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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!


Swinburne, 150 years on


To mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Swinburne’s first Poems and Ballads, Cambridge hosted a two-day conference that might best be described as ‘whither Swinburne?

It can be rare to find a conference, particularly a two-day one, so focused on a single volume, but the panels across the two days were rich and varied. What I particularly enjoyed was the strong focus on form, initiated by Herbert Tucker‘s opening keynote. Tucker asked us as readers to attend to ends: end-stopped lines, closing punctuation, the closing of poems, and the use of the word itself. This focused highlighted the intensity in Swinburne’s verse of what might appear to be poetic commonplaces, and I think also invites us to think about the poet’s experience: the relief of finding a good rhyme, the natural breaks where the mind can be allowed to wander, the feeling of having finished one poem but already having to write another. A keynote about ends was a wonderful beginning to the event.

The first panel focused on Poetry, the Body and the Senses, and featured some of Catherine Maxwell‘s interesting work on scentand a quick glimpse into some of the working that will form part of her monograph on perfume in Victorian literary culture (forthcoming from OUP). She distinguished the Baudelairean fascination with heavy, musky, Decadent scent with Swinburne’s interest in lighter, fresher scents, such as eau de cologne. Alongside Maxwell were two graduate students, Kate Snelson, on physical, somatic sympathy, and David Womble, on hyloidealism. Womble’s presentation was thought-provoking, asking how dead speakers display embodied modes of thought in Swinburne’s work. The approach, I think, bears application to some other poets of the era, such as the Rossettis.

The final two panels of day one focused on Affinity and Influence, with a fascinating array of different angles taken. Some papers, such as Jan Marsh‘s comparison between Swinburne and Christina Rossetti, and Oliver Goldstein‘s (@OliverGoldstein) focused attention to Hardy’s reading and annotations of Swinburne, offered a nuanced take on influence and influencing through attention to biographical detail. Others attended to Swinburne’s relationship with other literary traditions, including French (Andria Pancrazi), Italian (Robin Kirkpatrick), and US (Alison Rosenblitt). Particularly interesting was Michael John Craske’s focus on the musical legacy of Poems and Ballads, in the light of TS Eliot’s criticism of Swinburne’s musicality.

Day two took us back to questions of form, with a panel on modes of address. Two papers, from Jason Boulet and Andrea Selleri, addressed Swinburne and the dramatic monologue genre, while Justin Sider attended to the notability of Swinburne’s style, as attested to by contemporary critics. The final panel of the day attended to morality in Swinburne’s volume, with a fascinating examination of the emergence of dystheism, antitheism, monotheism and polytheism by Stéphane Sitayeb, followed by Nathan Hensley‘s exploration of some of Swinburne’s manuscripts, including his unpublished ‘The Birch’, and invites us to consider that work in juxtaposition with contemporary political events, such as the Morant Bay rebellion. Sitayeb’s insights into the use of the words “God”, “God(s)”, etc., were further illuminated by a digital humanities approach from John Walsh, creater of The Swinburne Project. Walsh looks at Swinburne’s indexicality, his paratextual references and bibliographic tendencies, as well as identifying statistically some dominant lexical choices in the volume, like the use of “sweet”, “god”, etc.

Following a second keynote by Peter Nicholls on the relevance of Swinburne for modern-day poetics, the day rounded up with a reflection on the conference as a whole, led by Michael Hurley and Marion Thain (@MarionThain). Some key themes that arose were Swinburne’s multiplicity, as evidenced by the range of conference papers, and whether the field of study has changed significantly in the past decade. Chip Tucker asked the most provocative question: how can we teach and read Swinburne so that he remains relevant to pressing issues facing the academe over the next fifty years? The conference didn’t answer this question, but invited us to wonder why we had chosen to attend the conference, and what we might take away with us to develop the interest of our students and colleagues in Swinburne.

At the level of conference organisation, one thing that did surprise me was the ratio of men to women, which was almost 2:1. It made me wonder whether there is something about Swinburne that might account for what feels like an odd ratio at an English conference.

Recent conferences: Forgotten Geographies

Forgotten Geo

As part of what I hope will be a growing series on conferences, this weekend I got to attend the second half of the Forgotten Geographies conference at Birkbeck.

There were a wide range of panels across both days, exploring Scandanavia, Anglo-Indian relations, Scottish New-Zealanders, Eastern European literature, as well as imaginary geographies.

Day 2 opened with Stefano Evangelista talking about fin-de-siècle Japan and Lafcadio Hearn‘s writings from and about that country. It was interesting to hear how writings that could be read from a twenty-first century British perspective as exoticising or othering—even despite Hearn’s love of Japan—are not necessarily read in the same way in Japan. Hearn’s house in Kumamoto remains a museum, and the 110th anniversary of his death prompted an article in Japan Times.

The panel on Global Emblems of Decadence focused on three fascinating individuals: Forrest Reid, in a paper by Alex Murray (@alexwmurray); Napoleon Lapathiotis, in a paper by Kostas Boyiopoulos; and Ronald Firbank, in a paper by Peter A. Bailey about the presence—or absence—of decadence amongst fin-de-siècle West Indian writers. This panel established a tension between geographical distance, be it Reid in Ulster refusing to move to London, or West Indian writers consuming British Victorian literature, and cosmopolitanism.

The panel on Queer Cosmopolitanism approached a variety of different forms of writing: botanical literature by Reginald Farrer, in a talk by Dominic Janes; correspondence between Carl Van Vechten and Firbank, in a talk by Kate Hext (@kate_hext); and the little magazine form, in Richard A. Kaye‘s paper on Akademos. All three were thinking about geography in different ways. Janes, in exploring Farrer’s non-fiction writings, turned explciitly to topography and the shape and feel of natural landscapes. Hext asked questions about where Van Vechten and Firbank could have met if not in the imaginary space opened up by their correspondence—the likely answer being nowhere—and about how shared imaginary landscapes might be constructed from specific uses of allusive language, such as “camp” and “camping”. Meanwhile, Kaye examined how the little magazine might create political as well as aesthetic agendas.

The final panel of the day that I went to was on Scandinavia and Cultural Transnationalism. As in the Global Emblems of Decadence panel, this panel invited a specific focus on geographical tension. In opening her paper on Knut Hamsun‘s Sult (Hunger), Eveliina Pulkki noted how Norwegian can still be treated as a humourously ‘other’ language and how Norway was often portrayed in auto-exotic terms by its authors. Rebecka Klette (@RebeckaKlette) expanded on how degeneration theory manifested itself particularly in Sweden, while Peter K. Andersson looked at how dandyism manifested in Stockholm, in particular amongst lower class men.

The whole conference was brought to a close by the premiere of a lost Ukrainian silent film, The Lie (1918), recovered from a film archive by Olga Kyrylova and based on the play of the same name by Volodymyr Vynnychenko. This closing keynote was a wonderful reminder of the value of archival research in turning up new material that can enhance our understanding of the periods that we study and open up fresh avenues that might never have been imagined.

The Red and the Black (Stendhal) — book review

This post is labelled as a book review, but it is not in the strictest sense. I have had this book on my shelves for a while, and I recall starting it once before (or at least had a lot of déjà vu whilst reading the first few chapters!).

Sadly, it has defeated me. Unlike reading Flaubert, I just couldn’t find it in my to be interested by the characters. I felt a glimmer of interest in the situation and the small-town politics, but not enough to keep reading. I have so many books now that I just don’t see the point in spending time reading ones that don’t grab me. So I’m reading some of Nabokov’s lectures on literature instead. Much better!

Florence Marryat, ‘Her Father’s Name’ — book review

I discovered Florence Marryat via Twitter and Victorian Secrets‘ wonderful edition of The Blood of the Vampire. The critical additions being produced now thanks to Catherine Pope (@catherinepope) and the rest of the team at VS (@VictorianSecret) are a fascinating companion to this half-forgotten author, and they’re well worth the investment. Greta Depledge provides the Introduction and Notes to this edition. The Introduction offers a very useful potted history of Marryat’s career and life, and the Notes  offer some intriguing context and insights into cross-dressing, female detectives and female hysterics.

Her Father’s Name made it onto my Classics Club list because I enjoyed The Blood of the Vampire so much, and I think for the sheer rollicking ride of it, I would recommend the former over the latter. More below (*spoiler alert*).

The story follows Leona in her quest to clear the name of her father, as the title suggests. Only after his suicide does she learn that, far from being a Frenchman, he is an Englishman accused of murder who fled long ago to Brazil to hide himself. In infiltrating her father’s family — the Evans — and pursuing the truth, she is accompanied for much of the time by Christobal, a Spanish Don and Nice Guy(TM) who loves Leona jealously and pathetically and seems to feel she owes him the same feeling. At times cross-dressing, and bewildered by the very idea of wanting to marry until the very end of the book, Leona resists his advances. Nevertheless, his assistance — and the convenience of being able to adopt his name and letters of introduction for her own purposes — prove useful.

Marryat’s prose rattles along at a pleasant pace, and Leona is a more engaging character than the cursed Harriet Brandt of ‘The Blood of the Vampire’. Leona’s spirit and sheer gumption, her willingness to leap into and out of various male and female disguises, and her single-minded pursuit of her aim give the story the air of a Shakespearean comedy, galloping along to its inevitable happy conclusion where Christobal gets the girl after all, meriting only a slight grumble from the reader who might have hoped otherwise.

What I enjoy most about Marryat is her sense of humour. Marquise de Toutlemonde, for example, with her name suggestive of her standards, or the sexual jealousy of the male characters over how a disguised Leona attracts the young ladies of the Evans’ social group, are wryly portrayed.

The tropes of lost siblings and secret adoptions are played with lightly, except in Leona’s secret dark thoughts.  Henry Evans’ delight at the proof of his brother’s innocence by his niece is given little thought and reads as pure narrative convenience, but this is true of many of the male characters’ thoughts and emotions. More thoughtful are Leona’s reactions to her new-found sister, Lucilla. A half-sister born out of wedlock (Leona is relieved to have her own legitimacy affirmed towards the end of the story), Lucilla has a ‘weak spine’ and is a hysterical invalid, turning her attentions toward any man who shows her interest: “a phase of womanhood that made Leona anything but proud of belonging to the sex”. There is no disappointment on Leona’s part when her uncle makes clear that she will not be able to claim Lucilla as her sister, but only as a cousin.

There is also something quite refreshing in having a Brazilian woman sweep into the lives of a wealthy but spineless English family and resolve their problems when the stereotype might have the narrative played the other way. Leona’s disdain for the idea of remaining in England with the Evans family is clear. Although she has submitted to marrying Christobal, she does so because she knows that from now on he will not stand in her way; her quest over with, their paths align in wishing to travel to Spain and then return to New York. Still headstrong, Leona can afford to yield if she knows she will nevertheless get her own way.

Lee’s ‘A Phantom Lover’

I try to make good use of the many free e-books that Amazon has to offer via the Kindle iPhone app, given how convenient it is for reading on the tube/train/etc.

One of my latest finds is A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee, a short story (or novella?) that plays with some of my favourite themes: identity, heredity, and the creation of art-objects. I have not read a very great amount of Vernon Lee, but I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have read so far, so although it is only tangentially related to my PhD proposal planning, I couldn’t resist reading it this week.

In many ways, the story reads like a study or trial for themes or modes that the writer will use elsewhere. However, I think there is a structural neatness to the story’s doublings that merits closer thought. 

The first-person narrator has little engaging in him: in fact, he seems to deliberately seek to disengage us from him with his nonchalant and at times self-absorbed narration. He claims that the story he tells is a sad one for him because he was never able to finish the portrait of Mrs Oke that he so longed to finish, and yet there is something shallow in how we are told this; it is the mere excuse for the story. 

Mrs Alice Oke, the centre of the story whose death prevents the artist’s masterpiece from completion, is also deliberately isolated from us. She has the requisite features of an intriguing heroine (or anti-heroine); a troubled constitution, a far-away look in her eye, a lithe and slender figure, and great personal beauty and attraction. She and the narrator have much in common in that their engagement with the world is entirely on their own terms and subordinated to their own interests. Although fascinated by Mrs Oke, the artist’s fascination is also rather shallow; she is the excuse for interesting drawings and an attractive picture, but also for the narrator to engage in an acquaintanceship that he knows may one day make a good story (he is drawn to the idea of a “character study”).

Ironically, the narrator’s focus as an amateur psychologist is rather in the wrong direction. Whilst he is intrigued by Mrs Oke’s obsession with her doppelganger ancestor’s lover, it is Mr Oke whose character is undergoing the most dramatic turmoil. His obsession with Lovelock grows during the narrator’s presence at Okehurst. He disintegrates from a slightly nervous country squire to an anxious, hallucinating, ultimately murderous wreck. 

Despite the narrator’s claim to see clearly Mrs Oke’s mental weakness and ‘eccentricity’, and his avowed disinterest in her sexually, his acknowledged fascination with her is more akin to her obsession with the Lovelock story than he can admit. His grave disappointment at the unfinished portrait, the innumerable pencil sketches that he makes of Mrs Oke, and his pained yet apparently throwaway confession that these are “all that remain to [him] now!” are suggestive of Mrs Oke’s hoarding of Lovelock’s writings within her writing desk and perpetual return to the yellow drawing room and Lovelock’s works. The apparent automaticity of the sketches the narrator makes, and the suggested continuing act of returning to all that remains of one who evoked a deep attraction, mean that he reconstructs — unconsciously — the sort of eccentric obsession that he sees as poisoning the minds of both Mrs and Mr Oke. Lee’s character study, then, is far more knowing and nuanced than his own, which sits nested in her work. 

Gissing’s ‘The Odd Women’

I was reading The Odd Women by George Gissing — and had a draft post about it (that was essentially just the title) — when this blog fell into desuetude last year. In the spirit of taking responsibility for my rubbish upkeep of this blog, I thought I would finish the post.

It has now been rather a while since I finished this book, but I enjoyed it immensely. Gissing’s book has some of the Jane Austen-esque requirements — a family in diminished circumstances, the three Madden sisters, and the desire to have at least one of them married off — but approached with social realism and a sense of humour (and some feisty characterisation) that makes it a very enjoyable read without always necessarily being pleasant. More snipped below, for those who haven’t read it but will!

(As it has been a while since I finished the book, this is rather a short account of a few of my stronger impressions. I would love to re-read the book at some point and fill in some of the gaps, but given the growing size of my library, this might take rather a while!)

Although it deals with major social issues, Gissing avoids writing a polemic or overly didactic novel. The very title of this book conveys a dry (and perhaps cruel) humour: unmarried women are “odd” in a numerical sense, but also perhaps they are “odd” because they are personally “odd”. While the Madden sisters are very keen to prevent themselves from being perceived as the latter and to keep up appearances, Rhoda Nunn (the surname is another dry aside) exemplifies and embraces “oddity” in both its senses.

In some ways, Gissing’s novel offers a moral parable about knuckling under to the overwhelming pressure to escape “oddity” — Monica, the youngest and most eligible Madden sister, exhorted by her two spinster sisters, marries a man who is devoted to (or put less charitably, obsessed with) her but who expects her to value too highly this devotion. Edmund, quite predictably, makes her miserable. In a Jane Austen novel, this might be discovered pre-marriage, and the engagement safely escaped (as Marianne Dashwood safely escapes the dissipated Willoughby, although not without some heartache). Gissing, however, tackles marital breakdown head on.

I adore Rhoda’s spirit and zeal, and what I would call her ethic, the fact that she is convinced by her well-reasoned moral principles and sticks to them even when emotional “instinct” might drive her not to. Of course, I found myself rooting for Rhoda to accept Everard’s proposal, and in some ways her refusal to is born from her pride. Although she might be convinced of his innocence of the initial accusation of an affair with Monica, Rhoda has been shaken by the emotional experience of a rather “commonplace” romantic mishap, and will not take such a risk again. Rather, her resolve is steeled, and Everard’s later marriage to a rather conventional bride suggests that Rhoda’s decision is the right, that her “oddity” would eventually have outstripped his independent sensibilities, resulting in either abandonment or a diminution of Rhoda’s character to sustain the relationship. Yet her tears at the birth of Monica’s daughter show the deep emotions beneath Rhoda’s rationality; the birth of another potentially “odd woman” who might have the same painful life experiences overwhelms her, if only for a moment.