I’ve returned home from lovely Princeton and from a very rich and collegial conference experience at this year’s NVSA conference. As I mentioned in my first post about the conference, the topic this year was “Fighting Victorians,” which is a theme I’d like to respond to as I think back over the conference. I really enjoyed how the focused topic allowed all of the papers to build on each other another and thereby construct a larger, aggregate sense of what fighting meant to the Victorians (and the wide range of issues that they had to fight over).
However, I was also struck by how the very conference topic ended up shaping the papers given at the conference. While this is an obvious point in one sense because, of course, every paper related to the topic of “Fighting Victorians,” I do wonder about how the conference topic ended up privileging the adversarial and the dichotomous over other ways of understanding differences of opinion. Focusing on fighting obviously ends up sidelining movements towards peace, moments of co-operation, and Victorian understandings of reconciliation. This focus on fighting also ended up being highly gendered: most of the papers given over the weekend focused on men fighting men (with some notable exceptions including Anna Clark’s paper which described the rebellion of teenage girls in an Irish workhouse). Why this might be the case was an interesting topic of conversation in the final “Conference Wrap-up” session.
One other thing that I found surprising and intriguing was that Darwin was almost entirely absent from the conference. After all, surely one of the biggest fights the Victorians engaged in was over evolution. Furthermore, Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest articulated the existence and importance of inter- and intra-species fighting. And yet, notions of “nature, red in tooth and claw,” Darwinian or otherwise, hardly entered the weekend-long conversation. I’m not sure why this may have been the case; perhaps Victorianists are experiencing Darwin fatigue after last year’s various celebrations and commemorations of his birth and the publication of The Origin of Species?
(By the way, the title of this post references the Saturday conference lunch where attendees suggest and vote for the topic of the next year’s conference. One conference-goer cheekily suggested the topic of “What the h— happened to Thackeray” for NVSA 2011. Perhaps this should be a topic for a blog post one of these days: What did happen to Thackeray in Victorian Studies??).