portrayed different characters. 

That said, the validity of Doyle’s exploration of extrasensory perceptions continues to be questioned and investigated. As more and more “scientifically rigorous” studies have been conducted, new pieces of evidence might soon be discovered in the future to prove or debunk Doyle’s claim. To conclude, Conan Doyle relied on his personal reasoning, observed subjective “facts”,  psychic channeling, spirit photos, and fulfilled prophecies – and deduced from these factors that an unearthly world existed and he had contact with some of its dwellers. Doyle claimed that he could rely on facts, rather than on the dogmas and superstitions of his former religion, to know that life continued after death.

PC: Alamy. A photo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a “spirit”, taken by the medium Ada Deane.

Works Cited

“Conan Doyle and Spiritualism.” Conan Doyle Info, 11 Nov. 2016,

Diniejko, Andrzej. “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Victorian Spiritualism.” The Victorian Web, 14 Nov. 2013,

Doyle, Arthur Conan. “Conan Doyle Speaking.” The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia, 2019, Accessed 24 Dec. 2020.

Homer, Michael W. “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Spiritualism and ‘New Religions.’” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 23, no. 4, 1990, pp. 97–121., Accessed 24 Dec. 2020. 

“The Many Men of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Beliefs and Experiences.” The Official Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., 2017, 

Posted by: Lingyu He | December 27, 2020

Death and Spirit Photos

It was often the first time families thought of having a photograph taken – it was the last chance to have a permanent likeness of a beloved child. (Bell Betahn)

Contrary to mainstream modern sensibilities about death photos, photographs of loved ones taken posthumously served as an important way of remembering the dead and soothing the pain of loss in Victorian England. In the 19th century, the country suffered from long-term epidemics such as diphtheria, typhus and cholera without the aid of modern medicine. The child mortality rate at the time was appalling only 5 out of 10 children could survive and the graveyards were filled by the bodies of children no older than 5 years old (Dobbins). Constantly challenged by those diseases, from 1861, the bereaved Queen made mourning rituals fashionable among her subjects. A form of memento mori, photography was becoming increasingly popular and affordable and was gradually replacing painted portraits since the introduction of Daguerreotypes in 1839. Later in the Victorian Period, photography advanced to the point where simple artificial touches, such as painted open eyes, rosy cheeks, and haircuts, can be added to make the persons look more lifelike. Through images captured, the beauty of the sleeping infants, consumptive young ladies, and valorous soldiers were not diminished but preserved and enhanced. Photography was the perfect medium that connects the realms of life and death, that through which the dead can be revived in the memory of the living, and the living become dead when stabilized in the photographic framework.

PC: The Thanatos Archive. A dead infant was posed standing straight in the arms of an adult. 

Tamara Kneese points out in her article Death Stares:

The perceived creepiness of postmortem photography has to do with the uncanniness of ambiguity: Is the photographed subject alive or dead? Painted eyes and artificially rosy cheeks, lifelike positions, and other additions made postmortem subjects seem more asleep than dead. Because of its ability to materialize and capture, photography both mortifies and reanimates its subjects. Not just photography, but other container technologies like phonographs and inscription tools can induce the same effects. Digital technology is another incarnation of these processes, as social networking profiles, email accounts, and blogs become new means of concretizing and preserving affective bonds. Online profiles and digital photographs share with postmortem photographs this uncanny quality of blurring the boundaries between life and death, animate and inanimate, or permanence and ephemerality (Kneese).

The nature of the soul was hotly discussed during the Victorian period. People believed that souls were all identical and the distinctive personality or habit were the direct results of bodily disturbances (Cadwallader 17). Once a soul’s physical shell is cast off, it enters upon its collective permanent state, where the independent consciousness no longer exists but merges into one “General Soul”. Ghost photos directly counteract the fear and anxiety for death by centering the individuality of afterlife, stressing the connections between the living and the dead. Spirit photos are visual proofs of the trace of souls and the interface between the spiritual realm and the physical world. Death photos opened an interactive space in which the living and the dead could co-exist and interact, an epitome of flowing imaginations intertwined with concrete reality. 

PC: Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection. On some occasions, eyes would be painted on to the photograph after it was developed, which was meant to make the deceased more lifelike (left) while other times death was more obvious.

Although the scientific and methodological ways of analyzing the unknown were gaining attention at the time, it was still widely believed by Victorian spiritualists that ghosts could be captured on film (Gershon). Ghost photos served as a conduit through which people could conceive a reassuring version of the afterlife with discrete forms, recognizable traits, and distinctive personalities. The Ghost photography marks “a shift in faith, of a belief in man’s ability to reveal the nature and workings of the Divine, and in technology’s ability to enhance man’s powers of perception” (Cadwallader 20). While in reality, photographers forged ghost photos with sneaky tricks, like glass plates previously prepared with images of the deceased, yet many Victorians were willing to believe in them (Gershon). The secrets of the unknown became observable and visualizable through technological and scientific lenses that made the shapeless have shapes and the colorless with colors. These characteristics of spirit photography reveal Victorian people’s inclination to believe in the freewill of choice afterlife and the possibility of communicating with deceased loved ones. 

Death photos and ghost photos are both subject to people’s hope and imagination. While death photos served as a means to mimic and preserve the beauty of the dead when they were still alive, spirit photos eased people’s anxiety and fear towards death by emphasizing on the individuality of the soul and the links between physical and spiritual realms. Those photos inform readers about the Victorian way of viewing, interpreting, accepting, and living with the “Death” experiences and provides context for correctly understanding literary works of the time. 

PC: The Thanatos Archive. A mourning woman seated in the center of the frame and the spirit of the departed staring at the viewer from behind.

Works Cited

Bell, Bethan. “Taken from Life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography.” BBC News, 4 June 2016, 

Cadwallader, Jen. “Spirit Photography Victorian Culture of Mourning.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2008, pp. 8–31., 

Dobbins, Bill. “Memento Mori – Victorian Death Photos.” Frame by Frame: A Samy’s Camera Blog, 14 Jan. 2019, 

Gershon, Livia. “How Spirit Photography Made Heaven Literal.” JSTOR Daily, 22 Feb. 2020, 

Kneese, Tamara. “Death Stares.” Media Studies, 18 Mar. 2014,

Sibyl Vane is arguably the only semi-prominent female figure in “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.” She constantly represents imagery itself throughout the text — her profession is as an actress, her physical attributes are described through artistic language, and her worth is fleeting, only reaching its apex when Dorian Gray perceives her. As a struggling performer and a poor woman, she only finds textual reassurance when men such as Dorian watch and appreciate her. In this way, Sibyl occupies the role of framed artwork. She is a beautiful sight, admired distantly, but has no written quality other than providing entertainment for other characters. When Dorian eventually loses interest in her due to her sudden artistic failure, she is deemed unimportant, and Wilde writes her character off through suicide.

Dorian is only in love with Sibyl when she performs artistically. However, for Sibyl, these performances are a constant charade, unable to be replicated once she experiences true love. Upon discovering her inability to properly act, Sibyl says to Dorian, “The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came—oh, my beautiful love!—and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality is,” (Wilde, 84). To this, Dorian responds that Sibyl’s inability to preform has “killed his love.” Here, Wilde portrays a woman as an item of interest which has self-destructed. By assuming that Sibyl remains drastically in love with Dorian, while Dorian maintains secretive feelings constructed through mere visuality, he proves his internal biases against women, claiming that they are emotionally and intellectually inferior to men. Wilde’s assertion that women can love blindly without knowledge of their partner’s true feelings is reminiscent of his general misogynistic attitude portrayed throughout the text.

Wilde attempts to provide argumentation against female subjugation through the role of Dorian in response to Lord Henry’s comments throughout the text. For example, when Lord Henry claims that “woman are a decorative sex,” (Wilde, 47), Dorian retorts and praises Sibyl highly. At one point, he even says, “[Sibyl has not merely art, consummated art-instinct, in her, but she has personality also; and you [Lord Henry] have often told me that it is personalities, not principles, that move the age,” (Wilde, 55). However, Dorian’s quick transition to hatred for Sibyl proves that his love is false and based solely in visual perception. When Sibyl is no longer visually stunning to Dorian, he feels no desire to keep her. This embodies textual metaphors of women as false doubles of themselves which pervades through the text, a nod to Wilde’s internal disenfranchisement with and negative attitude toward women.

The fact that Dorian Gray is another double in this text only complicates Wilde’s arguments for female presentation and subjugation. Dorian clearly thinks highly of himself and is contextually allowed to — other characters praise and consider him throughout the novel. However, he is doubly embodied through his cursed image. In this way, he and Sibyl occupy similar roles. Once their visual qualities are deemed unimportant to the viewer, they are written out of the text. Because of this, I propose that Dorian does feel an emotional pull to Sibyl, but that it is merely mutuality and correspondence through visual representation that attracts him to her. In the end, Dorian is his own viewer, similarly to how he was Sibyl’s, and he chooses to destroy the image which keeps him alive.

Throughout “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde proposes ideas about human worth through observation and physical quality. Both Dorian Gray and Sibyl Vane are discussed through their artistic facades and abilities to please the viewer aesthetically. This external viewing is ultimately what leads to both characters’ deaths, though Sibyl is destroyed through masculine rejection, while Gray is allowed to opt for self-destruction. These two separate deaths of characters perceived artistically suggest that Wilde believed humans to be too visually scrutinized and consumed for them to successfully exist as independent beings.

Works Cited:

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wordsworth Editions, 1992.

Posted by: toobae21 | December 16, 2020

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray is representative of the gradual destruction of the human soul. It is a cautionary tale of sorts, as Oscar Wilde explores the hazards of pursuing pleasures. Dorian’s relationship with the portrait is complicated; there was a time when he admired the true beauty, but then this admiration morphed into resentment and fear. “A cry of pain and indignation broke him. He could see no change, unless that in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. The thing was loathsome, more loathsome, if possible, than before” (Wilde 245). From being awe-striking, the portrait evolved into a nightmarish version of Dorian’s life –a reflection of his sins, loss of youthfulness and innocence, and ultimately a projection of the corruption of his soul.

This is a side-by-side representation of Dorian’s destruction. There are many film adaptions of the novel, but I have incorporated the 1945 colorized version of the portrait above. I know this portrait is just the director’s interpretation, but it captures our attention and manages to get the message across effectively.

While researching my final paper, I came across something called “Dorian Gray Syndrome,” or DGS. ScienceDaily states that DGS is “a cultural and societal phenomenon characterized by an excessive preoccupation with the individual’s own appearance (dysmorphophobia) accompanied by difficulties coping with the aging process and with the requirements of maturation” (“Dorian Gray Syndrome”). I was initially aware of dysmorphophobia, but I did not know that this particular syndrome existed and was named after the protagonist. This syndrome is not unusual, especially in the digital age. Social media and various other media platforms have exacerbated the problems with dysmorphia and the aging process. We are expected to always present our best selves to the world for fear of being judged and excluded. The pressure to appear perfect, whether in physical appearance, actions, or words, has created a toxic environment. We are less tolerant, accepting of differences, patient, and kind. It just makes me wonder how many individuals with DGS we have in the world today?


“Dorian Gray Syndrome.” ScienceDaily,

Posted by: mimihuckins | December 15, 2020

Children in Corsets?

While researching for my final paper on advertising, I came across some pretty weird and disturbing advertisements. Take a look:

Apparently, from six to sixteen is the most important decade in a girl’s life and therefore she should wear a corset to be supported and strengthened. They also fit all ages infants to adults, and it doesn’t matter what gender your infant is, as soon as they pop out, slap a corset on ’em. According to a corset blog, corsets for children were very adjustable and were not aimed at creating a small waist, but rather “supporting” the body.

An advice column from an 1893 Australian newspaper reads, “hundreds of letters which have reached me from the young asking advice how to achieve a narrow waist, and from older ones giving their experience and describing their sufferings, all proved, what I had not previously imagined, that the tight-lacing habit had become a sin and a scandal. A corset is a perfectly innocent and useful feminine requirement when not applied with that tension which strangulates… The following extracts from a number of letters which I have received will (adds the writer) give some idea of the sacrifices endured in order to attain a foolish and undesirable end: “I want to ask your advice about the  easiest way to reduce the size of my waist.I live with a relative who insists that I must reduce my waist to 17 inches, as she says,’ No man will marry a girl unless she looks smart.’ What would be the best set of corsets, or would it be a good thing to wear a leather belt strapped on underneath them;or would it be best to sleep in a corset, and tighten it gradually day by day ?””Will you be so kind as to tell me, when you  have the space in your interesting paper, if you have ever heard of anyone beginning tight-lacing as early as this? A friend of mine has a wonderfully slender figure, which she says is the result of her mother putting a flannel band round her, when she was only a year old, to mould her soft bones. At six she wore a corded corset with whalebones,and at thirteen her mother had her tightly laced, making her waist only fifteen inches.”

Here, a mother describes her practices in the English periodical, The Queen:

“There seems to be an idea that when the corset is made to meet it gives a stiffness to the figure. In the days of buckram this might be the case, but no such effect need be feared from the light and flexible stays of the present day, and the fault which frequently leads to the fear of wearing corsets which do not meet is, that the formation of the waist is not begun early enough. The consequence of this is, that the waist has to be compressed into a slender shape after it has been allowed to swell, and the stays are therefore made so as to allow of being laced tighter and tighter. Now I am persuaded that much inconvenience is caused by this practice, which might be entirely avoided by the following simple plan, which I have myself tried with my own daughters, and have found to answer admirably. At the age of seven I had them fitted with stays without much bone and a flexible busk, and these were made to meet from top to bottom when laced, and so as not to exercise the least pressure round the chest and beneath the waist, and only a very slight pressure at the waist, just enough to show off the figure and give it a roundness. To prevent the stays from slipping, easy shoulder-straps were added. In front, extending from the top more than half way to the waist, were two sets of lace-holes, by which the stays could be enlarged round the upper part.”

It seems that often mothers would put their children in more flexible corsets at young ages and gradually add structure. I am not certain of how widespread this practice was for young children, but the role corsets for children had in 19th century advertising is surprising to me. Until the research for the final, I never was aware that the practice of wearing corsets ever extended to children or was ever a consideration in parenting. I would love to hear if anyone else knows more about this subject, the information doesn’t seem to easy to find.

The Corset and the Crinoline – A Book of Modes and Costumes from Remote Periods to the Present Time.

“17 Jan 1893 – ‘THE SIN AND SCANDAL OF TIGHT-LACING.”.” Trove,


As we have learned, the resonances between Victorian and contemporary visual culture are many and often unexpected. In a departure from some of the other posts on this blog, I wanted to use my final post to end the module with a brief recommendation for one of my favorite contemporary television shows, and one which I believe fits neatly in with the other content of this course.

Find yourself missing our discussions over break? Check out this show and some others I mention, and drop back to the blog with thoughts and comments!

Penny Dreadful, created by John Logan (2014-2016)

One of the most quintessentially Victorian television programs of all time, Penny Dreadful is a Gothic horror masterpiece, set in a gloomy, Dickensian London, and populated by a cast of supernatural literary figures from 19th-century fiction. The show opens on a Dracula setup, with a twist: retired colonial African explorer Sir Malcom Murray (Timothy Dalton) and his companion, the clairvoyant and deeply haunted Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) are on the hunt for Murray’s lost daughter, Mina, captured by a creature of the night, which drinks blood and becomes something utterly, horrifically monstrous. Soon, though, they have enlisted the help of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, holed away in London conducting experiments on the human body, and Vanessa Ives becomes entangled with the sweet-faced, inscrutable Dorian Gray. Later the Wolfman, the Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Frankenstein’s creature himself become entangled in the tale, as the band searches through the demi-monde, or shadow world, beneath the surface of London. Vampire nests sprout up in slums, Frankenstein’s creature (who has named himself Caliban) haunts a Shakespearean playhouse, and a Jack the Ripper-esque villain is tearing his bloody way through the city.

The show demonstrates a deep and intelligent engagement with Victorian culture, even down to its very name: a “penny dreadful” is the kind of lurid, blood-soaked story with which the show consistently engages. Its knowledge of Victorian superstition and supernaturalism is impressive, moving beyond surface-level Gothic spook and spectacle to reckon with the deeply racist roots of Victorian sensationalism: in this series, ancient Egyptian curses abound, and Vanessa Ives is stalked by the devil himself. It is also characterized by an understanding of its source material that is complex and deeply satisfying. Dorian Gray, often miscast as a totally callous and hedonistic rake, is here almost heartbreakingly naive, even as he degenerates into committing worse and worse misdeeds. Victor Frankenstein, the star of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel (published earlier than the rest of the series’ source material by some fifty years), speaks in flights and flurries of romantic verse, and carries around with him a copy of Wordsworth’s Lyric Ballads. At the same time, the series is delightfully and deliberately queer, a rare treat for 2014 genre television.

It’s not a perfect show, by any stretch: canceled too early, it features a rushed and in some ways difficult-to-swallow third season, and its treatment of characters of color is rather exceptionally poor. Still, it is an intelligent, slow-paced, well-written horror show, and will be fun for fans of Victorian Gothic literature to sink their teeth into.

Looking for more? Try… 

The Haunting of Bly Manor, created by Mike Flanagan (2020). Netflix’s widely anticipated follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House, Bly Manor is a loose take on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw set in the eighties and meditating on the haunting power of love and memory.

Killing Eve, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (2018-ongoing). One of my favorite television shows of all time, Killing Eve is a dark and wickedly funny exploration of queer desire and the female gaze, as assassin Villanelle and MI-6 agent Eve become embroiled in an increasingly seductive game of cat and mouse. Dressing each other, exchanging expensive gifts, watching each other relentlessly, Eve and Villanelle circle around and around each other, violently collide, and are forever changed by the experience.

Hannibal, created by Bryan Fuller (2013-2015). Bryan Fuller’s prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal tells the bloody, baroque, and surreal love story between FBI agent Will Graham and cannibal and therapist, Hannibal Lecter. In many ways the precursor to Killing Eve, Hannibal is at once a cat-and-mouse story, a chronicle of Will’s descent into darkness, and an exploration of excess and monstrosity as Hannibal makes decadent consumption a bloody and beautiful art.

Fleabag, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (2016-2019). Neither Gothic, nor supernatural, nor Victorian, Fleabag is nonetheless one of the most hilarious and devastating explorations of womanhood, voyeurism, and the gaze that I have ever seen. Structured by the conceit that Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) is aware of her audience, it tracks her journey through guilt, grief, and eventual redemption. Fleabag knows better than everyone how we construct and destroy each other through looking, and just how transcendent and profound it can feel to be truly seen. 

Posted by: scott28k | December 15, 2020

Victorian Frontline Workers and Frontline Workers Today

The book Street Life in London is an account, of sorts, of the various jobs and lives on the streets of London. These jobs ranged from necessary to peculiar. For example, the “Flying Dustmen,” who were hired to remove dust and any useless materials from homes, or “Wall Working,” or “fence working,” where part of a wall or fence could be rented or obtained for free for advertising purposes. The one profession however, that caught my attention, was that of the Public Disinfectors. Reading about them immediately brought to mind what we are presently experiencing with COVID-19. Although there are similarities with our current situation and that of the Victorian era, there are differences as well. The main difference is the actual job of the Public Disinfector himself.

Firstly, the Public Disinfector was highly recognized and honored, just like our doctors and nurses who are on the front lines. The Public Disinfectors are described as “modest heroes,” and “the humble rank and file of the army enrolled in the service of science and humanity.” It states in this section that they risk their lives daily, and the same can be said of our fearless frontline workers. What is also striking is that, even in the Victorian era, there were laws in place, specifically the Sanitary Act, to try to combat the spread of whatever germ, virus, or disease that was plaguing the public at that time. We have a mask mandate today. Although there were laws/ordinances in place, not everyone followed them (sound familiar?) and that is where the Public Disinfector, or a representative of that team, comes in. An inspector goes to the home of the purported infected party and inquires as to whether or not someone in that household is sick/infectious. If that particular party is found to be telling untruths about the status of their household, they would be either fined or imprisoned, under the Sanitary Act. I have yet to know of anyone who has been fined because they weren’t wearing their masks. It seems as if the laws were enforced more in the Victorian era.

What makes this job stand out from other jobs of frontline workers is that these men actually go into the homes (if they are permitted) of the infected person to start the process of disinfecting it. The infected person either has to leave the premises and most likely go to the hospital, or stay isolated in a room, and that room will need to be disinfected, as well. All textiles need to be disinfected: clothes, bedding, carpet, curtains. They are taken outside and put into a disinfecting oven. Today we have to take care of it ourselves, and sometimes it is the very person who is sick who must do it. That must be difficult, especially for those who are suffering more than just the general symptoms of COVID-19.

Photograph - Public Disinfectors
Street Life in London, Public Disinfectors

After noting the similarities and differences of disease and disinfecting in the Victorian era and today, one thing is certain: disease knows no bounds. It doesn’t care about class or race. The Public Disinfectors “alike disinfect the house of the poor and the rich; one day destroying the rubbish in a rag merchant’s shop, and the next handling delicate damask…in some Belgravian mansion. Another thing is certain: the frontline workers of today, without question, are putting their lives on the line to try to save as many of ours.

Works Cited: Thomson, J. “Public Disinfectors.” Street Life in London, edited by Adolphe Smith, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, pp. 16–18.

Having never read The Picture of Dorian Gray before this class, I was unsure of what to expect from one of the most famous novels of all time. However, I was familiar with Wilde’s writing style and ideas about aestheticism from reading The Importance of Being Earnest previously. Going into the book with fresh eyes and a more vague understanding of the plot than I thought I had, I was struck by the amount of thematic and plot similarities to one of my favorite franchises: Star Wars. Am I particularly proud to admit this? No. But I love it nonetheless. I’ll try to keep this brief to prevent it from becoming one of those twelve-page author biographies one has to weed through before finally getting to the cornbread recipe you forgot you were even trying to find in the first place, but my association with Star Wars has been anything but fleeting. Growing up reading the then-sequels (Timothy Zahn’s unmatched Heir to the Empire trilogy) and any other book, be it a film novelization or another addition to the ever-expanding universe, I would enthusiastically compare anything else I read to the stories and characters that existed in the galaxy I considered as real as anything else I learned in school. For what reason should I regard George Washington and Luke Skywalker as fundamentally different? I certainly wasn’t going to meet either one of them, and Luke I could actually watch fight in a revolution (well, rebellion). In any case, if anyone was writing historical fiction about Washington (and I’m sure they were), I certainly wasn’t reading it. Learning my history was familiarizing myself with every step Boba Fett took after his father’s death to become one of the most successful bounty hunters in the Galaxy, making sure I memorized even the tiniest details of every single beautiful outfit Padmé wore, and, most importantly, immersing myself in the post-film universe. Mon Mothma and Bail Organa were the only political figures I saw fit to concern myself with, and Luke and Mara’s son, the three Solo children, and all their friends, partners, and enemies were worlds more relevant to me than any long-dead president. Priorities, you know.

I like to think that I have at least a superficial understanding of the general plot of the films, and maybe even a tangential grasp on the thematic continuity of the Star Wars universe, but, according to many a forty-something-year-old man on Facebook, even that is debatable. Honestly, it’s not about to stop me from writing this comparison, so the point may as well be moot. Immediately upon opening Dorian Gray, because I am to this day incapable of not immediately trying to thread through how to tie completely unrelated pieces of media to my beloved galaxy, the gears started to turn. Specific quotes caught my interest, as well as a general plot similarity I was extremely intrigued by.

Of the many characters I loved as a child, many did not survive the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, which wasted no time stripping the vast majority of the books I read religiously from official “canon” in order to establish their own “real” timeline which they would proceed to follow in their creation of the sequel trilogy and all media produced after the acquisition of Lucasfilm. One of my beloved characters who received the scorched-earth treatment was far from specific to me; Grand Admiral Thrawn, the eponymous Heir to the Empire, was one of the most popular non-film characters ever created, and for good reason. A different kind of villain than many of the unquestionably evil-for-kicks, kills-for-fun standard fare, he was endlessly composed, legitimately stylish in his crisp all-white uniform, and best of all, was a master tactician. Thrawn had a seemingly unique ability to be able to examine the art of a species and generate from what he saw a sort of guide on how to most effectively defeat them. As one of the most popular characters ever (and yes, one of my personal favorites, he’s well-loved for a reason!), Disney eventually brought the venerated Admiral back in their new timeline, a bit neutered, perhaps, but here nonetheless. His origin, some of his personality, and even his iconic blue-skinned, red-eyed appearance were altered significantly to fit the more family-friendly mold, but his thrilling, sometimes insufferably accurate ability to analyze the art of a species as though it were a written history book on them remained.

Basil Hallward would hate him.

As he describes the portrait he painted, he laments how obvious his adoration for Dorian is in every brushstroke. He is embarrassed by how unexpectedly private the titular portrait wound up being, exposing his “artistic idolatry” of the young man, and swears to never display the painting. Distraught, he bemoans to Lord Henry how “There is too much of myself in the thing—too much of myself!”. He indirectly cites Aestheticism as his personal ideal for the public’s consumption of art. “I hate them for it,” cried Hallward (“them” being poets, or individuals in general seeing the painting, who would be able to identify the “idolatry” he is mortified about). “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. Some day I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray.” His wish for a purely aesthetic consumption of his art, with no regard for his intention or emotion, only an acknowledgement of its visual allure, is a nearly verbatim description of Wilde’s personal philosophy on art, Aestheticism. Thrawn’s approach is nearly as opposite from this as one can get. “Learn about art, Captain”, he remarks to one of his officers, Captain Pellaeon. “When you understand a species’ art, you understand that species”. Although the Star Wars universe is home to hundreds of species, and therefore has more wiggle room for classifying art as distinct to a particular group, the argument’s basis is the same: bear witness to the art an individual creates, and they will reveal themselves to you. In his huffy rejection of it, Basil confirms his belief in the philosophy’s accuracy. His admiration for and love of Dorian is conspicuous in every brushstroke, and he is unwilling to subject himself to the mortification that would result from a public exhibition of the work, essentially inviting all who see it to witness, and judge, his idolatry. I enjoy the layering to this; coming from an author less willing to interrogate their own views, Basil may have simply insisted that no art has meaning and that he cannot be judged for anything he creates as it need only be beautiful to have value. However, he interestingly acknowledges that his emotions are visible in his work, and that the product is inseparable from the process, lamenting the fact that judgement of pieces of art cannot solely be passed on their level of beauty.

Veering away from the more philosophical comparisons and towards the plot similarities, another early standout to me in the book is Lord Henry’s thorough and almost immediate manipulation of Dorian. The inarguable main plotline of Star Wars is the life, corruption, and eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker, the given name of the iconic villain better known as Darth Vader. The unanimously loved (joke! this is a joke!) prequel films depict his growth in the ways of the Force, his relationship with his wife, Padmé, kept secret out of necessity, and the steady building of his fear, anger, and resentment. He is masterfully manipulated the entire way by the Republic (essentially the galaxy’s government)’s Chancellor, Palpatine. Palpatine, who becomes the seemingly unkillable Emperor seen in the original films (…and the sequels), is a man of extreme power, and he grooms Anakin for over a decade to become his ideal servant, stroking his pride and feeding his greatest fear – the death of his beloved wife. His Machiavellian direction of Anakin’s emotions, with the Jedi following all his seemingly earnest advice, culminates in Anakin losing complete control of himself and choking his heavily pregnant wife into unconsciousness in a blind rage, and in a vicious battle with his once-closest friend, the well-known Obi-Wan Kenobi, he is struck down, his legs amputated at the knees, and his body slides into lava, charring his once handsome form beyond all recognition. Padmé dies shortly after this (but not before giving birth to Luke and Leia – irrelevant to Dorian Gray, but I couldn’t leave it out), devastated at the cruelty Anakin has given into. The cruel irony of the entire story is that the exclusive reason Anakin was willing to descend to more and more disturbing levels of violence and rage was that he was convinced by Palpatine that the latter was the only individual with his best interests at heart, and the only person able to keep him and his wife safe. Before Vader’s story ends with his death in Return of the Jedi, having sacrificed his own life to save his son, he eventually kills his once-dear friend, Obi-Wan, at this point having completely succumbed to the Dark Side. While the general arc of Anakin Skywalker’s life moderately mirrors that of Dorian Gray, albeit with a different conclusion, it is the manipulation of the two by Palpatine and Lord Henry, respectively, that I’m most interested in looking at.

Palpatine is generally widely considered one of the most genuinely evil characters in Star Wars. Extremely intelligent, a very powerful combatant, and, most dangerously, an expert at hiding in plain sight (he almost single-handedly started a war that went on for years, costing countless lives and sending the galaxy into chaos, only so he could play both sides, setting himself up as the only answer to the chaos he himself orchestrated), his primary agenda is to accumulate power, extend his own life indefinitely, and eventually free himself from the very cycle of life and death, essentially triumphing over nature and fate itself. His manipulation of Anakin, which lasted for over a decade, was almost solely to trap him into becoming a disciple powerful enough to do his bidding, but never quite powerful enough to overthrow him (what he didn’t count on, however, was the power of LOVE! and COMPASSION! and the INNATE GOOD OF HUMANITY! I love Luke Skywalker so much). And yet, for all of this, Lord Henry grosses me out more.

In terms of, like, actual havoc wrecked and general mass destruction, Palpatine wins, hands down. But his goal was never legitimate malice. He had no qualms about cutting down anyone and anything he perceived as a threat, but never really went out of his way to be manipulative for the sake of being manipulative. He did so as a means to an end; he needed an unquestioningly loyal servant, this was the only way to get the most powerful one. Lord Henry, however…eeeek. He strikes legitimate terror into my heart. He’s not going to blow up a planet or shoot lightning from his fingers, but he is going to purposefully destroy someone’s life for the enjoyment of it. His completely nauseating musings on the pleasure he gets from manipulating Dorian, particularly this quote from Chapter 3, is profoundly disturbing to me. “Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow…. There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was like it. To project one’s soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one’s temperament into another as though it were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume: there was a real joy in that—perhaps the most satisfying joy left to us in an age so limited and vulgar as our own, an age grossly carnal in its pleasures, and grossly common in its aims…. He was a marvellous type, too, this lad, whom by so curious a chance he had met in Basil’s studio, or could be fashioned into a marvellous type, at any rate”.

Lord Henry hears Basil lament about the hold Dorian has over him with his beauty, and immediately starts upon wondering how he can assert his hedonistic worldview upon an innocent. His exploitation of Dorian for his own amusement he compares to playing music. Corruption, to him, is a form of art. His ability to influence another into ruining their own life, causing the deaths of others in the process, brings him legitimate pleasure. Although he and Palpatine both begin the real work of their manipulation with a speech about the transience of youth and life, respectively, both also using attending the theatre as a partial conduit to do so, interestingly, Lord Henry’s ultimate goal is not the acquisition of a lackey or the accumulation of power. His motivation is debauchery in the lowest form, an indulgence in encouraging another to succumb to their darkest thoughts, and he reclines in poisonous pleasure amid the resulting chaos. His existence in a much more realistic setting than a high science-fantasy space opera is what cinches the disturbingness of his actions for me. Although Dorian Gray has Gothic and fantastic elements, most obviously with the titular picture, Lord Henry is no supervillain. He and the sickening pleasure he takes in encouraging others to engage in immoral behavior resulting in the injury and death of innocents are starkly realistic in a sobering way. I will never meet a Palpatine, but I am sure to pass by more than a few Lord Henrys on the street in my life.

Lucas, George, director. Star Wars. 20th Century Fox, 1977.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, 1890.

Zahn, Timothy. Heir to the Empire. Bantam Spectra, 1991.

Posted by: lilyj285 | December 14, 2020

How to Destroy a Species: The Dangers of Exploiting Nature

Bird lore (1913) (14562557107).jpg
Photo of a live passenger pigeon courtesy of Wikipedia.

It’s no question that, as humans (and, for some of us, as colonists), we have a major impact on the species we live with. However, I am writing to tell about the mass exploitation of an animal that was so harmful, that animal is now extinct: the passenger pigeon.

These birds were plentiful up through about the late 19th century. They lived in massive flocks and often weighed down entire tree branches with their crowded nesting habits (Yeoman). Their populations were not altered strongly by the presence of and living practices of the Native people who lived alongside them. It was the arrival of European colonists to North America that brought about their demise.

Around the 1880s, there was mass hunting of the birds as cheap food. It was supposed that the birds were so abundant, no amount of exploitation could bring them to extinction (Yeoman). Hunters would destroy not only the adult birds but their nesting grounds and squabs as well; this was a less than sustainable way to hunt, and it is largely agreed on that the birds were either hunted or deforested to extinction, but likely it is some combination of both.

The last passenger pigeon known to exist, “Martha,” died on September 1st in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo, (Wisconsin Historical Society) never having borne any children (Yeoman).

File:Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon. Natural History Museum, June, 2015. Digital photo, cropped and brightened.jpg
Martha, the last passenger pigeon, in 2015 at Once There Were Billions, courtesy of Wikipedia.

It is unfortunate at least that the Victorian colonists killed as many passenger pigeons as they could until they had wiped out an entire species, and disastrous at most. The history of the passenger pigeons holds an important message about conservation, and about understanding that it is possible to exploit animals to the point that their population(s) is completely destroyed.

As we know, the Victorians regularly used nature to their own ends, building over it and commodifying it as their own. We still see a lot of these practices today, but we must understand that nature is not ours to command, and if we try to be the ones with the ultimate control over it, we will only be endangering this planet even more.

Articles cited:

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