All entries for July 2008

July 14, 2008

"The Novel and its Borders": 8th–10th July, University of Aberdeen

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"The Novel and its Borders", a 3-day conference held at the University of Aberdeen from the 8th-10th July 2008, was by far the largest conference I have attended; the conference attracted nearly three hundred academics from a great many universities around the world. As almost every delegate was presenting a paper over the course of the three days, this inevitably meant there were a huge number of parallel sessions- 10 to 11 panels running at any one time- and therefore it was impossible to see everything of interest. This large number of attendees meant, however, that the conference's broad theme of "the novel" was approached from a multiplicity of perspectives, giving the conference a hugely stimulating diversity in the themes, subjects, and interpretations that were presented.

The conference opened on the Tuesday with Professor Jonathan Lamb giving the first of three plenary lectures, entitled "Persons, Fantasies, and the Drift of Fiction". Lamb's talk was an interesting and appropriate beginning to the conference, discussing the interplay of ideas of "character" and "person" in the formation and rise of the novel; Lamb stated that the "fictionality" of the novel could not have taken root purely through a reliance on "character", and that instead the notion of the "idea and function of the person" was a necessary factor in the emergence and construction of the novel.

Over the next 3 days, the panels I attended were mostly those concerned with the Victorian period. In a panel on Sensory Perception and Victorian Realism, I was interested in Lara Karpenko's talk on "The Victorian Novel and Physical Reading" which discussed the readership and reception of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. In one part of the presentation, Karpenko drew attention to Collins' concern with typological layout and the formal elements of the page; this awareness of the materiality of the text and its effect on the physical reading experience interested me as it resonated with some recent ideas on the notion of "textual space" which not only consider the representation of space in literature but also, as Andrew Thacker has proposed, how social spaces intrude upon and dialogically help fashion, the formal, spatial features of literature, such as layout on the page. This is an area of spatial textual study that I have not yet explored in Victorian literature so the talk provided a useful starting point for where some of these ideas might be explored further.

The panel on "Genre Theory" also provided stimulating ideas concerning the novel's relationship to ideas of geography, space and mapping. Irma Ratiani's paper on "The Intermediate Passage Between the Real and Imaginary Worlds" addressed concepts of liminality, thinking about the liminal nature of literature and the novel's position in-between real and imagined worlds. Doina Cmeciu's "(Un)Mapping the Novel" approached the theme of mapping in the novel from a number of directions, considering writers as map-readers and readers as engaged in a process of re-mapping or un-mapping.

On the second day of the conference, I attended panels on George Eliot, Victorian Economy, and Nineteenth-Century Society. The last of these proved most useful to my research, with a talk by Ian Middlebrook on "Wilkie Collins, Cabs and Cityspace" which explored Victorian attutides to public transport, particularly cabs, through the work of Wilkie Collins. This raised interesting parallels with my own research as Middlebrook used a framework of spatial theorists to posit that Victorian cabs articulated a new, "modern", way of occupying space in the city.

The final day of the conference began with the panel on which I was presenting a paper entitled "'Everything Dissolving into Cloud': The Space of the Journey in Dickens' Little Dorrit." The other presentation in this session was by Jason Finch on "'Hints of Local Life': Sub-National Place in Forster's Howards End and 'The Challenge of Our Time'"; arguing against many critical readings of place in Forster's work, Finch asserted that place is represented by Forster as more than symbolic, rather as real, distinctive localities.

After a final parallel session on Virginia Woolf, the conference ended with the final plenary lecture by Terry Castle on "Brunette Coleman and the Lesbianism of Philip Larkin". Having found Castle's work to be an enlightening and useful resource throughout feminist courses in my undergraduate and MA degrees, it was wonderful to finally hear her talk, and her exploration of Philip Larkin's lesbian stories written under the pseudonym Brunette Coleman provided a very different perspective on the poet who, as Castle put it, is characterized as the "shy, sardonic English bachelor".

The conference was a great opportunity to meet and hear so many academics from around the world working on different authors and aspects of the novel and I came away with many ideas and suggestions to think about over the summer.

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