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BAVS 2013: Numbering Numbers

2013 September 26
by Emma Curry

In a memorable scene from Dickens’s Hard Times, Sissy Jupe recounts to Louisa Gradgrind her failure in her lessons to understand the ‘true’ meaning of numbers. She laments:

‘And [Mr M’Choakumchild] said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was – for I couldn’t think of a better one – that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And that was wrong, too.’[1]

On my way to this year’s BAVS conference at Royal Holloway, I realised that up until this point I’d always been something of a Sissy regarding nineteenth-century mathematics (!). In Dickens’s ‘fact’ vs. ‘fancy’ stakes, I was pretty firmly on Sissy’s side, in which her ‘failure’ in maths is actually a triumph of feeling, a kind of emotional intelligence that triumphs over the fact-based approach of the Gradgrindian School. However, as the recent conversations between scientific discourse and the humanities have shown, such arbitrary oppositions between the two can be misleading.  In the work of pioneers such as Gillian Beer, the dialogue between fields in the nineteenth century has been proven to be much more generous and reflexive than was previously assumed, with mutual borrowing and sharing of ideas across disciplines. Whilst, in recent years, nineteenth-century scientific and medical discourses have been firmly brought into conversation with the humanities, however, up until now mathematics has had something of a lower profile. This year’s BAVS conference served to remedy that, however, with a truly fascinating selection of keynotes and panels that proved just how inspiring and stimulating a subject nineteenth-century numbers can be.

The opening plenary from Mary Poovey (‘Nineteenth-Century Numbers Three Ways’) brilliantly opened up the topic by considering three varying perspectives on the Victorian numerical. One of the most fascinating aspects of this discussion was the contrast in form Poovey uncovered between creative and mathematical literature during this period: whilst novels became longer, spiralling outwards into the heft of the infamous triple-decker, by contrast, the key to much mathematical discourse of the period was brevity, and ever shorter methods of conveying the same information. It was a particularly rich and intriguing concept, and one which subsequent panellists frequently returned to in relation to their own papers.

Following this first keynote, I attended two excellent panels which took very different approaches to the numerical theme. In the first, the multiplicity of bodily form was considered, as Jay Parker (Leeds) considered individuality versus patriarchy in Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’, Peter Garratt (Durham) contrasted the abstract and material qualities of numbers (and brilliantly pointed out the importance of the fingers in initial counting operations), and Sophie Gilmartin (Royal Holloway) considered the curious significance of the sight and sound of single and multiple footsteps in Victorian art and literature. The second session’s theme was ‘Year Studies’, and all three panellists (Rosemary Ashton, Nick Freeman, and Gail Marshall) spoke fascinatingly about the rewards and perils of such a systematic approach to the period, discussing the wealth and breadth of material uncovered and their uncertainties about whether such detail moved their studies beyond the bounds of the ‘ordinary’ Victorian’s experience. It was wonderful to hear here about aspects of Victorian life not often touched upon, from Marshall’s work on food to Freeman’s discussion of sport.

The afternoon panels were followed by a professionalization workshop, which provided postgraduates and early-career researchers with some really reassuring and practical advice on navigating the numerical nightmares of the current Victorianist job market, and the day closed with Jess Hindes and Helen Goodman’s truly fantastic nineteenth-century pub quiz (and I’m not just saying that because our team won!).

Alice Jenkins (Glasgow) brilliantly kicked off the second day with a fascinating and very funny plenary lecture, which looked at the significance of mathematics as a kind of mediating discipline between literature and science during the period. Her focus on numbers in the context of serial publication (in terms of parts and pages) was a particularly rich concept, and one which again was referred to in many of the subsequent panel discussions. On this second day I (rather unimaginatively, I’m afraid) attended almost exclusively Dickens-focused panels, which suggested the productivity and significance of this theme to an understanding of his work in particular. Highlights included Gowan Dawson (Leicester) brilliantly uncovering the concept of design in relation to the narrative construction of Our Mutual Friend (via dinosaurs, bodies, and bones), Michaela Mahlberg (Nottingham) exploring the productive possibilities of corpus stylistics in uncovering patterns in Dickens’s prose, and Pete Orford (Buckingham) taking us through the multiple John Jaspers created by popular continuations of Dickens’s famously unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. The second day came to a close with Theodore Porter’s (UCLA) excellent discussion of the emergence of eugenics in relation to record-keeping within the Victorian asylum, and was followed by a tour of Royal Holloway’s richly-stocked art gallery.

After a brilliant morning discussing the challenges and delights of serial-fiction reading, and the quantification of bodies and things, Michael Hatt (Warwick) brought the final day of the conference to a close with an excellent plenary entitled ‘The Way We Sculpt Now’. The lecture considered the commercial nature of sculpture during the period – the idea both that money made sculpture, and that sculpture made money, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience looking for a coin in my pocket as he touched upon the tactile pleasures of literally ‘sculpted’ currency. Hatt’s paper was an excellent way of bringing together a really rich and productive conference, which uncovered the significance of numbers in various forms to the ways in which we conceptualize the nineteenth century, and opened up some new and fascinating dialogues between disciplines. Congratulations to Ruth Livesey and the organising team at Royal Holloway, and I look forward to seeing everyone again next year at Kent!


[1] Charles Dickens, Hard Times, ed. by Paul Schlicke (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 59.

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