“Kiss me with those red lips!” In Dracula’s Vault.

Dracula.  One of the absolute necessities for any course on the Victorian Fin de Siècle.  By the time we get to it in week 5 we’ve touched on aestheticism, decadence, degeneration, changing masculinities, homosexuality, the femme fatale, the gothic … and it’s all in there and more.  It’s also a text on which there is a super-abundance of critical commentary, and our second online session of the course exploits this fact.  The class are invited to enter the ‘Dracula’s Vault’ forum (with virtual garlic, of course) after having first found an article on Stoker’s novel.  It must be an article, and not a chapter in a book, and so in part it is a reminder for my students as to how they can go about searching for scholarly articles via the databases of journals that my university subscribes to.  Each student has to find a different article.  In the forum they post up a summary of their article’s argument, and respond to some of the other summaries of their classmates.

Dracula model and coffin

Lecturers dress smartly at my institution

Whereas the first Fin de Siècle Online Experience (FOE) session had been slow to get going, this one is well underway by Saturday lunchtime, the day after the class.  Early on someone summarises an article by Elizabeth Miller, ‘Coitus Interruptus: Sex, Bram Stoker and Dracula, which is trying to take issue with the contemporary default mode of reading Dracula as being a text everywhere about the sexual.  This sparks lots of good debate, as the student isn’t convinced by Miller’s attempts to say a stake is (only) a stake is a stake.  Neither am I.  Later on someone also posts on Christopher Craft’s excellent article ‘”Kiss me With Those Red Lips”: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula(Representations 8 (Fall 1984), pp. 107-33), which opens with the following: ‘When Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu observed in Carmilla (1872) that “the vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence resembling the passion of love” and that vampiric pleasure is heightened “by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship,” he identified clearly the analogy between monstrosity and sexual desire that would prove, under a subsequent Freudian stimulus, paradigmatic for future readings of vampirism.  Modern critical accounts of Dracula, for instance, almost universally agree that vampirism both expresses and distorts an originally sexual energy’ (p. 107).

I am struck by my class really enjoying getting their teeth into (sorry) debates about this text.  Someone establishes a pattern that other students follow of summarising their essay then very clearly heading a new paragraph ‘My opinion’, which means that they are practising taking a stance in relation to a critical argument.  It’s a lively and busy forum discussion for the week.  It also demonstrates to students just how varied and plural readings of texts can be.

Mad About Oscar

Semester Two teaching is underway, which in my e-learning land means my third year undergraduate module on Fin de Siècle Writing and Culture.  Unlike my Victorians module from last semester, this course includes less online sessions (four in total rather than seven) and they are assessed to the tune of 25% of the overall mark.

The course starts with a few weeks introducing the class to ‘key terms’ of the period — namely, Aestheticism, Decadence and Degeneration.  Week 2 is on Oscar Wilde and Decadence.  Wilde is an endlessly fascinating figure and I’ve taught myself quite a lot about him since I have been teaching this course.  His presence and ‘influence’ (to cite a word so potent in The Picture of Dorian Gray) in the 1880s and ’90s are phenomenal.   This is one session where I devote a great deal of time to talking about Wilde’s life, in detail, because, as Francesca Coppa has argued, ’Wilde’s first and foremost invention [was] the performed persona of “Oscar Wilde”.  If there is one thing that makes us feel that Wilde, dead for over one hundred years now, is our contemporary, a man who would be perfectly at home in the world of Andy Warhol and Madonna, David Bowie, Baz Lurhmann, and The Osbournes, it is his understanding of the self as performance’ (Francesca Coppa, ‘Performance theory and performativity’ in Oscar Wilde Studies, ed. Frederick Rosen [Palgrave, 2004], p. 73).  

Our first online session involves using the Trials of Oscar Wilde site and the class are invited to discuss how The Picture of Dorian Gray is used in the libel trial by the Marquess of Queensbury’s counsel, Edward Carson.   The session takes a while to get going, perhaps in part because it is the first session and some are unfamiliar with such online discussions.  Each of my online sessions lasts a week, kicking off with the day of the class, and after 4 days only half the class have posted.  I send some reminder emails, and in the latter part of the week the forum really takes off, with some interesting and engaged discussion being posted about Wilde’s stance as an aesthete in the dock, about art versus life, about literature being used as a way of ascertaining biography, about the reclaiming of the word ‘shame’ by writers such as Alfred Douglas (in poems such as ‘Two Loves’ and ‘In Praise of Shame’) and much else besides.

The class also have an online ‘Salon’ forum where they can post in a general sense  about this module.  Last term having a general forum space was really taken up and ‘owned’ by my Victorians class.  It can’t ever be manufactured, and it’s up to the class, ultimately, but as a first step I invite them to submit some names for their Salon.  We had a vote this morning and ‘The Yellow Room’ won, closely followed by ‘Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder’, ‘The Fin de Semester’ and my particular favourite, ‘The Van HesINN’.  That’s the spirit!  I leave a virtual copy of The Yellow Book around by way of an image of one of the periodical’s distinctive covers.

The Yellow Book, Volume 1 (1894) I’m fortunate enough actually to own a complete run of The Yellow Book, and last week I brought in a couple of volumes for the class to see.  I’ve also this last week purchased a set of The Savoy and a facsimile edition of The Chameleon, the undergraduate magazine in which Douglas’s notorious poems appeared, and Wilde’s ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young’.