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BARS Blog

News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Lucy Johnson

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Report from Writing Lives Together (University of Leicester, 2015) – Lucy Johnson

Alfred Tennyson with book, by Julia Margaret Cameron

The 2015 Writing Lives Together: Romantic and Victorian Biography conference was held on the 18th September at the University of Leicester.  Organised by Dr Felicity James and Dr Julian North, the day provided fascinating papers and stimulating discussion (along with a fabulous lunch!).

The opening keynote lecture, ‘Adventures of an Unromantic Biographer’, was delivered by Dr Daisy Hay (University of Exeter), in which she discussed the ‘creative potential of life-writing’ for women who have been ‘erased from history’.  In this compelling lecture, Hay framed life-writing as an empowering act that can give voice and autonomy to those who might otherwise have been silenced.

The first panel I attended was Women Writing Together, and it was opened by Dr Amy Culley (University of Lincoln).  Her paper, titled ‘Ageing, authorship, and female friendship in the life writing of Mary Berry and Joanna Baillie’, examined the life writing of Mary Berry (1763-1852) through the lens of her friendship with Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) during the two writers’ later lives.  Culley discussed the processes of supporting each other as older literary women, and provided a fascinating reading of rry’s desire to leave a legacy of sorts that might inspire creative acts in other older women.   Culley’s discussion of the ‘gendering’ of the experience of old age gave an especially interesting and unique perspective on the perhaps overlooked complexity of an older woman writer’s role in eighteenth and nineteenth century literary communities.

Next up was Dr Catherine Delafield (Independent), with her paper ‘“I attempt no memoir”: Austen family values and the letter as life writing’.  Delafield examined the two-volume edition of the letters of Jane Austen published by her great-nephew Lord Brabourne in 1884 as an ‘answer’ to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen (1870), and discussed how the two texts formed a dialogue on the ‘ownership’ of Austen as a figure.  As Delafield demonstrated, Austen herself has been frequently marginalised in the various attempts to write her life.

The final paper on this panel was delivered by Professor Valerie Sanders (University of Hull).  In ‘The Many Lives of Elizabeth Fry’, she analysed how women write together as editors after the subject’s death, and asked whether editors could be considered writers or collaborators.  Sanders looked at the vexed issue of family members editing other family members’ lives through the prism of Fry’s daughters’ decision to write their mother’s life, asking who ultimately ‘owns’ or ‘controls’ life-writing.

Following the aforementioned fabulous lunch, the second round of panels took place.  I was presenting on Collaborative Suppressions and Experiments, which was opened by Dr Emily Paterson Morgan (Independent) with her paper, ‘Repackaging Peacock: The Collaborative Censorship of The Life and Works of Thomas Love Peacock’.  In this compelling and diverse paper, Morgan examined Peacock’s deconstruction of his own life and explored how this potentially conflicted with the ‘repackaging’ of Peacock’s reputation by the friends who wrote his life.  In particular, Morgan highlighted Peacock’s antipathy towards biography, and discussed how Peacock’s granddaughter  Edith Nichols’ provided a ‘deceptively’ edited version of his life.

Following my own paper, Dr Jane Darcy (UCL) closed the panel with ‘Contemporary portraits of Tennyson’.  Darcy explored the conflict between Tennyson’s disregard for fame and the desire of his circle of friends who wished to record and memorialise aspects of their life with the poet.  In particular, her paper focused on the link between Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait photographs of the poet and the ‘biographical narratives’ of Tennyson’s daughter Anny Thackeray Ritchie.  This paper was a genuine highlight for me, bringing to life the unique and vivid character of Anny Thackeray in particular, complemented by some of Cameron’s stunningly intimate photographs. Darcy also drew our attention to two upcoming exhibitions of Cameron’s work to mark the bicentenary of the artist’s birth: Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A, running 28 November 2015 to 21 February 2016, and Influence and Intimacy at the Science Museum, running 24 September 2015 to 28 March 2016.

The third and final panel I attended was Women Writing Together II, and was opened by Rebecca Shuttleworth (University of Leicester) with her paper ‘The Domestic Politics of Life-Writing: Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts, and Rewritten Identities in Dissenting 19th Century Biography’.  Shuttleworth examined the various tensions inherent in how these women chose to present their identities versus how they have been depicted by Victorian biographers, and the ways in which this contrasted with how Watts and Heyrick presented themselves as activists and anti-slavery abolitionists.

Next was Dr Amber Regis’s (University of Sheffield) paper, ‘Canine collaboration: memory, reflection, and human-animal voices in Lucy Thornton’s The Story of a Poodle (1889)’.  In this lovely and engaging paper, Regis examined how Thornton ‘made didactic use of Gaston’s [the poodle] life’, exploring the analogy between children and animals.  This is, Regis told us, the only example she knows of human-animal autobiography and biography, and she explored the concept of dog and mistress as ‘literary collaborators’.

The third and final paper was given by Dr Rebecca Styler (University of Lincoln), ‘Finding Vocation Through the Lives of Others: Josephine Butler’s Spiritual Auto/Biographies’.  She discussed how feminist and reformer Butler ‘overcame her fear of ‘unfeminine’ public discourse’ in order to lead the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act that placed her in direct opposition to the establishment of the later Victorian period.

The closing keynote lecture was given by Professor David Amigoni (University of Keele), and was titled ‘Writing Lives Together in the Darwin Family, 1804-1876: gender, heredity, and authority’.  Amigoni discussed Gwen Raverat’s memories of her grandfather Charles Darwin in Period Piece, and highlighted how those writing lives on the Darwin family conceptualised sympathy as a ‘key moral category in life writing’, particularly in how it influences readers’ perceptions.  Amigoni also discussed Nora Barlow’s publication of Darwin’s Beagle diary as a focal point in the construction of his afterlife persona.

Many thanks to the organisers Dr James and Dr North and to all involved in making this a genuinely fantastic, friendly, and diverse day!

– Lucy Johnson, University of Chester.

Report from BARS 2015: Romantic Imprints – Lucy Johnson

(We’re very glad to welcome Lucy Johnson, of the University of Chester, to the BARS Blog, with a first post taking an in-depth look at two of the panels from Romantic Imprints – Ed.).

The 2015 British Association for Romantic Studies International Conference was held in Cardiff this July.  Entitled Romantic Imprints, the conference boasted an extraordinary array of interdisciplinary and wide-ranging scholarship on various facets of Romanticism, and delegates were greeted with a feast of ideas from which to choose.  I was lucky enough to attend a number of incredibly interesting and thought-provoking panels, and it is space alone that requires me to limit this report to two panels in particular.

The 1:45 PM Thursday panel I attended was Apocalypse and Ruination, chaired by Diane Piccitto (Mount Saint Vincent University).  This panel took a fascinating and diverse approach to the inspirational pull of apocalyptic imagery on the Romantic imagination, spanning from the real-life destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii to a wide-ranging set of analyses of the depiction of millennium in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

The first paper was given by Sophie Thomas (Ryerson University, Canada) and was entitled ‘Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Imprint of the Ancient World’.  Thomas explored Romantic responses to the newly excavated Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, both destroyed in the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and the ways in which contemporary writers imagined and reconstructed the ruined image of these places.  Thomas discussed how both Herculaneum and Pompeii were represented as sites where ‘life and death are wedded’ and how excavations of the towns inspired ‘paper museums’ for the modern world.

Objects from the sites, she explained, were extracted from their destroyed context and placed in museums, presented in a beautified style.  These ‘fantasies of re-animation and restoration’, Thomas argued, derived from Pompeii’s position as a site that offered ‘free play of the imagination’ for writers who were compelled by its Romantic mingling of destruction and re-generation through that destruction.

Thomas went on to explore how the ruin of the Villa of Diomedes ‘infused literary responses’, discussing how ‘the impression of a woman’s form…found at the uncovering of Herculaneum’ inspired Felicia Hemans’s 1827 poem ‘The Image in Lava’.  Similarly, William Branwhite Clarke’s ‘Pompeii, a poem’ presents its fall as beneficial to future poetic arts, depicting Pompeii at the height of its former glory and its subsequent destruction as an invaluable source of Romantic inspiration.  Thomas’s excellent paper was especially effective when discussing the very tangible evidence of life and death depicted in the Pompeii poems and how they bridged a gap of time, emblemised most touchingly in Robert Stephen Hawker’s ‘Pompeii’ where ‘the path just worn by human feet…almost reach the listening ear’.

The second paper was delivered by Olivia Murphy (University of Sydney, Australia), entitled ‘Apocalypse Not Quite: Romanticism and the Post-Human World’Murphy discussed how for the early generation of Romantics, the concept of apocalypse or millennium was associated with the possibility for earthly regeneration and ‘the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth’.  People anticipated the millennium with hope rather than fear.  However, for later generations of Romantic texts, and particularly texts that were conceived post-French Revolution, the millennium began to be associated with an increased sense of impending apocalyptic destruction.  Murphy argued that Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man depicts the psychological trauma arising from the suspense that collective extinction that could come at any time, and that the later Romantic period heralded our modern negative view of the millennium/apocalypse.  Murphy speculated that the imaginative origins of this conception of apocalypse may be located in the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia that caused the ‘year without a summer’ of 1816, when the Shelleys and Byron gathered at the Villa Diodati.  Indeed, Murphy explored how The Last Man might be viewed as a specifically ‘post-Tambora’ text; where the narrator Lionel Verney muses on the vulnerabilities and interconnectedness of humanity, Murphy described how Morton Paley views The Last Man as ‘apocalypse without millennium.’

The final paper on this panel was given by Kirstyn J. Leuner (Dartmouth College, US), on ‘Mary Shelley’s New Media in The Last Man‘.  In this inventive and interesting paper, Leuner rejected the pervasively argued idea that there is no technological progression in Shelley’s text, and instead focused on the novel’s representations of the diorama as new media.  She contextualised the diorama alongside its predecessor the panorama, discussing how the diorama might be interpreted as a facility for life writing.  Leuner argued that Shelley depicts the diorama as a futuristic mixed media form, a means of archiving media and preserving the past.  Leuner presented an extremely compelling re-reading of the role of ‘future technology’ in The Last Man, a text that has previously been interpreted as lacking in concrete ‘futuristic’ elements; she demonstrated, for example, how the Sybil’s cave could be read as a form of diorama in itself, and argued that the novel specifically presents reading (or the reading of memories) as an act of spectating.  This view was augmented by a series of interesting audience questions that highlighted the unreliability of the narrative voice in Shelley’s novel, suggesting that the story could change or be re-read depending on how it is assembled via the Sybil’s leaves.

On Friday, the 9:30 AM themed panel, Imprinting Anglo-Italian Relations in The Liberal, was chaired by Michael Tomko (Villanova University, US).  This panel was sponsored by the Inter-University Centre for Romantic Studies (University of Bologna, Italy) and is part of a long-running, wider-ranging project focusing on The Liberal and its various contributors.

Serena Baiesi (University of Bologna, Italy) kicked off the panel with her paper, ‘Leigh Hunt as Editor and Contributor to The Liberal‘.  Examining Leigh Hunt’s crucial role in the development of The Liberal, Baiesi argued that the journal was always part of a complex editorial plan, not just the meteoric and badly thought out flash in the pan it has commonly been represented as.  Hunt, Baiesi said, believed passionately that the influencing of public opinion was the only true way of overthrowing despotism, and he aspired to reproduce the ‘English spirit of liberalism’ in Italy via the medium of The Liberal.

Up next was Franca Dellarosa (University of Bari Aldo Moro, Italy).  Her paper, ‘Cockney Imprint: Notes on the Reception of The Liberal, 1822′, focused specifically on the contemporary responses to and reception of The Liberal.  Dellarosa discussed the significance of the journal’s title, referring to the ‘semantic transformation of the meaning of the word: old as well as new’.  Dellarosa’s contextualising of the tumultuous political atmosphere of the time was fascinating, as she explored how the Blackwood’s – arch-enemy of the cockney school – campaign against The Liberal significantly influenced its ultimately negative public reception.

The third paper was by Fabio Liberto, (University of Bologna, Italy).  In ‘Italian and British Representations in The Liberal’, Liberto asked whether The Liberal’s development was indeed ‘lacking in coordination and common sense’, as has so frequently been claimed.  He discussed how Italy was conceptualised by the journal’s developers as a ‘metonymic literary outpost’ to defend the cause of freedom, and discussed Mary Shelley’s use of Italy as an ‘ideological topos’ in her short story contribution to The Liberal, ‘A Tale of the Passions’.  Shelley’s parallel between old and new Italies, Liberto argued, was meant as an admonishment to the modern world.

The final paper on this jam-packed panel was presented by Gioia Angeletti (University of Parma, Italy).  In ‘Byron’s Emancipatory Poetics’, Angeletti argued that The Liberal was not simply a disaster but remains a rich and compelling testament to this unique moment in political Romanticism.  She examined how Byron’s desire to return to his native country may allow us to read his writing for The Liberal an attempt at rapprochement with England.  The journal was, for Byron, a ‘bi-cultural project’; never willing to abandon his roots, The Liberal became strikingly personal as well as political.

– Lucy Johnson, University of Chester.