Shalyn Claggett is a professor of English at Mississippi State University where she teaches courses on nineteenth-century British literature and literary theory. Her book Equal Natures: Popular Brain Science and Victorian Women’s Writing (SUNY Press, 2023) argues that notable women authors, including Harriet Martineau, Anne Brontë, and George Eliot, used scientific understandings of the brain to challenge socially constructed forms of power. She is also the co-editor (with Lara Karpenko) of Strange Science: Investigating the Limits of Knowledge in the Victorian Age (University of Michigan Press, 2017), a collection that explores unconventional forms of scientific inquiry and its cultural representation in Britain during the Victorian period. She is currently at work on a book titled Victorian Cinema: Magic Lantern Shows and the British Imagination, which explores the distinctly Victorian visual context that informed the first mass-produced cinematic experience. Her essays have appeared in such journals as Nineteenth-Century Contexts, SEL, Victorian Literature and Culture, Prose Studies, and the Journal of Narrative Theory.
How do you incorporate Digital Humanities / New Media scholarship in your nineteenth-century classroom?
My favorite way to bring DH into the classroom is by using it to historically contextualize the literature we study. For instance, in my “Victorian Horror Story” class, we all read a small collection of spooky stories published by different authors throughout the nineteenth century. Each student then explores the periodical in which one of the stories originally appeared using Hathi Trust, and presents on how understanding the material form of the original publication affects and alters our understanding of the text and its nineteenth-century readership. The students are always astonished by how much insight contextualization brings to their understanding of both the stories and the period (for instance, discovering that Dickens’s “The Signal-Man” is actually part of a Christmas number of All the Year Round that includes coordinated stories all set at “Mugby Junction,” or that the opening illustration for Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne” reveals the titular character’s vampirism). I’ve brought DH into the classroom in other ways (i.e., using mapping or network analysis) but what the students always seem most interested in is a more direct connection with the past through digitized archives.
What story about the nineteenth century do you always tell your students?
I don’t know why it always comes up, but I am always telling my students about the advent, expansion, and repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. The CD Acts are perhaps the high watermark of Victorian sexism, and my students are always shocked by how close England came to becoming something akin to a police state for women. But why I like to tell it is because it has a happy ending that demonstrates what sustained, collective action can accomplish. The work of the Ladies National Association, along with such figures as Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, and Josephine Butler eventually paid off, even at a time when women still did not have the vote. Nevertheless, what I think the story ultimately reveals is the necessity of remaining vigilant when the civil liberties of anyone are curtailed or challenged.
If you could borrow any nineteenth-century painting from a museum for one year and hang it in your home, what would it be and why?
John Singer Sargent is my favorite painter, and I would love to have any of his large oils to study in my home. But if I could only pick one, I think I’d have to go with El Jaleo, which depicts a Spanish woman doing an Andalusian dance. Sargent is best known for his portraiture, but this astonishing painting represents movement better than any other painting I know. The name roughly translates to “The Ruckus,” and I love that he captured the beautiful, wild freedom of the moment in a way that is so antithetical to the still composure of his portraits.
Which nineteenth-century fictional character do you wish were real?
My first thought was Adam Bede, just because it is so hard to find a good carpenter. Seriously though, I would be curious to know what Rhoda Nunn from George Gissing’s The Odd Women would think about the current climate for women in England and America. I imagine she’d initially be overjoyed to see the tremendous strides women have made politically, economically, and socially, but that within a week she’d start to see some pretty significant problems and would want to get to work. Of course, I would need to teach her about intersectional feminism, but it would probably be easier to sell her on it than any other character in nineteenth-century literature!