‘Taking Liberties’ Conference Report

 by Harriet Briggs and Hellen Giblin-Jowett, Newcastle University

On the 15th and 16th of June 2012, delegates gathered for an international and multidisciplinary conference at Newcastle University: ‘Taking Liberties: Sex, Pleasure, Coercion (1748-1928)’. As promised by its emphasis on pleasure and liberation, together with the more troubling matter of coercion, the conference proved entertaining, stimulating, but throughout deeply thought-provoking, posing challenging questions and demanding considerable intellectual energy! Not less difficult were the choices to be made about which panels to attend, since the programme offered such a fantastic range of intriguing papers.  This report will therefore have to omit many scintillating papers that caused a deal of fervent discussion over the coffee breaks.

Day One

The day began with a keynote by Joseph Bristow (UCLA) whose paper on ‘Oscar Wilde’s Sexual Practices’ offered an insight into the intricacies and inconsistencies surrounding narratives of the Wilde trials of 1895.  The discussion centred on the court-transcribed descriptions of evidence brought before the Old Bailey in which a housekeeper’s two-year old memories and the testimony of a pair of convicted blackmailers had been crucially deployed at first by the Defence and subsequently by the Prosecution.  Bristow explained how the critics who had based their reading of the trial upon press records had erroneously conflated the frequent and explicit naming of sexual behaviours in the courtroom itself with the coyness imposed by press censorship.  Explanations by Foucault and Weeks of cultural adoptions of the new ‘homosexual identity’ in the 1890s must therefore be read with a degree of caution.  Correspondingly, the controversial article ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’, by Arthur Symons for Harper’s Magazine in November 1893, had become enmeshed with reporting of the Wilde trials, providing a literary language for newspaper reportage of ‘unsavoury’ Wildean activities. 

Liberty, Obscenity and Censorship

This panel revived many of the topics addressed earlier, bringing trials, taboo, legality, indecency and the problem of nebulous definitions back to the debating table. First, Andrew Frayn (Manchester) explored the post-WW1 publishing climate in ‘“Muck Off!”: Expurgation, Obscenity and Sexuality in Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero’. Frayn examined the novel’s anxious attitude towards homosexuality, the repressive legacy of the ‘cant of Victorian morality’, and Aldington’s evasion of censorship via a provocative use of expurgation. Next, Danielle McDonnell (Northumbria) took us right back to the beginning of the long nineteenth century, in ‘A Libertine’s Fight for Liberty: Examining the Impact of “England’s Dirtiest Poem” upon Eighteenth-Century Law and Concepts of Liberty’. This paper addressed the relationship between liberty, censorship, sex and power through analysis of John Wilkes’s 1764 trial (which, like Wilde’s, may have damaged Wilkes but posed embarrassing difficulties for his prosecutors in the process). McDonnell engagingly combined details of the trial (and the significance of Wilkes’s decision to sue the government for their breach of his privacy) with insightful analysis of his offending poem in North Briton, No.45. Finally Natalie Prior (Southampton) considered the ‘can of worms’ opened by the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, in ‘Defining Obscenity: The Problem with Prosecuting Literature in the mid-Nineteenth Century’. Prior showed how the government’s reluctance to specify what constituted ‘obscene’ literature resulted in a lack of guidelines, hampering their ability to prosecute.

Technologies of Touch

This panel brought together Hal Gladfelder (Manchester), Erika Kvistad (York), and Allison Neal (Hull). Spanning the long century and ranging from the outrageously pornographic to the respectable Victorian novel, the papers shared a common concern with shifting perspectives, the erotic imagination, touch, and the dissolving of boundaries. Gladfelder’s paper on ‘Machines in Love: Cleland, Sade, and L’Homme Machine’ considered the role of mechanical imagery in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and the novel’s understanding that desire unsexes the body, allowing male to dissolve into female and vice versa. In ‘Things as Sex Toys in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette’, Kvistad engaged eloquently and persuasively with thing theory, collapsing the distinction between the thing imagined as material and the thing imagined as metaphorical, and asking us to recognise the role of objects in Villette in mediating and making possible intimate contact between people. Neal returned to the crossing and re-crossing of gender boundaries, and the entry of the machine into the sexual imagination, with ‘“He exists, my friend, and he is not even a hermaphrodite”: Monsieur Venus, the Model Male and the Male Model’. This was an entertaining paper which addressed the relationship between penetration and power, the inadequacy of language, and (in common with the other papers) the unstable division between the organic and the material.

The day concluded with a keynote address from Newcastle’s Helen Berry, speaking on ‘Sex, Marriage, and the Castrato’. This was a compelling address – despite a midway interruption as the Olympic Flame noisily passed by the window! The central focus was on the hotly contested marriage of Giusto Fernando Tenducci (a renowned opera singer, and castrato) to Dorothea Maunsell. Through analysis of the twists and turns of the Tenduccis’ married life, Berry considered the performative nature of the act of marriage, the cultural inscribing of gender norms, the ambivalent status and reputation of castrati in Georgian culture, and the debates they invited (such as: what would happen if sex without reproductive consequences were made possible for women?). Gaining widespread social acceptance as a married couple, yet easily obtaining annulment when the marriage broke down, the history of the Tenduccis highlights the elasticity of the institution of marriage, and the loopholes and inconsistencies of the law. Berry also emphasised Dorothea’s extraordinary success in self-determining her marital status and exercising freedom of choice, exploiting and exposing cultural attitudes, escaping from patriarchal control and negotiating her way through a series of marriages. Most persuasively, Berry insisted that the insights of queer theory can be usefully taken up by historians, and brought to our attention the direct political implications for current debates – the resonance of the issues raised by the Tenducci case with contemporary arguments about the validity of same-sex marriages.

Day Two

Saturday began on a philosophical note, with Richard C. Sha’s enthralling keynote address on ‘Romanticism and the Paradoxes of Free Love’. Engaging with the writings of Hegel, Rousseau and Goethe, Sha (American University) argued that the discourse of Romantic free love is self-consciously paradoxical. This was a paper which rigorously interrogated the notion of ‘free love’ and the chain of ideas in play in the Romantic era, requiring us to reconsider the relationship between pleasure and power, the difference between feeling and being free, the tyrannical nature of love, and the concept that ‘savage’ love is more truly free than ‘civilized’ love, due to the restraints imposed on desire by society. Sha’s fluent exploration of these themes provided much food for thought, and set up debates that would continue throughout the day about love, liberty and equality.

Pleasure, Indecency and Performance

Sophie Duncan (Oxford), Sos Eltis (Oxford) and Matthew Bradley (Liverpool), offered case studies of sexual and aesthetic performativity in the decadent mode. Duncan’s paper, ‘“How Bravely Thou Becomest Thy Bed, Fresh Lily”: Shakespeare and Vampires at the Fin de Siècle, interrogated the recumbent figure of Ellen Terry as Imogen in Cymbeline and showed how Bram Stoker’s Dracula was influenced by the pervasive late-Victorian motif of sleeping women. Eltis’s paper ‘Staging the Unspeakable: Evading the Censor in mid-Victorian Theatre’ explained the long and subversive performance history of La Dame Aux Camélias while Bradley’s paper ‘Perverting the Perverse: Eric Count Stenbock and the Limits of Acceptable Decadence’ exposed the parameters of hyper-constructivist attitudes to sexualities within the decadent movement.

 Queer Spaces

This panel explored some examples of iconic loci for political and sexual challenge.  The first paper from Katherine Cockin (Hull) considered the play Macrena and its consolidation of existing ideas about the role of ‘modern’ drama in ‘The Pioneer Players (1911-1925), Perplexity and the Play of Ideas.’ Next, Rohan McWilliam (Anglia Ruskin) presented the history of a pleasure district in ‘Victorian Night Life and the West End of London: The Haymarket Saturnalia’, engaging with the surrounding ‘night houses’ and the sexual encounters that the area afforded.  Angus Whitehead (National Institute of Education, Singapore) satisfyingly addressed context for the ‘uniquely sustained, explicit, positive account of homosexuality at an English school’ in his paper ‘“You Evidently Know Something”: Schoolboy Sex and Privileged Disclosure in The Memoirs of a Voluptuary: The Secret Life of an English Boarding School.  

To conclude this lively and provocative conference, Cora Kaplan (QMUL) offered a historically contextualized reading of Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s poem ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ that tracked its correlation of masculine and maternal violence.  Pointing out that explicit infanticide in the text functions as a displacement of the central rape that is figured as both the symbol and the product of slavery, Kaplan insisted that rage in ‘Runaway Slave’ is always prophetic and political, never just personal. Further, she discussed the connection of Barrett Browning’s own plantation-owning family to the slave trade, and the much greater license afforded to Victorian women poets to write of sexuality than that afforded to women writers of prose. Bringing out several of the themes that emerged from panels over the previous two days, Kaplan’s generous and wide-ranging paper considered many aspects of current scholarship into pleasure, coercion, liberty and equality and prompted eager questions from delegates who wanted to know when they could read her forthcoming book!

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