You are on page 1of 12

Victorian Memes

Author(s): Karen Bourrier


Source: Victorian Studies, Vol. 58, No. 2, Papers and Responses from the Thirteenth
Annual Conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association (Winter 2016), pp.
272-282
Published by: Indiana University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/victorianstudies.58.2.08
Accessed: 25-09-2016 00:42 UTC
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted
digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about
JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at
http://about.jstor.org/terms

Indiana University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Victorian
Studies

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

Victorian Memes
Karen Bourrier

n 1976, the Darwinian thinker Richard Dawkins suggested that Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission in that,
although basically conservative, it can give rise to a new form of
evolution (203). Cultural forms, Dawkins hypothesized, were subject to
the same processes of competition and natural selection that Charles
Darwin had argued shaped biological forms more than a hundred years
earlier. To describe this form of cultural transmission, Dawkins coined
the term memes, which he dened as cultural idioms including tunes,
ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots, or of building arches that propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping
from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be
called imitation (206). The criteria for a successful meme are analogous
to the criteria for a successful gene: it must have longevity, fecundity,
and copying-delity (208). When Dawkins suggested forty years ago that
memes were the new replicator (206)a replicator that would produce its own, much faster, kind of evolution (208)he could hardly
have known how correct his hypothesis would prove in a digital age in

ABSTRACT: From November 2014 to May 2015, I collected references to four Victorian
authorsDinah Craik, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollopeon the social
media site Twitter. I argue that the realist novel, as exemplied by these writers works,
offers a particularly fertile ground for the development of memes that resonate with current
cultural values, including the importance of love, the best ways to deal with failure and
success, and the folly of gossip. Shaped by the technical affordances of Twitter, these
memes also take on distinctive formal features, including a tendency to nominalization,
the imperative voice, and the use of superlatives. The result is that, in their remediated
form, these sentimental and didactic tweets often sound more Victorian than realist novels
themselves.
KAREN BOURRIER (karen.bourrier@ucalgary.ca) is Assistant Professor of English at the
University of Calgary. She is the author of The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel (U of Michigan P, 2015) and project director of NineteenthCentury Disability: Cultures and Contexts, a digital archive peer reviewed by NINES. She is
currently working on a biography of Dinah Craik as well as a digital edition of her
correspondence.

VICTORIAN STUDIES, Volume 58, Number 2, pp. 27282.


Copyright 2016 The Trustees of Indiana University. doi:10.2979/victorianstudies.58.2.08

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

VICTORIAN MEMES

273

which, in minutes, a single tweet can be propagated hundreds of times


across the social media pool.1
In this paper, I examine the combination of an older cultural form,
the Victorian novel, with the newer cultural form of the meme, examining specically how the Victorian novel is remediated as a series of
memes on the social media site Twitter. Part of my larger aim is to uncover the ways in which Victorian literature and culture are reappropriated and recirculated by a general audience. Sentimental Victorian
realist ctionwhich often features didactic narrators with distinct moral
worldviewsoffers particularly fertile ground for memes, as aphoristic
phrases are easily extracted and given new life as tweets. I argue that
Victorian memes (which certainly meet Dawkinss criteria of longevity)
are particularly fecund on Twitter because users can easily excerpt pithy
moral statements from Victorian ction that resonate with current cultural values.
Many of these Victorian memes have persisted throughout the
twentieth century in books of quotations and best-loved poems, as epigraphs to self-help books, and as sayings on coffee mugs and magnets,
and they have continued into the twenty-rst century via blogs, Pinterest,
quotation farms, and Twitter. Although the social media pool in which
these memes propagate has changed, the reasons that some memes
are particularly fecund have not: Ryan Cordell nds that the pieces
nineteenth-century newspaper editors reprinted were compelling, concise and easily modied, much like contemporary viral media (38). Bob
Nicholson observes that the dynamics of our twenty-rst century culture of reprinting and remediation on social networks such as Twitter
closely mirror the circulation of scissors-and-paste journalism and the
humorous miscellany in the Victorian press (257).
Twitter users virtually cut and paste quotations, producing an everyday Victorianism that reects longstanding cultural values.2 In the
meme pool of Victorian tweets, the worthiness of love and friendship,
the best ways to deal with failure and success, and the folly of gossip
and judgment are the most enduring cultural values. These tweets also
emphasize such values by taking on distinct formal and grammatical
features, including a tendency to nominalization, the imperative voice,
and the use of superlatives. The result is that these tweets, which frequently condense or rewrite phrases from Victorian novels, often sound
even more like the didactic narrator of a Victorian novel than the original quotation in context. In other words, the constraints of Twitter

WINTER 2016

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

274

KAREN BOURRIER

exaggerate the traits we now think of as particularly Victorian (including


sentimentalism and didacticism) to the extent that these quotations in
their remediated form on Twitter sound more Victorian than Victorian
novels themselves.
The formal and thematic similarities across Victorian memes are
shaped by what psychologist James J. Gibson would call the technical
affordances of Twitter as a medium. In Gibsons affordance theory,
the interactions that people have with their environment are shaped
by the opportunities available to them to perform an action: in other
words, the affordances of the environment are what it offers people
(127). For example, the handle on a mug provides an affordance for
holding, and a rope affords knotting (133). Twitter, a social media site,
allows users to participate in a form of microblogging, as they send
and read messages limited to 140 characters. This strict character limit
perhaps Twitters most distinctive technical affordanceencourages
pithy, aphoristic tweets. Other pertinent technical affordances of Twitter
include hashtagging, favoriting, retweeting, and replying to tweets. Users
are also able to provide links to URLs and pictures. Finally, Twitters
constantly updated scroll, which appears in reverse chronological order with the most recent tweets at the top of the screen, means that
tweets are even more ephemeral than most social media, leading to a
focus on tweeting in real time.
For a period of six months, from 6 November 2014 to 6 May 2015,
I used the Twitter Capture and Analysis Toolset (DMI-TCAT) developed
by Erik Borra and Bernhard Rieder at the University of Amsterdam to
capture tweets about four mid-Victorian authors. After scanning Pinterest and Twitter to see the authors with which social media users were
engaging, I set the toolset to follow by name three canonical authors
Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollopeand one paracanonical author, Dinah Craik.3
Over this six-month period, I captured 254,496 tweets on Dickens,
74,616 tweets on George Eliot, 7,845 tweets on Anthony Trollope, and
854 tweets on Dinah Craik. I then sorted the data set according to the
top retweets for each author, as well as the top hashtags and the most
frequently repeated words. Finally, DMI-TCAT produced a data set of
1,000 random tweets per author that allowed me to analyze the types
of tweets occurring for each author. Overall, the data sets were quite
clean. In each set of 1,000 randomly selected tweets, all but one of the
tweets on Craik and Trollope referred to Dinah Craik and Anthony

VICTORIAN STUDIES / VOLUME 58, NO. 2

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

VICTORIAN MEMES

275

Trollope, and two of 1,000 tweets on George Eliot referred to a combination of people with one of the same names as the Victorian author,
such as T. S. Eliot and George Orwell (ve of 1,000 tweets referred to
the George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton, named for the author). The
messiest data came from Dickens, who, as I learned, shares a last name
with Grand Ole Opry entertainer Little Jimmy Dickens, who passed
away on 2 January 2015; with House of Cards actress Kim Dickens; and
with the late Geoffrey Dickens, a British MP involved in a child abuse
scandal in late January 2015. I have since reset DMI-TCAT to follow
Charles Dickens rather than Dickens. However, I was able to clean
the data enough to sort out which of the top tweets were indeed about
Charles Dickens.
The data set of 1,000 randomly selected tweets for each Victorian
author gives us a picture of how users are engaging with Victorian literature and culture online and to what ends. By and large, the tweets reect
a global audience of general readers. A map of tweets about George
Eliot (g. 1) shows that, although tweets cluster around North America
and Europe, there are tweets being made about Victorian novelists
on every continent.4 The largest geographical exception is China, which
blocks the use of Twitter. Although the vast majority of tweets were
in English, social media users tweeted in other languages about every
author, with tweets appearing in languages including French, Italian,
Japanese, Swedish, Welsh, Tagalog, and Haitian Creole. Spanish and
Turkish were the most popular languages after English.

Fig. 1. Points of origin for tweets about George Eliot. Image created using Google Maps.

WINTER 2016

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

276

KAREN BOURRIER

By and large, the tweets were aimed at and produced by a general


audience of everyday users. For less well-known authors like Craik, users
were likely to pull quotations from novels and poems, while for more
canonical authors like Trollope, users were more likely to tweet their
progress reading a novel in addition to tweeting quotations. Other
types of accounts to engage with the Victorians on social media included media and literary organizations such as the BBC and the New
York Times; bots (that is, automated Twitter accounts) dedicated to tweeting quotations about self-help and love; and those selling products, including nineteenth-century books. Very few of the tweets in the dataset
were academic. For example, only 1 in 1,000 randomly selected tweets
on George Eliot came from an academic conference: George Eliot alternates between pencil and lavender ink: reason for choosing medium
unclear #samla86 #Archival1 (Brown).
For all four authors, the technical affordances of hashtags combined with Twitters constantly updated scroll encouraged tweets that
focused on what was happening in real time. There was a spike in tweets
on every authors birthday, often tagged with the popular #onthisday
hashtag. Users also tweeted in real time about George Eliots death and
the birthday of her partner George Henry Lewes. Trollopes 200th birthday on 24 April 2015 also resulted in a popular #Trollope200 hashtag,
resulting in a dramatic spike of interest in Trollope for two weeks afterward (g. 2). Hot on the heels of Trollopes birthday, the Twittersphere
reacted in real time to the news that Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton
Abbey, would next be tackling a miniseries of Trollopes novel Doctor
Thorne (1858). These tweets also had a commercial aspect, perhaps facilitated by the fact that users are less likely to know their followers personally
on Twitter than on a social media site focused on personal networks such
as Facebook. Editions of Victorian novels in many different mediums
from ebooks to audiobooks to rare editionscirculated with hashtags
that included #free, #freebook, #freeebook, #ebook, #audiobook, and
#classics.
Although Twitter provides a means to circulate old and new editions
of what users term classic Victorian novels, this was not the primary
way that users used social media. By far the most popular retweets in
the dataset were aphoristic phrases that resonate with contemporary
cultural values. Tweets about love and friendship emphasize the values
of openness and reciprocity. The most popular retweet for Dickens, a
quotation from Our Mutual Friend (186465)Have a heart that never

VICTORIAN STUDIES / VOLUME 58, NO. 2

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

VICTORIAN MEMES

277

Fig. 2. Timeline of tweets on Anthony Trollope. Image created using Tableau.

hardens, a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurtswas
retweeted 451 times in a single day. A popular tweet attributed to
Dinah Craik exhorts the reader, Be loving, and you will never want
for love; be humble, and you will never want for guiding. In the original
Craik quotation, the eponymous heroine of Olive (1850) counsels her
ery-tempered illegitimate sister Christal on the best way to gain friends
and protectors (153); in the quotation from Our Mutual Friend, Jenny
Wren defends Lizzie Hexams character (438). Divested of quotation
marks and context, on Twitter both quotations take on the moralistic
tone of a didactic Victorian narrator rather than appearing as the advice
of one friend to another.
The affective emphasis of tweets on the value of love and friendship
extends to tweets on the ability of human beings to change and succeed
through perseverance: Its never too late to become what you might
have been, reads one phrase misattributed to George Eliot (and sometimes to Dinah Craik). Yet quotations from Eliot also afrm the possibility
of change: The strongest principle of growth lies in the human choice
(Daniel Deronda 598), and Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds (Adam Bede 369). Craik gives hope in a pithy phrase,
originally a poem: There never was night that had no morn (The

WINTER 2016

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

278

KAREN BOURRIER

Golden Gate 8). Trollope, who appears on Twitter as by far the most
cynical of the Victorian authors from the sample set, suggests, Success is
the necessary misfortune of life, but it is only to the very unfortunate that
it comes early (Orley Farm 2: 88). Despite Trollopes cynicism, however,
this quotation still suggests the value of steady labor.
The Carlylean value of steady labor complements the value of refraining from gossip and judgment. Users quote Eliot, Blessed is the man
who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the
fact (Theophrastus Such 68). Craik is quoted, There are no judgments
so harsh as those of the erring, the inexperienced, and the young
(A Life for a Life 11). Because of Twitters 140 character allowance, these
statements adhere to their own admonitions to be brief. In fact, I would
suggest, they become the maxims that Eliots promotion of sympathy
would have readers avoid.
As tweets, quotations from Victorian novels sound even more like
maxims than in their original context not only because they are necessarily brief but also because the most popular retweets follow certain
grammatical conventions. This is the case even to the extent that the
original quotation is often reformulated to conform to these conventions.
Because of the value placed on generally applicable wisdom, many of the
tweets begin with a nominalization: Failure after long perseverance is
much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a
failure, according to Eliot (or, more precisely, according to Dorothea
defending Casaubon, a piece of context that might give us some pause
about this maxim) (Middlemarch 208). Or, also attributed to Eliot,
Prophecy is the most gratuitous form of error, a phrase that originally
reads: Among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous
(Middlemarch 77). By excerpting or rewriting a sentence to begin with a
nounin this case failure or prophecythe tweet sets up a generalization on that subject. Many of the tweets also employ the imperative
voice as a way of exhorting the audience to action: a quotation from
Charles Dickens insists, Never close your lips to those whom you have
opened your heart (originally, I can never close my lips where I have
opened my heart [Master Humphreys Clock 611]). On Twitter, Dinah
Craik is quoted as insisting, Believe only half of what you see, and
none of what you hear, an aphorism that is in fact employed for cynical effect in her 1858 novel A Womans Thoughts About Women (194).
The reformulation of these tweets in the imperative voice is in keeping
with the call to general action common in many of the tweets on love,

VICTORIAN STUDIES / VOLUME 58, NO. 2

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

VICTORIAN MEMES

279

friendship, and success that appear on Twitter. Finally, superlatives


abound within the most popular retweets. For example, on Twitter
Dickens is quoted as telling us that A loving heart is the truest wisdom, a phrase that originally reads in David Coppereld (184950) as a
loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom (131). In David
Coppereld, Davids mother Clara is on her deathbed as she repeats these
words of her rst husband to Peggotty. On Twitter, the potential value
of a loving heart is both simplied and amplied.
Although the types of tweets that were most popular for each author
were remarkably similar both thematically and grammatically, key themes
also emerged for different authors. Several of Dickenss top hashtags were
associated with Christmas, including a spike of tweets about productions
of A Christmas Carol (1843). Tweets about Trollope focused on writing as
labor. The most popular retweet for Trollope was from his An Autobiography (1883)Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to
write (271)and top hashtags for Trollope included #writing and
#amwriting. Although there are some salient differences in the ways that
certain Victorian authors are represented on Twitter, overall, both the
content and the grammatical form of the tweets are startlingly similar.
Divorced from their context, some of the most popular tweets are
spurious quotations. Purists might be tempted to scorn this lack of
what Richard Dawkins calls copying-delity (208), which he maintains is a necessary element of a successful meme. Yet, Dawkins also reminds us that memes are even more subject to being passed on in an
altered form than genes; meme transmission, Dawkins writes, is subject to continuous mutation, and also to blending (209). In this context,
misattributed quotations make sense as an expected part of the transmission process. Some of these mutations are more popular than memes
more faithful to their Victorian source text. By far the most popular
tweet for Eliot was It is never too late to be what you might have been,
a single version of which received 1,121 retweets in one day. This phrase
is also attributed to Dinah Craik, who, as the author of a popular novel
with a rags to riches theme, is a much more likely candidate for such a
saying, but the quotation is not traceable to either author. One popular
quotation misattributed to Dickens has it that There is nothing better
than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate. Although the syntax
of these aphorisms is simpler than those directly traceable to Victorian
authors, the thematic concerns of friendship and perseverance and
the grammatical formulations remain the same. When attributed to a

WINTER 2016

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

280

KAREN BOURRIER

Victorian authoreven a lesser-known one like Craikthey gain a certain level of respectability.
If we are to take the remediation of Victorian novels as memes on
Twitter seriously, I would argue that this requires understanding misattributed and mutated memes as part of the evolution of ideas. The
wealth of data on contemporary engagement with the Victorians and the
practices of general readers now available online could lead to a revitalization of reader-response theory. Several important digital humanities
projects take the recovery and preservation of early reader responses as
their aim. The Reading Experience Database (RED) 14501945 (<http://
www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/>), focuses on the responses of early readers.
Andrew Stauffers Book Traces (<www.booktraces.org>) aims to crowdsource a repository of nineteenth-century volumes that bear the marks
of their original Victorian readers in the form of inserts and marginalia.
Digital technology is also enabling us to capture the responses of contemporary readers. Digital humanities projects focused on reader response include Prism (http://prism.scholarslab.org/>), an annotation
tool for crowdsourcing interpretation from the Praxis Program at the
University of Virginia, and the Annotation Studio (<www.annotationstudio
.org>) from MITs Hyperstudio. In the commercial realm, Kindles Public
Notes allows users to share their highlights and notes. On Goodreads, a social media site for readers, it is possible to track the experience of everyday readers as they rate and review the books they have read, including
many Victorian novels. The digitization of, in Dan Cohens words, the
full texts not of thousands of Victorian books, or hundreds of thousands,
but virtually all books published in the Victorian age (n.p.) may soon
be followed by a wealth of material about how both nineteenth-century
and contemporary readers respond to and engage with those volumes.
For scholars of Victorian literature and culture, this represents an unprecedented opportunity to engage with the everyday Victorians as they
continue to be vital both off and online.
University of Calgary

NOTES
Thanks to John Brosz, Kailey Fukushima, and the audience at NAVSA 2015.
1. Blackmore has updated the concept of the meme for the internet age in her
book The Meme Machine and more recently in her February 2008 TED Talk, in which

VICTORIAN STUDIES / VOLUME 58, NO. 2

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

VICTORIAN MEMES

281

she argues that contemporary technology has propagated a new kind of meme, the
teme.
2. I borrow the formulation everyday Victorianism from Whitson and Whittakers
formulation of an everyday Blake in their chapter on Blake and social media (11537),
which includes an analysis of Blakes presence on Twitter.
3. Since the initial testing period, I have expanded my search to capture tweets related to authors writing in other Victorian genres, including the poets Robert Browning
and Alfred Tennyson, the playwright Oscar Wilde, and an additional novelist who often
writes in the rst person, Charlotte Bront.
4. A caveat: Twitter does not require that users geo-code their tweets, so these maps
represent fewer than one percent of the tweets on each author. However, from this sample
set we can still gain a general sense of the geographic diversity of engagement with the
Victorians on Twitter.
WORKS CITED
Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
. Memes and Temes. TED. Feb. 2008. Lecture. <http://www.ted.com/talks
/susan_blackmore_on_memes_and_temes?language=en>.
Brown, Meaghan. (EpistolaryBrown) George Eliot alternates between pencil and lavender
ink: reason for choosing medium unclear #samla86 #Archival1. 7 Nov. 2014. 9:04
a.m. Tweet.
Cohen, Dan. Searching for the Victorians. Keynote Address to the Victorians Institute
Conference, University of Virginia. 13 Oct. 2010. Published on authors professional
blog. Dan Cohen. 4 Oct. 2010. <http://www.dancohen.org/2010/10/04/searching-for
-the-victorians/>.
Cordell, Ryan. Viral Textuality in Nineteenth-Century US Newspaper Exchanges. Virtual
Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies. Eds. Veronica Alfano and Andrew Stauffer.
New York: Palgrave, 2015. 2955.
Craik, Dinah. The Golden Gate. Poems by the Author of John Halifax, Gentleman. Leipzig:
Tauchnitz, 1868. 25455.
. A Life for a Life. London: Hurst, 1859.
. Olive. Ed. Cora Kaplan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
. A Womans Thoughts about Women. New York: Rudd, 1858.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selsh Gene. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976.
Dickens, Charles. David Coppereld. Ed. Jeremy Tambling. New York: Penguin, 1996.
. Master Humphreys Clock. Works of Charles Dickens. Vol. 8. New York: Carleton, 1879.
515623.
. Our Mutual Friend. Ed. Michael Cotsell. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
Eliot, George. Adam Bede. Ed. Mary Waldron. Peterborough: Broadview, 2005.
. Daniel Deronda. Ed. Barbara Hardy. New York: Penguin, 1967.
. Impressions of Theophrastus Such. New York: Harper, 1879.
. Middlemarch. Ed. David Carroll. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton, 1979.
Nicholson, Bob. Tweeting the Victorians. Victorian Periodicals Review 48.2 (2015): 25460.

WINTER 2016

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

282

KAREN BOURRIER

Stauffer, Andrew, ed. About. Book Traces. U of Virginia, n.d. Web. 9 Sep. 2015.
Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. Eds. Michael Sadleir and Frederick Page. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 2008.
. Orley Farm. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1956.
Whitson, Roger, and Jason Whittaker. William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration,
Participation, and Social Media. New York: Routledge, 2013.

VICTORIAN STUDIES / VOLUME 58, NO. 2

This content downloaded from 189.216.62.103 on Sun, 25 Sep 2016 00:42:25 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms