Conference Report: ‘Victorian Persistence’, Université Paris Diderot

This week the Blog moves from the pleasant, though admittedly rather prosaic, surroundings of the East Midlands to the altogether more glamorous setting of the Left Bank of Paris. From the Université Paris Diderot, PhD researcher Rachel Anchor provides the following report on the ‘Victorian Persistence’ conference hosted there last week.

‘The life of the past persisting in us, is the business of every thinking man and woman.’ AS Byatt


My recent attendance at this conference combined two new experiences – my first solo trip abroad and my first conference as speaker.  During an angst-ridden Eurostar journey from London St Pancras to Gare du Nord, I wondered whether I was indeed mad or brave to give a first paper in Paris.  I imagined every conceivable problem arising from logistics and hotel bookings in a country where I was less than well-versed in the language.  Only when I was safely installed in my hotel room in the pleasantly bustling (and not too touristy) Bastille area, did I breathe a sigh of relief and contemplate the prospect of giving my paper on the continued fascination with the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade.’

Despite my initial worries and the torment of speaking last, my experience of Paris and the conference was entirely positive.  The people were friendly and approachable and the atmosphere supportive.  Organized by Professor Sara Thornton (Université Paris Diderot) and PhD researchers Estelle Murail and Roisin Quinn-Latrefin, this inter-disciplinary conference considered the different modes of resistance within nineteenth-century literature, as well as its survival and rebirth in later times.  All speakers offered clear examples of Victorian afterlives, but many rightly problematized both the concept of ‘persistence’ and its associated omissions.

The conference opened with a reading of a very recent form of Victorian persistence in the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, in which ‘M’ quotes the lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

‘Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are […]’

The first speaker, Isabelle Roblin (Universite du Littoral-Cote d’Opale), explored ‘Re-writings as Re-visions’, debunking a simplistic divide between the popular appeal of neo-Victorian literature and its critical castigation as nostalgic, ‘superficial glut.’  Arguing instead that some re-writings are indeed true re-visions, Isabelle focused on Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip (both inspired by Great Expectations) as offering invigorating perspectives on conflicts of race, sexuality and class.  Isabelle offered a powerful case for re-contextualization of canonical works.  Owen Holland’s (University of Cambridge) alluringly entitled paper ‘News from Nowhere and the Roads Not Taken’ stressed the importance of not viewing persistence in the context of ‘progress’ and linear narrative, but in the context of rupture and imagined persistence.  Using William Morris’ News from Nowhere, a Marxist infused vision of social revolution and post-political society, Owen gave a subtle account of the close relationship between dream and historical reality and the problems of story-telling: ‘The traces of the familiar which we encounter in reading Morris’s utopian text are also proleptic traces, foreshadowings of an unrealised future which, in its very unreality, continues to act as a foil to the present.’

Nicolas Casado (University of Oslo) focused on Virginia Woolf’s family saga The Years and her exploration of the shift between the Victorian era and what the characters call ‘a New World’.  Employing the interesting notion of ‘haunting’ as a cyclical feature of Woolf’s novel, Nicolas argued for a paradoxical perseverance of the past through hanging portraits and bodily attitudes.  Christopher Yiannitsaros (University of Warwick) gave an inter-textual comparison of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced (1950).  It was interesting to hear a critical reading of Christie and one which demonstrated the clear inspiration she drew from the nineteenth-century. Christopher focused particularly on the role of the murderess in each case, portraying them sympathetically.  He argued both authors were sensitive to the problems associated with female agency in their own contexts.  Continuing on a theme of women’s empowerment, Clare Walker-Gore (University of Cambridge) gave a thought-provoking paper on the under-explored area of disability in Victorian fiction.  Clare traced a social model of disability back to the work of Dinah Craik’s best-selling, but little discussed, novel Olive (1850) and briefly to Charlotte Yonge’s The Pillars of the House (1873).  Olive centres upon a heroine with a spinal deformity.  Craik overturns her protagonist’s chastisement as ‘deformed’ by providing her with the conventional rewards of marriage and motherhood.  Whilst Clare acknowledged these ‘rewards’ may be viewed with scepticism today, she stressed Craik’s daring in providing her character with the emotional attachments and ties valued by Victorian society.  Clare argued persuasively that Olive’s story from marginalization to love and belonging reveals Craik’s challenge to the more eugenic social policies we associate with the Victorian age.

The day was broken-up with lunch at a local restaurant, generously funded by Université Diderot. I discovered over lunch that the wonderfully approachable chair of my panel (Professor Paul Volsik, Université Diderot) had himself given a talk on the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ in 2008.  I was given a free copy of Université Diderot’s 2010 publication Circulation and Transfer of Key Scenes in Nineteenth-Century Literature, in which his paper appears.  It took a lot of will-power to prevent myself from looking at this article before my paper, which was still hanging in the balance (as was my stomach).

The afternoon continued with three further PhD papers, including my own.  First up was Mark Fitzpatrick (Université Sorbonne Universalle) who explored the responses of adults to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, challenging the notion that his ‘adventure’ stories speak only to children.  He argued for the importance of ‘reading between the lines’ in Stevenson’s stories, which are not adventure tales but ‘stories about adventure tales, and about the gap between daydream and reality.’  Demonstrating the relationship between text and image, Carey Gibbons (Courtauld Institute of Arts) explored illustrations of the female personification of the North Wind, which accompanied successive editions of George MacDonald’s fantasy novel At the Back of the North Wind.  The novel outlines the adventures of ‘Diamond’ as he is taken on a series of adventures by the North Wind. Carey focused in particular on the representation of the North Wind’s hair as a malleable trope for conveying the meaning of the text.

'The Charge of the Light Brigade' by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. (1825-1855)

‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. (1825-1855)

My own paper gave an overview of the Charge of the Light Brigade’s re-contextualization over time, arguing for the importance of cultural drivers in giving this futile episode status.  I argued against Tennyson’s poem as simple glorification, but instead a restorative and redemptive offering to his ‘Brave Soldiers’, to rescue them from the blunder and unaccountable nature of the affair.  As well as looking at post-WW1 developments, the poem was used in the 1870s to augment an increasingly celebratory and soldier-focused veneration of ‘the charge’ and its participants, to the exclusion of Crimean successes and other tragedies.  I highlighted the problems and contradictions associated with this narrow form of commemoration, as outlined in Rudyard Kipling’s little-known poem The Last of the Light Brigade (1891) – here is an extract:

There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song […]

Following my paper, I had some interesting discussions and gained a lot from specialist feedback, as well as new leads for my research.  One person was particularly knowledgeable about the Crimean War and pointed to the 1936 film version of ‘the charge’ as an interesting interpretation.  Apparently, ‘the charge’ was re-enacted with such terrible reality that 200 horses died in the making of the film, leading to new measures to ensure the safety of animals.  My chair, Paul Volsik also pointed to Iron Maiden’s The Trooper as another unexpected and interesting monument to ‘the charge’ in popular culture.  A clip of the song is available on YouTube (WARNING, contains Heavy Metal).

The day was rounded-up with keynote talks by Professor Jeremy Tambling (University of Manchester) and Professor Juliet John (Royal Holloway, University of London) on Dickens.  Juliet John engaged with Dickens’ status as a global icon and discussed his positioning in the popular and critical tradition.  Merriment ensued with an outline of the controversy surrounding ‘Dickens World’ in Kent, which has bred bitter opposition as crude de-valuation of the Dickens ‘brand’.  Juliet rallied against snobbery, however, contesting that ‘Dickens World’ only went wrong in purporting authenticity.  Her discussion was drawn from her recent publication, Dickens and Modernity – a collection of articles featuring Leicester’s Dr Holly Furneaux, no lessProfessor Jeremy Tambling looked at how persistence and impediment drives Dickens’ plots, using the description of the infinitely pointing Roman in Bleak House, or ‘Allegory’, as his starting point.  In a highly nuanced talk, he demonstrated Dickens’ complex toying with language (e.g ‘wandering’) and temporality in the city environment.  Professor Tambling has written more widely on Dickens’ interaction with the city in his 2009 publication Going Astray: Dickens and London.

Following gastronomic indulgence at ‘La Créperie’, where I enjoyed a traditional, savoury galette followed by a decadent caramel crépe, I returned to my hotel relieved, but also energised.  I managed to fit in some sight-seeing at the Musée d’Orsay before boarding the Eurostar back to London the following day.  The art gallery features famous paintings by Van Gogh, Courbet, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Vuillard, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec to name a few, as well as sculpture, photography and decorative art. The building itself is an impressive conversion of a railway station on the banks of the Seine – a striking example of re-contextualisation, and so an apt way to end my Paris trip.

Musée d’Orsay interior (with original station clock), Rue de Lille, Paris

Musée d’Orsay interior (with original station clock), Rue de Lille, Paris


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