Conference Report: Gender Stereotypes in the Long 19th Century

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Many thanks to Erin Farley for writing the report below on the ‘Gender Stereotypes in the Long 19th Century’ symposium held at Stirling in April.  BARS provided a subvention to help support this event.

On Saturday 30th April 2016, the University of Stirling hosted a one-day symposium, organised by Barbara Leonardi, on ‘Gender Stereotypes in the Long 19th Century.’ The symposium aimed to examine the effects of gender stereotypes and of challenges to them as the Romantic period shifted into the Victorian, as well as considering identify threads leading into 20th century culture. Furthermore, it explored the intersections between gender, class and race over the period in question– an approach which more than one delegate remarked was still disconcertingly rare in studies of this period.

Holly Furneaux’s engaging opening keynote “Kind-hearted Gunmen? An emotional history of the Victorian military Man of Feeling” examined the ways in which military violence was written out of accounts of war, replaced by the image of the soldier as a kind, loving figure, seen in novels such as Vanity Fair – the ‘domesticated English lion’. Furneaux also identified the legacy of this imagery in contemporary culture – for example, the popularity of ‘Returning Soldier’ videos on YouTube – and considered how these stereotypes may still be shaping popular attitudes to war.

Three main panels made up the central part of the symposium, the first of which had a medical focus: Lena Wånngren’s examination of the ‘unwomanly’ female doctor and the destabilisation of gender boundaries in late 19th century medical fiction noted that early women doctors were often presented as ‘unsexed,’ due to the corrupting influence of the naked and dead bodies their work exposed them to, but also uncovered more sympathetic portrayals such as Margaret Todd’s 1892 novel Mona Maclean, Medical Student. Anne Schwann’s discussion of the gendered, but also nationalised, coverage of the trial of Florence Maybrick, a US native accused of murdering her husband in Liverpool, 1889. Class boundaries were also key in the Maybrick trial – while Florence was a middle-class American, her husband’s working-class Liverpudlian family were seen as having corrupted her. Michael Brown (whose paper was read by Bethan Benwell in his absence) explored medical masculinities and the parallels between surgeons and explorers – conquering body, landscape and culture – in narratives of colonial expansion, both defined by a spatial gaze and identities infused with notions of morality and manliness.

The next panel, on gender, class and race, took us back to the late 18th century with Katie Halsey’s paper on evangelical writer Hannah More’s use of metaphor in her treatise on women’s education. Her description of women’s souls as landscape to be cultivated, and her equivocation of motherhood and the nation state, show that we can benefit from a literary as well as a historical analysis of these instructional texts. Halsey’s paper was followed by Angela Smith’s exploration of Katherine Mansfield’s disruptive fictional experiments with crossing boundaries of race and gender: an author who wrote with the belief that fiction’s role was to ask questions, not answer them. The panel concluded with Ewa Grazynck on the intersection of gender, nation and class in the works of Eliza Orzseszkowa, particularly the novel Two Poles, a love story between an upper-class man and woman who each represent opposing ideologies in Polish culture of the time. Their personal tale becomes a way to discuss and question political activism, the abolition of feudalism and the need for individual sacrifice for the benefit of the community.

The final panel, on motherhood, transgressive identities and queer sexualities, was a highlight for me due to the many connections with my research and personal interests.

Barbara Leonardi’s paper on traditional ballads and the work of Mary Wollstonecraft and James Hogg was revealing in its discussion of ballads as lived, performed works rather than intertextual artefacts within novels, and I feel that this approach has the potential to greatly expand the perspectives on women’s and working-class lives in particular which are available to literary historians. Carla Sassi’s take on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s heroine Chris Guthrie was a refreshing perspective on one of my favourite Scottish canonical works. The figure of Chris has become iconified in Scottish literature, and this has obscured many of the complexities of her characterisation. Sassi questioned the notion of Chris as “the most convincing female character in Scottish literature” and identified a subtle androgyny in her presentation.

Sarah Parker explored queer 19th century experience in practice with her paper “Charlotte is evidently a pervert,” on Charlotte Mew and lesbian identity. While Mew was part of Decadent communities who sparked moral panics about homosexuality, she ultimately distanced herself from these, leading into a fascinating discussion of Mew’s identity as a combination of aspects of the maiden aunt stereotype, the ‘New Woman’ and the androgynous dandy, occupying a liminal cultural space between Victorian and modern culture.

This symposium made academic and social connections inside and outside the conference room: we live-tweeted the papers, with many delegates joining in. Hannah More’s metaphors of reading as consumption – Rousseau was ‘dangerous poison’ – sparked an online discussion about the pervasiveness of such metaphors, which leads into themes to be discussed at this year’s BAVS conference on ‘Consuming the Victorians.’

As a scholar new to this period (having recently moved into 19th century popular culture from a background of contemporary folklore studies) this symposium was an excellent way to begin getting to grips with some of the theories, literatures and ideas in the wider Victorian literary scene, and I found many ways in which the day connected with my own research – as well as introducing me to colleagues in the Gender Studies department at Stirling and making me aware of the overlaps between our research, connections which I will be able to build on in the coming months. Responses both online and in person from other delegates pointed out not just the importance of the intersectional approach to literary studies, but that the day also suggested new ways of reading and looking at presentations of gender in historical texts, which have cross-disciplinary relevance across Romantic, Victorian and contemporary literary studies.

Erin Farley (PhD candidate, University of Stirling)

The Twitter conversations from the day can still be read by searching for #Gender19C.