Conference Report: Writing Romantic Lives at Edge Hill University

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Thank you to Oliver Thomas for this report from the BARS-sponsored conference ‘Writing Romantic Lives‘, which took place at Edge Hill University on 25 November 2017.

You can see the conference Twitter feed here.


Conference Report: Romanticism Lives!

by Oliver Thomas, MA student at Edge Hill University



The BARS-sponsored Writing Romantic Lives symposium was aptly titled, as the sterling keynote speech from Dr Felicity James demonstrated. Including fascinating elucidations on her own researches, James succinctly and stylishly laid the groundwork for the event. Our foci were collaboration, autobiography and its myriad forms, and the writing of lives, in the sense of writing the self and writing’s relationship to the (Romantic) Self.

Thus we embarked on our first engaging panel. Marvin Reimann’s presentation, ‘S.T. Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and the Dynamic Process of Self-knowledge’, expounded on a powerful theme resonant throughout the conference, that the formation of a Self is a fluid concept dependent upon the construction of an ideal state defined against an original state, and the continuous transgression from one to the other. Jérôme Chemin of the Université de Lorraine illuminated this and other metaphysical concepts in his paper ‘From Poetic Experience to Metaphysics’. Chemin clarified the murky relationship between the Biographia Literaria and Coleridge’s better known poetry. The final paper of this panel saw a moving, powerfully personal account from Lilach Bornstein – ‘Christabel in Tel Aviv: A Group Reading Coleridge in Hebrew’ – that furnished those attendant with an appreciation of the analytical nuance offered by fresh eyes working collaboratively.

Lunch is a time to munch and mull over ideas. In the comfort and calm of Edge Hill’s quiet campus, that is exactly what happened. The culinary spread served amply and was enjoyed by all, with the mango and brie parcels bringing surprising delight to this attendee. The real substance of such a lunch, however, is never the food, but the thought, and around the room, much thought bounced and blossomed despite the late autumn darkness outside.

Some of that darkness stole into the conference in the next panel ‘Death and the Self’, chaired by Jo Taylor, and featuring three students from the conference’s physical host for the day, Edge Hill University. Melanie Senior’s paper on ‘Hysteria and the Romantic Woman’ offered an incisive examination how hysteria has been used to marginalise female romantic  writers, simultaneously demonstrating the resistance that authors such as Charlotte Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft performed to overcome this prejudice. Amy Warbuton’s presentation on ‘Gothic Aural Experience in Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho’ followed: Udolpho is a tale ringing with echoes, the misheard, the warped and the restricted.  The focus lay in the ways the Gothic voice contributed to Emily St. Aubert’s degeneration. Anthony Gordon’s ‘A Life Devoted to Killing Death’ demonstrated the critique of attempting to avoid immortality offered by Beddoe’s Death’s Jest-book.  Beddoe’s text exemplifies the struggle against its subject, Death, and the (apparent) futility of the obsession with that struggle, and the danger to the self such an obsession can cause.

Michael Bradshaw, of Worcester University, chaired the next panel, ‘Romantic Connections’. Emilee Morrall examined ‘Personal Reflections in Charlotte’ Smith’s Moral Tales’. Her paper showed how this once marginalised and forgotten Romantic writer could now emerge into the critical limelight. This time it was her children’s tales which were under primary consideration, and Morrall examined minutely Smith’s personal reflections embedded within those works, clarifying them in an analysis that was at once reflective and convincing, and tied in very neatly with the keynote speech and its theme, writing lives (in all the senses that those last two words may be interpreted).

A distinct and challenging personality to a room of academics came next. Corrina Readioff revealed James Lackington, bookseller, as a master self-marketer. His mercurial alterations of his Memoirs of the First Forty-five Years of the Life of James Lackington, Bookseller (there were several editions of this book) demonstrated eloquently the continuous process of self-promotion (and possibly self-fashioning) involved when writing such a memoir.

One effective way of rating the potency of the matter under discussion, is the discussions over coffee had between panels. I’m pleased to say I have seldom drunk a coffee (or tea) so steeped in knowledge, and my hungry student mind had a buffet of brilliant brains to learn from in that room.

The final panel, ‘Novel Approaches’, gave us two speakers who masterfully rounded off the evening’s panel discussions. Adam Neikirk  opened with a short reading from the novel at which he has been working, an effort to write a fictional autobiography in the voice of Coleridge (a kindred concept to the Dead Romantic Interviews competition, another part of the conference) which he described as ‘A novel in “Development Xanadu”’. This kind of literary ventriloquism and mimicry was a theme latent throughout most of the conference that, like Coleridge’s sacred river, burst forth via Adam’s talk. Adam’s endeavours were applauded and more than one attendee pointed out that, while he may be unsatisfied with the unfinished fragment of a novel he had in hand, to publish such, would be most Coleridgian.

On the subject of rivers and mountains, our conference ended with a truly inter-disciplinary, multimedia presentation from Rebekah Musk entitled ‘Beholding Shelley’s Euganean Hills.’ Musk gave a strikingly powerful insight into the imagined and physical world of a poem, and how these qualities relate to one another. Her work was infused with a level of detail and precision that was genuinely engaging and refreshing after the lofty literary and philosophical discussions of the day. In more ways than one, we came back to earth. Rebekah’s primary insight was that the eye of Shelley’s poem presented a composite vision, in which the language, and landscape, shifts and changes while the speaker remains rather still by comparison.

The symposium came to a close with the announcing of the winners of the Dead Romantic Interviews competition and a workshop from Andrew McInnes and Felicity James on academic publishing that was both engaging and insightful. There was a thematic harmony between the Interviews contest and the symposium. Its impact was as international as the conference itself, as the Canadian winner demonstrated well with her video message. The message included a brief reading from her entry which had resurrected the sharp-minded, no-nonsense Mary Shelley, author of that grandest of Gothic Romantic works, Frankenstein. For this observer, the competition synchronised the competitive and the collaborative for, as with many academic endeavours, it engendered a community spirit extending far beyond the winner, as well as enlivening Romantic studies with fresh creative engagements. The competition embodied the three themes within the study of Romanticism the conference set out to discuss; Writing the Self, autobiography and collaboration. Romantic studies, like the monster crafted by Mary Shelley, lives!

– Oliver Thomas