News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Archive for December 2015

On Christmas Day in 1815: Charles Lamb’s letter to Thomas Manning

Thankyou to Lucy Hodgetts (University of York) for this festive post which continues the ‘On This Day’ series. Her blog discusses Charles Lamb’s letter to Thomas Manning exactly 200 years ago on the 25th December 1815.

(If you’d like to contribute a post to this blog series next year please contact


Charles Lamb, by William Hazlitt (1804)

Charles Lamb, by William Hazlitt (1804)


‘Dear Old Friend and Absentee’: Charles Lamb’s letter to Thomas Manning, 25th December, 1815.

by Lucy Hodgetts

Very few letters addressed to Charles Lamb still exist, apart from those written by the sinologist Thomas Manning. One of the first British scholars of Chinese language and culture, Manning was a friend and inspiration to Lamb throughout his writing life. Manning was the ‘friend M.’ from whom Elia professed to have received the translated Chinese manuscript which inspired ‘A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig’.

Manning was a gifted mathematician and was accepted to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1790 to study Maths, but sharing the Quaker antipathy towards oaths meant he never took a degree. He stayed in Cambridge studying medicine and teaching maths, and met Lamb in 1799. While at Cambridge, Manning became interested in the study of Chinese language and culture and in 1802 travelled to Paris to study Chinese under Dr Hagar at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Manning planned to travel to China and, in need of a useful trade, returned to England in 1805 to gain practical medical experience at Westminster Hospital. Manning was granted permission by the court directors of the East India Company to travel and live as a doctor in an English factory in Canton (Guangzhou), and left for China in May 1806. Unsuccessful in his attempts to travel into China’s interior, Manning stayed mainly in Canton until 1810 when he set out for the holy city of Lhasa (now the capital of Tibet), via Calcutta. Manning travelled without government permission, but arrived in Lhasa in December 1811. He was the first British traveller to reach the holy city and was even granted an audience with the Dalai Lama, then a seven-year-old boy. Manning left Lhasa in April 1812 and remained in Canton until 1816.

During Manning’s long absence abroad, Lamb wrote to his friend on Christmas Day, 1815, pondering upon the supposed impossibility of Christmas in Canton:

This is Christmas-day 1815 with us; what it may be with you I don’t know, the 12th of June next year perhaps; and if it should be the consecrated season with you, I don’t see how you can keep it. You have no turkeys; you would not desecrate the festival by offering up a withered Chinese bantam, instead of the savoury grand Norfolcian holocaust, that smokes all around my nostrils at this moment from a thousand firesides. Then what puddings have you? Where will you get holly to stick in your churches, or churches to stick your dried tea-leaves (that must be the substitute) in? What memorials you can have of the holy time, I see not.

– (C.L. to Manning, Dec. 25th, 1815. From The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb, vol 3: 1809-1817, ed. Edwin W. Marrs. Cornell University Press, 1978.)

In language prescient of De Quincey’s opium-eater, Lamb encourages his friend to take leave of the ‘Pagodas’, ‘idols’, and ‘wretched reliques’ of ‘Babylon’, enticing him with the nostalgic tastes and smells of home. For Lamb, it is the ‘faces fragrant with the mince-pies of half a century, that alone can authenticate the cheerful mystery’ of the Nativity. It is the domestic comforts and folk traditions of Christmas at home, rather than any religious doctrine, that represents the civilized ideal of England in this letter. In pitting the festive traditions of the ‘holy tide’ against those of the ‘unedified heathen’, Lamb elides a personal nostalgia for home with a patriotic pride in Western civilisation.

In an extended conceit, Lamb exaggerates the time Manning has spent abroad to imagine the future decay of his homeland. ‘And in sober sense what makes you so long from among us, Manning?’ asks Lamb. ‘You must not expect to see the same England again which you left.’ Lamb describes a near future in which England has altered radically in Manning’s absence: ‘empires have been overturned, crowns trodden into dust, the face of the western world quite changed’. London landmarks, icons of empire and progress, have decayed and vanished: ‘St. Paul’s Church is a heap of ruins; the Monument isn’t half so high as you knew it, […] the horse at Charing Cross is gone, no one knows whither’. Lamb joshes that in the time it has taken Manning to master the arcane minutiae of a foreign civilisation, he has missed the total downfall of his own: ‘and all this has taken place while you have been settling whether Ho-hing-tong should be spelt with a —- or a —-.’

In typical digressive style, Lamb’s reverie of the future shifts into a more personal key. ‘Poor Godwin!’ he laments. ‘I was passing his tomb the other day in Cripplegate churchyard. There are some verses upon it written by Miss Hayes [sic].’ Coleridge is ‘just dead, having lived just long enough to close the eyes of Wordsworth, who paid the debt to nature but a week or two before’. Godwin and Coleridge do not escape Lamb’s lampoon of academia either. While Godwin’s theories die with him, ‘ten feet deep in Cripplegate mould’, Coleridge has left behind ‘more than forty thousand treatises in criticism and metaphysics, but few of them in a state of completion. They are now destined, perhaps, to wrap up spices’. A light hearted warning to his friend on the ephemeral nature of cloistered scholarship, and on the cyclical rise and fall of empires, Lamb’s letter can also be read as a reproach on neglected friendships: ‘You see what mutations the busy hand of Time has produced, while you have consumed in foolish voluntary exile that time which might have gladdened your friends’.

Thomas Manning, by J.M. Davis (1805)

Thomas Manning, by J.M. Davis (1805)

Despite the decay of civilisation, and the mutability of its monuments and institutions, the precious friendship between Lamb and Manning endures. Lamb depicts a future in which the elderly friends will reminisce nostalgically for their Cambridge youth. In a touching conclusion, he implores the future Manning to ‘come to your old home. I will rub my eyes and try to recognise you. We will shake withered hands together, and talk of old things – of St. Mary’s Church and the barber’s opposite, where the young students in mathematics used to assemble’. Here, temporal distance emphasizes geographical division. Lamb’s intense and evocative yearning for a recent past is projected onto Manning’s physical remoteness. Lamb asks Manning to imagine a future in which their shared memories of a recent life will then be remembered as ‘old things’, perhaps with the aim of intensifying his friend’s twinges of homesickness. Lamb plays upon the precarious definitions of nostalgia and homesickness for emotive effect in this letter. Nostalgia is a Greek neologism, from ‘nostos’ meaning home, and ‘algos’ meaning a ‘painful longing’, and in the eighteenth century was regarded as an acute homesickness in those who travelled widely. Lamb’s letter demonstrates the transition of nostalgia from a form of homesickness for a physical place, to a longing for an idealised past or nationhood. Most of all, it shows how the pinning for idealised places or experiences often belies a powerful longing for an absent friend:

You like oysters and to open them yourself; I’ll get you some if you come in oyster time. [James] Marshall, Godwin’s old friend, is still alive, and talks of the faces you used to make.
Come as soon as you can.

 C. Lamb

Conference Report: ‘Marilyn Butler and the War of Ideas’

Many thanks to Grace Harvey (University of Lincoln) for contributing to the BARS Blog the report below, detailing her experience of the warm and welcoming ‘Marilyn Butler and the War of Ideas’ conference held at Chawton a couple of weeks ago.  Further details of the conference can be found on the Chawton House Library site and via the Chawton House Library Facebook group.



Marilyn Butler


‘Marilyn Butler and the War of Ideas: A Commemorative Conference’ was held on the 11th and 12th of December at Chawton House.  Organised by Gillian Dow and Linda Bree, the two days featured unrivalled discussions and research that celebrated the life and work of Marilyn Butler.

The first day was opened by James Chandler (University of Chicago), whose keynote, ‘Edgeworth and Austen (and Butler)’, spoke warmly of his friendship with Butler and drew attention to the sheer extent of her career and influence.  His consideration of slavery, money, and Butler’s discussions of Austen, Edgeworth and Smith, amongst others, effortlessly encapsulated the convivial and celebratory tone of the conference.

The first panel was an opening discussion that, like Chandler’s keynote, was peppered with personal remarks about Butler in addition to discussions of work inspired by and produced in response to Butler’s.  Janet Todd (University of Cambridge) spoke of the male-authored memoirs of Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft in her paper, ‘Male Memory, female subject: the case of Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft’.  Following this, Cora Kaplan (Queen Mary, University of London and Southampton) discussed how Butler’s work encourages readers to feature a wide variety of obscure and disparate individuals in her paper ‘War of Ideas: Butler and Feminism at two fin-de siècle’.  Clara Tuite’s (University of Melbourne) ‘Austenian Badlands and the War of Ideas’ discussed the negotiation of politics and history through form, and Ros Ballaster (University of Oxford) concluded the opening discussion with a consideration of the place of the aesthetic in feminist recovery, in her paper ‘Passing Judgement: the place of the aesthetic in feminist literary history’.

Moving into the afternoon, the rest of the conference programme entailed the bittersweet demands of parallel panels, but the inevitable gaps in the following report have been filled by numerous scholars using the #MBWarofIdeas Twitter hashtag.  The first session I attended was opened by Jacqueline Labbe’s (University of Sheffleld) ‘The Editor and Mrs Smith: Who is She?’.  Here, Labbe queried how we might position Smith as a novelist and as a poet, as well as the complex relationship between author and narrator, and questioned the challenges this poses to readers.  Following on from this, Amy Culley (University of Lincoln) and Anna Fitzer (University of Hull) spoke of their joint endeavours in editing women’s writing.  In their paper ‘Editing Women’s Writing 1670-1840: Textual Editing and Women’s Literary History’, they presented the challenges and concerns editors face when approaching documentary evidence, giving a survey of the field drawing on their forthcoming co-edited collection on the subject.

After a quick tea break, the second parallel session commenced.  Jane Spencer (University of Exeter) begun the panel I attended with, ‘Learned pigs: animal imagery in radical culture of the 1790s’.  Spencer’s discussion of the politicised swine demonstrated how these symbols pertain to far-reaching implications.  Mary Fairclough (University of York) started to query the lightning bolt moment we all so fondly associate with cinematic appropriations of Frankenstein in her paper ‘Frankenstein, Electricity and Chemistry’.  Here, Fairclough traced references to science to surgeons William Lawrence and John Abernathy in order to insist that we should not reduce Shelley’s text to a “galvanic shockfest”.  In the final paper of this panel, Michael Rossington (University of Newcastle) drew attention to Percy Shelley’s recently resurfaced poetry in his paper ‘Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things: a newly recovered Shelley poem and its contents’.  In addition to providing an overview of how we might position this within Shelley’s own literary works, Rossington was keen to consider how this text might suggest new ways in which we can illuminate Shelley’s personal and political positions.


Linda Bree - Mapping Mythologies

Linda Bree, with Mapping Mythologies


Concluding the day’s celebrations, the final session was a warm reflection on Butler as editor and featured the launch of Mapping Mythologies, Butler’s last major work.  Josie Dixon spoke of Marilyn’s legacy as series editor (for Cambridge University Press’s Studies in Romanticism) and more generally championed her commitment to providing rich and accessible tools for the aspiring scholar.  Heather Glen shared her intimate and personal memories of Butler, and suggested how her character shaped her work as much as her ideas.  She offered a unique insight into Butler’s writing processes and spoke of the processes that she herself undertook in editing Butler’s final work.  David Butler closed the session with wit and affection, concluding the first day with as much warmth as that with which it opened.

Fuelled by both an excellent day of convivial discussion and a well-earned glass of wine, we were all promptly ushered into dinner where these conversations continued.  Post-dinner entertainment was generously provided by undergraduate musicians from the University of Southampton, led by Professor David Owen Norris and featuring a fine Edgeworthian interlude from Gillian Dow.

Moving into the second day, Anthony Mandal (Cardiff University) opened the first of the parallel sessions with his thoughts on gender and authorship.  In his paper ‘The Business of Ideas: Women’s Fiction and the Romantic Literary Marketplace’, Mandal drew attention to ‘Mrs Meeke’ and the Minerva Press to suggest how writers employed and exploited new markets for literature.  Serena Baiesi (University of Bologna) continued to discuss how we might position Edgeworth’s fiction following Butler’s seminal editions in ‘Rewriting the Genre of ‘Romances of Real Life’: Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen’.  In the final paper of this session, ‘Illegitimacy and the Haunting of Jane Austen’s Novels’, Isobel Armstrong (Birkbeck, University of London) discussed the role of illegitimacy in the novels of Jane Austen and traced features of Emma back to King Lear.

Following a brief tea break, I now took my own position at the helm in the second session of the day.  Following Chris Ewers’s (Independent) stimulating discussion of topography in the work of Jane Austen and Robert Bage, ‘”Anticipating” Austen: Hermsprong and the Geography, of “3 or 4 families in a Country Village”’, I gave my paper, ‘Man as He is Not: ReDefining and ReAligning Robert Bage’.  Ian Haywood (University of Roehampton) rounded this session off with his thoughts on ‘Arts for the People in a Revolutionary Decade: Jacobinism and the Poet’s Gallery’.  In the closing remarks of the panel, Haywood discussed the complex systems of visual culture, and alluded to the wider implications of these fascinating prints.

Moving into the final parallel session of the day, Fiona Price (University of Chichester) spoke passionately of the works of Jane West.  In ‘Romantic Nationalism and the Sublime Church: Jane West’s Historical Fiction’, Price discussed how West inverts and subverts political affiliation in response to the 1790s’ radical politics. Michael Falk (University of Kent) discussed how readers might employ Butler to unique ends in his paper, ‘Butler’s Sociology’.  Using the work of Amelia Opie as a ‘case-study’, Falk injected laughter and wit into his discussion of Butler’s legacy, and suggested how her appropriation of Bourdieu is a model for comparative work.  Gary Farnell (University of Winchester) provided the final paper of this session and suggested how Butler’s work remains independent in schools of thoughts in his discussion of ‘Marilyn Butler’s Open Literary History’.


Coleman - Mee - Leask

Deirdre Coleman, Jon Mee and Nigel Leask


The two excellent days concluded in brief remarks in the closing discussion.  First to the lectern was Mark Philp (University of Warwick), who in his paper ‘Intimate Friends in the 1790s’ called on William Godwin’s diary to open discussions of the prevalence, or indeed lack thereof, of women in intellectual and radical circles.  Nigel Leask’s (University of Glasgow) brief discussion, ‘Marilyn Butler and Devolutionary Romanticism’, paid tribute to those areas of Butler’s work that considered diverse communities of writing.  Deirdre Coleman (University of Melbourne) shared her experiences of receiving feedback from Butler throughout ‘Marilyn Butler and ‘the mind’s eye’ of the author’, and reminded all of Butler’s preference for Romanticism without Wordsworth.  Jon Mee (University of York) rounded this final session off with his short paper ‘Transpennine Enlightenment: Power and Knowledge in the North’.  During this brief discussion, Mee pointed to the north of England as a hothouse for improvement and cited the spreading literary and philosophical societies as examples of this, before offering concluding thoughts on women’s membership.

As with almost all of the previous sessions, these final remarks paid homage to Marilyn Butler’s personal and professional legacy, and this fabulous two-day conference was characterised by a warmth and intimacy that rarely features in academic conferences.  Many thanks indeed to Gillian and Linda for organising such a wonderful celebration!

Baylor University Conference: The Uses of ‘Religion’ in 19th-Century Studies

Uses of Religion in Nineteenth Century Studies

BARS members who can make it to Texas in the spring are invited by the organisers to attend “The Uses of ‘Religion’ in 19th-Century Studies”, a conference at Baylor University, which will be held in the Armstrong Browning Library from March 16-19, 2016. A list of panels, speakers, and presentations can be seen here.

The conference features an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars who will participate in a variety of panels to examine how the category “religion” was constructed and deployed in nineteenth-century literature and culture, and to reflect self-critically on how scholarship invokes that category now. The conference will feature presentations by literary scholars, historians, art historians, and scholars of religion and theology that will extend our understanding of the uses of “religion” as a category and inform future academic conversation.

“The Uses of ‘Religion’ in 19th-Century Studies” conference, including a special concert on the Friday, is free to all who wish to attend. Registration is only required for those who are not on the program and plan to eat meals on Thursday and/or Friday (March 17 and/or March 18). The registration fees are $90 for meals on both days and $50 for meals on one day. Conference registration is now open.

Conference Report: ‘Difficult Women 1680-1830’

Thank you to Lucy Hodgetts and Marissa Bolin for the following reports from the interdisciplinary conference ‘Difficult Women 1680-1830’ held at the University of York on the 27th-28th November 2015.

To see the tweets from this conference please have a look at the Storify (day 1 and day 2). More information can also be found on the conference website.


Conference title


Report by Lucy Hodgetts (PhD candidate, University of York)

‘Difficult Women’ was a two-day conference put together with the aim of uniting scholars working on representations and conceptions of women in literature, theatre, art, and science of the long eighteenth century. The term ‘difficult women’ encapsulates a plethora of figures that resisted accepted norms of femininity, and who challenged the expectations of their gender by innovative means. This interdisciplinary conference was a vibrant reflection of current research into the numerous ways in which women were considered to be ‘difficult’.

Shearer West’s keynote lecture, ‘What Do Difficult Women Look Like?’ set the tone for a truly interdisciplinary conference by exploring a range of artistic interpretations of femininity. West argued that over the long eighteenth century women became more ‘difficult’ as they became more visible, and thus more visualised. The central tension in these stylisations was between the interplay of particularity and generality. West used portraits of the Duchess of Devonshire to highlight the differences in individualisation in earlier and later representations, and claimed that in attempting to capture something singular in celebrity portraits, artists were actually producing innovative work.


Prof. Shearer West

Prof. Shearer West. Plenary, day 1.


On the second morning of the conference I was lucky enough to chair a panel of three rich and diverse papers, ‘Public, Private, and Class’. The first paper was delivered by Dr Victoria Owens and explored the relationship between the domestic and industrial spheres in the life, career, and marriages of Ann Henshall, a Staffordshire businesswoman. A recent MA graduate from the University of York, Laura Griffin, gave the second paper. Exploring a wealth of graphic caricatures of Princess Charlotte, Griffin’s talk was a fascinating examination of the misguided public-moralizing on female royalty and Britishness. The third paper was delivered by Cecilia Yu-Ting Yen on the relationship between propriety, property and the measuring of individual worth in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and prompted a lively discussion on Austen’s heroines.

The panel ‘Modern and Contemporary Voices’ treated delegates to innovative re-readings of female writers. York PhD student Elizabeth Bobbitt gave a fascinating paper on the role of female antiquaries in Ann Radcliffe’s posthumous historical novels, and offered a refreshing perspective on the gendered role of the antiquary. Emilee Morrall’s paper on hunter/prey relationships in the fiction of Charlotte Smith utilized novel theoretical approaches to explore the role of female agency in Smith’s works. Finally, Professor Ros Ballaster’s paper, ‘Are we difficult enough yet? Feminist literary history and its futures’, argued for a qualitative rather than quantitative grounds for engaging with recovered women writers.

Perhaps my favourite paper of the conference was Kathleen Keown on ‘Difficulties of Influence in Martha Fouke’s amatory verse’. In an infectiously enthusiastic talk, Keown introduced us to the passionate verse of Martha Fouke, known affectionately as ‘Clio’ to her admirers. Keown discussed Fouke’s unique stylistic choices and why they were worth recovering, despite Eliza Haywood’s best efforts to brand Fouke as a libidinous amateur poet. It was a rare achievement to introduce such a historically obscured figure so comprehensively in a fifteen-minute paper, and I left the auditorium with a renewed interest in amatory writing, and a brand new interest in Fouke.

The conference concluded with Professor Harriet Guest’s lecture, ‘The Celebrated Mrs. Robinson’, which explored Mary Robinson’s complex self-representations in portraiture. The stark nature of George Dance’s profile portraits of Mary Robinson and Elizabeth Inchbald were possibly considered by contemporary critics to be unflattering in their attempt to reject popular celebrity and depict more ‘serious’ women of letters. Yet to the modern eye they seemed arresting and stunning in their crisp execution. Like most actresses depicted in character, Robinson’s portraits were considered as continuations of her dramatic performances. Although actresses used such depictions of their roles to mask their personal lives, Robinson’s celebrity resisted this identity switch in innovative ways. Circulated and proliferated strategically to shape her public identity, Robinson’s Warhol-esque image suggested not only a blurring of character and actress, but of public and private lives too.


The contemporary art exhibit '(Difficult) Women' curated by Arlene Leis at the Norman Rea Gallery. The venue for the wine receptions of the conference.

Images from the contemporary art exhibit ‘(Difficult) Women’ curated by Arlene Leis at the Norman Rea Gallery (the venue for the conference wine receptions).


The breadth of papers read at ‘Difficult Women’ was testament to the richness and diversity of current research into women’s roles in eighteenth-century culture. This was a truly inclusive event in which professors, students, and professionals all rubbed shoulders in their discussions of women’s contributions to history, literature, politics, science, art, and material culture. The organisers should be congratulated and thanked for such a triumphant celebration of ‘difficult women’.


Report by Marissa Bolin (PhD candidate, University of York)

Originally intended as a one-day conference focused on the representations of independent and revolutionary women in the eighteenth century, the volume and quality of papers submitted to the University of York’s Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies (CECS) became the basis for a two-day event. The conference was supported through funding from CECS, the Royal Historical Society, the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, and the Humanities Research Centre.

Beginning with Professor Shearer West’s paper entitled “What Did Difficult Women Look Like?” we considered how the eighteenth century became an important period regarding the perception of “difficult women.” West argued that late eighteenth-century portraiture saw a change in the way in which women were presented. Progressing from flattened images of generic female figures, women began to be individualised in art and their images developed specialised identities.


The costume exhibition

The costume exhibition by Lindsey Holmes


The remainder of the first day’s panels focused on eighteenth-century material culture, women’s relationship with men, artistic representations of women, and female identities to explore the importance of the period in the development of “difficult” women. Alison Duncan’s analysis of Jane Innes, an influential aristocrat whose relationship with her brother forced her to become self sufficient, examined the ways in which unmarried women struggled to conform to social expectations. Dr. Rachel Turner and Heather Carroll, in contrast, investigated how women such as Kitty Fischer, Frances Abington, and Queen Charlotte fought purposefully against social norms, and the ways in which independent identity became visible through artistic representations of these important women.

The second day addressed the concept of extraordinary women and their embodiment of what it truly meant to be “difficult.” The day began with panels on the public and private spheres of women, women on stage, and the mental health of eighteenth century women. Lesley Thulin reflected on the presence of romantic melancholy in the lives of Dorothy Wordsworth and Maria von Herbert; Jack Orchard presented the juxtaposing identities of Catherine Talbot. In addition Eleanor Fitzsimmons’ analysis of Percy Shelley’s first wife Harriet, and Morag Allan Campbell’s look at the development of puerperal insanity, created intriguing perspectives of women of the period. The day also involved a very popular panel on the portrayals of prostitutes, criminals, and female sexuality with presentations by Dr. Drew Gray on the Kotzwarra v. Hill murder trial and by Dr. Ruth Scobie on the Henry Sullivan v. Cowden, Cutler, and Storer trial. Dr. Janice Turner examined the high percentage of women making a living by stealing, while Lizee Oliver analyzed the shocking presentation of women’s sexuality.


Prof. Harriet Guest

Prof. Harriet Guest. Plenary, day 2.


The conference concluded with a thought-provoking and in-depth analysis of the image of Mary Robinson by Prof. Harriet Guest, founder of CECS at York. Guest used the ways in which Robinson was presented in letters and in portraiture to argue that unlike the women that West discussed in her opening address, Robinson remained unique in her artistic portrayals. Unlike Siddons, Abington, and Inchbald, Robinson distanced herself from her theatrical roles in order to enhance her private identity.

The two-day conference was well attended and offered a wide range of interesting papers which stimulated  discussion. Delegates contributed a fascinating range of perspectives to a deepening understanding of the ways in which “difficult women” shaped the eighteenth century.

CfP: The London Stage and the Nineteenth-Century World

Please see below for a Call for Papers for ‘The London Stage and the Nineteenth-Century World’, a conference which will take place next April in Oxford.  The deadline is fairly soon (Friday December 11th), but there’s still time for those interested to submit abstracts.

Call for Papers

The London Stage and the Nineteenth-Century World

14-16 April 2016, New College, Oxford

DEADLINE: 11 December 2015

‘Plurality’ might be the most accurate description of the London stage in the nineteenth century: plurality of genre, of style, of theatre buildings. There were new dramatic forms, new technological advances, and new styles of management, not to mention new audiences and ways of attending the theatre.

We welcome contributions on all aspects and forms of drama and theatrical practice, from plays and operas to pantomime and puppetry. Subjects might include: theatrical resources, including collections; the constitution and history of theatrical genres; publishing and circulation; stage biography; music and musicians; scenography and spectacle; and theatrical spaces of all kinds. The ‘London stage’ should be interpreted as inclusively as possible, and we particularly seek papers on such topics as criticism, dance, the staging of the exotic, music hall entertainments, and international influences on London theatre. The meeting will provide an opportunity to take stock of the range of research currently being undertaken in the field as well as a chance to consider the place of London in the broader theatrical and political world.

All sessions will be held at New College, Oxford, with a keynote address by Daniel O’Quinn (University of Guelph) at the Bodleian Library’s new Weston Research Library. The conference is timed to lead up to the Bodleian Library’s exhibition ‘Staging History’, which will be held in the new Weston Research Library in October 2016.

Those wishing to give formal 20-minute papers should submit an abstract of no more than 200 words, and a biography of 100 words. However, we also encourage submissions for discussion panels, and are keen to receive proposals for other formats. The panel for paper selection will be Michael Burden, Jim Davis, Jonathan Hicks, David Francis Taylor, and Susan Valladares.

Proposals should be emailed to; these should reach her by midnight on Friday December 11th.  Other inquiries should be sent to the organisers, and

On This Day in 1815: the Shelleys and ‘Mutability’

The ‘On This Day’ blog continues with a short piece by Anna Mercer on the winter of 1815, discussing P B Shelley’s ‘Mutability’ and the inclusion of this poem in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. To contribute to this blog series, please contact (we are currently seeking posts for next year that relate to literary/historical events in 1816). 

Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, from portraits in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, from portraits in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;

How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,

Streaking the darkness radiantly! – yet soon

Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:


Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings

Give various response to each varying blast,

To whose frail frame no second motion brings

One mood or modulation like the last.


We rest. —A dream has power to poison sleep;

We rise. —One wandering thought pollutes the day;

We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;

Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:


It is the same! —For, be it joy or sorrow,

The path of its departure still is free:

Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;

Nought may endure but Mutability.


P B Shelley’s ‘Mutability’ is an example of his extraordinary poetic talent; in particular these lines show his ability to weave together philosophical ideas and striking imagery within a short section of verse. In this way the poem is reminiscent of Shelley’s famous sonnets such as ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘England in 1819’. However, ‘Mutability’ was written before these other works, which were composed in 1817 and 1819 respectively. The exact date of composition for ‘Mutability’ is not known: the editors of the Longman edition of The Poems of Shelley assign it to ‘winter 1815-16 mainly on grounds of stylistic maturity’. However, the opening lines ‘suggest a late autumn or winter night, but this could have been equally well a night in 1814’.

The ‘On This Day’ blog series thus far has focused on the bicentenaries of events from 1815: if the most likely dating for ‘Mutability’ places its composition in the winter of 1815, the poem must have lingered in the mind of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who would include lines from ‘Mutability’ in Chapter II, Vol II of Frankenstein (1818). Mary Shelley did not begin writing this novel (her first full-length work) until the summer of 1816, which she spent with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori in Geneva.

J. M. W. Turner, “Mont Blanc and the Glacier des Bossons from above Chamonix; Evening 1836″, Tate Britain.

J. M. W. Turner, “Mont Blanc and the Glacier des Bossons from above Chamonix; Evening 1836″, Tate Britain.

It is interesting that we see Percy Shelley’s maturity emerging in ‘Mutability’, as the editors of the Longman Poems of Shelley establish. This maturity can be understood as Shelley’s fine-tuning of his philosophical expressions into a more coherent idealism. The poem’s almost universal application to any ‘man’ who lives on to the ‘morrow’ may be why Mary Shelley chose to place two stanzas (ll.9-16) in her first novel. They appear just before Victor Frankenstein reencounters his creation for the first time since its ‘birth’. He sets off on a precipitous mountain climb to the glaciers of Mont Blanc – alone – in an attempt to combat his anxiety and melancholy state of mind:

The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind, and causing me to forget the passing cares of life. I determined to go alone, for I was well acquainted with the path, and the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene.

Victor’s view of the valley, the ‘vast mists’, and the rain pouring from the dark sky, prompt him to lament the sensibility of human nature. As in P B Shelley’s ‘Mutability’, the narrator considers the inconstancy of the mind. This meditation presents a powerful contradiction that inspires both hope and hopelessness by reminding the reader that a potential for change is always present, whether fortunes be good or bad, whether the individual is positively or negatively affected by his/her surroundings. Either way, all might be completely altered over a short space of time as the human mind responds to external influences. Just as Percy Shelley writes ‘Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but Mutability’, Mary Shelley’s protagonist considers how ‘If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows, and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us’. Lines 9-16 of Shelley’s poem are inserted in the novel after this sentence. Percy Shelley read and edited the draft of Mary’s Frankenstein, and Charles E. Robinson (editor of the Frankenstein manuscripts) has described the possibility of the Shelleys being ‘at work on the Notebooks at the same time, possibly sitting side by side and using the same pen and ink to draft the novel and at the same time to enter corrections’. The inclusion of the lines from ‘Mutability’ could even have been a joint decision.

Sir Walter Scott’s favourable review of Frankenstein from 1818 (when the novel was published anonymously) assumes this poetical insert to be the same authorial voice as its surrounding prose: ‘The following lines […] mark, we think, that the author possesses the same facility in expressing himself in verse as in prose.’ But instead, the implication is that Mary’s prose seamlessly leads into Percy Shelley’s verse, and illustrates the unity of their diction and their collaborative writing arrangement at this time.

A page from Mary Shelley’s journal (1814) showing both Mary and Percy’s hands. Bodleian Library, Oxford.

A page from Mary Shelley’s journal (1814) showing both Mary and Percy’s hands. Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Mary Shelley’s journal shows that the Shelleys read S T Coleridge’s poems in 1815. Lines 5-8 of ‘Mutability’ indicate the possibility of a Coleridgean interest based on STC’s conversation poem ‘The Eolian Harp’. As Coleridge describes ‘the long sequacious notes’ which ‘Over delicious surges sink and rise’, Percy Shelley writes: ‘Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings / Give various response to each varying blast’. The Aeolian Harp or wind-harp (named after Eolus or Aeolus, classical god of the winds) is an image that reoccurs in Romantic poetry and prose. However it is significant that P B Shelley used it in common parlance with Mary, i.e. when writing letters. On 4 November 1814, he writes to her:

I am an harp [sic] responsive to every wind. The scented gale of summer can wake it to sweet melody, but rough cold blasts draw forth discordances & jarring sounds.

P B Shelley’s ‘Mutability’ can, in this way, promote discussion of the Shelleys’ creative collaboration. What we know of the Shelleys’ history provides evidence for their repeated intellectual interactions, as Mary Shelley’s journal shows an almost daily occurrence of shared reading, copying, writing and discussion. The Shelleys’ shared notebooks (not just the ones containing Frankenstein) also indicate that they would use the same paper to draft, redraft, correct and fair-copy their works. Beyond the Frankenstein notebooks, there are even instances of the Shelleys altering and/or influencing each other’s compositions in a reciprocal literary dialogue (something my work as a PhD candidate at the University of York is seeking to identify and explore in depth). If ‘Mutability’ was written in winter 1815 (or even earlier), maybe Mary Shelley looked over it, and kept it in mind in relation to her own creative writing – and therefore the poem found its way into her first novel. These details suggest that the Shelleys’ literary relationship was blossoming in the winter of 1815 (exactly 200 years ago), prior to their most significant collaboration on Frankenstein in 1816-1818.



S. T. Coleridge, The Complete Poems ed. by William Keach (London: Penguin, 1997 repr. 2004) p. 87, 464.

Charles E. Robinson (ed.), ‘Introduction’ in Mary Shelley, The Frankenstein Notebooks Vol I (London: Garland, 1996), p. lxx.

Sir Walter Scott, ‘Remarks on Frankenstein’ in Mary Shelley: Bloom’s Classic Critical Views (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008) p. 93.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: A Norton Critical Edition ed. by J. Paul Hunter (London: 1996 repr. 2012) pp. 65-67.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Mutability’ in The Poems of Shelley Vol I ed. by Geoffrey Matthews and Kelvin Everest (London: Longman, 1989) pp. 456-7.