By Karen Bourrier
Like many Victorianists, I often find myself engaging in what Patrick Leary has called “Googling the Victorians” in spare moments. Right now, I am working on a critical biography of the popular novelist Dinah Craik, and I often find myself idly typing her name into Google’s search bar, just to see what will come up. What I usually find is not the latest academic article or an exciting new archival source, but rather the way that her work has been circulating amongst a popular audience on sites like poemhunter.com.
Over time, I’ve noticed that one quotation of Craik’s, from her 1859 novel A Life for a Life, has a vital life online despite the fact that the novel itself has been forgotten by all but a handful of scholars. Craik’s words on friendship are taken from a discussion on capital punishment in the novel, but on the internet they take on a life of their own as a meme:
Oh, the comfort—the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person—having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away (155–56).
For the past 80 years or so, this meme on friendship has circulated and re-circulated, sometimes in verse and sometimes in prose, sometimes attributed to Dinah Craik and sometimes to George Eliot. The meme has had a particularly flourishing afterlife in books on loyalty, love, self-help, and Christianity. It has dozens of iterations on the female-dominated social media site Pinterest, where users reimagine quotations like this one with whimsical fonts and feminized illustrations such as flowers. These “Pinspiration” boards, which collect inspirational quotations, recall the nineteenth-century commonplace book in their remediation of Victorian literature.
While purists might be annoyed that this meme is taken completely out of context, and that there is little chance that anyone is actually reading the novel itself, the enormous popularity of a forgotten author’s words on friendship made me wonder: what are the stylistic and thematic properties that make a Victorian meme go viral? Hypothesizing that nineteenth-century realist novels with strong narrators would make particularly fertile grounds for memes, I took my search to the popular social media site Twitter. From November 2014 to May 2015, using the Twitter Capture and Analysis Toolset (DMI-TCAT), I collected over 330, 0000 references to Dinah Craik, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and most of all to Charles Dickens, who was responsible for over 250,000 of those Tweets.
What I found was sometimes surprising. While I was to some extent right in my initial hypothesis that the easily excerpted bon mots of nineteenth-century narrators would make great Tweets, the topics were more varied than I had expected. I found the Victorians advising contemporary social media users on everything from love and success to the folly of gossip. If the Tweets were thematically diverse, the 140-character constraint of Twitter made them stylistically similar. With a tendency toward nominalization, the imperative voice, and the use of superlatives, even Tweets that were taken from dialogue between characters started to sound like a sage Victorian narrator. Whereas the narrators of actual Victorian novels have room to doubt and to vacillate, and to be by turns sly and ironic, the brevity of Twitter can make Tweets sound more Victorian than the Victorians themselves. I also found that Tweets on different authors peaked at different times of year. While I’m probably not spoiling anything in letting on that Charles Dickens became immensely popular around Christmas, I’ve written about the rest of my findings, including what topics are associated with which authors, and what makes certain Victorian authors popular on Twitter, in an article for Victorian Studies 58.2.
Do you find yourself “Googling the Victorians” in your spare time? Have you ever wondered how your research topic fares on social media? Please share in the comments!
Craik, Dinah. A Life for a Life. London: Hurst & Blackett, n.d. [c. 1859] Print.
Felleman, Hazel. The Best Loved Poems of the American People. New York: Doubleday, 1936. Web. 4 July 2015.
Leary, Patrick. “Googling the Victorians.” Journal of Victorian Culture 10:1 (Spring 2005) 72-86.
 In 1936, an entrepreneurial editor, Hazel Felleman, versified Craik’s prose and included it in a volume entitled The Best Loved Poems of the American People. Her book seems to be the source of this meme.