Blog Post

Introduction from a Wandering Victorianist

Hello HASTAC folks!  I'm Beth Seltzer, a PhD candidate at Temple University in Philadelphia, getting a doctorate in English literature.  My main concentration is Victorian detective fiction.  It's a great world to be in, full of mesmerism and scheming madwomen and plots to assassinate Napoleon III.  But it's a period that's a bit short on, you know, the internet and the technical innovations which people here are doing such wonderful work on. 

And somehow I wandered into HASTAC and have joined the new scholar class.  So you might ask, and I wouldn't blame you--what am I doing here?

Let's go back into the past for a minute.  You live in the middle of the nineteenth century in Britain.  Your society is increasingly media-rich, and you're reading new genres you never thought of reading before--railway timetables (the railways are only a few decades old), telegraph messages (barely invented, still associated with hypnotism and mysticism), and others.  Your society is seemingly obsessed with classifying information, because there's just so much new information to classify.  Out in Babbage's lab, the first computer is being invented. 

Like your contemporaries, you're in turn excited, concerned, and overwhelmed with your increasingly media-rich society.  There are just so many new ways to plug in.  Young people are ruining their attention spans with trashy serialized fiction.  There are literally thousands of different things printed every day that you could be reading, so many more than there were even a few decades before.  So what do you do?

Well, if you're anything like me, you bury yourself in a good detective novel. In that novel, you read about detectives who are able to comfortably navigate that world of information, who model the process of learning to use the different types of information technologies which have suddenly taken over your life. And as you read it, just maybe, you find that you're getting better at managing information, too. 

My dissertation focuses on different ways to manage information which rose in the mid-Victorian era--railway timetables, telegraph messages and codes, bibliographic systems and serialization--and examines them alongside detective fiction.  All these genres were exploding into prominence in the middle of the nineteenth-century, and they all, in some way, are about the process of organizing information, part of the debate over why and how we get from facts to meaning.  Detective fiction, I argue, offered Victorian readers an interface to the abstract world of information, becoming a tutorial on the successful use of facts and information technologies.

Take Sherlock Holmes, always a handy example.  He's an absolute master of physical and virtual networks, able to confidently navigate the city of London through his child spies and use of the telegraph and train schedule, modeling a skill set which allows information to be organized, processed, and applied to a clear purpose. There's a reason why the modern TV Sherlock is so good at the internet--he always was. 

Not accidentally, detective fiction is also one of the most deeply interactive of the fictional genres, encouraging the reader to engage analytically with a fictional scenario in a way which serves both as a type of training in analytical thought and which anticipates the interactive virtual storytelling of modern media forms.

I'm very curious where (and whether!) the work I'm doing fits in to this vibrant world of the digital humanities. Can we call the Victorian era "digital," and how does that change our reflections on our own information age?  How are the challenges of composing a tweet similar to the challenges of composing a fee-per-word telegram?  What are the demands which technology places on readers and writers?  And what does the past have to offer the present?

I'm not sure of the answers to these questions, but I'm genuinely excited to join this conversation.  If you're another wanderer from history (or just interested), I'd love to talk to you.


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