Introducing The Digital Researcher

by Catherine Pope on July 1, 2014

How to Manage References with ZoteroIn an interruption to the usual broadcast, I bring you news from the 21st century. When I’m not running Victorian Secrets, I spend quite a bit of time delivering digital skills workshops for researchers. I show them software that will make their lives easier, teach them how to create blogs, and explain the mysteries of Twitter.  So, in addition to being the Victorian Geek, I am now The Digital Researcher, and have a separate blog to share content specifically aimed at academics and writers. I’ve also written a couple of ebooks: Managing Your Research with Evernote and How to Manage References in Zotero. There are a few more in the popeline, too.

I hope to see some of you on the new blog. For those of you who (very sensibly) won’t have any truck with the modern age, fear not, I shall continue to write about the nineteenth century here.

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Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes

by Catherine Pope on June 5, 2014

George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn HughesAlthough George Eliot declared biography to be “a disease of English literature,” it hasn’t yet been eradicated, and there have been almost 20 attempts to tell the story of her life and career. The number of Victorian women writers who enjoyed both critical and commercial success can be counted on the fingers of one hand, so Eliot is certainly worthy of all this biographical attention. Of course, George Eliot is just as famous for her unconventional private life as for her novels. Well, I say “private life,” but the details of her adulterous relationship with G H Lewes and subsequent short-lived marriage to John Cross have been the subject of much lurid speculation. There isn’t much new information in Hughes’ book, but her account is lively, insightful, and unashamedly feminist in approach.

Eliot was, and remains, a tricky poster girl for the women’s rights movement. She did a thorough job of flouting convention with a public declaration of agnosticism and bagging another woman’s husband, but had no intention of becoming a figurehead. Eliot insisted on styling herself “Mrs Lewes,” responding snottily to anyone who referred to her as “Miss Evans”. Sceptical of women’s intellectual fitness to vote, she also requested that her royalties were paid directly to Lewes. Her novels might tackle some of the greatest questions of the Victorian era, but for Eliot social change should come gradually – had she lived in the 21st century, she might have written Felix Holt the Liberal Democrat.

While this lack of sorority is disappointing, perhaps just being “George Eliot” was enough to advance the cause: the quondam Mary Ann Evans showed that it was possible for a Victorian woman to maintain a happy (if irregular) marriage and a successful literary career. There is, too, a sense that Eliot craved normality. Her exceptional intellect had already marked her out as different in an age when women were expected to be Stepfordian, so she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself. The common-law marriage with Lewes that outraged Eliot’s family was merely an expedient, allowing her to enjoy a relationship with perhaps the only man who would accept her for what she was. The seriousness with which Eliot took her role as step mother to his sons indicates that she wanted to subscribe to prevailing notions of Victorian womanhood, rather than to completely reshape them. Needless to say, the implications of this unorthodox marriage were different for husband and wife. While Lewes was lionised, enjoying the stimulation and glamour of the literary world, Eliot was virtually a recluse. Hypocrites such as the political reformer Joseph Parkes thought her behaviour scandalous, despite himself maintaining a wife and a mistress.

The symbiotic Lewes-Eliot partnership intrigues Hughes. Eliot needed Lewes’ encouragement and unflagging praise, while he was dependent upon her four-figure royalty cheques to support his estranged family. Nurturing the talent of George Eliot allowed Lewes to pursue his scientific interests, schmooze at swanky parties, and to maintain a lifestyle well beyond his means as a modestly successful author. Although he was the dominant partner in many respects, few men would have delighted as he did in hearing praise heaped on their wives’ abilities rather than on their own. He bathed in her reflected glory, but in doing so elevated the status of the woman author. As Hughes writes, “he honoured her genius without resenting it”. Rejected by her family, Eliot yearned for love and acceptance, along with the intellectual stimulation necessary to develop her uniquely philosophical style – she found it all in this fussy and flashy little man.

Unfortunately, Eliot’s marriage to John Cross, a family friend more than 20 years her junior, was less successful. Their honeymoon in Venice  is perhaps the most famous in history, with the groom throwing himself in the Grand Canal and having to be fished out by startled gondoliers. We’ll never know what prompted his bid for freedom, but perhaps Cross believed in the misconception of the Victorian woman as asexual, and was thoroughly alarmed when his wife took the initiative. This marriage lasted only seven months, cut short by Eliot’s death in December 1880 at the age of 61. She was buried alongside G H Lewes, the man who knew her best, and without whom she could never have been “George Eliot”.

Eliot emerges from this biography an awkward, fragile, and solipsistic creature struggling with an unwieldy intellect, yet capable of brilliance. Hughes allows her subject to be both remarkable and human, remaining firm but fair, for instance celebrating the genius of Middlemarch but condemning the unrelenting stodginess of Romola. The nuanced and reflective approach leaves the reader with a strong sense of both George Eliot and Mary Ann Evans, with all their idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and limitations sympathetically interrogated.

George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes is available in paperback and Kindle editions.

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Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

The Victorian Guide to Sex by Fern Riddell

May 25, 2014

Although Queen Victoria was supposedly prudish, she popped out nine tiny Saxe-Coburgs and the population more than doubled during her reign. We might think of the Victorians as sexually repressed, but they were clearly at it like stoats. In The Victorian Guide to Sex, Fern Riddell synthesises a wealth of material from marriage guides, newspapers, and […]

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Sights and Frights – a one-day conference

May 23, 2014

If you fancy a magic lantern show, a presentation on the ectoplasm-producing medium, and a host of papers on Victorian spookiness, then book your place at Sights and Frights. It’s a one-day conference at the University of Sussex on 19th June 2014, organised by a group of nineteenth-century researchers (including me). We’re trying to create […]

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Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic by Kate Colquhoun

March 23, 2014

Anyone who saw the recent BBC documentary Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home knows that arsenic was everywhere in the late nineteenth century. It was used as a beauty product, as a medicine, and also to achieve a vibrant green colour in wallpaper. This ubiquity made it devilishly difficult to prove cases of deliberate poisoning and […]

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The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley

March 16, 2014

If someone had thought to ask Queen Victoria what sort of daughter she didn’t want, she might have described Princess Louise: a smoker, a cyclist, and a strong-minded feminist who consorted with the likes of Josephine Butler and George Eliot. It is this tense mother-daughter relationship that dominates Lucinda Hawksley’s lively and enjoyable biography of an […]

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The Convert by Elizabeth Robins (1907)

March 2, 2014

Last year saw the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the brave and determined suffragette who attempted to stop the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby. Many have decried the foolishness of such acts, believing that female suffrage would somehow have happened spontaneously, if only these silly women had been patient; others, […]

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Her Father’s Name by Florence Marryat

January 5, 2014

Now that I’ve finished writing my thesis on Florence Marryat (just a few tweaks and proofreading to go), I can take a more objective view of her fiction. Having read all 68 of her novels, it’s fair to say that they are not of equal merit; in fact, some are downright dreadful. With 7 children […]

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End of Year Book Meme 2013

January 1, 2014

It’s time for the end of year meme, in which I recount the year’s literary adventures, and wish you all a very happy 2014. How many books read in 2013? 106, mainly thanks to having (very uncharacteristically) taken a holiday in September. I also had to re-read quite a few books for my thesis, as […]

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Will Warburton (1905) by George Gissing

December 31, 2013

I’ve always been slightly chary of Will Warbuton, having been warned that it features a happy ending. Anyone familiar with Gissing’s novels will know that he is relentlessly bleak, and anything else would be plain wrong. Much to my relief, misery still abounds in this story, and Gissing’s characteristic obsession with money, sex, and class is […]

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