Antipodean Ginger Nut Tea Duelling

British traditions in Australia have had, for many decades now, a fierce Australian-ness to them. Take our names, for instance. Most of those Australians with British ancestry have a British name, but we tend to rampantly turn them into diminutives: David is Davo, John is Johnno, Shane is Shazza. For that matter, breakfast is brekky, barbecue is barbie, afternoon is arvo. And then there’s our flag, which is basically the Union Jack with the The Southern Cross stuck on the corner.

So it should come as no surprise that a competition involving dressing up in Victorian period costume and dunking biscuits into tea, a seemingly necessarily British activity, should incorporate a great Aussie bikkie* in the antipodean version. Or, in this case, several varieties of the same great Australian biscuit.

Antipodean Tea Duelling, The Duel

You see, back in the Victorian era, William Arnott, a Scottish immigrant to Australia, set up a bakery in New South Wales. (Even our place names are an Australianised Britain.) His sons continued to run this bakery in New South Wales, until amalgamations and acquisitions of interstate bakeries in the 1960s led to the national company. Then, disaster! The four bakeries, running out of different states, all using different recipes for Ginger Nut Biscuits, trialled baking them to the New South Wales standard. Non-New-South-Welshmen protested vigorously, and Arnott’s decided to maintain the four recipes, even when baking them in a single bakery and giving them identical packaging (apart from nutritional information).

According to the Arnott’s Facebook page (or at least a friend’s reproduction of this passage, as I can’t find the original!):

So now in Queensland, Ginger Nuts are thin and sweet, with a dark colour. In New South Wales they are small, thick and hard, with a light colour. In Victoria and Tasmania, they are bigger, softer and sweeter. While in South and Western Australia, the biscuits look similar to their Victorian cousins, but taste sweeter.

On this particular occasion, being the first known Tasmanian Tea Duelling tournament, we had only managed to supply the Queensland and Tasmanian/Victorian versions of the biscuit.

The tournament was ostensibly held in honour of the quarter century celebration of the year 1989: the year of the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the fall of the Berlin Wall and – coincidentally – my birth year. Thus we had gathered a group of discerning gentlefolk in their best Steampunk attire at the Cascade Gardens, below the impressive colonial façade of the Cascade Brewery. We set up the picnic tables with tablecloths, laid out home-made baked goods, fired up the hiking stoves, and brewed ourselves a good Australian Breakfast tea with Ashgrove milk.

Then, the challengers stepped forward.

Tea Duelling is a brilliant sport that I’d seen played at the Lincoln Steampunk Festival in England a few months previous, so I’d decided to import it to the colonies. None of us had ever played before, but we were so eager that we decided to play four people off against each other in the first round.

Eyeing each other off, and under my command, the challengers added Ashgrove Milk (or not), sugar (or not), and chose from amongst the mix of Queensland and Tasmanian Ginger Nuts.

Then, it was time to dunk.

Using the British tradition as a guide, I counted for three seconds. The longevity of the round indicated that the Ginger Nuts were made with far more gingery strength than normal dipping biscuits, but it still turned into a surprisingly engaging spectacle. To our surprise, the milk-less competitor was at no disadvantage even with her hotter brew, and she came solidly second of the four. The winner became the new Tiffin Master, and thus the game continued, using Arnott’s Nice biscuits when we wanted shorter rounds. (This biscuit turned out to be the undoing of yours truly, since the soggy biscuit lost structural integrity at the vital moment, and collapsed partly onto my face, resulting in the winner being the first – and only – competitor to have nommed his biscuit.)

The result of this great Antipodean Tea Duelling Ginger Nut experiment? To be honest, we did not actually keep enough record to scientifically state the superior Tea Duelling variety of Ginger Nut. However, you can cheer yourself up by reading an excellent review of the teeth-breaking strength of the New South Wales Ginger Nut in this blog.

And you can further console yourself with the knowledge that Antipodean Gingernut Tea Duelling shall continue, until a Superior Tea Duelling Ginger Nut† has been determined.

*Bikkie and bikky are acceptable abbreviations of biscuit, but since Arnott’s themselves use bikkie I’ve adopted that here.

†Though we all already know that the Victorian/Tasmanian variety is the superior biscuit per se.

In my research on the history of Arnott’s, I also discovered a quiz answering what your biscuit preference says about your personality.

Tea Duelling (and Other Splendid Steampunk Adventures at Lincoln 2014)

“Competitors, dunk your biscuits.”

Tea Duelling, the biscuit choice

The room grows tense as the biscuits disappear into the tea. The only voice is that of the Tiffin Master, counting down the five long seconds.
“Withdraw.”
The dunkers withdraw their biscuits, and then settle themselves into comfortable positions. The elegantly attired lady, replete with miniature top hat, focuses her gaze on her soaking biscuit rather than her waist-coated and be-goggled competitor.
“Ahhh, the ‘vertical hold’,” nods the Tiffin Master, indicating the biscuits held upright in the dunkers’ fingers. “A very popular hold.”
The dunkers continue to stare resolutely at their soaking biscuits, watching for signs of a wobble. They need to be the last person to consume (“nom”) their biscuit to win, but only if none of their biscuit collapses onto their hand or anywhere else. The balance between waiting long enough to outlast the competitor and still performing a “clean nom” engrosses the entire hall of onlookers.
“The elevated hold offers the advantage of closing the distance between biscuit and mouth, increasing the chances of a clean nom,” comments the Tiffin Master, drawing attention to the lady with the tiny top hat, “but the lower hold has the advantage of resting on the table, keeping the hand more steady.”
The gentleman suddenly moves, consuming his biscuit cleanly, and the lady follows suit. We applaud loudly for the tiny top hat and her victory.

Tea Duelling was just one of the splendid events held at Lincoln’s Weekend at the Asylum VI, Europe’s longest running and largest Steampunk event. As a postgraduate researcher of neo-Victorian fiction, I’d managed to convince my Australian university to give me extra funding to attend this speculative neo-Victorian event whilst I was already in the UK for the British Association for Victorian Studies conference.

They say that immersing yourself in a culture is the best way to learn a language, and there is no doubt that Weekend at the Asylum is immersive. In its sixth year now, the entire historic Bailgate quarter of Lincoln is transformed by the markets, events and the more than 2000 costumed attendees.

One of the earliest events of the weekend was the enthralling Steampunk Western Shoot-Out, between competitors wielding painted and upgraded nerf guns. The unholstered category winner was a young lad, whose small stature assisted in his missing being the accurate target of the hilariously inaccurate weaponry.

The holstered category was won by a gentleman who pulled himself out of his wheelchair, made his way to his corner with the help of his cane, and then proceeded to annihilate his opponents with his superb accuracy. He even claimed victor in the three way shoot-out, to the triumphant cry of the woman standing beside me: That’s my husband!

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This was followed by the first round of Tea Duelling. I refreshed myself appropriately, with tea, although later in the day the refreshments were provided by Hendrick’s Gin. They generously offered free G&Ts for entertaining the garden of other attendees, so my ability to recite Wordsworth and Shakespeare was put to good use.

It was then back to the Ballroom for the excellent Costume Competition.

That evening was the Empire Ball. The event had sold out months earlier, but as always there were last minute tickets for sale, and I managed to snaffle one up.

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The next day was the Tea Duelling Championships, and the Wacky Races, including jetpack and cycle races. The highlight was the sportsmanship of the cycling competitors, who raced up the drive to the Castle, circled the court… and continued circling until the young boy being pushed had caught up and was on his way back. The adult competitors gaily fought it out for second place, to the cheering of the crowd.

At a small panel discussing international Steampunk, earlier in the weekend, we’d discussed the inclusivity of the genre. There are almost no rules to Steampunk, especially in comparison with The Society for Creative Anachronism (aka Medieval Re-enactment), and very few ways of “winning.” By far and large, Steampunk is about participation.

So in that spirit, perhaps I will bring Tea Duelling back to Australia!

EDIT: The first Van Demonian Tea Duel has indeed now been held! A few months after visiting Lincoln I decided that my quarter century celebrations needed a good Tea Duel, and gathered some well-dress gentlefolk to join me. Tea Duelling has been on the Australian mainland for at least a year.

A wonderful report of the weekend from Steampunk Journal. Bonus points for spotting me!

A pictorial guide to Tea Duelling.

Some great photos of the weekend from The Guardian.

And my own full resolution photos, on Flickr.

Speculative Fiction is definitely finding its way into academia, with the Steampunk Scholar leading the charge beautifully.

Sixty Lights, Gail Jones

“You want the maculate, not the immaculate…”
“Yes”, said Lucy. “The world is like this, don’t you think? Marked, and shadowed, and flecked with time.”

(Sixty Lights, 146)

If there was ever a book marked, shadowed and flecked with time, then this is it.

A work of historical fiction (neo-Victorian fiction, to be precise), Jones’ novel moves across the nineteenth century world with lyricism, whimsy and intentional anachronism to explore a nostalgic vision of the Victorian era.

This is the tale of Lucy Strange, who opens the book as a young and pregnant woman in India dreaming of death, and whose death at age 22 is revealed to the reader on the second page. This prologue is succeeded by the image of Lucy as an eight year-old in the Victorian colony of Australia in 1860, watching her mother’s pregnancy and death, followed in the same chapter by her father’s suicide. The narrator says before the imminent death of Lucy’s mother that “it is from this day that [Lucy’s] life enters the mode of melodrama” (7), and she is indeed thrown out into a wide and engaging world.

Lucy, orphaned with her brother Thomas, is sent to live with their uncle Neville in England. With Neville’s spiritual forays and financial ruin, the children are sent to work, and later Lucy to India. The rest of the novel is Lucy’s young adult life, including her forays into photography and her pregnancy and motherhood, and finally her pre-determined terminal illness.

It is aptly named, for Sixty Lights is a novel of sixty photograph-like chapters, each with their own tone, shade and images. Photo-graph, transliterated from the Greek as “light-writing”, is precisely Jones’ concern. Her chapters are illuminated in a variety of ways, from the candlelight and sunlight of Australia to the gas-lamps and magic lanterns of London, as well as employing flames and mirrors.

Throughout this novel, Lucy develops a philosophy of bioluminescence: that life creates light, and that light is connected with images, experiences and memories. This is a text that takes a less critical approach to neo-Victorian representation than some recent novels.* However, Jones is nevertheless no less self-reflexive or intertextual than many neo-Victorian novels, and she intersperses her nineteenth century narrative with “ghosts” from the present – anachronistic references, and modern sensibilities.

A neat analogy for the novel is a scene in which Lucy is charmed by her thumbprint on photographs (199). Lucy is recognising that in seeing her thumbprints she is being honest about the construction of them. This analogy can be applied to the book as a whole: in allowing us to see the ‘thumbprints’ of the postmodern world, Jones is celebrating the maculate nature of the world, and accepting the necessarily constructed nature of art. This is a poetic, nostalgic novel, whose characters are at times lost to the lyricism, but whose light-writing makes it a memorable read.

Sixty Lights

*This novel is much less critical of the Victorians than, for instance, Jack Maggs, which is Peter Carey’s re-writing of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

So what is neo-Victorianism? A working definition.

Basically, Neo-Victorianism is the explosion of corsets, top hats, high tea parties, BBC adaptations of Dickens and Austen, tattoos of Alice in Wonderland, Steampunk everything, and novels set in smoggy London.

It is the contemporary re-engagement with and the reimagining of the Victorian era. It is, as put so delightfully by the founding editor of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies Marie-Luise Kohlke, “the afterlife of the nineteenth century in the cultural imaginary.” And it is a huge and expanding industry.

Neo-Victorian fiction is a particularly interesting area. Television adaptations of Victorian texts are rampant, and filmic adaptations from within the last two years include Anna Karenina (2012), Great Expectations (2012), Les Misérable (2012), The Three Musketeers (2012), Wuthering Heights (2011), and Jane Eyre (2011). Then of course there are the novels, which range from recognisable adaptations of Victorian texts such as Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, which offers the colonial perspective of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, to the novels by Sarah Waters, which place fictional characters and events in a Victorian setting. Quite a number of these novels are winning Man Booker and other prestigious prizes, including A.S. Byatt’s Possession, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and 2013’s own (antipodean!) Man Booker winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

But what does all this mean? Why is it so popular, and how does that reflect on us? What do these works of fiction say?

And why should anyone care?

These are the types of questions that I hope to answer through my PhD research, and share through this blog. I am especially interested in an ecocritical approach to neo-Victorian fiction, which as far as I can tell has never really been attempted before. But before I can answer these important questions, I must answer a much more simple one:

So what is neo-Victorianism?

The answers above are examples, not definitions, and many people have taken these same artistic, cultural and literary works and produced very different definitions of neo-Victorian fiction. For a selection of these, see the bottom of this post. But, like all researchers in this field, I must decide which definition suits my study, and support this definition.

To begin, what is meant by Victorian?

Victorian is used varyingly to refer to:
The reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901)
The life span of the Queen (1819-1901)
The ‘long’ nineteenth century of ‘Victorian’ culture and characteristics. (And trust me, as defined by Eric Hobsbawm, it is long – from the French Revolution in 1789 till the beginning of World War I in 1914).

Periodisation is a problematic concept, as it necessarily oversimplifies, homogenises, and superficially summarises an entire era. It creates chronological boundaries, with highly disputed start and end points, and implies that there is a uniqueness to traits of the era, and that these are common within that era. Ultimately, since history is continuous, periodisation can only occur in retrospect and is more or less arbitrary.

Yet nevertheless, it is a very useful framework and system of shorthand. Much as geological time is too vast to research without some divisions, so too is literary studies aided by more specific periodisation than the broad ‘fiction’ genre. The particularly marked contemporary return to the nineteenth century would be lost if this phenomenon was treated as undifferentiated from an interest in historical fiction in general.

Accepting then the problems and use of periodisation, what does Victorian refer to, as I am using it?

My research will be engaging with texts from across the British Victorian Empire. Arguably, periodisation is problematic for Australian and other postcolonial historical fiction as it always refers to European events (particularly, in fiction written in English, to Britain). Yet there does seem to be a return to the nineteenth century in fiction across the once-Victorian empire, and analysing them using the framework of neo-Victorianism could allow similarities, differences and points of discussion to emerge. As such, I will be using a broad idea of the long nineteenth century, in order to encompass the widest range of British and post-colonial neo-Victorian texts. Fiction set as late as 1914 is still relevant to my research because I will be looking at texts of Antarctic exploration – and what is more ‘Victorian’ than a group of Englishmen pitching themselves against the wild? Similarly, much Australian historical fiction is set in the pre-Victorian reign, because that is when many of the English of arguably ‘Victorian’ disposition were encountering the continent and the native Aborigines. This is not to say that a ‘Victorian’ ever existed, or that ‘Victorian’ traits were maintained from the French Revolution to World War I. Yet certain characteristics did emerge, and they are particularly marked in neo-Victorian fiction because authors of such texts are aware of periodisation. After all, neo-Victorian authors only know the Victorian era through archival remains, particularly the literary. Hence, periodisation is a particularly relevant concept in studies of historical fiction.

And what does “neo” mean?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the relevant definition of the prefix is:

1. a. Forming compounds referring to a new, revived, or modified form of some doctrine, belief, practice, language, artistic style, etc., or designating those who advocate, adopt, or use it.

Importantly, within the study of neo-Victorianism, the title of this genre is disputed, and isn’t even always neo-Victorianism! In fact, the online Neo-Victorian Studies journal, first published in only 2008, included an article by Andrea Kirchknopf that attempts to define the still vague terms used in the new field, and concludes that “post-Victorian” is actually the most appropriate (page 66). Kirchknopf sees the variety of prefixes used to denote the current re-engagement as suggesting different emphases, with retro- and neo-Victorian highlighting the emphasis on the past and the future respectively, and post-Victorian striking a balance between the two. Other titles include Victoriana (Kaplan), nostalgic postmodernism (Gutleben) and historiographic metafiction (Linda Hutcheon).

Nevertheless, the term neo-Victorian has continued gaining a self-perpetuating value through usage. (A quick Google search shows a million and a half results for neo-Victorian, but only somewhat over 70,000 for post- and 10,000 for retro-Victorian. And while Victoriana turns up more than two million hits, it is used much more broadly, often referring to material items from the Victorian period itself.)
A somewhat consensual title allows the field to continue developing in new directions, and a journal employing such a title allows more straight-forward dissemination. Moreover, in my research, I am taking the stance of accentuating the neo of neo-Victorianism, so as to focus on the contemporary era revisioning the past. As Louisa Hadley puts it, there is an interest in the “historical specificity of both the Victorian and the contemporary/postmodern context of neo-Victorian fiction rather than blending them”(3). I am hierarchically ordering the focus, so that the emphasis is on the “new” or present moment, with a strong interest in and use of the past.

All of which brings me back to that original question: so what is neo-Victorianism?

Neo-Victorianism, for my study, at my present point in time, is contemporary fiction that employs Victorian settings and/or styles to self-reflexively invoke the Victorian era for the present.

That is, I am focusing on creative works that are at least somewhat self-conscious (if not fully meta-critical), that use Victorian culture and literature, and talk back to Victorian culture and literature, in order to create original works that speak to and for the contemporary age. Which is not to say that fiction that does not ‘knowingly’ or self-reflexively employ a Victorian setting (so, a sort of costume or period drama that use the era only as a backdrop) could not be neo-Victorian, but merely that I shall not necessarily be engaging with such texts in my research. Moreover, I embrace neo-Victorianism as a highly, engagingly interdisciplinary field, but I shall be restricting myself to fictional texts in order to explore them in more depth.

I welcome comments and responses to this! Agreement, qualifiers, objections and feedback on presentation are all valuable.

A few other definitions of neo-Victorianism.

Hadley, Louisa. Neo-Victorian and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
“In order to encompass the range of fictional responses to the Victorians, I define neo-Victorian fiction in the broadest possible terms as contemporary fiction that engages with the Victorian era, at either the level of plot, structure, or both.” (4)

Heilmann, Ann and Mark Llewellyn. Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
“To be part of the Neo-Victorianism we discuss in this book, texts (literary, filmic, audio/visual) must in some respect be self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians” (4).
“more than historical fiction set in the nineteenth century” (4)

Ho, Elizabeth. Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012.
“critics have agreed that a certain meta-critical apparatus or self-reflexivity regarding the adaption of the Victorian are requirements for a text to be considered neo-Victorian” (4)
“Neo-Victorianism is a deliberate misreading, reconstruction or staged return of the nineteenth century in and for the present across genres and media.” (5)
The Victorian “has become a powerful shorthand for empire in the contemporary global imagination… Regardless of the actual reality or the complexities of historiography, we… remember or misremember the nineteenth century as the apex of the British imperial project.” (5)

Kirchknopf, Andrea. “(Re)workings of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Definitions, Terminology, Contexts.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1.1 (2008): 53-80. http://www.neovictorianstudies.com/
“In my view, the current investment mainly involves a drive to unearth – or invent – material not part of the official historiography of the nineteenth century, and utilise this to reinterpret the Victorians.” (58)

Kohlke, Marie-Luise. “Introduction: Speculations in and on the Neo-Victorian Encounter.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1.1 (2008): 1-18. http://www.neovictorianstudies.com/
“What this introduction will not, indeed cannot pretend to do, then, is provide the (still) missing definitions or delineate possible generic, chronological, and aesthetic boundaries – objectives which more properly belong to the project ahead. The same refusal of pre-emption also underlies the editorial board’s decision to adopt the widest possible interpretation of ‘neo-Victorian’, so as to include the whole of the nineteenth century, its cultural discourses and products, and their abiding legacies, not just within British and British colonial contexts and not necessarily coinciding with Queen Victoria’s realm; that is, to interpret neo-Victorianism outside of the limiting nationalistic and temporal identifications that ‘Victorian’, in itself or in conjunction with ‘neo-’, conjures up for some critics.” (2)

Another neat definition (with lots of links and a reference list!) can be found at Oxford Bibliographies.

Related Victorian and Neo-Victorian Blogs

A brilliant and hilarious list of “rules” for writing a neo-Victorian novel.
http://littleprofessor.typepad.com/the_little_professor/2006/03/rules_for_writi.html

My local, the Australasian Victorian Studies Association blog.
http://avsablog.blogspot.com.au/

The very valuable blog from the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA), “Of Victorian Interest.”
http://navsa.blogspot.com.au/

The marvellous British equivalent, “The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates.”
http://victorianist.wordpress.com/

The online supplement of the Journal of Victorian Culture.
http://myblogs.informa.com/jvc/

A collaborative blog of Victorian early career scholars.
http://floatingacademy.wordpress.com/

A delightful blog by a post-postgraduate researcher.
http://neovictorianthoughts.wordpress.com/

An undergraduate’s blog about Victorian and neo-Victorian literature.
http://www.ckbartle.com/

A researcher of Victorian literature and culture.
http://charlottemathieson.wordpress.com/

The name says it all – “Interesting Literature”!
http://interestingliterature.wordpress.com/

A writer of American neo-Victorian fiction.
http://unhingedhistorian.blogspot.com.au

On the other end of the scale, a collection of images and thoughts about everything from neo-Victorian haircuts to Victorian seances.
http://neovictorianparlour.blogspot.com.au/

And another entertaining one about neo-Victorian tastes in all aspects of life.
http://unlacethevictorians.blogspot.com.au/

Plus an inclusive Steampunk one!
http://beyondvictoriana.com