In Mary Shelley’s version of the story, Victor Frankenstein locks himself in a laboratory for two years in order to pursue his scientific research. He is driven by an insatiable appetite for discovery, but when he finally witnesses the results of his labours he is filled with an overpowering sense of dread:
“I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…”
I was reminded of this passage a few weeks ago on the morning of my PhD viva. It had been more than a month since I had last read my thesis, but in preparation for the big event I plucked up the courage to have a final look. It was a mistake. Every page seemed to bring a fresh disaster; a grammatical error here, a missing footnote there, and so many sentences that I longed to rewrite. Three and a half years earlier I had set out to create something beautiful. Now, as I looked upon it with fresh eyes, I saw only a monster; a hideous mess of typos, disjointed ideas, gaping holes, and embarrassing errors. I wanted to destroy it; to hide my shame from family, friends and colleagues. But it was too late. I had already branded the monster with my name and released it into the world. Soon, I thought, the villagers would come with their pitchforks and torches and drive me out of academia for good.
As it turns out, things went a bit better than I expected. My examiners were extremely positive about the thesis and only identified a few minor typographical errors that needed to be fixed. We had some stimulating conversations about how the project might be developed into a monograph and, before I knew it, it was all over. I polished off the corrections in a few hours and, last Tuesday, I submitted the final bound version of the thesis. I’m done. I’d ask you to call me Dr. Bob, but it makes me sound like a talk show host with a degree in ‘Relationship Science’ from an online university.
When I collected the final, hardbound version of the thesis from the printers, I had a more positive Frankenstein moment. This time, I felt more like Colin Clive’s demented scientist from the 1931 film who greets the success of his experiment in a slightly different fashion:
Swap the noise of crashing thunder for the sound of a laser printer, and you’ve pretty much got the scenario that was playing out in my head. Unfortunately, no friends were on hand to hold me back as I proclaimed myself a god, so I thanked the man behind the desk and quietly shuffled out.
The euphoria of that moment – of seeing my creation materialise – lasted for a few giddy days, but has now passed. It was all a useful lesson in the importance of perspective. I had spent hours agonising over tiny, insignificant defects, whilst remaining blind to the bigger picture. Like a lot of writers, I had a distorted image of my own work and found it difficult to see the positives without somebody else pointing them out. I still feel anxious about releasing my creation into the world, but now as I look upon it with less anxious eyes I suspect that it’s more likely to be met with indifference than abject horror.
If you want to test this theory yourself, copies of the thesis should be in Manchester University library and on EThOS soon. If you’d like to read a digital version, send me a tweet/email and I’ll forward a pdf. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the project, here’s the abstract:
Bob Nicholson, ‘Looming Large: America and the Victorian Press, 1865-1902’, (2012).
Widespread popular fascination with America, and an appreciation of American culture, was not introduced by Hollywood cinema during the early decades of the 20th century, but emerged during the late-Victorian period and was driven by the popular press. By the 1880s, newspaper audiences throughout the country were consuming fragments of American life and culture on an almost daily basis. Under the impulses of the so-called ‘new journalism’, representations of America appeared regularly within an eclectic range of journalistic genres, including serialised fiction, news reports, editorials, humour columns, tit-bits, and travelogues. Forms of American popular culture – such as newspaper gags – circulated throughout Britain and enjoyed a sustained presence in bestselling papers. These imported texts also acted as vessels for the importation of other elements of American culture such as the country’s distinctive slang and dialects.
This thesis argues that the late-Victorian popular press acted as the first major ‘contact zone’ between America and the British public. Chapter One tracks the growing presence of America in the Victorian press. In particular, it highlights how the expansion of the popular press, the widespread adoption of ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism, the development of transatlantic communications networks and technologies, and a growing curiosity about life in America combined to facilitate new forms of Anglo-American cultural exchange. Chapter Two explores how the press shaped British encounters with American modernity and created a pervasive sense of a coming ‘American future’. Chapter Three focuses on the importation, circulation, and reception of American newspaper humour. Finally, Chapter Four unpacks the role played by the press in the importation, circulation, and assimilation of American slang.
It makes an original contribution to a number of academic disciplines and debates. Firstly, it challenges the established chronology of Anglo-American history; America gained a significant foothold in British popular culture long before the twentieth century. Moreover, this was not a result of a forcible American ‘invasion’ but a form of voluntary transatlantic exchange driven by the tastes and desires of British newspaper readers. Secondly, it argues that America’s presence in late-Victorian popular culture has been underestimated by historians who have focused instead on domestically produced culture, engagements with Western Europe, and the cultural dimensions of Empire. Whilst the full extent of America’s significance cannot be mapped out in one study, this thesis establishes the extent of America’s cultural presence and makes the case for its insertion into future Victorian Studies scholarship. Thirdly, this thesis contributes to the growing field of press history. It maps out connections between British and American newspapers, exploring how the press served to move information between the old world and the new. Finally, this project acts as an early example of born-digital scholarship; a study conceived in response to the development of digital archives. As such, it contributes to discussions on digital methodologies and debates within the field of Digital Humanities. In particular, it demonstrates that digitisation allows researchers to research and write do new kinds of history; to ask new questions, make new connections, and develop new projects – to do things that we couldn’t do before.
Or, if you’d prefer, here it is in image form: