Neo-Victorian Cultures: The Victorians Today @ LJMU, 24-26th July 2013

My visit to Liverpool this week for the Neo-Victorian Cultures conference signalled a bit of a change in direction from my usual research interests. Although I’ve long had an interest in neo-Victorian fiction and enjoy reading it in my spare time, my research has stood firmly in the Victorian period since the start of my PhD. Over the last year, however, I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways in which the Victorians are situated in contemporary culture and how these engagements with the Victorian past are put to cultural work. This stemmed, of course, from the Dickens bicentenary which I’ve written about frequently on this blog, and I’d also begun to explore the intersections of place, nation and mobility in some of the bicentenary celebrations that focused on “Dickens and London” in a couple of recent papers.

Victorians at the Olympic Opening Ceremony
Victorians at the Olympic Opening Ceremony, 2012

I felt, though, that it would be beneficial to put this research into a slightly different context and to consider the ways in which the issues around place and nation intersected with debates and trends in neo-Victorian culture more widely, and to think about what these cross-currents might offer both areas of the field. So my paper “Locating the Victorians: Mobility, place and the past in neo-Victorian culture” was something of an exploration in this line, testing the neo-Victorian waters to see how these conversations might take shape. While in previous work I’ve focused on the local-global iterations of Dickens and London in the 2012 context, in this paper I considered literary tourism as a negotiation between past and present, seeking to understand the ways in which it might fit within neo-Victorian frameworks of reinterpretation and rediscovery. The panel proved to be both interesting and helpful, and I was grateful to the very engaged audience who asked interesting questions about the bicentenary, different forms of exploration of Victorian places, and authenticity of experiences. I also very much enjoyed fellow panellist Ben Poore’s paper about three Victorian spaces that have been restored in recent years – and if you’re in London this week looking for something to do, consider going to the Dalston House art installation which looks like a lot of fun!

Victorian spaces
Victorian spaces

The rest of the conference was highly stimulating and enjoyable. Margaret Stetz’s keynote looked at laughter in neo-Victorian fiction, questioning when did we begin to laugh at the Victorians, and would that moment constitute the moment at which we can define “neo-Victorianism” coming into existence? Helen Davies’ keynote on sex and the neo-Victorian freak show looked at the way in which conjoined twins Chang and Eng were interpreted in their own day and retrospectively, focusing on how issues around sex and morality are handled both in Victorian discourses and in neo-Victorian reinterpretations of these.

The panel on rewriting Jane Eyre raised some interesting questions about the cultural afterlives of the Brontë’s: why always Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Brontë, as the focus of interest? Do we need to know the Brontës before we understand the fictions they inspire – how would Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea read without prior knowledge of Jane Eyre? A panel on Neo-Victorian Geographies explored the use of space in neo-Victorian fiction, film and TV, from the labyrinthine underground spaces of horror films such as Death Line and Creep (Paul Dobraszczyk), to the (overground) railways as spaces evocative of Victorian criminality (Joanne Knowles). Material culture was also well represented in a panel about authenticity and neo-Victorian fiction: Kym Brindle’s discussion of A.S. Byatt’s Possession looked at the novel’s fascination with material texts – bundles of letters, for example – as fetishized, desired objects that summon up ideas around the authenticity of the past. Joanne Ella Parsons explored the meanings of different foods in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, taking us through discussion of oysters, chocolate and watercress to consider why food remains such an evocative symbol in the neo-Victorian novel.

The final part of the conference (for me) was the roundtable on Global NeoVictorianism with Ann Heilmann, Kate Mitchell, Rosario Arias, Monika Pietrzak-Franger and Patricia Pulham. The papers set in train some indicative ideas around the global manifestations of neo-Victorian culture: what counts as neo-Victorian fiction, and how much validity does “neo-Victorianism” have in a global context’ – should we move to think about “neo-nineteenth-centuryism”? What engagement is demonstrated with British Victorianisms in other global contexts – such as Australian writing about nineteenth-century Australia? And how do we define Victorian, let alone neo-Victorian?

Sadly I had to leave at this point in the conference, but the roundtable took me full circle to my paper and the negotiations between past-present in a local-global context that I had started to tease out, so I left with a head full of ideas for future directions. I thought the conference was an excellent forum for debate, well attended with a lively and enthusiastic audience, and I’m sure much of this was thanks to the fabulously hard-working team behind the conference, so thank you for putting on such an enjoyable few days!

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Contact and Connections: Travel and Mobility Studies Symposium @ Warwick, 27th June 2013

Thursday 27th June 2013 saw the Travel and Mobility Studies research network at the University of Warwick host its first annual symposium. The day focused on the theme of “contact and connections”, thinking about the different ways in which travel produces connections, creates networks, and provides opportunities for cross-cultural, -national and -spatial points of contact. The 14 speakers across the day provided a rich, varied and insightful set of papers around these themes which made for an interesting and stimulating day.

SUEZ CANAL, 1927.  British Empire Marketing Board poster.
SUEZ CANAL, 1927.
British Empire Marketing Board poster.

Although the papers were diverse in their topics of focus, if there was one theme that I found threaded throughout the day it was the sense that travel practices and narratives serve not so much to connect, but rather to destabilise categories of identity, places, narratives. In the first panel “Troubled Relations”, Churnjeet Mahn (University of Surrey) looked at how the Grand Trunk Road, a major connecting route from Calcutta to Kabul, has had its history eroded through cultural amnesia, while Roxanne Bibizadeh (University of Warwick) identified how displacement can provide the opportunity for rewriting and destabilising stereotypes – in the case of Leila Aboulela’s work, of the Muslim woman; and Claire Connor (University of Bristol) identified the “crossing the line” ceremony performed on board the SS Great Britain in 1852 as disruptive moment in which the boundaries of respectability became blurred in the liminal space of the sea. In the keynote address that followed, Tim Youngs (Nottingham Trent University) raised questions about the generic instabilities of travel narratives, the lines between representation and misrepresentation, and the (perhaps unexpected) conservatism of the genre that often finds itself complicit with patriarchal imperialism.

In a panel on “Global Britain” these ideas again came to the fore. Hannah Lewis-Bill‘s (University of Exeter) discussion of tea-drinking in Victorian Britain raised issues of cultural adaptation, modification and reflexivity involved in the circulation and usage of transnational commodities, particularly tea; Mary L. Shannon (King’s College London) spoke about the cultural interactions involved in the publication of the Melbourne Punch, the “child” of the London publication, which continued to position itself within London print culture while establishing a new Melbourne print culture. Robert Wells‘ (Indiana University, Bloomington) paper also looked at the cultural absorption of foreign travel ideals in a paper on spa tourism from 1560-1760, suggesting that English spas drew on European culture while emphasising the unique Englishness of these spa resorts. The next panel, on “Late 19th Century Travelogues”, took us through various points of contact between British and foreign countries: Kate Walchester‘s (Liverpool John Moores University) discussion of British travel to Siberia looked at photographs of Sami people, reading these for the negotiations of cultural relations they reveal, and Sam Knowles considered a reading of Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel writing that argued for a more complex handling of imperialism in Stevenson’s work; Jenny Pearce (University of Hull) discussed English governesses abroad, exploring the unique and complex social position they occupied as enabling the crafting of a “third space” of cultural translation and negotiation.

The day ended with Cathy Waters‘ (University of Kent) keynote in which categories of identity again became displaced: looking at the rise of the special correspondent in the late 19th century press, Waters identified how these travelling figures found themselves in a position not dissimilar to, and often mistaken for, that of the spy. Waters explored how this fit within the reshaping of journalistic practices and late-19th century print culture, and ended by raising some indicative questions about the relationship between journalism and travel narratives, and the issues of authenticity that both foreground in their style and content.

The symposium was an excellent end to the first year of the Travel Network and it was a pleasure to host such an interesting day on the Warwick campus. Plans are currently taking shape for the next year of the Network, so I hope to be able to bring news of fruitful developments soon.