Confusing Times: Communicating, 24/7


Confusing Times

Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Feb. 1857, p. 36 – CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the age of smartphones, broadband internet access, and cheap(ish) air travel, the vision of the ‘global village’, appears to have become a reality. Networks of communication and transportation ensure that work and social life can remain uninterrupted, as those of us privileged enough to benefit from new technologies become—potentially—contactable anytime, anywhere. In the virtual world, video conferences and phone calls take place around the clock, maintaining business relations and friendships across the globe. In the physical world, distance remains an obstacle, but meetings are scheduled at increasingly short notice, as an ever growing number of flights carry passengers from one end of the world to the other, at all times of the day and night.

The roots of this global 24/7 society can arguably be traced back to the introduction of telegraphy during the nineteenth century. Only from the late 1840s and 1850s did networks of communication begin to extend across entire states, continents and, eventually, the globe, allowing a steadily expanding group of users to exchange messages over considerable distances, and instantaneously—at least, in theory. In practice, the cost of inter-continental telegrams long remained prohibitive, and technological limitations often meant that communication was interrupted or delayed. But the idea that diplomacy, business, news reporting, and even social interactions could be conducted across the globe in ‘real time’ both fuelled and confused the contemporary imagination.

Already in 1857, the German economist Karl Knies sketched out the implications of instant messaging for people’s understanding of time. Considering ‘a telegraphic dispatch which is sent eastwards and arrives “in the blink of an eye”’, he wrote, ‘the further it travels, the later it arrives—compared with the time at the sending office; and one which is sent westwards must arrive increasingly “earlier” than when it is sent’. Anticipating the imminent establishment of a telegraphic connection between Europe and North America, he explained that if ‘a message in Washington, New York or Philadelphia arrives five hours “earlier” than it is sent from London, Amsterdam or Paris, it overtakes the “course of the sun”, and puts into question a number of practical matters of everyday life”. For the first time, Knies explained, ordinary individuals would have to be attentive to the date in different places across the world: ‘next to the “today” in our Europe there is a “yesterday” in Asia, and a “tomorrow” in America’.[1]

A year later, the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid between Ireland and Newfoundland, sparking a fascination for the ‘contemporaneity’ of different days and times. The German satirical newspaper, Kladderadatsch, immediately seized on the opportunity to play with the temporal disorder which the telegraph appeared to cause. An article entitled ‘The Wonderful Effects of the Transatlantic Telegraph’ presented a sequence of imaginary exchanges, which began with a telegram received in Quebec, on 10th June 1860, at 5 am, announcing that a fire had broken out in the Tower of London at 10 am that day. The message was immediately transmitted to Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, in Eastern Russia, where it arrived on 9th June at 10pm, local time, and from there was sent to Moscow.

Upon receiving the news of the fire, the article continues, the police chief in Moscow promptly telegraphed the Lord Mayor of London, at 4pm on 9th June (local time),  describing the alarming message ‘which we have just received from America, sent tomorrow morning from London’. ‘Thanks to the wonderful head-start which the telegraph provides’, the police chief added, ‘I hope you will be in a position to prevent the imminent danger’. The Lord Mayor of London finally replied, at 1 pm on 9th June: ‘Thanks, a thousand thanks! Your zeal will save us. The fire services have been alerted, the fire engines are being driven past the site and tested, such that we can hope to extinguish the fire tomorrow morning as soon as it breaks out’.[2]

One hundred and sixty years on, this early fascination with the impact of a now defunct technology may seem almost endearing. Yet the temporal confusion which accompanied the early experience of telegraphic communication has by no means disappeared in the face of increasing global integration. How many of us ask ourselves, as we board a long-haul flight, ‘At what time do I land? And what time will that be in my mind?’, as we plan a strategy to adapt our body clock to local time upon arrival. How many urgent emails are put on hold or lie unanswered because our partners across the pond ‘aren’t awake yet’? Many are the long-distance calls, conferences and interviews, which are planned in advance to suit the habits of individuals in different time zones—heaven forbid one of them should switch to Daylight Saving Time in the interim—only to then begin with the question: ‘so what time is it where you are then?’

Whilst the telegraph lay the foundations of the perpetually connected world in which many of us live, it also first demonstrated the social and biological limits to global synchronisation. As a cartoon published in Kladderadatsch illustrated, the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable in 1858 heralded the age of instantaneous communication—it augured a world kept awake by the pulse of the network. But it also highlighted the many social rhythms and diurnal cycles that co-existed across the globe—frameworks of activity with which the tempo of communication would have to compete. The scene depicted is reminiscent of many a present-day Skype conversation, scheduled at the fringes of two individuals’ days, confronting the bleary-eyed bed-goer with the fresh alertness of the early bird: ‘Good Night, dear Jonathan. How do you do?’, the Englishman asks his American friend. ‘Good morning, dear John! Very well!’[3]

Transatlantic telegraph

Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Aug. 1858, p. 156 – CC-BY-SA 3.0


[1] Karl Knies, Der Telegraph als Verkehrsmittel (Tübingen, 1857), pp. 190-1.

[2] Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 29 Aug. 1858, p. 158.

[3] Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Aug. 1858, p. 156.


Now What? Surviving Serious Illness in the Nineteenth-Century

Krienke Bio Pic

Hosanna Krienke joined the project in December 2017. She researches convalescence and narrative in nineteenth-century Britain.

Writing in 1991, sociologist Arthur W. Frank declared that Western scientific medicine had created what he called “the remission society,” a growing number of patients whose lives were saved by medical treatment but who could not be considered cured. This remission society includes people who are cancer survivors, manage heart disease, or live with autoimmune disorders. Such conditions, which would have been fatal only a century ago, now can be managed successfully across many years. Yet such longevity also produces a new challenge for medical professionals and patients. While much of twentieth-century medicine single-mindedly pursued the ideal of full cures (for example, the misguided attempt to find a single cure for all cancers), Frank suggested that medicine of the twenty-first century would need to come to terms with a different kind of caregiving in which patients and physicians both learn to cope with open-ended treatment regimens and uncertainty about patients’ prognosis.

Girl and Dog

‘A young girl convalescing in an armchair is visited by her dog. Etching by H. Formstecher after H. Bacon.’ by Henry Bacon. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

While Frank imagined that the remission society is unique to today, my work reveals that this emerging medical culture has much to learn from nineteenth-century survivors of illness. I examine Victorian ideas of convalescence, a condition of ongoing recovery and extended uncertainty that followed serious illness. Frank posited that people in the remission society remain “neither ill nor completely well.”[1] Similarly, Victorian convalescents were, according to one physician, “in an intermediate state—neither ill, nor yet quite well.”[2] As I discover, Victorian physicians, philanthropists, writers, and domestic caregivers crafted a sustained ideology to deal with the stress of surviving acute illness. Convalescents faced a prolonged process of rehabilitation as they waited to see whether they would gradually improve, malinger, or relapse. The Victorians worked to alleviate the angst of convalescence both through personalized caregiving practices and unique interpretive strategies designed to make meaning within persistent uncertainty.

Weak but not ill, convalescents could no longer benefit from medical treatment. Nevertheless, Victorian writers, philanthropists, and caregivers concocted a whole range of ways to support the recuperating medical patient’s physical, mental and social well-being. Convalescent patients needed relaxation, fresh air, and hearty meals. They also needed healthful distractions, such as social visits, travel, and novels. “Even the outside of a new and interesting book,” one caregiving manual insisted, “which must not be read until permission is given, will have its beneficial effect.”[3] While nineteenth-century scientific medicine increasingly focused on disease processes within the body, convalescent ideology focused on improving the patient’s larger environment. Such changes, it was believed, could profoundly affect the course of patients’ recovery, potentially forestalling relapses, helping chronic conditions, and hastening full recovery.

Alongside practical benefits like leisure and nutrition, convalescent patients needed strategies for coping with the extended boredom, sudden relapses, and small gains of prolonged rehabilitation. Writing about his own recovery from a surgical amputation, the poet W.E. Henley bitterly complained, “Altogether convalescence is a trying period both for nurses and patients […] it is an uninteresting, unsympathetic, and uncomfortable probation.”[4] An entire genre of convalescent self-help manuals and religious devotionals sought to offer strategies to counteract the stress and uncertainty of convalescence. Most importantly, these texts advised against any attempt to predict the outcome of one’s convalescent care. One devotional manual counselled, “[R]esist fore-casting, and undue dwelling on results or consequences.”[5] Even positive conjectures could be hazardous “lest the dangerous hopes which convalescence brings with it should meet with disappointment.”[6] Instead of looking to the future for meaning, convalescents and their caregivers were supposed to track and analyse the complex social, physical, and mental factors at work on the patient’s ongoing recovery.

Convalescent Being Read to

‘A girl reads to a convalescent while a nurse brings in the patient’s medicine. Watercolour by R.H. Giles.’ by R.H. Giles. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

As a literary scholar, I examine the history of nineteenth-century convalescent care in order to identify how patients and caregivers narrated the experience of uncertainty. Ultimately, I use these historical narrative forms to better understand how readers can engage with the prolonged uncertainty of reading Victorian novels. My central question is this: if Victorian convalescents were meant to interpret their ongoing recovery without predicting potential outcomes, what would it mean for readers of Victorian novels (particularly novels that feature illness) to interpret an unfolding plot without reference to its ending?

If you have read many Victorian novels, you are already familiar with the timescale of convalescence. Readers are often asked to invest hours of reading-time in tracking the prolonged recuperations of say, Esther Summerson in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House or Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. Many critics read such illness episodes as symbolic of the psychological obstacles these characters face. By contrast, my work reveals that Victorians valued the unique opportunities for reflection provided by the slow time of convalescence. Thus I want to apply the interpretive techniques of convalescent care to Victorian novels in order to recover the ethical value and interpretive meaning Victorian readers would have been trained to find within narratives of digression, boredom, and waiting.

But more than offering new readings of nineteenth-century texts, the history of Victorian convalescent culture can help guide current physicians and patients who are part of our modern remission society. Victorian convalescents spoke with great eloquence and insight about the frustrations—and opportunities—of living within prognostic uncertainty. Thus while Victorian convalescent practices have never before been described within scholarship on the history of medicine, I hope to demonstrate how the distinctive interpretive postures of the nineteenth-century convalescence movement are increasingly relevant to our historical moment as more and more people live with the uncertainty of a medical prognosis.

[1] Arthur W. Frank, At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1991. 154.

[2] William Strange, MD, The Restoration of Health: Or, the application of the Laws of Hygiene to the Recovery of Health. London: Longmans, Green, 1865. 224.

[3] Edmund S. and Ellen J. Delamere, Wholesome Fare; or, The Doctor and the Cook. London: Lockwood & Co, 1868. 736-7. Original emphasis.

[4] W.E. Henley, “Convalescence.” Saturday Review. October 6, 1877. 418.

[5] Mary Ethel Granger, Life Renewed: A Manual for Convalescents Arranged for Daily Reading. London: Longmans, 1891. 70.

[6] George Black, Sick-Nursing: A Handbook for All Who Have to Do with Cases of Disease and Convalescence. London: n.p., 1888. 37.

Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminars in Hilary Term 2018

Galton Inquiries 1883

Our programme for Hilary Term 2018 is now announced with three seminars at St Anne’s College.

Drinks will be served after each seminar. All welcome, no booking is required.

Tuesday 30 January 2018 (Week 3)

Professor Oliver Zimmer, University of Oxford

Time Tribes: How the Railways Made Communities (1840-1900)

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

When it comes to modern loyalties, scholars of various disciplines have predominantly looked at class, profession, region or nation. While these no doubt represent important sources of identity, in the long nineteenth century TIME emerged as a significant source of individual and collective self-definition. Increasingly, how people related to and made use of their own time marked out their actual and desired status. Time, that most elusive of matters, became instrumental for the making and unmaking of communities that sometimes transcended regional and national contexts. Much of this can be attributed to the railways and the temporal innovations they facilitated, above all standard time and railway timetables. This paper approaches the phenomenon in question – time tribes – through an investigation of British and German railway passengers.


Tuesday 13 February 2018 (Week 5)

Dr Ryan Sweet, University of Leeds

Normalcy Interrogated: Prosthetic Hand Users in Victorian Sensation-Fiction Narratives

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

The nineteenth century is often celebrated as a period of great innovation in artificial limbs. Not only did the century see tremendous developments in surgical practice, meaning that more amputees survived amputation and more survived with serviceable stumps able to support prosthetic limbs, but an attitude was also cultivated that increasingly privileged physical “normalcy”. As the concept of the “normal” body was constructed by contexts such as the emergence of bodily statistics, the growth of sciences that equated physical appearances with particular character traits, and changes in Poor Law legislation, it became more important than ever before for individuals to conceal bodily losses in order to avoid the stigma attached to physical difference. An emerging profession of prosthesis makers cashed in on both this growing consumer market and wider taste for physical “wholeness”—an explicit constituent of “normalcy”—by producing sophisticated artificial limbs designed to conceal limb loss (aesthetically and functionally). The products of the most successful of these limb makers, such as A. A. Marks and Frederick Gray, were celebrated by journalists and advocates on both sides of the Atlantic. In spite of such high spirits surrounding the achievements of artificial limbs, literary representations of prostheses tended to be more critical of both the efficacy of and logic underpinning such devices. Two examples of a texts that complicated the developing hegemony of physical “wholeness”—as well as the importance placed on concealing physical difference—were the sensation-fiction short stories “Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand” (1862) by Robert William Buchanan and “Prince Rupert’s Emerald Ring” (1895) by T. Lockhart. In this talk, I will argue that texts such as these challenged the status quo by presenting sensory critiques of hand prostheses and questioning the demand for them to enable users to “pass” as “normal”.


Tuesday 27 February 2018 (Week 7)

Dr Jana Funke, University of Exeter

‘Sexo-Aesthetic Inversion’: Transgender Subjectivities in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Literature and Science

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Much scholarship on the history of sexual science in relation to trans history has tended to focus on two related areas of sexological activity: the invention of diagnostic categories to produce fixed and stable identities, and the development of surgical and hormonal technologies to alter the physical appearance of trans bodies over the course of the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, sexual science is mainly remembered for implementing a medicalized framework that produced rigid diagnostic labels and put emphasis on the physical or somatic aspects of trans experience. This paper presents an alternative account of the relation between trans history and sexual science by focusing on a slightly earlier historical period, the decades between 1880 and 1920. At a time when surgical and hormonal interventions were not yet within immediate medical reach, understandings of what is nowadays described as trans identity emerged through sustained dialogue between scientific and literary writers who shared ideas concerning the role of Einfühlung (empathy), fantasy, dreams, the imagination and creativity in enabling an individual to experience and achieve cross-gender identification. Starting with British sexologist Havelock Ellis’s concept of ‘sexo-aesthetic inversion’ and Ellis’s exchange with modernist writer Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) in the late 1910s, the paper works backwards to trace the intellectual roots of the scientific-literary framing of trans subjectivities. These include late nineteenth-century scientific studies of colour hearing, sense perception and aesthetics as well as works by literary authors like Olive Schreiner, Vernon Lee and William Sharp/Fiona Macleod to name but a few. Through its investigation of this earlier moment, the paper moves across the Victorian-Modernist divide to illuminate previously overlooked forms of exchange between literary and sexual scientific writings and to offer an alternative account of modern trans history.


The Proof is in the Pudding: A Bah! Humbug! Victorian Christmas

‘He is an utter and bombastic fraud. He rolls spluttering and crackling onto the English dinner-table at Yuletide, a sprig of English holly cocked jauntily in his cap, well nigh bursting his rotund body in swaggering sham patriotism.’1

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 13.22.32

From: L. F. Austin and A. R. Ropes, ‘The Whirligig of Time’ The English Illustrated Magazine 123 (Dec 1893) pp.261-68.

Thus begins an article published in The Windsor Magazine in 1897. The subject is the plum-pudding, a dish that the author calls a ‘genuine, rollicking comrade of the roast beef of Old England.’ A few years earlier, the English Illustrated Magazine had dubbed the pudding ‘our national heritage’ along with his ‘baked brother, the mince pie’.⁠2 And surely Christmas isn’t Christmas without Christmas Pudding? It certainly isn’t in our family, where, come 9pm, we will all undoubtedly be sitting beneath a bedecked and balding tree listening to Michael Bublé from the depths of our festive food-comas. Along with Father Christmas, stockings, reindeer, presents, mistletoe, wine, and A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, the plum pudding is a staple of the modern British festive celebrations. In 1893, L. F. Austin and A R. Ropes even suggested that it might bond the globe together in a ‘Pan-Anglican Federation’ alongside our timeless literary heritage: ‘our chief bond of union,’ they write, ‘will be our common possession of Shakespeare, Milton, and plum-pudding’!

For the Victorians, the Christmas pudding represented ‘the character of a race that can assimilate’⁠3—a endorsement of British imperialism and of the English belly. However, as the opening quotation suggests, this culinary emblem had a dark side. It contained ‘black spots of indigestion’ and was ‘a rough practical joker to the nervous folk who suffer from nightmare’.⁠4 Its imagined fealty to Britain was, for the authors, undercut by its ability to cause digestive distress and give rise to bad dreams.

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Indeed, the plum-pudding as antagonist enjoys a wide currency in nineteenth-century periodicals and it is no better illustrated than by satirical magazine Judy’s Christmas Annual cover of 1895, which features a young man awoken to the terrifying prospect of being eaten by his yuletide supper! The cartoon provides an updated British equivalent to Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting ‘The Nightmare’ and Jean Pierre Simon’s 1810 ‘Cochemare’ both of which drew on an established literary tradition by depicting a chest-sitting incubus as an expression of sleep paralysis. Judy playfully transforms the incubus into a pudding and in doing so, reminds us of the power of poor digestion to disrupt our sleep. The marketers of Sea Foam Baking Powder, drew on this same connection between nightmares and indigestion when they used a goblin-like creature to represent dyspepsia and poor sleep in the 1880s.

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When I was 6 or 7, I  remember my grandmother telling me that I would get nightmares if I ate cheese after midnight. She had fallen asleep between my sister and I, mid-way through a bedtime story (which incidentally featured us children running an off-the-cuff omelette restaurant). Dutifully waking her up to finish the tale, we announced that we were now hungry—starving—and as she crept with us to the kitchen, she informed us of this gastric truth. Well, it didn’t deter us from enjoying our midnight feast, but had she read me some festive Victorian periodical poetry, it might well have sent a chill to my heart and I think I would have put down the Wensleydale.

In 1878, Fun published a poem called ‘Indigestion—a Christmas Carol’ which featured a demon riding a christmas pudding:

[…] Then down on your bosom, with pendulum stroke,
The pudding comes clattering—thud!
The pleasant suspicious your sternum is broke
Conduces to curdle your blood,
And there on the top is the demon himself,
A goodly king for it all!
You clutch at the clothes to get rid of the elf—
That counterpane is your pall!
And you toss and rear
First there, then here.
And squirming, and foaming, and groaning you rave;
But all in vain,
You’ll keep the pain;
The demon your agonised efforts will brave.⁠5

The demon is indigestion made literal—a cultural referent immortalised in Adolphus Bridger’s 1888 medical textbook The Demon of Dyspepsia, and invoked by poets, authors, and commercial medicine throughout the century. Mother Seigel’s syrup for indigestion, for example, warned against the ‘touch of the demon’s chilling fingers’ as the first signs of chronic digestive distress.

The connection between digestion and dreams has, of course, a long cultural history, but in the nineteenth century, the phenomenon was narrated in ever more medicalised terms. Christmas stories like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and The Chimes (1844) both of which feature ghostly apparitions (or in the latter case—perhaps appropriately—goblins), offer gastric explanations for the protagonists’s moral awakenings. We are all undoubtedly familiar with Scrooge’s accusation that Marley’s ghost is ‘a blot of mustard’, ‘a crumb of cheese’, or ‘a bit of underdone potato’—‘there’s more of gravy than of grave about you!’ And Trotty, the postman in The Chimes swears off eating tripe after his encounter. In 1878, The Examiner agreed that Marley was most assuredly a ‘hobgoblin’ precipitated by ‘the imminent festivities of christmas’, even going so far as to assign all historical belief in the spiritual world to the violent nightmares of indigestion. Dickens’s ghosts are examples of the ‘horrors which imagination can body forth under temporary derangements of the sensory apparatus.’⁠6

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From: ‘The Whirligig of Time’ English Illustrated Magazine (Dec 1893) p.262.

And these horrors commonly found representation in the monstrous plum-pudding, rolling ominously around the chamber floor – one author used Edgar Allan Poe’s popular narrative poem The Raven (1845) as a model to tell the story of a boy awoken by what he initially thinks is a kitten playing beside his bed. ‘Then into the darkness peering, shivering, wondering, doubting, fearing/I could dimly see a pudding rolling on my chamber floor/[…] may I see it nevermore!’ In the December issue of the London Society Illustrated Magazine in 1867, another poem recounts what one man saw the night after eating christmas pudding. Like Scrooge, his senses seem to trick him and he sees the pudding come alive:

The passage gained—I firmly do declare
I saw a pudding bounding up the stair:
A blue flame rose upon his greasy brow—
I think I see him grinning at me now.
I seized him quickly—he was just as quick,
And changed himself into my candlestick.⁠7

The pudding has current eyes and ‘nose all made of plums’, almond teeth, lemon-peel gums and a horrid grin—a haunting image if ever there was one! It chides him for overeating and like many other christmas poems puns on the notion that the proof of the pudding is indigestion.

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‘The Proof is in the Pudding’ Judy (16 Dec 1868) p.85.

The London Review identified a ‘plum-pudding literature’, which appears seasonally and is ‘more Dickens than Dickens himself!’ While we now obsess over Dickens’s supposed invention of modern Christmas, the Victorians were equally aware of his cultural influence (and often cheesed off by it!) The author complains that come christmas all sensible periodicals are ‘thoroughly Dickenized and the space hitherto occupied with essays upon the inner life of the tadpole, or the suspected embarrassment of an abandoned shellfish, [are] occupied with domestic feelings and tales within which the sentiments are violently Christmas.’

If you identify with this bah! Humbug! approach to the festive season, spare a thought for those people who, as Chambers’s journal noted in 1877, spend the holiday in a ‘monotony of dyspepsia’ surrounded by ‘indigestible plum pudding and murderous mince pies’.⁠8

Seasons Greetings from the Diseases of Modern Life Team. May your sleep on Christmas night be long, peaceful, and free from violent goblins and ominous plum puddings!

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown
Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life


‘Our Christmas Plum-Puddings’ The Windsor Magazine 7 (Dec 1897) pp.64-68. (p.64).
L. F. Austin and A. R. Ropes, ‘The Whirligig of Time’ The English Illustrated Magazine 123 (Dec 1893) pp.261-68. (p.262)
‘Plum-Pudding’ Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art 10.270 (29 Dec 1860) pp.828-829.
4 ‘Our Christmas Plum-Puddings’ p.65.
5 Henry Sampson (ed) ’Indigestion! A Christmas Carol’ Fun 28(18 Dec 1878) p.252.
6 ‘The Literature of Spiritualism’ The Examiner (30 Nov 1878)3696 pp.1518-19 (p.1518).
‘What I Saw After the Christmas Pudding’ London Society: An Illustrated Magazine of Light and Amusing Literature for the Hours of Reflection 12.72 (Dec 1867) pp.55-58.
William Chambers and John Payn eds. ’Christmas-Time’ Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts 730 (22 Dec 1877) pp.801-803.

Christmas and the Victorian Medical Press

This post has been re-posted from the Constructing Scientific Communities blog by Alison Moulds, DPhil candidate and researcher on the Diseases of Modern Life project.

The release of The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) – a film which tells the story of how Charles Dickens penned A Christmas Carol in 1843 – has reignited the popular myth that the Victorians ‘created’ the festive season. Historians and literary critics have long emphasised the earlier antecedents to our yuletide traditions, while recognising the close relationship between print culture and Christmas. They have shown how books, cards, periodicals, and advertisements variously shaped ideas about the holiday season. With this in mind, I began to consider how medical journals – the subject of my own research – represented Christmas. Like other contemporary periodicals, they printed festive-themed content, which reflected broader socio-cultural ideas about the season and influenced how Christmas was imagined and observed.

Trawling through digital editions of the Lancet (1823-) and British Medical Journal (1840-), it seems there was an upsurge of Christmas coverage in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the journals began publishing similar seasonal content on an annual basis.

In the run-up to Christmas, both journals reviewed popular fiction and periodicals. While the medical press engaged with non-medical and literary texts at other times of the year as well, in December the journals specifically reviewed books that might make suitable Christmas presents. The Lancet observed that it was well-known Christmas was ‘the most popular publishing season’ and highlighted the wealth of children’s literature produced.[1] The BMJ noted with pleasure that children were more willing to ‘receive with enthusiasm the gift of a book at this than at any other time of the year’.[2] In 1885, it suggested that H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was ‘a brisk story of adventure’ sure to ‘stir the hearts of boys’,[3] while in 1894 the Lancet congratulated Mary Elizabeth Braddon on having abandoned ‘the realms of imperfectly understood pathology’ (which it felt characterised her sensation fiction) in favour of ‘a clear, sensible children’s story’ in the form of ‘Christmas Hirelings’.[4]

Christmas Card

 A Christmas card advertising Dr F. Onnen, Pharmacist (c. 1890-99). Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons).

The medical journals received review copies of new books from publishers, as well as cards, calendars and diaries. These items were also reviewed for medical readers. In 1882, the Lancet praised the ‘amount of time, ingenuity, and artistic skill’ that went into producing Christmas cards.[5] Although typically festive in tone, such reviews were not uniformly positive. In 1888, the BMJ complained that ‘Christmas cards are this year, perhaps, less novel and interesting than usual’.[6] Nevertheless, elsewhere the journal enthusiastically supported the tradition. Five years previously it actively encouraged the officers of medical institutions to exchange cards with their patients, which it felt ‘would largely aid the joyous and kindly influences of the season’.[7]

In the final decades of the century, both the Lancet and BMJ reported on the festivities that took place among major hospitals, in London and elsewhere in the UK. In the late 1860s, the BMJ drew attention to the plight of patients hospitalised over Christmas and welcomed the way in which some London hospitals had gradually begun to mark the season. In 1869 it enthusiastically declared that ‘Christmas-Day dawned more brightly in the wards of the hospitals of the metropolis than, we believe, it has ever previously done’.[8] A year later, the journal reassured readers that ‘even in hospital Christmas can be remembered, and efforts made to render it cheerful and pleasant to the sick and suffering’.[9]

The journals’ reports provide a fascinating insight into how Christmas was celebrated in hospital. The festivities variously included decorations, carol singing, dinners of roast beef and plum pudding, entertainment in the form of music and readings, and the exchange of presents among staff and patients. At King’s College Hospital and Guy’s Hospital, male patients were even allowed to smoke on the wards on Christmas Day, while the Consumption Hospital in Brompton marked the season with an impressive fifteen-foot high tree in 1870.[10] While twenty-first-century consumer culture typically foregrounds the importance of advent, these celebrations usually took place in the final week of December and first week of January.

Guy's Hospital Southwark

‘A Christmas Entertainment at Guy’s Hospital’, H. Johnson (1888). Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons).

The journals actively encouraged hospitals to mark the season. Festivities were thought to have a practical benefit by discouraging sick patients from leaving hospital over Christmas. They were also considered a way to de-stigmatise hospital attendance among the poor and to inspire charity among the middle- and upper-classes.[11] Historian Barry Doyle has produced a wonderful blog post on Christmas in the inter-war hospital, which shows that many of these practices continued into the twentieth century, with celebrations becoming more elaborate and institutionalised.

Christmas Pudding

 A Christmas pudding from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons).

Medical journals also broached the holiday season from a clinical perspective. Festive foodies will be delighted to hear that medical commentators were sometimes positive about the benefits of gastronomic indulgence. In 1897, the BMJ welcomed the fact that Christmas took place during ‘the darkest and dreariest period in northern climes’ since ‘more food is naturally required by the body in cold weather’. It emphasised the value of consuming fats and carbs.[12] Ten years later, the Lancet noted that food was the ‘principal item’ of festive entertainment. However, while praising the Christmas pudding as the ‘embodiment of good things’ and roast beef as ‘a satisfying invigorating food’, it warned against ‘a bout of gluttony carried, as it often is, to swinish extent’.[13]

The journals regularly printed sober reflections on the season as well, warning that overindulgence could pose a risk to public health and safety. In 1893, the Lancet reported on an incident at the Surrey County Hospital where a game of snap-dragon had burnt several people and resulted in the death of a choir boy. It highlighted that accidents could be caused by Christmas decorations (particularly lights on the tree) and states of intoxication.[14]

Winter mortality was also presented as one of the dangers of the holiday season. In a piece on ‘White Christmas’, the BMJ warned of ‘the fatality of what is called seasonable weather’ and highlighted that mortality was particularly pronounced among the poor and the elderly. It soberly reflected that ‘a white Christmas will doubtlessly long maintain its popularity, although it is very desirable that no misconception should exist as to its cost in disease and death among the poorer of the working classes’.[15] In pieces such as this, the journals urged readers to consult their social conscience. In 1900, in an item entitled ‘Christmas Shopping and Public Health’, the Lancet highlighted that shop assistants worked long hours over the Christmas period, at risk to their health. It encouraged readers who were able to do so to shop ‘earlier in the day’ or ‘sooner in the season’ rather than leaving it to the last minute.[16]

If the journals were circumspect about the dangers of Christmas, they nevertheless recognised that the holiday season generally had a positive impact on public life. In 1893, the Lancet emphasised that yuletide celebrations helped relieve the pressures of modernity. It suggested that, ‘the more we as a people become over-worked and over-strung the more do such interludes of idleness and irresponsibility play an important part in our social economy’.[17] In 1909, the journal even likened Christmas to a doctor’s ‘prescription’, suggesting it had ‘a good tonic effect upon the people’. It reasoned that most people behaved sensibly enough.[18]

Rather than adopting an overly sentimental or saccharine view of Christmas, the journals generally seem to have represented it as a time of merriment for both the profession and the public. It was portrayed as a period of escapism but not one in which people should abandon their social obligations. While recognising the novelty of some celebrations (such as hospital festivities and the increasing popularity of Christmas cards), the journals contained many thoughtful observations about the festive season (including its consumerism and overindulgence) that will be familiar to modern-day readers.

Exploring the representation of Christmas demonstrates the broad scope of the Victorian medical press. It elucidates how medical commentators applied their expertise to a range of socio-cultural issues pertinent to public life and shows the importance of non-clinical content to medical journalism.

Today, medical journals continue to print a range of festive-themed content, from articles on charitable giving to popular literature. In 1982 the BMJ published its first-ever dedicated Christmas issue. Its website notes that it ‘welcome[s] light-hearted fare and satire’ but cautions that it will not ‘publish spoofs, hoaxes, or fabricated studies’. Setting the ‘tone’ for the Christmas issue appears to be a paramount consideration. As in the Victorian period, festive content might be fun but it should not be entirely frivolous. Then and now, Christmas is portrayed as a time in which medical professionals and their patients should enjoy themselves, but it is also represented as a serious subject upon which medical authority and expertise can shed new light.

[1] ‘Christmas Books’, Lancet, 15 December 1894, pp. 1443-4 (p. 1443).

[2] ‘Notes on Books: Christmas Books’, BMJ, 3 December 1898, pp. 1694-6 (p. 1694).

[3] ‘Christmas Books’, BMJ, 12 December 1885, pp. 1118-9.

[4] ‘Christmas Books’, Lancet, p. 1444.

[5] ‘Reviews and Notices of Books: Christmas Cards’, Lancet, 9 December 1892, p. 989.

[6] ‘Notes on Books: Christmas Cards’, BMJ, 8 December 1888, pp. 1295.

[7] ‘Notes on Books’, BMJ, 8 December 1883, pp. 1135-36 (p. 1136).

[8] ‘Christmas-Day in the London Hospitals’, BMJ, 2 January 1869, p. 14.

[9] ‘Christmas in Hospital’, BMJ, 31 December 1870, pp. 709-10 (p. 709).

[10] ‘Christmas in Hospital’, pp. 709-10.

[11] ‘Christmas in Hospitals’, Lancet, 10 January 1874, p. 71.

[12] ‘Christmas Fare and the Sense of Taste’, BMJ, 2 January 1897, pp. 35-6 (p. 35).

[13] ‘Christmas Dietetics’, Lancet, 21 December 1907, pp. 1773-4.

[14] ‘The Sad Sequelae of Christmas’, Lancet, 30 December 1893, p. 1645.

[15] ‘A White Christmas’, BMJ, 28 December 1878, pp. 965-6.

[16] ‘Christmas Shopping and Public Health’, Lancet, 15 December 1900, p. 1751.

[17] ‘The Sad Sequelae of Christmas’, p. 1645.

[18] ‘A Prescription for Christmas’, Lancet, 25 December 1909, p. 1933.

‘Fake News’: Insights from the NPHFI’s Tenth Annual Conference, Newcastle University, 10-11 November 2017

The Tenth Annual Conference of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland, held at the University of Newcastle on November 10-11, 2017, addressed a topic that no doubt resonates with many contemporary discussions about journalism in the post-truth era: ‘Fake News! An Historical Perspective’. The conference featured a number of stimulating panels which engaged with the issue of ‘fake news’ in various historical and geographical settings—‘Defamation and sensationalism’, ‘News manipulation, propaganda and radicalism’, ‘“Fake news” and Ireland’ and ‘“Fake news” and Northern Ireland’—along with two keynote addresses by Prof James Curran, on ‘The moral decline of the British press’, and Prof Aled Gruffyd Jones, on ‘Is news fake? A long view’. Rather than a conference report, this post is a summary of the insights I gained from this two-day event (together with a long list of questions to ponder in my future research on media history!).

‘Fake news’, as many speakers pointed out, is by no means a new phenomenon: indeed, the question of the ‘integrity’ of news, as Aled Gruffyd Jones fittingly put it, is as old as news itself. The phrase ‘fake news’, however, is of a more recent pedigree and has exploded into public consciousness in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential elections, when the question of how fabricated news stories widely circulated on social media impacted on the actual outcome of the elections became the subject of much public and scholarly debate. As Tamara Hunt reminded us in her talk, there is a linguistic dimension to consider, since the adjective ‘fake’ was seldom used before the eighteenth century. At least until the end of the nineteenth century, if not even later, if we are to believe the newspaper and periodical files I examined in my own research, it was more common to speak about ‘false news’, ‘false reports’ or ‘false telegrams’. An example of how the term was used in the seventeenth century comes from James II of England’s ‘Proclamation to Restrain the Spreading of False News’, issued in Whitehall on 26 October 1688, which refers to ‘evil disposed persons … [who] make it their business, by writing, printing, or speaking, to defame our government with false and seditious news and reports’. As this and other examples from that period demonstrate, ‘false news’ was often described as a form of ‘evil’ talk. The nineteenth century also had its share of fabricated news, with the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, in which the New York-based newspaper The Sun published a series of articles claiming that life had been discovered on the Moon, being perhaps the most notorious.

Historically, the contexts in which ‘fake news’ cropped up were many: sometimes as part of political and military crises, commercial rivalries or advertising plots; other times in sensational reports about celebrities or murders; yet others in attempts to reconstruct Soviet cities in the aftermath of WWII—Robert Dale’s pertinent observation that analyses of ‘fake news’ should also account for its ‘silences’ is worth emphasizing here—or the colonial government’s plans to control the flow of official intelligence to the press in British India.

As is often the case with definitions, the task of establishing what counts as ‘fake news’ is a daunting one. Furthermore, there are indications that contemporary definitions of the term might be different from those employed in previous literature. In a recent survey of 34 academic articles, Tandoc, Lim and Ling identified six main ways in which the term has been employed, namely as news satire, news parody, fabrication, manipulation, advertising and propaganda. They also pointed out that these definitions were based on the ‘levels of facticity and deception’ of such news items and that the two main motivations that underpinned the fabrication of false news stories were financial and ideological. [1] Indeed, the papers presented at the conference tended to conceptualize the universe of ‘fake news’ as a broad entity: on one hand, there was news that was clearly and intentionally fabricated, with the falsification of commercial intelligence and war telegrams being two common examples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On the other hand, there was news that was based on fact or at least a nugget of truth, but on which journalists, state authorities and other social actors tried to put a certain spin in order to promote a particular perception that would favour their interests. The intention to deceive was present, but the level of facticity was higher than in the former type of ‘fake news’. By contrast, scholars who have examined the recent proliferation of ‘fake news’, especially in the United States, have argued that reports that are ‘slanted or misleading but not outright false’ do not fit the bill, since they ‘filter’ rather than ‘distort’ reality. In this understanding, ‘fake news’ is that which is ‘intentionally and verifiably false’ and is related to two particular types of media bias: fact bias and framing bias (as opposed to issue bias and ideological stand bias which are regarded as filtering reality, not distorting it).[2]

There is, however, another dimension to consider, namely that it might be more productive to conceptualize ‘fake news’, as Aled Gruffyd Jones suggested in one of his interventions, as a ‘complex process’ rather than a particular event. This perspective has the benefit of bringing into focus not only the contexts in which ‘fake news’ is fabricated and disseminated, but also how the audiences themselves respond to and engage with it.  Put differently, what function does ‘fake news’ play in society and what does it teach us about it? For example, is ‘fake news’ used to undermine the credibility of rival newspapers, to defame the press as an entity or, like in the colonial context of India, to delegitimize local forms and practitioners of journalism? If ‘fake news’ is strategic, as James Curran pointed out in his keynote address, what role does it play in the current erosion of trust in communication media and what are the broader social and political consequences of this phenomenon? Is ‘fake news’ used to manufacture public opinion and if so, what role do emotions like anger play in such processes? Finally, is ‘fake news’ a revolt against Enlightenment rationality and a ‘discourse of chaos’? As some of the conference speakers pointed out, attempts to address these questions must also engage with the role of newspapers in society and how this has been conceptualized by journalists, political actors and other members of the public. Are newspapers simply vehicles of information or are they also organs of education? How might such understandings of a newspaper’s role in society collide with an understanding that emphasizes its entertaining value? Is the press a form of cultural performance, as it might be argued was the case in post-WWII Soviet Union, when newspapers routinely published false information about the state of urban reconstruction?

Understanding how audiences engage with ‘fake news’ is important because it draws attention to the broader political and cultural ramifications of this phenomenon. It can show, as Abigail Rieley discussed in her talk, that untruth can live and linger on long after it entered the public domain and draw attention to the role intertextuality and orality might play in the afterlives of ‘fake news’. The issue of agency, as some speakers emphasized, is essential when dealing with the question of audience response, because the realization that a piece of news is fake has the potential to effectively undermine its power. ‘Fake news’ that is recognized as such by its readers ceases to be ‘fake news’ and becomes fiction. Information and media literacy—in other words, training people to recognize ‘fake news’, for example by teaching them to think critically about the sources of news and the contexts in which it was created, the manner in which journalism has developed and changed historically, how to cope with a scenario in which many of the traditional gatekeepers who filtered information for the audiences have disappeared, etc.—is an important step in grappling with its proliferation. However, in and by itself, this might not be enough to cure the broader social pathology of which ‘fake news’ is only a symptom.

Amelia Bonea

[1] Edson C. Tandoc Jr., Zheng Wei Lim, and Richard Ling, “Defining ‘Fake News’”, Digital Journalism, (2017), DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2017.1360143.

[2] Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election”, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2017): 211-235; M. Gentzkow, J. M. Shapiro and D. F. Stone, “Media Bias in the Marketplace: Theory”, in Handbook of Media Economics, vol. 1B, ed. by S. P. Anderson, J. Waldfogel and D. Stromberg (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 2016), pp. 623-645.

A full programme of the conference can be found below.

Fake news poster

Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland

Tenth Annual Conference

‘“FakeNews!”: An Historical Perspective’

 Friday 10 & Saturday 11 November 2017

Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Conference Schedule

Friday 10 November (Devonshire Building, room G21)

09:00 – 09:45              Registration and coffee.

09:45 – 10:00              Welcome address

10:00 – 11:30              Defamation and sensationalism

Chair: Richard Allen

Tamara Hunt               ‘“Fake News”, Commerce, and Seditious Libel in Early 18th Century England’.

Máire Cross                 ‘Sensationalism and satire: the role of the press in the making of Flora Tristan as a political activist’.

Gemma Horton           ‘Exploring the lack of protection defamation law offers celebrities from “fake news” in the United States’.

11:30 – 12:00              Coffee.

12:00 – 13:30              ‘Fake News’ and Ireland (I): perspective and presentation

Chair: Ray Burke

Abigail Rieley             ‘The Lingering Lie – how the London Evening Standard’s reporting of a Victorian Irish murder played politics with innocence and guilt’.

Patrick Maume            ‘Keeper of The Flame: Brian O’Higgins (1882-1963) and the Wolfe Tone Annual 1932-62’.

William Burton           ‘“Hypothetical bombing of a small town” – Fact and Fiction in Irish Newspapers’.

13:30 – 14:30              Lunch.

Friday 10 November cont.

14:30 – 16:00              News manipulation, propaganda, and radicalism

Chair: Joan Allen

Amelia Bonea             ‘Manipulating news? Official policy and personal networks in Sir Owen T. Burne’s vision of the press in colonial India’.

Robert Dale                 ‘Façadism: The Reconstruction of Soviet Cities, Fake News and Propaganda during and after the Great Patriotic War (1943¬–1953)’.

Christopher                 ‘The “Yellow’ Enemy”: The Early British Left and the Daily Popular Shoop-Worrall                      Press’.

16:00 – 16:30              Coffee.

16:30 – 17:30              Keynote: ‘The moral decline of the British press’, Prof. James Curran

Chair: Michael Foley

Evening                       Dinner (Blackfriars Restaurant, Friars Street)

Saturday 11 November (Armstrong Building, room 2.16)

10:00 – 12:00              ‘Fake News’ and Ireland (II): the nineteenth century

Chair: Felix Larkin

John North                  ‘Identifying Fake News in the Nineteenth-Century Irish Press’.

Robert Brazeau           ‘Fake News in the Nineteenth-Century: The Curious Career of Scandal Journalism’

Christopher Eaton       ‘Chaos and Influence: The Case of Watty Cox’

Karina Wendling         ‘“Irish Paupers and British Christians”: Mirror effects in Irish newspapers during the Great Irish Famine (1845-51)’.

12:00 – 12:30              Coffee.

12:30 – 13:30              Keynote: ‘Is news fake? A long view’, Prof. Aled Gruffyd Jones

Chair: Regina Ui Chollatáin

13:30 – 14:30              Lunch.

Saturday 11 November cont.

14:30 – 15:30              ‘Fake News’ and Northern Ireland

Chair: Joe Breen

Oliver O’Hanlon         ‘Fake news? Sorj Chalandon’s reporting from Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s for Libération’.

Roseanna Doughty     ‘“The door is still open for peace. But only just”: British Press Coverage of the Northern Ireland Peace Process’.

15:30 – 16:00              AGM


Thursday, November 23, 2017 –

1:00pm to 2:00pm
Radcliffe Humanities, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6GG
Seminar Room

Professor Sally Shuttleworth (Faculty of English Language and Literature) will look at discussions of stress and overwork in both education and professional life in the Victorian era, based on her research.  Although we are clearly living in a radically altered world, there are nonetheless startling similarities in the ways the problems of overwork have been framed and debated, then and now.

Dr Marie Tidball (Faculty of Law, Centre for Criminology and TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow) will talk about the ‘dynamic’ nature of disability and the impact that stresses of modern life have on its trajectories, employment and what people sometimes refer to as ‘disability time’. That is, the changed experience of time due to pain, anxiety and stress caused by an impairment or the impact an impairment has on the length of time it takes to do ‘activities of daily living’ which in turn affects the availability of time as a resource which has value, such as getting dressed takes longer for prosthetic limb wearer, the increased extent of email, and related issues for people’s energy levels and productivity. This has an interesting impact on the number of hours disabled people may have available or may be able to work and thus a factor affecting the disability pay gap.

The two talks will raise lots of ideas for discussion, including the impact of modern technologies in each period on the nature of work.

Please email if you have any accessibility needs.

Lunch from 12.30pm. Talk from 1pm.

This event is part of UK Disability History Month 22 Nov-22 Dec.


Telegraphy’s Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs


Jean-Michel Johnston joined the project in October 2017. He researches the impact of telegraphy in nineteenth-century Europe.

The better-known story of electrical telegraphy narrates the triumphant onward march of a revolutionary new means of communication during the nineteenth century. It begins with the experiments in electro-magnetism conducted by Samuel Morse, Charles Wheatstone and Werner Siemens, among others, whose inventions led governments and the private sector to build telegraph lines across Europe and North America during the 1850s. In 1866, the first fully operational submarine telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic, and soon these ‘tentacles of progress’ were extending across the globe.[1] Governments, companies and the general public became avid users of an expanding worldwide network of communication, intensifying and accelerating a process of unrelenting globalisation which continues to this day.

My research aims to uncover the lesser-known twists and turns in this narrative, to explore both the hopes and the frustrations, the anxieties as well as the excitement which were associated with telegraphy in nineteenth-century Europe. ‘Distance exists no more!’ a German illustrated periodical declared in 1853, echoing the public perception in Europe that the speed of telegraphic communication would ‘annihilate’ space and time.[2] But others were soon more sceptical. In 1869, the American neurologist George Miller Beard held the technology partly responsible for the crisis of ‘neurasthenia’, of anxiety, fatigue, and depression which was gripping society. By the turn of the twentieth century, denunciations of the stresses caused by modern communication and transport technologies competed with calls for ever faster, ever more pervasive network connections.

How did this ‘tempo virus’, this insatiable need for speed, spread through European society during the nineteenth century?[3] Was it a new phenomenon, or did it draw on existing desires and concerns? To answer these questions, it is important to compare the expectations which Europeans placed in telegraphy with their experience in using the technology. Communication between Paris and St Petersburg might take place in a matter of minutes, but this could make the 20-minute trek down to the local telegraph office seem all the more onerous. The speed of business transactions between stock exchanges was greatly enhanced by the technology, and they were based upon increasingly reliable and up-to-date sources of information. All the more concern, then, when weather conditions, wars, or technical faults interrupted or delayed these exchanges. At the same time, as networks expanded the social and economic gap between the telegraphically-endowed and those who remained beyond its reach continued to grow.

Telegraphy also introduced a host of new sights, sounds, and practices which stimulated the European imagination. The wires connecting towns and villages began to carve out the urban and rural landscape. ‘In windy weather’, wrote one British contemporary, ‘the electric wires form an Eolian harp, which occasionally emits most unearthly music’.[4] In Austria, as Amelia Bonea has discovered, these sounds inspired the compositions of Johann Strauss II. The habit of formulating concise, cost-efficient dispatches, meanwhile, produced a new ‘telegraphic’ writing style. ‘It is a very curious fact’, our earlier British witness opined, ‘that a lawyer under the [Electric Telegraph] Company’s galvanic influence, is suddenly gifted with a description of clairvoyance which enables him to write on any subject in a laconic style, which in his chambers he would consider… to be utterly impracticable!’.[5]


Telephone, telegraph, and power lines over the streets of New York City, 1888. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But the same transformations were also the source of new anxieties. Was the electricity conducted by telegraph wires a public danger? Would it permeate the ground beneath them, where crops were being cultivated? What to make of the many birds which, it was reported, were regularly discovered, lying decapitated under these telegraphic gallows?[6] Not to mention that the strange tones emanating from the ‘Eolian harp’ could also be considered an unwelcome intrusion into the peaceful soundscape of rural Europe. And as Otto von Bismarck demonstrated in his careful editing of the Ems Dispatch in 1870, the curtness of the new telegraphic writing style could have devastating consequences…

We hear echoes of this blend of enthusiasm and concern in present-day attitudes to communications technologies. New media repeatedly promise to bring us ‘closer together’, but then find themselves under attack for their role in polarising public opinion. The internet and smartphones are blamed for breaking down the barrier between work and leisure time, yet obtaining greater bandwidth and faster, uninterrupted connections remains a pressing concern for many users. The consequences of brevity in communication, meanwhile, remain the subject of debate, as recent changes to Twitter’s 140-character limit demonstrated. Investigating both the expectations and the realities of telegraphic communication will help uncover the historical background to this ambiguous experience of modern life.

[1] D. R. Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940 (Oxford, 1988).

[2] Die Gartenlaube (1853), p. 74.

[3] P. Borscheid, Das Tempo-Virus: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Beschleunigung (Frankfurt, 2004).

[4] F. B. Head, Stokers and Pokers, 3rd edn. (London, 1849), p. 126.

[5] ibid., p. 114.

[6] ibid., p. 126.

Not Having Sex in the Victorian Period

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Sarah Green joined the project in October 2017. Her work looks at sexual continence in the literature of the British Aesthetic and Decadent Movements.

If you don’t have sex, you will be better at something else.

My research is not, of course, concerned with the truth (or otherwise) of this premise (no, woman I sat next to on a train, I don’t know quite how one would ‘prove’ it, and no, man in the coffee queue, it isn’t how I wrote my doctoral thesis). I’m interested in its wide and continuing popularity as an idea; in the very different models of bodily function that have been used to justified it, in the range of political agendas that it has been made to serve, and in the surprisingly numerous groups that have adopted it in so many times and places, from athletes to yogis, psychoanalysts, and pornography addicts, to name just a few.

In the nineteenth century, this idea could be found in a wide variety of writing that dealt, however tangentially, with sexual health and well-being. My current work looks at its perhaps unexpected presence in Aesthetic and Decadent writing about the artistic or aesthetic life, and especially its association there with anxieties about how to be healthy and productive in an increasingly challenging modern environment, one full of distinctly un-artistic and potentially unhealthy dirt, noise, crowding, hurry, pressure and degeneration.

In the astonishingly varied and often contradictory world of Victorian sexual health, the question of whether not having sex was good or bad for you was especially fraught. There were plenty of voices ready to claim that celibacy was damaging to both physical and mental health, with grisly consequences like atrophy of the sexual organs and permanent impotence.

But proponents of the opposite view often drew on centuries of thinking about the body to claim that not having sex was not only harmless, but could actually be actively good for you. Their reasons were not always compatible or consistent: some stuck to the ancient Greek belief that semen (both male and female), if not evacuated, would be reabsorbed by the body and become nourishing, while others thought that the energy taken to make more semen took vital energy from other bodily functions. Still others pointed, as the Greeks had also, to the stress on nerves and the brain caused by orgasm.

Whatever the ostensible reason, the underlying logic was the same, that not having sex allowed one to reserve resources for some other purpose, whether simple physical health or more mental functions such as scholarly or artistic work. And formal medical writing was not the only place that this idea could be found. Towards the end of the century it could be found in quack pamphlets and adverts, advice books for young men, feminist writing, and literature of all kinds. It was an idea that popped up in the most surprising of places, like the training regimes of Oxford and Cambridge undergraduate rowers.


In the nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge rowers are said to have included sexual abstinence as part of their training regime.

When, for example, sexologist Havelock Ellis claims that ‘a high degree of energy, whether in athletics or in intellect or in sexual activity, is unfavourable to the display of energy in other directions’; when Baden-Powell says that a man’s retained semen ‘gives the vigour of manhood to his frame, and it builds up his nerves and courage’; and when Walter Pater writes that ‘a passion of which the outlets are sealed, begets a tension of nerve, in which the sensible world comes to one with a reinforced brilliance and relief’, they share a structure of thought even while their understandings of bodily function vary.

And it certainly hasn’t disappeared now, either; think of Dr Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper, and his strange obsession with ‘precious bodily fluids’ and ‘loss of essence’. In today’s world, not having sex is as contentious as ever, as abstinence-only sex education, virginity pledges and purity rings rub shoulders with a growing recognition of asexuality as a sexual orientation. It is increasingly important that the history of not having sex is shown to be as variegated, rich, and complex as the history of having it.