|“Strange New Today”: Victorians, Crisis and Response
Full Conference Programme
9:00 – 9:20
Arrival & registration; tea & coffee
9:20 – 9:30
Welcome & opening remarks (Outer Library)
9:30 – 10:50
Panel I (Outer Library): The Condition of England & Beyond
Chair: Andrew Griffiths
Ben Moore (University of Manchester): “Gaskell, Engels and the ‘Shock City’: Two Responses to Industrial Manchester in the 1840s”
By the 1840s, Manchester had become the ‘shock city’ of the industrial era in Britain, seeming to herald a new type of city and a new structure of social relations. Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton are responses to this new type of city, but ones which propose different solutions to its problems. In Engels the crisis of Manchester is the irreconcilable class difference which it epitomises, whereas for Gaskell the crisis is above all a failure of communication between classes and individuals. I explore these different ways of reading class conflict in the city, arguing that each writer’s method of reading the city directs their ideas on the resolution of its problems. For Engels, primarily concerned with classes, to understand Manchester requires a comprehensive approach that pays attention to its geography, sociology and economic activity. This methodology is fundamental to Engels’s conclusion that class interests have determined the physical and social form of Manchester, making revolution both necessary and inevitable. For Gaskell, writing a work of narrative fiction, Manchester is read through individual inhabitants, whose knowledge of each other is blocked by their environment and class separation, so that genuine communication between individuals offers a model for crisis resolution. Despite this opposition, each writer’s position is threatened, as they are compelled in various ways to make observations that disturb their model of conflict resolution: for Engels, there is an ambivalence surrounding improvements in social conditions for particular workers; for Gaskell, there is always the possibility that individuals will fail to communicate, thus demanding class-based action.
Hywel Dix (Bournemouth University): “North and South, or the Union and the Confederation: British Responses to two American Revolutions, 1776 and 1861”
At the climax of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South John Thornton’s business is brought to its knees by a crash in the North American cotton markets, only for southern money to save the day. 6 years later, in an example of the precognitive power of literature, the northern blockade of southern ports during the American Civil War caused great financial hardship in England’s industrial north. This paper will attempt to elucidate the complex web of historical relationships between the English working classes, their industrial masters and the American plantations which Gaskell draws on symbolically in North and South. The novel has often been taken as one of the most symptomatic condition-of-England novels published in the period. Looked at in a broader historical perspective, the portrayal of a crisis in the trans-Atlantic cotton trade also reveals much about contemporary British attitudes to the American Civil War.
The central hypothesis to be tested in this paper is as follows: the Northern blockade of Southern ports during the American Civil War caused the cotton industries of Lancashire to come to a virtual standstill and hence caused great economic hardship among the English working classes. Yet those very workers were able to recognise a wider egalitarian ideal in the Northern cause, put political principle before economic self-interest and offer material support for the American North. North and South demonstrates that England’s urban trade unions commanded a high level of political organisation. Working-class responses to the American Civil War show that to this degree of organisation that same class was also able to add a sophisticated and mature commitment to political ideas beyond narrow self-interest.
This combination of organisation and political maturity was precisely the response that the English working class had not been able to demonstrate to the American War of Independence 3 generations earlier. It represents a remarkably rapid coming to maturity of the organised working class on the one hand, but a maturity that was also just too late on the other. Had the commitment to political principle that was demonstrated in the 1860s been available in the 1770s, the paper will argue, the English working class really might have been able to side with the American revolutionaries against a repressive monarchic order. Looked at in this perspective, English working-class attitudes to 2 American revolutionaries are tragically belated, demonstrating a truly revolutionary commitment to egalitarianism only when an English revolution had already become impossible.
David Ibitson (University of Leeds): “‘One might have thought that the British Empire was in danger’: Jerome K. Jerome and Imperial Masculinity”
Despite its popularity with the reading public, Jerome K. Jerome’s comedic novel Three Men in a Boat (1889), about three clerks’ boating trip up the river Thames, attracted significant critical hostility, which cast Jerome and his ‘three men’ as indicative of a lower middle-class vulgarity. Such criticism evokes contemporary concerns that office work and urban competition were inherently enervating and had a detrimental effect on the masculinity of the nation. This anxiety can be seen in the boys’ own adventure literature of the time, in which the middle-class man of commerce is synonymous with an unheroic masculinity, as well as in organisations such as the Boys’ Brigade which offered young boys an escape from the city. Simultaneously, worries about the harmful effects of the city environment were expressed in a number of urban exploration texts, in which the language of colonial travel was used to discuss matters of social reform. Three Men in a Boat references these anxieties, ostensibly endorsing them with their desire to escape London. However, the up-river nature of the journey allows the text to function as a parody of an imperial journey model. Subjecting the ideal of the imperial man, and the anxieties of urban enervation, to parodic scrutiny, it shows the redundancy of ideals of imperial masculinity for the average lower middle-class man. Jerome’s travesty of colonial adventure implicitly undermines social concerns that have their basis in imperial ideals, and enacts a rejection of a perceived crisis of masculinity in imperial Britain.
9:30 – 10:50
Panel II (Upper Reading Room): Changing Times: History, Rupture and Retrospection.
Chair: Ben Carver
Helen Kingstone (University of Leeds): “Confronting Modernity: Victorian Negotiations with their own recent History”
This paper will consider how the codification of ‘deep time’ associated with Lyell and Darwin affected Victorian attitudes to what we might call ‘shallow time’, their own recent past. It will examine the tussle between detached and immersive approaches to writing history that took place over the Victorian period, and the concomitant notions of historian as judge and as witness. In Past and Present (1843), Thomas Carlyle views ‘the Year Forty-Three’ as ‘totally unlike any other’. This ‘strange new today’ cannot be assimilated into a cyclical historical pattern, representing instead an alarming aberration. For him, a history of his contemporary society, which does not fit into any logical overarching narrative, is almost a contradiction in terms.
Despite a developing university discipline that viewed historical study as properly confined to the distant past, however, a few writers did take the bold step of writing histories of the Victorians’ recent past. Among these were Carlyle’s own The French Revolution (1837), Harriet Martineau’s History of the Thirty Years’ Peace (1849) and J. R. Green’s Short History of the English People (1874). The central thrust of post-Romantic historicist culture was that of a unified historical trajectory. While the medieval era could be mythologised as spiritual, and the Restoration as licentious, however, it was rather more difficult to create an archetype of several million living individuals. How could the notion of a grand sweep of history be reconciled with the seemingly chaotic, multiple, ever-changing present? These writers were forced to re-negotiate many of the central tenets of Victorian historiography, and this paper will demonstrate both the extent of their radicalism and its limitations.
Camilla Cassidy (St. Hilda’s College, Oxford): “Writing Home: Nostalgic Memory and mid-Victorian Historical Fiction
It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then! (William Makepeace Thackeray, ‘De Juventute’, 1863)
This paper considers nostalgic memory as a means by which mid-Victorian historical novelists endeavoured to reconnect with a past which had, as a consequence of rapid social and cultural transformation, come to be seen as emotionally and empirically inaccessible. I will develop Svetlana Boym’s idea of nostalgia as a “historical emotion” and draw examples for close reading from Barnaby Rudge (1841) and Adam Bede (1859) – each of which engages with historical themes on the cusp of living memory by adopting Walter Scott’s influential “’tis sixty years since” retrospect – in order to explore ideas of historical dislocation and concomitant feelings of loss in mid-Victorian historical fiction.
I will consider these novels in the context of the “whiggish” historiographical discussion which proliferated in the period and suggest that the implementation of a nostalgic idiom produced a corrective counter current to a prevailing historical narrative of confident progressivism, exemplified in the writings of T.B. Macaulay and Henry Buckle.
In The Mill on the Floss (1860), Eliot explains her use of personal recollection within fictional evocations of bygone eras, suggesting that nostalgic memory can constitute “the mother tongue of our imagination”. In these novels, nostalgic memory supplies an idiom through which to engage with the historical past and contributes an emotional timbre to historical fiction during a period which, as Richard Terdiman has suggested, suffered a historically dislocating “memory crisis”. An awareness of this crisis, I will suggest, generated a proliferation of historical fiction and prompted a desire for reconnection with the historical past. Nostalgia, I will argue, provided a literary language in which to discuss perceived losses of historical continuity.
Maria Dorn (University of Hamburg): “The Crisis of Time: Time-Gendering in Victorian England”
The Victorian period is famous for its radical uprooting of the traditional perception of time. The unprecedented speed of change in all areas of life made time the defining variable of existence; it became palpable, measurable, costly. However, what has largely escaped critical attention so far is the fact that far from being non-gender specific the Victorian concept of time was effectively tied to the cultural representations of gender. Stephen Jay Gould argued that since the beginning of human thought the conception of time was structured around a simple dichotomy of history as a linear sequence of individual events, and history, as a set of fundamental states which are immanent in time, always present and never changing, where time has no direction and apparent changes are parts of repeating cycles.
In this paper I will argue that it was in the Victorian time when linearity became associated with masculinity, whereas circularity came to be seen as defining the feminine existence. The predicament of women’s sociological, economic and political position was thus reflected in their being trapped within the pseudo-essentiality of their circular life trajectory. Whereas the ‘new time’ of the industrial nation was firmly associated with masculine experience, women were largely excluded from this temporal paradigm. The crisis of time was increasingly relevant only to one half of the nation, the other being relegated to the supra-historical domain of the biological stasis. This gendering of time proved to be curiously persistent, so that Julia Kristeva makes an identical distinction between women’s and men’ s time, though re-evaluating the circular, or in her words ‘monumental’ time, which is superior to the linear or masculine type of ruptures, departures and losses.
10:50 – 11:50
Keynote I (Outer Library)
Chair: Rebecca Welshman
“Crisis” (Professor Philip Davis, University of Liverpool)
11:55 – 12:45
Panel III (Outer Library): Booms, Busts and Crashes
Chair: Elizabeth Micaković
Esther Fernandez-Llorente (Southampton University): “‘A Somewhat Singular Hell’: Women and the Crisis of Bankruptcy in Victorian Novels”
Thomas Carlyle presented the ‘singular Hell’ of Victorian England as ‘the terror of “not succeeding”, of not making money’ in Past and Present which suggests that bankruptcy was one of the most potent of Victorian crises in an age that venerated success and dreaded failure. This paper will explore some of the ways in which Victorian novels represented this crisis, focusing on George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester and the way in which they use the loss of possessions and the reactions of the female characters as defining moments in describing the crisis of bankruptcy.
The dreaded inversion of the domestic sphere in which one’s possessions were sold off in public, is much dwelt on by Victorian novelists, whose experiences frequently left them well placed to write realistically about the subject. The literal and metaphorical threat that bankruptcy presents to that cherished institution, the home, can produce not only an economic crisis and social shame but also a crisis in gender relations. The moral, physical and psychological ruin of men, particularly married men, through bankruptcy is a persistent trope in Victorian novels. It is frequently the decisions of the female characters during this domestic and economic crisis that drive the novel’s plot forward.
For women, bankruptcy is often portrayed as a moment of decision, even empowerment. It is the point when a woman’s common sense and her moral sense come under the scrutiny of the wider world of the novel and of the reader. While bankruptcy is almost always a failure for male characters, for women it is a much more ambivalent experience.
Saskia Pieterse (University of Utrecht): “Domesticated Capitalism: The Dutch Cure”
In 1861, J.W. Money published his Java: or, How to manage a colony. Showing a practical solution of the questions now affecting British India, in which he presented (in what he perceived as) the simple but effective economic principles of the ‘culture system’ in the Dutch Indies as a cure for the contemporary crisis in British India. He praised the Dutch for their realistic and pragmatical approach. Moreover, he especially praised them for their insight in the ‘popular household institutions of the Javanese’.
In my paper, I will place Moneys view on this ‘Dutch approach’ in a longer tradition of (literary and non-literary) representations of Dutch economic behaviour, starting as early as Defoe’s Roxana. I will demonstrate that time and again, the Dutch are depicted as being ‘realistic’, which means they are depicted as having the ability to keep economic and financial structures within the framework of old-fashioned household principles, to control the speculative or even destructive aspects of capitalism, to ‘domesticate’ it, so to say. In this discourse, the ‘domesticated capitalism’ of the Dutch is then contrasted with the English branch of capitalism, which is depicted as being a force that rapidly and ruthlessly changes the Victorian world, threatening to undermine the traditional domestic structures.
In my analysis of this discursive construction of national differences in economic behaviour, I will combine insights from the comparative approach Imagology and the new economic criticism.
11:55 – 12:45
Panel IV (Upper Reading Room): Crime and Detection
Chair: Christina Lake
Jennifer Nicholson (Royal Holloway, University of London): “‘I can hardly imagine anything more strange, more utterly inexplicable, than the situation in which I find myself’: Sherlock Holmes and the Search for Understanding in a Strange New Nineteenth-Century”
When Sherlock Holmes first appeared in the Strand Magazine in the 1890s, he captured the public’s imagination and his popularity has endured ever since. In this paper I will explore how much of Holmes’s appeal in the late nineteenth-century derived from his function as a figure of reassurance, which resonated strongly with the nineteenth-century reader’s desire to find order and meaning in a modern society which appeared increasingly chaotic, unintelligible and frightening. From the realist novel to the sensation novel, fiction of the nineteenth-century frequently sought to provide the reader with the assurance that the world in which they lived, and their existence within it, was both comprehensible and meaningful. Crime fiction in particular reveals this aim most fully, for crime is something which threatens the order of society and so too the value-system the reader subscribes to: a value system which enables them to interpret and make sense of an otherwise confusing reality. This paper will examine how in a rapidly changing, increasingly secular society, which had to face the implications of technological, scientific and industrial advancement, the Sherlock Holmes stories promised readers it was ultimately possible to grasp the meaning of their ‘strange new today’. Finally, my paper will ask whether the continuing popularity of film and television adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories - in particular the recent Sherlock– is an indication that the figure of Holmes remains significant to our current attempts at understanding ‘the meaning of our strange new today’.
Joanna Wargen (University of Westminster): “‘I start my work without theory of any sort – in fact, I may say, with my mind a perfect blank’: Loveday Brooke, Female Detective and Antidote to Police Impotency at the Fin de Siècle’”
During the 1870s and 1880s crime created a crisis in public confidence in the reliability of Scotland Yard. Significantly, the 1877 Turf Fraud Scandal caused reorganisation at the Yard, and the Jack the Ripper murders beginning in 1888, caused a shift in the public’s faith in the police to protect society from criminality. At the fin de siècle significant developments in detective writing emerged with the creation of the most notable detective, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but also the creation of the female detective. Although limited examples of female detectives can be found earlier in the century, they are typically male authored and exhibit amateur sleuth characteristics. In 1893 C.L Pirkis created one of the first representations of the professional female private detective in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective. This paper will explore how Pirkis produces an antidote to the failures of the police force by constructing a woman that transgresses gender expectations and offers an alternative mode of investigation. Other critical studies have focussed on the relationship between the introduction of detectives to Scotland Yard in 1842 and their representation in fiction. This paper will locate the introduction of the professional female private detective at the fin de siècle, and will examine Loveday’s rejection of intuitive methods of crime solving typically associated with fictional female amateur detectives of the epoch; and simultaneously considers her mode of detection in juxtaposition with her police counterparts in the Loveday Brooke stories which creates a successful alternative to crime solving.
12:45 – 13:05
Introduction to the Devon and Exeter Institution
By Roger Brien, Chief Library Officer (Outer Library)
13:05 – 13:45
Networking lunch in the Devon and Exeter Institution
(Cost included in registration fee)
13:45 – 14:45
Keynote II (Outer Library)
Chair: Jude Piesse
“Today’s Crisis in British Universities in Historico-Philosophical Perspective”
(Professor Regenia Gagnier, University of Exeter)
14:50 – 15:50
Plenary (Outer Library)
Chair: Rebecca Welshman
“The Reader Cure” (led by Jane Davis and Josie Billington, The Reader Organisation)
15:50 – 16:05
Tea & coffee
16:10 – 17:30
Panel V (Outer Library): Public Performance
Chair: Hannah Lewis-Bill
Gabriel Schenk (Pembroke College, Oxford): “The Eglinton Tournament and the Propagation of Chivalry”
In 1839 the Earl of Eglinton hosted a medieval-style jousting tournament in Ayrshire, Scotland. It cost an estimated £40,000 and involved up to 100,000 spectators, most of whom attended in medieval costume. This paper describes the Eglinton Tournament as both a response to a crisis and a crisis itself. The crisis it responded to was dissatisfaction with the present age, which the tournament attempted to combat with ‘the sight of a real tournament’, which commentators claimed had reversed time from ‘utilitarian dullness’ to ‘the age of chivalry’. The tournament also responded to Chartist riots and radicalism, by limiting the main participants of the event to Conservatives.
The illusion of living in a past age of chivalry was destroyed by torrential rain: as one journalist complained, ‘there is nothing chivalrous about an umbrella!’ The tournament has subsequently been considered a crisis-point for Victorian attempts to recreate the past. However, this paper suggests that the tournament, or rather the literature spawned from the tournament, achieved the Earl’s desire to revive an ‘age of chivalry’; not by reversing time, but simply by repeatedly using the word ‘chivalry’. The more chivalry was referred to, the more established it became as a present construct, as well as, ostensibly, an institution from the past that was being revived. The reaction to Eglinton translated ‘chivalry’ further from its original equine meaning, broadcasting it as a literary phenomenon that granted Victorians a therapeutic link with the past.
Jacqueline Dillion (University of St Andrews): “‘A Very Discreditable State of Things in the Village’: The Victorian Skimmington Ride in Crisis”
The traditional English skimmington ride, perhaps best illustrated in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge had begun to wane in popularity by the early nineteenth century. Though skimmington rides continued intermittently in the West of England, many sources begin to express concern over the effect of skimmington riding on their rural communities. One official in Okeford Fitzpaine, Dorset assesses a recently staged skimmington as indicating “a very discreditable state of things in the village.” Other Victorian accounts express a similar sense of crisis.
Even while these rural middle-class anxieties persist, antiquarians throughout the country lament the passing of the skimmington. As early as 1822, Sir Walter Scott declares the skimmington “long discontinued in England”, and later antiquarians regard it as a “now obsolete custom.” Hardy bridges this gap, making important substantive revisions to his portrayals of the skimmington rides in the Mayor of Casterbridge and in various versions of his first published poem, “The Fire at Tranter Sweatley’s”, effectively mediating how his largely urban readership understand the skimmington ride.
This paper explores these changing perceptions of the skimmington ride in the nineteenth century, and the growing sense of crisis arising from tensions between skimmington ride participants, anxious middle-class moralists, and antiquarians who believe the skimmington ride to be extinct, unaware of its adaptation and survival into the twentieth century. These underlying tensions inform Hardy’s texts, which will be considered in this cultural context.
Peter Garratt (Northumbria University): “Riotous Assemblies: Dickens, Ruskin and the Listening Public”
When Dickens’s readers assembled in their thousands to attend his famed public readings in the 1850s and 60s, they were promised not only a direct encounter with the author’s voice shaped by the liveness of performance (a connection seemingly ended by mass print culture and the privatising of reading practices). Audiences also experienced a fundamental shift in their own receptive state: instead of being readers, they became listeners. This paper examines these two different forms of enthrallment by addressing them as mental states elicited by the visual and aural senses respectively, and by asking how they were framed by Victorian psychological theory. For Ruskin, Dickens’s public readings were liable to arouse feeling more readily than mere silent reading; the close proximity of ‘readers’ to one another and the apparently less cerebral activity of listening both encouraged surging collective responses to passages of text. Yet, if reading as a performance was an attempt to harness the potentially unruly power of the physical audience (for Ruskin, ‘the mob’), what did this say about the nature of feeling associated with a more detached, inward appreciation of fiction? In a new era of mass literacy, and an increasingly print-saturated culture, what function was served by Victorian novelists performing fiction publicly and in direct physical proximity to their readers? Midcentury audiences flocked to such solo recitals to witness staged emotion – both of Dickens as performer, and of their own readerly excitability. Like a mass acted performance, the occasion licensed readers to observe themselves in the act of reception: rather than being understood in terms of enacted authenticity, or resurgent orality (as has been claimed by critics such as Ivan Kreilkamp), the function of Dickens’s audiences might better be seen as rehearsing textual affectivity in a way made yet more intense by its transmission through voice and hearing. In sharing the labour of reception in this way, the storyworld of Dickens’s novels could be rendered externally in the medium of common feeling (the ‘melding’ of the audience into a unity is commonly recorded by reviewers of these readings, as Juliet John has noted recently). Ranging over accounts of particular readings, and over responses to the massing of bodies and feeling associated with them, this paper will address the meaning of mid-century fiction in recital and performance, with extended reference to Dickens and Ruskin, to argue that the psycho-physiology of group reception reveals something of the mid-Victorians’ regard for the labour of comprehension through the theatrical staging of readership itself.
16:10 – 17:30
Panel VI (Upper Reading Room): Revolution, Rebellion and Conflict
Chair: Demelza Hookway
Sally Dugan (Birkbeck, University of London): “Mrs Gaskell, ‘My Lady Ludlow’ (1858): The guillotine viewed from the sofa, or fictions of the French Revolution as therapy”
It is well over half a century since the end of World War Two, yet its stories remain prominent among those the British nation tells itself. Primary School children dress up as evacuees. Older children pay real or virtual visits to concentration camps and learn a version of the holocaust that fetishizes objects: gold teeth, abandoned shoes and suitcases.
The Victorian equivalent of the gas chamber was the guillotine, a model of which formed the theatrical centre of the room at Madame Tussaud’s which Punch dubbed ‘The Chamber of Horrors’ in 1846. Visitors could feast their eyes on the crazed Bastille prisoner in his cell, complete with rats and half chewed crusts of bread.
Dickens recognised the cultural currency of the French Revolution when he used A Tale of Two Cities to launch his new weekly, All the Year Round, on 30 April 1859. Mrs Gaskell’s ‘My Lady Ludlow’ – like Dickens’s Tale – carried a clear warning to the British aristocracy: take action if you want to make sure revolution doesn’t happen in Britain. However, the paratext and framing narrative – complicated further by BBC ‘heritage’ Gaskell adaptations – has meant that the political message is easily overlooked.
By examining the way Victorian readers used fictions about the French Revolution to reassure themselves in a time of huge political and social upheaval, we can learn important lessons. The past is not simply a horror show, nor should it be the site of misplaced nostalgia.
Rita Singer (University of Leipzig): “Rebellious Children of Wales: Amy Dillwyn and the Sons and Daughters of Rebecca”
Between the years 1839 and 1843, South Wales witnessed a number of curious nocturnal events as
Welshmen with blackened faces and clad in women's clothes, calling themselves the Daughters of
Rebecca, frequently set fire to the toll-gates that littered the roads in the countryside. Although the
Rebecca Riots did not immediately return improved conditions for the local farmers, they were,
nevertheless, a strong attack on a system of unfair taxation and absentee landlordism by a politically
unrepresented peasant class. Amy Dillwyn's novel The Rebecca Rioter: A Story of Killay Life (1880)
approaches this critical moment in Victorian history by illustrating the origin of domestic
insurgencies. Inspired by her father's detailed eyewitness account of an attack on the Pontarddulais
turnpike on 10 September 1843, Dillwyn presents her readers with a re-examination of recent
history from below for the protagonist is a participant in the riots. Thereby, Dillwyn challenges
contemporary historiography that repeatedly presents the Welsh as a hoard of Celts on the verge of
anarchy without glossing over the criminal nature of Rebecca. The historical novel portrays
impoverished Welsh village life not as the result of racial degeneration but, instead, from
Anglocentric economic policies that threaten to destabilize the coherence of Britain as a Union of
Nations. I want to argue that the social criticism of the novel serves as a contemporary warning
about the fragility of the British Empire because the mechanism between disinterested politics and
domestic insurrections are easily transferred to a global level.
Amber Theresa Pouliot (University of Leeds): “‘I wasn’t alive in those days, but I have a very strong sense of them’: The Nature of the Neo-Victorian Return in Brontë Fictional Biography of the Interwar Period”
The period between the First and the Second World Wars saw the publication, in England and the US, of at least thirteen plays, novels, short stories, and poems portraying the lives of the Brontës. These fictional biographies are among the earliest works of neo-Victorian fiction, and, given the fact that they continue to be written today, with the 2010 publications of Juliet Gael’s Romancing Miss Brontë, Jude Morgan’s Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës and Laura Joh Rowland’s Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë, they constitute one of the genre’s most enduring engagements with the Victorian past. This paper explores the emergence of Brontë fictional biography in particular, and neo-Victorian literature in general, as a response to interwar crises and anxieties, on both sides of the Atlantic, surrounding the issues of national identity, economic recession, the perceived displacement of male heads of household and disintegration of the ‘traditional’ family structure, and the relationships between heredity, madness and creativity. It analyses the ways in which these crises have been articulated in interwar Brontë fictional biography, and it queries to what extent these earliest works of neo-Victorianism are expressions of the nostalgic desire to escape from crisis by returning to a pre-war, prelapsarian past or attempts to confront contemporary crisis by transposing it into a past that is shown to be similarly fraught. Through an awareness of the role of crisis in the inception of the neo-Victorian, we gain a better understanding of our enduring fascination with re-imaginings of the Victorian past and of the ways in which they continue to help us navigate our ‘strange new today’.
17:35 – 18:55
Panel VII (Outer Library): Therapeutic Reading and Writing
Chair: Jacqueline Dillion
Christy Ducker (Newcastle University): “Grace Darling to the Rescue! Reading and Writing the Life of a National Heroine”
This paper considers how and why the Victorians elected Grace Darling as an icon. It also looks at how our own ‘strange times’ inform the verse biography I’m writing about her now. Despite Darling’s view of herself as ‘foreigner on the mainland’, she was promoted as national heroine by writers of the period. Little was known of Darling’s own life and writings. Much was projected: a comparative biography reveals Victorian anxieties over religion, national cohesion and gender roles. Darling’s bravery and chastity were exalted: a quasi-religious clamour for relics of her ensued.
I will examine this myth-making with reference to contemporary biography, journalism and poetry. I will also consider the commodification of Darling in the merchandise of the time. I will then address the ways in which I’m re-making the Darling myth in response to our own era. This discussion will begin with reference to my archive work, then centre on ventriloquy and voice: I will touch on modern concerns with hidden histories and the so-called ‘instabililty of the subject’. I will also discuss biographical writing in the context of 21st century nationhood, environmental crisis, and media corruption. I’ll suggest that ‘poetry-biography’ as a genre might offer particular solace to readers.
This presentation will include some of my poems about Darling, along with discussion of their point of view: my aim is to illustrate how writing technique can encourage past and present to negotiate with one another to therapeutic effect.
Demelza Hookway (University of Exeter): “Entering ‘a higher holier atmosphere’: Victorian Experiences of reading John Stuart Mill”
According to Herbert Spencer, Thomas Carlyle ‘grew blindly furious over John Mill’s work On Liberty’. Caroline Fox, who elsewhere in her diaries praises Gaskell’s Mary Barton for its stimulating sympathy and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair for its brilliant insight into human nature, records a very different experience of reading the work of a once close friend: ‘I am reading that terrible book of John Mill’s on Liberty, so clear, and calm, and cold’. Charles Kingsley, however, reportedly sat down in a bookshop and read On Liberty all the way through. He told Mill that it ‘affected me in making me a clearer-headed, braver man on the spot’. And in a letter of 22 May 1896 Oliver Schreiner wrote: ‘I never read a page of Mill but I seem to enter a higher holier atmosphere, even Plato does not affect me in the same way’. Later in the same letter she writes that ‘Mill’s aid was directly spiritual’ and expresses a desire that future generations continue to read Mill (Schreiner’s emphasis). For some Victorian readers, Mill provoked anger, hostility or incomprehension. For others, his work was a guide to conduct and a means of resolving personal crises – it offered consolation, fortification, clarification or hope. Some readers praised his writing for the exemplary way it related abstract principles to ordinary life, others criticised its unremittingly cold and impersonal style. This paper will draw on excerpts from letters, diaries, biographies and novels to explore different representations of reading Mill.
Mildrid Bjerke (University of York): “Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture Cure’ and the Development of the Literary Study Guide”
The Bible is for the child in an elementary school almost his only contact with poetry and philosophy. What a course of eloquence and poetry (to call it by that name alone) is the Bible in a school which has and can have but little eloquence and poetry! (Matthew Arnold, A Bible Reading for Schools, 1872)
In Victorian England, literary culture was promoted in order to avert the crisis of secularisation. This was due mainly to literature’s universality which was to welcome all classes into its humanising and moralising sphere. Matthew Arnold perceives culture as the antidote to this critical situation in 19th century political life and education. He describes culture as an ‘inward’ condition, independent of institutional machinery. His conception of culture as a general social remedy in this time of disintegration, though extrapolated from the individual experience of culture, seems irreconcilable with it. My paper will examine this apparent paradox in Arnold’s work, which is symptomatic of a difficult relation between literature and institution in the subsequent formation of English literature as a university discipline.
A Bible Reading for Schools was written in order to bring culture to the people of the subsequent generations. Arnold’s ‘culture cure’ itself now comes to a predicament, as culture must express itself through the mediating machinery of schools. Arnold’s Bible Reading will be viewed as a forerunner for the literature study guide of today, an inherently tense form which finds itself in a perpetual dilemma between aesthetics and institutional apparatus.
17:35 – 18:55
Panel VIII (Upper Reading Room): Crisis in Science and Medicine
Chair: Will Abberley
Elizabeth Micaković (University of Exeter): “Electric Cure: Electricity, Medicine and the Silent Treatment”
The Modernist critic Anne Wright once suggested that ‘Crisis is not merely the perception of change. ...Crisis is expressed as the fracturing or dismantling of personal relations, of social institutions, of civilisation. ...Crisis is the distant or imminent threat of cataclysmic disruption of the familiar: total devastation[.]’ Nineteenth-century perceptions of electricity as both a destructive and reconstructive force, were shaped by a growing understanding of this natural energy, its natural origins, and its biological effects and rhythms, and would point to both an anxiety and excitement over a new technological dawn. Whilst enthusiastic efforts were made to harness this force in the domestic sphere, directing it literally into some Victorian homes and workplaces, and thus making the unfamiliar familiar, the medical community sought to exploit the therapeutic potential of electricity: as an antidote to the physical manifestations of mental crisis.
Although medical electricity had been in use since the mid eighteenth-century, the practice flourished in the latter half of the nineteenth century, thanks in part to the promotion by George Beard of its positive effects on neurasthenics. Its use, however, would unwittingly point to a crisis in psychiatric, psychological and neurological circles during this period. Indeed, my paper argues that medical electricity was being used to respond to a growing anxiety about the deceptive patient. The emerging practice of the “talking cure,” in particular, as well as new laws governing workplace compensation, would drastically change the doctor-patient power equilibrium, with electricity being used both to cure hysterical symptoms and to detect malingering or deception. By focussing on one symptom in particular, aphonia, I suggest that electricity would radically disrupt the traditional authority of the Victorian physician, a change that would have far-reaching consequences right into the next century.
Rachel Lynne Wilkerson (Warwick University): “Where Poetry and Science Speak to “Our Strange New Today”
The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins meticulously chronicled the beauty of the natural world, delineating the appealing proportions of a bifurcating tree, torn tufts of clouds, and jagged edges of the Alps. His journal reflects a serious contemplation of the philosophical and mathematical basis for aesthetics. Thirty-five years later, the same strange forms in nature inspired French-American mathematician Benoit B. Mandlebrot to develop the equations to model those compelling dimensions. Mandlebrot’s new geometry of fractals became the language for the modern rendition of the struggle to understand order—chaos theory.
Through their academic work, both Hopkins and Mandelbrot reacted to the scientific culture of the Victorian and modern age, respectively. Hopkins, keenly aware of thermodynamics and the threat of entropy to beauty, strives to develop what he calls a “new affirmation of form” to articulate the complex aesthetics of the natural world. With similar motivation, Mandlebrot develops fractals to better model the intricate realities of nature.
Chaos theory, particularly the compelling aesthetics of fractals, magnifies the importance of mathematical form to a modern audience. What Hopkins identified as the search for form continues today—most visibly as the scientific search to understand the dynamic equations that motivate the emergence of aesthetic forms. Understanding both how Hopkins sought form against the backdrop of Victorian science and how his art presages the advent of a new scientific language of chaos heightens awareness of the perpetual tension between the forces of order and disorder and the interdependence of art and scientific quests.
Christina Lake (University of Exeter): “Darwin Among the Utopians: The Evolution of The Coming Race”
When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 he was not just challenging accepted ideas about religion and science, but was changing the way evolution was conceived and represented by writers of fiction and social theory. The argument of The Origin was perceived as being about the survival of the fittest, with fitness being equated with strength, and natural selection acting as nature’s endorsement of this process. This reductive message was far from the representing the subtlety of Darwin’s theory, but had a deep impact on the utopian fiction of the late Victorian era, contributing to a number of ambiguous utopias which far from portraying a perfect society, wrestled with the consequences of humanity’s reduced role in evolution, and the lack of certainty over progress. For example, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is a satire on Victorian England where humans are afraid of being superseded by machines; Richard Jefferies eliminated most of humanity in After London, while Bulwer-Lytton in The Coming Race and W H Hudson in A Crystal Age imagine the human race developing into superior but soulless beings. In this paper I will argue that the crisis in utopian thinking provoked by Origin of Species in the 1870s and 1880s was based round a misinterpretation of Darwin’s work, which would only be resolved by a reimagining of the meaning of evolution in the emphasis on altruism in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling work of utopian fiction Looking Backward (1888).
19:00 – 19:50
Wine reception in the Devon and Exeter Institution
Closing remarks and thanks
Conference dinner (for delegates who have pre-booked)