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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