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The Victorian Tactile Imagination: Reappraising touch in nineteenth-century culture

2013 September 10

The Victorian Tactile Imagination, Birkbeck College, London 19-20 July 2013

THE VICTORIAN TACTILE IMAGINATION: Reappraising touch in the nineteenth-century culture

Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, Birkbeck, London

19-20 July, 2013

It is always exciting when you feel part of something big, and when Professor David Howes (Concordia University) asserts that there are some ‘stirrings’ in the academy then you know it’s special. Many claims are made for the impact of a conference’s scope, and they do establish new ideas and contribute to the wider scholarship as well as create new networks of scholars. Thanks to Heather Tilley (Newcastle University) and the great arrangement and organization of the proceedings at Birkbeck just such a landmark conference has taken place.

Professor Howes made this comment during his introduction to Dr Constance Classen’s paper on “Victorian Intimacies: Love, Death, and the British Museum”. Classen’s book The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch (University of Illinois Press, 2012) played a huge part in the formulation of the conference.  The sensory world, as highlighted by Classen and others at the conference, is one in which trends and phases occur in cultural terms. It is the world of perception and communication, and the nineteenth century world produced an extraordinary flowering of opportunities for touch.

Mass-production, the growth of national schooling, the opening of public museums and galleries; all of these features promoted the movement from show and gaze to tactility and haptic culture. Pamela K. Gilbert, in her paper titled ‘The Human Touch: the hand as instrument of the human”, remarked upon this transition across the century and the notion of the ‘controlling touch’ and the ‘will through the hands’ actions’. Many other speakers were to note this element of control and will also. More opportunities arose for personal contact in the Victorian period. Public spaces, transport, and the establishment of new institutions meant there was a breakdown of former boundaries and a necessity to establish new regulations and protocols for touch.

Of the many panels that examined touch in its different forms, ‘The Medical Touch’ with Sarah L. Berry, Holly Furneaux, and Louise Hide, covered the new politics of tactile culture born of the necessity for navigating the branches of medicine developed in the century. Sculptural touch, including ‘Pygmalionism’ or ‘statue-love’, was explored by Vicky Greenaway, Rebecca Kummerfield & James Lesh, and Patricia Pulham via the work of Robert Browning and private art collections that were replicated for public spaces.

The first plenary from Professor William Cohen (University of Maryland) traced ‘Tactile Ecology’ in Hardy’s The Woodlanders. He described how the novel ‘offers a world in which trees [‘Arborealities’], in particular, work on – and are in turn worked on by – human objects; a world in which, one might say, the trees are people, and the people are trees.’ Again, we witness this as a movement across boundaries. He examined the robust relationship that characters have with their environment, and how ‘The Woodlanders disperses agency among human and nonhuman elements alike, employing a tactile mode of representation to break down distinctions between them.’

Professor Gillian Beer (Cambridge) also considered boundaries in her plenary lecture at the end of the first day, “Dream Touch”. Her recent work editing Lewis Carroll’s poems (Jabberwocky, Penguin, 2013) and working on his Alice novels, has developed her theories on the Victorians’ perception of the ‘threshold between sleep and waking’, and where writers ‘uncannily (play) across and (confuse) those states.’ She brought in the diversity of Wuthering Heights, In Memoriam, “Goblin Market”, and the Alice novels, along with Hardy’s ‘The Withered Arm’. She considered the boundary in dreams between life and death, and the state of delirium with its ‘claustrophobia’ and ‘concrete tactile experience’. For Beer, Dickens provides one of the most detailed and fruitful sources of such explorations, and he revolutionized the experience of reading as ‘a different form of dreaming’.

The panel on which my paper appeared considered the ‘female’ and the ‘feminine’ touch. My work, which appears on my research blog, (‘Titillation and Tactility in the Tally-Ho letter from the private correspondence of Mary Braddon’) sat alongside the culture of needlework in the form of Tara Puri’s (Warwick) paper ‘Tactile pleasures: needlework in Victorian women’s magazines’; and Molly Livingstone (Georgia State) discussing “The caresses and the kisses of friendship’: Affectionate Touch and Femininity”. The subtle, delicate, and permitted culture of touch was contrasted with the aggressive, coercive, or eroticized touch in many forms across different panels.

Mountaineering, gesture, horticulture, the gloved hand, the naked/semi-naked touch, ‘finger-reading’, photography, artifacts, and portraiture were amongst the many topics covered. The expansion of sensory concerns and preoccupation with tactile opportunities in the nineteenth-century were neatly illustrated in Pamela K. Gilbert’s assessment of the vocabulary of touch. She has found that a count of the words such as ‘hand’ and ‘touch’ numbers in the hundreds in Victorian novels, compared to merely dozens in the average eighteenth-century novel.

To conclude the proceedings, Hilary Fraser (Birkbeck) presented on the ‘discourse of tactility’ in her plenary paper “The Language of Touch in Victorian Art Criticism”. She argued that, thanks to the influence of Bernard Berenson, and the psychologist William James, the language of art criticism ‘entwined’ the concepts of vision and touch. It also emerged as an articulation of desire, attraction, and the visual made tangible.

The pace of change in the nineteenth century meant the emergence of new forms of expression and articulation. New protocols of behaviour and meaning, and sub-cultures of social and leisure practices appeared. Display and show, as Classen emphasized, gave way to touch. The current preoccupation with image becoming object, contemporary material culture’s digital into real world concerns, reflect the speed of this previous cultural change. The re-acquisition of tactile culture into the material, historic, and literary domain – away from the psychological – is a feature of current scholarship. As David Howes stated, these ‘stirrings’ are significant and indicate an exciting phase of reappraisal, encountering as we regularly do the ‘sensory impacts through reading’ (Beer), of the nineteenth-century experience.

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