By Lauren Padgett, Leeds Trinity University
Post-graduate students, early career researchers and scholars gathered at the Royal Holloway, University of London, for a three day colloquium (Friday 10 – Sunday 12 April). The London Victorian Studies Colloquium promised to be an informal, lively weekend of papers, panels and discussions, and it did not disappoint!
Proceedings started with a reading group session on extracts from John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. Newman’s series of lectures, which conceptualised (and arguably idealised) what universities should be like, were published in 1852 to form The Idea of a University. I found the theological aspects heavy going at times but his Higher Education pedagogical views are interesting (if somewhat elitist). This seemed to be the general consensus amongst the delegates. His notion that the purpose of universities is for the “extension of knowledge rather than advancement” was criticised, not surprising as the room was full of researchers. The discussions seemed to relate Newman’s ideas to contemporary issues. For example, whether a university education should be accessible to everyone (regarding fees), and how learning and teaching is measured today with Ofsted and QAA. Newman proved to be an astute choice which stimulated much thought and active discussion.
The first paper was by Daný van Dam (a second year PhD student at Cardiff University) on ‘Rewriting Emily Brontë: How Wuthering Heights Haunts Non-European Neo-Victorian Fiction’. This idea of rewriting and reimagining stories (“revisionary fiction”) has gained popularity in recent years, for example Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. van Dam introduced the concept of literary ‘hauntings’ in Neo-Victorian fiction and explained how “revisionary novels work best with an informed readership” who can identify the ‘doublings’ and ‘hauntings’ of the original text. van Dam said that they put “canonical text[s] in a new context”, casting a new light on them. van Dam illustrated this with Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as the pre-text of three distinct novels. Windward Winds (by Maryse Condé) interestingly replaces the Yorkshire moors with a Caribbean island, while A True Novel (by Minae Mizumura) swaps it with the urban landscape of post-war Japan. van Dam explained the plot and characters in the novels (along with Jane Urquhart’s Changing Heaven) and their illusions to the pre-text. After the interesting paper, van Dam answered questions on the place revisionary literature has in the marketplace and academia.
A fellow Leeds Trinity University student, Haythem Bastawy, presented a paper called ‘Victorian Days and Arabian Nights’. Based on his MA in Victorian Studies research, the thought-provoking paper discussed the influence of The Arabian Nights on Victorian literature. He explained how in the Victorian period, the word ‘Arab’ and ‘Arabian’ had different (and at times, erroneous) meanings, referring to the East Mediterranean as well as the Middle East. Bastawy described how imperialism and colonialism led to an interest in The Nights, resulting in eighteenth and nineteenth century translations/versions of it. Detailed were Antione Galland’s Les Mille et Une Nuits – The Thousand and One Nights; an anonymous English ‘Grub Street’ translation; and subsequent versions by Edward William Lane and John Payne. This fascination with the exotic and ‘otherness’ led to pseudo-Oriental literature. Bastawy illustrated how Charles Dickens used illusions to the Arabian/Orient as a (paradoxical) metaphor for both danger and freedom. Bastawy discussed how The Nights and the constructed view of the Arabian/Orient were used to mask (or justify) foreign policy and political agendas, as seen in Disraeli’s novel Tancred or the New Crusade.
After lunch, there was a professionalisation panel session. On the ‘The Academic Job Market/Employability’ panel were Dr James Emmott (Queen Mary, University of London), Dr Matthew Ingleby (Queen Mary) and Professor Juliet John (Royal Holloway).
James Emmott spoke candidly about his student days. Emmott himself had been told to “just do good work” and to focus on “quality over quantity”. Emmott explained that quite often it is the reputation of accomplishing things well that raises profiles and leads to opportunities. Emmott addressed a lot of issues that PGRs have, such as the anxiety about gaining experience quickly and seizing every opportunity that presents itself. While Emmott acknowledged that this can be useful to some, he suggested that PGRs should “focus on the things that really matter”, making sure that opportunities are connected to their thesis or genuine research interests. From Emmott’s advice I took away the idea of “mak[ing] what you do count” and rather than broadly expanding your research repertoire, keep it focussed, specific and develop it deeper. Also, that it is OK to turn opportunities down, rather than spread yourself too thin.
Matthew Ingleby emphasised that unplanned paths are not necessary wrong paths; “failures, dead-ends or mistakes end up being useful”. He suggested that PGRs should recognise their own personality and preferred ways of working, and monopolise them. For example, he explained how he often needs “a bit on the side”, another project to dip in and out of, to keep his motivation and momentum going. It is reassuring to know that it is acceptable to work on other things, knowing that when you pick the thesis research back up again you are revitalised and re-focussed. Ingleby explained that even if you are not reading a paper at a conference, attending it may still be beneficial as they are good networking opportunities and future collaborative projects/publications may be a result of talking to the right person.
Juliet John concluded with useful advice based on her experience as an academic, researcher and interviewer. She explained that the academic field is saturated with people and publications. In order to stand out, you need “shape the field”, not just fit into it. You also need to have “vision and judgements” and “write with integrity . . . and honesty”. John advised that administration experience is highly regarded by employers (whether it is to do with research bids or course/department administration). Also pointed out was the need for a good CV – less is more (no long prose) and certain information on CVs should be specific, such as publication details (specify page numbers). One interesting piece of advice was to look for opportunities outside of your own institution to gain broader experiences. Overall, it was an insightful session which offered lots of helpful advice and food for thought.
The final session of the day was a paper by Dr Jessica Hindes (Royal Holloway) on ‘The Urban Vampire and the Undead Poor: Images of Resurrection in The Mysteries of London. Hindes explained how the urban gothic had emerged in the nineteenth century, along with anxieties about the rapid urbanisation and population growth. This is reflected in Victorian literature, in particular serials or ‘penny dreadfuls’. Hindes used The Mysteries of London by George W. M. Reynolds (author of the first series) and his resurrected corpses to illustrate this. The Mysteries was a mass market serial considered provocative, with one critic calling its readership “half educated girls”. Hindes argued that Reynolds used resurrected bodies as a metaphor for working class exploitation. As well as highlighting exploitation, Reynolds also gave the working class agency by showing how some working class individuals exploited the system or situations. This fascinating, highly illustrated paper concluded with an interesting discussion about the use and impact of canonical versus non-canonical texts in academic research.
The colloquium closed with an excellent paper delivered by Leire Barrera-Medrano (Birkbeck, University of London) on ‘Oscar Wilde, Velásquez and the Aesthetic of the Spanish ‘Black Sun’’. Barrera-Medrano’s doctoral research explores the influence of Spanish culture on British Aesthetic and Decadent movements. Her paper explored artwork by the seventeenth century Spanish artist Diego Velásquez, and his subsequent popularity and influence in Victorian Britain, especially on fin-de-siècle aesthetics. As well as influencing Victorian art (with artists such as John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert emulating his melancholic, ‘Black Sun’ style), literature also had allusions to Velásquez’s artwork. The Spanish influence is evident in Wilde’s short story The Birthday of the Infanta. Wilde took inspiration for this tale of a Spanish court with a Princess and a dwarf from Velásquez’s paintings, most noticeably ‘Las Meninas’, the portraits of ‘Infanta Maria Teresa’, ‘Infanta Margarita’ and ‘The Dwarf Francisco Lezcano’. Velásquez’s painted characters are animated and given life in Wilde’s short story.
My thanks go to Jack Gann and Anne Reus (both from Leeds Trinity University) for providing notes and commentary on this paper.
Thank you to Juliet John, Ruth Livesey (Royal Holloway) and their associates for organising and running such a successful colloquium.