Conference Report: North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar, 15 July 2020

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Below is a report from the North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar, 15 July 2020 by Rob Sutton (PhD candidate, Manchester Metropolitan University).

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July’s seminar was hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University and was co-organised by Dr Emma Liggins and Dr Sonja Lawrenson, both of Manchester Metropolitan University. Due to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, the seminar was run virtually, via the Zoom networking app. Despite the organisers’ and speakers’ complete reliance upon technology and internet connections, the afternoon progressed pleasantly, and without any major hitches. The first paper, “Mapping Economic Mobility through Work in the Fictions of Daniel Defoe and Maria Edgeworth”, was presented by Dr Heather Zuber (City University of New York). This talk comprised an intriguing analysis of the possible correlation between geographical movement and economic advancement in the fictional works of Daniel Defoe and Maria Edgeworth. In order to explicate her theory, Dr Zuber incorporated GIS (Geographic Information System) to map and mark the distance travelled by various protagonists in these fictional works, demonstrating how those who travelled the furthest also tended to accrue the most wealth. 

The prospect of tracing the movement of these literary characters prompted the question of how we might map fictional spaces and places. Dr Zuber suggested that in the case of Defoe, the writer was able to take advantage of the fact that his work was situated in real life locations (such as central Africa) that were relatively unfamiliar to his reader. In contrast, Edgeworth was prone to altering reality by imposing fictional attributes upon familiar places within the British Isles. Aside from observations on the main subject matter, Dr Zuber’s paper drew questions from the audience about the GIS software used to compile data.

The second paper of the afternoon, “A Wolf in Wife’s Clothing: Wildness and the Reclamation of Self in the Wolf Stories of Frederick Maryat and George Macdonald”, was presented by Nicole Dittmer, a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University. The focus of Dittmer’s work is an analysis of how the behaviour of nineteenth-century women was coerced and manipulated to the extent that a fracture occurred between womanhood and Nature. Her paper scrutinised the behaviour of women characters in Gothic horror fiction (specifically the wolf stories of Frederick Maryat and George Macdonald). Parallels were drawn between the perceived predatory women who failed to check their “natural” tendencies, and the predatory nature of the wolf. As Dittmer argued, this consideration extends to the hybrid figure of the werewolf as an analogy for the state of Victorian women, torn as they were between the need to conform to society and the urge to surrender to their base, natural desires. Questions and points raised at the end of the paper included references to animal hybrid tales from cultures beyond Britain, and how these tended to reflect the relationship between women and nature in a more positive light. 

After a short break (minus the traditional tea-and-biscuit-fuelled natter!) the final paper of the afternoon was presented by Dr Clare Clarke (Trinity College Dublin). Entitled “A Shrine of Pilgrimage: Dark Tourism in late-Victorian crime writing, newspapers, and ripper reportage”, Clare’s paper drew attention to the phenomenon of “Dark Tourism” that evolved in England during the late nineteenth century, around the time of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders. Dr Clarke demonstrated how various popular, working-class media publications such as The Star sought to sensationalise death and murder with graphic accounts, while, in contrast, conservative publications such as The Times tended to refrain from lurid and voyeuristic imagery altogether. The media sensationalism fuelled an emerging and rather morbid fascination with death, according to which people demanded a closer proximity to the calamity. Dr Clarke intriguingly shown how residents and neighbours located next to certain murder sites in London began charging an admittance fee to members of the public who wished to observe the scene of the crime first-hand.  

One of the points raised by the audience at the end of the paper interestingly tied in with the first paper of the seminar, suggesting the usefulness of mapping London in order to ascertain if the majority of murders took place in the impoverished, urban East End. Dr Clarke concurred, imparting that the Sherlock Holmes stories were set almost exclusively in the West End of the city. The rationale behind Conan Doyle’s setting can thus be linked to the real events in London, as it would have been a miscalculation to have so great a detective as Holmes operating in the East End, where so many crimes were going unsolved in real life. 

Despite there being no overall theme for the seminar, the papers nonetheless appeared to overlap, converge with, and complement one another. Graphic depictions of torn bodies, of course, are prevalent in both crime fiction and Gothic Horror.  Edgar Allan Poe’s invention of the Detective genre was suggested as clear evidence of the connection between Crime fiction and Horror fiction. In turn, the mapping of crime and murder contrasts rather well with the mapping of economic advancement. Brought together in this way, geography, gender and the Gothic were seminar themes that yielded interesting critical results, and pleasingly drew together papers that, at first glance, had little in common with one another. 

– Rob Sutton