Study Day Report: Women & the East (June 2022)

International VPFA Study Day
“Women & the East: Gendered Narratives of Encounter in Victorian Popular Writing” (10–11 June 2022)

On the 10th and 11th of June, 2022, delegates from eleven countries met, in presence and online, for the first International Study Day of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association (VPFA) to explore and investigate representations of “Women & the East” in Victorian popular writing. The event, organized by Gabriele d’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara in collaboration with Bishop Grosseteste University (Lincoln, UK), was held in Pescara. Funded by the two Universities and VPFA, and sponsored by AISCLI and CUSVE, the Study Day was convened by Mariaconcetta Costantini, Claudia Capancioni and Mara Mattoscio, who envisioned it as a valuable opportunity to reflect on popular narratives of encounter composed in an age of geopolitical and gender instability.

Papers were arranged in six panels devoted to different geographical areas – from Eastern Europe to the Ottoman Empire, from Egypt to the Middle East, from India to the Far East. The first day started and ended with a focus on Egypt, a land that, by the late nineteenth century, became a magnet of specialist and popular interest, as well as a main international travelling destination. Three papers focused on the figure of Lucy Duff Gordon, a British woman who visited Egypt for health reasons and, though still conforming to some Orientalist stereotypes, mediated between the two cultures challenging both Victorian British and Egyptian attitudes. Other speakers explored the lure of archaeological artifacts on travellers such as Harriet Martineau or Amelia Edwards, or dealt with gendered life experiences in Egypt recorded in autobiographical writings and fictions. The panels devoted to Eastern Europe and the Middle East offered fresh views of the heroism of Greek women perceived through the eyes of British periodical contributors, of prejudiced approaches to Hungary manifest in writings by Emma Orczy, as well as of travel impressions recorded by women from two different countries – Britain and Italy – who strove to convey realistic images of middle eastern femininity. A variety of connections between imperialism and gender politics were drawn in the panel on India, which provided thought-provoking readings of fictional and nonfictional texts pivoting around women’s victimization, political resistance, travel experiences and professionalism. Food for thought was also offered by the panel on the Far East. The three papers analysed British women travellers’ encounters with Chinese society, Japanese culture, and the rich natural environment of the Malay Archipelago, raising questions of female propriety, safety, and conventions of scientific knowledge.

This Study Day was enriched by Julia Kuehn’s keynote lecture entitled, “‘A Vision for an Artist – a female artist’: Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann and the Traditions of Middle Eastern Travels and Popular Representations of the Harem”. Kuehn introduced women travellers’ representations of Turkey and later delved into the life and work of an impressive, but still little known, artist – German-Polish-Danish painter Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann – who contributed to popularizing images of Turkish culture and women, especially of feminine roles within harems. Together with the other speakers, Kuehn opened up a discussion about the popularity of Victorian Oriental stereotypes, the challenges of interethnic encounters, the gendering of travel writing, and women’s roles across cultures, raising issues that remain highly topical nowadays.

Further details on the Study Day, including programme and abstracts, can be found on the Study Day website (LINK).