This two-day conference at the University of Northumbria brought new perspectives to the study of material culture by focusing on ideas around objects and transformation, both in terms of the movements of objects, and the processes of change that objects themselves might effect. Papers from a wide range of disciplines, covering the 18th-20th centuries, looked at a fascinating array of objects: shawls, tea, glass, medicines, art, feathers, paper, dolls, rags, post and clocks, were just a few of the things discussed.
The first panel on “Transforming Objects in Gaskell” opened up a rich discussion of material culture in Elizabeth Gaskell’s works, initiating wider contexts of domesticity, industrialisation and imperialism that recurred throughout the following two days. Alison Lundie’s paper on clothing and needlework in Gaskell looked at how character and identity can be interpreted through objects of domestic arts in Gaskell’s works, and focused in particular on shawls which are especially desired garments; Lundie illustrated this with beautiful images of Gaskell’s own shawls. Her discussion included Miss Matty’s Indian shawl in Cranford, and the factory workers’ shawls in Mary Barton; this intersected nicely with the next presenter Tara Puri, whose paper on “unstable objects” in North and South included Indian shawls as part of a wider discussion about symbols of middle-class domesticity which also included tea and calico. The relationship of these objects to the representation of Margaret Hale brought out ideas around bodily presence and sexuality, and the role of imperial objects in the constructiong of middle-class English femininity. Both papers hinted towards physical borders of the self, touch, and embodiment that, to me, resonated with Kate Smith’s paper at the Spaces of Work conference I attended recently. With this paper in mind, I was particularly interested in two points Lundie had made in her discussion of shawls and Mary Barton – about how factory workers are referred to as “hands”, and the references to literal hands in the text. I wondered afterwards (in a not entirely coherent comment!) about how ideas around hands might interplay, literally and metaphorically, with the use of shawls and other textiles.
An afternoon panel on “altering states” looked at the power of objects to transform from one state to another. James Mussell’s paper on chlorodyne raised wider questions about framing of discussions of material culture and the secret lives of things: we come to know and understand the material world through the narratives we create about it, and uncovering material history is thus a process of “telling tales about the tales that were told” about objects. His narrative of chlorodyne was a fascinating exploration of the ways in which legal and medical discourses intersect with the physical experience of the body, highlighting that medicine’s powerful transformative effects on the body is situated within a wider context of authoritative discourses that speak for the body. Mark Blacklock followed with a paper on “Hinton’s cubes” and late-19th century theories of 4-dimensional space, which discussed the role of objects in altering conceptual thought and opened up ideas about the relationship between things and thought.
The next morning, I chaired a panel on “Transforming objects and the creation of nation” in which themes of travel and networks of circulation were central throughout. Ruth Scobie began with a paper on Elizabeth Montagu’s feathered objects, featured in William Cowper’s poem “On Mrs Montagu’s Feather Hangings.” As in the first panel, the intersection of femininity, domesticity and imperialism came to the surface here, but Scobie looked at how the feathers – as items obtained specifically through acts of violence – made particularly visible the tensions between exotic desirability and destructive violence inherent in colonial encounters. Emalee Beddoes’ paper also looked at an imperial commodity within English national space, discussing tea advertisements as an emblem of Britishness in the 19th century. Advertising played a crucial role in normalising tea from exotic artefact to everyday domestic object. Middle-class femininity featured strongly in this, with adverts typically using women; if men featured in adverts, it was typically only in the context of the international, public sphere.
The next two papers turned from objects to travellers: Maria Grazia Messore discussed Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, a piece of travel writing which seeks to construct an idea of English national identity through the process of travelling the nation, and particularly emphasises the importance of trade and the figure of the merchant in this identity. I was interested in the importance of the circuit in this delineation of national space: each route begins in and returns to London, thus insisting on the importance of London as the centre-point of the nation – but also, with London being the centre-point of an international network of trade, thus emphasising the signficance of the global in the idea of the nation. The final paper of this panel, by Fariha Shaikh, drew on emigrants’ narratives to consider travellers’ objects and the ways in which travelling objects construct ideas of space for the traveller. Shaikh noted that in emigrants’ accounts, much attention is given to the physical positioning of objects and everything being in its right place, and she considered how this suggests a reconceptualisation of the journey space as not so much an invisible backdrop to the journey, but as a space to be worked through, experienced and reshaped by the traveller.
The final panel I attended gave a fascinating account of paper in its many and various forms. Claire Friend discussed the process of making paper in 18th century Edinburgh, from collecting the rags and scraps that were used as the basic material, to the finished product – of which there were over 300 types being made in Edinburgh alone. Eugenia Gonzalez then looked at objects made from paper: dolls, which often had faces made from papier-mâché. Gonzalez’s paper explored narratives of doll production, i.e. books which informed their young readers of how dolls were made, again raising interesting questions about the intersection between objects and narrative processes, as well as the desire to know the secret histories of things and how they came to be. Katie McGettigan brought together several strands of discussion in a paper that considered the material form and circulation of the book, demonstrating Melville’s engagement with the literary marketplace and the idea of book as object through a series of metaphoric connections between books and whales in the text.
Two keynote papers also provided stimulating ideas and perspectives on the conference theme. John Holmes spoke about the pre-Raphaelites and science, which proved to be a fascinating exploration (and demonstration) of interdisciplinarity in arguing that the pre-Raphaelites transformed what art could achieve through an engagement with science, which in turn transformed how science represented itself. Sarah Haggarty’s paper returned to ideas of national circulation, space and time; I particularly enjoyed her comments on the postal service and its role in transforming the experience of time, in which individual sense of temporality depends upon a regulated, national system of circulation.
As well as the academic discussions that ensued from these excellent papers, a particular highlight for me was participating in the Roundtable discussion on blogging. The theme of our discussion was single- or multi-author blogging, but in the hour and a half we ranged over issues of academic identity, narrative voice, the importance of “impact”, web presence, and the different forms that academic blogging might take. Lucinda Matthews-Jones, who chaired the roundtable, has done an excellent job of capturing the discussion in a blog post for JVC Online– which is itself a great example of a multi-author blog and well worth a read for Victorianists!
My thanks again to the conference organisers for inviting me to join the discussion, and for an extremely interesting two days of thinking about things! It’s proved very timely as the next event of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies seminar is on the theme of “Victorian Things”, and I’ll be giving a paper titled “What connection can there be?: People, Objects and Places, c. 1851”. The paper draws out some ideas around material culture, national/global networks, and the Great Exhibition, so the Transforming Objects conference has provided a useful stimulus for developing these thoughts.