Victorian Negatives

My book, Victorian Negatives: Literary Culture and the Dark Side of Photography in the Nineteenth Century, was published by SUNY Press in July of 2019.

Victorian Negatives examines the intersection between Victorian photography and literary culture, and argues that the development of the photographic negative played an instrumental role in their confluence. The negative is a technology that facilitates photographic reproduction by way of image inversion, and Susan E. Cook argues that this particular photographic technology influenced the British realist novel and literary celebrity culture, as authors grappled with the technology of inversion and reproduction in their lives and works. The book analyzes literary works by Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, Cyril Bennett, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, and Bram Stoker, and puts readings of those works into conversations with distinct photographic forms, including the daguerreotype, solarization, forensic photography, common cabinet cards, double exposures, and postmortem portraiture. In addition to literary texts, the book analyzes photographic discourses from letters and public writings of photographers and the nineteenth-century press, as well as discussions and debates surrounding Victorian celebrity authorship. The book’s focus on the negative both illuminates an oft-marginalized part of the history of photography and demonstrates the way in which this history is central to Victorian literary culture.


Really Sick in Bleak House

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online here.  I am grateful to the editors for permission to re-publish it on this blog.

I should begin this post with a confession: I am a hypochondriac. When faced with even the most innocuous medical anomaly, my mind goes to the worst-case scenario. Discovering Internet medical advice sites is perhaps one of the worst things that could have happened to me, because inevitably, if I follow the figurative or literal symptom flow-charts on any of these sites, I find that all symptoms eventually flow back to something terminal and horrific.

Like many hypochondriacs, however, I am relatively self-absorbed when it comes to illnesses. For instance, illnesses in novels from the nineteenth century have never really made much of an impact on me. I attribute this, in part, to the historical separation—while TB can and does affect people today around the globe[1], it is no longer as prevalent or as hopeless in the West as in the era of the Victorian novel (consider Wuthering Heights alone). Illnesses in nineteenth-century novels are also frequently deployed as plot devices and as a result feel distanced further from my repository of Things to Worry About. In an article aimed at diagnosing the mysterious illnesses afflicting nineteenth-century literary heroines, for instance, author Vivienne Parry cites Dr. Neil Vickers, scholar of literature and medicine. Vickers believes that Marianne’s illness in Sense and Sensibility, for instance, is a literary trope—“simply a plot device”—rather than a specific, diagnosable illness.[2]

It is certainly tempting for the literary critic to read depictions of illness as artificial: literary tropes or metaphors that show us something broader about the character, plot, or theme of a given novel. As I have written elsewhere,[3] the fact that Paul Dombey wastes away from what is likely TB,[4] or consumption as it was commonly called, dovetails poetically with the fact that he is figuratively consumed, as Dombey’s son, by the company Dombey and Son from the moment of his birth. When we look disease in a novel such as Bleak House, we similarly find metaphoric possibilities.

Disease, writes Michael S. Gurney, “is a central theme” in Bleak House, and he identifies smallpox specifically as a disease that performs numerous literal and figurative functions (79). Smallpox, according to Gurney, serves as a call for graveyard reform, a lobby for widespread vaccination, a symbol for the connections between the social classes, and a device enabling Esther’s Bildungsroman development. In this list of functions, literal blends with figurative. Cheryl Kinney and Theresa Kenney similarly suggest that Dickens wields smallpox figuratively to “illustrate the social, economic and political nuances of the private and public spheres in which his characters lived” (267). Esther’s resulting scars, furthermore, participate in a tradition “hinting at the hero’s history and character from the earliest literature of the west to the most recent” (270).

I believe we lose the significance of these nineteenth-century diseases precisely by moving too quickly to metaphor. Smallpox, for instance, has been effectively eradicated.[5] As Kinney and Kennedy write, “Readers in Dickens’s time had a decided advantage over us because of their intimate comprehension of his ideas…Few readers today have ever seen a case of smallpox…the cases that Dickens and his readers would have seen would have been much more severe as the native viral strain lost virulence after 1900” (267). For modern readers, the jump to metaphor happens perhaps much more rapidly, as smallpox is not an active disease. Our reading of disease in a novel such as Bleak House is distanced from the physicality of the disease. In that distancing we miss something.

My reading here will attempt to reinsert that physicality. It will of course fail, because by writing about disease I am already separated from it. But my hope is to suggest some of the horrors of the disease so that we might go on to understand Dickens’s metaphors more fully.

Esther and Charley find Jo in a poor cottage, a place that “was closer than before, and had an unhealthy, and a very peculiar smell” (489). Jo himself shivers and stares at Esther and Charley with “burning eyes” (490). He says “‘I’m a being froze…and then burnt up, and then froze, and then burnt up, ever so many times in a hour. And my head’s all sleepy, and all a going mad-like—and I’m so dry—and my bones isn’t half so much bones as pain’” (490). Charley becomes ill, and Esther nurses her in a self-imposed quarantine. Charley’s illness disfigures her, and Esther thinks it “sorrowful to think that Charley’s pretty looks would change and be disfigured, even if she recovered” (500). Charley’s looks, however, improve as she mends—but soon Esther is taken ill, becomes momentarily blind, and “lay ill through several weeks, and the usual tenor of my life became like an old remembrance” (555). When Esther mends, her face remains disfigured.

Dickens’s description of Jo’s, Charley’s, and Esther’s illness, the timeline of their contagion, and Esther’s lingering disfigurement lead scholars to conclude that all three suffer from smallpox. While the smallpox vaccine had been discovered in 1796, an anti-vaccine movement in the early nineteenth century meant that the disease was still prevalent throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Technically called variola, smallpox is a member of the poxvirus family. As Russian microbiologist Ken Alibek writes, smallpox was recorded in China as early as 1122 B.C. Symptoms are accompanied by a sweet-sick odor and include “high fever, vomiting, headache, and a strange stiffness…Within less than a week, small spots will begin to develop, forming a rash around the face. As the rash spreads over the following week these spots will develop into painful blisters. In the normal course of the illness, the blisters form scabs that linger for several weeks until they dry and fall off, leaving scars. More severe forms of black or red pox can lead to death within three to four days” (109-110).

Writer Richard Preston describes a variola outbreak in Germany in 1970. A young German traveled to Pakistan, became ill, and returned home. Once there, he took himself to the hospital, where he was placed in an isolation ward for possible typhoid fever. Despite his isolation, he managed to infect nineteen other people in the small German town. Four of those people died—a predictable number considering variola typically kills 20-40% of those it infects. According to Preston’s description of the man’s case, a red rash developed, which then spread into blotches across his face and arms, “and within hours the blotches broke out into seas of tiny pimples. They were sharp feeling, not itchy, and by nightfall they covered his face, arms, hands, and feet. Pimples were rising out of the soles of his feet and on the palms of his hands, and they were coming up in his scalp and in his mouth, too.” These pimples “were beginning to hurt dreadfully, and they were enlarging into boils” (34). The doctors did not yet know what was wrong with him, and “his body had become a mass of knob-like blisters. They were everywhere…but they were clustered most thickly on his face and extremities…When he coughed or tried to move, it felt as if his skin were pulling off his body, that it would split or rupture” (35). After a time, “The pustules began to touch one another, and finally they merged into confluent sheets that covered his body, like a cobblestone street. The skin was torn away from its underlayers across much of his body, and the pustules on his face combined into a bubbled mass filled with fluid, until the skin of his face essentially detached from its underlayers and became a bag surrounding the tissues of his head” (35).

This man had classic ordinary smallpox. A young nursing student at the hospital never saw this man—and worked on a different floor of the hospital—yet caught the disease from him nonetheless and came down with a more severe form: hemorrhagic smallpox, which is nearly 100% fatal. Her version involved large spots filled with blood beneath the skin. Her immune system went into shock and could not produce pus. The blood “begins to clot inside small vessels that leak blood at the same time…the membranes inside her mouth disintegrated” before she died, horribly aware of and feeling everything that was happening to her up until her death (51).

These descriptions are grotesque, but my point is that when we read about Jo’s symptoms, or Charley’s disfigurement, or Esther’s experience going through smallpox, we are held aloof from the misery and horror of the disease. Nineteenth-century readers lived during smallpox epidemics and would not have needed more explicit descriptions, but for readers today, many born since the smallpox eradication of the 1970s, much is lost in historical translation.

Susan Sontag writes that “Any disease that is treated as a mystery and acutely enough feared will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious.”[6] The translation of disease into metaphor demoralizes those who suffer from the disease. I would argue that such metaphors also run the risk of domesticating the disease through mystification, rendering it less horrifying because less literal—and less likely to trouble a hypochondriac such as myself. Of course, in writing for a middle-class Victorian readership Dickens isn’t going to explicitly describe the symptoms suffered by his heroine. But our own reading would be enriched by understanding more specifically the horrors of smallpox. This in turn would communicate Dickens’s metaphoric messages all the more effectively.




[4] For a description of Paul’s disease as consumption, see Tamara S. Wagner’s Longing: Narratives of Nostalgia in the British Novel, 1740-1890, g. 144.

[5] The disease has been eradicated, but test tubes filled with the virus are still maintained by the U.S., Russia, and possibly other countries.


Literary Places: A Review of Placing Literature

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online here. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it on this blog.


The Wessex of Thomas Hardy, 1902

“The Ring at Casterbridge was merely the local name of one of the finest Roman Amphitheatres, if not the very finest, remaining in Britain.

“Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct.  It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome.  It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had laid there in his silent unobtrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundred years.  He was mostly found lying on his side, in an oval scoop in the chalk, like a chicken in its shell; his knees drawn up to his chest; sometimes with the remains of his spear against his arm; a fibula or brooch or bronze on his breast or forehead; an urn at his knees, a jar at his throat, a bottle at his mouth; and a mystified conjecture pouring down upon him from the eyes of Casterbridge street boys and men, who had turned a moment to gaze at the familiar spectacle as they passed by.

“Imaginative inhabitants, who would have felt an unpleasantness at the discovery of a comparatively modern skeleton in their gardens, were quite unmoved by these hoary shapes.  They had lived so long ago, their time was so unlike the present, their hopes and motives were so widely removed from ours, that between them and the living there seemed to stretch a gulf too wide for even a spirit to pass.”

Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Chapter 11 (1886)[1]

Casterbridge is Thomas Hardy’s fictional name for Dorchester, in Dorset—or Wessex, if we continue to follow Hardy’s nomenclature.  Like many of the place names in Hardy’s Wessex novels and poems, Casterbridge is a palimpsest—a fictional name superimposed on an identifiable place.  Aided by numerous Wessex maps, Hardy’s fictional places are so identifiable that Dorset has sustained a tourist industry from Hardy’s lifetime to the present.  Yet Hardy was quick to warn enthusiasts that “the places in the novels” are only “suggested by the real ones…they are not literally portraits of such.”[2]

The dissonance between palimpsestic places is echoed above in the passage from The Mayor of Casterbridge. Roman ruins lie beneath Casterbridge, reminders that the present rests on top of the past—a past that might at any moment quite literally body forth.  Yet these ancient Roman bodies do not concern the present inhabitants: as Hardy puts it, the historical “gulf” is “too wide.”  The two places coexist, together yet apart.

The ruins also help to establish Casterbridge as Dorchester, yet to read the former as a mere stand-in for the latter is to miss the point of both Hardy’s warning and his description of the Roman ruins beneath the city.  To go to Dorchester is not to go to Casterbridge, just as it is not to go to ancient Rome.  A barrier persists between each.  This is a barrier between past and present, but also between the literary and the real.

How important or permanent is this barrier?  I thought of Hardy as I investigated Andrew Bardin Williams, Kathleen Colin Williams, and Steven Young’s new web app, Placing Literature: Where Your Book Meets the Map.  The creators are, respectively, an author, a geographer, and an engineer who envision their crowdsourced database giving readers an opportunity to connect to places in literary texts.  Users have already begun populating the world map with geographically situated information about literary texts.

The site is remarkably easy to edit.  One simply creates a free account, logs in, zooms in on a location, clicks to open a “Place Information” screen, and enters information such as book title, author, location where scene takes place, time of day, characters present, symbols nearby, scene description, special notes, and image url.  The original poster can indicate whether he or she has been to the location, and subsequent users can “check in” at the location.

For my first mapping experiment on the site, I mapped The Mayor of Casterbridge in the middle of Dorchester.  In retrospect, I would have liked to have included more information about the scenes of the novel that take place in town, but I couldn’t figure out how to modify my posting, aside from clicking the “report a map error” button at the top of the page.  Gratification was instant, as a small black book icon appeared in the middle of Dorchester.

The map is thought provoking for the textual interactions it might invite.  For instance, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is posted by King’s Cross Station—not so far from The Nether World by George Gissing in Clerkenwell or Daisy Madigan’s Paradise by Suzy Turner in Abney Park.  It is interesting to think about the map representing not only a palimpsest of literary places over geography, but literary places over one another.

Yet I wanted to modify my first post, not only because it was incomplete, but because the base map itself seemed incorrect.  Placing Literature uses a contemporary world map through Google.  Casterbridge is of course nowhere to be found.  But neither is Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.  Seeing our favorite literary texts mapped can give us a new spatial perspective, to be sure.  But does it also flatten out the differences between literary text and “real” geography?

To their credit, the creators of Placing Literature address this concern by differentiating between imaginary, literary “settings” and factual “places.”  The purpose of placing literature, as Andrew Williams puts it, is to “connect readers to the places they are reading about in hopes of both enhancing the reading experience and creating community around those places.”[3]  These are worthy goals.  Yet I wonder—is there a place for Hardy—or for J. K. Rowling, for that matter—on such a map?  Is Wessex a setting, or is it a place?  Can we approach it, or is the gulf too wide?

One of Placing Literature’s chief benefits, it seems to me, is that it compels such questions.

[1] Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, in Selected Novels of Thomas Hardy (Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1994), pp. 446-7.

[2] qtd. in Timothy O’Sullivan, Thomas Hardy: An Illustrated Biography (London: Macmillan, 1975), p. 343.

[3] Andrew Williams, “Place vs. Setting,” Placing Literature: Where Your Book Meets the Map (15 July 2013) <; [accessed 27 July 2013] (para. 8 of 9).

The Reading Project

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online here. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it on this blog.

In the fall of 2012, I taught a version of my department’s Major Author Studies course on Charles Dickens.  As this was my second time teaching a course dedicated to Dickens (and my fourth time teaching Bleak House), I knew I had to pull out all the stops to convince my students—many of whom were non-majors or students who otherwise had no familiarity with Victorian literature—to care about three tomes of formidable length (plus A Christmas Carol) and a culture they perceived to be far removed from their own.

To help mitigate the carpal tunnel and forge connections to the nineteenth century, I took students on an (optional) fieldtrip to Lowell, Massachusetts, to attend a dramatic reading of “Wicked Dickens” organized by Diana Archibald at UMass Lowell.  While in Lowell, we also attended a special bicentenary Dickens museum exhibit, housed in the Boott Cotton Mills Museum.  I brought in my first edition of Bleak House into class and we discussed special collections.  We were able to investigate a digital archive together in class using Project Boz.  We examined the advertisements that accompanied the original monthly parts of Bleak House and discussed the placement of the illustrations. The students then translated the idea of a digital archive into their own group blog projects at the end of the semester.

By far the most successful class activity, however, was the oral reading project.  To help my class approximate a nineteenth-century experience of oral reading culture and literary celebrity, I expurgated A Christmas Carol into a version that could be read aloud in an hour, divided up the text into “roles”—without transforming the text into a script—and arranged for the students to perform a reading for the Southern New Hampshire University community at the end of the semester.  We practiced twice: once in class and once for the residents of Mt. Carmel, a local nursing home.  The Mt. Carmel reading was optional and held on a Sunday, yet thirteen of the nineteen students in the class decided to participate.  Throughout the semester we discussed the recurring theme of community in the books we read, and I explained that the idea of an oral reading community is another way to think about this theme.

“Charles Dickens as he appears when reading,” wood engraving from a sketch by Charles A. Barry

I know this type of project is nothing all that new, but I was surprised by its success.  I was expecting a fair amount of resistance to this project.  Literature majors and students otherwise drawn to literature courses can be an introverted bunch.  Students overall can at times resist course projects that fall outside the expected parameters of a given discipline.  Yet my class proved my assumptions wrong.  Many of the students were nervous, to be sure, but overall they seemed to enjoy the project—to find it a rewarding experience on its own and to see its connection to Dickens’s readings but also the broader idea of creating a community of readers.

Of all our class projects, they reportedly enjoyed this project the most.  I think they responded so well to the reading project because they found it relatively novel.  They informed me they were unused to reading out loud, or listening to others read.  Proving everything old is new again, the project made them look at reading in a new light.  I think this was an important project for a number of reasons: it solidified our class community, it added a new dimension to the theme of community we were tracing through the novels, and it helped the class see reading as a historically situated practice.

It also showed the students that reading need not always be an individual experience—and I would argue this was the most important outcome of all.  In our humanities-embattled times, writes Teresa Mangum, we “have an obligation to better explain what our work is and how it contributes to the social good.”[1]  It may seem trite, but for the literature professor part of this obligation is surely in showing students that while they may read silently to themselves on their own the vast majority of the time, the reading can also be a social act–a way of participating in a community, past and present.  When we share stories, we perform a social good.

Here are some of my students’ reflections on the project:

“I did not get a really great new insight into A Christmas Carol on account of these two readings…What I did get was a chance to see what a class full of readers thought about A Christmas Carol and its characters, shown through their readings. It is a different kind of insight, but not a less valuable one. Also…the Mt. Carmel reading felt like a reading community, for in this one we truly collaborated and shared our ideas about a text, in the act of reading itself.”

“I was assigned the role of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s clerk. Although not an overwhelmingly large part, I was intimidated by this role. I thought long and hard about Bob Cratchit and his character. I asked myself questions such as ‘what are Bob’s intentions or feelings in this line?’ ‘Is he a cowardly or dominant figure?’ It was a lot of great fun getting to analyze his character and understand the importance of syntax and tone. I kept imagining all the possible meanings behind his lines and how they fitted to Dickens’s overall message. I realized that there is a great deal of room for multiple interpretations of his text.  Despite having to read out loud in front of a large audience, I quite enjoyed this challenging experience. Do you know what it’s like to face something you’ve always been afraid of doing? I’ve read from multiple sources that public speaking is what Americans fear the most in their lives. And I can identify with that. But, once you persevere and get the worst over with, it becomes quite a liberating experience. You don’t feel afraid anymore!  I think that reading a text out loud not only broadens your experiences, but it gives you more of an opportunity to reflect on yourself and the reading. I noticed that many of my classmates read each of their parts in accordance to what they thought the character meant or felt. It makes things interesting because there’s always something new to discover. For example, I liked the voice that was used for Christmas Past. It was the perfect, soft, eerie tone that made me think of otherworldly ideas…It’s surprising how these simple elements can make a reading much more enjoyable. A Christmas Carol becomes more vivid and entertaining for the audience…Although daunting at first, I think this experience has helped me grow as a public speaker and reader of literature. Charles Dickens definitely knew what he was doing when he performed his writings. Reading literature out loud has the power to directly influence others. I can only hope our A Christmas Carol reading influenced the audience in the same positive way as it did for me.”

“I truly welcomed, appreciated, and enjoyed the camaraderie that all of my fellow classmates showed toward one another during this experience…It makes me want to practice all the more, perfect the reading as a group, dress up in Victorian costume, and go out to read some more!”

“Reading aloud in public definitely changed some of my views on the text.  It’s nice because A Christmas Carol will always be the novel that I read aloud in front of an audience at school, and I’ll always remember that book.  It was a good feeling being part of a reading community like that.  Everyone in our class did such a great job reading Dickens.  The fact that so many people attended to hear us read was also really great.  It was so nice to be able to participate in something that was so large and affected so many people.  It was great seeing the audience full of people, and it was great knowing that they were there to watch us perform.  The audience was also really respectful and kind.  I didn’t hear anyone trying to carry on a side conversation, and for the most part, it looked like everyone in the audience was paying attention to us.”

“Overall, I would recommend doing this reading project every year. I thought it was nice to be able to read together with a class in that setting and get the chance to see the results of our work this semester. It was a great confidence boost for the class and it really pulled together everything we’ve talking about concerning Dickens and his performances. I can see how it was strenuous to give a dramatic reading of his works. We may not have been as confident on stage as he might have been, but I feel we gave the reading the respect it deserved and pulled off a professional performance.”

Images of Victorian Motherhood, Effaced and Exposed

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online here. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it here.

Recently I’ve been contemplating motherhood as it is represented in Victorian hidden mother portraits and Victorian breastfeeding portraits, two fascinating photographic trends.

crooked house: Hidden Mothers

A little over a year ago, I stumbled upon Chelsea Nichols’ post about hidden mothers in Victorian photographs on her blog, The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things. These images typically depict a shrouded woman holding or standing behind a baby or child, ostensibly to keep the child still for the camera while remaining out of the image.  The images are fascinating—they draw attention to the shrouded figure they are attempting to obscure, and beg the question of why this figure is shrouded to begin with.  Is this actually a member of the family (the mother of the children), or an employee (a nanny or an assistant at the photographic studio) whose job it is to essentially become a piece of movement-restricting furniture?

These images sparked two debates on Nichols’ page (and prompted this follow-up post).  First, was the shrouded woman actually a mother?  Second, what was the purpose of the shrouded figure in the image—was the figure there to hold restless children still for a long image exposure, or was it to prop up deceased children and make them seem more lifelike—were these, in other words, memento mori images?  Interestingly, the memento mori debate hijacked the discussion of the shrouded women, thus effectively shrouding them all over again.  I wrote my own pair of musings about the significance of the obscured mother figure and memento mori images, but these images continue to haunt me.

Memento Mori: A History of Photographing the Deceased

Probably a Memento Mori (?)

Hidden Mother Rug

Probably Not a Memento Mori (?)

I do not wish to rehash these debates, which are fascinating not only for what they might illuminate about Victorian photography, but for what they reveal about our present-day desire to establish photographic “Truth” —to know definitively who the shrouded figures were and whether the children were dead when they were photographed.  I wish instead to put this photographic trend in conversation with another: photographs of Victorian women breastfeeding their children.

A colleague recently sent me this link to Gwen Sharp’s article about “The Victorian Breastfeeding Photo Fad,” a fascinating fad to consider in its own right.  Citing Jill Lepore, Sharp writes that the fad was a distinctly American phenomenon—the product of a culture that relied less on wet nurses than Europe.  The fad began in the early days of daguerreotype portraiture and continued until late century, when cultural perceptions of maternity and breastfeeding changed.

Unlike the breastfeeding images, the hidden mother images seem to have been a fad on both sides of the Atlantic.  The two trends seem to have another major difference as well: one effaces the person in the image, while the other exposes her.  In the hidden mother images, it is unclear whether the shrouded figure is the mother of the child in the portrait.  In at least one instance, the shrouded figure wears pants and appears to be a man.  Yet let us assume that at least some of the shrouded women were the mothers of the (living or dead) children they held.  A mother would likely have more luck stilling a squirming child than a stranger would, and would be a more appropriate choice for the task of propping up a dead child.  Despite the shrouds, the figures and the children they accompany create intimate tableaux.  Conversely, the breastfeeding images overtly and insistently suggest a familial relationship between the child and the person holding the child.  They also expose the gendered body of the person holding the child.  If the figures in both types of photographs are mothers, a seemingly contradictory image of motherhood begins to emerge, one understood as effacement and exposure.

A recent George Eastman House Exhibit titled “The Gender Show” focuses on gender performances in photography from the nineteenth century to the present.  As curator Alison Nordstrom says of the collection’s nineteenth-century images, “it seems to be that all of these kinds of photographs are somewhat more performative than contemporary work, partly because they took a little bit longer to make.”

Victorian breastfeeding images perform gender, and do so through a maternal act.  Yet arguably the hidden mothers also perform gender as maternity.  In both sets of images, femininity is performed as maternity, itself represented as a self-effacing support role.  The focus on the mother in both types of images is not the mother, but what the mother is doing for her child: feeding her child or teaching it to be still (or holding its body upright) for the camera.

What fascinates me about these two sets of images is not their dissimilarity, but their unexpected connection: effacement and exposure seem to operate as parallel logics, abstracting the individual into a role.  Whether their bodies are revealed or obscured, the women in these images all represent support.  In this way, both sets of images are about the effacement of the individual, just as they are also about the exposure of gender norms.

Celebrity Circulation II: Dickens’s Moving/Images

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online here. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it here.

Dickens was famously mobile throughout his life, walking miles each day, moving households repeatedly, and traveling often.  “If I could not walk far and fast,” he once wrote, “I think I should just explode and perish.”[1]  This quote describes an obsession with walking, a physical need to walk not only long distances but quickly at that.  Dickens saw walking as essential, writes Rosemary Bodenheimer.  Walking allowed The Inimitable “to bring his books into being, and to calm the effects of his intense engagement with his characters.”[2]  Walking served Dickens’s body as well as the body of his work, we might say.

Like his photographic image (discussed at greater length in Celebrity Circulation I), Dickens himself circulated far and wide.  Unlike the circulation of his image, however, Dickens saw his own physical mobility in positive terms.  The connection between photography and walking may seem incidental or at best metaphoric–a play on circulation and no more.  Yet the incidence of Dickens’s two visits to the U.S. reveals a more material connection.  In spite of Dickens’s wariness of his photographic image on the one hand, and his desire for walking on the other, these two forms of circulation (and the relative lack thereof) together indicate a national difference in the logic of celebrity.

During his visits to the United States, both Dickens’s movements and his photographic image were more controlled–indeed, restricted.  In 1842, his physical movement around the country was more often choreographed for and in some ways withheld from him.  Even during his less scripted visit of 1867-8, his perambulations were limited due to injury and illness.  The multiplication and circulation of his image was also restricted during his second visit when he granted exclusive photographic rights to the New York studio Gurney and Son.  In the United States, Dickens and his image alike moved differently.  This illuminates a difference not only in the way Dickens was regarded as an author, but in articulations of celebrity in mid-century Britain and the U.S.

Dickens’s walking was a way of releasing excess energy, a way of expressing his feelings of “houselessness” (as he put it in an 1861 essay for The Uncommercial Traveller), and a way of seeing.  Dickens describes nighttime rambles as a product of “a temporary inability to sleep,” a “disorder” for which walking to exhaustion was the best cure.[3]  This restlessness was a matter of mind as well as body–an experience of “houselessness” that Dickens professes to experience as an amateur.

The term “houselessness” may seem ironic, considering the man lived in over 20 rented or purchased homes in Britain during his life.  The number of dwellings grows further still when one takes into account the number of extended stays with friends, such as Wilkie Collins, as well as lengthy visits abroad.  Yet this itinerant changing of addresses shares with houselessness a quality of restlessness, a drive towards motion.

This motion–expressed in Dickens’s frequently solitary walks–was denied him during both of his visits to the United States.  During his first visit, Dickens’s dance card was quite full with visits to social institutions, readings, and public engagements.  His itinerary made him stressed: “‘I have no rest or peace, and am in a perpetual worry,’” he declared.[4]

Dickens, as captured by a cartoonist for the Boston Daily Advertiser in March 1868. Drawing: The Boston Daily Advertiser

Dickens, Boston Daily Advertiser, March 1868

Part of the problem was in the way his movements were highly scripted: as Michael Slater writes in his biography of Dickens, the author “told Forster he could do nothing he wanted to do, go nowhere that he wanted to go and see nothing that he wanted to see.”[5]  He was kept in constant motion, but it was not a motion of his own making: “‘everything public, and nothing private…If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude…I am exhausted for want of air.’”[6]  He moved, true, but this movement was restricted and left him in want of private rambles.

During his 1867-8 visit, he took more control over his itinerary.  While Slater writes that “His fierce schedule left him scant time for sight-seeing,” his time was somewhat more his own, which left time for more walks.[7]  As James Fields observes, during the trip “scarcely a day passed, no matter the weather, that he did not accomplish his eight or ten miles.”[8]  Yet his health began deteriorating.  During his visit to New York, his foot hurt him so badly that he could not wear a shoe.

In an effort to boost his spirits, his friends Dolby, Osgood, and Fields helped him plan a “Great International Walking Match.”  Too injured to walk, Dickens oversaw the contest and observed Osgood (representing America) beat Dolby.  Upon his return home to Gads Hill, Dickens’s health improved and his walks resumed.  First by itinerary and then by health, Dickens found his motion restricted during both of his visits to the U.S.

As with his walking, Dickens’s images obeyed a logic of arrested mobility in the United States.  During his 1842 visit, Dickens sat for Francis Alexander’s portrait as well as Henry Dexter’s bust–yet no notable photographic images, despite the fact that daguerreotypy, now in its third year of public practice, was increasingly popular in the States.  Daguerreotype photographers were already bifurcating into two sub-fields in 1840s America: urban studio daguerreotypists and itinerant traveling daguerreotypists.  It does not appear that Dickens was photographed in America until his second visit, when he promised the Gurney studio that it would be the only American studio to record his image during the trip.

Dickens famously distrusted photography, yet somehow found himself compelled to sit for photographic portrait after photographic portrait in Britain.  In America, conversely, his image was more tightly controlled.  This difference–between photographic proliferation and circulation in Britain, and restrictive control in the U.S.–highlights larger issues of mobility in Dickens’s own life, as well as national differences in the expression of celebrity.

Reading Dickens’s walking practices alongside his visit to the U.S. as well as his photographic portraits introduces a contradiction of sorts.  It is perhaps metaphorically ironic that what I am describing as Dickens’s controlled mobility in America coincides with the uncontrolled proliferation of his literary works.  Dickens objected to the “inadequate copyright protection” granted to foreign authors in the U.S.[9]  In practical terms, the absence of adequate copyright protection meant that pirated copies of Dickens’s novels were being reproduced in America and Dickens had no control over their distribution, no financial compensation, and no legal recourse.  While Dickens found himself unable to circulate freely in the U.S., his own literary works were circulating a bit too freely.

In general, Dickens enjoyed walking and did not enjoy sitting for his photographic portrait.  Yet walking in the U.S. was apparently as distasteful for the author as sitting for his portrait, because in each he was forced to confront an unwelcome expression of celebrity.  According to Meckier, Dickens experienced Americans as “overbearing”; they were willing and able to “desecrate a Briton’s cherished conceptions of proper reserve.”[10]  Not only did they exhibit “Selfishness, crassness, and hoggishness,” particularly offensive were the “liberties that Americans took with Dickens personally.”[11]  American celebrations of celebrity were more intrusive, more confrontational, and more familiar.  More restrictive.

This restrictive American familiarity was an outgrowth, Dickens believed, of “the New World’s democratic postulates.”[12]  This democratic expression of celebrity was paradoxically more restrictive than its British counterpart, in that it arrested the movement of its subject.  But move Dickens must, and impositions on this particular type of circulation were egregious to him.  While all of photography was a restriction, of sorts, of Dickens’s control over his mobility, nothing illustrates this restriction more clearly than the Gurney contract.  America, it would seem, wanted to fix Dickens the man and Dickens the image in place–and Dickens himself wanted none of it.

[1]  This popular quote has been blogged and reblogged, tweeted and retweeted, and generally spread every which way around the Internet without citation.  For the quote in a published article, at least, see Merrill Noden, “Frisky as the Dickens,” Sports Illustrated (February 15, 1988).

[2] Rosemary Bodenheimer, “Rambling Man,” Boston College Magazine (Fall 2007).

[3] Charles Dickens, “Night Walks,” The Uncommercial Traveller (1861).

[4] qtd. in Michael Slater, Charles Dickens (New Haven: Yale UP, 2009), p. 184.

[5] Slater, p. 184.

[6] Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (London: Mandarin, 1994), pp. 202-3.

[7] Slater, p. 578.

[8] Slater, p. 582.

[9] Jerome Meckier, “Dickens Discovers America, Dickens Discovers Dickens: The First Visit Reconsidered,” Modern Language Review 79.2 (1984), 266-77 (p.267).

[10] Meckier, p. 268.

[11] Meckier, p. 268-9.

[12] Meckier, p.269.

Celebrity Circulation I: Dickens in Photographs

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online here. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it here.

File:Dickens by Watkins 1858.png

Charles Dickens, 1858 George Watkins Photograph

As a photographic image, Charles Dickens circulated far and wide.  The man was photographed in excess of 120 times during his life [1], and was among all Victorians, as Joss Marsh recently put it, “the most photographically famous person in Britain outside the royal family” [2].  Ironically, however, Dickens disliked having his photographic image taken.  Not only was he concerned that these images gave viewers a lie—a false sense of possessing the author—he seemed anxious about the technological reproduction of his image.  Photographed constantly, Dickens was apparently displeased about…being photographed constantly.  Rather than a curious side-note in the biographical history of the author, this concurrent abundance and elusiveness is in fact essential to the construction of Dickens the celebrity author, past and present.

Dickens first sat for a photographer in 1841, a scant two years after the public announcements of the daguerreotype and calotype processes.  Sitting for a daguerreotype in Richard Beard’s studio, the first of its kind in England, Dickens found the lengthy process unpleasant and advised a friend in 1841: “If anybody should entreat you to go to the Polytechnic Institution and have a Photographic likeness done—don’t be prevailed upon, on any terms.  The Sun is a great fellow in his way, but portrait painting is not his line.  I speak from experience, having suffered dreadfully” [3].

Portraits of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, photograph taken from an 1849 John Mayall daguerreotype

It seems the lengthy exposure time was not the only thing Dickens disliked.  Although he previously sat for the photographer John Mayall and found the experience unobjectionable, he declined Mayall’s subsequent request in 1853, citing his unwillingness to “multiply” his “counterfeit presentments” [4].

Here Dickens seems wary of the fact that his photographic image was a lie of sorts, and the source of his discomfort is the multiplication of that lie.  This may be read as symptomatic of Dickens’s well-documented oscillation between private person and public persona—he was, after all, a professional writer who, as Grahame Smith writes, had a “general hostility toward public life” [5].  Ultimately, it is symptomatic of a larger logic of celebrity in modernity.

Literary celebrity is a notoriety that becomes all the more pronounced in the age of photography, for “to be photographically famous was to be more familiar,” as Marsh writes.  The fiction of the celebrity photograph is that it promises to “put one in the presence of fame” [6].  And at the heart of its logic lies its failure to live up to that promise.  Alexis Easley explains that the discourse surrounding celebrity was “premised on what could be seen and known about popular authors” as well as “the mysterious and unknowable aspects of their lives and works” [7].  Dickens’s resistance to his own numerous photographic images cultivates just such a sense of mystery.

This idea of celebrity frames the controversies surrounding Dickens’s images.  The Gurney photograph controversy is a case in point: during his second visit to the United States in 1867-8, Dickens apparently promised the Gurneys that they would be the only American photographic studio to record his image during the trip.  They were scandalized by “allegations in the press” that Dickens had sat for Matthew Brady’s studio, and “To protect their reputation and investment,” they ran a notice in the papers:

File:Charles Dickens by Gurney, 1867.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens, 1867 Gurney and Son Daguerreotype

“In justification of our mercantile honor, which has been assailed by the publication of editorial articles in different Metropolitan/ journals, which, if true, would tend to place us before the public as imposters, we beg to assert thus publicly that Mr. Charles Dickens has not, and will not sit for any other Photographers but ourselves in the United States; that any pictures of Mr. Dickens, either exposed to view or offered for sale, and not having our imprint, are copies of pictures taken in Europe, and that any attempt to advertise them, either by payment or by editorial notice ‘as originals’, is a fraud and imposition to the public.” [8]

The motivation for this notice makes perfect sense: a great deal of the value of the Gurney image is in its exclusivity.  The Gurney notice attempts to contain Dickens’s images in the name of mercantile honor, but it does so via an appeal to a desired authenticity and originality.  Our image of Dickens, the Gurneys declare, is the real image of Dickens in America; everything else you may see is actually just a copy, and as such, a lie.  Embedded in the notice is a desire to identify and contain the “real” Dickens image.

The Gurney controversy was one of several disputes surrounding Dickens’s image.  The Brady photographs, for instance, which apparently sparked the Gurney notice, were, according to Sidney Moss, intended to be made into a stereograph [9].  Malcolm Andrews, however, describes this as a hoax, the Brady images actually doctored versions of an earlier Watkins portrait [10].

The controversies are not limited to Dickens’s photographic portraits: as Andrew Bean and Catherine Griffey write, the Samuel Drummond portrait of Dickens has long been the subject of debate and skepticism [11].  One writer’s unexplained doubts that the portrait depicted Dickens became scholarly tradition for the better part of a century.  Even the relatively uncontroversial Samuel Laurence portrait has been the subject of some debate, the different versions of the portrait leading to some confusion: which image did Dickens like?  Which became the more famous and widely circulating lithograph?

These controversies share an investment in controlling some sense of truth or authenticity, concerns we learn (and re-learn) to treat with increasing cynicism in our own digital age.  Jay Clayton lists some of the uncountable, uncontainable, unknowable number of films, television episodes, songs, comics, fictions, nonfictions, web sites, stores, theme parks, and other allusions to Dickens and his novels that are alive and well in our contemporary culture.  An important subset of these proliferating allusions is the category featuring Dickens’s images.

Photographic portraits played a vital role in establishing Dickens’s celebrity as an author and continue to play a role in sustaining that celebrity today.  Photographic reproductions understandably adorn the covers of biographies of Dickens, but also coffee mugs, hats, t-shirts, and plates.  His image is sometimes featured on the covers of his novels, perhaps justifying his concern about mistaking photography’s truth claims for reality.

This Dickens, the Dickens of the coffee mug industry, is in one sense the “right” Dickens in spirit, a postmodern anachronism with just the right amount of “allusion, parody, irony, and hyperbole” to do Dickens—the man who “took pleasure in noting the spinoff products from his imagination”—proud, as Clayton suggests [12].  In another sense, this endlessly reappropriated face of Dickens holds “No depth—just surface” (102).  Dickens’s face is not hidden from us, but neither is it a face after all—”just an interface” [13].

People were and are obsessed with capturing Dickens via his image, but while you can collect his image, you can’t really possess him.  With his posture of hesitation, Dickens replicates the paradoxical logic of celebrity—that coy attitude that cultivates desire.  Dickens’s celebrity works thorough this combination of withholding and excess: withholding the self while displaying an excess of images.

I would suggest that today we cannot read Dickens without his endlessly reproduced celebrity image in mind, or without an awareness of our reading as a mediated experience.  The irony is that Dickens’s counterfeit experience has become our reality.

Susan Cook is Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature.  When she is not collecting Victorian photography, she is writing about Victorian literature and visual culture.  Follow Susan @Susan_E_Cook.

For more images of Dickens, see David Simkin’s page.

[1] William Glyde Wilkins, Dickens in Cartoon and Caricature, ed. B. W. Matz (Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1924).

[2] Joss Marsh, “The Rise of Celebrity Culture,” in Charles Dickens in Context, ed. Sally Ledger (New York: Cambridge UP, 2011), pp. 98-108 (p. 104).

[3] qtd in Claude Baillargeon, Dickensian London and the Photographic Imagination (Rochester, MI: Johnston Lithograph, 2003), p. 3.

[4] qtd. in Baillargeon, p. 4.

[5] Grahame Smith, “The Life and Times of Charles Dickens,” in The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, ed. John O. Jordan (New York: Cambridge UP, 2001), pp. 1-15 (p. 12).

[6] Marsh, p. 106.

[7] Alexis Easley, Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914 (Newark: U of Delaware P, 2011 (p. 12).

[8] qtd. in Sidney P. Moss, “A New-Found Mathew Brady Photograph of Dickens,” The Dickensian 79.2 (1983), 105-7 (pp. 105-6).

[9] Moss, pp. 105-7.

[10] Malcolm Andrews, “Mathew Brady’s Portrait of Dickens: ‘a fraud and imposition on the public’?,” History of Photography. 28.4 (2004), 375-379.

[11] Andrew D. Bean and Catherine Griffey, “The Samuel Drummond Portrait of Charles Dickens,” The Dickensian 92.1 (1996), 25-30.

[12] Jay Clayton, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (New York: Oxford UP, 2003), pp. 164, 4.

[13] Clayton, p. 102.

On the Images of Others

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online as “On the Images of Others.” I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it here.

As a Victorianist and a collector with an interest in photography, I decided, about a year ago, to begin amassing my own Victorian photography collection.  I soon acquired three daguerreotypes, two tintypes, and eleven cartes-de-visite—all portraits, save two.  I know very little about the images—no names, no dates, no locations beyond the photography studio imprinted on the cartes-de-visite.  I have become transfixed by how little I know about these images.


Two of the people are fading away.  One daguerreotype has become so transparent that it is possible to see the black cloth backing the image.  What at first glance appear to be crumbs in the man’s beard and on his jacket turn out, upon closer inspection, to be specks of dust on the cloth behind the image.  The small carte-de-visite on which another man’s image is somewhat crookedly affixed has lightened to a pale tan, the man’s fabulous sideburns starting to fade into the background.

This second man gazes pensively to his left.  What is he thinking about?  Perhaps it is something serious, but just as likely something banal: his bow tie that is tied to tight, his neighbor’s obnoxious habit of singing in the shower at five each morning, the photographer’s tedious demands?  His serious expression is not an anomaly, of course: of my remaining thirteen portraits, seven subjects come across as very serious and the remaining six offer their photographers hints of smiles at best—it’s nearly the same expression, over and over again.  Such poses are, as Geoffrey Batchen puts it, part of a developing “ritual of class declaration and belonging”: “the subjects of these photographs adopt looks that are already familiar to them, probably from viewing paintings, prints or other photographs.  Familiar, but also new and not yet quite natural.” [1]  These are individuals, then, but individuals attempting to conform to a type.

Picture2There they sit, this collection of individuals, arrayed on my desktop at home, becoming part of my environment.  Looking at a photograph of himself, Roland Barthes asks “to whom does the photograph belong?” [2]  Looking at images not of myself, I ask the same question.  These daguerreotypes, tintypes, and cartes-de-viste are mine, but their subjects are utterly strange.  How odd it is, to “own” an image of another—particularly an anonymous other.

I am disoriented when I spend too long with these images, a feeling not unlike the uncanny.  Of course, these images were never familiar to me—they began as unfamiliar.  Yet Freud writes that the uncanny persists “when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not.” [3]  This is how the portraits appear to me: alive and dead.  In every photograph, claims Barthes, there is “that rather terrible thing…the return of the dead.” [4]  Barthes is referring to the return of a moment past, but in my images death quite literally refers to the photographic subjects.  I know all the people in my photographs are dead by now—everyone, including the young girl who haunts me with her serious, adult-like expression, is long since gone.  Yet quite uncannily, they appear to me to be alive, frozen in their images more than one hundred years after they sat before the camera—caught “somewhere between life and death,” as Batchen puts it. [5]

Beyond their paradoxical position between life and death, these photographs are intriguing because I don’t know the people whose images I have collected—and these images are themselves records of past lives.  They present the illusion of a window into the past: a hint, a flavor, a suggestion, but ultimately no solid answers, no precise information.  Coyly, these anonymous images dramatize the allure and the limits of historical knowledge itself.

These anonymous people have an uncanny afterlife in their portraits, which I inherit as their collector.  As portraits, these faces are bought and sold, they are circulated, they are displayed, they are gazed upon.  They are possessed.

As I find myself to be, when I look upon them.

Susan Cook is Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature.  When she is not collecting Victorian photography, she is writing about Victorian literature and visual culture.  Follow Susan @Susan_E_Cook.

[1] Geoffrey Batchen, “Life and Death” in Suspending Time: Life—Photography—Death (Shizuoka: Izu Photo Museum, 2010), pp. 108-29 (pp. 115, 114).

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 13.

[3] Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” in The Standard Edition, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth P, 1955), pp. 219-56. (p. 233).

[4] Barthes, p. 9.

[5] Batchen, p. 108.

Victorian Game Night

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it here.


If I take out a loan now, I’ll have enough money to build a coal mine.  The coal I produce will enable me to build rail to my cotton mill and eventually sell the cotton I produce to the distant market.  Or I can build a foundry, use the iron I produce to build another cotton mill, and then produce and sell cotton through other people’s ports, capitalizing on their infrastructure.

It’s Friday night and I’m in my living room playing Martin Wallace’s game Brass, an industrial revolution-themed board game in which players develop industry in Northern England during a canal era and then a railway era.  In the game, players own coal mines, cotton mills, foundries, ports, and shipyards; and they build canals and railways: truly captains of all industries.  The purpose is to build the most productive network, to earn money and points for every building and shipment, and there are no bonus points for efficiency.  Although the game begins in the eighteenth century, by its conclusion in the Victorian era Britain from Macclesfield to Barrow-in-Furness is a wasteland of mines and rails and buildings.

Brass is an economic game, and it’s no Monopoly.  It is one of thousands of such high-strategy board games circulating today in the back rooms of game shops and living rooms of enthusiasts, enjoyed by those who have long since graduated from the likes of Sorry or Risk.  These players prefer physical pieces and human interaction to the relatively virtual and detached computer and video game world.  Nor is Brass the only Victorian-flavored board game: there are games based on Victorian literary characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, and games based on notorious personages and events, like Jack the Ripper and colonialism (the most amusing title in this last category is Rampant Colonialism).  There is an entire sub-genre based on the development of the railway systems in Europe and the United States, several games of which incorporate historical events into the game play.  There are hundreds if not thousands of Victorian-themed games.

I contemplate this as I decide whether it’s worth trying to sell my cotton to the distant market (“distant” here means “East”: the distant market card features what appears to be a British chap in a top hat shaking hands with a man wearing a turban).  Why do games such as Brass adopt historical themes?  What do players get out of these themes—if anything at all?  It’s easy for me to see that this game designer knew a thing or two about the history and economics of the industrial revolution, though the game is not overly historical.  A casual inquiry among players, however, indicates that fewer than half of them really think about the theme of Brass or, for that matter, any of the games they play.  While theme may be an initial draw, the way a game works is ultimately the most important factor.  Competition is the focus; to win efficiently, players abstract the game to its bare mechanics.  For many players, Brass could be set anywhere.


Nevertheless, I hazard to suggest the game teaches something, however subtle the lesson and however unreceptive the audience.  This game, no matter how abstractly a gamer may look at it, is blatantly about setting up industrial trade routes.  People have been effaced from the game: goods simply appear, and each player represents more of an unregulated corporate conglomerate than any one person or company.  This is an apt mechanic for a game set during the explosion of the business corporation, and players might learn a bit about the depersonalization and mechanization underlying such financial ventures despite themselves.

The larger lesson might be about our own estrangement from history.  Let me explain, via a more extreme example.  Another, even more popular game, features as its theme plantation development and the circulation of goods in Puerto Rico during the sixteenth century.  The game, called Puerto Rico, works very well as a game, and hence its popularity.  It is also covertly about the triangle trade, and the surreptitious way it deals with this is troubling.  In the game, ships arrive with “colonists” on board.  These “colonists” are represented by dark brown discs, and they go to work on the plantation or in the businesses each player controls.  They are converted, during the next phase of the game, into goods: sugar, tobacco, corn, indigo, and coffee.  The goods are loaded onto the ships, the players collect points for the shipments, and the cycle repeats.

Although this game does not hide its theme, it uses the euphemistic name “colonists” in place of “slaves.”  Perhaps in part as a result of this displacement, players do not tend to over-analyze the fact that they are effectively playing at being slave owners.  This lack of reflection is disturbing.  If the themes of these games are so frequently dismissed or under-analyzed, what purpose do these themes then serve?  They seem to satisfy a mild interest, a kind of passive engagement with history.


“Colonists” working plantations in Puerto Rico. Image courtesy of author.

A culture can be understood, in part, through the games it plays.  The Victorians played games such as Beggar My Neighbor, Speculation, and Commerce—games that reflect an interest in the world of finance.  What do our loosely historical games say about us?  The complexity of the industrial revolution in England is flattened out in Brass—how could it not be?  It’s a game that takes an hour and a half to play on a board that can fit on my coffee table.  But maybe what we learn in place of a complete Victorian history is a story about our cultural values, mirrored in the game mechanics themselves.  These values appear to prioritize abstract mechanization over historical narrative, corporate conglomeration over individual worker, economic triumph over anything else.  Perhaps this is a bit unjust—after all, winning is the goal of most games.  But if you win by being the most ruthless captain of industry or slave owner, what do you take away from the game?

I overbuild someone else’s foundry in Manchester, which is this game’s way of messing with your opponent.  It also represents a corporate takeover and worker layoffs.  This will allow me to earn immediate points and money, to build a ship in Liverpool, and to win.