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!