Conference Report

Victorian Popular Fiction Association annual conference

‘Victorian Treasures and Trash’, Institute for English Studies, University of London, 8-10 July 2014

The Victorian Popular Fiction Association met for its sixth annual conference in July, focusing on the theme of Treasures and Trash.  With 20 panels over 3 days, the conference offered new perspectives on familiar texts, as well as introducing many of us to hitherto unknown corners of the world of Victorian popular fiction.

Day one opened with Jonathon Shears’s keynote speech “[…] battered […] soiled […] broken […] empty […] half-smoked […] stale”: The Hangover in Victorian Popular Fiction’. Using texts that ranged from Dickens’s David Copperfield to Mrs. Henry Wood’s Danesbury House, Jonathon proposed the hangover (for which, interestingly, there was no word in the nineteenth century) as a moment that both produces material waste and represents the emotional waste of the character. He argued that the hangover, as a moment of choice for the characters between destruction and reformation, has the power of altering narratives.

The keynote speech was followed by the panel on Supernatural Treasures. Ruth Heholt and Rebecca Lloyd showed how Louisa Baldwin’s ghost stories portray aristocratic ancestry and inheritance as an oppressive, inescapable presence. Helena Ifill argued that mesmeric clairvoyance is used by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and George Eliot to teach lessons about living in the everyday world and how we value things within it.  Anne Chapman explored the idea of ‘treasured time’ in Dickens’ Mugby Junction, in the context of the repetitive yet disruptive nature of the Christmas special periodical edition.

The Postgraduate training session provided a moment of informal discussion between postgraduates and experienced academics on steps towards a successful academic career. Kirsty Bunting gave useful tips on how to select the right journal for the first academic article and how to deal with the peer-review process. Katie Garner shared her experience in grant writing, emphasising the importance of good timing, of being specific, and presenting oneself as a proactive candidate who is able to work on their own. Janine Hatter discussed the importance of social media and public engagement for early-career academics, pointing out a number of alternative spaces to engage with the public and promote our research. Barbara Leckie closed the panel with a discussion on alternative academia and the North American job market.

Thomas Graf opened Wednesday’s panel on Dangerous Objects with an exploration of the role of refuse as a weapon in the fiction of invasion. Susan Shelangoskie’s reading of photography in E. W. Hornung’s The Camera Fiend examined the potentially disruptive effects of modern technology on existing systems of value. Focusing on Sherlock Holmes, Christopher Gage shed light on the connections between late-Victorian masculinity, professionalism, and the ability to tolerate ‘disgusting’ objects.

On the theme of Witnessing the Extreme, Rosalyn Buckland traced Dickens’ engagement with the reform of miners’ working conditions and the collieries as symbols of social inequality. Continuing with Dickens, Terry Scarborough focused on the metonymic treatment of animals and association between the ‘silent subject’ and images of filth and decay. Ellie Byrne drew on Robert Louis Stevenson’s visit to a leper colony in Hawaii to read The Bottle Imp as an exploration of possession, inheritance, disease, infection and cure.

A new event for the conference this year was the lunchtime reading group. Kate Gadsby-Mace and Kathleen Hudson led a productive and lively discussion of the penny dreadful, which included the question of teaching ‘bad’ writing, the surprising parallels between religious tracts and penny dreadfuls, the enjoyment of the predictable, and perceived connections between reading and criminality.

The reading group was followed by a guest talk by Karen Attar, Rare Books Librarian at Senate House Library. This fascinating lecture introduced some of the highlights of the library’s collection and encouraged delegates to reflect on the qualities which confer literary (and financial) value on particular texts.

Three papers on Reading for Improvement brought together Victorian ideas about what makes a text worthy of one’s time. Barbara Leckie explored the idea of time itself as a treasure in Samuel Smiles’ Self Help and Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch. Lindy Moore examined Isabella Fyvie Mayo’s didactic approach to literature, while Christopher Pittard considered the work of the astonishingly prolific Silas K. Hocking, drawing out the tension between Hocking’s Methodist commitment to scrupulous honesty and the conventions of fiction.

Wednesday closed with three Special Author panels, on Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins, and Ouida. The Collins panel offered insights into liminal bodies, beginning with Mia Franzen and Penian Rosenberg’s Bakhtinian reading of The Moonstone, showing how the moonstone disrupts hierarchies and relocates non-normative bodies. Alison Moulds explored Collins’ ambivalent presentation of characters with developmental disabilities, arguing for their narrative and thematic importance, while Kathleen Hudson’s study of unconventional heroines in Collins and Louisa May Alcott problematised the question of female value in sensation fiction. The Braddon panel opened with Anna Brecke’s examination of the sensationalised confession in Lady Audley’s Secret as constructing the identity of the deviant woman. Janine Hatter followed with an examination of Braddon’s controversial “reflection” of other authors’ works, analysing the intertextual links with Goethe and Balzac in Gerard. Joanne Knowles closed the panel examining the landscape in Braddon’s Belgravia fiction as a place of transition and hybridity.  The Ouida panel began with Barbara Vrachnas’ examination of undervalued female characters, whose pain is represented as the creation of class-specific social mores. Richard Espley discussed the importance of dogs in Ouida’s life and her fiction, suggesting that the figure of the dog is key to her critique of sexual and moral orthodoxy. Katie Garner argued for the valorisation of Arthurian romance as both ‘high’ culture and democratic literature in popular fiction, symbolised through the presence of medieval artefacts. The panel was followed by a reading group session exploring Ouida’s short story “Toxin”.

Day three started with a lively discussion on Marketing Victorian Fiction. Anna Gasperini explored the fortunes of the penny dreadful since its inception early in the nineteeth century, arguing that its adaptability and our need as readers for strong narratives enable it to survive to this day. Jessica Cox discussed the relationship between the “trash” genre of Victorian sensation fiction and Neo-Victorian fiction, the inclusion of which in university syllabuses continues to draw on a distinction between low- and high-brow literature. Finally, Chris Louttit illustrated the key role of the cover in Penguin’s remarketing of Victorian popular fiction, making the book a treasurable object in an era of downloadable ebooks.

Judith Flanders gave the second keynote speech of the conference. Her paper “Painting Reality: Home vs Home-ness” discussed the impact of painting, novels and TV representations of houses on our concepts of “home” and “home-ness”, beginning with the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century. Judith pointed out the idealized and constructed nature of these concepts, and invited us to think about “invisible furniture”, all those trivial and somewhat trashy objects that make an actual house that are never represented in contemporary texts or images. She emphasised the necessity, when examining representations of home and home-ness, of separating reality from the way people thought or think about reality.

The conference came to a close with the panel on Unspeakable Bodies.  Contrasting Dickens’s pity-inspiring Tiny Tim and Monkton, the stammering and derided protagonist of Rymer’s novel The Unspeakable, Louise Creechan illustrated the liminal quality of disability in the text. Jennifer Jones characterised the material waste produced by medicine as memorial objects, arguing that the empty bottles of Mrs Pullet in Middlemarch express Eliot’s anxiety about medical education and regulation. Claire Furlong kept the focus on medicine, illustrating the objectification of the dead body in popular representations of the anatomist. The final paper, given by Michael Bedo, analysed another type of unspeakable subject, that is, divorce and sex scandal, examining the case of Countess Russell’s divorce.

As we left after the closing remarks by the conference committee, there was general agreement that the conference had provided three days of high-quality, engaging academic discussion, plenty of informal moments to pick up discussions started during the Q & As, and an excellent conference dinner. The only problem was the physical impossibility of attending more than one panel at the same time.  We can only agree with this and look forward to next year’s edition.

The Victorian Popular Fiction Association would like to thank the British Association for Victorian Studies for its support in providing funding for ten postgraduate bursaries for the conference.

Claire Furlong (University of Exeter) & Anna Gasperini (National University of Ireland, Galway)