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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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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: eggcorns wrecking havoc

Hawthorne

Words are wild unpredictable tools. That’s why (no matter how slowly the fundraising is going) I love writing a dictionary. The wild unpredictability of words is why I’ve chosen this Nathaniel Hawthorne quote for Writer’s Quote Wednesday.

Hawthorne is right that words are potent in the hands of those who know how to combine them, but people who know how to use words are like lion tamers because words are still a potent force in the mouths of people who have no idea what they are saying. That’s why we sometimes want to take words back after we’ve said them.

Hawthorne knew this. That’s why he wanted to take his first novel back after he published it. As an older more experienced writer, he no longer felt that Fanshawe (1828) reflected his ability, or his brand, as a writer. Hawthorne went so far as to destroy every copy of the book he could get his hands on. After his death, his wife even denied he had ever written a book by that title.

I also have a first novel that I don’t feel entirely comfortable sharing with the world. It’s a politically-charged drama that was the result of my thesis writing as a student. I only want to write historical fiction now, so I empathize with how Hawthorne must have felt.

On a smaller scale, the wild unpredictability of words causes this kind of embarrassment whenever we have to stand helpless watching an unchecked phrase that we’ve unleashed wreak havoc in the world.

wreak havoc: to cause or effect chaos (1817)

On point, wreak is such a weird word, meaning to cause or effect, as in the definition above. A common eggcorn of the idiom “to wreak havoc” is “to wreck havoc.”

eggcorn: a linguistic term for an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase that also bears a phonetic likeness (1844)

I like to imagine that eggcorn sprung from the use of ear horns, but that’s another story.

eggcorn

The notion of wrecking havoc is so far off of what people are meaning to say with “wreaking havoc” that it actually means the opposite. Havoc means chaosWreak means to causeWreck means to break, or otherwise ruin. Consequently, to wreck chaos would be to end/destroy/break chaos, thereby restoring order.

See why it is so important to know how to combine your words?

Have you ever written/published something you were embarrassed by? Know any good examples of an eggcorn? Leave a comment and let me know.

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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?

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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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