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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: futilitarianism and the history of time travel

futilityinwriting

Happy Writer’s Quote Wednesday! H.G. Wells was a prolific English writer, who began publishing in my favourite literary decade of the moment: the 1890s. I chose this quote because it opens many doors in the conversation about writing.

First, it exposes a gap in my knowledge. As my 1890s literary research focuses more on Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, I do not know the source for this quote, nor its context, only that it has been attributed to Wells, which in the supreme irony of Writer’s Quote Wednesdays may render everything I write on this subject futile.

Certainly, my blog post’s effectiveness depends on my success at opening doors in the conversation about writing, which might be misconstrued as a literary ambition steeped in futilitarianism (another fantastic Victorian word).

futilitarian (1827): one who is devoted to futility.

On the surface, Wells’ advice to writers may be read as the familiar: “Write what you know,” which is ironic in Wells’ case because his most successful works weren’t at all about things he knew, but about things that he imagined. It might be argued that Wells knew about Time Travel before he wrote the Time Machine (1895), but can you know about something imaginary?

Certainly, you can know something and not think it is real, and certainly Wells thought so too, or he would have considered his own work futile. By “systematic knowledge,” I don’t think he was talking about the sciences, or systems of government, or some understanding of how things really are, but rather about a familiararity with how the history of an idea is organized.

This is especially true of literary ambitions.

literaryism (1879): a use of language that is particular to writing, like a literary device, or cliché.

Language is not just a means of communicating such ideas, but an idea itself. I don’t think Wells was speaking specifically about the idea of language, though he might have been speaking about the idea of time travel – both of which provide interesting examples of the history of an idea.

The dictionary I am working on traps the history of words that are particular to a period in their context, in terms of their usage at that time. However, any particular word, or phrase, may have meant something else at earlier, or later, dates.

The history of time travel tells us that until at least the eighteenth century the concept of time travel only involved travelling forward in time. Time only moved in one direction. King Raivata Kakudmi in Hindu mythology, the Buddhist Pāli Canon, and Rip Van Winkle, all get preoccupied with some other task (trips to heaven, a very long nap) and find that far more time has passed than they previously thought possible. There was no going back until (debatably) the first Russian science fiction-novel (1836), in which the protagonist rides a hippogriff into the past to meet Aristotle and Alexander the Great before returning to the nineteenth century.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, time travel happened in dreams, by magic, or by accident without significant consequences for anyone other than the time traveller – until Edward Everett Hale published Hands Off in 1881. Hands Off is the first story to create an alternate history as the result of time travel.

That same year also saw the introduction of a device for time travel in “The Clock That Went Backward” (1881), a story that also presented the first temporal paradox in fiction.

To my mind, this kind of history of time travel is the kind of “systematic knowledge” that Wells likely relied on to write the Time Machine (1895). Familiarity with the history of an idea enriches the writer’s understanding of the idea, enabling them to access the intertextuality within any genre, thereby creating richer texts. I would never argue that writing without knowledge of the genre is futile, but it is hard to imagine a modern time traveller moving through time and space without something like a Police Box.

All of this goes back to why I am writing the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties. I’ve put a lot of work into the historical fiction that I’m writing and see no reason why other writers shouldn’t benefit from my work.

Support the project through my GoFundMe page, or visit my shop.

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Mock Turtle Soup and Brain Balls

zombiesoup

Jane Austen’s dearest friend Martha Lloyd once wrote this recipe for mock turtle soup:

Mrs. Fowle’s Mock Turtle Soup:

Take a large calf’s head. Scald off the hair. Boil it until the horn is tender, then cut it into slices about the size of your finger, with as little lean as possible. Have ready three pints of good mutton or veal broth, put in it half a pint of Madeira wine, half a teaspoonful of thyme, pepper, a large onion, and the peel of a lemon chop’t very small. A ¼ of a pint of oysters chop’t very small, and their liquor; a little salt, the juice of two large onions, some sweet herbs, and the brains chop’t. Stand all these together for about an hour, and send it up to the table with the forcemeat balls made small and the yolks of hard eggs.

If you only just skimmed over that quote, you might have missed the part about “the brains chop’t.”

Victorians were crazy for mock turtle soup, which was made from calves’ heads and used actual brains to simulate the texture of turtle meat. The brains were, as Lloyd recommends, chop’t, then formed into balls – called brain balls. Yes, brain balls. I’m not sure which is more revolting to me: the idea of eating a turtle, or the idea of eating brains.

Yet, this was such a popular soup that, in an interview about Campbell’s discontinued soups, Andy Warhol apparently said that their mock turtle (which contained real brain balls) was his favourite.

mockturtlesoup

For more creepy victorian foods, click here.

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The Victorian Post Office (willing to risk death daily)

TomPostman

In the mid-nineteenth century, postmasters had to swear an oath, like the one above. It was a dignified career, in which one had to post a bond and be responsible to the community in which one lived and served. The postmaster couldn’t be drafted to the army or militia, but could be called upon to work on the roads. People were sometimes recommended for the job by their members of congress. In the larger post offices, postmasters were appointed by the president.

When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be a mail carrier. Give me a pair of shorts, a sunny day, and I will gladly deliver a bag full of birthday cards to everyone in my neighbourhood. (I don’t recall ever wishing I were a mail carrier in winter.)

Victorian postmasters often got their job as some political favour and kept it as a secondary occupation to running a shop, or something. In many parts of the United States, mail was even delivered on Sundays. Though they had to close the post office while church services were going on. Evidently, ministers complained about parishioners leaving church to hang out at the post office and play cards.

Today, you can’t even get the Postal Service on the phone, if you don’t have a 750 character code that contains BOTH letters and numbers. The automated system hung up on me twice today because I only had a tracking number. Evidently, tracking numbers are useless.

Modern postal workers are depicted as mole people, but the phrase “going postal” didn’t exist until 1993, when a Florida newspaper used it as a reference to several cases in which postal workers shot at their colleagues.

There aren’t many things that were actually better in the nineteenth century (moustaches, language, manners, jokes, fashion), but the United States Postal Service was one of them. In many places, the mail came two or three times a day and getting it to you was a sacred duty. Created as the Post Office Department, in 1792, American mail delivery was revolutionary in its approach to changing technology and its commitment to service. They even sought out young men, who were willing to risk their lives delivering the mail.

PonyExpress

Something about email seems to have caused them to simply give up on using new technologies and innovations to get your mail to you sooner. It’s not that new technologies and innovations don’t exist; it’s that the Postal Service isn’t taking advantage of them anymore and it just seems to be giving up, forcing online retailers to take matters into their own hands (Amazon and delivery drones, for example).

I am not surprised to find that the Postal Service has no official creed, or motto.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

…was just the inscription outside the James Farley Post Office in New York.

Even if I lived in a place where it was sunny all the time, there’s no part of me that wants to be a mail carrier anymore. Sadly, I don’t think the people who work as mail carriers want to be mail carriers anymore either.

Support the project through my GoFundMe page, or visit my shop.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Don’t Be a Villain

Bronte

Whenever I hear someone talk about getting even, or enjoying “karma,” I wonder about their media literacy. Aside from the occasional Inigo Montoya out to avenge their father’s death, rarely is the hero’s story a revenge plot. As a literary device, revenge is generally only employed to generate sympathy (however slight) for the villain. If you are plotting revenge, or laughing as someone “gets theirs,” ask yourself whether you really want to be a villain because that’s how you will come across.

villain n. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes [from the Oxford English Dictionary].

I almost didn’t finish my post for Writer’s Quote Wednesday on time this week because I’ve finally lost all hope that Spring will ever arrive and resigned myself to staying in bed with this stupid flu, but I chose Emily Bronte’s line about treachery and violence because I’ve been trying to better understand the burning desire some feel for what they consider justice.

Retributive justice, revenge plots, and the Western bastardization of karma are all based on the notion that justice looks like a pair of scales that balance rightness/goodness in the universe. To take justice into our own hands involves appointing ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner. It makes sense, then, that the original use of the word “villain” was to refer to someone who was low-born with a head full of ignoble ideas.

I like Bronte’s quote about treachery and violence because it emphasizes these fundamental characteristics of someone walking around with a revenge plot: (1) their own spear is something they’ve “resorted” to, which has consequently made their character more base, and (2) it hurts to be angry and vengeful; it’s like a violence we do to ourselves. It is the violence that a villain does to themselves and villains rarely end well in fiction.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: An Ode to and from the Necktie

necktie

If you are going to be a man, be a gentleman. Dressing well may be the first step, but there’s clearly more to it than that. The necktie is a great place to start!

The modern necktie, which is to call it a fashion accessory that is popular in the English-speaking world that is forever envious of French taste, the modern necktie evolved from the cravat, which originated in the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). Croatian mercenaries wore identifying ties around their necks that intrigued the French. In naming the new trend, the word “cravat” flowed from a deviation in the seventeenth-century French pronunciation of word “Croates” (French for “Croatian”).

To this day, International Necktie Day is celebrated in Croatia on October 18th.

The necktie brings me to “The Shirt-Collar” (1848), one of my favourite stories by Hans Christian Andersen.

There was once a fine gentleman who possessed among other things a boot-jack and a hair-brush; but he had also the finest shirt-collar in the world, and of this collar we are about to hear a story.

The story takes place after the shirt-collar decides he wants to get married. The chief obstacle that the shirt-collar faces in this endeavour is that he is not a gentleman at all, but a braggart. That, to me, is part of the seriousness of a well-tied necktie. A well-tied necktie shows people you know how to dress well, so that you don’t have to brag about it. A gentleman’s conduct speaks for him, so he has time to listen.

For my poetry class, I was going to write an ode to the necktie, while tying it into Writer’s Quote Wednesday, like I did last week, but I found that someone beat me to it. F.H. published “An Ode To The Necktie” in the Lawrence Journal on 22 August 1945. It was about this time, in the evolution of the necktie, that they started to take on lovely colours, as you can see in F.H.’s description. Still, due to the hot weather, F.H. isn’t happy with his necktie at all and is jealous of women.

Consequently, I’ve thought about the necktie’s reply.

necktiereply

Which brings me to a final point on what it means to be a gentleman: don’t complain. Certainly never try to argue that things are harder for you than they are for somebody else.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Fat Fierce Trust

muchness

I spent all night colouring that publicity photo from an 1898 production of Alice in Wonderland, anticipating that today is Writer’s Quote Wednesday. Clearly, the quote I’ve chosen belongs to Lewis Carroll a.k.a. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Popular culture cycles through a variety of feelings over Carroll as a prominent figure in children’s literature because the relationship he had with children isn’t acceptable today, but his stories were so good.

I chose the quote about muchness because it would take a great artist indeed to draw muchness and I want to challenge myself with the Writing 201 poetry class I’m in, which is a bit of a crap shoot, the way they surprise us with a new prompt, form, and device, every morning. I figured I could throw muchness at any prompt they gave me and incorporate it all into my love of Victorian language.

The prompt was trust; the result thus:

My tubbish trustfulness is endogamous

Un-substatiators underestimate its gameness

Close harmony is key to the corporealization of my queenliness

Humble in my aspirational suchness, passing out

New halos to

Embonpoint

Spunky punk

Spit-cats – affirming the pluckiness of my trustingness.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Carroll’s Hatter ever told Alice that she lost her muchness. I love the line in the film, but it puts new meaning on the word that isn’t part of the Victorian definition. The Victorian “muchness” referred to quantity, or size. In the Tim Burton movie, “muchness” seems to be synonymous with fire, or spunk. One of the points behind the dictionary project is to capture the significance between old and new meanings of words, helping writers make the most of language.

In my poem, my trust had to be fat and fierce to meet the muchness of Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. What do you think of the result? Which Victorian words do you want to hear more about?

Support the project through my GoFundMe page, or visit my shop.