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Consuming (the) Victorians: BAVS 2016

The annual BAVS conference is a chance for PhD students, ECRs, and established academics to come together and really get into the detail of their research for a few days. This year’s whirlygig was kindly and ably hosted by Cardiff University, and I thought I would do a quick write-up as part of my sporadic conference series (see also Swinburne, 150 years on and Forgotten Geographies).

The first keynote set the bar high, and I think may have been my favourite thing of the whole conference. Patricia Duncker was insightful, hilarious, erudite, inspiring, and more or less everything that I one day aspire to be. Her talk about imagining George Eliot was more fascinating than one could have hoped, and I am certainly going to take a look at her books (particularly James Miranda Barry).

I was, I must confess, a little sceptical of this year’s theme. Consumption in the nineteenth century? Nineteenth-century consumer culture and what it might tell us about today’s consumer culture? It felt a little Idylls of the Marketplace. Notwithstanding the continued development of Neo-Victorian genres (a significant subtheme), wasn’t this fairly established ground?

I’m not sure that ultimately I can answer the question of whether the theme could sustain the sheer volume of panels included in the programme, as I unfortunately had to miss some of the sessions (having a conference so near to family is both a blessing and a curse!). From what I managed to squeeze in, the theme did seem at times rather to constrain some of the intended strands of panels, such as those on gender, medicine/science/technology, and digitisation. It did, however, provide an excellent opportunity to focus on work along a materialist line. Analyses ranged from the taxidermy specimen (Alexandra Murphy), recycling and reuse (Christopher Ferguson, Kate Flint), Victorian Valentines (Alice Crossley), violins (Rachel Cowgill), and the collections of the Dickens Museum (Louisa Price).

Another very strong theme was the Neo-Victorian, and in particular TV and film adaptations of Victorian fiction. Presentations ranged from adaptations of Dickens  (DickensianA Muppet Christmas Carol, etc.), Zola’s The Paradise, and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to analyses of Penny Dreadful, and this plethora seemed to at times flow solely from excitement at the level of general public interest in ‘our’ period. Not that there’s anything wrong with popular appeal—I’m with Duncker in enjoying the ‘trash’ of both the nineteenth century and our own!—but long conferences like BAVS can be exhaustingly full to begin with…

Perhaps one of the most interesting panels was on digital visualisation, as the range of presentations on mapping (deep or otherwise) raised the question of how academics produce products for consumption by others. Can maps such as those produced by the deep mapping of the Lake District be repackaged in a readily accessible format for tourists visiting the region? What is the purpose of doing so? How does one acquire the research funding needed for some digital humanities projects when they may not have definite or discrete end-times, the process of peer reviewing them remains unclear, and they throw up re-use challenges owing to the use of proprietary software? This was a wonderful twist on the ‘consumption’ theme, and it threw up a whole range of questions with which I’m sure many of us will be grappling for years to come.

I should also say that one of the useful innovations that has been popping up at a number of conferences is the attempt to run professionalisation workshops focused on PGRs and ECRs. This conference was no exception, with a set of small sessions run ahead of the main conference’s start. I went to two: on creative writing and academia, and on illustrations.

The former was quite fascinating and had something of an alt-ac flavour to it (although unspoken). Damian Walford Davies was insightful in his account of all critical writing as life-writing, arguing for a highly permeable barrier between academic and creative work. His advice to “run with anachronism” because we are inevitably situated from any historical subject matter really struck me, and I look forward to reading some of his poetry, which reminded me particularly of Anne Carson’s Red trilogy. Lucy Andrew provided an interesting insight into the early phases of using academic knowledge for creative purposes. The illustrations workshop was ably run and gave us an opportunity not only to paw at some wonderful texts from the university’s Special Collections—including Moxon Tennyson’s, which are always fun—and to play at doing some lino engraving. It didn’t offer a great deal by way of professionalisation (although I admit that was never formally stated in the programme), but was certainly a pleasure.

And with all these conferences, pleasure and personal take-homes are key. I’m now looking forward to seeing how the NAVSA conference in November sizes up!

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