Alison Moulds is a third-year DPhil candidate at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford working on the construction of professional identities and the doctor-patient relationship in nineteenth-century medical writing and fiction by doctors. She is part of the AHRC-funded project .
For a conference to get me out of bed and into central London for 9am registration on a Saturday, the theme has to be good. To get me up and out less than 24 hours after moving house, it has to be really, really good. Last month, a Wilkie Collins-themed study day at Barts Pathology Museum managed to do just that and I found myself rolling into the City of London a little bleary-eyed, a little dishevelled (having failed to get the hot water working in my new shower), leaving behind a partner who couldn’t understand the allure of academia on the weekend.
#WCJHeart (as it was affectionately dubbed on Twitter) managed to coax many Collins aficionados out of their beds (some from much further afield than me). Organised by Jo Parsons and Verity Burke (Editor and Associate Editor of the Wilkie Collins Journal), and funded by the Wilkie Collins Society and the Victorian Popular Fiction Association, it was a study day which used the author’s 1883 novel Heart and Science as a springboard to explore how ideas of ‘heart’ and ‘science’ manifested in his fiction and that of his contemporaries.
Unsurprisingly, there was plenty of engagement with Collins’s courtship plots, with speakers approaching them from a variety of angles. Ceri Hunter (Mansfield College, Oxford) looked at the role of cousin marriages in No Name and The Moonstone, suggesting that Collins presents relations as unknown entities rather than safe havens in the marriage market. Helena Ifill (Sheffield) explored the representation of obsessive love in ‘Twin Sisters’ andBasil, showing the dangers awaiting (over)emotional young men in Collins’s marriage plots. Meanwhile Anne Chapman (King’s College London) examined the interplay between text, illustrations and serialisation to evince the role of privacy and performance in courtship in Miss or Mrs?.
At the other end of the spectrum were papers on (pseudo)science and medicine. Ann Loveridge (Canterbury Christ Church) looked at the portrayal of women with scientific ambition in Collins’s Heart and Science and Florence Marryat’s An Angel of Pity. James Green (Exeter) interrogated the role of physiognomy and physiology in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail of the Serpent, exploring the extent to which bodies become legible under the detective’s gaze. Meanwhile, Benjamin E. Noad (Sterling) examined how ‘mad-speech’ is accommodated by the Gothic and sensational modes of Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Collins’s Basil. All three papers used medical humanities to illuminate new aspects of sensation fiction. I also greatly enjoyed Clare Walker Gore’s (Selwyn College, Cambridge) paper on ‘Disability Pride and Disability Prejudice’ in Poor Miss Finch, which concentrated on the titular heroine’s (affirmative) experiences of blindness and Oscar Douborg’s (troubling) experiences of epilepsy and drug-induced blueness.
Papers also engaged with the themes of ‘Heart’ and ‘Science’ in pleasingly unexpected ways, with subjects ranging from ‘old age and artificial hair’ (Ryan Sweet, Exeter) to ‘dangerous dogs’ (Christopher Pittard, Portsmouth). Sweet discussed wig-wearing as a comedy trope, looking at anxieties around ageing and the marriage market in The Law and the Lady, while Pittard considered human-animal ‘entanglements’ in “My Lady’s Money”, placing the story in the context of the 1870s rabies panic.
The study day was anchored around a wonderful keynote delivered by Tara MacDonald (University of Idaho) on ‘Wilkie Collins, Armadale and Public Feeling’, which was based on her emerging research about sensation fiction as meta-fiction. MacDonald seeks to foreground how the genre is both self-reflexive and parodic. Focusing on Armadale, this paper drew parallels between its arch-villainess Lydia Gwilt and the real-life poisoning suspect Madeline Smith, before arguing that Collins’s character manipulates public sympathy, performing her innocence and effectively constructing herself as a character, a literary heroine. Gwilt is, MacDonald argued, remarkably self-aware. The paper also suggested that Collins knowingly engages with the idea that the appetite for gossip and for sensation fiction are interlinked, with the scandal-mongering town of Thorpe Ambrose standing in for the rapacious reading public. It was a pleasingly provocative paper, which implied that sensation fiction self-consciously plays with its audience.
As well as academic papers, the day also comprised a performance from Falmouth University Theatre graduate Jak Stringer, who retraced the Cornish walking-tour Collins narrates in his travel guide Rambles beyond Railways. Stringer’s lively performance was a great way to carry us through the inevitable post-lunch slump and it taught me plenty about Collins’s life. Given my research interest in the doctor-patient relationship, I was intrigued to learn that the author developed a friendship with a local medical practitioner (Richard Moyle), even accompanying him on his rounds.
While some speakers responded to the Call for Papers’ invitation to consider Collins’s contemporaries, such as Braddon and Marryat, the study day was primarily dedicated to examining his body of work. I haven’t worked specifically on Collins since my MA dissertation at Birkbeck – when I looked at learning disabilities in No Name and the Law and the Lady – but I was delighted to immerse myself in his fiction once again. I think the single-author approach was beneficial, as it attracted those with diverse research interests, while bringing them together in focused and nuanced discussion.
I was pleased to discover the study day had such a wide-ranging appeal – as well as literary scholars interested primarily in sensation fiction, it attracted medical humanities researchers from the fields of History and Geography. One of the speakers – Martin Edwards (Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL) – had worked in general practice for over 30 years before gaining a doctorate in the History of Medicine. It was interesting to hear his own perspective on the myths and narratives surrounding therapeutic bed rest. At the post-study day drinks, I got talking to another delegate, a London bus driver interested in history, who had learned of the study day through the Barts Pathology Museum’s mailing list.
The Victorian museum space was a phenomenal venue for the event – based at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in West Smithfield, it is not generally open to the public, except for special events. I’ve been fortunate to attend a couple of conferences there already (‘Victorian Body Parts’ in September 2013 and ‘Corpses, Cadavers and Catalogues’ in May 2016), but for those delegates who hadn’t visited before, the study day was a fantastic opportunity to look at some of the historical pathological specimens on display. One thing I felt was missing though was a more extensive introduction to the collection, particularly for those who had not encountered it previously. It would have been great to have brought this unique space into dialogue with the themes of ‘Heart’ and ‘Science’.
Ultimately, however, the study day was a wonderful way of facilitating discussion about this prolific author, with the conference themes and quirky venue undoubtedly helping to attract a diverse line-up of speakers and delegates and to generate a range of responses to Collins’s rich body of work.