by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Writing”

Work/Life/Home Imbalance

Posted 9 May 2012 in by Catriona

You Can't Go Wandering Around Victorian London in Skins

Posted 15 April 2012 in by Catriona

It’s taken me a while to work out a means of blending my rampant Doctor Who fangirlishness with my research. Don’t get me wrong: I’m jolly glad I never decided to do a thesis on Doctor Who. But I am a bit surprised I didn’t hit this vein of research earlier.

Still, better late than never. So I’ve had a piece on Doctor Who and Australian national identity accepted (and, having seen the table of contents for that book, I can tell you it looks completely fascinating). And my current research? Well, this sums it up:

After all, if you’re going to be a fangirl, at least you can be a productive fangirl.

Vale, Richard Carpenter

Posted 28 February 2012 in by Catriona

Once, when I was very fragile and felt as though I’d lost myself in a dark wood and would never be able to find myself again, I watched Robin of Sherwood.

And it occurred to me that Richard Carpenter, who’d never met me and never would, had written Robin of Sherwood just for me and just for this moment. And all over the world, other people have had the same thought, in similar states of mind and in very different ones.

To do that, with so major a mythic figure—to make Robin Hood so important to people and so personal, so immediate and so alive—is the sort of legacy that most of us cannot even dream of. And it isn’t the only gift that Richard Carpenter gave us.

Vale, Richard Carpenter. You helped show us what television as a form and fantasy as a genre are capable of.

Doctor Who and Victorian Patterns of Publishing

Posted 28 November 2011 in by Catriona

I’ve been thinking, over the past year or so, about the ways in which my professional interest in Victorian modes of publishing and my fangirl obsession with Doctor Who communicate with one another.

I’m not a cultural studies scholar (except in the most amateur of senses), nor will I ever be. But I can’t help—no doubt because I’m over educated in that highly specialised way that makes you unfit for most jobs—wondering how such things fit together. After all, I work on serial publications, and you can’t get more serial than television, can you?

So I’ve just sent off for consideration an article on Doctor Who and Australian national identity (following, of course, in the footsteps of the great Alan McKee), and I have sitting on my desktop half an article on Doctor Who and Victorian spectacular theatre. Let’s face it: neo-Victorianism is so hot right now, and there’s no reason why I can’t dip my toes in that water.

Then this happened: people started fluttering on Twitter about the rumours that a Doctor Who film was in the works. And I fluttered with everyone else, because I remember the last Doctor Who film, and the memories aren’t among my fondest.

But I wasn’t just fluttering because I feared that Doctor Who would be ruined: I’m old enough now and secure enough in my fangirlishness to never worry about that again. Doctor Who is one of those texts that’s down in the very bone and blood of me. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t watch Doctor Who, and only two other texts, two other men, occupy that same space in me: England’s three great national heroes, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Doctor Who.

So, no: the film will spoil nothing for me, should it ever even exist.

What made me flutter was that, suddenly, everything sounded so familiar. And I thought, “I’ve seen this pattern somewhere before.”

I’ve seen it 150 years ago, in Victorian patterns of publishing.

It seems to me that television networks don’t know what to do with the sudden, radical shift that’s happened in television-watching patterns since the advent of DVDs. Because DVDs aren’t just a slightly different version of videotapes. The market saturation is far greater with DVDs than it ever was with videos—particularly with television shows. Admittedly, Doctor Who (like Star Trek and certain other programs) was always available on video, but there was never the expectation with television shows that they’d be available on video: those that were available were the exception, not the rule.

But now DVD boxsets are the rule, and that’s where the analogy with Victorian publishing patterns comes in.

Because we now experience these televisual texts two distinct ways.

At the first stage of consumption, they’re serial texts, as they always have been. Like so many Victorian novels (but not all), the greater narrative is delivered up to us in digestible chunks, on the publisher’s schedule. We watch it, we discuss it, and we wait for the release of the next chunk, on the same day next week.

Not much difference there (at the level of analogy) between the televisation of a serial text and the serialised publication of a novel in a periodical.

At the second stage of consumption, there’s the DVD boxset. And, certainly, this text is still serial: simply selling an entire season in one package doesn’t change its serial nature. And this is also true of nineteenth-century novels, especially in the years before the 1890s, when novels were, by default, three-volume affairs. Once Mudie’s and the other circulating libraries lost their control over the publishing industry and we started moving into two-volume and one-volume editions and then into cheap paperbacks, the essentially serial nature of the original text was, to some extent, elided by the fact that the story was contained within a single codex.

But serial or not, the text is consumed differently in a DVD boxset than it is on television, because we’re no longer trapped by the publisher’s release schedule: we can consume an entire disk, an entire season, an entire novel in one sitting, if we so choose.

So where does a putative Doctor Who film fit into this analogy? Why are people fluttering about it, when this pattern of publishing is so venerable?

There’s a precedent for films based on television programs in Victorian patterns of publishing, as well. But it’s not a three-volume novel. It’s the dramatic adaptations of novels that proliferated on the nineteenth-century stage.

When I was looking at dramatic adaptations of Eliza Winstanley’s serials on the suburban (East End) stage (which you can read about here if you’re curious), I isolated two telling features.

Firstly, these plays heavily advertised their similarity to the original serials, both in their advertising posters (featuring scenes from the periodical publication of the story and prominent use of the author’s name) and in their on-stage re-creation (largely through tableaux) of key illustrations from the texts. But secondly, they show little real interest in actually being faithful adaptations—which is hardly surprising, given that they were often on stage before the serial had actually ended. Key plot points, key characters, key themes: these are far less important to the dramatists than the superficial sense of similarity.

In this sense, the adaptations simultaneously parade and deny their nature as adaptations, much in the same way as the Daily Mail article I linked to above uses an enormous picture of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan even while it declares the likelihood of an American script-writer and an entirely different actor as the Doctor.

This is why I’m no longer fluttering about the vague possibility of a Doctor Who film, even if the sentence “TV’s Doctor Who is to be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster” makes my skin crawl.

It’s true that there’s a key point I’m skimming over here. The analogy stumbles slightly when you consider the relative cultural capital of films (high, even for Hollywood blockbusters) versus television (low, even for premium cable shows). The underlying assumption in much of the coverage of the putative Doctor Who film is that a film version elevates a lowly television program, which is not something critics would ever have said of an East End theatrical production, not matter how many punters it drew in.

But I’m still not fluttering.

Because you know what? There’s nothing new in this. This is a venerable pattern of publishing. And severely truncated and manipulated versions of Charles Dickens, or Mary Elizabeth Braddon, or even Eliza Winstanley didn’t destroy the texts from which they were derived.

And let’s face it: no one thinks of the theatrical versions of his texts when they think of Charles Dickens, do they?

Late-Night Editing, with TARDIS

Posted 16 February 2011 in by Catriona

Hieroglyphics

Posted 21 September 2010 in by Catriona

When I wrote these notes—last Wednesday, while invigilating three in-class exams in a row—they were so clever, so insightful, so exactly what I needed to get the article back on track.

Now, six days later, they’re looking horribly like gibberish.

What I need is a Rosetta Stone—only instead of translating Egyptian via Greek, it could translate me via me.

I bet Think Geek sells something like that.

Back in Brisbane

Posted 11 August 2010 in by Catriona

Normally, when I’m taking a break from blogging, I let you know in advance. But this time, I was lazy. Or neglectful. Or harassed.

Pick whichever one seems most plausible to you.

(Psst. I suggest “lazy.”)

So I’ve been down in Sydney for a week, and I didn’t blog, and I didn’t even tell you I was going.

But I’m back now, and I’ve lined up a whole series of photo posts for your viewing pleasure. (Or not, depending on how fussy you are about your photos actually being good.)

I’ll start with the strange atmospheric conditions of the Southern Highlands, shall I?

Productivity

Posted 23 July 2010 in by Catriona

I’ve been trying desperately to clear some ongoing projects off my desk, because while this past six or seven months has been frantic, they’ve mostly been frantic because of things like Legionnaire’s Disease and the occasional tumble down half a flight of stairs. With the exception of the Mockingbird MS, I haven’t been doing much critical writing and the Mockingbird MS—while I’m very proud of it and worked extremely hard on it—isn’t in my usual field of research.

So I’m trying frantically to close off a couple of projects that have been neglected for far too long before the new semester’s teaching starts (which, admittedly, is next week, but I won’t be teaching much myself until week four).

The blog isn’t the only thing that’s being neglected, but it’s the area of neglect that makes me feels guiltiest (hence this, the latest in my ongoing series of “I shall begin blogging again soon, I promise!” posts).

Still, as you can see by the light radiating off that draft, the current article’s actually falling into place quite nicely, thanks to some reading on “Victorian thing culture” and a particularly fruitful metaphor. But don’t tell my students that last bit: not after how often I tell them to avoid metaphors in academic writing.

Before and After

Posted 11 June 2010 in by Catriona

Before deadline:

After deadline:

Yes, the Mockingbird manuscript is in. And it’s in, I might add, without the following embarrassing typos, which I spotted while editing:

  • that the break to his arm left Jem’s “thumb parallel to his thing.” True (since it was also parallel to his thigh) but perhaps a little indelicate.
  • that lawyers’ analyses of the novel have to be “sued carefully.” Curse you, inappropriately apt verb.
  • that the lives of African Americans in the Deep South were marked by “sheet terror.” That, I’ll go out on a limb to say, may be the most tasteless typo ever committed to a document.

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Five

Posted 26 May 2010 in by Catriona

ME: I need a new title for my novel, but I can’t think what.
NICK: It’s a pity the two kingdoms don’t have names. You could call it From X to Y.
ME: From Here to Eternity?
NICK: From Justin to Kelly.

What a shame From Russia with Love is already taken.

In Praise of Poodles

Posted 8 April 2010 in by Catriona

(Remember when I got distracted by the fact that King Arthur’s spear was called “Ron,” while his sword and shield had cool names such as “Excalibur” and “Pridwen”? You don’t remember that? Well, this is a great deal like that time. I’m warning you for your own good.)

I’ve actually been researching Alabama in the 1930s today, for work on a study guide on To Kill a Mockingbird, and that’s been fascinating enough.

But in the course of my wandering across the Internet—actually, while I was trying to track down an authoritative source on the history of “boy” as a derogatory term for an African-American man—I found out that Prince Rupert of the Rhine had a notorious white hunting poodle who was said to be imbued with magical powers.

No, it’s true.

The poodle, who was called Boye, was given to Rupert when he was imprisoned during the Thirty Years’ War, to keep him company. After that, he accompanied Rupert during the English Civil War, or at least from 1642 to 1644, when he was killed at the Battle of Marston Moor.

Rupert, who was a Royalist, featured heavily (though not positively) in Parliamentarian propaganda, in which Boye was featured as a witch’s familiar or as the Devil in the form of, well, a white poodle.

In Royalist parodies of the Parliamentarian propaganda, Boye was said to be a “Lapland lady” in disguise as a white poodle. It’s certainly more plausible that a woman from a region that exists largely within the Arctic Circle would choose the form of a poodle than it is plausible for the Devil to do, since he’s traditionally from more temperate climes. (I’m thinking here of how we have to shave our poodle several times a summer: I think the Devil would find that an affront to his dignity. If he has any.)

Boye was said to be invulnerable to harm, as well as possessing the ability to find treasure, to catch bullets in his mouth, and to prophesy.

And, in answer to a brief but spirited debate on Twitter, I think it’s probable that Boye could make a damn fine cup of coffee.

Only one thing bothers me about Prince Rupert of the Rhine’s magical white poodle: why is he not the hero of his own comic book?

The Fruits of Research

Posted 10 February 2010 in by Catriona

Thanks to a random search engine hitting a particular page, I’ve been reminded of something that I wrote over a year and a half ago.

(We are, as it turns out, rapidly approaching this blog’s second birthday, which is on Saturday.)

That was a piece I wrote while struggling with a journal article, a piece on the difficulties of my writing process.

That was in July 2008.

The article was accepted in December 2008, with some provisions.

The re-written article was sent off, after a flurry of communication with the various institutions that held the rights to the illustrations, in January 2009.

It was to be published in the June 2009 issue of the journal—and it was.

But I’ve only just seen the June 2009 issue turn up on the online journal interfaces, as is the way of academic publishing.

So, if you’re interested, here’s the journal article some of you watched me anguish over:

Ta da!

Of course, you need access to scholarly databases, but that’s all right: even if you don’t have that, you can see the abstract.

You just miss the pictures.

And none of them have half-naked princesses in them, so you’re not missing that much.

The Little Princes: Chapter One

Posted 10 September 2009 in by Catriona

This, as promised, is the first chapter of the novel. Be gentle (but critical) with it: it’s only a baby. And, yes, the title is horrible, but it does as a working title.

1 In Which the King and Queen of the Tiny, Deep Kingdom are Introduced

This is the story of two little princes from a tiny kingdom at the far edge of the world, who left one day on an adventure.

The kingdom was at the bottom of a valley so deep that some people said it was actually under the ground.

But the queen, who was a sensible woman, pointed out that she could see the sky provided she stood in the very middle of the kingdom (which was also the middle of her garden) and tipped her head back as far as she could.

Tall mountains surrounded the valley. They were so tall that, rather than having snow on their peaks, they had a thick white belt of snow around their middles. Even the snow found it too cold on the tops of these mountains, which were just bare, grey rock.

The queen admitted that living in such a deep valley meant that her kingdom was cold, and dark, and damp. But, she said, this meant that it was a lovely place to grow mushrooms, and she and the king did like fried mushrooms on their toast on Sunday mornings.

(The king would have eaten fried mushrooms on his toast every day, but somehow he could never manage more than marmalade on a Monday morning, when he had all the business of the kingdom to worry about and another five days before the next weekend. The queen told him that most kings and queens—kings and queens who ruled big kingdoms, not tiny, deep kingdoms—even had to work on the weekends. But the king didn’t believe her.)

The king and queen’s castle was the smallest castle they had ever seen. They’d bought the kingdom when they were very young and newly married. The king’s family had always been poor, but he’d longed to be a king since he’d been a young child. The king’s parents saved up enough money to send him to the right preparatory schools and then to the university that offered the best degree in kingship, and he’d eventually graduated as a newly anointed king.

The universities hadn’t been offering degrees in kingship and queenship for long. They’d started them to exploit what they called “a gap in the market,” and then they’d had to explain to everyone what they’d meant by that: where some of the old-style kings didn’t have children to carry on the royal line, they argued, citizens could have a king who, without being technically royal, was highly trained in kingship.

And, they added, anyone—provided they could afford the rather steep fees—could become a king. (“Even if they’re a woman!” an early advertisement added, until someone convinced them that that was a little tactless.)

And it worked.

But it worked a little too well for the old kings’ liking.

The new kings might not have been of royal blood, but they were very good at their jobs. They were never to be found carousing all night, or off hunting while their citizens were waiting to petition them.

Suddenly, people whose kings didn’t have a degree began to complain. Why, they asked each other, should they have to wait hours to see a king who would only come storming into the hall, surrounded by panting hounds, and then demand ale, when their neighbours had a polite, quietly spoken king with neat handwriting and a diploma on the wall?

The old kings were appalled. They sent their sons and daughters off to the universities to collect degrees, thinking this would calm the citizens down.

But the citizens didn’t want just any king with a degree. The universities has advertised the degree widely, telling everyone that this was the way for them to get the best possible king—and that’s what the citizens wanted.

So when the kings’ sons and daughters came home with their degrees (having done as little work as possible, thinking to inherit the kingdom anyway), they’d found themselves confronting polite, quietly spoken young kings, who’d answered the citizens’ advertisements and already hung their own diplomas in the Great Hall.

And there was nothing that the old kings could do. The universities had simply thought to make a little money, but—with their shiny advertisements and their promises that their kings would listen to any problem—they’d started a revolution that changed kingship across the world.

In some kingdoms, the hereditary kings hung on, the ones who were too young to need to name an heir and too established to bother getting their degrees. But their citizens didn’t mind: they knew that one day they’d be able to advertise for their own accredited king, and they were willing to wait.

The king of the tiny, deep kingdom had found that his troubles started when he left university.

The university was now turning out more kings every year than there were kingdoms in the whole world. The university forbade their graduates from conquering existing kingdoms by force. Any king who started a war with one of their fellow graduates would be stripped of their official university crown (the one with the five golden points) and forbidden to mention the university in any official letters. This was a serious threat: no one wanted to be ruled by a king who didn’t have a degree in kingship.

In the absence of the most traditional method of winning a kingdom, the dozens of kings who graduated each year were forced to find new ways to rule. So new kings were forming little coalitions that allowed six kings to rule one kingdom, each ruling for one day a week and taking turns on Sundays.

(Despite the university’s policies about fighting, vicious arguments took place between new kings about who would be third king and who would have to settle for being fourth or fifth king. But as long as there wasn’t an official declaration of war, the university pretended not to know about these little squabbles. They made most of their money from the kingship programme. Each year, they printed dozens of shiny badges and garish posters with slogans like “Kingship Doesn’t Need Kinship!” and “Want to Fly High? Give Kingship a Try!” They didn’t want to discourage people from enrolling at their university.)

But joining a coalition cost a great deal, and this king was very poor. Six months after he graduated, he was still living in the small attic room he’d rented when he started at the university (where he paid his rent by performing small chores around the house, and helping his landlady carry her groceries home every Friday) and he still only owned one pair of trousers. He could never have afforded to join one of the big, prosperous kingdoms.

But he did have one advantage over his classmates: he had the queen. Unlike the king, the queen hadn’t always known what she wanted to do for a living: even when she was studying queenship at university, she thought she might like to be a gardener. (The queen’s mother had wanted her to study to be a king, but the queen had insisted on enrolling in the queen course, instead. It was more work, but she didn’t have to spend as much time signing papers, so the queen thought it was worth it.) She was delighted when she met the king, because (quite apart from loving him just for himself) she realised that he was so poor she wouldn’t have to choose: she would have to be both queen and gardener.

It was the queen who suggested they look for a kingdom so small that other, more ambitious kings would never want it.

The real-estate agent who sold the kingdom to the king and queen had told them that the castle wasn’t really a castle.

“Really,” said the real-estate agent, “we’d have to call it a cottage. Look, there’s an herb garden. And roses around the door. And it only has three bedrooms. And there’s a pig in the garden.”

But the king said, “No.” He said it firmly. The king liked to say things firmly, because he wasn’t always confident that what he had to say was important.

“No,” said the king. “If I am living here, then it must be a castle. After all, am I not a king?” (The king hadn’t been a king for very long, so he didn’t sound as sure about this as he would have liked.)

And the real-estate agent looked around the tiny kingdom. It had taken him three days to get there, following a trail over the mountains. (He worked in a cosy office in a city by the sea, where he could walk on the beach and feed the seagulls on days when he didn’t have to sell houses.)

He looked up at the mountains.

He stood in the garden—next to the pig, who was optimistically digging for potatoes in the strawberry patch—and he tipped his head back as far as he could, so he could see the sky.

And he looked at the king, who was wearing his graduation crown, the one with the five golden points.

(The queen was wearing the trousers she wore when she was gardening, because she knew they’d have to clean out the castle before they could live in it. But then the queen was much more sensible than the king.)

And the real-estate agent agreed that the king was a king and the cottage was a castle. And when he’d sold them the castle, he went back to his seaside city, where he shared a packet of fish and chips with the seagulls, and thought that at least here he didn’t have to stand in the middle of the garden and tip his head back as far as he could to see the sky.

Post Of Overwhelming Briefness

Posted 9 September 2009 in by Catriona

So, one of the things I’ve been doing this semester—apart from convening a course for (really) the first time ever, and endless live-blogging—is writing a novel.

I don’t know if it’s any good. I’m fairly sure it’s not.

But, since I’ve been blogging, I’ve been less reluctant to show my writing to people. (I never was reluctant to show my academic writing to people, but then that’s the nature of the genre.)

So, I’ve been thinking, diffidently, and the result is this diffident post.

Essentially, I’m asking a question here: would people be interested in seeing some of this novel (a gentle fantasy for children, if that helps, which I’m writing with my nephews in mind)?

I’d love some feedback from people other than Nick, though I’m not sure I’m robust enough to take severe negative criticism.

I have to ask, though.

If you’d like to read such a thing, let me know in the comments, and I’ll post the first chapter as it stands.

And forgive the diffidence: this is the first piece of fiction I’ve written in many years, and I don’t know whether to send it out in the world or not.

Marginalia

Posted 23 July 2009 in by Catriona

As I mentioned briefly, I’ve been at the annual conference for the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand for the past couple of days, where I presented a co-written paper called “Ariel and Australian Nineteenth-Century Fiction: A Case of Mistaken Attribution.”

Just in case you’re bubbling over with an uncontrollable desire to know what we were talking about, it was a paper tracing the misattribution of five long serials in the Sydney Mail (an early Australian newspaper) that have become known as the works of Eliza Winstanley, the Australian-trained actress on whom I worked for my Ph.D., when they’re actually the work of another author altogether.

It’s a distinctly old-school kind of academia, attribution studies. And I love it. Though I don’t have the patience for it as a full-time research focus, it taps into that part of my brain that, firstly, likes to think of myself as a collector and, secondly, prefers something concrete and empirical as the basis for my research, rather than theory that is closer to philosophy.

Oddly, though, that’s not entirely what I wanted to talk about. What I was thinking about here was something that showed the split in the conference and in the attendees.

Mind, I don’t think this split was a bad thing. Rather, I think the organisers did a marvellous job of showcasing the two faces of the conference theme: “The Limits of the Book.”

You see, the way it looked to me was this: the conference attendees were either librarians or scholars working in the (admittedly broad) field of literary studies. Of course, the two fields aren’t mutually exclusive and they aren’t impermeable categories (and they met perhaps most explicitly in the character of the scholarly bibliographers)—but they did tend to prompt different but sympathetic approaches to the idea of the limits of the book. Librarians and bibliographers were tending to think in terms of lost and missing books, of variant texts and disputed authorship. The rest of us were thinking of the limits of the book in terms of e-books, blogs, cover art, and blurbs—indeed, paratextual material of all kinds.

An awareness of the way in which paratextual material extends the limits of the book was one of the areas where the two (sympathetic) approaches overlapped most broadly.

But one aspect that intrigued me the most wasn’t really the explicit focus of any of the papers, but came up in more than one discussion session. That was the idea of marginalia.

I’ve never really been a scribbler in books—barring a couple of misguided semesters as an undergraduate, and even then I limited myself to scribbling in my own books.

But marginalia is fascinating on a number of levels. And not least (and I admit, here, that this is not my own insight, but something that arose out of the question sessions for a couple of papers) is this: marginalia is something that slips past the kind of digital scholarship that has made academia so much easier in the past twenty years.

The online MLA International Bibliography, for example, is far easier to navigate than the old physical volumes. OCR issues aside, online journals and newspapers are a far more convenient method of searching than microfilm copies—and have the added advantage of not making me seasick. And online library catalogues make many forms of study—including scholarly bibliography—much easier.

But marginalia slips past online library catalogues. How can it not? Marginalia isn’t always present in the book at the time at which it enters a library’s collection. How can you assess the marginalia of a collection, other than to physically walk up and down the shelves, pulling books down and looking for scribbles and interleaving? And how often would you need to keep doing that, while marginalia continues to be added to the books? How can you assess the extent and scholarly value of marginalia, other than physically reading it?

I’m not denying that digital scholarship aids the preservation of marginalia. Projects such as Early English Books Online preserve the marginalia in the copies of the books that they scan—but they don’t always note the presence of that marginalia in their entries for those books, because they aren’t always interested in what a sixteenth-century collator scribbled in a fourteenth-century text.

(And book-based social-networking projects such as Library Thing are generating their own form of marginalia, which will be of enormous value to future scholars.)

But marginalia is of enormous value now.

One paper I saw in the past couple of days talked about a new twist in the (long, long) history of the understanding of the variant texts of Piers Plowman through marginalia in a forgotten (late) edition.

And consider book historians—particularly those whom Jonathan Rose categorises as “new book historians,” the ones who are not as interested in what people read (through library records and sales figures) as they are in how people read. The personal reading experience of the common reader is notoriously difficult to resurrect after much time has passed, but marginalia tells us how one reader, at least, responded to a text.

I have no idea how marginalia can be more effectively traced and catalogued, though I wish I did.

But I do know that I’m following up two of the books mentioned in question sessions: William H. Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England and H. J. Jackson’s Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books.

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