I’m just back from the NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA Conference in Venice, where I did see the William Morris painting that Eddy discusses in his post below (will add a comment this week, Eddy!). It was a really wonderful conference, with a wide range of papers. As a conference running over four days, with seven panels at any one time, it’s impossible to sum up just one or two specific threads that ran through the talks. What I can say, though, is that the joining of these three different Victorian Studies Associations – from North America, the UK (and the rest of Europe, if you include people like me), Australia, and Asia made for a very exciting, diverse group. It was a real pleasure to meet colleagues from Australia, many of whom remarked how isolated they felt from other Victorianists and what a treat it was to join forces in Venice. I spoke to one conference-goer who was going to visit London after the conference for the first time. Having taught nineteenth-century British fiction for years, it would be her first chance to see the city that she knew so much about but had never experienced for herself. Pretty exciting.

The conference theme lead to a rich variety of papers: I heard Jessica Howell discuss the lives of nurses in colonial Africa, Ross Forman speak about queer relationships and sex scandals in the colonies, and Nina Harkrader discuss the architecture of workhouses in London. In an intriguing paper, Anne-Marie Beller explored the depiction of Italian characters in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s little-known poem Olivia, arguing that Braddon played with, but ultimately challenged, stereotypes of both the English and Italians. In fact, Beller argued that the Italian figure, Angelo, actually emerges as the most tragic figure the text. Braddon depicts a duel between the Italian and English men in the poem – both of whom are competing for Olivia – but when the Englishman accidentally kills Angelo, he brings the Italian man’s body back to Italy and stays to care for his grave. The poem, then, is fascinating as an example of male compassion (Olivia has already moved on with a new lover, so readers need not worry about her) but also as a text that establishes a bond between these two countries. Not surprisingly, papers on the British understanding and representation of Italy were popular at the conference. One aspect of Beller’s paper that was striking, though, was her comparison of Braddon’s poetry, and her depictions of Italy, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s; these are writers whose work is not often compared but Beller’s juxtaposition was enlightening.

Pamela Gilbert also offered an unusual pairing in her reading of Victorian skin and subjectivity, discussing Hegel alongside Wilkie Collins. I was lucky enough to attend Gilbert’s Work-in-Progress Seminar, entitled Victorian Skin: Surface and Self. She allowed the participants to read a chapter from her book project on this topic and explained that she began the project without a set, strict theoretical framework. Interested in the normative, rather than deviant body (though aware of the murky lines between such designations), Gilbert began by asking herself questions like, what did the Victorians talk about when they talked about skin? How is skin figured as identity, a boundary, or even an object or relic in the nineteenth century? Given changing conceptions of the body, new medical developments, and fluctuations in gender, class, age and racial identities throughout the Victorian period, human skin, as a cover for the body but one that always risks being influenced by outside sources and other bodies, certainly emerges as an important and wide-ranging topic. Her project is one of those that is so exciting and, even, necessary that it’s surprising that no one has explored this topic in depth until now. I’m reluctant to say too much about the chapter that we read, as it is still a work in progress, but I look forward to reading the book when it comes out!

2 thoughts on “Conference Report: The Local and the Global in Venice

  1. Thanks for the conference report Tara! I’m really enjoying reading about conferences we couldn’t all possibly attend. There was an interesting twitter feed for this one that I watched pop up. In the last year I’ve tweeted digital humanities and disability panels in the name of accessibility, but have felt awkward about tweeting Victorian studies work since I’m not sure how everybody feels about it in our field. Did you have a sense of how people felt about twitter use during this conference?

  2. Thanks for this overview, Tara! Pamela Gilbert’s new work sounds fascinating and I look forward to reading it when it comes out. I’m glad to hear that bringing the three Victorian Studies organizations together was such a success — did you hear anything about whether the organizations plan to do a joint conference again soon?

    I was sorry to not be able to attend, though, like Karen, I too tried to check in with the conference’s twitter feed. I have to say, though, that despite the valiant attempts to capture the papers at the conference by those tweeting, following along from home is certainly a very partial, and even frustrating exercise because it is so difficult to glean much beyond a cursory sense of each paper’s topic. This has been my experience with reading through any live-tweeted conference, not just this one. 140 characters, even in succession, is so limiting and it must be so difficult to both listen and live-tweet at once that I’m not convinced yet that it is an entirely useful exercise to live-tweet conference papers (or to follow along with the tweets from home). I also wonder about issues of attribution — not every twitter user clearly marks when they are quoting directly from a paper (as opposed to inserting their own commentary about the topic). That being said, I can see how twitter can be useful at conferences for backchannel conversations and questions among attendees. But I am happy to be proven wrong — have any of you had great experiences live-tweeting a conference or following along with the tweets from home?

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