“Consuming the Victorians” Conference Report

Hannah Greenstreet holds a Master of Studies in English: 1830-1914 from the University of Oxford, where she was a Clarendon Scholar. She graduated with a BA in English from Cambridge in 2014 and was Joseph Hodges Choate Memorial Fellow at Harvard University. She is the winner of the Theatre and Performance Research Association 2016 Postgraduate Essay Prize. Her research interests span nineteenth-century to contemporary theatre, particularly questions of form and the real. You can follow her on twitter @hgreenstreet1.

The BAVS 2016 Conference theme, ‘Consuming (the) Victorians)’, delivered an astonishingly rich selection of panels, keynotes and conversations. Some panels took the theme more literally than others, tackling temperance, tonics and food adulteration. There were also some panels with looser interpretations, showcasing genres such as journalism traditionally associated with consumption, investigating how Victorian culture consumed and subsumed others, or considering how the twenty-first century consumed the Victorians through neo-Victorian literature, a particularly strong throughline of the conference. Hoping for inspiration in my own research into Victorian theatre and acting, I mainly followed the music and theatre strand of panels, although I also sampled papers on sensation fiction, adaptation and fandom, and working-class poetry in Scotland.

One of the things that surprised me as a BAVS novice was the interdisciplinary nature (and the sheer scale) of the conference, spanning literature, history, history of art, musicology and many others. It is sometimes easy to confine oneself to one’s discipline and forget that the nineteenth century was so much more than its literature. I found it immensely refreshing and exciting to have people with so many different perspectives and areas of expertise participating in the conversation.

This was particularly visible in the keynotes. Patricia Duncker opened the conference by giving a fascinating insight into her process as a neo-Victorian novelist. She expanded on her sense of the differences between novel and biography: the former has a duty to the reader and can select what to include, the latter has a duty to proven facts, even if they are inconvenient; biography fills gaps left by documentary record, while fiction exploits and celebrates gaps; biography speculates and explains, fiction suggests and invents. On the third day of the conference, Frank Trentmann argued for a new approach to a history of Victorian consumer culture, which would consider the relationship between the consumer and political ideas and take a global perspective. My favourite keynote was Christina Bashford’s lecture on the late Victorian ‘violin craze’. She explored how ‘the violin, or rather the idea of the violin’ became a ‘potent, ideologically laden consumer good’. Violin playing tapped into people’s aspirations. Working-class men took up the instrument and some supplemented their income with teaching or concert playing. Middle and upper class women learnt the violin in great numbers, many auditioning for conservatoires. Bashford argued the sheer number of professionally trained women presented a threat to the established male order, particularly as the shape and sensual materiality of the violin meant that it was associated with erotic pleasure. Bashford demonstrated through an entertaining account of her experience of learning the violin at school that the association of violins with social betterment and its supposed unsuitability for women persisted into the twentieth century. Her grandmother discouraged her from the instrument, warning, “It will give you a terrible double chin, my dear”!

I found the curated panels led to particularly exciting discussions, as the papers were composed to speak to each other. Highlights were ‘Consuming the Celebrity in Nineteenth-Century Performance Culture’, curated by Peter Yeandle and ‘Consuming Spectacles, Sensations, and the Exotic on the Victorian Stage’, curated by Beth Palmer. In the former panel, Anna Maria Barry argued that male opera singers were driven by the nature of their profession (the fleetingness of performance) to actively manage their celebrity more than other professions. Tessa Kilgarriff gave a fascinating insight into composite Carte de Visite, arguing that the photographs made up of individual pictures of ‘Popular Actresses’ could be a means of expressing collective professional identity. Peter Yeandle discussed Victorian performing animals to consider whether animals could become celebrities. In turn, this raised questions of agency in human celebrity, relevant to all three papers. In the latter panel, Beth Palmer considered what it meant for consumers of sensation to encounter it in a plethora of forms (novels, illustrations, editorials, reviews, theatrical adaptations, consumer goods) at once, arguing that sensation encouraged a participatory culture. Joanna Robinson gave a fascination re-examination of toy theatre adaptations of Battle of Alma (1854) to argue that, rather than viewing juvenile drama as records of a theatrical event, they should be seen as performances in their own right, with the ability to co-opt and distort the source text.

The workshops for postgraduate students and early career researchers added a further element of practical training to the conference. I found the public speaking workshop, led by actor and academic Eric Hetzler, particularly helpful in preparing me to deliver my first ever conference paper. Hetzler’s insistence that you should write in a way that is comfortable for you to speak and for people to understand is a simple but insightful point for conference speakers at whatever stage in their career to remember! I presented on ‘Contemporary (Theatrical) Approaches to Victorian Theatre’ as part of a panel on ‘Theatrical Time Travel’. Using An Octoroon (2014) by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti (2012) as examples, I explored how twenty-first century playwrights appropriate Victorian theatrical devices as a historically aware means of tackling longstanding issues of race.

At the end of the conference, the President’s panel brought us back to the present. Valerie Sanders told us that six million people had tuned in to ITV’s Victoria, suggesting that public interest in the Victorians remains strong but selective: audiences are drawn to the young, charismatic, ‘modern’ Queen Victoria, rather than the old, widowed Victoria. After a conference consuming a plethora of objects, Clare Pettit stressed the danger of re-commodifying the Victorians, calling for attention to networks, production, and ‘material subjectivity’. Kate Flint called on us to encourage responsible consumption of the Victorian period. She provoked us, rather than asking questions of ourselves that emerge from the Victorian period, to find ways in which to take our twenty-first century responsibilities, ideas and ethics back in order to ask new questions about the Victorians.


One response to ““Consuming the Victorians” Conference Report

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s