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The North West Long Nineteenth-Century Spring Seminar

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carolineBy Caroline Baylis-Green

The Spring North West Long Nineteenth-Century seminar took place at Manchester Metropolitan University earler this month. The event offers an opportunity for postgraduate students, early career researchers and established academics to promote their latest work to a supportive and engaged public audience.  The seminar sessions attract speakers from across the UK, as well as locally based academics from the North of England.  They are not organised thematically but often produce surprising and interesting connections between papers, participants and audience.  The sessions also offer opportunities for academics to network and to keep up to date with current issues. The seminar is multi-disciplinary which also enriches the debate and potential outcomes.  The initiative is generously supported by the British Association for Romantic Studies, the British Association for Victorian Studies and the Institute of Humanities & Social Science Research and is open to anyone interested in nineteenth-century studies.

Dr Emma Liggins, Seminar Co-ordinator and Senior Lecturer in English Literature at MMU, introduced the speakers. The first paper was given by Dr Owen Clayton, Lecturer in English Literature at University of Lincoln, and was entitled, ‘The Laureate and the Republic: The United States in the work of Alfred Tennyson.’ Dr Clayton outlined the complex relationship between Tennyson’s attitudes to America and the American Civil War. He argued that there are numerous contradictions in Tennyson’s approach to the United States in his life and work, including a number of notably warm constructions of southern gentility, which subvert established views of Tennyson as anti-American. Using close reading of poems including Hands All Round, Dr Clayton traced the complex constructions of colonial power in Tennyson’s oeuvre and the paternalism invoked between old and new world powers. He also explored Tennyson’s particular and unusual use of the term ‘Yankee’ for confederate culture and states.

The second paper was given by Professor Ruth Robbins, Head of the Department of English at Leeds Beckett University. Entitled, ‘She Dances for Her Own Delight: Egerton, Lawrence and Others and a Woman’s Right to Dance,’ Dr Robbins’ paper explored constructions of femininity and female sexuality in images and metaphors of dance and dancing women in fin-de-siècle culture. Using a survey of late nineteenth-century iconography, most notably that of Salome Ruth’s, the paper explored the subversive potential of the female dancing body in popular culture and the fetishism surrounding figures such as Jane Avril and the dancers of the Moulin Rouge. Ruth argued that Avril represents a particularly challenging and interesting example of a woman who refused the gaze of the audience and who is often shown as facing away from or indifferent to the largely male gaze. She then went on to expand on ideas of audience or voyeurism in performance and literature – using Lawrence’s The Rainbow as a key text (and in particular the scene of a pregnant, nude Anna Brangwen dancing in the domestic interior, empowered and inaccessible to her husband).    Finally, Dr Robbins analysed Egerton’s short story Cross Line and its protagonist’s fantasy of erotic dance to a male audience. This section of the paper questioned the extent to which fantasy is controlled by the agency of its subject, or by the potential gaze of its audience, and how the final shift to female/female solidarity and interaction impacts on our reading of sexual politics and desire in this open text.

Questions covered a wide range of issues and areas including Tennyson’s use of a robust pseudonym for his “political” poetry, the role of music in dance performances by women, the use of charged private/public space, and the links between Tennyson’s idealised poetic nobility/aristocracy and Southern gentility in the Deep South.

The third paper was given by Lucy Johnson, PhD student and University of Chester entitled, ‘Vexed perspectives: Troubling the Aesthetics of Space in the Shelleys’ History of a Six Week’s Tour.’ Lucy’s paper focussed on the deconstruction of Romantic idylls and conventional early nineteenth-century travelogues in the Shelley’s History. She emphasised how the Shelleys’ writing subverts expectations and ideas of the scenic and picturesque with its vivid depictions of war, death and destruction and problematizes notions of cultural tourism and detachment. Lucy argued that the foregrounding of violence plays with notions of gaze, distance and spectatorship and the role of visitors both invading and joining scenes of conflict from an alternative social/class/aesthetic frame. Lucy also noted how the Shelleys’ complex precarious social position and its potential effect on their constructions of refugees and victims of conflict.

The final paper was given by Dr Matthew Kew, a lecturer at the University of Oxford, who gave a paper entitled, ‘Contentment and its Discontents in Victorian Fiction.’ Dr Kew introduced his paper by looking at the philosophical basis of nineteenth-century definitions of happiness and sufficiency from John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism, before touching on the work of Martha Nussbaum and J.K Galbraith and their notions of contentment as a “fuzzy state” and “complacency respectively.”  He argued that contentment is a neglected area in literary and historical analysis of emotions and asked why this might be. The paper then moved on to an analysis of contentment in Charles Dickens’ work, for example, Oliver Twist and its constructions of ‘more’ and ‘enough’ through the trope of Oliver’s hunger. Finally, Dr Kew focussed on Great Expectations and its complex semiotics concerning sufficiency, happiness and contentment and the way in which the text plays with ideas of need, want and self-awareness through the central “blank screen” figure of a socially aspirational Pip. His talk concluded with a quote from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, “which of us is happy, which of us is satisfied?”

There then followed a lively question and answer session. Questions covered the issue of textual subversion in Lucy’s close reading of the Shelleys’ travel writing and the ways in which this writing connects with the Shelley’s ambivalent class position, status as social outcasts, and ideas of refuge and safe spaces. We also explored issues linking ephemeral literature and the picturesque in travel writing, and its paradoxical status as a record of war and trauma. Further questions related to Matthew’s paper and his reading of Dickens’ Great Expectations in particular. We explored the perverse figuring of Miss Havisham, as a mystery source of contentment for Pip, and a psychologically damaged figure embodying defiant grief, and emotional sado-masochism, within the ironic framework of Satis (sufficient) House.

Manchester Metropolitan University are pleased to announce that the next The North West Long Nineteenth-Century Spring Seminar will be taking place on Wednesday 1st July with a whole day event on the theme of the Fin de Siècle and modernity. For further information, please contact Dr Emma Liggins: e.liggins@mmu.ac.uk

Caroline Baylis-Green is a PhD student based in the Department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research is focussed on the construction of queer subjectivities, closeting, and non-normative desire in nineteenth-century women’s writing. Caroline teaches on the Nineteenth-Century Writing to Modernism Unit as an Associate Lecturer, and is a member of the IHSSR Feminist Agendas Research Group. Follow her on Twitter @craggyBG.

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