Archive for November 2011
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester
This book has received a lot of attention from bloggers, so I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with the title if not the book itself. As I imagine is true for many readers, the title alone was enough to draw me in. Biblio-history, madness, and murder? Yes, please!
The book opens with the tragic murder of George Merrett, a London coal shoveler with six children and one on the way who was shot in the neck by a stranger on his way to work one dark morning in the slum of Lambeth, in the year 1871. At this point, the compilation of first Oxford English Dictionary, overseen by one Professor James Murray, had been in the works for almost a quarter of a century, and was nowhere near completion. There had been precursors to the OED, but most included only “unusual” words or words particular to specific fields of occupation or knowledge. None existed that included all words found in the English language.
It is difficult to imagine a time before such a dictionary existed, when there was no way to simply look up an unfamiliar word and definitions were subject to contradictory interpretations. It is also hard to picture how monumental a task such a compilation truly was: it took years for a select group of academic and literary elite to determine how the thing should be put together, and many hundreds of volunteers who agreed to scan books for certain words and send them in with the sentence in which they were found for context. Most interesting, to me, was the way in which the OED was meant to serve as a tool of imperialism; an homage to a superior and, once assembled, more easily spreadable language.
But of course, the tension of the book occurs when James Murray, determined to meet one William C. Minor, one of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the OED, is shocked to find that he’s locked away in an asylum for the criminally insane because of paranoid delusions and the random shooting of George Merret. Minor is really a sad figure. Highly educated, a trained American doctor who fought in the Civil War (and there had his first real “breakdown”), he was lucid and rational throughout most of his days; only at night did he succumb to illusions of persecution and erotic torment. He nonetheless received a number of privileges relative to his fellow inmates, and it was interesting to see how an illness which today would probably be diagnosed as schizophrenia was treated in an age when it was not yet named and even less understood. The surprise that the OED team felt upon learning that a “crazy” person could have been so useful to their project raises questions about how we view the intellectual potential of the mentally ill, though these questions are not explicitly addressed by Winchester.
The story was fascinating, as I expected it would be. I was unhappy, though, with Winchester’s writing. It was oddly paced; quick and exciting in short bursts and then, unfortunately, dull for longer periods of time. He also relied too much on conjecture for my taste. A perfect example was his admittedly unfounded wondering about the possibility that Minor might have had an affair with Merret’s widow, who forgave him for killing her husband and visited him in the asylum every once in a while, delivering books for his daily reading and word-listing. The assertion that this could be the case felt distasteful and like it came completely out of the blue, to me. In general, there were just too many small descriptions littered throughout the text that seemed completely unknowable.
Basically, the subject was great, but I wish someone else had written this book.
I first became interested in this book when I saw Sharon Marcus speak at a conference last year on “The Body and The State” (or something like that). As soon as she started speaking, I knew I had to read this book. She said that it was written “in conversation” with Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, which was published in the ’80’s and is also on my wish list. It was the perfect follow-up to The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz as it can almost serve as a case study in support of his larger thesis.
Marcus, whose academic background is primarily in literature, expertly weaves together analyses of novels, life-writings, fashion plates, and more to get at the heart of women’s relationships, both sexual and asexual, in Victorian England. Marcus distinguishes between the erotic and the sexual (locating the sexual within the wider context of eroticism) and argues that because the specific binary heterosexual/homosexual understanding of sexuality we rely on now did not exist as such in Victorian England, homoeroticism among women was widely accepted as constitutive of normative femininity and did not in itself signify “deviance”. “Precisely because Victorians saw lesbian sex almost nowhere,” she writes, “they could embrace erotic desire between women almost everywhere” (p. 113). It was, in fact, encouraged, as the virtues that were understood to flourish within close female friendships, like sympathy and charity, were thought to aid women in fulfilling their duties as devoted wives and mothers. Close friendships were of central importance to women, both married and unmarried, and were expected to strengthen traditional gender roles.
One of Marcus’s most striking observations was about the Victorian marriage plot. Rather than merely the vehicle through which heterosexual marriage is achieved, female relationships are often central to Victorian courtship narratives. Marcus argues that contemporary readings of these stories may be skewed too far in favor of the heterosexual outcome, obscuring the ways in which women sought to become closer to one another through helping to secure husbands–and happiness–for their friends. She looks at Shirley by Charlotte Bronte and Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browning, for example, and finds that the marriages that take place at the end of each novel are both the “cause and effect” of female friendship. Conversely, and by no coincidence, the protagonist of Charlotte Bronte’s Villete, Lucy Snowe, is disdainful of women’s company and remains both friendless and unmarried at the end of the novel. These ideas really changed the way I think about the Victorian literature I’ve read, and will definitely influence my reading of such novels in the future!
Female friendship also gave women outlets for expressing themselves in ways they couldn’t with men; for example, through competition and appreciation of feminine beauty. Marcus looks at fashion plates–which were like early fashion advertisements–and determines that Victorian women were great consumers and objectifiers of femininity. Fashion plates were popular collectible items amongst women who eagerly devoured imagery of all things feminine. This is a case in which women employed a “female gaze” to look upon and obtain visual pleasure from each other. Many of the images themselves, which are re-produced in the book, are overtly sensual and suggestive of desire. I was reminded a lot of women’s magazines today, which I think often serve a similar visual function even if all the textual focus is on men.
Marcus even extends her understanding of eroticism to the family, which made me vaguely uncomfortable, though apparently she’s not the first to do so (she cites Foucault). She discusses the ways in which women exerted power over one another and uses mother-dauther relationships as an example. Corporal punishment was a hot topic of the day, and women debated endlessly about how to discipline their daughters. There was a lot of focus on dressing and undressing them, with the infliction of humiliation as a central concern. Many women expressed pleasure in the ability to exert force on their daughters and, interestingly, the details that came out in these widely held conversations were also popular themes of that era’s pornography. At the same time girls, too, were seen to enact the same dominating urges on their dolls that they experienced from their mothers. Dolls, like fashion plates, became intensely popular items of commodified femininity desired and consumed by women and girls.
At the same time, though, Marcus argues against the “lesbian continuum” theory that all female relationships reside on a spectrum of sexual ambiguity. Female couples, and even marriages, were largely known and mostly accepted. Of course, there is always some degree of impossibility in determining whether or not specific relationships were ever engaged sexually or not; in general, though, Victorians were quite able to distinguish between women who were friends and women who were lovers. Female couples behaved around others as male-female couples did: instead of lavishing affection on one another as friends would, they kept a polite physical distance. If living together in marriage, they signified the status of their relationship by buying and sharing pets. They constructed “ad hoc legal structures” which allowed them to share material resources and helped influence the feminist idea of marriage as a social, contractual agreement which could be modified and rescinded, giving women more agency within marriage. She cites many well-known couples who lived this way in what look a lot like domestic partnerships do now, and were met with general respect.
This book was very academic. While reading the introduction, I was worried that a lot of it would go right over my head. It got easier to follow, though, and I think that reading The Invention of Heterosexuality right before this provided the right conceptual tools with which to tackle this book. Marcus is an impressive thinker, and I really appreciated the wide variety of resources she was able to incorporate. The question of women’s relationships in Victorian England is huge and complex, but Marcus is very thorough, so whatever generalizations appear in this post are likely mine. Her close readings of female relationships that drive Great Expectations and other novels will probably be the most interesting to fellow book bloggers and I can almost guarantee they will change the way you read these books, but the whole thing is really fascinating and highly recommended!