Stern, humorless looking people dressed in severe black-and-white clothing, all very buttoned up, prim and proper. The architecture may contain a certain charm, but the social mores and cultural attitudes - well, let's say we've all come a long way since the middle of the 19th century.
The Victorian era didn't exactly die with Queen Victoria in 1901, but it wasn't long before the 20th century began whittling away at all of that. But the popular image of straight-laced Victorians who didn't know how to have fun is one that will be challenged somewhat on Wednesday, Oct. 2, when the Vermont Humanities Council, in partnership with the Mark Skinner Library, presents a new round of "First Wednesdays," a lecture and discussion series initially launched in 2003. Manchester has been one of the nine sites around the state where the speakers deliver talks on a range of subjects since 2007.
Victorians, it turns out, were fond of their guilty pleasures too, just like modern folks. Mysteries, ghost stories, seances, communicating with the dead, science-base fiction - think "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" - and "radical fantasies of gender confusion" according to one press release announcing the upcoming talk - came with the territory. Hmmmm.....
The opening talk is titled "Victoria's Secrets" and will be given by Antonia Losano, a professor from Middlebury College.
"Victoria's Secrets" will be the first of eight discussions the humanities council and the library will be presenting each month through May 7. Eight other towns around the state will also be the sites for a variety of discussions each first Wednesday of the month, but Manchester owns a certain distinction over the rest. Manchester's "First Wednesdays" have been at the top in attendance for the past three years, and last year grabbed the trifecta - tops in most overall attendance, largest attendance for a single event (a lecture and discussion on the music of George Gershwin) and the highest monthly attendance.
Not bad when you consider the other towns include places like Brattleboro, Essex Junction, Middlebury, Montpelier, Rutland and St. Johnsbury (as well as Newport and Norwich). How come?
"I think we have a really intellectually curious community that values quality programming," said Cindy Waters, the director of adult programming at the Mark Skinner Library. Strong word-of-mouth recommendations have played a role in making the community aware of what's on offer during First Wednesdays, and a partnership with local schools such as Burr and Burton Academy and Long Trail School have also been important, she added. The other part of it involves a concerted attempt at thinking about what types of topics are likely to have the greatest local appeal. Each spring Waters and a group of community members meet with Ali White, the director of First Wednesdays for the humanities council, and review the available options. With eight lecture dates and nine speaker sites, some of which are offered at more than one location, it's a bit like assembling a puzzle, she said. "We sit down with her (Ali White) and look at what's been offered at the other sites during the prior years and talk about what we think would work here," she said. "Then we try to promote it as much as we can. I look at the particular topic and try to think about which community organizations or different groups in the community might be interested in that topic."
Having the students from the schools is a nice addition and Waters has worked hard to make teachers aware of particular offerings that might be of special interest. One, scheduled for Jan. 8, 2014 on the human brain and its connection to an individual's emotional life, is one that might appeal to science teachers, for example, she said.
It's excellent to have a multi-generational audience in the house, but that adds another consideration to the mix, said Ali White.
"It's a challenge to figure out programs that appeal to adults and provide good ongoing education .... and also speak to what students are learning in school," she said, adding the partnerships with local schools have given the program here a boost and credited Waters for pushing that.
Finding qualified and skillful speakers who are knowledgeable on their topic and capable of presenting it well has eased a bit over time. With the arrival of online tools like YouTube, which offer videos of the potential speakers holding forth in earlier talks, or the TED talks - similar to the day-long TEDx event held here last June - give her and other organizers a sense of how well someone who clearly knows something about their subject imparts it via the spoken word, she said.
This year's line up of speakers for Manchester covers some wide ground. After "Victoria's Secrets" on Oct. 2 will come a talk about "A Life in the News," by Tom Ashbrook, the host of National Public Radio's "On Point" show; on Dec. 4 there will be a lecture about the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton given by the distinguished historian Willard Sterne Randall; and on Jan. 8 will come the discussion on the relationship between the brain and an individual's emotional life, given by Dartmouth College professor Paul Whalen. The second half of the series will offer talks on "the examined life," as Socrates put it, another one on painting, the Triangle Fire in New York and will conclude on May 7 with a lecture by Dr. Ronald Sobel titled "Words we no longer use: A Study in Language and Culture."
A complete list of First Wednesdays lectures can be found on the humanities council's website at vermonthumanities.org.
For more information about First Wednesdays lectures, which are free and open to the public, call the Mark Skinner Library at 802-362-2607.