March 27, 2007

'From House to Home': Conference Review

Our aim in organising the 2007 BAVS interdisciplinary postgraduate conference was to address and tackle issues concerning representations of houses and homes in Victorian literature and art. Through panels and discussions, we hoped to bring to light many of the roots of our twenty-first century cultural assumptions. We envisaged that the conference would be of relevance to MA and PhD students working in the field of Victorian studies. Our hopes were fully realised. The day went better than we dared anticipate. A huge variety of papers coupled with lively discussion and questions made for an interesting and fully packed event.

The day started with Alice Stainer’s paper, ‘‘I had a little chamber in the house’: The Subversion of Domesticity in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.’ The central focus of was on Aurora’s ‘little chamber’:

I had a little chamber in the house,
As green as any privet-hedge a bird
Might choose to build in, through the nest itself
Could show but dead-brown sticks and straws; the walls
Were green, the carpet was pure green, the straight
Small bed was curtained greenly, and the folds
Hung green about the window, which let in
The out-door world with all its greenery.
You could not push your head out and escape
A dash of fawn-dew from the honeysuckle,
But so you were baptized in the grace
And privilege of seeing…

Aurora Leigh (I.567-78)

Alice spoke of the room as an organising principle for a discussion of the conventions and subversions of female domesticity. She argued that Aurora’s personal ‘chamber’ allowed her to annex the spaces traditionally aligned with the male artist. The greenery inherent in her chamber, serves, Alice argued, as a means of access to the natural world from which Aurora’s gender excludes her. Confined by male categorisation as ‘the Angel in the House,’ she suggested that instead of abolishing the established feminine affiliation with domesticity, Aurora Leigh charts a new kind of domestic space that is conductive to artistic creation.

Entitled ‘‘A garden in a garden’: The Enclosed Gardens of Christina Rossetti’s Poetics,’ my paper also focused on the overlap and inversions between the garden and the house as it developed notions of the spiritual significance of several of the many enclosed gardens that figure in Christina Rossetti’s poems. In my analysis of Rossetti’s utilisation of the enclosed garden, I reflected on its complexities as a place of overlap between the spiritual and the earthly as I considered her interpretations of the Garden of Eden and of the enclosed garden of the Song of Solomon as well as the hermeneutical understandings of these gardens by several of her most influential literary sources. My title, ‘A garden in a garden’ was derived from the opening of Rossetti’s sonnet ‘On Keats’ which she wrote in 1849:

A garden in a garden: a green spot
Where all is green: most fitting slumber-place
For the strong man grown weary of a race
Soon over. Unto him a goodly lot
Hath fallen in fertile ground; there thorns are not,
But his own daisies: silence, full of grace,
Surely hath shed a quiet on his face:
His earth is but sweet leaves that fall and rot.
What was his record of himself, ere he
Went from us? Here lies one whose name was writ
In water: while the chilly shadows flit
Of sweet Saint Agnes’ Eve; while basil springs,
His name, in every humble heart that sings,
Shall be a fountain of love, verily.

After introducing Keats’ grave in terms of ‘a garden in a garden’ I explored how Rossetti worked with the complicated connotations garden imagery gives rise to as it features both as a place of regeneration and life as well as a place of decay and death. I then linked Rossetti’s poetics of the garden to the writings of her medieval predecessors and her contemporaries in the Tractarian movement.

Throughout the rest of the day, many of the other panellists built on the ideas of the overlap between inside and outside as they considered the ideologies implicit in notions of the Victorian house and home. In her paper, ‘Inside Out; Outside In: Inversions of Fashionable Space and the Mid-Victorian Feminine Ideal’, Kara Tennant used fashion plates and illustrations to discuss how fashionable ‘inversions’ of domestic space challenge and complicate understandings of the feminine ideal. She spoke of the fashionable woman as located with a domestic setting, whether that is in the drawing room or in a subliminal place such as a hothouse or an outdoor picnic consisting of all the paraphernalia of the interior. Rather than escaping from the confines of the roles assigned to them by patriarchal society, Kara suggested that these fashionable women posing outdoors or indoors by an over-sized window do not necessarily represent female freedom. Rather, they serve to highlight the precocious boundaries between interior and exterior domains. Kara ended her paper by highlighting the importance of context in fashion illustrations. What may be an appropriate indoor costume would not be tolerated easily outdoors and vice-versa.

The complications inherent in constructing and adhering to social and cultural norms were also explored in Anne-Marie Millim’s paper, ‘The Idea of Home in George Gissing’s Diary (1888-1902).’ Anne-Marie argued that through his diaries, Gissing demonstrated a need to fit into socially accepted norms by marriage. His idealisation of the place of home and his early conception of marriage were sorely disappointed following the quarrels and violence he experienced in the realities he suffered when he was married. Following the failure of his marriage in 1898, Gissing increasingly preferred to surround himself by fictional characters. As described in his diaries, the interior of his house had on display portraits of famous writers such as Shakespeare and Tennyson. These writers came more and more to infiltrate Gissing’s consciousness and his construction of his own authorial subjectivity.

This symbiosis between psychological states and the materiality of the home was explored in relation to Dickens in Maddie Wood’s paper. Entitled ‘Architectural Subsidence and Affective Displacement in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit , Maddie’s paper considered how the psychological oppression of the characters of Little Dorrit was displaced onto the House Clennam itself. Working with the framework of the street, the house, and the room as the contraction of the world in the novel, Maddie spoke about the construction of Mrs Clennam’s room in terms of a tomb and execution chamber housed within the cage the rest of the house represents. She then focused specifically on the correlation of the home and the mother and traced the ways in which the force of the returning mother lies at the house of the House of Clennam’s dissolution.

Moving on from a discussion of the supernatural occurrences within the houses of Little Dorrit, Dickens’ A House to Let and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Dr Catherine Spooner opened her keynote lecture with the description of a real house thought to be haunted. In Wardley Hall, (http://www.wardleyhall.org.uk/) a manor house on the outskirts of Manchester, a skull kept in the hall is said to cause storms and poltergeist activity when it is removed from the house.
Wardley Hall

The phenomenon of stories of such skulls is largely isolated to Manchester and Lancashire and as such, Catherine argued, contributes to a sense of uniqueness of location. Instead of conceiving of ghosts as deconstructive presences (or, indeed, absences) Catherine suggested defining ghosts in terms of their time and place in material reality. Using the maps in The Lore of the Land (Westwood and Simpson 2005), she revealed how ghost stories have geographical belonging. Especially in Victorian fiction, the location of a ghost story is often a key to its interpretation. The case of Sheriden Le Fanu is especially interesting since he used Derbyshire as a disguised Ireland for the setting of Uncle Silas in order for it to achieve greater commercial success. Whilst Italy and Spain were often the focus for eighteenth century gothic tales, the rural outposts of Britain were coming to stand in for more exotic locations by the mid-late nineteenth century. The north of Derbyshire was seen especially to be an apt location for a ghost story in view of its abundance of local legends. After briefly outlining the plot of Was It an Illusion? a Parson’s Story by Amelia B. Edwards, Catherine considered the significance of ghosts in the rural and industrial north and concluded by reiterating the negotiations of houses and homes in Victorian ghost stories and tales of the supernatural.


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