By Barbara Franchi, University of Kent
The city of Venice is a labyrinth where the most different cultures and civilizations have met for centuries. So, no location could be better for the first NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA supernumerary conference. During June 3-6, 2013, Victorianists from every corner of the globe gathered on the Island of San Servolo for this unique opportunity to exchange and discuss ideas around the Global and the Local in the 19th century and beyond.
With over one hundred participants and ten sessions of eight parallel panels each, the range of papers presented was naturally vast. Topics went from oriental bodies and empire to music in George Eliot, from the Italian Risorgimento to urbanization and rail transport. Multidisciplinary approaches and the combination of different academic traditions were therefore the most evident feature of most sessions, as well as the conference’s greatest success.
A panel on Gender and Sex in Victorian representations of the foreign Other was especially interesting for creating fruitful interactions between orientalism and rewritings of traditional gender roles. In particular, Silvia Antosa (University of Palermo) analysed Sir RichardBurton’s orientalism and his translation of the Arabian Nights (1885), whereas Jessica DeCoux (CUNY) spoke of femininity, reincarnation and sensuality in the encounter between English explorers and mummy characters in the ‘mummy romance’ subgenre. Finally, Gaïane Hanser’s (Sorbonne Nouvelle) paper focused on exoticism and the connection between language and gender in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853).
An equally successful combination characterized the panel I presented on. Dedicated to Transbody and Transatlantic Travel, it explored the complementary dimensions of séance practices and sea narratives as two sides of the same coin, namely, navigation in a broad sense. Christine Ferguson (University of Glasgow) spoke about the world of spiritualism on both sides of the Atlantic, while Jasper Schelstrate (Ghent University) analysed national self-representation in Melville’s sea narratives. My own paper focused on the relationship between sea metaphors, mediumship and the power of writing in A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects (1992).
A further protagonist of NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA was material culture, well-represented by the Material Culture seminars, focusing on Venice and its historical heritage. As to the seminars, I attended Murray Baumgarten’s session on the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, the first of the kind in Europe. The discussion ranged from Jewish stereotypes in Victorian London to European cultural memory after the second world war and perspectives on the ghetto’s future. A visit to this area of town was also on the programme.
The greatest highlight of the week, however, was Lynda Nead’s plenary session, entitled The Secret of England’s Greatness. Starting from Thomas Jones Barker’s famous 1863 painting of the same title, Professor Nead (Birkbeck College) questioned whether the greatness of the Empire actually lay in the Bible held in Queen Victoria’s hands and presented to the African ambassador. William Mulready’s Toy Seller (1862), a reinterpretation of traditional portraits of the Holy Family and a representation of race, gender and slavery in the British Empire , proved an extremely interesting and enjoyable answer to the prior question.
The tensions between averted gazes and never-touching hands are where the ontological essence of the glory of the 19th-century empire may be. Ultimately, ‘the secret of England’s greatness resides in the fact that both the pedlar and the woman are part of it’ (Nead).
In the city of Shylock and Othello, no image could have been more appropriate to represent the questions that the Global and the Local challenge us to answer, in the Victorian age and in our times.
Barbara Franchi is a second-year PhD candidate at the School of English of the University of Kent. Her research focuses on strategies of intertextuality and ekphrasis in A. S. Byatt’s fiction. She is currently currently co-editing a Special Issue, titled Feminist Movements Across the Board, for Contention: the Multidisciplinary Journal of Social Protest. She tweets at @barbaraˍfranchi and blogs at bloggingbooksforlife.wordpress.com.