The latest meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar, at the University of Nottingham on 16th January, explored the theme of Victorian Masculinities. Holly Furneaux’s (University of Leicester) keynote on gender and care in the Crimean War started the day, seeking to overturn the narrow popular and academic focus on Florence Nightingale’s role in the Crimean War to look at the work of male solider orderlies on military wards. Through a range of diaries and accounts of the war, Furneaux presented a fascinating and complex picture of the gendering of solider orderlies: forging emotional connections with one another, performing physical acts of care, and undertaking typically feminine arts of embroidery and quilting, all contributed to a vital reassessment of military masculinity.
Male bodies were the theme of the second panel. Lisa Coar (University of Leicester) spoke about the ‘mania’ for athletics and sport among Victorian boys and men, a trend which shifted over the course of the century – physical excess through exercise was initially encouraged but later came under attack. Jo Parsons (Bath Spa University) looked at another form of extreme physicality, the fat male body of Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White; Fosco’s fat positions him as a feminised figure, and Parsons explored various ways in which his corpulent body and food tastes complicate gendered binaries. Ruth Ashton’s paper also focused on demasculinisation in the context of disability in Dinah Craik’s work where, despite the dominant mid-century discourse of physical disability and injury as demasculinating, Craik presents disability as a liberation from social expectations.
In the afternoon, we heard from Desiree de Chaire (University of Warwick) on Princess Louise’s Boer War memorial, exploring forms of imperial patriotism, and contrasting modes of masculinity represented in the Boer memorial with typical monuments of soldiers. Harry Cocks (University of Nottingham) revisted the idea of character as a mode through which to investigate masculinity, covering ideas of self-determination in the context of the rise of liberalism. Ayla Lepine’s (University of Nottingham) paper on gothic masculinities focused on the Society of St John the Evangelist, and particularly interesting was Lepine’s use of John Plotz’s ideas around portability as a mode of understanding art and cultural formations in the period. Ross Balzaretti (University of Nottingham) looked at a sub-genre of travel writing, that of ‘wanderings’, suggesting that this is both distinct from other forms of pedestrian travel – rambles, for example – and a particularly masculine space of travel discourse. My paper on sunburnt travellers in the Victorian novel generated some interesting questions and suggestions which I’m looking forward to following up, so thanks to those in the audience for a positive response.