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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.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: going Erewhon with Christina Rossetti

ChristinaRossettiQuote

It’s Writer’s Quote Wednesday and you can see by her quote that Christina Rossetti was a poet, not a novelist. I love working on the Dictionary Project, but sometimes I wonder if it would have been better had I never started the novel I’m working on. Then last night, there was a plot twist in a recurring dream I am having about a dystopian post-apocolyptic future. Do I really need to start another project right now? Do I?

As a poet, Rossetti contributed several new words to the English language, including burnishment (a polish for metal) and shallowing (an adjective to describe something, or someone, that is increasingly shallow).

The nineteenth century was a great time for adding words to the English language; more words were added (especially during the second half of that century) than at any other time in the modern history of the language. They also invented dystopian fiction.

Dystopian fiction is utopian fiction’s jealous sister. While utopian fiction puts on a pair of rose-coloured glasses and insists that, if you listen to her, everything will be fine; dystopian fiction doesn’t think things are ok, but is going to show you that things could get worse. The first dystopian novels only problematized utopian fantasies, as in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), which seems like a utopia at first…

erehwon

Though I’m not sure that Erewhon can really be called the first dystopian novel, it introduced a popular dystopian theme: the tyranny of machines; a theme we are still terrified by to day (think of Stephen Hawking and artificial intelligence). The notion of machines developing consciousness started in Erehwon.

As writers, not starting a work means not exploring certain ideas, which is why – as much as I love Christina Rossetti – I don’t think that not beginning particular works is so sad. I’m glad that I’ve begun the projects I am working on at this time, but should maybe hold off on starting anything about dystopian post-apocalyptic futures until I finish a few other things.

Are you a writer? How many works in progress do you have right now, or at any given time? How many are too many?

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Once upon a time…

OnceUponATime

This classic introduction to the modern fairy tale sets a story in the distant past, usually in a land far far away, and changes the tone of everything that follows. It’s possibly one of the most powerful narrative devices in the English language.

After we hear those words, we expect that everything that follows will be whimsical and probably fictional. If a story starts with ‘once upon a time,’ you shouldn’t be surprised if a fairy, witch, or some other magical creature appears. The words ‘once upon a time’ instruct the reader to suspend their disbelief.

It’s as old as the fourteenth century, Chaucer used it and there was a variation in the tale of Sir Ferumbras.  The history of its use parallels the history of the fairy tale itself. In The Wonder of a Kingdome (1636), Thomas Dekker uses it to convey a mode of telling stories orally: “Cannot you begin a tale to her, with once upon a time there was a loving couple…”

The written fairy tale was properly invented in the salons of the next century and the fairy tale, as we know it, was invented the century after that by our beloved Victorians, who took all of the naughty bits out and started saving and creating these stories for children. The Victorians did this to so many stories they had to make up a word for it in 1836:

bowlderize: to expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive; to castrate.

The changes, modifications, and invention of the fairy tale follows shifts in culture socially and economically, like nationalism. Nationalism is also a very Victorian word, which was coined in 1798 to describe a phenomenon that was already underway.

nationalism: Advocacy of or support for the interests of one’s own nation, esp. to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations. Also: advocacy of or support for national independence or self-determination.

The Brothers Grimm were motivated by nationalism. They wanted to protect the stories that were uniquely and historically German from the increasing (even militant) influence of French culture. Before the rise of nationalism, people were generally loyal to their regions. It took the French and American Revolutions to make people think of themselves as devotedly part of a larger national whole, or like they had any role in shaping what belonging to that whole actually meant. Hence, the interest of the Brothers Grimm in creating a record of a distinctly German identity.

Before the Brothers Grimm told their stories, academics were gathering in salons to share fairy stories. These stories were meant for other scholars and were often made up by the scholars themselves. The women, who hosted the salons told stories of aristocratic females, suffering some sort of oppression, who was saved by magic, or came to a terrible end for failing to abide by the social sanctions of her time. Thus, these stories mirrored the experiences of the writers themselves.

Then the industrial revolution happened, which created a new middle class and an idealized concept of what it meant to be a child. Before the industrial revolution, social mobility was a fairy tale of its own (Cinderella), and whole families generally worked together as an economic unit. Children were expected to contribute to the household through labour. The industrial revolution centralized the capitalist system moving labour outside of the home and creating new socio-economic systems.

The Victorian interest in evolution and psychology contributed to the belief that childhood should be a time of personal development, during which one gains the skills they need to successfully contribute to the economic system in adulthood. Consequently, children didn’t need to hear about the real world. Fairy tales were and still are a great insulating tool, especially once the naughty bits are taken out.

What naughty bits do I mean?

In Rapunzel, the witch figured out that Rapunzel had been secretly letting the prince into her tower because Rapunzel was pregnant.

In Little Red Ridinghood, Red and her grandmother obviously die. They were eaten by a wolf! What do you expect?

The original Snow White is a girl of about ten years old, which is way too young. Also, the stepmother asks for the girl’s heart because she wants to eat it.

In Speeping Beauty, the prince does more than just kiss the sleeping princess, and before she awakes, she gives birth to twins.

Today, scholars debate the usefulness of these stories, particularly because we still like to tell them to children. The main argument is that it fills children’s heads with warped ideals of masculinity and femininity. In some cases, stories are modernized, or given a new twist, to make them appeal to modern readers. I spoke about hypermasculinity in my last post.

hypermasculinity

These stories definitely present warped ideas, but if we have to share the story of a warped idea, there may as well be fairies and dragons, or what have you. Maybe a story doesn’t have to be useful.

As Oscar Wilde said, once upon a time:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

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Making Demands of the Fisherman’s Daughter

fishermansdaughter

If he wants water

He makes a demand for the

Fisherman’s daughter

About a month and a half  ago, I began participating in WordPress’s blogging university classes. I’ve enjoyed the support and sense of community there so much that I’ve enrolled in a poetry class, just to keep participating. I don’t know how well poetry will work with the dictionary project, but I am willing to give it a try.

Today’s assignment was to compose a water-themed haiku. The literary device we were meant to use was the simile. Fishermans’ daughters don’t seem anything like water to me. I also don’t imagine them as the kind of people who respond kindly to being ordered about. Consequently, I dropped the ball on directly applying a simile to my haiku, and must confess that this is found poetry. It is the example sentence most often sited for the term “fisherman’s daughter,” rhyming slang for “water.”

This sentence was originally composed by D.W. Barrett in Life & Work Among the Navvies (1880). If, after reading this post, you find a use for the term “fisherman’s daughter,” feel free to tell me about it in the comments below.

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A mini-guide for writing Victorian erotica

Ashbee

This post is about the language of sex.

“I loved cunt, but also she who had it; I like the woman I fucked and not simply the cunt I fucked, and therein is a great difference.” Excerpt From: Anonymous. “My Secret Life, Volumes I. to III. / 1888 Edition.

Erotica is a growing field of literature, especially in eBooks. Erotica is also a growing branch of historical fiction. My Secret Life by Walter is a great place to go for tips on how to make your nineteenth-century characters talk dirty to each other, until I am able to give you a copy of the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties of course!

My Secret Life is the memoir of a nineteenth-century gentleman’s sex life. It was first published over the course of about seven years, beginning in 1888. It’s long and repetitive, but offers a frank discussion of hidden aspects of nineteenth-century life.

Although the work is attributed to Herbert Spencer Ashbee, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would talk about ‘fucking a cunt,’ but ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ were commonly used in Victorian pornographic literature. The words, ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ predate Victorian literature by hundreds of years. That means it wasn’t just Victorians, who used those words, their grandparents used those words!

NaughtyWords

Other old words for female genitals include: ‘chose,’ ‘privy chose’ (the vulva), ‘honour,’ ‘muff,’ ‘pussy,’ ‘cunny,’ ‘bearing place,’ ‘lap,’ twat,’ and my personal favourite ‘crinkum-crankum.’ ‘Shell’ and words related to shells could also be related to female genitalia, like ‘conch’ and ‘cunnus.’

Male genitalia could be referred to as: ‘jock,’ ‘arrow,’ ‘loom,’ ‘member’ or ‘virile member,’ ‘virility,’ ‘needle’ (though if you used that now, it would sound like you were diminishing its size), ‘cock,’ ‘other thing,’ manhood,’ propagator,’’handle,’ ‘shaft,’ and ‘Roger.’ There are more specifically Victorian words for penises though, like ‘organ,’ ‘intromittent apparatus,’ ‘root,’ ‘middle leg,’ ‘pisser,’ and words that sound like names, including: ‘Dick,’ ‘Mickey,’ ’Johnson,’ ‘Peter,’ and ‘John Thomas.’ I’m sorry to anyone actually named ‘John Thomas.’

‘John Thomas canoodled her honour’ is a very Victorian sounding sentenced, but it doesn’t sound very sexy, like: ‘His middle leg was now in her lap.’

There are fewer words that are anachronistic to Victorian erotica. ‘Pecker,’ ‘willy,’ ‘dong,’ ‘wang,’ and ‘schlong’ have no place in nineteenth-century bawdy talk, whereas ‘cock’ is perfectly acceptable. If you are talking about lady parts, don’t say ‘snatch,’ or ‘beaver,’ but ‘cunt’ is fine, as Ashbee demonstrates (I think it was Ashbee, who wrote or compiled My Secret Life).

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Love and Corelli

QuoteCorelli

It’s Wednesday again!

Marie Corelli was the best-selling novelist in the UK from 1886 until World War I. Her books sold more copies than Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Rudyard Kipling put together.

Because of her popularity, the literary community dubbed her work as too ‘householdy.’

householdy n. domestic; or feminine (pejorative).

As a person, Corelli was about as unconventional as a Victorian woman could be. She lived with her life-companion, Bertha Vyver, and fancied things like taking a gondola on the Avon, complete with a gondolier that she had brought over from Venice.

Her popularity dropped off quickly during World War I, when she was accused of hoarding rations.

I selected this quote from the preface to Wormwood: A Drama of Paris (1890) because it resonates with how I feel about my life and my own relationship. Falling in love with my husband has made me more me than I have ever been in my life. In my autobiography, everything that happened before will be pre-history.

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In love with your own fictional character?

ImaginaryGirl

I recently read a review article called “Emotional Historians,” which looked at the fascinating idea of a historian falling in love with a figure (from the past), who she is researching. I’ve heard of this happening to fiction writers before.

Stories are usually more engaging when you can tell that the writer invested in their characters, but can a writer become too invested in a fictional character? An important characteristic of a good writer is the ability to take ideas and interpret them through words in a way that makes them believable to your readers. Not surprisingly, it’s incredibly easy to fall in love with a character you invented in your head.

There’s an old rumour that Anne Rice fell in love with the vampire, LeStat.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about Nick Carroway with a far deeper self-identification than he felt with the enigmatic Gatsby.

Virginia Woolf knew exactly what Mrs. Dalloway was thinking in her most private thoughts, as she created a heroine who was not honest to either her husband, Richard, or her former romantic interest, Peter Walsh. – Alan Rinzler

As Rinzler explains, writers, who get emotionally involved in the writing process, write better narratives. We create back stories and invent details about the characters’ lives that may never make it into the stories, but influence our characters’ actions nonetheless. No one knows them better than their writers do.

ImaginaryMan

While it makes sense, it also sounds crazy. I found one writer, who found themself unable to date because they were too in love with a fictional character that they created.

I know he’s not real. But I keep having dreams about him. I keep thinking about him, and our ‘life’ together (basically my life now but with him in it). – ShinyStar

Does that sound silly to you, or like part of the writing process?

Many writers feel that becoming emotionally involved with their fictional characters is an integral part of their craft, but stories, like ShinyStar’s, make me wonder if it can go too far. That being said, writing any work of believable fiction, especially something as long as a novel, seems to require either a beautiful form of insanity, or an addictive/borderline obsessive-compulsive personality. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of addiction applies to both the state one is in when they are either in love, or writing anything longer than 10,000 words.

addiction n. The state or condition of being dedicated or devoted to a thing, esp. an activity or occupation; adherence or attachment, esp. of an immoderate or compulsive kind.

Consequently, if you write this kind of fiction, I don’t think you can ever truly be bored, or lonely.

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the intentions and methods of a lexicographer

Photo on 1-27-15 at 5.21 PM

“Most early commentators on the Dictionary felt compelled to reflect on the author’s efforts in producing the work – not surprising, of course, for a lexicographer’s intentions and method’s are particularly relevant to the work’s authority and the critical reference within which the book may be understood, used, and interpreted.” Allen Reddick, The Making of Johnson’s Dictionary 1746-1773, 1993.

I do not wish to compare myself to Samuel Johnson, only to address what Reddick says about the intentions and methods of a lexicographer. I consider myself more of a lexophile than a lexicographer. The task I’ve set for myself is nothing compared to what Johnson did. I have countless dictionaries to consult that build on his work and others. To reinvent the English Dictionary from scratch would be pointless.

Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [O.S. 7 September] – 13 December 1784), often referred to as Dr Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer.

Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [O.S. 7 September] – 13 December 1784), often referred to as Dr Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer.

I’ve discussed my intentions elsewhere in this blog and on my crowdfunding page, but for those of you who are new to the Dictionary Project I will recap. The Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties is an instructive resource for Victorianists, especially authors of historical fiction. It was inspired by authors’ questions about what to make their characters shout, when they wanted to say “fuck” in the 1800s. Depending on the character you are writing, the answer may very well be ‘fuck.’ That is what my dictionary sets out to teach you.

My methods for writing the dictionary involve consulting other dictionaries and thesauruses, as well as researching the ways in which words were used in the literature and press of the time. University libraries, Project Gutenberg, and online newspaper databases provide examples of how words were used. Oxford’s Historical Thesaurus is especially helpful, and I recommend it. It covers the entire history of the English language, whereas my little book will only cover 100 years – and only the words that need an explanation on usage.

Sir James Augustus Henry Murray (7 February 1837 – 26 July 1915) was a Scottish lexicographer and philologist. He was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until his death.

Sir James Augustus Henry Murray (7 February 1837 – 26 July 1915) was a Scottish lexicographer and philologist. He was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until his death.

Currently, I’m struggling with the construction, style, and layout of the thesaurus section of my dictionary, but am constantly working on and reviewing every part of this book. If you have any ideas, questions, or suggestions, feel free to contact me.

What am I fundraising for? The Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties will hardly be a reliable resource if I don’t have a second and third pair of eyes edit the thing. I started the Dictionary as an eBook project, which is inexpensive, but I will be creating promotional materials, covering the cost of the design, and am working on a business plan to create hard copies for those who want them. In the meantime, I am absorbing costs myself, as I do not wish to go with a conventional publisher, who would increase the cost to you, my reader. I intend to give away lots of free downloads. I want the finished product to make it into the hands of everyone who can use it!

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

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Propaedeutic Cyborgs, or Why I Wish James Harbeck Wrote Victorian Fiction

A word isn’t much good if it can only mean one thing at a time. – James Harbeck

James Harbeck is a blogger I admire. We share an interest in language, and I think he’s better at it than I am.

I strive to give words character, but he effortlessly cooks them up, infusing them with flavours, and smells. ‘Propaedeutic‘ tastes like Donna Haraway’s Manifesto of the Cyborg, and smells like the university campus where I first read her. My language is populated with ruffians, like the people in the pub on that campus.

To be propaedeutic is to be very cursory, but, as Harbeck points out, using this word will make you sound professorial in the way my old roommate hated. Use of the word, ‘propaedeutic,’ is for those who have been exercising their use of English words for a very long time. ‘Cursory’ even sounds a little heuty teuty. Use the word ‘superficial’ and you will sound more judgmental, and less worthy of harsh judgement.  Use a string of other words that basically mean the same thing, and you will sound like a noob, or in Victorian:

newie n. (1856) a noob

I wrote about being new to English yesterday. Newie-ness brings fresh eyes on an old conversation. Fresh perspectives make language interesting.

Though he might be a better writer and I admire him so, Harbeck isn’t better than me (I tell myself); we serve different lexicographical purposes. As I’ve been told in my Blogging 101 course, my lexicographical purpose is strange. It’s like I’m building a time machine, so that I can take writers back over 115 years and introduce them to their verbal ancestors.

Old Robot Header

I’ve been treating words like characters because my role is to introduce them to you, so that you (all of you wonderfully talented Harbecks) can reintroduce them to the reading public with all of their multiple meanings and flavours. It is exactly because I admire other people’s writing so much that it is so important to me to finish the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties.

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Make your own Victorian colloquialisms

Lucy Westenra as portrayed by Carol Marsh in Dracula (1958).

Lucy Westenra as portrayed by Carol Marsh in Dracula (1958).

There are lots of words that we use in formal writing that were only beginning to be tossed around in the nineteenth century, like ‘noticeably,’ which first appeared in print in 1845, and ‘blithering,’ which was coined by Punch in 1889.

A colloquialism is a word, or phrase, that is used in informal speech, but not in formal writing. English had not yet been standardized by the nineteenth century, which makes identifying colloquialisms that were colloquial within the period trickier. There were no set rules about which words could and couldn’t appear in formal writing, but upper- and middle-class Victorians often had strong opinions about what words counted as slang.

“I do not, as you know, take sufficient interest in dress to be able to describe the new fashions. Dress is a bore. That is slang again, but never mind; Arthur says that every day.” – Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Bram Stoker’s character of Lucy Westenra provides an interesting study of late-Victorian opinions on language. In the same letter that she writes the sentence: “Just fancy!” she calls the noun ‘bore’ slang. I could write a whole book on this problem alone, but the key is that there’s nothing random about the quirky opinions women, like the character of Lucy Westenra, had about language.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, women’s intellectual abilities were on trial, as women began entering university programs and demanding a role in politics. Moreover, they lived in a world that was literally inventing itself as it went along. It seemed clever to turn the verb ‘notice’ into the adjective ‘noticeably.’ If you are writing historical fiction, your character might try it with other verbs as well.

Words that you invent this way will be appropriate to the period and can add some levity to scenes that require it. ‘Grieve’ can become ‘grieveably’ and ‘shout’ can become ‘shoutably.’ I can’t create the context that those words will be hilarious in, but I know you’ll think of something!

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