Period Drama Wedding Dresses at Biltmore

Wedding costumes from the BBC’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

While I was at INCS in Asheville, I spent a morning visiting Biltmore House, part of the Vanderbilt Estate. I wrote about my visit to the house and grounds in my travel blog (here), but I thought the exhibition at the house deserved its own post.

The exhibition was of the wedding dresses (and some other dresses) used in period dramas based on novels. The implications of this seemed to me particularly apt for an audience that was attending an interdisciplinary conference on the nineteenth century, which included plenty of Neo-Victorianists. I certainly had my own views about the exhibition, which I hissed to my husband as we pushed our way through the crowds.

Wedding costume from the 1994 ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

My main gripe was that the wedding costumes were presented out of context. And I mean completely out of any context whatsoever. The effect was impressively postmodern, but I don’t think that’s what the exhibition’s designers were going for…

Historical context

In a way that (again I’m pretty sure unintentionally) mimicked the chaos of architectural style that characterises Biltmore House, the dresses from the various period dramas (therefore representing a variety of historical periods) were placed randomly throughout the house. Very few of them reflected the time periods in which the house would have been occupied, and the effect was to reduce the historical past to ‘once upon a time in period drama land’.

Literary context

Further, as my husband pointed out, the information panels about the dresses often neglected to give any details about the original texts upon which the period dramas were based. In a way this actually shows a concern for accuracy – these are not the dresses of Lizzie Bennet and Elinor Dashwood after all, they are the dresses worn by the actresses portraying those characters. And ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ is not in fact Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but a very new and different text. However, I don’t think it would have been out of line to at least credit the original authors of the texts which inspired the adaptations…

Wedding costume from the adaptation of Middlemarch

Context of the text itself…

Finally, I was most disturbed by the emphasis on wedding dresses from period dramas based on texts which questioned the state of Victorian marriage. The dresses for George Eliot’s heroines Dorothea Brooke (Middlemarch) and Gwendolyn Harleth (Daniel Deronda) were on display in the same spirit as those of Austen’s heroines. Reducing Austen’s complex novels to ‘happy ever after’ plotlines for period dramas is one thing, but George Eliot’s??

I was left wondering what the point of the exhibition really was – it shed no light on the original texts, or even really the new texts of the adaptations. I went back to the information provided by the exhibition designers themselves for answers:

In celebration of Biltmore’s long history as a location for weddings and romantic getaways, the estate is hosting a new costume exhibition highlighting love stories from iconic films. Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film, presented by Belk, showcases wedding dresses and attire from major motion pictures spanning centuries of design.

More than 40 award-winning costumes from 19 classic films will be displayed throughout the grand rooms of Biltmore House. Costumes illustrate changing styles in wedding fashions from the 1700s through the 1940s and the exquisite attention to detail that Cosprop Ltd., London, brings to its film costume projects. Accenting the costume displays will be elaborate floral arrangements complementing each film’s era, created by Biltmore’s Floral design team.

At this point I realised that this exhibition was really advertising masquerading as a historical exhibition. If you count, in this exhibition description there are references to at least four commercial organisations, as well as the motion picture industry arching over the whole thing. Belk is a department store/online retailer, and at least one of the purposes of the exhibition is to advertise Biltmore’s wedding industry. Really only half a sentence of the description provides an indication of the historical value that the exhibition might have (highlighted above) – and that’s probably debatable by historians of fashion.

In the process of becoming veiled with history though, I realised that the exhibition could actually, unintentionally, turn into something that could be read as postmodern art. And this enabled me to enjoy it far more.

What do other people think? Did anyone else from the conference  have thoughts on Biltmore or the exhibition? Let me know by leaving a reply below!



V-21 at INCS

There’s a real buzz surrounding the V21 Collective. I first heard of the movement, and its manifesto, in a bar in New York City, while I was attending the British Women Writers Conference last summer. I read the manifesto and wrote about some of the debate surrounding it here.

I must admit, while I was at INCS in Asheville last month, I got rather caught up in the buzz when I attended the V21 Collective’s Plenary: ‘Towards a Strategic Presentism: A V21 Collective Roundtable on the 21st Century Urgencies of 19th-Century Study’. The room was packed by the time I got there and there was a sense of excitement, encouraged by the quick succession of short contributions from the speakers – who were all confident, engaging and set forth their ideas boldly.

The session began by very briefly outlining the need for a ‘strategic presentism’ as a way of explaining the importance of the 19th-century (and of studying it) for the 21st century, in the face of the current academic climate. There was much talk of defending ourselves to ‘administrators’, and the current situation in Wisconsin was alluded to. But it also seemed to be something to aid the human condition: to enable people to see the roots of what we are dealing with in our Present – such as climate change, imperialism, economic inequality – and suggest ways of dealing with these problems, based on how nineteenth-century thinkers and artists tackled the issues in their infancy.

The first speaker was Tanya Agothocleous. With reference to Antoinette Burton, Agothocleous talked about the nineteenth-century periodical Anti=Caste, its utopianism, and the temporality of its utopianism. She linked this with Black Lives Matter, and suggested that both these movements rejected particular futures.

Many of the speakers dealt with time in their contributions – about the artificiality of labels of past, present, future. Ruskin and Bergson were enlisted for argument about the duration of the Present, or, put in another way, the persistence of the Past. There was a suggestion that thinking in a trans-temporal way requires a new language for describing how cultural objects make meaning.

It was pointed out that the present is not the opposite of the past, but that time is additive, that the past keeps adding to the present: it’s only in the present that the past becomes perceptible as such.

Which led to the suggestion that even historicism is present-oriented…

Though this was more obvious in the field of literary studies, where we have perhaps always been more honest about how our choice of canon reflects our current concerns or how we want to explain ourselves. In both literary studies and history though, in this way, the present produces – and reproduces – the past.

There were some good contributions that focused on how the Victorians were absolutely Presentist, and how this was theorised well by Ruskin, among others. Also a good point was made about Victorian writers’ strategic use of the present-tense to speak generally about an issue, especially to critique urban conditions.

Nathan K. Hensley talked directly to the ‘Strategic’ element of the title, warning against taking a strategy for a theory – a strategy is a temporary, situational tool for achieving some object. He also suggested that while V21 is good at the analysis of the present that makes up part of a strategy, it is as yet still working on the object. However, he was clear about what the strategy needed to work against – the anti-intellectual presentist and economic concerns of the Neoliberal administrators (who are apparently the Lockwoods to our Heathcliffs). Further reading was suggested, which I’ve not got around to yet, but hopefully will at some point: Lukács, Tactics & Ethics, and Althusser, Machiavelli and Us.

So that was the rountable, and I’ve been thinking about Strategic Presentism ever since. I’d been pleased that they mostly avoided the usual attack on historicism:

History dissolved into collection of curiosities+oddities; if historian stops at mere description, remains raconteur of anecdotes. Lukacs

I feel this is a bit of a disingenuous straw man. The historicists I know are largely motivated by present desires to explain social relations and consciousness among groups who still haven’t been explained by the canon or the grand narratives of Marx etc. So the unearthing of more detail in these cases is motivated by a strategic presentism.

I’m also concerned that approaches that focus on the canon and the persistence of the past might end up explaining the persistence of inequality rather than challenging it.

Finally, I have to say that presentism is already being used ‘strategically’, in a rather anti-intellectual way, by administrators, to get students through the door. For example, a number of history departments in the UK have added ‘heritage’ to their titles. Presumably it’s only a matter of time before we see an English and Period Drama department… I have mixed feelings about this – on the one hand, I’m not sure I should be in the business of being snobby about how people in general engage with history and English, especially if it keeps me in business. On the other hand, it surely is my business to encourage students to be reflective about their presentism; to get them to articulate how it might work, and how it might not – and maybe to encourage them to develop their own ‘strategic’ presentism…

But I’ll end with one of V21’s most important messages:

Thanks especially to Devin Griffiths for his tweets – they really helped flesh out my notes from when I couldn’t keep up!

Olive Schreiner at BWWC 2015

Story of an African farm

Probably because of my paper’s focus at the 2014 British Women Writers Conference (see previous blog post), I was asked to moderate the Olive Schreiner panel at this year’s conference: Stories of an African Farm. I decided to review the panel, based on my notes, so here are my observations and thoughts.

Anita Turlington (University of North Georgia) was first to present. Her paper ‘New Woman Novels and the Ethical Moment’ focused on the ethics of the New Woman writers and also explored the importance of time and space in African Farm. Like me, Turlington sees Schreiner looking to the future for a solution, but also identifies her in African Farm as looking back to a connected, mythic past. In fact, Turlington suggested that African Farm is set in an eternal present – rejecting linear time – and that Lyndall imaginatively transcends the limits of time through her visions and prophesies.   

Turlington described the New Women writers’ ethics as a commitment to considering new ways to interact: they stressed connections between people rather than limits, and allowed the complexity and unknowability of the Other. In the same way as I see the young Lyndall as a perfect New Woman and the older Lyndall as a failed New Woman, Turlington sees her as the ideal ethical subject – an advocate of justice for the vulnerable – until she grows up and realises that the historical reality of her position as a woman in the late nineteenth century renders her unable to feel and advocate for others.

In terms of space, Turlington suggested that Schreiner’s allegorical interludes open up generic, ethical spaces. For example, the location in which Lyndall dies corresponds to the generic chronotype of The Road, an anonymous space in which people can meet and social differences can be overcome. There is also a threshold here between life and death, self and Other, which Gregory Rose attempts to overcome as he nurses the dying Lyndall – he lies across the door, yet can’t bridge the space between this time and the New World yet to come. Turlington’s reading of Rose was very helpful, pointing out that his altruism and commitment to his unknowable Other (Lyndall) transforms him into the ethical subject. His abject self-sacrifice leads to him moving from the position of absurd fool to dignified, transfigured Mother.

Benjamin Hudson (University of Georgia) also focused on Gregory Rose in his paper ‘Curious Bedfellows: The New Woman and the Invert in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm’. (His thesis title also has a great title, including a quote that was fun to read out at a conference: ‘“Dilettante Faggots” on nineteenth-century queer amateurism and the formation of the literary canon.’) Hudson interpreted any optimism in Rose’s story as coming from his ability to throw off his heterosexuality. Reading African Farm within the late nineteenth-century debate about sexuality, Hudson identified a contradiction. While he sees Schreiner’s Woman and Labour as promoting heterosexuality, unthinkingly, as the norm – he noted her scathing writing about the effeminate nature of men and the fate of the Greeks – he suggests that her personal correspondence and novels are more complex. He also mentioned that Edward Carpenter used to give his young male protégés copies of African Farm to test the waters for potential romance, suggesting that this novel was seen as tolerant of homosexuality.

I wonder, though, if this contradiction stems rather from a misunderstanding of Schreiner and an attempt to apply modern sexual categories onto her philosophy. From reading her allegories, I would suggest that Schreiner looked to a future where both sexes would move beyond their separate genders to both embody the principles of the ethical subject. As Hudson explained, Rose is transformed when he throws off effeminacy and histrionic masculinity and embraces transvestism: he moves toward an identity beyond or between gender. I agree that Rose’s adaptability leads to a glimpse of the dawn of a new life without the restricting concepts of romance based on gendered identities. However, until Lyndall can also achieve an identity beyond the heavily gendered one allowed her in the nineteenth century, there can be no future for them.

The final paper, ‘Lady Philosophy and Beatrice Revised: Olive Schreiner’s Feminist Re-working of Traditional Spiritual Guides in Story of an African Farm’ was a fascinating reading of Waldo and Lyndall’s ‘Strangers’ as re-worked Dantean spiritual guides. Catherine Welter (University of New Hampshire) argued that the guides in this novel are male because Schreiner did not believe that women would be able to instruct until they themselves were delivered from their social position. Welter interestingly noted that Schreiner’s desire for realism led her to disapprove of Dante’s fantastical, heavenly instructor, Beatrice. Schreiner’s guides are more human, flawed, and focus on how to live in this life, embodying a far more secular philosophy.

I was very pleased that Welter included some discussion of Schreiner’s allegories in her argument. As Welter argued, the role of women in the allegories as martyrs and saviours of woman and mankind suggests that Schreiner changed her mind about women’s ability to help other women.

Not that many of the audience for this panel had read African Farm, so the Q&A session was quite wide-ranging. One questioner found similarities between Schreiner’s description of womanly, self-sacrificial love and Wollstonecraft’s theories of love; in her critique of economic man, women appear to love more sincerely and authentically. There was also an interesting discussion of the importance of childhood in the text; Turlington suggested that Schreiner does not let Waldo and Lyndall really grow up, partly because of their ethical and spiritual identities, but also as a result of the colonial setting. An interesting point was made about the difference of sympathy in African Farm; because the characters are so stunted, nuanced and unknowable, sympathy as described by George Eliot is more difficult. I would suggest that this is one of the aspects of this text that illustrates its break from the Victorian and its anticipation of Modernism.

Overall this was a fantastic panel to moderate, with three excellent, scholarly papers, and I hope we inspired a few more people to read Olive Schreiner’s work, especially The Story of an African Farm.

For other blog posts on the British Women Writers Conferences see: BWWC 2015 Day One and Olive Schreiner: religious feminism

BWWC Day One

It’s been a great first day at the British Women Writers Conference. My highlights were the Jane Austen panel in the morning and the George Eliot panel in the afternoon. Though I probably won’t get round to doing this for all the panels I attend, I managed to summarise my notes and thoughts on the Austen panel for this blog.

Austen’s Networks: Brothers, Sisters, and Friends

Looking at EmmaLibby Bagno-Simon questioned whether Austen’s heroine really evolves at all through this narrative. Is it in fact simply a lesson of ‘there’s no place like home?’ as Emma learns that she had everything she needed before she started her journey of discovery through friendship and matchmaking? Is Austen suggesting that Emma doesn’t really need a close-knit female community? And is Jane Fairfax the friend that Emma ought to have had, or even the heroine that the novel deserved?

Interesting though these questions are, I’m not sure I agreed with the arguments in this paper. I’ve always read the novel as being a comment on egotism – Emma learns that other women aren’t simply mother or child substitutes, that they are in fact their own selves with their own lives and ambitions. This can of course lead to them being potential competitors – for the attentions of Frank and Knightley – but it can also lead to a different kind of friendship becoming possible.

On the question of Jane Fairfax, I’ve come to read her character as a sort of judgement on the way that some in society raise protegees above their station and who then in adulthood experience a mismatch of their circumstances and their sensibilities. Emma shows a blindness to social hierarchy not only in her raising of Harriet above her station, but in feeling inferior to Jane Fairfax. In a way this is very democratic, but it’s also shown to be short-sighted and leads to her treating both women badly. While Emma has the excuse of youth and naiveté, the Campbells should have known better than to raise Jane’s social expectations when she must either earn her living as a governess or stoop to deceit in order to make a good catch. At any rate, I think it’s very difficult to think of Jane as a typical Austen heroine, or even to like her that much.

Talia Vestri Croan turned to Pride and Prejudice to argue that Elizabeth’s development of character and self-knowledge stems from her sister Jane’s mentorship rather than to anything that Darcy might have said. Convincingly, Croan demonstrated how, while for Elizabeth emotional reactions lead to firm impressions – feeling being equated with knowledge – Jane understands that everything is open to interpretation and that we can only ever have potential knowledge. She employs this scepticism practically, in that she is happy to ‘doubt’ things that she is told about other people. This is also why Jane will not make decisions and has been seen as largely ineffectual.

I think this can be taken too far however. If we apply Sharon Marcus’s practice of ‘just reading’ to Austen’s text – a technique that seems very appropriate for Austen who clearly always chose her words carefully – we can read that Jane in fact does make her mind about some things – when they are positive. She does not like ‘to be hasty in censuring any one’, but she’s very happy to strongly and quickly believe the best of people. The extracts that Croan provided show that, fascinatingly, Jane’s quick reason can see the full implications of a potential truth and it is her horror at those that leads her to refuse to believe it can be possible – ‘do but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Mr Darcy, to be treating his father’s favourite in such a manner […] it is difficult indeed – it is distressing – One does not know what to think.’ Rather than express Jane’s scepticism as ‘doubt’ I would suggest it is a form of ‘faith’ in goodness and morality.

The Q&A session was necessarily short, but was helpful in the way it recognised these two papers as both exploring the role of friends and sister relationships a bit more richly than has been so far. Rather than unproblematically seeing such relationships as preparation for marriage, Austen suggests that women’s relationships can provide mentorship just as effective, if not more so, as the male mentoring we see in Knightley and Emma. She also suggests that women can approach friendship in ways which lead to what might be seen as a failure of women’s relationships – but this doesn’t necessarily affect their marriages.

The final paper in this panel was a really interesting one on the potential of the Austen family archives for developing our understanding of Jane Austen and her novels. Alice Villaseñor has clearly spent a lot of time researching the Austen brothers’ engagement in the British elections of 1806 and 1807 and has some potentially radical suggestions about how involved they were in supporting abolition and working for the election of a more radical MP. Unfortunately we have no letters from Austen during this interesting time, and have no way of knowing whether this was because she was busy with these topics, or if the Victorians got rid of the evidence of her involvement, or – my opinion – she simply wasn’t writing letters because she was staying with her usual correspondent (Cassandra).

This is a common archival frustration, and I think we have to be very careful not to read into lacunae what we would dearly love to be there. As an English student though, I’m a lot happier reading something into an existent text – for example the wonderful possibility that Lydia’s tale in Pride and Prejudice of dressing a soldier called Chamberlain in women’s clothes could be an allusion to a newspaper piece – maybe by one of the Austen brothers – that painted a picture of the Hampshire politician, Chamberlain, retreating from the political fray, dressed in women’s clothing. A bit of a stretch, maybe – but you never know!

Read about other sessions at BWWC:

Olive Schreiner at BWWC 2015

Olive Schreiner’s Religious Feminism (BWWC 2014)

Five Hundred Years of Friendship on BBC Radio 4

As I moved continents last week, I’ve only just been able to catch up with the first half of Thomas Dixon’s enjoyable and informative Five Hundred Years of Friendship on BBC Radio 4. It’s an ambitious topic to cover in just 11(?) episodes of 15 minutes each, but luckily the programme is supplemented by a special series of blog posts on the History of Emotions blog, which provides plenty of background research.

Last week’s episodes covered the early modern period, up to the end of the eighteenth century, and provided some fascinating snap shots of the friendships of men and women living in these periods, as well as discussion of friendship within work, religion and marriage. I was particularly entertained by the story of Elizabeth Carter and Elizabeth Hatchett, partners in a pawnbroking business, whose promises to bequeath their goods to one another if they should die led to legal proceedings in which the nature of their friendship had to be proven by witnesses attesting to their level of intimacy. See Dr Alexandra Shepard’s blog post for the full story, and listen to the episode here.

I found the episode on religion and friendship especially impressive for its distillation of complex scholarship on the differing stances of the Bible and Protestant religions towards human friendship. The crucial support of religiously inspired friendship for missionaries is something that I have written on with reference to the nineteenth century (for example, see my post on the history of emotions blog), so it was fascinating to hear about an earlier example of this. The doctrinal questions around whether it was right to form intimate relationships with just one or a few friends on earth, when God instructed his children to love everyone – and whether one’s relationships on earth ought to be emotionally cooler than the relationship one experienced with God – were well explained. I hope that these questions will be revisited in the nineteenth-century context, perhaps in tomorrow’s episode on educating children on friendship.

Throughout, Dixon draws apt comparisons with contemporary understandings and uses of friendship, for example, linking its rhetorical use by Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband – both favour ‘friends’ over ‘comrades’ – with the pragmatic and rationalist understanding of political friendship in the eighteenth century (in the episode Webs of Loyalty). The happiest comparison for me though, bringing together my earliest influences of good romantic comedy (from my mum) and 1790s feminism (from my dad), was that between When Harry met Sally and the relationship of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Leaving us, in last Friday’s episode, with that perennial question: can men and women ever be friends?  

I look forward to this week’s offerings, which promise to be every bit as entertaining and moving.