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The Victorians in Photography, Text, and Film

We Other Victorians.

—Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Part I

  Julia Jackson Duckworh, by Julia Margaret Cameron.  Albumen print, 1867.    ©   National Museum of Photography, Bradford.

Julia Jackson Duckworh, by Julia Margaret Cameron.  Albumen print, 1867.  © National Museum of Photography, Bradford.

  From  Alice’s Adventures Under Ground , by Lewis Carroll.  1864.    © British Library, London.

From Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, by Lewis Carroll.  1864.  © British Library, London.

  From   Nosferatu  , directed by F. W. Murnau.      1922.

From Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau.  1922.

British literature during Queen Victoria’s reign saw the emergence of mass culture: a middle-class reading public, new technologies of reading, the advent of photography as visual literacy, and a new way to market reading through systems of advertising. In other words, visual culture—what it means to see and to be seen—became the chief way in which Victorian readers constructed experience; the image supplanted writing as the grounding of fiction. As a result, the Victorians and Victorianism have been endlessly reproduced in our own, present-day mass culture, most readily through the medium of film. Thus, this course considers the Victorians in text, photography and film through the practice of reception history, first examining how nineteenth-century audiences responded to original Victorian novels (“trained,” as they were, by how they viewed photographs) and then turning either to cinematic adaptations of these novels and/or modern novel adaptations as moments of contemporary reception.

  Students enjoying a Victorian dinner at the Brome-Howard Inn in St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

Students enjoying a Victorian dinner at the Brome-Howard Inn in St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

Central questions of this course include what preconceived ideas we moderns have about the Victorians and Victorianism; why the Victorians responded to their own literature in the ways they did; what impact photography and advertising have had on the development of Victorian fiction; why modern-day film directors have been drawn to Victorian texts; why modern movie-goers respond to the Victorian (why are these films successful, and how do we define such “success”); how and why both film and textual adaptations change what might be considered fundamental aspects of their originary sources; and what, if anything, is at stake in photographic, cinematic and textual revisions of original pieces of literature. By the end of the term, students will (re)see their own world through the Victorian visual imagination, coming to understand what Foucault meant when he said that we are “Other Victorians.”


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