Ann Gagné, “Race, Place, and Perspective in the Victorian Period”: VSAO Conference

Ann Gagné is College Instructor at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. Her current research explores how touch and ethics relate to education as well as the spatial framing of learning in the nineteenth century which is an extension of themes found in her doctoral dissertation. She is very active on Twitter @AnnGagne and also writes a blog that relates to teaching and pedagogical strategies at

The end of the term at Ontario colleges and universities usually means instructors spending quality time with essays and exams. For Victorianists in Ontario it also means it’s time for the annual Victorian Studies Association of Ontario Conference. This year’s conference which was held on April 25th at the Glendon Campus of York University, hosted about 75 people who came to hear three lovely papers and two keynote addresses on the conference theme: “Race, Place, and Perspective in the Victorian Period.”

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The first paper of the day was delivered by Dr. Victor Shea from York University whose paper entitled “Historical Research and Antiquarian Lore: Translatio Imperii et Studii: Race and Place in the Empress of India Debates (1876)” presented an insightful look into the semantic shifts seen in the Debates and the Royal Titles Act of 1876. Dr. Shea’s presentation provided analysis of many of the caricatures and depictions of Disraeli and Queen Victoria at the time. For example, “The Queen with Two Heads” or “New Crowns for Old Ones” both highlight the tension over Disraeli’s mission to make Queen Victorian Empress of India. The semantic weight of the shift from Queen to Emperor, says Dr. Shea, is also seen as a demonstration in the shift of the function of the monarchy. As Shea suggests, the title of Queen connotes someone in the law, whereas the title of emperor or empresses suggests someone above the law.  The link between the idea of transfer to translation or translatio in Latin, and the use of Latin in the debates, by referencing Horace for example, is very much about the tension between studii and imperii, explains Dr. Shea. The addition, Victoria’s title was even seen in the Canadian Diamond Jubilee postal stamp, bringing calls of favouritism as seen in Tenniel’s “Empress and Earl” where the subtitle “One good turn deserves another” caricatures the relationship between Disraeli and Queen Victoria.

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The second panelist of the day was Bassam Chiblak from the University of Victoria who presented on “W.M. Thackeray and F. Walker’s The Adventures of Philip as Unionist Propaganda in Harper’s.” Chiblak demonstrated that though there is a lot of racism in the representation of Woolcomb in The Adventures of Philip, it is in the paratextual influence, as seen in Fredrick Walker’s images of the text in Harper’s magazine in 1861, where much of the story lies. Chiblak’s analysis of “Hand and Glove” by Walker demonstrates how the depiction of the two main male protagonists suggests Philip and Woolcomb are similar even though racial background divides them. Chiblak suggests that Walker’s is a more egalitarian, realist depiction as opposed to the caricatures that Thackeray would produce to accompany his own work. The statistical analysis of the number of figures that appeared in Harper’sfrom 1850-1866 and how Thackeray was responsible for all the racialized figures drawn at that time, reinforces Thackeray’s role as racist caricaturist, but also suggests that a realist depiction that did not reinforce racial divides (as seen with Walker) was possible.

The final panelist of the morning was Dr. Winnie Chan from Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Chan’s talk “Eminent Victorians, Neo-Slave Narratives, and British Heritage” demonstrated how neo-slave narratives that originated in the UK in the 1980s appropriate original slave narratives and function as a sort of plagiarising of the archive in a somewhat propagandist way. Dr. Chan’s talk emphasized the many texts that had taken these slave narratives as inspiration such as Laura Fish’s Strange Music which speaks to Elizabeth Barrett’s letters and work. Dr. Chan demonstrated how racial perspective is reinforced textually through a discussion of shadow families and aesthetically through a mid-century preoccupation with silhouette figures. The morning session panel was followed by a lively discussion period as the insightful questions and conversation continued over lunch.

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The afternoon featured two very interesting and visually stimulating keynote addresses. The first by Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson from McGill University entitled “James Hakewill, Joseph Kidd, and Isaac Belisario: Representing Jamaica from Slavery to Apprenticeship” presented landscape painting of Jamaica as racialized geography. Dr. Nelson’s talk focused on three main texts, Hakewill’s A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, Kidd’s Jamaica in a Series of Views, and Belisario’s Sketches of Characters. Of the twenty-one prints in Hakewill’s text, which were engraved by Thomas Sutherland, almost all are of landscapes and only one focuses on a house. There is an active suppression of images of slaves doing work, or slave violence- Hakewill was invited there to create this version of Jamaica, states Dr. Nelson through a focus on topographical landscapes. All of the prints in Hakewill’s book represent the daytime; there is no focus on the sunset, the ocean or any sort of shade.  All prints suggest events taking place in late morning or early afternoon, for, as Dr. Nelson points out, there are no long shadows to be found anywhere. The Scottish J.B. Kidd signaled a movement from topography to the picturesque and also incorporated white people which was not seen in Hakewill. On the other hand Belisario’s carefully curated black subjects reinforce societal divides in terms of religion (he was Jewish) and colour.  Belisario’s Jaw bone or house John Canoe is a vibrant example of the play of architecture and characteristics of people and places in 19th century Jamaica.

The final keynote was by Susan Casteras of the University of Washington. Dr. Casteras presented paintings that demonstrated “Seeing American through a Victorian Lens: British Constructions of Slavery and “That Accursed System.” Dr. Casteras started with an exploration of Robert Duncanson’s work The Land of the Lotus Eaters (1861)

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This painting shows stability in a time of turmoil says Casteras- there is a calm aesthetic in the landscape. Casteras then moved from an exploration of landscape to an exploration of race through the depiction of both Queen Victoria and slaves.  For example, T.J. Barker’s “The Secret of England’s Greatness” emphasizes racial tension through the exchange of bible as gift from an African ambassador to Queen Victoria. Further, three paintings by Thomas Waterman Wood, “The Contraband,” “The Recruit,” and “The Veteran” depict the historical evolution and tension of war and race. The evolution in these three pieces which can be found here accentuate 1860’s America and the effects of the Civil War.

A connection to Thackeray continued throughout the papers presented at the VSAO conference this year. Casteras emphasized Eyre Crowe’s work Slaves Waiting for Sale; Crowe being Thackeray’s secretary in his travels to America.


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Dr. Casteras also explored Lefebvre James Cranstone’s The Slave Auction which presents a slave transaction in minute detail as contrasted with William Bromley’s The White Slave where a racial role reversal is reinforced through details in the foreground of the painting. Similarly, Casteras highlighted the aesthetics of the body in Richard Ansdell’s The Hunted Slaves and she ended by mentioning the many abolitionist movement connections to Canada and how the US and Canada saw slavery through important aesthetic lenses.

The conference ended with the traditional sherry hour where the participants continued the discussions and connected themes and ideas seen throughout the day. The VSAO conference is always a nice way to end the term, a time to meet colleagues from around southern, eastern, and northeastern Ontario and to take pride in the strong history of Victorian studies and the scholars who are part of this association.

Related Posts:

Film Review of “Django: Unchained” (2013)

Related JVC Articles:

Borroughs, Robert. “Sailors and Slaves: The ‘Poor Enslaved Tar’ in Naval Reform and Nautical Melodrama.” Journal of Victorian Culture 16.3 (2011): 305-322. Print.

Fisch, Audrey A. “Repetitious accounts so piteous and so harrowing: the ideological work of American slave narratives in England.” Journal of Victorian Culture 1.1 (1996): 16-34. Print.



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