Lanya Lamouria is an associate professor of English at Missouri State University, where she teaches classes in British literature and organizes an annual undergraduate literature conference. She has published work on British Victorian writers’ engagement with the 1848 revolutions in Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, Dickens Studies Annual, Victorian Literature and Culture, and the Journal of Victorian Culture. Her current manuscript examines Victorian discourses around democracy—an article on this topic, “Democracy, Terror, and Utopia in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities” is forthcoming (Victorian Literature and Culture, 2022). She recently took a detour into pedagogical research and completed a study on the value of undergraduate literature conferences for English students’ career readiness.
If you had the freedom to work on only a research project about the nineteenth century for an entire year, what would it be? The past few years have encouraged me, like most other Americans, to think about the theory and practice of democracy. Right before the 2020 election, I finished an article that readsDickens’s A Tale of Two Cities as an intervention into the debates about democracy that were central to Victorian politics in the period leading up to the Second Reform Bill, and I would love to spend a year extending this article into a book-length project. My sense is that democracy became a tangible reality for Britons after 1848, when a wave of revolutions established short-lived democratic governments on the Continent, most notably in France. Over the next two decades, Victorians were preoccupied with a range of issues that, while historically specific, alsoanticipate contemporary concerns: the tension in liberal democracy between equality and individual liberty (see Chantal Mouffe), the relationship of democracy to capitalism, and the role of marginalized groups in democratic governance.
My work is pretty stubbornly historicist, so I am interested in the question of how Victorianwriters engaged, either directly or at an imaginative distance, with real-world episodes of democratic activism —for instance, feminist participation in France’s Second Republic, or Black protest against injustice and disenfranchisement during the Mordant Bay Rebellion. But contemporary discussions of democracy and social media, often championed as a democratic technology that gives everyone a voice, have also gotten me thinking in more abstract terms about the role of communication technology in Victorian efforts to imagine social structures that represent a totality of individual voices. At the moment, I am obsessed with tracing the influence of mathematician Charles Babbage’s wild theory that the material world functioned as a recording device and retained traces of each individual sound and action made throughout the whole of human history.
What is the best nineteenth-century themed gift you’ve ever given/received? My cat Wilkie. A colleague found Wilkie in his backyard and, in an effort to get me to adopt the cat, named him after one of my favorite novelists, Wilkie Collins. Much like his human namesake, the feline Wilkie was a bon vivant. R.I.P.
What is your first memory of being really excited about the nineteenth century? This question reminds me of a strange feature of my academic life: I read very little British Victorian literature before my Ph.D. program. In high school, Great Expectations was part of the ninth-grade English curriculum; we all said we hated the book but then talked obsessively about the ghoulishness of Miss Havisham. I don’t know how I made it through an English literature degree at UC Berkeley without reading a Victorian novel—Catherine Gallagher was there!—but I ended up working with one of her students, Miriam Bailin, in grad school. I got excited and disturbed by the nineteenth century in a seminar on gender and the fin de siècle. I still have a copy of the paper I wrote, as a first-year grad student, on George Du Maurier’s Trilby.
If you could become best friends with someone from the nineteenth century, who would that be? Definitely Mary Seacole, author of Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857). I read the memoir only last year, when my “Victorian Sexualities” class became interested in work by Black Victorian writers (thank you, “Victorian Sexualities” students!). Just in case someone reading this post does not know Seacole, let me offer a brief bio: a British-Jamaicannurse and entrepreneur, she travelled extensively in Central America, Britain, and Europe, establishing a British hotel in Crimea to care for soldiers during the Crimean War. Her life and keenly perceptive writing illuminate and complicate commonplace understandings of margin and center, public and private, black and white. I don’t think I would make a good friend for Seacole—I’m a lousy traveler—but who wouldn’t want to know a woman who, at the end of the Crimean War, accompanied British soldiers on tours of Crimean towns and tried to convince Russians that she was Queen Victoria?