I’ve just come back from BAVS-NAVSA in Cambridge. I’ve been to several NAVSAs and it’s always a great conference, and this was no exception. One of the most interesting aspects of this meeting was its focus on our contemporary investment in the Victorians. (This goes back to both Tara and Fiona’s recent posts on Victorian tourism and the neo-Victorian novel.) This focus was most prominent in the panels of neo-Victorian novelists. Matthew Kneale, Elizabeth Kostova, and Giles Waterfield spoke thoughtfully about their choice to narrate their novels from the first person, often from a multiplicity of points of views, because of the feeling that their knowledge was partial. All agreed that the omniscient narrator can be magisterial in a George Eliot novel, but Waterfield said that the potential moralizing of the third person voice was a worry for the contemporary novelist, who doesn’t want to write a novel in a voice that presumes to know better than its Victorian characters. These idea of knowing that one has a biased view and trying to avoid judging a past age were very familiar to the scholarly audience.
The most controversial keynote was Philip Hensher, who claimed that he was only able to write a novel set in nineteenth-century Afghanistan, Mulberry Street, after he left the academy and was able to ignore Edward Said. But a rebellion against a critic necessarily engages their ideas, and the idea that one could step outside the debates on orientalism of the 1990s to write an orientalist novel seemed dubious to many.
The discussion of how the Victorians are present for us today continued to the panels. To give just three examples: Beth Palmer (Leeds) spoke on the parallels between the changing material culture of the book in sensation fiction of the 1860s and the rapidly changing technology (the internet, Kindle) that neo-Victorian sensation novelists are so interested in today. Dinah Birch (Liverpool) gave a paper on Newman’s and Ruskin’s ideas about education and how they still affect our own ideas about pedagogy, and how we might further use their ideas in humanities education today. Hao Li (Toronto) spoke on Arthur Trench’s belief that words fossilized their morals, and the implications of this idea for work on ethics and literature being done by Martha Nussbaum and others today.
The conference’s focus on what the Victorians might have to say to us indicates a turning point in Victorian studies. I think we have reached a place where we have been uncovering the Victorians’ cultural investment in the form and content of their literature for so long—attitudes toward gender, sexuality, race, ability, religion, &c—that we can no longer ignore our own cultural investments in them. The main difference between an older humanist approach to literature that assumes great works are important to contemporary readers because they have intrinsic value that exists outside of time and place, and the new focus on ethics, seems to be an awareness on the part of scholars of how their culture shapes their perspective on their topic. It will be interesting to see whether this carries over to future conferences, or whether we need the prompt of a topic engaging “Past and Present”.