Ann Gagné, Making Sense of Senses in Victorian Studies: The MVSA 2015 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


Sensory studies has really expanded in the past few years which is great for me because I study tactility. I was really pleased to have the chance to attend and present at the MidWest Victorian Studies Association conference which was held May 1-3 2015 in Iowa City. The conference, focusing on Victorian Sense and the Senses was a lovely opportunity to explore and expand on the sensory with engaging papers that highlighted the senses in literature, art, music, and history. MVSA is truly a multi-disciplinary conference that gives equal time to literature as well as music scholars and historians.

The first panel, “The Victorians and the Senses,” started with Elizabeth Chang (U of Missouri) who spoke to the foreign body, bodily relations, and bodily orientations. Julie Codell’s (Arizona State University) “Aestheticism, Reverie, and Female Consciousness” allowed the conference attendees to ponder how reverie is depicted in art and how reverie emphasizes a need to restore the mind. Codell highlighted how painting seems to be the only way to truly understand a daydream. In Holman Hunt’s “School of Nature” for example, all the senses seem present; it is a painting filled with nostalgia and memory.

Fig.1. William Holman Hunt "Miss Gladis M. Holman Hunt (School of Nature).” Image from Wikimedia, 13 July 2015.
Fig.1. William Holman Hunt "Miss Gladis M. Holman Hunt (School of Nature).” Image from Wikimedia, 13 July 2015.

Reverie is a space between waking and sleeping where consciousness seems detached from the senses, explains Codell. In these pieces reverie functions beyond agency, it is almost like time travel. Jane Morris is used time and again as the best example of the subject in reverie according to Codell. Leighton’s 1861 “Lieder ohn Worte” is yet another example of reverie in conjunction with the senses where observers are left questioning-what is the woman thinking of as she touches her foot. The last member of the panel, Thomas Prasch (Washburn University), rounded an excellent start to the conference speaking at one point to how Whistler seems to have synesthesia in the selection of titles for his work.

The first panel of day two spoke to “Music and the Victorians” and started with Roberta Montemorra Marvin (U Iowa) on Verdi who seems to be the composer who sparks discussion as well as laughter at every Victorian conference. Christina Bashford’s (U Illinois) paper “The Appeal of the Violin in Victorian Culture” was one of the best papers of the conference. Bashford delineated the arrival of the violin in 1870 in amateur music and the erotic pleasure of both hearing and touching the violin when making music. The violin being gendered female, the body and shape of the violin being much like a woman’s body, caused the men who played the fiddle at that time start to become feminized in texts, says Bashford. Bashford then explores violin making as craft and how touch is very much a part of this. Violinists use the language of touch as the language of the soul, she explains and there are many pamphlets and books on fiddle making at the time like John Broadhouse’s “The Art of Fiddle Making” (1884). There are Sapphic undertones to the violin and a tension of bodied and disembodied sound. The panel ended with a wonderful question period which included a discussion of the mobility of the violin as an instrument and what that means socio-culturally to the understanding of violin music.

The Jane Stedman Plenary by Linda Shires (Yeshiva University) “Coming to Our Senses: Colors in the 19th Century”  was a wonderful exploration of the work of Turner, Hunt, and others which emphasized the development of new pigments and how colour became more portable and thus changed the way painters painted. Turner’s “Mortlake Terrace” (1827) started a line of questioning about dogs in paintings in the 19th century– these dogs seemed to be present in many of the paintings discussed at the conference. Shires highlights how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used new colours and how these colours spoke to the tension of morality and realism, as seen in Hunt’s work for example.

Fig.2. J.M.W. Turner "Mortlake Terrace.” Image from Wikimedia, 13 July 2015.
Fig.2. J.M.W. Turner "Mortlake Terrace.” Image from Wikimedia, 13 July 2015.

I had the pleasure to have Erin Johnson-Hill (Yale), who won the Arnstein Dissertation award, as a fellow panelist on my panel that afternoon, and she spoke of “Exercising to Song: School Music Education and the Masculinization of the Victorian Working-Class Child” where her astute archival research (this is a conference that a historian would love) focuses on how music education was also an education of the body. Johnson-Hill gave examples of musical drills in army training manuals which were very fascinating. My other fellow panelist, Cheryl Wilson (U of Baltimore), spoke of “Bodily Sensations in the Conversational Poetry of Michael Field” reinforcing the link of Christian spirituality to the body in Field’s poetry. Wilson questioned larger spiritual issues like the body as sacrifice and how both Cooper and Bradley had different commitments to Catholicism in her very interesting paper.

In an afternoon panel named “Race, Empire and the Senses” Melisa Klimaszewski (Drake University) presented an insightful paper entitled “Hearing Race and Touching Color: Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch” where she looked at the aspect of disability in relation to race and the description of Oscar’s complexion in the novel after he takes the silver nitrate for his seizures. The complexity of touching colour is something that Klimaszewski problematizes because in order to have a memory of colour one must be able to see it and not necessarily touch it. Lucilla’s complex relationship to the sensory in the novel demonstrates, according to Klimaszewski, that no sense can be trusted and that racism seems to have a way of perverting the senses. Next John McBratney (John Carroll University) spoke to the Scottish surgeon James Esdaile and how he used mesmerism in Bengal as cure and treatment for certain ailments. Lesa Scholl (Emmanuel College, University of Queensland) rounded this interesting panel with her paper “The Taste of Dispossession: Food Security and Imperialism in Harriet Martineau’s Cinammon and Pearls.” Scholl presents an argument for the lack of cultural agency in the sensation of taste, that an imperialist vision limits access to taste for the very people who help grow the products meant to be tasted. Hunger in turn is presented as a denial of taste and that a shared taste in turn creates community, argues Scholl.

The second day ended with a panel entitled “Senses in Victorian England” where Emily Ford (Ivy Tech Community College) looked at how sight seems to be the avenue of agency for 19th teachers in her paper “‘Interrogation and Illustration’: The Primacy of Sight in Henry Dunn’s Principles of Teaching.” Henry Dunn’s Principles of Teaching, published in 1837, set out principles for effective primary school teaching which involved the visual because “the eye remembers,” says Ford. Teachers would then in turn need to help students cultivate a sense of sight (how very Ruskinian!). The next paper by Gretchen Frank (Illinois State U) “A Sense of the Domestic: Domesticity, Materiality, and the Victorians” looked at the Female Servants Advisor and conduct literature of the 1850s. Like in Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management, the hands of the hands become the totality of the body, says Frank. The last paper of the panel Ellen O’Brien’s (Roosevelt U) “Embodied Pain, and the Politics of the Contagious Diseases Act Repeal Campaign” emphasized the physicality of disease and inspection as well as the tension of private and public in the politicising of the body. The policing of the body through the body and how the senses help with this policing truly reinforced the many themes of the conference.

The final day started with a panel on the “Poetic Senses” chaired by Mary-Catherine Harrison (U of Detroit Mercy) which included a wonderful paper on “Aurora Leigh’s Anti-Sensory poetics” by Barbara Barrow (Point Park U). In that same panel Erin Nerstad (U of Chicago) in her paper “Tennyson’s Lyric Tactility” specified Tennyson’s belief in the importance of the tactile experience in his work and this lovely poetic panel generated many insightful questions that wonderfully summarized the lines of discussion established throughout conference. This connection of loose threads was beautifully accomplished by Linda Hughes (Texas Christian U) in her final remarks, where she delivered a poem written over the span of the conference that spoke to all the papers and panels she had heard. This conference emphasized why small conferences with fewer concurrent sessions really allow for connections and discussions to carry through the conference and beyond. It was a wonderful experience and an excellent exploration of the sensory in Victorian studies today.

Related Posts:

THE VICTORIAN TACTILE IMAGINATION: Reappraising touch in the nineteenth-century culture

Related JVC Articles:

Clayton, Jay. “Touching the Telectroscope: Haptic Communications.” Journal of Victorian Culture 17.4 (2012): 518-523. Print.

Garratt, Peter. “Ruskin’s Modern Painters and the Visual Language of Reality.” Journal of Victorian Culture 14.1 (2010): 53-71. Print.

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