Conference Report: Community and its Limits

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Many thanks to Thomas Null (University of Edinburgh) for this comprehensive report on the ‘Community and its Limits, 1745-1832’ conference held at the beginning of September at the University of Leeds.  BARS provided financial support to assist with this conference.

Community and its Limits, 1745-1832‘ was held at the School of English, University of Leeds on the 4th and 5th of September. The conference was organised by Jeremy Davies, Richard De Ritter, David Higgins, and Robert Jones as members of Leeds’ Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Research Group, and over two days proved a rich and stimulating conversation exploring the terms of cultural community in the long eighteenth century.

The schedule was arranged in single sessions, allowing for an atmosphere that was both intimate and engaging. Participants attended five panel discussions, two plenary lectures, and conference roundtable together, gathering at intervals for conversation and refreshments in the striking nineteenth-century interiors of the School of English.

‘Matters of Principle’, the opening panel, began with a paper from Dr Tim Milnes (Edinburgh). In ‘Hume, social empiricism, and the limits of trust’, he considered Hume’s use of the essay as a response to questions of epistemology and British empiricist thought in the eighteenth century. As radical scepticism in Hume leads to a form of social empiricism, he argued, knowledge is increasingly seen to depend on trust, and thus on the performance of communicative acts. In the hands of Hume, the familiar essay as literary performance becomes an important means of reinforcing this social trust, moderating between the spheres of learning and polite conversation. And yet, Dr Milnes argued, Hume’s own moderation manifests itself as a form of detachment (ataraxia) or philosophical indifference that encodes specific and socially-inflected norms regarding the customs and habits that underlie trusting communication.

Rachel Sulich’s (Leeds) ‘Communal deviance: Charles Moore’s “modern race of suicides”’ considered the complex motivations for Moore’s moralising rhetoric regarding depictions of suicide in popular writings. In this, she explained, he posits a general social threat based in the subversion of ‘good culture’, a consequence of modern man’s effeminacy as expressed in bodily indulgence, weakness, and imaginary evils.

Dr Matthew Ward’s (St Andrews) paper ‘Laughter, ridicule, and the limits of sympathetic feeling’ examined the writings of James Beattie and others, including Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and William Hazlitt. Beginning from Scottish Enlightenment developments, he compared various associations of laughter, from the implied possibility of identification with others to the ridicule of others’ vulnerabilities, moral defects or physical deformities. He also considered laughter’s social utility: its providing distance from false claims on sympathy, or facilitating proportionate performances of sympathy, with a tendency towards convention. As in Beattie’s essay the perception of incongruity in all things laughable alerts individuals to an awareness of social patterns and expectations, and positions humour in the realm of aesthetic (rather than moral) judgement, Dr Ward considered the significance of sympathy in this discourse, and its limits as an opportunity for communities to develop together from a basis in convention.

After a break for tea and coffee the second panel, ‘National Communities’, began with Dr Helen Stark (Newcastle). In her paper, ‘A “Charnel-Vault”? Dead bodies and national identities in Walter Scott’s Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk (1816)’, she discussed concepts of identity and stability in an analysis of Scott’s post-Waterloo impressions of the Continent, tracing his language in this series of imaginary letters composed from notes of his visit to the battlefield.

Dr Jane Hodson (Sheffield) then presented an analysis of representations of dialect in novels of the Romantic period, in her paper ‘“I hae been sae lang accustomed to the Scots”: Language, community and identity in novels 1800-1836’. She considered the connection between these representations and shifting contemporary associations of speech and identity in several works, including Mudie’s Glenfergus (1820), The Monthly Magazine (1821), and Lathom’s Young the Bull; or, Born Abroad and Bred at Home (1828).

Honor Rieley (Oxford) concluded the panel with an examination of popular conceptions of the emigrant figure in the first decades of the nineteenth century. ‘Imagining the emigrant reader, 1802-1832’ surveyed representations of the emigrant alongside the changing circumstances of motivation and opportunity that influenced emigration of British populations to North America during these decades. Her analysis presented significant transformations in the imagined emigrant figure as the availability of opportunity extended to a broader segment of society in an age of mechanisation.

This was my first visit to Leeds, and I found the theme of the occasion complemented by the dense history of the city, its energy and diversity. Perhaps the breadth of scholarship addressed to ideas of community stimulated my perception of this unfamiliar place, and oriented my attention as observations and hesitant speculations unfolded within the circumstances of my experience. At any rate, this correspondence was enhanced by events on the conference schedule, and after the day’s final panel we crossed the city centre from the Leeds campus for an evening at Britain’s oldest surviving subscription library.

The Leeds Library was arranged as the venue of the keynote public lecture, and following a brief history of the collection and the context of its local development from Andrew Morrison, Professor Murray Pittock (University of Glasgow) shared his research with an audience gathered in the library’s central circulation space. ‘Memory, Erasure, Community and Culture: The Battle of Culloden in Scotland and the British Empire, 1746-1846’ examined the Scottish battle’s position and significance in constructed narratives of imperial Britain. In a presentation enriched by historical and visual illustrations, his reading of Culloden’s prominent role in the formation of collective narratives engaged an audience that included a number of the library’s regular subscribers.

Following a wine reception – and some further exploration of the library’s shelves – we were easily persuaded to continue our conversations over dinner, and within a few minutes we were pleasantly assembled at a table that spanned the length of a nearby brasserie.

The second day began with the panel ‘Satire and Sympathy’. I presented the first paper, ‘Shelleyan poetics, Scottish Enlightenment sympathy, and the limits of convention’, which was followed by Anna Mercer’s (York) paper ‘Expanding perceptions of the Shelleys’ community’, read by David Higgins. Beginning from the position that ‘the Shelleys are their texts’, she considered love and irony in Epipsychidion and ‘The Bride of Modern Italy’ within the context of her research on the collaborative literary relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley.

Professor Michael Bradshaw (Edge Hill) rounded off the panel with his paper ‘Loitering on the threshold: Thomas Hood’s comical communities’. In a reading of the ambivalence Hood expresses in his poem on the socialite reformer and Society of Friends minister Elizabeth Fry, he considered the poet’s commitment to a community of readers and his strong sense of their shared tastes or opinions as he actively constructed a market-based reading public.

Dr Joanna Wharton (Independent Scholar) presented the first paper of the fourth panel, ‘Places of Community, 1789-1802’. In ‘Material practice and “vital religion” in the Mendip school and clubs’ she considered Hannah More’s Mendip ‘feast’ and the utility of physical pleasure in luring children to religion. This curious event in the Mendip hills linked spiritual and physical nourishment in a ceremony of reward, the decorum of which kept children from active enjoyment of what quickly turned into a local spectacle. Dr Wharton further examined the nature of the relationships established through More’s provision of gifts to the children. Whether intended to obligate adherence to moral conventions, the exchange was additionally intriguing for More’s personal identification with the poor, in the performance of hand-knitting items of clothing for the children.

Dr Matthew Sangster’s (Birmingham) examination of ‘London existences and community boundaries’ considered how community was represented in the rapidly growing city of the turn of the century. Here, size became glorious, a mark of distinction, rather than alienating, a shift he illustrated in the enormity of a period map of London. Reminding us that neither Wordsworth’s Prelude vision of London nor Blake’s was available to the contemporary Romantic – and reading excerpts of each, in a voice that conjured an atmosphere out of time – Dr Sangster presented these as part of his work mapping poetic environments in urban space, a developing project that suggested a valuable contribution to the digital humanities.

The panel concluded with Anne Fleming’s (Leeds) ‘Wordsworth’s creative ecotone: Navigating community boundaries and tension in the Vagrant poems’, in which she engaged the etymology of the ecological term ‘ecotone’ to describe a concept of ‘fertility… dwelling at the edge of the tension between different people, beings, [and] landscapes’. In a close reading of Wordsworth’s encounter with an orphan girl in ‘Alice Fell’, she examined the demanding process of community represented in spaces of intermingling borders, and further considered the role of the postal service as a device of this unique space, here and in a scene of disrupted social hierarchy in Thomas De Quincey’s ‘The English Mail Coach’.

We gathered for the fifth and final panel after lunch. ‘Life-Writing’ began with Dr Laura Davies’s (Southampton) survey of unedited manuscript letters in a paper that considered ‘Ways of reading the spiritual “Lives” of early Methodist women’. As she closely examined the language these Methodist followers used in correspondence addressed to their reverend, the varying dynamics between individuals and ideas of belonging revealed the complicated nature of this community.

Freshly returned from an international symposium on the Burney family at Cardiff, Dr Cassie Ulph (York) presented her paper ‘Domestic community or professional network? Keeping company with the Burneys’ within its most current critical context. She discussed her research on the relationships and exchanges that influenced creative output in writings produced within the circle of this literary family.

Dr Claire Sheridan (Queen Mary) then examined Thomas Love Peacock’s nostalgia as the last surviving member of the Shelley circle and his reluctant relationship to the biographical endeavour. Particular emphasis was placed on his representation of this Romantic sociability in his Memoirs of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a series of periodical pieces published for the mid-Victorian audience of Fraser’s Magazine.

Tea, coffee, and cake was followed by the conference roundtable, ‘Community, Society, and Scholarship in Leeds, 1768-2015’. Bringing representatives of the city’s cultural organisations together, Professor Jon Mee (York) chaired a discussion of the roles and contributions of these institutions in local history. Eveleigh Bradford of the Thoresby Society, Janet Douglas of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, Lynda Kitching of the Leeds Civic Trust, and Andrew Morrison of The Leeds Library each provided insight into issues of institutional stability and change in a dynamic urban context.

Dr Felicity James (University of Leicester) presented the closing lecture, ‘Voices of Dissent: Community, History and Difficulty in Rational Dissent’. Within the context of the history of Unitarianism she focused on the first Essex Street Chapel minister Theophilus Lindsey, and presented an autobiographical chapter as a new kind of rational conversion narrative. This, she demonstrated, attempts reconciliation with establishment positions while also invoking – to ambiguous effect – a darker, unsettling history in early Nonconformist accounts of overcoming persecution. Dr James compared this development, positioned ambivalently between affiliation and dissent at a time of improving religious tolerance in Britain, to the crisis of Mr Hale in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Here the author probably has Lindsey in mind, she suggested, as Gaskell represents shifts in ways of dealing with dissent, perhaps using frustrations with the Unitarian doctrine of unity and tolerance in order to address issues of individual uncertainty within a larger social picture.

With this plenary – yet another fascinating glimpse of new research – our programme concluded, and following some final remarks and reflections we dispersed for hotels, evening trains, and home. Thank you again to all organisers and participants of this convivial exchange of ideas on Romantic community!

Thomas Null, University of Edinburgh