Reinventing the Renaissance: The Science and Medicine Colloquium and the Skinner Young Lecture 
Thursday, April 24, 2008, 02:38 PM
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This week at Anglia Ruskin, we’ve enjoyed two excellent events of particular interest to Renaissance scholars. On Saturday the first of a series of colloquia around the title ‘Reinventing the Renaissance’ took place. The focus of this particular event was on science and medicine.

We began with an angelic double act. Raphael Lyne (Cambridge) and Gabriel Egan (Loughborough) both gave fascinating papers on the ways in which modern developments in cognitive science can illuminate our study of the past.

Synecdoche – the way in which a part may stand in for the whole – was at the heart of Raphael’s presentation. We discussed whether the trope was somehow integral to the way humans’ minds work, even at a preverbal level.

Gabriel’s paper emerged from his work on textual editing – knowing more about the workings of the mind can help us understand how textual variants are produced – and how the play is transmitted from the author’s mind to the page in the first place.

We then all discussed Montaigne’s painfully compelling account of the sufferings he endured from kidney stones. This session was led by Margaret Healy (Sussex) and she opened up many intriguing questions about the way in which the experience of illness may vary from culture to culture.

Our fourth speaker was a graduate student from Anglia Ruskin, Jo Vine. She gave an excellent talk based on her MA dissertation project – an investigation into the possibility of diagnosing SAD in the characters of Shakespeare.

Finally Sarah Gull from Lucy Cavendish College, who has a long standing interest in the relationship between medicine and the humanities, gave a lively response from a medical perspective.

Equally enjoyable was last night’s Skinner Young Lecture, given by Professor Sylvia Adamson from Sheffield University. ‘Who is Sylvia, What is She: Negotiating Identity in Early Modern Drama’ took just two little words that we don’t normally think very much about – ‘who’ and ‘what’ – and used them as the starting point for an absorbing discussion about changing perceptions of selfhood in the period.

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On Sitting Down to Read Clarissa Again 
Friday, April 11, 2008, 07:24 AM
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I first read Clarissa about twenty years ago when I was a student. Some things had really stuck in my mind but other parts were hazy. Meanwhile I’d since picked up (without ever researching the novel at all seriously) some of the things critics said about the novel – her supposed anorexia for example, and the idea that Lovelace was a more positive force than Clarissa herself.

Rereading it (the first edition incidentally, not Richardson’s later altered version) took me a good three months – I had to have a Georgette Heyer break every so often for light relief.

Clarissa often seems to be trapped between two opposed criticisms – that she is too good to be true (or interesting) and that she isn’t good enough, she is somehow complicit, a ‘rapee’.

I found both criticisms unfair. Although it’s easy to think of more obviously endearing heroines (her friend Anna Howe for example) Clarissa seemed to have just enough faults to make her human - a degree of pride and complacency, which she fully acknowledges, and also a nicely human edge of spite when she taunts her sister Bella, knowing that she would have liked to be wooed by Lovelace herself.

And I felt Richardson really ruled out any complicity in her rape, carefully and elaborately justifying her elopement for example. On rereading, I was struck by how lukewarm her love for Lovelace was, how provisional and uncertain even at its height. During their period of uneasy truce she seems to want to marry him because to do so would be the least bad option. He cannot bear being the object of such prudent calculation.

Richardson’s handling of Clarissa just after her rape seemed particularly effective. Whereas Lovelace expects her to be abashed she remains forthright and unembarrassed – in fact it is Lovelace who is embarrassed by her frankness about the incident.

I did start to lose some sympathy with her around page 1200 though. Her rather legalistic anxiety to assure – and be assured – that she is not starving herself to death seemed a bit dubious. She appeared to want to die in order to maintain the moral high ground and her obsessively detailed will and elaborate designs for her coffin made me link Clarissa (still a teenager at the time of her death) with today’s young suicides who, apparently, are anxious to be memorialised on MySpace.

What about Lovelace? An idle trawl through the internet revealed plenty of readers (and critics) who admired Lovelace’s supposed subversive energy. I found him pretty consistently despicable, and letters which might seem clever, warm or affecting in isolation lost their charm when read in their full, devastating context.

I can’t agree with Samuel Johnson that if you were to read Clarissa for the story you’d hang yourself out of frustration. One or two longeurs aside, Clarissa has plenty of narrative drive. But I do think that a remark made by Johnson about another literary masterpiece could aptly be applied to Clarissa. ‘None ever wished it longer than it is.’

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Outin' Singin': The strange case of Cosmo Brown 
Wednesday, March 26, 2008, 06:48 AM
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As part of my research into the relationship between allusion and the uncanny I’ve been researching (re)animation, especially in responses to the Pygmalion myth. In a surprising number of stories about female statues coming to life I’ve identified a queer subtext (see my earlier post on Lot’s wife). Singin’ in the Rain is part of this pattern but doesn’t otherwise quite fit in to my research – so I’m doing it as a (rather extended) blog instead.

Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t feature a female statue precisely. However it does represent the creation (via dubbing) of an artificial woman, the perfect leading lady to play alongside hero Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), one who combines the glamour of Lina Lamont with the lovely voice of the film’s heroine Kathy Selden. But I won’t to focus instead on Don’s best friend, Cosmo Brown (played by Donald O’Connor).

The famous musical is set in the early days of cinema just at the beginning of the rise of the talking picture. We first meet the hero, Don Lockwood, at an opening night. He is accompanied by his beautiful leading lady, Lina Lamont, and it is assumed by his adoring fans that they are engaged. But in fact Don dislikes Lina, who is both vacuous and manipulative. When interviewed by a gushing reporter Don ignores Lina and instead emphasizes the importance of his relationship with his best friend Cosmo Brown, his song and dance partner from childhood. This sequence, incorporating several quick flashbacks, exemplifies the film’s sly play with illusion and masquerade. Whereas Don’s voiceover presents his early life as privileged and respectable it is clear from the visual flashbacks that he and Cosmo were mischievous ragamuffins. What we see and what we hear are two quite different stories.

Tellingly the reporter interrupts Don, silencing his tribute to Cosmo and brushing away his hand as he leans across her to shake Cosmo’s hand in an extended and affectionate handshake. A further hint at a gay subtext is offered when Cosmo informs Lina that she “looks good for a girl” – a line which is barely audible, but picked up by the DVD subtitling

But any suspicions in the viewer’s mind will probably be laid to rest with the arrival of Kathy Selden. The film’s main focus is on how this actress, less glamorous but more talented than Lina, rescues the studio by dubbing Lina’s own Brooklyn accent when movies become talkies. Don teams up with Cosmo to ensure that Kathy gets the credit for her performance – when Lena performs a song ‘live’ both men pull the curtain revealing Kathy hidden behind Lena on stage - and the film winds up to a (delightfully) heteronormative ending.

But the surface love story between Don and Kathy can be seen to figure a hidden alternative romance between Don and Cosmo. Homosexuality was an obvious presence in early Hollywood but almost invisible in its products, the films themselves. Gay stars, just like the apparently straight Don, often dated or even married in order to keep up their image. This dynamic of concealment is repeated in Singin’ in the Rain although here it is a woman (Kathy) rather than a man who is being hidden, both as the real singer in The Dancing Cavalier and as Don’s real girlfriend. Kathy is deeply upset by her concealment behind Lina which she ascribes to Don’s own lack of loyalty in apparently supporting her continued invisibility, not realizing that he plans to unmask Lina’s meanness.

This is one of the many texts and films I’ve discovered which combine a ‘Pygmalion’ motif with a queer subtext. Although the screen siren is a hybrid of two women, the composite is persistently associated with cross gendering. Cosmo stand in front of Kathy miming her song when he first dreams up his plot, the film and the sound track later get out of synch forcing Lina to speak with the voice of her male co star, and at the end of the play Cosmo takes over from Kathy to provide Lina’s voice in a live performance, symbolically sharing her role as the concealed artist/lover, standing behind her as though hinting at a further punchline which remains unspoken

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Reading the Past in the Nineteenth Century: A Symposium 
Sunday, March 9, 2008, 01:52 PM
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This enjoyable event, hosted by the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group and the Reading Experience Database, was held in King’s College last Tuesday. Annika Bautz spoke on Scott’s Victorian readers, showing how sales figures and other data demonstrate the persistent popularity of Scott’s novels, in particular editions of his collected works, over the course of the nineteenth century. I felt slightly sceptical about this – just because books are sold doesn’t mean they are read (think of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time).

But my scepticism is probably a reflection of my own response to Scott (mostly boredom) – and the second paper, given by Rosemary Mitchell, certainly demonstrated that C.M. Yonge at least was an attentive and enthusiastic reader of Scott, through an examination of the presence of The Talisman as a subtly pervasive intertext in Yonge’s own The Chantry.

Shafquat Towheed then offered a very elegant paper on Stevenson’s reading of a single text, William Forbes-Mitchell's Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny 1857-9 in Samoa, and Michael Ledger-Lomas concluded with an entertaining investigation of Victorian representations of the early Christians in Rome, looking at such forgotten novels as Darkness and Dawn, or Scenes in the Days of Nero (by F. W. Farrar, best known as the author of Eric, or Little by Little).

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Ooxml, brm, ecma: Back from Geneva. 
Monday, March 3, 2008, 08:25 PM
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There was a whole paragraph about OOXML in the middle of a fascinating article at the end of this month’s Prospect magazine. So it’s clearly really really important.

But what with earthquakes, storms and Susannah (8) deciding that an intruder had broken in to the house in the middle of the night (she was mistaken but it gave her a good excuse to come into our bed ) I haven’t been sleeping well while Alex has been wielding his gavel in Geneva.

So it’s great to have him home again – I just ask him to talk about his work – the difference between O and P members, for example, or the precise thinking behind those ballot papers, or maybe his latest response to Andy Updegrove, and I’m happily asleep in no time. And if all else fails I can always catch up with the blogosphere’s latest version(s) of events – makes Rashoman seem very straightforward.

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