No One Likes Trollope
We've discussed Victorian author Anthony Trollope on this blog a number of times before. He is (in)famous here for writing the most dithering, pointless books I've ever had the misfortune to read. I've summed up his Can You Forgive Her, Barchester Towers, and Phineas Finn, all of which made the rage-haze descend.

He's said bitchy things about other writers, had a weird obsession with fox-hunting, and insulted all of Australia. This is purely a personal preference, but Trollope is really not my favorite guy.

Then I discovered a couple more stories about him in Kate Thomas's Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters (2012) that only reaffirm my dislike. I know I've been quoting Thomas for a great number of entries now, but this is the last one, I swear.

Thomas writes,

"[I]f there's something Trollope admired, and to which he turned himself, it was speed. [Not amphetamines, in case that wasn't clear]

"Trollope developed stratagems of efficiency and speed for literary production. He realized that if he traveled by rail instead of by horse, he could use the hours on a train to write, and he had a writing tablet designed that fundcitoned as a portable desk for railway carriage production. In later years, he applied the same principle to ocean travel and had carpenters fit writing desks in his cabins.

"Not only did he write while traveling, but he also (in)famously wrote to a strict quota, timing his production in tandem with the travel. Many reviled Trollope for such 'mechanical processes' [a phrase used by Henry James in his 1888 biographical work on Anthony Trollope], but Trollope himself reveled in what he called his 'mechanical genius' [...] and the idea that he transcribed and delivered industriously, rather than authored through inspiration.

"In  his Autobiography, published posthumously in 1883, Trollope merrily described how he would allot himself not only a word quota for each work session, but also a precise word quota for each novel that he would neither under-, nor overshoot. Brushing aside critiques that his methods, which he calls 'appliances,' are 'beneath the notice of a man of genius' [...], he rejects the very term 'genius' and advises young men who want to be authors 'to seat themselves at their desks day by day as though they were laywers' clerks; -- and so let them sit until the allotted task shall be accomplished'" (76).

Of course, there have been hundreds of authors, 'genius' and otherwise, who agree with Trollope's discipline: writers write. It's a job. They have to do it every day. Joyce Carol Oats and Truman Capote are just two authors off the top of my head who had/have highly regulated writing schedules.

However, I remember hearing at a conference once that Henry James actually accompanied Trollope on one of his transatlantic sea voyages and was absolutely disgusted with how perfunctory Trollope was in his creation of literature. There was seemingly no joy in it: he could nail down his passages to the exact word count he wanted, and then just stop. He could write until his 'shift' was over, and then stop mid-sentence and just walk away. Writing didn't seem to be something he loved, but merely something he was good at.

It was like manufacturing parts in a factory. Except it was great literature.

Another story about Trollope in Thomas's book just warms my heart-cockles. Trollope was undeniably a huge celebrity. And yet there were other celebrities who had never heard of him. It's like when you hear about some diva movie star being refused entry to a club, and him or her shouting, "DON'T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!?!?!" And the bouncer goes, ". . . nope."

"Trollope was given the brush-off by the most famous of polygamists when returning from an 1872 trip to Australia that he'd made in order to see his son. He returned via America and attempted to see Brigham Young:

"'I came home across America from San Francisco to New York, visiting Utah and Brigham Young on the way. I did not achieve great intimacy with the great polygamist of the Salt Lake City'.

"Young had kept Trollope in the doorway, refused to invite him in, and clearly had no idea who Trollope was [....] It is a charmingly queer joke: the author of plots about infidelity is curious to meet the great father of polygamous living, but Trollope's own (embarrassing) obscurity prevents him enjoying 'intimacy' with him" (p. 86, footnote 31).


Henry "Box" Brown
As you know, lately I've been reading Kate Thomas's Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters (2012).

In footnote 32, on page 25, Thomas writes, "The mail also played an important role in accruing the subjectivity and citizenship denied to the enslaved in America. For an account of how slaves used the mail to outwit slave-masters and the infamous case of a slave mailing himself to freedom, see Hollis Robbins, "Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry 'Box' Brown", American Studies (2009)".


Henry Brown was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1815. He married and had four children, all of whom (including his wife) were sold to a North Carolina plantation in 1848, away from Henry. Unsurprisingly, this fueled his desire to escape slavery at all costs.

Brown was a member of a local church, and enlisted the help of a friend to help mail him to abolitionists in the north. The friend was named James Caesar Anthony Smith, which is rather appropriate, given how Brown was smuggled out of enemy territory: Cleopatra escaped danger by being delivered to Julius Caesar rolled up in a rug, smuggled right under her enemy's noses.

James Smith had a white contact, named Samuel Smith (no relation), who agreed to help Henry Brown for a price. I'm not sure what that price was, nor how Henry was able to pay it. Regardless, Samuel Smith boxed up Henry in a giant wooden crate on March 23, 1849, and mailed him to an anti-slavery society in Philadelphia. The box, labeled "Dry Goods", had a single hole cut in the top for air, and took 27 hours to be delivered by a combination of wagon, rail, steamboat, and ferry. In the grand scheme of things, that's not bad at all, considering it's 250 miles from Richmond, VA to Philadelphia, PA (never mind the time it takes to process the mail).

Despite the fact that it only took a day to deliver, it must have been hellishly uncomfortable. The box was 3 feet long, 2 feet 8 inches deep, and 2 feet wide. He must have been doubled in half to fit. It was lined with some coarse cloth, but that probably didn't help much. All he brought with him was a single skein of water and a few biscuits.

Despite being labeled "This Side Up", the box was tossed around roughly on the trip. Henry Brown was turned upside down several times, once for so long that the amount of blood rushing to his head made him fear he was going to die.

Upon the box being opened to what I'm sure were some very surprised abolitionists, Henry Brown emerged singing a psalm.

Let's look at this ridiculous lithograph from 1850 by Samuel Rowse:
I'm not sure why their heads are so out of proportion with their bodies. They look like Victorian Bratz dolls.

Meanwhile, down south, the two Smiths attempted to mail more slaves to freedom, but their plans were soon discovered and they were arrested. Only Samuel Smith served any time, being jailed for six-and-a-half years. James Smith was miraculously not charged, and managed to escape not long thereafter and join Henry in Boston.

Abolitionist leaders in the north, including Frederick Douglas, thought it would be best to keep Brown's escape quiet, since it may alert people in the south to start examining large shipments more closely.

However, others (including Henry Brown) decided that it may inspire slaves to attempt escapes of their own, showing them how one could succeed. He went public with his story, going on stage to lecture all around the north.

In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, which allowed slave owners to apply to a Federal marshal to catch their runaway slaves, no matter where they were. Northern states were required to comply with this law, even though slavery was abolished in the north. Fearing that he may be retaken (especially given his conspicuous status on the lecture circuit), Henry Brown fled to England.

In England, he married again, this time to a white English woman, and had a daughter. He received a great deal of criticism for not purchasing his first wife and four children. Their fate is unknown.

He returned to the States 25 years later with his English wife and daughter, supporting them through performing as a magician. One of his staple acts was emerging from the original wooden box in which he was mailed. He likely died in 1889.

Short story Wednesday!

I was reading Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, which is maybe the best thing ever, if you're a literature junkie. In one of the books, a character mentions that the last original idea in literature was used in the writing of Flatland. I had never heard of Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland, so I looked it up.

It is some sort of Victorian absurdist, alternate reality novella with class commentary (especially about the aristocracy). It's in a world where there are only two dimensions, and everyone is a shape, and the more sides you have, the more you outrank people. So a pentagon would outrank a square, for instance, and a square would outrank a triangle.

Since I am doing my PhD on representations of the aristocratic body in Victorian literature, I went, "YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION. TELL ME OF THESE LORDS WITH THEIR HEXAGONAL BODIES, AND THEIR TRIANGLE SERFS." There's a normal sentence.

Then I read the novella. Which was unlike anything I've ever read. I'd explain more, but I'd rather just like to get into the recap so your brain can melt, too. You can read the original text here, if you like.

As usual, WARNINGS FOR SWEARING. Also, warnings for excessive math. I don't know if that's an appropriate trigger warning or not, but it probably should be.

Flatland: A Romance

Read more...Collapse )





Where do I begin with this?

First of all, I am happy to acknowledge that this is probably way more enjoyable if you like math, which I don’t. Secondly, the universe that Abbott created was really interesting and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I would even happily consider reading this again at some point.

However, the novella either needed to be way longer, and with an actual plot, or the universe needed to be cut down quite a bit. It was such a rich universe, but the proportions are all wrong to make this a strong narrative.

Secondly, this had some great commentary about social mobility, the idea of ‘inherent’ traits in women and the lower orders, class dynamics, religious fundamentalism, totalitarian states, etc.

But again, Abbott’s fascinating universe was the novella’s undoing: the universe was a bit too unusual for the satire to be very pointed. There were a few sentences here and there where I thought, “Ah! Here’s the satire! I see you commenting on your own culture!” But that would immediately fade by the next sentence. Everything else was so dissimilar that it was hard to make any but the most fleeting of connections between the two worlds. There just weren’t enough parallels for any sort of biting social commentary.

The moral of the story, as is the moral of so many stories I’ve recapped on this blog, is: women are just awful.

Delivering the "Male"
As discussed in my post from over a week ago, we need to talk about prostitution, homosexuality, and the Victorian Post Office.

These stories and quotations all come from Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters by Kate Thomas (2012). And it will soon become evident why the postman in this illustration is giving you some serious bedroom eyes.


In 1889, there was a London scandal called the Cleveland Street Affair (also known as the West End Scandal). "Not only was it [...] a national sensation, but it also occasioned the first high-profile prosecution under Britain's first ever law against homosexuality: the Criminal Law Amendment Act, Section 11. This law, which was passed in 1885, was the same alw under which [Oscar] Wilde would be prosecuted ten years later" (40).

"The events comprising the Cleveland Street Affair came to light because of an irregularity in another circulation system: currency. On 4 July 1889, one of the General Post Office's internal policemen, P.C. Luke Hanks, interrogated a fifteen-year-old Boy Messenger named Charles Swinscow who had been found with an amount of money disproportionate to his meager wages as a telegraph delivery boy.

"There had been a theft in the Central Telegraph Office [....] On the trail of a thief, the suspicious Hanks asked Swinscow to account for his possession of 14 shillings. But Hanks caught a different fish altogether. Swinscow, it turned out, was not a thief, but a rent-boy. He had the unusual amount of money because he had been working as a prostitute in a West End brothel, on Cleveland Street.

"His tale thoroughly implicated the Post Office. Not only was Swinscow one of several Post Office boys involved in the brothel, but they had also been procured, and some of them even had sex, on the Post Office premises. Swinscow himself had been seduced on the Post Office premises by another Boy Messenger called, aptly, Newlove.

"Interviewed by a senior officer in the Confidential Inquiry Bureau, John Phillips, Swinscow described how: 'Soon after I got to know him he asked me to go into the lavatory at the basement of hte Post Office building -- we went into one water closet and shut the door and we behaved indecently together -- we did this on other occasions afterwards" (43-44).

"Henry Newlove persuaded Swinscow to go to the Cleveland Street house where the proprietor, Charles Hammond, sent him to bed with a customer. Swinscow gave the names of two other Boy Messengers involved in the brothel: George Alma Wright and Charles Ernest Thickbroom (another implausibly diverting name), who were both seventeen. Wright's story is another tale of seduction by Newlove:

"'He persuaded me on several occasions to go to the lavatory in the basement with him. It was about 4 months that I first made his acquaintance. We used to go into the water closet together and behave indecently. On one or two occasions certainly more than once, Newlove put his person into me, that is to say behind only a little way and something came from him. I never did this to him. One afternoon I met him in the corridor of the Post Office during my dinner hour he said to me "I know a gentleman I go with sometimes and if you like to come I will shew [show] him you. He wants to have a game at spooning about with you"'" (44).

Obviously, this all blew up in the national news, and the idea of 'telegraph boys' came to be synonymous with homosexuality. In fact, in 1890, "The Scots Observer published a review of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray [which, as we remember from the post on terrible book covers, was a novel with explicitly homosexual characters] that attacked Wilde for 'grubbing in muck heaps' and 'writing stuff that were better unwritten'.

"It concluded: 'Mr. Wilde has brains, and art, and style; but if he can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys, the sooner he takes to tailoring (or some other decent trade) the better for his own reputation and the public morals'" (39).

I would like to point out, childish though it is, that not only are two of the young male prostitutes named Thickbroom and Newlove, but that one of the academics listed in the footnotes of this book, who talks about homosexuality in the nineteenth century, is named Harry Cocks. I'm sure this poor guy has had this joked about millions of times, but I feel compelled to mention it here, given how on point all of the other names are.

BizarreVictoria Update


For the last couple of years, I have been toying with the idea of transferring this blog over to wordpress. Several people have encouraged me to do so, saying that I can customize the blog more and it would gain more readers, because apparently no one is on livejournal anymore (woe).

This weekend, I copied everything over. Two and a half years of my nattering and all of your wonderful comments. I thought it was going to be a difficult process and would take weeks of moving things over post by post. When I discovered that I literally had to press one button, I went, "YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION, WORDPRESS."

However--and this is the important bit--I will NOT be giving up the livejournal blog. I know of at least a few people who follow me on their friends page here, and it's easy enough to just duplicate entries over there. In short, nothing will change, unless you happen to prefer wordpress anyway. I'm a grown up and swanky blogger now, but I'm still staying true to my roots: don't be fooled by the rocks that I've got, I'm still Jenny from the block.

As far as I'm aware, everything can now be found at I think there are a couple of funky fixer-oos on some of the early entires, but I'll get to those slowly. Any links to previous entries will redirect you to the livejournal component of this blog, which is fine.

Thanks for everyone's advice on this matter--I think this was a really good decision for me. Now I can shriek obscenities on TWO sites.

I'm currently reading Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters by Kate Thomas (2012). All below quotations are from her book.

Before the advent of the modern postal system and the penny black in 1840, sending letters was generally very expensive.

"In 1830 the post was very much the province of the wealthy few [....] and the charges were paid by the recipients of the mail, not the senders." (10). If you were a polite letter-sender, you would often include some coins inside your letter to help repay the cost of your recipient receiving it.

Poorer people developed ways of getting around this entirely, as is recountedin Harriet Martineau's A History of England During the Thirty Years' Peace (1849, vol. 2, p. 425; p. 21 this book):

"Mr. Rowland Hill, when a young man, was walking through the Lake district, when he one day saw the postman deliver a letter to a woman at a cottage door. The woman turned it over and examined it, and then returned it, saying that she could not pay the postage, which was a shilling. Hearing that the letter was from her brother, Mr. Hill paid the postage, in spite of the manifest unwillingness of the woman. As soon as the postman was out of sight, she showed Mr. Hill how his money had been wasted, as far as she was concerned.

"The sheet was blank. There was an agreement between her brother and herself, that as long as all went well with him, he should send a blank sheet in this way once a quarter; and thus she had tidings of him without expense of postage. Most people would have remembered this incident as a curious story to tell: but Mr. Hill's was a mind which wakened up at once to a sense of the significance of the fact. There must be something wrong in a system which drove a brother and sister to cheating, in order to gratify their desire to hear of one another's welfare."

Of course, there were loopholes for the rich:

"Royals, aristocrats, and eventually MPs were able to 'frank' their mail. Such a person could sign his name across the back of the envelope, a gesture of dominion that meant that his letters traveled free of charge in the postbag. Needless to say, franking was a privilege that allowed for extensive and costly abuses" (10).

The footnote which accompanies this paragraph reads, "Two of the most notorious fraudulent frankers were the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They would approach MPs, pleading extreme poverty, and persuade them to sign the backs of their letters. Shelley also forged the signature of his own father, who was an MP".

Classy, guys.

However, this all changed for the better when Queen Victoria's penny post revolutionized the mail system. "In celebration of the institution of hte Penny Post, Queen Victoria renounced her own franking privilege. This was a remarkable move: an act, on a certain level, of abdication. By stripping her signature of the power to circulate her correspondence freely in her own dominion, she relinquished her royal privilege and symbolically joined the 'poorer and more numerous classes'. From this point on, cheap communication was to be the right of a nation of citizens, not of a royal household." (14).

The Nose
Short Story Wednesday! Another Russian one today, because they do a very fine line in crazy. I am going to recap Nikolai Gogol's 1836 story, "The Nose". You can read it for yourselves here.

All cited quotations come directly from the text (obviously).

Warning: Brace yourself for swearing.

The Nose

Read more...Collapse )


Great. So the author is just as fucking confused as everyone else. The moral of the story is: if you DON’T get married, you have to worry about rejected mothers-in-law performing spells on you, and if you DO get married, you’ll be miserable.

So I guess the real moral of the story is: women are terrible?


Delivering the Mail
The following story I found in Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters by Kate Thomas (2012). All quotations come directly from the text.

As the Post Office expanded and became more regulated during the Victorian era, it changed the face of a great deal of infrastructure in the UK, much of it in ways that people never anticipated. As such, there was occasionally some resistence to these changes.

"Before the spread of the postal system, there had been little requirement for streets to be named and houses numbered. As the postal service expanded, that changed rapidly and the Post Office found that not only did it need to introduce systematic naming and numbering, but it also needed to produce its own maps of towns and counties, featuring details never before represented cartographically" (20).

The accompanying footnote to this paragraph reads:

"A review article on the First Report of the Postmaster-General, on the Post-Office (1855) details the problems of 'faulty nomenclature' of streets and offers this anecdote to illustrate the irregularity and anomaly in the numbering of houses:

"'On arriving at a house in the middle of a street, I observed a brass number 95 on the door, the houses on each side being numbered respectively 14 and 16. A woman came to the door [...] she said it was the number of a house she formerly lived at in another street, and it (meaning the brass plate) being a very good one, she thought it would do for her present residence as well as any other'".

Mail Chute
I've been reading this really interesting book called Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters by Kate Thomas (2012), so many of my upcoming stories will probably be from there.

What I found really interesting in learning about the early postal system is how deeply sexual and--most specifically--homoerotic it could be read as. There are loads of stories in which allusions are made to phallic or transgressive imagery, as will be seen in the story below.

Any citations are directly from the text. The quotations-within-quotations in this particular story are from the Illustrated London News (18 Nov. 1865), p. 496.


"In 1865 the Post Office unveiled an underground pneumatic dispatch tube, which ran from Euston Square to Holborn. 'A number of scientific gentlemen' were invited to watch the carriages full of postbags be sucked through the mile-and-three-quarters-long pneumatic tunnel, and after seeing several trains disappear into and emerge from the 'mouth' of the tunnel, some of these gentlemen 'expressed a strong desire to pass through the tube themselves'.

"The Illustrated London News reported the event, applauding the men's gumption:

"'They were warned that they line was "not constructed wit ha view to passenger traffic," and that they might find the way "a little rough." The spirit of adventure, however, prompted them to take this strange journey, and each of the waggons had soon as many occupants as it could comfortably accommodate in the recumbent posture enforced by circumstances.'

"Playing at being a postbag, or a piece of mail, apparently produced some 'not agreeable [...] sensations' as a result of the 'suction' and 'friction' and 'here and there [in the tube] a strong flavour of rust was encountered.'"

As you may already be noticing, this is where things start to get a little intrinsically homoerotic, as the author reads the situation:

"The romance of this new technology, and of speedy communication systems turns these 'scientific gentlemen' into giddy boys who 'strongly desire' a 'rough' ride and who bundle up togehter to experience being jostled around like parcels. This is a fantasy in which you lay aside your top hat (the accompany illustration show hatless travelers witnessed by a firmly hatted crowd) and stuff yourself into a canister with other men, for the sensations of suction and the taste of a tunnel." (2-3).

Of course, these connections between homosexuality and the Post Office (of all things) were only encouraged in popular Victorian culture when a young male prostitution ring was discovered being conducted under the guise of the Post Office. But that is a tale for another day! Stay tuned . . .

The Steel Flea
Short Story Wednesday! Today we're going to read Nikolay Leskov’s 1881 novella, "The Steel Flea", which you can read in full here. Apparently the full title is "The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Lefty From Tula and the Steel Flea", but that wasn't what was printed on my baby Penguin edition, so I'm going to err on the side of brevity.

The story is set long before 1881, just in case you're confused by the timeline.


Read more...Collapse )


A potent metaphor for European-Russian relations that is still apt today!

But in other news, what in the sweet, sweet hell did I just read?


Log in