Thursday 16 December 2010

What You Miss Online: text-bases vs microfilms

I have been working on an article on An Apology For The Conduct of Mrs Teresia Constantia Phillips (1748). Phillips (aka Con Phillips) does not have a Wikipedia page (shame on Wikipedia) but you will find a few details about her here.

My article is an account of the publication of Phillips's Apology. It was published in parts. Eighteen of them over the course of a few years. I mention this because, one aspect of my research has been trying to uncover newspaper advertisements for each Number. I started, of course, with the Burney Newspaper database.

It took a while to find a few advertisements, but once I was on the right track I refined, varied and repeated my search in a way that has rapidly become familiar to literary scholars. Below is the text of a typical advertisement (from Old England, 9 April 1748):

On Monday next will be published,
(Price One Shilling)
The First Number of

AN APOLOGY for the Conduct of Mrs TERESIA CONSTANTIA PHILLIPS; more particularly that Part of it which relates to her Marriage with an Eminent Dutch Merchant: The Whole authenticated by faithful Copies of his Letters, and of the Settlement which he made upon her to Induce her to suffer (without any real Opposition on her Part) a Sentence to be Pronounced against their Marriage; together with such other Original Papers, filed in the Cause, as are necessary to illustrate that remarkable Story.

Were ye, ye Fair, but cautious whom ye trust,
Did ye but know how seldom
Fools are just,
So many of your sex would not in vain.
Of broken Vows, and faithless Men, complain;
Of all the various Wretches Love has made,
How few have been by
Men on Sense betray’d?
Rowe’s Fair Penitent.

To be had at her House in Craig’s Court, Charing Cross; where all Booksellers may be supplied, with the usual Allowances; and to prevent Imposition, each Book will be signed with her own Hand.

N.B. Whoever presumes to pirate this, or any of the following Numbers, will be prosecuted with the utmost Rigor of the Law, being duly enter’d at Stationers Hall.

No. II. will be publish’d on Monday the 25th Instant.

It is amazing how few advertisements you find if you search for "Teresia Constantia Phillips" or "Apology for the Conduct"—none in fact. This is because the Burney database search-engine doesn't cope well with caps. So you have to search for words not in caps. Or in italic, that also doesn't work well either. Oh, or words that start with a lower-case s, or contain a medial s (that is, a long-esse, the one that looks like an "f"). Or multi-word searches. Otherwise it is great!

Keeping this in mind, and—as I said—refining, varying and repeating my search, I found sixty-six advertisements using these seven search terms

Mrs Phillips = 26
Teresia = 11
Apology = 11
Phillips's Apology = 7
Fair Penitent = 7
Dutch Merchant = 3
Metzotinto = 1

Of course, I used other terms too, but didn't find anything that had not already been discovered using the above terms. That is, other searches only threw up duplicates. I was pretty happy with what I found, and was able to write the first draft of my article on the basis of these advertisements.

But, having satisfied myself that this was all I was going to find on the Burney database, I then turned to the microfilm series on which the Burney database is founded. It is time-consuming and—frankly—unpleasant work, but by searching for advertisements in just a single newspaper title I found a further fifty-four advertisements. Important advertisements, which added enormously to my article. (Including the advertisements for a Dutch translation of Phillip's Apology!)

Which is the reason for the title to this post. And this warning: if you rely on text-bases like EEBO, ECCO, and Burney, you will almost certainly miss at least half of the material you are looking for. I say this confidently because the microfilm search I conducted could be expanded to other newspapers to discover even more material.

And this is why, tedious as it is, it is still necessary to search the microfilms that text-bases like the Burney Newspaper database are generated from. And it is also why, expensive and seemingly redundant as they are, it is still necessary for genuine research libraries to buy and keep the microfilms that these text-bases are generated from!

Wednesday 15 December 2010

The Byronic Heroine

I finished reading Atara Stein's The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television last night. And, well, I have to say I was very disappointed in the book. So disappointed I went looking for other reviews and—having not found one—wrote my own for Amazon (here and below). I wanted to be able to direct my students to a recent account of some pop-culture Byronic Heroes, but I am going to have to keep searching.

The main problem with this book is probably the inability of essentialist feminism to deal with characters who disrupt gender stereotypes, but the most obvious problem is the fact that Stein is never clear about who is responsible for either the characters and actions or responses she is making observations about.

Stein tends not to talk about authorial or directorial intention, she criticises characters and plots as if they came into being independent of authors, publishers, producers, studios etc and there is no discussion of genre expectations in cinema even, though the book is about genre expectation in literature. Stein also tends to be silent about reader/viewer response, though the essentialist arguments she quotes depend on this.

If a female character uses violence to protect herself, is she necessarily masculinised/de-feminised? If a character is briefly depicted in her underwear, is she necessarily feminised/sexualised/weakened? The critics quoted here believe, yes necessarily, and that the female character briefly depicted in her underwear is thereby shown to be vulnerable: that a (male) viewer cannot help but have a sexual response to this depiction, and that his response re-inscribes the character's position as object/victim of the viewing male.

The possibility is not considered that a female viewer may have a sexual response, a male may not have one, or that such a response from either a male or a female does not necessarily inscribe the character in a position as object/victim, that the fictional female concerned may be indifferent—in her fictional universe—to the response of others, seeks, welcomes or is empowered by the response or is perfectly capable of defending herself from any form of unwanted attention or aggression. In the context, some of these are even more implausible than the arguments that Stein presents, but the fact is that only one possibility is considered.

If we are not talking about the character's fictional universe, then the argument must be articulated that briefly depicting a female in her underwear cannot help but lead to a sexual response in viewing males, and that this response re-inscribes the position of all real women as object/victim. Again, the possibility is not considered that a female cinema-goer may be indifferent to the response of others, seeks, welcomes or is empowered by the response, or is perfectly capable of defending herself from any form of unwanted attention or aggression.

When I read this sort of criticism I find myself wanting to ask the writer: how is a fictional female to protect herself—as a female and in a way that does not inscribe her in a position as either object/victim or masculinised/de-feminised? In fact, how is a powerful fictional female to be depicted at all?

And how can any sort of feminist criticism value the male response (assumed to be sexual, and assumed to be violent and predatory) over the female one? Do a few seconds of (hetro-male) "fan service" negate the overwhelming Grrl-power message of a film? In the case of the Alien franchise, a Grrl-power message that was enthusiastically embraced and has subsequently reappeared many times over. Is the ultimate argument, that the good these film do over-balanced by the evil that they perpetrate?

Stein's answer seems to be yes, the good is over-balanced. Which brings me to Stein's broader argument: that escapist cinema makes film-viewers into drones who are more obedient and accepting of their lot, that escapist cinema drains our collective bile. That the portrayal of characters like Ripley is intended to re-inscribe conventional gender roles and keep women passive/weakened.

The problem is, this argument really only works if you can establish that characters like Ripley are either intended to be, or are perceived to be, unappealing, or that their fate is either intended to be, or are perceived to be, an object lesson in how not to behave. Since neither the intentions of the film-makers (broadly considered) nor the response of the film goers (broadly considered) are considered at all then Stein's argument simply cannot be successful. She does not even articulated her argument this clearly.

* * * * *

My Amazon review:

First up: this book is *full* of typos, outrageous ones, ones that every text-editing program (like Word) would pick up. This suggests that nobody at SIUP was paying any attention when this book went to press … which may explain how this book got published at all in its present form.

I am intensely interested in this topic, so I found the first couple of chapters useful, even though I disagreed with many of the arguments and claims.

However, I was simply bored by the sections on The Crow and Anne Rice’s vampires, and bored to tears by the sections on Neil Gailmon's Dream and Star Trek's Q. The chapters on these characters do not have a clear over-arching argument and there is no over-view of the characters and plot-lines, just an endless series of observations, some of which are contradictory, some of which are implausible or wrong-headed, and many of which are simply repetitive.

The wost section is undoubtedly the one I was most interested in -- the one I bought the book for -- on the Byronic Heroine. Stein wants to mount a feminist argument against the Terminator and Alien films, but seems unsure how to do it, so she simply attacks the film from every direction and quotes -- approvingly -- some of the asinine arguments I have ever read.

The nadir is reached on pages 199 and 200 where Sarah Connor, from the Terminator films, is criticised because she "emulat[s] her culture's icon of heroic behaviour: the violent male outlaw …. It does not occur to her to adopt a creed of nonviolence." (199) [Well, *that* would be a short action film!] And when Ellen Ripley, from the Alien films, returns to her hyper-sleep-bed-thing at the end of one film, we are informed that this brief glimpse of her in her underwear:

[1] re-feminises her;
[2] makes her “a vulnerable sex object”;
[3] and therefore “a potential victim for men”; a potential realised in the mind of one critic
[4] who fantasises “sexual violence can bring the uppity Ripley down” and therefore concludes
[5] that the scene is intended as “a warning to female viewers.”

That’s right: simply show that you have legs and you inscribe yourself as an inevitable rape victim. Apparently this message is so loud and clear that the simple act of showing Ripley’s legs drowns out the you-go-girl message implicit in depicting a woman who has saved herself (and human kind) by single-handedly annihilating a nest of the most terrifying aliens ever imagined.

Oh, and note that these two films are related (thematically?) to Catherine from Wuthering Heights and Eustacia from The Return of the Native. I believe the phrase is “drawing a long bow.”

Whatever merit some of these arguments have—and as a card-carrying feminist I do agree with some of the observations on inscribing gender—it annoys me to see such sloppy thinking, contradictory, implausible or wrong-headed arguments, masquerading as “feminism.”

I will not be recommending this book to my students.