Queering the literary canon

Braedon Lowey
Braedon Lowey presents his JCURA research at the 2024 JCURA Fair. Photo credit: Jonah Mani

When Braedon Lowey transferred to UVic from Langara College’s creative writing program in Vancouver, he had his sights set on the intensive research opportunities offered by the Honours program in the Department of English.

Now, two years later, he’s wrapping up his thesis project, a study of queer poets in the Victorian period.

Discovering a passion for research

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Braedon spent his first few years after high school working in the film and restaurant industries in Vancouver. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down both industries in 2020, Braedon’s passion for creative writing drove him to return to school and enrol at Langara.

“I didn’t expect to excel in academics because I almost failed high school. But after two years, I really enjoyed my education and wanted to continue it,” Braedon says of his journey to UVic. Having the autonomy to explore his interests made education exciting. “Doing research, UVic was my top pick because I knew I was interested in Victorian studies, and we have some of the best names on the continent here.”

One such scholar, Royal Society of Canada Fellow and expert in Victorian poetry Dr. Alison Chapman, has become Braedon’s mentor, supervising both his Honours thesis and his Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Award (JCURA) project.

Although the Victorian era—the period of the nineteenth century during which Queen Victoria ruled in England—is associated with conservative moralism, Braedon’s research explores queer lives and writing during the era. Working with Chapman on her SSHRC-funded Digital Victorian Periodical Poetry Project (DVPP), which collates and analyzes poetry published in platforms like magazines, newspapers, and annuals, Braedon’s JCURA research is improving the discoverability of queer poetry and poets by creating an anthology hosted on the platform.

Diving into digital tools

“At the time, queer expression was not acceptable. I think there’s a lot to learn about how queer expression has formed throughout the centuries in artistic spaces.” Periodical poetry was more widely read than single volumes, largely due to its affordability—for Braedon, this means that such forms are ripe for analysis as artifacts of popular culture. “In addition to the poems, I’m also studying experiences of readership and target audiences and authorial practices.”

Taking advantage of the almost 20,000 poems collected in DVPP, Braedon’s Honours thesis delves more deeply into the queer poems and poets that he’s discovered through his JCURA research. Ultimately, both projects ask the question: how were queer identities expressed in art and culture in a society where they were not allowed to be expressed through other means?

For Braedon, this means considering authors’ biographies, including whether they lived as queer publicly or privately.

“The fact that the DVPP has done research on these poems and identified the authors of unsigned poems and the writers behind pseudonyms is what led me to do this project. Digital resources like this are relatively new, and it enables us to discover queer writers outside of our academic canon that we didn’t know about before.”

Studying queerness in artistic expression

"Historical queer studies are very important in a world where queer people are still condemned and suppressed in a lot of places. Art is one of the ways that we can look at marginalized identities and understand them."

- Braedon Lowey, Honours English student and JCURA scholar

Using queer theory to understand literature that was written before contemporary understandings of queer identities were fully formed has sparked its own line of inquiry for Braedon. While Braedon’s work examines biography as well as literary analysis, he clarifies that queer readings of individual poems cannot be used as biographical evidence of an author’s queer identity. To enable the blend of biographical reading and literary criticism that his work entails, Braedon is only including authors who have been identified as queer through historical research.

At the same time, he’s enthusiastic about the prospect of using queer readings to study Victorian poetry more broadly.

“Part of this project exists to facilitate queer reading of Victorian poetry by asking, what do queer poems that we know of look like? How do we establish conventions that we might be able to apply to other poems where we don’t know the author or their identity?” This work can help remedy the centuries-long erasure of queer people from the historical record.

Although he’s approaching the end of his Honours degree at UVic, Braedon isn’t finished with research just yet. He’s hoping to continue working with the DVPP to further develop his study of queer Victorian poetics.

“Historical queer studies are very important in a world where queer people are still condemned and suppressed in a lot of places,” says Braedon, reflecting on why he’s driven to keep pursuing his research. “Art is one of the ways that we can look at marginalized identities and understand them.”