Queering and Querying History

Personog Gephi

Lorraine Janzen Kooistra and I presented a paper on the Yellow Nineties Personography at Digital Diversity in 2015. You can find the presentation’s visuals here at academia.edu. The conference paper’s abstract follows here. We hope to share a more sustained analysis of this important topic in the near future.

In a powerful essay published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1868, Frances Power Cobbe asked a question fundamental to issues affecting the status of women and others then considered to be non-persons under the law: “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Are the Classifications Sound?”[i] Cobbe’s question is also fundamental to issues facing digital humanists and feminists today when we define entities for the personographic encoding of Victorian women and others whose lives were subject to institutional classification systems that marked their identities as outside full personhood or citizenship.

This historical and theoretical framework informs our markup and classificatory practices as we build a personography for the 353 individuals who contributed art, text, and editorial expertise to a set of fin-de-siècle avant-garde periodicals: The Yellow Book, The Pagan Review, The Savoy, and The Evergreen. Approximately 23% of these individuals identified as women and  published as such, and about 4% published under non-correlative or otherwise ambiguous gender identities. In terms of nineteenth-century law, close to a quarter of the contributors to these periodicals (87 individuals) were not fully “persons” in the sense of legal entities with full rights of citizenship. Nevertheless, we include these 87 individuals as entities in the Yellow Nineties Personography, a relational database designed to visualize biographical metadata in various graphic formations. In this paper, we ask, What does it mean to personographically catalogue non-persons?

To respond to this question, we consider how the Yellow Nineties Personography participates in feminist and queer literary and cultural studies and how, more broadly, digital strategies and projects contribute to such studies. Late-twentieth-century feminist and queer studies rehabilitated many influential but non-canonical figures of fin-de-siècle print culture. Notwithstanding this work, the physical and cultural limitations of extant archival systems obstructed efforts to document historical non-persons except for a relatively small, high-profile percentage.

In the last two decades, digital resources and research methods have begun to dismantle this obstacle. Thanks to digital forebears such as the Orlando project, we can work toward qualitatively and quantitatively recognizing the contributions that women and non-correlative or otherwise gender-ambiguous individuals made to the fin-de-siècle avant-garde community. These contributions take the form of text, such as George Egerton’s short stories for The Yellow Book, and images, such as Annie Mackie’s illustrations for The Evergreen, but they also take the form of editorial labour, such as Ella D’Arcy’s and Ethel Colburne Mayne’s for The Yellow Book, or William Sharp’s (aka Fiona Macleod’s) for The Pagan Review and The Evergreen. We strive to record and classify all contributions to the rich social, artistic, and professional networks that comprise the print milieu of these four periodicals; the resulting digital resource will, we hope, open opportunities for further critical inquiry by literally making the non-persons of the Yellow Nineties community visible. Through open access, critically reflexive markup, collaboration, and transparent development, the project’s design also implements the values of feminism and queer culture. If prototypes can argue,[ii] then the Yellow Nineties Personography instantiates a claim that digital resources and strategies can be used to mobilize feminist and queer literary and cultural studies in the public sphere of the world wide web.

Personography XLS

[i] Frances Power Cobbe, “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Are the Classifications Sound?”, Fraser’s Magazine (1868), Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Nineteenth-Century Writing by Women on women, ed. S. Hamilton (Peterborough: Broadview, 1995). Print.


[ii] Alan Galey and Stan Ruecker, “How a Prototype Argues,” Library and Linguistic Computing 25.4 (2010): 405-424. Web.