Rethinking the Nineteenth Century

This guest post by Dr Charlotte Mathieson (University of Warwick) is the first of two reflective reports inspired by a recent conference hosted by the School of English: ‘Rethinking the Nineteenth Century. This conference saw the launch of a new book series, also titled ‘Rethinking the Nineteenth Century’, to be edited by Drs Andrew Smith and Anna Barton for Manchester University Press. This post first appeared on Charlotte’s research blog, and do check back soon for her follow-up post.

— Amber Regis

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Focusing on the question “what constitutes 19th century studies today?” this one-day conference at the University of Sheffield provided an interesting set of papers on the poetry, novels, photographs, spaces and journeys across the nineteenth century and into its cultural afterlives today. While the day demonstrated that nineteenth-century studies remains a lively and active field in its own right, there were also noticeable cross-overs with the themes and questions raised at the Neo-Victorian Cultures conference [held at Liverpool John Moores University in July 2013], suggesting that there are many useful cross-currents between the two fields.

On that note it was unfortunate that I missed Mark Llewellyn’s keynote paper, but in a later panel on ‘Churches and Asylums’, the resonances between nineteenth-century topics and the present day were at the fore of discussions of space and geography. Stef Eastoe explored the spatial design and geographical location of asylums to reveal new perspectives on the communities that formed within asylums, and on the relationship between asylums and the local area. Her work on the Caterham asylum revealed fascinating insights into the ways in which asylums were designed and suggested important ways in which asylums were integral to the local community, playing an active role in shaping the history and development of the local area. In the ensuing discussion, Stef also spoke about the contemporary conversion of asylums and workhouses (for example, into luxury apartments) which can seek to erase the history of the building’s former use. In contrast, Adam M. Klups‘s paper on converting disused nineteenth-century churches for residential use discussed how these conversion projects have to retain key features of the original architecture; this can produce a kind of doubleness in the appearance of buildings that are as much products of the era of their conversion – and of their geographical location – as they are of their nineteenth-century context.

Another key area of focus was the Brontës, and I was pleased to join fellow Brontë scholars Erin Johnson and Jenny Pearce on a panel about the Brontës and governesses. Erin’s paper traced the trajectory of the Byronic hero throughout Charlotte Brontë’s work, from the early Angrian stories through to Jane Eyre; from this perspective, Brontë’s first novel becomes situated as an end-point in terms of its narrative of masculinity. This provided an interesting recognition of the significance of cross-period development in Brontë’s work, drawing attention to the way in which seminal texts of the Victorian era demonstrate continuity with the concerns and themes of earlier periods in the century.

My paper (abstract here) took Villette as an example of how reading nineteenth-century novels through their journey narratives provides new perspectives on familiar concerns around nation, and I looked at how the journey narrative rearticulates the way in which we understand the England-Belgium relationship throughout Villette. The theme of journeying was explored further in Jenny Pearce’s paper about travelling governesses. Looking at the narratives of two governesses that travelled with families to Egypt, Jenny’s analysis raised interesting issues about how the social position of the governess afforded her a different experience of, and approach to, travel; these governesses were experiencing places usually far beyond the realm of women (and men) in their social position, but being outside the typical model of the English traveller means that their perspectives on tourist sites represent some interesting divergences from the usual views expressed in travel writing.

Throughout the day, other papers covered some fascinating insights into nineteenth-century poetry and criticism, the role of photography in literature, and gothic and fantasy narratives. One of the key issues that the title Rethinking the Nineteenth Century provoked was that of the relationship between Victorian Studies and Nineteenth Century Studies, and how the two terms are applied and used by scholars; for those of us that bridge both categories, how, when and why do we position ourselves as Victorianists or Nineteenth-Centuryists?

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