By Jacqueline Grima
Leading academics and PhD research students gathered at Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met) for the latest North West Long 19th Century Seminar. The event was organised and convened by Senior Lecturer in English, Dr Emma Liggins.
Emma thanked everybody for coming before introducing the first speaker, Manchester Met Senior Lecturer and Poetry Specialist, Dr David Miller. David has recently completed a monograph, due out next year, that focusses on the work of poet, John Keats and his presentation was entitled ‘Orpheus over Apollo: John Keats and the Poetics of Dismemberment’. In his talk, David discussed how Keats, in a quest for literary immortality and posthumous fame, moved beyond the assumed ideal of Apollonian poetic inspiration and towards work more inspired by and associated with the Ancient Greek poet, musician and philosopher, Orpheus.
According to legend, Orpheus was dismembered and killed violently after he refused to worship any god except the sun and this links with Keats’ interest in literal dismemberment as an apprentice surgeon and with his metaphorical dismemberment as a poet who became one with his poetry. According to David, “Keats was one of the first poets to give himself up to poetry completely.”
A discussion with the audience after David’s presentation touched upon the links between the concept of dismemberment and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. David said, “Keats is abandoning the creaturely rather than creating. They are moving in opposite directions.”
The second speaker at the event was Rachel Mann. Rachel is an Anglican priest, broadcaster, writer and PhD student and is currently writing a thesis on the representation of fecundity and barrenness in the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. Rachel’s presentation examined the figure of Marian Erle in Barrett Browning’s epic 1856 poem ‘Aurora Leigh’.
Rachel discussed how Marian, feeding figs to her infant son in a Florentine garden, represents both the mother figure, usually associated with Mary the Mother of Christ, and the fallen woman, usually associated with Mary Magdalene. In the poem, Marian has conceived her son through a brutal rape but is supposedly redeemed from being ‘fallen’ by her success in her role as a mother. Rachel also talked about the imagery in the poem, for example how the fig represents both the mother’s breast and the womb, therefore being a symbol of both fecundity and barrenness. She then moved on to discuss how the patriarchal role in the poem is taken by Aurora, who watches Marian in the garden from the position of an almost God-like figure.
The final speaker of the day was Julia Podziewska, a PhD research student from Sheffield Hallam University. Julia’s presentation was entitled ‘Wilkie Collins and the Inheritance Plot’ and explored the complex plots of Collins’ novels that often revolve around the theme of inheritance and English property laws. Julia focussed on three novels The Woman in White, No Name and Armadale all of which focus on inheritance and property and the difficulties surrounding both.
Julia pointed out that property in the 1850s and 60s did not only refer to houses and land but also to abstract things like slaves, servants and skilled trades meaning that the law surrounding property could be extremely complicated. As Julia said, “Property is a very, very complex thing.” She also discussed how property and inheritance laws often featured in the work of other novelists such as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and George Elliot, property being a useful plot device in that it often triggered a chain of events and challenges that could motivate a story’s characters.
Speaking to Humanity Hallows about the event, Emma Liggins said, “It was really interesting to hear the papers on 19th century poetry and poetics. The discussion at the end of the session on issues of inheritance, money and property showed the relevance of the mid-Victorian novel to current concerns about banking and finance.”
She added, “It’s been great to see so many students, including undergraduates and postgraduates, from Manchester Met and other North-West institutions, at the event. We hope they’ll continue to come along to future seminars.”