Constructing Femininity: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Material Culture, and the OED

clip_art_library_books89143630_stdHave you ever looked up a word in the OED, and come across a first-use quotation from your favorite author? Well, if your favorite author happens to be Victorian writer Mary Elizabeth Braddon, you would experience this feeling of surprise quite frequently.

In her March 25, 2015 talk entitled “Constructing Femininity: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Material Culture, and the OED,” PhD candidate Anna Brecke spoke about Braddon’s lasting mark on the English language. Although most widely known as the author of Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon was a prolific writer of sensation in the 1860s, penning more than 150 novels and short stories, nine plays, and countless poems and other scholarly writings over the span of her forty-year career, becoming the sixth most cited female author in the OED at present. Brecke’s talk drew examples from three of Braddon’s lesser-known novels, Asphodel, Mount Royal, and Vixen, where words abound that Braddon herself either coined or utilized in a new way. These words run the gamut from abstruse anachronisms to commonplace contemporary terms. Words currently in disuse like “horsiness” and “dogginess” were used by Braddon in describing the habits of female characters as liking the outdoors or enjoying hunting. Braddon in fact refers to the “horsiness” of her own activities in her diaries, which, Brecke interestingly points out, focus more on horses and riding than they do on people. Braddon’s novels utilize these and similar terms as a way to distinguish her “natural heroines” from the commodified girl culture that was often pressed in social circles and popular culture. It is here in her connection to material culture that Braddon’s mark on the English language can best be seen.

Drawing on her work in the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Archive held at the International Center for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW) in Canterbury Christ Church University, England, Brecke spoke to the apparent preoccupation with issues of appearance and social expectations of dress voiced in Braddon’s works. Brecke recognized a theme of materiality in Braddon’s terms, pointing to the abundance of words that relate to material culture, specifically fashion, fabric, or clothing, that make up the over 1,400 OED entries in which Braddon is cited. The novel Vixen is cited for the first use of the word “fashion magazine” in print, while the term “chic” cites Mount Royal as an instance of first use for its meaning. The third text Brecke discussed, Asphodel, boasts “aglitter,” “fad,” and among its contributions to the English language. The female characters of Braddon’s texts use this specialized fashion vocabulary as a way to consume girl culture being broadcasted in the very magazines Braddon names. Brecke’s talk included pictures of Victorian fashion plates, or drawings of the most popular clothing styles of the time, similar to those that characters in a Braddon may have themselves looked upon.

Although Braddon’s project may not have been to propagate and encourage girl culture, her contributions to the world of material culture—particularly fashion—are astonishing. As Brecke pointed out in her question and answer session, there is certainly a doubleness to Braddon’s use of the terms, where successful heroines find moderation between consumer culture and anti-consumerism tendencies. Brecke’s talk served to highlight this lesser-known author whose contributions to the English language are impressive and astonishing, and whose influence stretches beyond the literary page.

Swamp Things: Professor Branka Arsić Lectures on Disease and Decay in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau

On March 30th, 2015 Branka Arsić presented a captivating section from Bird Relics: Grief and treeVitalism in Thoreau (forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2015). The audience was noticeably engrossed in her meticulously researched findings in her talk titled, “Swamps, Leaves, Galls: Thoreau on Disease and Decay”: the latest installment of the URI Department of English Read/Write Series.

Branka Arsić is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Currently a Visiting Professor at Brown University, Arsić is an authority of American Literature with previous published books including On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson and Passive Constitutions or 7½ Times Bartleby. Arsić opened her discussion with an overview of her subject: Henry David Thoreau. Her specific interest is Thoreau’s view on life that first developed while he attended at Harvard — a philosopher in his own right with a keen interest in science.

Arsić advocates for a literal reading of Thoreau’s writings involving nature. She focuses on his elevation of swamps as generators of life; epicenters of where “cunning mixtures” of life are enacted that spark transformations of lifeforms. For Thoreau, swamps embody incessant continuity of mutation and, therefore, exist as sites of immortality. This view of swamps subverts popular conceptions of these environments as centers of repugnance.

Arsić elaborated on how Thoreau’s interest in swamps intensified after the death of his brother. Decaying fungi preoccupied Thoreau as much as budding flowers. These served as natural glimpses into the operation of life, revealing life’s temporality: one that is not linear as the Aristotelian model would suggest, but exists in overlap between growth and decay.

The discussion developed further with Thoreau’s fixation on leaves and galls, which are the equivalent of tumor-like growths that develop on the foliage. Arsić attests to Thoreau’s understanding that leaves remain alive despite falling, “like the breath of the tree.” In lieu of this notion, traditional views of the seasons as representative of living (spring) and dying (fall) are subverted. Vegetation exists in constant states of life and death. Observations that would typically be viewed as signifying death such as a leaf’s change in color actually serve as reminders to this fact that, according to Thoreau, “All the seasons are spring.”

Arsić’s argument culminates in the assertion that the Aristotelian, linear view of life established values of privileging “healthy” life. Ideals of perfection were normalized and irregularity was devalued and christened the “abnormal.” Arsić posits that Thoreau’s view of disease is not as a series of constant attacks on life, but as a natural aspect of it. There is nothing that does not rot as it buds, and all of nature can be likened to the imperfections of galls that form upon leaves.

Branka Arsić admitted that “Swamps, Leaves, Galls: Thoreau on Disease and Decay” was only a small aspect of a much more complex framework that develops in the chapters of her book. However, the presentation prompted a series of stimulating questions regarding the nature of Thoreau’s authorial perspective and academic tendencies to aestheticize literature to conform to the demands of the reader and drift away from its unadulterated value that can be gained from reading a text on its own terms.