BAVS: Victorian Futures; Victorian Pasts
This panel brings together research which engages with issues of futurity, memorialisation, and longevity in the Victorian period specifically. These three papers interrogate Victorian writers’ analyses of their position in a world of rapid change amidst popular rhetoric of progress, the intersection of the textual and of material objects at moments of narrative tension, and anxieties about ageing and decline in Victorian fiction. This panel brings together work from scholars at all career stages working in Victorian Studies, each of whom is a member of the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) Executive Committee.
‘Victorian Futures: Languages of Prediction’ (Professor Dinah Birch, BAVS President)
Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement, University of Liverpool
‘So the world gets on step by step towards brave clearness and honesty!’ George Eliot’s determinedly cheerful response to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species reflects a confidence in the future that was not universally shared by her contemporaries - nor always by Eliot herself. The Victorians were intensely conscious of their place in history. Writers, artists, social reformers, politicians, and scientists saw their work in the context of rapid social and technological change. But they were deeply divided, and often anxious, about the nature of this change. Would it lead to progress? Or disorder and loss? This paper will consider nuanced ambivalences in Victorian languages of prediction, as uncertainty contends with optimism in their troubled visions of the future.
‘Matter and Form: Literature, Material Culture and Victorian Hairwork’ (Heather Hind, BAVS Postgraduate Representative)
PhD Student, University of Exeter
Hairwork—decorative objects made from human hair—constitutes a peculiar category of object owing to its bodily material and particular processes: its matter and form. Hairwork is a means and process of representation in which the hair at once figures its donor while its working gives shape to the affects, relationships, and identities of its donor, maker, and wearer. Accordingly, hairwork emerges in Victorian literature at moments of tension, when relationships are being consolidated or redefined, transitions are taking place, or ideas of identity are being questioned and explored. This paper will consider the relationship between real and represented hairwork and suggest ways we might analyse objects alongside and against texts. I reflect on objects as a catalyst for literary analysis, describing and assessing hairwork artefacts in order to tease out points of intersection with and divergence from their represented counterparts. [This paper develops work for which Heather was awarded the 2019 Hamilton Prize.]
‘Fictions of Ageing in the Victorian Age’ (Dr Alice Crossley, BAVS Secretary)
Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Lincoln
As an aspect of identity construction that often gets overlooked in favour of, for example, class or gender, ageing may be viewed as complex because of its instability and constant flux. We are all ageing; yet ageing, or to become old, offers no homogenous pattern of experience. Victorian fiction, however, offers an enduringly fruitful lens for the study of ageing and its implications for the individual, as well as the collective nation – particularly at the century’s close, when an ageing queen becomes a highly symbolic figure of a world in a state of flux. This paper will consider the interplay of age-anxieties within Victorian literature, as it draws on a rhetoric of ageing to which we are often still subject today. In reflecting on examples of Victorian fiction by writers such as Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, and Israel Zangwill, this paper will explore the texts’ challenges to biological, calendrical, and cultural age construction in the Victorian period. To do so, it will interpolate ageing studies with theories of embodiment and disability theory, to reflect on the text’s engagement with both ageist and ableist discourses. Victorian fiction, this paper will demonstrate, functions to recuperate the multiply-Othered figure (in terms of age – but also nation, body, and physical dependency).
LEARNED SOCIETIES STRAND: British Association for Victorian Studies