Coastal Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century, University of Oxford 14th March 2014

Back in January I posted about the Sea Narratives symposium held at Warwick as part of the Travel and Mobility Studies Network, and since then I seem to have been coming across sea research in all sorts of places – one being that we have Christine Riding from the National Maritime Museum talking about Turner and the Sea at BookFest in May. I’ve also started putting together an edited collection based on the sea narratives symposium, and have begun developing some of my own work along this theme. Coastal Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century was a welcome opportunity to hone in on the resonances of the sea in this particular period, and especially to think about the cultures and communities that forge at the meeting of land and sea.

Kate Flint began the day with a fascinating keynote paper that travelled from the ocean floor to the drawing-room table in a consideration of an oft-overlooked product of the sea: seaweed. Far from being the detritus of the shore-line, Flint showed how seaweed had a manifest presence in a multitude of Victorian places. For those living in coastal communities, seaweed was an item from which to make a living – collected and used for fertilisers and dyes – while for Victorian ladies, seaweed held a place in albums and scrapbooks – dried, preserved and labelled with the same care as pressed flowers.

The Seaweed Raker (1889), by James Clarke Hook
The Seaweed Raker (1889), by James Clarke Hook

Framing Flint’s discussion, and indeed resonant throughout the day, were wider questions about how coastal communities interact with or are distinct from surrounding regional and national contexts. One of the implications of Flint’s paper was to situate the coast as a productive environment – not the end-point, or simply a place from which to look out, but as contributing and sustaining unique forms of social, economic and cultural production. The idea of the “productive coast” was resonant throughout Valentine Cunningham’s paper “On the Beach”, which looked at George Eliot’s time in Tenby (where Marian Evans first began writing the works which would be published as “George Eliot”), to situate the seaside as a space of artistic production.

Flint also posed the suggestion that maritime cultures might be usefully perceived in a transnational framework, with coastal communities having more in common with one another than with the nations in which they are located. I was reminded here of the inverted map of sea-as-land that I wrote about in my previous post, in which coastal locales become refigured on the outskirts of a vast, transnational sea-scape. Rosemary Ashton’s paper, “Henry Brougham and the Invention of Cannes”, considered the production or manufacture of the seaside across national borders, tracing the British interest in Cannes as a resort to the influence of Henry Brougham, who frequented Cannes, built a villa there, and inspired many of the British elite to do the same. The Mediterranean sea was also present in Nick Freeman’s paper on Arthur Symons, contrasting his depiction of the sea in English locations such as Cornwall with the Mediterranean. Meanwhile Matt Kerr’s paper on Gustave le Gray’s sea photography usefully introduced visual imagery into the discussion, and raised interesting issues around the idea of the horizon as a threshold, limit or boundary.

The Sun at its Zenith - Ocean (1856), by Gustave le Gray
The Sun at its Zenith – Ocean (1856), by Gustave le Gray

Another idea running through the day was that of the coast as offering a unique formation of the rural. In a paper on Stevenson’s writing about the coast David Sergeant posed the question of where the coast fits within an urban/rural dialectic; this is something which has been of interest since working on Gender and Space in Rural Britain, 1840-1920, and indeed Gemma Goodman’s essay “At Work and at Play: Charles Lee’s Cynthia in the West” makes an insightful addition to perceiving Cornwall’s coastal community in relation to wider understandings of the rural.  Another contributor to Gender and Space was Roger Ebbatson, and it was therefore interesting to see him present at Coastal Cultures on Thomas Hardy’s depiction of the coast in The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved: Ebbatson suggested that the coast forms a site where unsettling questions around gender come into play, the beach often located as a site of sexual activity. Gender and sexuality were also at the forefront of the panel on Women and the Coast: Carl Thompson, whose recent work explores shipwreck in the cultural imagination, spoke about gendered discourses around shipwreck including the fascinating genre of “female Crusoe” narratives, while Catherine Redford’s discussion of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man read the coast as a site of transformation in Lionel Verney’s voyage in search of civilisation.

Early nineteenth-century uses of the coast were also present in Leya Landau’s discussion of Fanny Burney’s depiction of Brighton in The Wanderer, Jane Darcy’s exploration of Jane Austen and the Isle of Wight – an attempt to discern if Austen, who so often writes about the Isle of Wight, had ever actually been there herself – and Samuel Baker’s paper on Wordsworth’s Highland coast. Finally, Robin Jarvis traced the history of swimming as a recreational activity, which rose to popularity in the late 18th-early 19th century and became the subject of much discussion over both its benefits and pitfalls; Jarvis posed useful links to leisure culture today, linking the rise of wild swimming back to the earliest formations of the practice.

After such a stimulating day I was sorry to miss the second day of the conference – but it was for the very good reason that I was attending a talk on Middlemarch, on which more in a subsequent post.

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