Eccentric Conduct examines how Victorian novelists’ familiarity with the period’s inescapable theatrical culture influenced how they treated erotic life. The Victorian novel has typically been seen as antitheatrical for the same reason many critics have understood it as policing deviance: if novel plots reflect the culture’s alleged investment in punishing individuals who do not comply with the expectations of the patriarchal family, then they must also repudiate characters and formal devices that evoke the theatre because theatre was associated with sexual license. Yet, like the British public at large, writers such as Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, Sarah Grand and even George Eliot loved going to the theatre and partaking in the pleasures available there, such as gazing at comely actors and actresses and flirting with audience members to whom they weren’t married (and sometimes weren’t even of the opposite sex). Taking these facts as a point of departure, I argue that novelists depicted unconventional erotic practices by drawing on the representational norms and social types associated with the theatre in affirmative ways. Rather than instructing readers to reject erotic practices connected to the theatre by treating them as abhorrent, many writers developed formal techniques that enabled readers to vicariously experience the sensations of gazing, cruising and diversion. Consequently, Victorian novels were often seen as promoting rather than repressing erotic diversity.
Central to my research is the recognition that the nineteenth-century texts that we read today weren’t always the texts that were most popular during the Victorian period; after all, students and scholars rarely study Victorian plays today despite the presence these plays once had in everyday life. Along with canonical novels such as Middlemarch and David Copperfield, my research turns to novels that were hugely popular but now primarily studied by feminist scholars, such as Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins, and once-prominent genres that are now virtually forgotten, such as the “actress novel.” I also recognize novels as active participants in a dynamic social world, and for this reason I read literary texts alongside historical artifacts that that record and in many instances mediated social relations, such as annotated celebrity portraits, scrapbooks, playbills, and artifacts typically mind for textual information, such as letters and newspapers. This extensive archival research has been supported by competitive grants from Harvard’s Houghton Library, the University of Glasgow-Columbia University research exchange, and the Midwest Victorian Studies Association’s Walter L. Arnstein Prize for Outstanding Dissertation.
I am also a committed teacher, with particular focus on feminist and queer pedagogy. It was partially in recognition of this work that I received a Certificate in Feminist Scholarship from Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality. I think of my teaching as moving outwards from the Victorian period, exploring how the cultural tropes and narrative conventions consolidated in the nineteenth century continue to shape how we make sense of our lives, particularly issues pertaining to gender, sexuality, and other categories of social difference. At Columbia, I received a Teaching Scholars award to design and teach an undergraduate seminar entitled “Melodrama: Race, Gender, Sexuality, 1850-present,” which started with foundational English and French stage melodramas before moving onto classic Hollywood cinema, contemporary avant-garde performance and film, and finally, Mad Men. This fall, I will be teaching a seminar for the English department titled “Plotting the Passions: Nineteenth-Century Literature and Modern Love,” which begins with Jane Austen, ends with Sally Rooney, and requires students to watch Catastrophe, Jane the Virgin, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend along the way. I have also taught widely in feminist and queer theory, and as a former preceptor for Columbia’s Contemporary Civilization core course, I can even claim to have tried my hand at teaching St. Augustine and Immanuel Kant.
My peer-reviewed scholarship has appeared or is forthcoming in Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women Writers. I’ve also written for Public Books, Politics/Letters, and v21.