By Jacqueline Grima
Academics and guests gathered at Manchester Metropolitan University this week for the first event in the 2017/18 North West Long 19th Century series. The event welcomed guest speakers from various universities and was hosted by Senior Lecturer in English Dr Emma Liggins.
The first speaker at the event was Manchester Met PhD student Neil Cliff, whose presentation was entitled ‘Eco-centricities in Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa 1795-1797’. Park was a Scottish explorer who set sail from Portsmouth in 1795 to spend two years in West Africa, his subsequent publications about his day-to-day exploits and his interactions with the African people proving popular with 19th century readers.
Neil talked about how Park’s work could be better understood if viewed from an eco-critical perspective, with the writer being significantly impacted by his environment, for example, experiencing sunburn, starvation and dehydration. As Neil said, “His joy and despair are closely related to the ecological environment.”
Park died on his second trip to Africa. In a Q&A after his presentation, Neil said, “I see him as a real-life Indiana Jones who unfortunately didn’t make it home.”
The second speaker at the event was Manchester Met Lecturer in 18th and 19th Century Literature Dr Sonja Lawrenson. Sonja’s presentation was entitled ‘Borne on the eagle wings of Union: Irish Imperial Fictions in the wake of the Union’ and looked at the relationship between Ireland and the British Empire, particularly as portrayed in fiction. Ireland’s position in the Empire after the 1800 Act of Union was uncertain. As Sonja said, “The complex nature of Ireland’s colonial status remains highly contested.”
Sonja talked about how a number of works, particularly those published by William Lane’s Minerva Press, responded to what she referred to as “Ireland’s turbulent history.” She said, “These Minerva fictions participate wholeheartedly in contemporary debates.”
The final speaker was Rena Jackson, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Manchester and whose presentation was entitled ‘Asymmetries of Movement across Imperial Circuits in Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes.’ Rena talked about how free trade and the movement of people and commodities across the British Empire facilitated social rejection and class prejudice in Britain. She looked in particular at Hardy’s novel, which tells the story of Stephen Smith and Henry Knight who are competing with each other for the attention of Elfride Swancourt. Socially inferior to his rival, Stephen travels to India as a way to gain status, his letters giving an insight into the impact of trade on India’s economy and culture.
Rena said, “Free trade severed Indian workers from ownership of the products of their own labour,” noting how Britain’s exporting of cheap and badly made products to its colonies impacted the production of similar items in those countries. She added, “India became controlled by Britain’s manufacturing industry.”
At the end of her presentation, Rena concluded, “Trajectories in the movement of people and commodities across the Empire in A Pair of Blue Eyes operate to widen the gulf between Britain’s social classes.”
Emma Liggins spoke to Humanity Hallows about the aims of the day’s event: “The North West Long Nineteenth Century seminar brings together postgraduates, early career researchers and established scholars working on the late eighteenth-century, Romanticism, Victorianism and the early twentieth century.
“Today’s seminar papers all addressed broad issues of imperialism, travel, nation-building and global spheres, drawing on postcolonial studies and eco-criticism. They showed the interdisciplinary nature of nineteenth-century studies, using sources such as illustrations, periodicals and maps, in order to help us to rethink exchanges with, and travels to, Africa, India and Ireland.”
The next event in the series takes place on 21st March 2018 and will include papers on Gothic Fiction, Ruskin’s Garden and Gandhi. For more information and to keep track of the series, join the seminar Facebook group.