Fariha Shaikh (KCL) provides a conference overview:
What are the ‘transformations of objects and effected by objects’: this was the central question that pinned together the vast array of papers and ideas bought together in this two-day conference.
The growing interest of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work as an object of serious study was made evident in the first panel I attended. Alison Lundie (Roehampton) focussed on the rich descriptions of shawls in Gaskell’s major industrial novels, Mary Barton and North and South, arguing that women fashioned their identities through different practices of shawl-wearing. Tara Puri (Kent) explored tea and calico alongside shawls in North and South in search of a ‘readable object world’ that manifested itself through the ‘unhomely’ traces of a contemporary colonial moment. Wassila Mouro (Tlemcen) looked at the intertextual references in Gaskell’s fiction, raising the interesting question of the relationship between the ‘literary object’ of quotations from the ‘textual objects’ of the material world explored by Tara and Alison.
The second panel, on ‘Altered States’ proved to be a refreshing contrast from sensuous fabrics and scented teas: glass lenses, chlorodyne and Hinton’s cubes. Greg Lynall (Liverpool) made a convincing case for the ‘between-ness’ of the lens in the eighteenth century. As myth transformed into reality, and advances in optics made harnessing the sun’s power possible, the lens became a multifaceted object, used as a laboratory tool, display device and an instrument of ‘polite’ culture. Jim Mussell (Birmingham) led us through the fascinating story of the secrets of the ‘medicine’ chlorodyne, a concoction of laudanum, channbis and chloroform, and those secrets it could not, or did not, keep. Mark Blacklock (Birkbeck) spoke on Hinton’s cubes, which visualised the fourth dimension.
Next was John Holmes’ (Reading) exciting keynote on the Pre-Raphaelites and science. He argued that whereas at the beginning, developments in science meant that Brotherhood wanted to adopt a scientific gaze in their quest to capture the ‘truth to nature’ in their work, within a few years, this had changed and the Brotherhood began to shift representations of science. In distinction to other statues of scientists, which depict posed, fixed figures, the Brotherhood’s statues show the scientist in the process of thought – a thinking figure.
The second day began with a panel on ‘Travelling Objects’. Ruth Scobie (York) drew out the fascinating comparisons between the feather screens of Elizabeth Montague’s rooms and William Cowper’s celebration of them in his poetry. Maria Grazia Messore (Cassino) talked about the significance of the merchant figure in Daniel Defoe’s fiction. Emalee Beddoes (Birmingham) drew our attention to the gendered dynamics of tea advertisements in the late nineteenth century. Fariha Shaikh (King’s College London) spoke on emigration literature and argued that this new genre could provide us with new ways of conceptualising space.
In ‘Transforming Texts’, we were given a rare and interesting insight into the history of literature study guides by Mildred Bjerke (York) – a genre that originally encouraged the masses to exercise their own judgement, but has now been appropriated by educational publishers claiming that they provide the ‘key’ to the text. Simon Cooper (Newcastle) argued for a reappraisal of Erskine Caldwell’s experimentations with modernist form.
The roundtable on ‘Single or Multi-Author Blogging’ was persuasive - through the discussions, I was made aware that blogging could be used for teaching purposes, to explore the grey area between professional and private lives, as well as using it as a space to make accessible research that would not be published anywhere.
Sarah Haggarty (Newcastle) gave the last keynote of the conference. Through detailed readings of Cowper’s letters, she gave an insightful reading of how Cowper constructs the delay of epistolary exchange.
A rich and intellectually stimulating two days – without doubt due as much to the quality of the papers, as to the meticulous planning of the conference organisers, Anna Hope and Nicole Bush!