Posted by: mollyjoyce | October 19, 2021

Living Ghosts: Angela Deane and the Photographic Afterlife

Looking at Victorian post-mortem photography reminded me of the series “Ghost Photographs” by Angela Deane. From 2012 to the present, Deane has been taking found photographs, such as those from garage sales, and painting acrylic ghosts where humans once were. The bright, whimsical series seems to appear in stark contrast to the disturbing post-mortem photographs. And yet, “Ghost Photographs” could be considered post-mortems of a different sort – they’re depictions of individuals after their identities have been lost to time.

Photographs like these are usually found in family albums, often with identifying information written on the back – names, dates, locations. The titles Deane gives to these photographs describe the scenes themselves rather than the individuals depicted. The series pokes and prods at some of the most basic understandings of photography that we take for granted. We believe that photography is immorality, that our likenesses will remain long after we’re gone. But who would recognize the people in these photographs, even if their faces were unveiled? What could their physiognomy possibly tell us about who they were, what they liked, how they lived? These people are ghosts – with or without the painted sheets. In some photographs, the location is easily identifiable (see Rushmore, Castle Dreaming), which makes those images a bit spookier. They haunt that place: they have a presence that is both indubitable yet indeterminable.

Angela Deane, Rushmore, 2013

Angela Deane, Castle Dreaming, 2019

Despite its playfulness, the series highlights a somber issue of photography and privacy. Does our own image cease to be ours once it’s captured? To obtain and view personal images of a stranger brings you to a certain intimacy with them that they are completely unaware of. These images weren’t posted to Instagram, they were private photos likely meant to be shared only with family and friends. I feel that Deane’s paintings make the consumption of these images just slightly more ethical, as it reduces the potential for voyeurism. However, this is not to say that I find the series unproblematic. Deane sells prints of “Ghost Photographs” on her website for $150. How appropriate is it for her to profit off of private moments in other people’s lives? To what extent can she claim these photographs as her own? While Deane couldn’t possibly know who to credit, she sells her prints without acknowledging that the work belongs in part to another (albeit unknown) person. The dates are attributed to the year Deane painted the ghosts, but the photographs have a history of their own that predates her.

In the biography section of her website, Deane has written a statement about the series: 

“Found photographs.

Not necessarily lost but able to be found.

A history held within a snapshot,

Unknown.

I put paint to paper and in doing so turn the specific

into the abstract.

Face becomes ghost.

Person becomes vessel.

And vessel is open for possession.

(You may haunt these ghosts.)

Through this manipulation of the material,

the ghosts become us and we become the ghosts.

We become the ghosts of our everyday.”

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

A few lines that stood out to me:

“The specific into the abstract” … “we become the ghosts.”

This brings up an interesting point about photography and identity. As soon as a photograph is taken it becomes an image of a moment passed. Is photography only able to capture ghosts of ourselves – versions that existed on a particular day, in a particular moment?

“Person becomes vessel. And vessel is open for possession.”

I’m not sure I agree with the supposed erasure of their individual identities. Their bodies don’t vanish from the frame completely – they’re merely covered with a sheet. Often Deane leaves arms and legs still visible (see Seeking). Occasionally human shadows can be seen behind the ghosts (see Shadow Puppets). I don’t think that the painted ghosts erase the individuals, but rather draw attention to all the questions about them that will go unanswered, whether their faces are visible or not.

Angela Deane, Seeking, 2019

Angela Deane, Shadow Puppets, 2019

You can find the full series here:

https://angeladeane.com/section/333599-Ghost-Photographs.html

Posted by: emmacwatkins1 | October 13, 2021

A Brief History of Buskers and Vendors in Covent Garden

Covent Garden has always had a reputation for its performers and vendors. In the nineteenth century, Covent Garden solidified its place as a bustling market and staple of the city, and since then it has grown into its role as one of the “must-see” sites of London, boasting upscale shops and the London Transport Museum. Since its beginning, Covent Garden has been shaped by those who have made it their home or workplace, including but not limited to sex workers, laborers, artists, costermongers of trinkets and edible goods, and street performers of all skillsets. 

In addition to its marketplace, Covent Garden is also interesting for its architecture in terms of urban planning. In 1633, the owner of the land we now know as Covent Garden commissioned Inigo Jones to develop the land into the first housing project outside of the old city of London. As the city’s first residential square, Covent Garden permanently altered the structure of London’s urban life. The design of the square allowed for not only the bustling market, but also staging grounds for street performers, or “buskers.” Juxtaposed with the theater district that catered to the middle and upper classes and was seen as refined, street performances made room for more kinds of entertainment. According to the Covent Garden website, “The first record of Covent Garden street entertainment came in 1662, when Samuel Pepys’ diary notes that a marionette show featuring a character named Punch took place on the Piazza.”

Not all prominent ways of earning a living there were based on entertainment, however. In J. Thomson and Adolphe Smith’s anthology, “Street Life in London,” Covent Garden is introduced by photographs of “Covent Garden Flower Women” and “Covent Garden Labourers.” The photographer’s focus on the laborers of Covent Garden highlights the vast, working class history of Covent Garden. Despite the positive aspects of bringing attention to working class and poor people in Victorian London, J. Thomson’s photographs and Smith’s journalistic writings make a spectacle of their subjects, causing viewers to potentially empathize with them, but not calling on viewers to create any substantial change in terms of their welfare. In the photograph of the flower vendors, the women are shown both standing and seated outside St. Paul’s Church. St. Paul’s Church would have been situated among streets littered with churches, theaters, and ballrooms — the latter two characterized in Smith’s description of the photograph as “unwholesome.” None of the women face the camera head on, which could point to modesty or discomfort, or potentially the desire for the photograph to appear less staged, offering a supposed more natural look into the lives of the three women. It could also point to the culture of shame around flower women, who were described by Smith as “parasites of the flower world.”

 In discussions about the popular square today, Covent Garden’s working-class history is often overshadowed by its proximity to wealthier theater-goers in the past and the upper-class inhabitants of the square, who reside in its upscale apartments and penthouses, in the present. When walking through Covent Garden in the present day, it is rare to go more than a few steps without encountering a busker putting on a magic show or singing folk songs. While the performances are more high-tech, and the “costermongers” sell more modern wares, Covent Garden is still indisputably shaped by the performers and vendors who make their living there.

Special thanks to Terry St Clair, long-time Covent Garden busker, songwriter, and Covent Garden history buff, for letting me pick his brain about working class history in Covent Garden. 

Works Cited: 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Covent Garden.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 8 Apr. 

2011, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Covent-Garden-square-London. Accessed 12 October 2021.

Espey, Nigel T. “Daily Life in the 19th Century: Covent Garden Market: Covent Garden – 400 

Years of History: Covent Garden Memories.” Covent Garden Memories, 9 Nov. 2012, http://www.coventgardenmemories.org.uk/page_id__59.aspx?path=0p36p&fbclid=IwAR1EiwLcaJ6yj7icW65JRbYA_H68F8OuZp–C3qBldlgJyrrsct7YV79rTI.

Summerson, John. “Inigo Jones.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Jul. 2021, 

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Inigo-Jones. Accessed 12 October 2021.

Thomson, John. “Covent Garden Flower Women.” Photographs from the Royal Photographic 

Society Collection, Primary Source Media, 1877. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/BDRULE262484374/NCCO?u=mlin_w_mounthc&sid=bookmark-NCCO&xid=d7281bc8&pg=1. Accessed 2 Oct. 2021.

Posted by: lcmoynahan | October 12, 2021

Mythical Creatures in Victorian Children’s Literature

The Golden Age of children’s literature was during the Victorian era. They focused on lessons and morals to teach children, ensuring Susie would grow up to be a well-mannered lady and John would be a proper English gentleman. But the device they used to tell these stories and morals were mythical creatures. Elves, goblins, and brownies were prominent figures in Victorian children’s stories and played a significant part in creating these novels.

These mythical creatures have a lot of powers and can create chaos from nothing. All children, no matter their century of existence, can create chaos. They experiment with boundaries, ask questions, and push back on rules. Dr. Dena Attar, author of “Why Do So Many Children’s Stories Feature Magical Creatures,” said, “They can act out the fiercest, most anarchic feelings and desires on behalf of a character, a reader or a listener, without endangering the child’s world. They can be counterparts of the invisible friends some children invent, who break things and scribble on walls, leaving the children themselves blameless.” Children can live vicariously through these creatures and see the consequences of doing these naughty things. Telling engaging and exciting stories with morals and lessons is more interesting than just saying it outright. It gives them a memorable example to remember when they encounter a situation requiring it. 

“War Stories” by an unknown illustrator. Found on https://mitziscollectibles.typepad.com/mitzismiscellany/2013/09/scrapbook-finds.html

One of the most mischievous creatures is the elf. While they are generally seen as pesky troublemakers, they can be helpful when they want to be. They prefer the forests and natural settings to call home. They tend to be synonymous with faeries, but they aren’t the same. Faeries are more graceful, having wings, and are generally female, while elves are typically male. There are some instances where female elves are present, but they come in the way of ballads, exciting stories told in poems or songs. Some mythologies say they’re human-sized, but English mythology says they’re tiny. Because of their impish behavior, some inconveniences were blamed on elves. Elf locks were the tangles in your hair caused by an elf messing with it. Elf stroke was some kind of paralysis, possibly sleep paralysis where you’re awake but can’t move. Elf shot was what caused maladies in people and animals. 

Laura’s Lock, Goblin Marketillustrated by Arthur Rackham

Goblins are considered more malevolent elves. They range from dwarf height to average human height. A group of male goblins is called a “horde,” but a group of female goblins is called a “hag” or “crone.” While bigger than elves, they are frequently invisible to humans, keeping themselves out of sight and hiding their spiteful deeds. The New World Encyclopedia says that “Many scholars believe that such creatures came out of an interest in Paganism and its mysticism, especially the belief in nature spirits and magic. Goblins could possibly come from the belief that, along with virtuous pagans, there were evil ones that became evil spirits.” One of the most well-known stories involving goblins is Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market.” These goblins are visible to humans and try to seduce women and young girls to come and eat their delicious fruits, exclusive to the goblins’ market. Of course, the fruit isn’t just the most delicious ever tasted, but it creates an all-consuming need for more with dire consequences. 

Brownies (also house elves) are domestic spirits from Scottish folklore. They come out at night and clean the “owners’” house, performing chores and tasks out of sight. Owners are to leave out offerings of milk and food as recognition for their work; however, owners are never to talk to or about the brownies in their house, lest it offend the brownie and it leaves. Giving them anything other than the typical food and milk will offend and anger the brownie.

In the last half of the Victorian era, Palmer Cox was a very well-known illustrator and wrote several books on brownies. His illustrations are some of the most circulated images of brownies. He described them as “imaginary sprites who delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds. They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.” In the 21st century, the most popular brownie isn’t even called a brownie, but an elf. Dobby from Harry Potter is much closer to a brownie than an elf. The house-elves in the Harry Potter series are very similar to brownies. They perform the domestic tasks around the house and refuse any non-food gift (Dobby seems to be the only exception, gladly accepting an accidental gift of a sock which sets him free). 

The mythical creatures of Victorian children’s literature continue in other countries and folklore, having their own particular characteristics and images. The variations make for great folklore to be passed down and retold, carrying on the traditions of learning lessons and morals. 

Works Cited

Attar, Dena. “The Secret Life of Children’s Books – the Open University.” The Open University | BBC Partnership, connect.open.ac.uk/history-and-the-arts/the-secret-life-of-childrens-books.

Auctions, Heritage. “Palmer Cox. Three First Edition Books in the Brownie Series.: Lot #94032.” Heritage Auctions, historical.ha.com/itm/books/children-s-books/palmer-cox-three-first-edition-books-in-the-brownie-series-includes-the-brownies-their-book-another-brownie-book-the-total-4/a/201412-94032.s.

britishfairies, ~. “Brownies in Literature- from Mrs Ewing to Dobby.” British Fairies, 14 Apr. 2020, britishfairies.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/brownies-in-literature-from-mrs-ewing-to-dobby/.

Curi, Mitzy. “Victorian-Era Scrapbook Finds, Part I.” Mitzi’s Miscellany, mitziscollectibles.typepad.com/mitzismiscellany/2013/09/scrapbook-finds.html.

Gates, Amy. “Laura’s Lock, Goblin Market Illustrated by Arthur Rackham.” Cove Collective, 29 June 2020, editions.covecollective.org/content/lauras-lock-goblin-market-illustrated-arthur-rackham.

“Goblin.” Goblin – New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Goblin.

Posted by: mollymuellner | October 8, 2021

Advertising American Spirit

After looking at and discussing the Sinclair’s soap advertisement, I thought of a similar, soap-sized product does anything but clean or make life easier: cigarettes. The Sinclair’s ad features a monumental bar of soap, eerily suspended like the monolith in Stanely Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, above a scene of pastoral feminine harmony. The bar seems to have been dropped out of a heavenly opening in the sky, it’s descent observed by an angel, and it’s presence gracing the domestic scene with a promise of sophisticated yet easy labor. 

PC: Loeb, Consuming Angels

An ad I saw recently by the tobacco company Natural American Spirits also features an artificial product that does not stand out, but does everything to disguise itself with the natural world.

PC: Mind Over Matter – Media Education Lab

If American Spirit hadn’t been my brand of choice when I smoked cigarettes, I don’t know that I would have registered this as an ad for a tobacco company. Did you? 

On the left there is stated the devotion to the earth and promise of cleaning up cigarette litter, on the right page is a special offer to purchase more cigarette litter. 

The pack of cigarettes is both disguised and dominant in the visual landscape of this advertisement, not dissimilar to the contradicting messages in the text. The yellow hue of their most popular flavor uncompromisingly forms a cloudless sky over an untouched mountainous terrain that is reminiscent of the romanticized Rocky Mountains. Pictured in profile on every pack is the companies logo outlined against the red circle which functions now as a setting sun. The American Indian chief holding up a peace pipe is colossal in scale and pointedly solo. 

If all text were removed and the faint shadow of the pack erased, the picture could pass as a sad and symbolic reflection of the US history of diminishing, depriving, and attempting to imprison as history the population of Indigenous Americans.

But that is not the case. A major Amerrican tobacco brand is using native imagery to naturalize and downplay the harmful effects of smoking cigarettes on the planet and it’s population. The peace pipe was often used in spiritual ceremony and treated as an object of respect, here it functions to appropriate and elevate the status of cigarettes as an everyday, for everyone, commodity. 

Natural American Spirits are produced by Santa Fe Natural Tobacco, a subsidiary branch of R.J. Reynolds which is the second-largest tobacco company in the United States and also parents Camel, Newport, and Pall Mall. 

PC: San Francisco Examiner

Displaying a near rainbow across the shelf, the brand is eye-catching and easy to distinguish against the other packs with bland colors, more basic designs, and greater nominal weight. But does that matter? Unlike soap, cigarettes cannot attempt to offer help, everyone knows about the health risks of smoking, and if you somehow managed to escape those, there are government warning labels required to be on 3 separate sides of each box. I don’t know anyone who picked up smoking for the irresistible packaging, I know a lot of people who started because it was what the people around them did.

Aware of the health hazards, I smoked my first cigarette when I was 13 because I wanted to look “cool”. I learned quickly from my liberal but edgy 14-year-old  idols that it was not cool to just “smoke anything”, you had to smoke Spirits.  

“They’re better for the earth you know,” mid-drag, “and really strong.” Performatively lengthened exhale. “But that’s just because they don’t have the additives in other cigs, they hit harder because they’re natural.” 

They do “hit harder” but it’s because they have a higher nicotine content than other cigarettes and therefore higher addictive potential. They have just as many toxicants and cancer-causing chemicals as other commercial brands.  

PC: Truth Initiative 

And it says so on the box! See the bottom line in tiny print. 

In addition to greater harm in the specific brand, their marketing is more harmful. Unable to argue that cigarettes are healthy, they market within the bounds of addiction offering moral justification for an  environmentally conscious audience that has not yet given up hope to one day quit. 

Tobacco sells itself as a commodity to people who are already hooked, and American Spirit puts extra work into keeping them hooked. 

Loeb, Lori Anne, Consuming Women: Advertising and Victorian Women 

“What Is the Native American Peace Pipe?” Indians.org, indians.org/articles/native-american-peace-pipe.html.

Plain, Charlie. “Cigarettes Marketed as ‘Natural’ and ‘Organic’ Are Loaded with Nicotine and Toxicants, Just like Other Cigarettes – School of Public Health – University of Minnesota.” School of Public Health, 8 July 2019,   http://www.sph.umn.edu/news/cigarettes-marketed-as-natural-and-organic-are-loaded-with-nicotine-and-toxicants-just-like-other-cigarettes/. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.

“Saving San Francisco’s Ban on Candy-Flavored Tobacco Products.” The San Francisco Examiner, 6 May 2018, http://www.sfexaminer.com/opinion/saving-san-franciscos-ban-on-candy-flavored-tobacco-products/. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.

“2000 Surgeon General’s Report Highlights: Warning Labels.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 July 2015, https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/2000/highlights/labels/index.htm. 

“Home Page.” Reynolds American, https://www.reynoldsamerican.com/. 

“Are Organic or Natural Cigarettes Safer to Smoke?” Truth Initiative, truthinitiative.org/research-resources/traditional-tobacco-products/are-organic-or-natural-cigarettes-safer-smoke.

Posted by: rebeccakilroy | October 2, 2021

Martine Gutierrez and “Indigenous Woman”

This week the Victorian soap advertisements, especially McClintock’s article on race and imperialism, made me think about this image from Martine Gutierrez. I first encountered Gutierrez’s work in a Spanish class I took last semester about hybrid identities. Gutierrez is a trans woman of Latinx descent whose work celebrates indigenous Mayan heritage while seeking to dismantle categories of race, gender, and sexuality. In 2018, she produced Indigenous Woman, a 124-page fashion magazine for which Gutierrez photographed and modeled in every image. Not only does the magazine feature traditional fashion spreads, it’s interspersed with reimagined advertisements for cosmetics and other personal hygiene products. Her biography on the Ryan Lee Gallery’s website states that Gutierrez seeks to “produce the very conduits of advertising that sell the identities she disassembles”.

Martine Gutierrez, Indigenous Woman

The advertisement that most resonated with me when I was doing this week’s readings is the image of a simple bar of soap against a plain tile background with the words “White Wash” written in black paint. The fine print on the soap’s packaging reads:

100% PURE BLEACH. NO ADDED FRAGRANCE. NO FUSS. BECAUSE SOMETIMES WHITE IS RIGHT. KEEP OUT OF EYES. KEEP AWAY FROM CHILDREN, ANIMALS, NATURAL RESOURCES, AND INDIGENOUS CULTURES. DESTROYS EVERYTHING ON CONTACT”

The composition, and especially the text, challenges the still-visible legacy of Victorian soap ads. The last sentence “Destroys everything on contact” alludes to the myth of first contact employed by Victorian advertisers including Pears’ soap that presented the magical, purifying, “civilizing” powers of the commodity. Gutierrez subverts this logic to present the destructiveness of the racist ideologies that underpinned those ads. Fully understanding soap as both a commodity and a symbolic representation of imperialistic power, Gutierrez highlights the harmful impacts that imperialist ideologies have on “children, animals, natural resources and indigenous cultures”. Interestingly all of the above appear in Victorian soap advertisements. The visual exploitation of these groups stands for a larger historical exploitation based on nineteenth-century ideas which continues in advertising to this day.

Martine Gutierrez, Indigenous Woman

Gutierrez’s commentary on the imperialist ideology of soap is made more effective by the image on the opposite page. While not expressly a single, full-page spread the motif of the bathroom tiles in both images suggests their connection. On the left hand side of the page is this image of Gutierrez dressed as a maid, cleaning what appears to be a hotel bathroom. This image would never appear in a traditional soap ad because it reflects the reality of domestic labor, especially women’s labor and most especially the labor of women of color. As McClintock writes in her introduction “To begin a social history of soap, then, is to refuse, in part, to accept the erasure of women’s domestic value under imperial capitalism” (McClintock 209). This erasure is so complete that many people today expect never to see the people, mostly women, who clean their spaces especially in a place as carefully orchestrated as a hotel. By reintroducing the image of the domestic laborer alongside a cleaning product, Gutierrez refuses to participate in this erasure. She calls attention not only to the racist legacy of soap but to the continued exploitation of women of color in domestic labor.

Works Cited:

Gallery, RYAN LEE, and Rlgallery. “Martine Gutierrez: Indigenous Woman.” Issuu, 2018, https://issuu.com/rlgallery/docs/indigenous_woman.

“Martine Gutierrez.” Martine Gutierrez – Ryan Lee Gallery, https://ryanleegallery.com/artists/martine-gutierrez/#biography.McClintock, Anne, and Anne McClintock. “Soft-Soaping the Empire.” Imperial Leather Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, Routledge, New York, NY, 2015, pp. 207–231.

MIT Technology Review recently published an article, “How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras,” that eerily reflects the surveillance technology established in the 19th century, for what is a Ring camera but not an individual’s own personal watch tower in the panopticon?

Amazon Ring partnered with several police departments in the United States to help combat domestic violence; these departments gave free Ring cameras to survivors of domestic violence so they would be able to have video evidence of their abuser in the act of abusing, or in the case of one woman mentioned in the article, her abuser breaking into her house. At first glance, this appears like a perfect solution to a crime that notoriously has a lack of “hard evidence,” but upon further investigation, it becomes increasingly clear that the use of Ring cameras only serves to perpetuate the victimization of survivors. For one, there is a specific app associated with the camera that the owner and certain neighbors can access in order to alert the survivor of anything; however, there is a special portal in the app that allows for police to ask for private footage. The pervading issue of the Ring cameras is exactly that: law enforcement having intimate access to video surveillance of the survivors, their homes, as well as passerby who are then susceptible to racial profiling. The use of Ring cameras for this purpose is an evolution of the panopticon, if you will, in which the police once again have ownership over the proverbial eye and are the masters of surveillance which positions almost everyone as potential criminals; just as Victorian police and the emergence of crime photography allowed for the definition of ‘criminal’ to expand, Ring does the same, this time under the guise of protecting domestic violence survivors.

“But some domestic violence experts are concerned that these initiatives inject a combination of potentially dangerous factors into the lives of those they are supposed to protect: law enforcement that doesn’t always listen to survivors; a technology company with a patchy record on privacy and transparency; and programs launched without much department oversight—or input from experts on domestic violence.”  (Eileen Guo)

conceptual illustration showing layers of imagery that reference surveillance, policing, and domestic violence
Image courtesy of MIT Technology Review, by Joan Wong

The survivors of domestic violence in the program with free Ring cameras had to sign an agreement which decreed that their involvement in the program is contingent upon them providing footage to the police; if they refuse, they are out of the program. In this regard, domestic violence survivors are not protected from future attacks, but placed under a synonymous position of criminality.

Surveillance in the Victorian consciousness — an already hyper visual culture– was a natural solution to anxieties surrounding crime; the utilization of Ring cameras is no different, except now every individual has the power to surveil, and thus, police and discipline.

Unfortunately, what happened in the Victorian era did not stay in the Victorian era, and here we are, employing the surveillance techniques in a treacherously evolved way.

Guo, Eileen. “How Amazon Ring Uses Domestic Violence to Market Doorbell Cameras.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/09/20/1035945/amazon-ring-domestic-violence/

When we think of “fandoms,” we often envision people obsessively discussing a subject on internet forums to an extent that is almost disconcerting. As it just so happens, Victorians are not much different than us, only instead of a harsh screen, they discussed theories around inviting hearths and oil lamps. Often credited with being the earliest example of what we now describe as “fandom,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes inspired a cult following which had never before been seen. This is a topic that is written on by those with far greater knowledge than myself, but I have an intrinsic need to use all the time younger me spent obsessing over BBC’s Sherlock to some use, so this is my attempt.

First, some background on Arthur Conan Doyle’s original vision for the series. Conan Doyle perceived himself as a connoisseur of historical literature more than a mystery fiction writer. This dichotomy is most obvious in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. While in the first part, “The Reminiscences of Watson” we follow many of the plot beats a modern audience would expect from a crime procedural, it has a whiplash-inducing tonal shift, where we leave the foggy streets of London to pivot to the American frontier, entitled “The Country of the Saints.” While still tangentially related to the UK based mystery, the audience is treated to a commentary on the Church of Latter-day Saints and the tribulations of those trying to settle a Utah still lacking statehood. We do eventually return to Holmes and Watson as the two stories are connected, but the second part reads more as a bureaucratic report than a story.

Conan Doyle would eventually adapt his storytelling style to more closely resemble what we would recognize today as a traditional detective story, lacking any dalliances into the American West. It was at this point that he began to gain a fanbase ravenous for more stories. While Conan Doyle did not live long enough to see fanclubs such as the Baker Street Irregulars come into being, he still did feel stifled in his pursuits. While the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes continued to earn The Strand Magazine a wealth of subscribers, his nonfiction works were often left in the dust of the notorious series. In an act of defiance, Conan Doyle murdered his beloved character in the “Final Problem.” This was followed by an estimated 20,000 subscriptions to the Strand being cancelled citing what they viewed as a rushed and untimely demise for their favorite character. Conan Doyle was in no rush to help his publisher, not reviving the detective until two decades later. 

Since the Victorian era, there have been a range of adaptations, looking to revive Conan Doyle’s universe for a new audience. Perhaps the most popular of these is BBC’s Sherlock. Often commended for its reconciliation of certain errors in the original, Conan Doyle is known for sometimes mistaking details such as which of Dr. Watson’s appendages were shot in Afghanistan, yet the show was far from flawless. Writers Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat were at first the subjects of momentous praise from critics and fans alike, yet as the years advanced, their popularity plummeted due to numerous controversies.

The first season is regarded by most fans as the better of the four released. Though there are some outlandish deductions credited to Holmes, such as that scratches on a phone near the charger mean the owner is a drunk, the tale was rooted in witty writing and reliable storytelling. 

The show proceeded to break a fundamental rule of mystery fiction: your audience should always have a chance of coming to the solution before the protagonist. In the episode “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler are investigating a murder caused by blunt force trauma in the middle of a field with no people around for miles. After failing to locate a murder weapon, they conclude the man was killed by the return trajectory of his own boomerang. While a creative ending to the case, there is no reason an audience member would assume this series of events. This was overlooked by many fans, most just taking it in good jest as being a tad ridiculous but not detracting too much from their enjoyment.

Perhaps the most highly critiqued moment of the series was in the aftermath of the show’s interpretation of the detective’s death. Moffatt and Gatiss knew that Sherlock would have to return and therefore staged it as a mystery for viewers to ponder over during the two year hiatus between seasons. This type of hypothesizing was also done in the time of Conan Doyle but there are two key differences. The first is that none of the 19th century audience knew Holmes would reappear twenty years later, so any guesswork that happened during that time was of a more casual nature, no one expected any confirmation from the creator. Secondly, unlike in the Victorian era where most people theorized about their missing detective in a much more private setting, the internet meant thousands of people commenting and collaborating on hypothetical methods the titular protagonist could have used to fake his own death. 

When it was time for the grand reveal, people were thrilled. Finally, an answer to the question that had riddled so many fans: how did Holmes do it? The best part of any mystery is the explanation and while we are given a sampler of a few possibilities, these are all dismissed as fake. The show even goes so far as to provide ample commentary, portraying those theorizing about the detective’s fall within the show itself, actively mocking not only those on the screen, but those watching at home, ridiculing them for daring to care. There never is that grand reveal, no reward for waiting with bated breath and collaborating as a community. 

In an interview before the premiere of the disputed episode, Moffat is quoted as saying: “Oh, no more questions about the fall. We’re not telling – the answer will come. He did it cleverly. Very cleverly. And we know, we’re not telling!” Though we can never know what precisely made the creators abandon their plan for a grand reveal, I would like to posit that it was, at least partly, the pressure of a zealous fanbase to create a scenario that was appropriate for the level of anticipation. 

Unlike other genres, mysteries are meant to be obsessed over. It is a form of storytelling that encourages active participation from the audience. However, this does result in a more involved fanbase that tends to be rather vocal and demanding of creators. Neither Conan Doyle or the BBC team dealt with this situation in perhaps the most productive way possible. Rushing a death and copping out on the “big reveal” are not exactly hallmarks of good detective writing. However, the constant requests from a fanbase to have their vision of a story become canon must be incredibly overwhelming, not just in terms of time, but also mental real estate. Yet, punishing the fanbase for caring is non-advisable as it sets a precedent that schools us to not engage with media, and that would make for a very bleak world. 

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2012/may/21/sherlock-reichenbach-fall-live-chat

https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20160106-how-sherlock-holmes-changed-the-world

https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/816/769

https://www.wattpad.com/story/13132615-fic-why-fanfiction-is-taking-over-the-world

Posted by: vincentgaberlavage | September 20, 2021

Dore, Bloodborne and the Unique Horror of Victorian Urban Life

When I first looked at the engraver Gustave Dore’s images of Victorian London my immediate first thought was “Hey that looks kind of like Bloodborne”! Now my immediate second thought was “my brain must be rotting out of my ears“, however, after giving it more thought I believe I have discovered the connection between the two. Both rely on the unique conditions of Victorian urban life to convey a sense of discomfort and unease.

First a little explanation on my part. Bloodborne is a 2015 action rpg published by From Software. It has a cosmic horror inspired narrative taking place within the fictional city of Yharnham, which has its visual basis in Victorian London. I will be focusing less on the cosmic horror aspects of this, for the purposes of this article, and more on aspects of area design and what it conveys about the living conditions of the average person who lives in this city. In addition, I attempted to get screen shots with as little blood as possible however, blood is in the name of the game, so be forewarned if you’re a little squeamish.

Over Crowding

In Dore’s illustrations we see a version of London that is so crowded with people it is difficult to see how one could even move through the streets. In certain districts. The public streets of the city as well as the poorer districts are claustrophobically over crowded. Notably in his image of the row houses with their backyards built practically on top of each other, London feels move like a hive than a city. There is also the steam engine that passes over the row houses rather than stopping somewhere among them, suggesting these people are being somehow left behind by the progress that is occurring elsewhere in the city. These images invoke the horror of being confined and crushed among the sheer volume of people within the city.

Bloodborne’s Yharnam also stresses Urban crowding it its design. However here it is used to enhance the horror of the setting rather than highlight a disparity in wealth. The streets of the city are largely empty, due to the events of the game, but indications of a bustling city are abundant in the environment. For example the streets of Central Yharnam are littered with abandoned coaches, sometimes parked just feet away from each other on opposite sides of the road. The sheer volume of these suggests a massive amount of transit occurring on a daily basis in the city (when the streets aren’t full of werewolves) and in addition a massive number of people commuting, or driving carriages, or simply walking to places in the street. With all of this detritus of a bustling community shown but the absence of all of those people, it creates an eerie atmosphere as the player is forced to wonder where all those people have gone.

In addition the row houses of Dore’s London make a come back here as well used much to the the same effect. The houses are placed incredibly close together, making claustrophobic alleys for the player to traverse. Fog is also used to great effect here obscuring what is in front as well, making the player nervous to proceed knowing there is limited space to run. In addition most of these houses contain unfriendly inhabitants, showing that Yharnam is in fact massive and populous, but also completely unfriendly to you. Aside from the row houses, much of the city’s architecture is built incredibly close together. The skyline looking like a looming collage of buildings impossibly close to each other. This almost lends an element of the cosmic horror explored elsewhere in the game as your mind struggles to understand the overlapping and interconnected buildings built beyond the bounds of normal geometry (and sensible city planning). This closeness actually leads me into the second aspect of horror I’d like to discuss.

Disease and Poor Sanitation

Here we will move on From Dore entirely to focus on the element of Victorian urban life most prominent in Bloodborne: disease. Bloodborne is a game that even on its most basic surface level, is about illness. Specifically water, and blood borne (haha get it? Bloodborne?) illnesses. There is Ashen Blood, which is implied to have began as a water borne illness and the Beast Plague which is explicitly communicable via blood. The way these diseases, particularly Ashen Blood, are presented calls back very clearly to the realities of early epidemiology in the Victorian Period.

For example in Central Yharman there is a well in the center of a court yard that even to the player’s eyes is visibly swarming with flies. I believe this is a reference to the Broad Street Cholera Epidemic, which occurred between 1853 and 1854. The outbreak was traced specifically to a public water pump that took water from a well dangerously close to local sewage pipes and cesspools (Ball 108). This epidemic specifically led the the water borne theory of Cholera communication as well as some of our modern practices surrounding contact tracing. So, what might seem like just a dirty well in fact connects the epidemics of Bloodborne to the historical reality of Cholera epidemics in London, exacerbated by poor sanitation and uncomfortably close living quarters afforded to those who lived in city centers.

The dried canal sewer system of Central Yharnam

In addition, directly below the courtyard with the well, there is a half dried up canal that connects to what looks to be the city sewer system. I believe this is specifically a reference to The Great Stink of June 1858, during which a drop in the level of the Thames exposed the raw sewage that was being poured into the river on a daily basis directly to both the air and the summer heat causing as the name suggests, a great stink (Norton 175). Although this mercifully did not lead to another cholera outbreak it was a significant driver in the reform of London’s sewage systems (Norton 174). In Bloodborne’s dried riverbed however we see a different version of history where plague rats roam and those afflicted by disease are forced to wallow. Although the poor sanitation conditions of real life London led to significant reform, they can still be leveraged and stylized to create horror.

Conclusion

Horror media at its best is a twisting of that which is comfortable into a source of discomfort. Wether it is used to create a sense of foreignness and unfamiliarity for the setting of a travelogue or specifically to shock and unnerve, it is clever stylistic twisting of established histories or societal conditions that truly inspires fright.

works cited: Dore, Gustave. Illustrations from London: A Pilgrimage, 1872, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/london-illustrations-by-gustave-dor

Bloodborne. PS4, From Software, 2015.

Ball, Laura. “Cholera and the Pump on Broad Street: The Life and Legacy of John Snow.” The History Teacher, vol. 43, no. 1, Society for History Education, 2009, pp. 105–19, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40543358.

Norton, Matthew. “Mechanisms and Meaning Structures.” Sociological Theory, vol. 32, no. 2, American Sociological Association, 2014, pp. 162–87, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43186669.

Oscar Wilde’s lengthy poem, “Ballad of Reading Gaol”, is highly concerned with visuality in relation to being an inmate. The main character of the poem, so to speak, is one of the prisoners who killed his wife and peculiarly has a “wistful eye” meaning although he is aware of the inevitability of death, his perception allows him to be less fearful; this is particularly unnerving for the narrator as he is someone who is very focused on the visual and cannot comprehend how in the panopticon, one could ever escape the adoption of the fixated eye that is cast on them. That is to say, there is an adoption of the “master’s tools” whereby an individual who is the object of the gaze naturally becomes the gazer of another person. The panopticon’s design encourages a reciprocation of the gaze where it is not just the guard in the central tower who is intently watching the inmates but also the inmates exchange gazes amongst each other because of the circular structure: “He does not sit with silent men/Who watch him night and day…” (Wilde, lines 61-62).

Internalized Authority and the Prison of the Mind: Bentham and Foucault's  Panopticon
Photo courtesy of Brown University.

As you can see in the above photograph, it would be understandable for an inmate to fixate on another inmate; thus, it is no surprise that the narrator of Wilde’s poem becomes almost obsessed with this other inmate especially because this man’s humanity has not yet been completely depleted like that of the narrator. The utilization of the panopticon in conjunction with the proliferation of photography as a tool by police cements how the concept of “terror” became suddenly, and overwhelmingly, visual; in other words, what once was an idea was now a ubiquitous image of
“the terrorist”. Wilde emphasizes that terror is a part of the inmates’ souls, something immovable and tangible: “And Horror stalked before each man, and terror crept behind” (Wilde, 12.3.5-6). In this passage, the narrator personifies terror where the boundary between human and capital ‘t’ Terror becomes blurry; and so thus, like with photography of criminals, the image of “the terrorist” develops into one image in the collective minds. In their essay on Fenian photography, Mac Suibhne and Martin describe it perfectly when they posit that “the ‘panorama of faces’…was that they could not be easily differentiated…” in which this collection of indistinguishable faces not only incites more fear because anyone could then be positioned as a terrorist but also foments a psychological essentialism that negates the individuality of each person (Mac Suibhne and Martin, 118).

Wilde, Oscar. “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” 1897.

Mac Suibhne, Breandán, and Amy Martin. “Fenians in the Frame: Photographing Irish Political                            Prisoners, 1865-68.” Field Day Review, vol. 1, Field Day Publications, 2005, pp. 101–20, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30078606.

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. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000bf72

Rollerson, 02/05/2016 by Deborah, et al. “The African Princess: Sarah Forbes Bonetta.” Black History Month 2021, 19 Feb. 2021, www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/real-stories/the-african-princess-sarah-forbes-bonetta/.
“Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies).” National Portrait Gallery, www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp63230/sarah-forbes-bonetta-sarah-davies?search=sas&sText=sarah%2Bbonetta.
“Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Family.” Royal Collection Trust, www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/black-and-asian-history-and-victorian-britain/sarah-forbes-bonetta-and-family.
“Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen VICTORIA’S African Protégée.” English Heritage, www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/osborne/history-and-stories/sarah-forbes-bonetta/.

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