Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Victorian Freak Show

As part of its "Bodies of Knowledge" series, the British Library offers a fascinating online gallery of posters and handbills used to publicize Victorian freak shows.

"Titillating publicity was crucial, as the people described in these adverts often bore little resemblance to what lay behind the curtain or turnstile," the site notes. "Exaggerated and stylised illustrations lent age to dwarf acts, stature to giants, and plausibility to mermaids and bear boys. The advertisers of these shows aroused the curiosity of the audience by overplaying, often entirely inventing, 'true life' stories. The public thirst for stories of adventure, struggle, and hardship was quenched by the story of how each 'anomaly' came to be. The new and different had strong appeal; difference was often judged according to popular fantasies of racial and imperial hierarchies, adventurous exploration, and scientific discovery."

A new scholarly treatment of the subject, Lillian Craton's The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in 19th-Century Fiction, analyzes freak show imagery as it appears in Victorian popular fiction, including the works of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Guy de Maupassant, Florence Marryat, and Lewis Carroll. Craton finds that images of radical physical difference are often framed in surprisingly positive ways by these writers, ultimately helping Victorian culture move toward more inclusive and flexible gender norms.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


The film company Focus Features has a nifty overview of steampunk by Jeff VanderMeer on its website for the movie "9," an animated fantasy epic that draws on the genre's language and imagery.

"Over the past decade, Steampunk has gone from being a literary movement to a way of life, a part of pop culture, and a mechanism to look at the idea of 'progress,'" says VanderMeer, the co-editor of Steampunk (Tachyon, 2008), an anthology of short stories by masters of the form.

"Steampunk has gained strength and momentum as it has transitioned from a 'movement' to an 'aesthetic.' A Steampunk aesthetic now permeates movies, comics, fashion, art, and role-playing games, as well as events such Maker Faire and the Burning Man festival. Media coverage from juggernauts such as the New York Times and MTV has fostered its spread through the zeitgeist."

Indeed, there are now more than two dozen Steampunk iPhone apps--and counting--from games to pulp fiction.


Publishers' Weekly review of Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel (Abrams, 2009)

TIME Magazine, "Steampunk: Reclaiming Tech for the Masses" (December 14, 2009)

A Visit to a Steampunked Home in Sharon, Massachusetts (via The Steampunk Workshop)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hemophilia Confirmed as Victoria's "Royal Disease"

A new analysis has confirmed that the “royal disease” suffered by the male descendants of Queen Victoria was in fact a rare type of hemophilia, the genetic disease marked by a deficiency in blood clotting. The disease spread as the queen's children married into other royal families across Europe. Modern researchers had already hypothesized that the royals suffered from hemophilia, but until now they had lacked definitive evidence. Recent DNA analysis on bones belonging to members of the last Russian royal family, the Romanovs, indicates the disease was indeed hemophilia, a rare subtype known as hemophilia B. The genotyping study was published in the journal Science.

Shown here: Prince Leopold (1853-1884), Duke of Albany, Queen Victoria's youngest son, who suffered from hemophilia.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Queen Victoria On One Pedestal, Off Another

Two recent (and extremely amusing) sightings of Queen Victoria.

First, queen re-enactor Sylvia Strange of Shropshire spent an hour on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London in October as part of the sculptor Antony Gormley's weird and wonderful One and Only public art project (above). Watch here as the queen mounts the plinth via cherry picker, denies an inappropriate relationship with John Brown, and knits balaclavas for British soldiers fighting in the Crimea; read more here. I previously wrote on Mrs. Strange here.

More recently, an East Enders villain met his end after being whacked in the head with a heavy golden bust of Queen Victoria in the Albert Square pub named for her (above). Archie Miller was killed off in the Christmas Day special of the BBC1 soap. Read more here.
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