All entries for Friday 05 September 2008

September 05, 2008

"Victorian Feeling: Touch, Bodies, Emotion": 1st–3rd September, University of Leicester

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The ninth annual conference for the British Association of Victorian Studiesfocused on the theme "Victorian Feeling", bringing together Victorianists from a range of disciplines to explore both physical and emotional experience in the nineteenth century.

The conference opened with a panel on "Victorian Feeling" in which papers by Paul White, Samantha Matthews, and Michael Roper provided an interesting starting point for the papers that followed over the next two days, prompting an array of ideas surrounding the conference's theme- physiology, emotional expression, cultural influence, sincerity, lyrical expression, materiality and immateriality, and the inscription and re-inscription of emotion were just some of the topics that emerged in the opening session. Three other plenary lectures were given throughout the conference; I was particularly interested by William Cohen's talk "Hopkins Among the Materialists" which discussed embodiment in the writing of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Cohen explored perception as physical encounter in Hopkins' work, identifying connections with the twentieth-century philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Georges Bataille who conceptualised knowledge as rooted in the body, in a way that re-thinks the mind-body dichotomy. I was particularly interested in this as in my work I frequently refer to Elizabeth Grosz's re-theorising of the mind-body dualism, which is based on Merleau-Ponty's work. It was useful to hear about the prominence of embodiment in Hopkins' writing and I hope to research this further in the future, although I doubt that I will have the space (or time) to do so in my thesis!

I attended a number of panel sessions over the three days. 'Staging Bodies and Emotions' looked at the representation of emotion on the Victorian stage; I was particularly interested by Viv Gardner's paper on the construction and performance of the healthy female body in fin de siècle musical comedy. Gardner discussed how the bodies of female performers in musical comedy (a genre in which women dominated the stage) were fashioned by contemporary discourses on health and exercise, exploring the tensions between these newer ideas of the "healthy" female body and the older ideals of femininity which remained present in the restrictive dresses and corsets worn by the performers to maintain the fashionable figure.

A panel on Emily and Charlotte Brontë raised ideas pertinent to the work I was presenting at the conference (my paper on Charlotte Brontë's Villette was in the 'Urban Vibes' panel). Jo Waugh talked about Charlotte Brontë and the weather; Brontë was deeply anxious about the weather and its effects on mental and physical health. Waugh demonstrated how Brontë's reading of the weather was influenced by, and questioned, contemporary commentaries on the weather, some of which perceived an integral relationship between the body and weather, with physical health constantly vulnerable to changes in temperature, humidity, precipitation and so on. A reading of Villette drew attention to how disruptive a force the weather is in the novel, continually feared as a source of mental and physical disruption. This was followed by another paper on Villette by Rosemary Dunleavy who spoke about sugar in the novel, positing that female virtue is constructed through characters' relationships to sugar throughout Villette. Dunleavy drew on Victorian medical discussions that were beginning to establish the relationship between sugar and fat production, and of the socio-cultural meanings of fat, particularly in relation to femininity, in the period. Dunleavy argued that Lucy's desire for the sweet things given to her by Monsieur Paul validates her desire for him, and anticipates her becoming a wife and mother, i.e. a socially acceptable depiction of femininity. I'm not sure I entirely agreed with this reading as I don't think Lucy reaches a position of accepting normative modes of femininity by the end of the novel, her anticipated marriage to M.Paul is so satisfying because she does retain such a sense of independence. However, the reading of sugar offered an insightful approach to analysing the female bodies and I found it useful in the context of my previous work looking at constructions of femininity in the novel.

A panel on Dickensian Bodies provided further interesting approaches to the theme of the conference. Kim Edwards spoke on blushing between women in Dickens' novels, revealing through analysis of instances of blushing women the presence of unspoken homosexual desire between female characters. Madeleine Wood's paper looked at disintegration of the maternal ideal in Dickens' Dombey and Son, exploring the symbolic and material breakdown of motherhood. Jessica Groper's paper analysed instances of epileptic fits in Bleak House, whilst James Arnett offered another paper on Dombey and Son, this time considering how theories of abjection, pain, and affective transfer are played out on the site of the body.

I came away from the conference with many interesting perspectives pertaining to my own research, and lots of ideas for novels to read. I also found that presenting my own paper, "Embodying the City in the Victorian Novel: 'the heart of city life' in Charlotte Brontë's Villette", was very useful for my research; I was pleased with the positive reception of my paper and an interesting discussion followed, prompting lots of stimulating ideas about my reading of the novel which I will keep in mind when I come to develop the paper into a chapter of my thesis.

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