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The exhibition News and Novel Sensations, now on view in the McLennan Library Building, explores the Victorian-era newspaper phenomenon called “The Agony Columns.” Characterized by anonymity, lack of censorship, and encryption, the agony advertisements became some of the most widely-read texts in Victorian England. Encoded messages were often featured in the agonies, written and enjoyed by forlorn lovers, cunning criminals, savvy detectives, and newspaper readers who revelled in the dramas unfolding on the newspapers’ front pages. To encode and decode substitution ciphers like the Caeser Cipher, you can use a simple cipher wheel.
The exhibition showcases some of the encrypted stories of The Times and explores their influence on Victorian society and novels, as well as their lasting fascination. You can explore some of the more famous cipher series in the exhibition cases: the Flo Series, and the Spurs and Skirts series for instance, and you can read more about those in previous posts on this blog.
If you want to encode your own messages, print out and assemble this cipher wheel:
Experiment with a digital version of this wheel as you play your way through the short, narrative detective game, Pollaky’s Agonizing Adventure, that accompanies the exhibition cases. You can explore this and the other digital resources on the Ciphers of The Times website, or on the touchtable in the library lobby.
The exhibition is accessible during the opening hours of the McLennan Library Building. See details here: https://www.mcgill.ca/library/services/hours
About the curators
Ciphers of The Times is a SSHRC-funded research project that investigates the Agony Columns of Victorian newspapers and their influence on Victorian society and literature. Using an interdisciplinary methodology of computational analysis and close reading we seek to interrogate and expand existing understandings of how the newspaper featured in Victorian novels.
The team is led by Nathalie Cooke and supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the McGill Library. Explore the Project website: https://libraryponders.github.io/about.html
Hear more from the curators on how this exhibition came to be:
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