‘Rethinking the Nineteenth Century’ Conference Report

By Kirsten Harris, University of Nottingham

Image Collage from 'Rethinking the Nineteenth Century'
Image Collage from 'Rethinking the Nineteenth Century'

The University of Sheffield’s one day conference ‘Rethinking the Nineteenth Century’, held on 24th August, centred on the timely question ‘what constitutes nineteenth century studies today?’.  This stimulated a thought-provoking and broad set of responses, with some papers offering rethinkings of specific texts, ideas or historical assumptions while others focused on considerations of the changing field itself.

The day began with Mark Llewellyn’s interrogation of contemporary engagement with Victorian culture in his keynote paper, ‘On Reciprocity, Trust and the Gift; or, Re-thinging the Nineteenth Century’.  His wide-ranging discussion, which encompassed both nineteenth-century studies and neo-Victorianism, focused on the use of materialism in renegotiations of our relationship with the Victorian past which, Llewellyn argued, has become particularly prevalent and pressing since the recent financial crisis.  Asking the question ‘in an age of austerity where is culture to be found?’, Llewellyn used the three interconnected key words of his title to explore how a contemporary aesthetics of austerity draws on the past.  Making reference to the use of objects such as nineteenth-century buildings, Gladstone’s box, bank notes and even a mechanical swan, as well as changing conceptualisations of heritage, and neo-Victorian texts, Llewellyn examined how contemporary culture responds to projected Victorian values.  By rethinking and rethinging themselves, he proposed, the Victorians premeditated their own critique by generating a concept of heritage which we in the twenty-first century cannot escape from.

In the first panel on ‘Poetry, Culture and Criticism’ Benjamin Perkins focused on Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, arguing that to regard it as a poem of spiritual doubt is problematic.  Rather, a new kind of faith is developed over the poem, which Perkins located in the deistic tradition.  Liam Firth’s compelling paper on ‘“Ethics or Morality’: Reading the Arnold-Stephen Debates in the Twenty-First Century’ scrutinised the late twentieth and twenty-first century ‘ethical turn’ and its (mis)reading of Victorian literary critics.  Through analyses of Matthew Arnold and Leslie Stephen’s work Firth unsettled the distinction often made between ethics and morality, thereby calling into question the dismissal of nineteenth-century critics on the grounds of their supposed moralising or judgemental approach.  Fern Merrills considered Matthew Arnold’s ambivalence towards Shelley in ‘The Great Amateur, The Lone Star and the Ineffectual Angel: Rethinking the Receptions of Arnold and Shelley’.  Tracing the influence of Shelley’s voice in Arnold’s poetry, Merrills argued that this, alongside Arnold’s puzzling lack of criticism of Shelley’s poetry, indicates an anxiety of influence.

After lunch, attention turned to nineteenth-century architecture and discussions of space and use in a fascinating panel.  Stef Eastoe challenged the negative dominant narrative surrounding nineteenth-century institutions through her analysis of the design and organisation of Caterham asylum in Surrey.  In contrast to the view that nineteenth-century asylums embody a type of moral architecture which emphasises control and observation, Eastoe’s reading focused on the building as an active entity which shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants.  By paying attention to particular spatial and geographical features of the building, a different, more positive, narrative emerges.  Adam Klups examined how nineteenth-century space has been reworked in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in his paper on the conversion of disused nineteenth-century churches into residential accommodation.  Discussing the retention of certain original architectural features, Klups tapped into a key theme of the conference: that the way we choose to preserve the nineteenth-century reveals something important about our own social and cultural motivation.

Owen Clayton opened the next panel with an engaging paper on ‘Re-thinking “Photography” in Nineteenth-Century Literature’ which offered an insight into the range of photographic techniques at work in the nineteenth century and their textual representations.  Clayton questioned a twentieth-century historiography of photography which rejects multiplicity in favour of a teleological technical evolution, identifying the literature of multiple photographies as a productive field for nineteenth-century scholarship.  Hsin-Ying Lin discussed George MacDonald and James Hogg’s projections of the internal mind, suggesting that their texts must be approached from a mystical standpoint.  Andrew Smith concluded the session with a rollicking journey into the Neo-Victorian Gothic.  His examination of Elizabeth Kostova’s appropriation of Dracula in her post 9/11 novel The Historian focused on the concept of history as reconstruction.  Smith unpicked the conceit of the vampire standing for a history which is not dead, discussing how both Stoker and Kostova engage with and manipulate ideas about historicity, narrative, reliability, memory and politics.

The day closed with a panel on the Brontës and governesses.  Erin Johnson charted Charlotte Brontë’s cross-period development through the figure of the Byronic hero, drawing attention to the strong continuities running between the Angrian stories and Jane Eyre.  The study of Brontë’s early work, written in the ‘black hole’ of literary studies between Romanticism and Victorianism, can therefore give nineteenth-century scholars the opportunity to challenge such periodisation.  Charlotte Mathieson’s paper ‘“Unnumbered threatening eyes”: Continental Crossings in Charlotte Brontë’s Vilette’ explored the often overlooked journey narrative in Villette, identifying the continental crossing as a moment of textual rupture.  Using Villette as an example, Mathieson convincingly argued that reading such moments of mobility can offer new perspectives on familiar nineteenth-century novels and their presentation of nationhood.  The final paper, given by Jenny Pearce, continued the theme of journeying by considering the nineteenth-century governess as traveller.  Through the analysis of the narratives of two governesses who worked at the palace of the Egyptian viceroy, Pearce demonstrated how the position of the governess could offer otherwise impossible opportunities for world travel to women of this social class.  This liminal position can be associated with a move away from the views about travel and the foreign typically found in other nineteenth-century travel narratives.

Lively debate and discussion continued in the pub.  Thanks to Andrew Smith and the rest of the Sheffield team for a stimulating and friendly conference.

Kirsten Harris is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus.  She has published in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century and The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review on the reception and appropriation of Walt Whitman’s poetry in British fin de siècle socialist circles.  Her current research lies in the field of nineteenth-century socialist literature and print culture, with a particular interest in periodical poetry.  Other research interests include American literature, nineteenth-century poetry and protest writing.  Kirsten tweets @KirstAnneHarris.

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