NAVSA 2009: Past & Present
Joint Conference with the British Association of Victorian Studies
Report by Alexandra Lewis
This summer in Cambridge has seen the streets festooned with banners, and set the lecture theatres and concert halls reverberating with the music of discussion in celebration of certain milestones. The 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge in 2009 coincided, in July, with the international Darwin Festival, marking 200 years since Charles Darwin’s birth, and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. July also heralded the first joint meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association and the British Association for Victorian Studies – a milestone in its own right. Here, the intersections between present and past – so topical, multifarious, inspiring – were brought firmly to the forefront of our minds.
For three days, over three hundred Victorianists converged upon Churchill College, Cambridge, united by a scholarly desire to debate the theme: ‘Past versus Present’. Prompted by the hosting Cambridge Victorian Studies Group, we asked ourselves ‘how did the Victorians rearrange the past?’ and ‘what new pasts did they discover?’ As the sheer variety of focal areas and interpretive directions assumed by over 150 speakers made apparent, these temporal relationships are more vexed and complicated (though, as Peter Mandler pointed out by way of welcome, not necessarily more adversarial) than people have thought. Across many of the discussions at this conference, past and present were seen to join together as much in startling embrace as in direct opposition. Where that embrace might seem uneasy, so much is it the better for us today in teasing out the nuances of historical specificity. The conference was concerned to explore how nineteenth-century discoveries across diverse fields shaped new disciplines, enabling at once the proliferation of myths of origin (cosmic, geological, biological, historical and anthropological) as well as invent i ve me ans o f ma k ing the pa s t ‘present’ (through photography and museology). The ways in which the Victorians appraised the past, and envisaged their future, in the midst of an avalanche of knowledge have deep resonances for lives and beliefs in the twenty-first century. Assessing nineteenth-century treasure and refuse, both material and philosophical, the more presentist question ‘are we still living in a Victorian world?’ became a dominant facet of discussion. For this, Peter Mandler set the tone at the outset, suggesting that, although we have amended several understandings, timelines and vital questions laid down by the Victorians, we still use inherited frameworks to measure our place in the universe.
The opening plenary paper, delivered by Peter Galison (Harvard) on ‘Scientific Objectivity and the Victorian Will’, reinforced the centrality of interdisciplinarity in Victorian studies. Mapping the way notions of objectivity and mechanical depiction came into existence as scientific virtues, Galison revealed that the distinction between aesthetically satisfying and factually sound observations had not yet arisen in the eighteenth century. Truth, precision and accuracy, often regarded as synonymous, come into collision in Galison’s history of science and visual distortion, illuminating the shift from scientist as sage (1730) to self-controlled worker (1830) to expert offering conditioned judgment (1930). The Victorian ‘moment’, neatly captured by reactions to the first photographs of snowflakes, betrays the potential for distortion in willed objectivity: in 1892, German researchers Hellmann and Neuhauss yearned for ‘the absolute regularity and perfect symmetry’ previously (and erroneously) imposed upon the drawn object.
From thinking seriously about how the divisions of knowledge originated in the nineteenth century, to engaging with the facilitation of untold future discoveries: the Postgraduate Forum offered a range of perspectives on ‘Crossing the Atlantic: Getting that Fellowship from the Other Side of the Ocean’. Thanks go to Vanessa Ryan (Brown), Jay Clayton (Vanderbilt), Kate Flint (Rutgers) and Kate Nichols (Birkbeck, London) for their advice and encouragement.
At the BAVS/NAVSA conference, in active illustration of the plethora of Victorian pasts, the present moved apace: during each of five scheduled sessions, ten panels took place concurrently. Interspersed were four ‘Special Sessions’, clustered around broad themes (including ‘Yesterday’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Learning’). I attended Sally Shuttleworth’s special session on ‘Growing Up’, which fostered the spirit of transatlantic exchange with papers on girlhood in the nineteenth-century United States (Shirley Samuels, Cornell), juvenility and political maturity in early Victorian England (Kathryn Gleadle, Oxford) and the relation between changing bodily size and selfhood (Shuttleworth, Oxford). Navigating different forms of awkwardness – generated by racialised and classspecific anxieties; perceptions of Chartist agency in the face of apparent naivety; and the ‘hobbledy-hoy’ physicality of Victorian boyhood – the speakers deftly unveiled links between literary, political and medical pasts.
For Genie Babb (Alaska) and Aaron Worth (Boston), the Victorians’ relation to and contested methods of recovering the past are nowhere more apparent than in their ‘History of Mind’. Considering H.G. Wells’s critique of Frank Podmore’s work on telepathy, Babb’s paper opened an intriguing dialogue between the issues of scientific objectivity raised in Galison’s plenary and the problematic ‘hearsay’ element of psychic research scrutinised in Wells’s short stories. Responding to Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain (2007), Worth examined the nineteenth-century emergence of the brain as a conceptual locus for or even literal document of the distant past. Breathing literary life into Smail’s account of nineteenth-century historiography, Worth moved from the monologues of Tennyson and Browning, where the brain is frequently depicted as a fossil or the compressed embodiment of deep temporalities, to late-century evolutionary fictions of the specialised brain and the horror of atavistic survivals. In lieu of a third speaker, the session concluded with further consideration of 1890s neuroscience.
The two other panels I attended were explicitly concerned with Victorian legacies for the twenty-first century. Speaking under the rubric of The Reader Organisation, an admirable outreach unit which runs socially inclusive reading groups (in care homes, psychiatric wards, homeless hostels, refugee centres and other settings), Philip Davis (Liverpool), Blake Morrison (Goldsmiths, London) and Josie Billington (Liverpool) engaged with the difficulty of finding meaningful purpose in an increasingly ‘post-religious age’. If secular and theological confusions regarding how best to live and what exactly to make of human experience constitute our metaphysical ‘Victorian heritage’, so too might the close reading of Victorian texts remain a touchstone for marking out, in Davis’s words, our new forms of ‘robust uncertainty’. Building cumulatively toward a modern vision of the role of the Victorian cultural critic, each speaker emphasised the transformative potential of literature and the enduring power of Victorian models of morality and empathy. Reflecting upon his own writing practice and influences, Morrison sketched an Arnoldian approach to public duty informed by Robert Browning’s sense of the poet’s unwavering vision in ‘How It Strikes a Contemporary’: ‘If any beat a horse, you felt he saw; / If any cursed a woman, he took note’. As Morrison observed, modernist scepticism regarding the redemptive power of literature has given way in recent years to something more optimistic, and perhaps more desperate. Moving beyond growing pressure from public bodies formally to evaluate the efficacy of literary interventions in the field of mental health, Billington reminded us that literacy is evolution’s gift to the mind of time to think. She demonstrated how the act of attention to George Eliot’s narrative mediation of gaps and intervals in consciousness can work therapeutically on three levels: at a minimum, giving the reader/ patient ‘time out’ from their condition; showing how the whole person (not just the ‘ill part’) can be addressed; and mobilising the idea that often, it is the ‘best part’ of a character’s ‘self ’ that causes grief and doubt (as for Dorothea in Middlemarch), thus providing hope for recovery. As ‘none of us are particularly articulate when we’re suffering’, Billington suggests, serious literature – democratically disseminated – holds untapped revolutionary potential for sparking individual reflection and, perhaps, greater collective understanding.
In a panel which crossed between art and preservation of the past, educational theory, and sensation fiction, Francis O’Gorman (Leeds), Dinah Birch (Liverpool) and Beth Palmer (Leeds) also considered the vitality of the Victorians in the present world. Acknowledging absence and distance as well as creative continuances, O’Gorman’s discussion of Victorian notions of the historical energies inherent in artworks extended, in his response to a question on the loss of faith, to the ways in which words might enable perpetual life (through repetition) or even, as for Hopkins, figure the suspension of time. Exploring the educational theories of Newman, Arnold and Ruskin, Birch argued persuasively that particular tensions inherent in Victorian aspirations for learning (between autonomy and authority, and surrounding Ruskin’s impression of the ‘creativity of failure’) persist within our often unexamined assumptions about pedagogic dynamics. Tracing the relationship between sensation novels of the 1860s and 1870s and the works of neo-Victorian writers Sarah Waters and Michael Faber, Palmer emphasised patterns of textual self-consciousness in relation to conditions of print culture and mass production.
Indeed, the trend, or genre, of modern rewritings and imaginative engagements with the Victorian period turned out to be one of the conference’s main preoccupations. Both Philip Hensher’s plenary paper and an after-dinner panel featuring three ‘Neo-Victorian Novelists’, chaired by Gillian Beer (Cambridge), examined in detail the problems of proximity and remoteness which plague all historical fictions. Matthew Kneale (author of English Passengers), Giles Waterfield (Markham Thorpe) and Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian) provided compelling insights into the manner in which certain claims and concerns of the present might motivate fictional approaches to the Victorians’ own array of competing histories. The attempt to give voice to the voiceless in history involves respectful imaginative recuperation, tempered by, in Waterfield’s phrase, the fear of creating damage through ‘perpetuating a wrong impression’. In ‘What They Didn’t Get Round To: Writing a Victorian Novel in the 21st Century’, Hensher (The Mulberry Empire) distinguished between the classical historical novel (in the tradition of Scott and Bulwer-Lytton) and its neo-historical descendants. Critical of the tendency of some modern historical novels ‘to know better’ or to belabour description with details which, while accurate, are beyond the ken of their characters, he praised those approaches which either seek to cover ‘in a Victorian way’ themes not fully explored in nineteenth-century works, or which rediscover Victorian structures (here, Sarah Waters’s ‘reintroduction of the plot twist’). To Hensher, while sex and prostitution were conveyed in shadowed form in nineteenthcentury fiction, it is the gaps of empire that the neo-Victorian novelist might work to fill. His casual dismissal of Edward Said’s ideas (which have, according to Hensher, been ‘discredited’) caused some controversy, which has continued to air in comments posted on Mary Beard’s Times Online blog, ‘A Don’s Life’ (‘Victorians in Cambridge’, 15 July 2009).
A forum within which provocative comment leading to sustained debate was specifically encouraged was provided in the conference workshops. Preparatory reading on ten topics including the Bible, Medievalism and Music had been made available online. Participating in ‘Evolution for Victorians’ (and for Victorianists), skilfully led by Gowan Dawson (Leicester), I was struck by the way our range of perspectives on literature, religion and the history of science were brought fruitfully to bear on discussion of competition and altruism and – in the arena of counterfactual histories – how ‘natural’ or otherwise might be the ‘selection’ of prevailing historical narratives, and their iconic figures.
Attention to competing perspectives was maintained by Mary Beard’s highly entertaining plenary paper on ‘Pompeii for the Victorians’. Her excavations of accounts of Pompeii both as a city of the dead and of living history (the scene of reenactments) drew attention to potential slippage between viewpoints apparently ‘factual’ and ‘fictionalised’: creative descriptions of the city garnered the gleam of archetypal ‘truth’, while ‘spontaneous finds’ staged for the nineteenth-century tourist granted archeological discovery the air of spoof. The polyphony characteristic of this conference, and the thrilling defamiliarisation enabled by frank exchange between past and present, were brought to heightened dramatic register by Simon Schama’s closing plenary paper. Schama managed impressively to emulate even as he analysed a distinctive ‘Gothic Language’: that of ‘Carlyle and the Morality of Exuberance’. Carlyle aimed at a kind of prose-poetry which would reach beyond the ‘self-admiring strut’ he discerned in the canon of philosophical history, and enable the expression of a past ‘too profound, too cosmically grand’ to be confined to the aridities of prose conventions. In Schama’s view, it was Carlyle who freed the American transcendentalists such as Thoreau to explore a different history in terms ‘as natural as the rough New England countryside’. Despite advocating a less unruly performative vocabulary for historians today, Schama’s own ‘elemental utterance’ approached the ‘pyrotechnic’ brilliance of Carlylian style, leaving his audience momentarily spellbound.
A choice of three outings – to view Colleges, gardens or treasures of Victorian Cambridge – completed proceedings. In my case, a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum was enhanced by the rich commentary of Jim Secord (Cambridge) and curator Jane Munro on the ‘Endless Forms: Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts’ exhibition. The efforts of the conference committee – Peter Mandler, Clare Pettitt, Adelene Buckland, Simon Goldhill, Michael Ledger-Lomas and Anna Vaninskaya – and the enthusiasm of all participants ensured that ‘Past versus Present’ was an experience which will be remembered long into the future.