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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Report from the North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar

The North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar, sponsored by BARS, takes place 3 times a year at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). It brings together the work of postgraduates, early career researchers and established academics, and is organised by Emma Liggins and Sonja Lawrenson.

A report by Holly Hirst, 2nd year PhD student at MMU

Today’s seminar took place to a back drop of suitably Gothic weather for this unusually Gothicky seminar set. The dull depression of what was supposedly a spring sky was not reflected in the talks given. A running connection to the Gothic appeared throughout the papers presented, and there was a particular emphasis on the latter half of the eighteenth century. Peter Lindfield (MMU) opened with a paper on the Gothically ‘genuine fake ancestral castle’ of Horace Walpole. Deborah Russell (York) followed with a talk on theatrical adaptations of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest and Godwin’s Caleb Williams. Emilee Morrallis (Liverpool Hope) made a nod to the Gothic in her discussion of Charlotte Smith’s Old Manor House. The day ended with a discussion by Caroline Ikin (MMU) on John Ruskin’s decidedly (and refreshingly after a day of gloom!) unGothic Proserpina.

Lindfield’s paper ‘Building a genuine fake ancestral castle: Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill’ demonstrated the way in which Walpole’s Gothic architectural project was part of a desire to create for his family an ancestral seat, one of the key markers of family status in the Georgian period. Lindfield paid particular attention to the planned (but never executed) columbarium which was to be stocked with the (supposed) funerary urns of the Walpole family. Lindfield noted here the irony of Walpole’s mixing of the Gothic and the classical, which he had constantly execrated in his writings and correspondence, if not in appearance then in ethos. Russell’s paper followed and likewise covered a relatively undernourished area of Gothic scholarship – in this case the Gothic drama. Her paper was entitled ‘Staging Silence: Gothic Theatrical Adaptations.’ Her paper investigated the use of silence as a form of ‘obscurity’ and thus, in the Burkean sense, sublimity and the way it points to the unspeakable as well as the unknowable. Her paper moved from a brief analysis of the possibilities of silence in the novel to its translation on the stage. She noted the changed emphasis of silence and suspense on the stage, pointing to the key issue of focalisation. Within the Radcliffian Gothic novel, she argues, the reader’s perceptions are focalised through the heroine’s point of view, and the reader participates in the experience of the mystery attached to the ultimately explained supernatural. In contrast, stage versions allow the ‘supernatural’ or the trick to be seen – that which remained obscure in the novel is either made absent or explicit upon the stage.

After a short break for tea, coffee, biscuits and clarification of mind, Emilee Morrallis opened with her paper ‘Domesticity, liminality and social transition.’ Using Celestina and The Old Manor House as her key texts she discussed the ways in which the novels focus on the liminal period of adolescence and specifically female adolescence. Morrallis argued that there was no specific social space for adolescence and that this liminal period becomes occupied with liminal spaces. Her comparison of Celestina and The Old Manor House and their differently aged protagonists focused on the differences between these two differently adolescent figures’ experiences of the domestic space and liminal spaces within/around it. The world outside stands as both a threat and a space that is necessary to navigate and confront in order to attain access to the differently domestic life of the wife and mother. Concentrating on garden spaces, windows, and doors, Morrallis mapped these heroines’ negotiations of these liminal spaces in terms of physical space, adolescence, and femininity. Ikin’s paper on ‘John Ruskin’s Proserpina: Botany or Biography’ traced the ways in which Ruskin’s text engages with a very different form of botany to the materialist science which he rejected. Composed of meticulous observations of his own garden, creative responses, poetry and even exercises, the text, Ikin asserted, was aimed in part to rectify some of the deficiencies Ruskin perceived in the education of the young. He sought to restore wonder to the study of the natural world rather than the narrow focus of materialist science. Ikin also investigated the way in which this book of botany could and should be read biographically with reference to Ruskin’s own life and particularly his doomed relationship with Rose la Touche – to whom references were made throughout the text. Most fascinatingly, she investigated the title page of the volumes with particular attention to the flower symbolism of the blue rose – the sign of doomed love. All the papers were met with lively questions and discussion continued over dinner for those speakers and attendees who didn’t have a train to catch!

The whole day was an opportunity to expand knowledge and engage with new approaches in relation to Gothic writers, female Romantic authors and the intersection of elements of aesthetic theory with landscape design, architecture and their fictional and factual representations in the long nineteenth century.

– Holly Hirst