Discords: George Egerton at the Fin de Siècle (University of Loughborough, 7-8 April 2017)

Clare Stainthorp has recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Birmingham on Constance Naden, and is currently teaching there as a Visiting Lecturer. She is developing a research project on the nineteenth-century freethought press with the support of a Curran Fellowship from the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, and tweets at @ClareGS87. Her blog is the second of a two-part series on ‘George Egerton at the Fin de Siècle’ and examines the ‘Discords’ that shape Egerton’s work and readers’ relationship with it, following on from Dr Alexandra Gray’s discussion of the conference’s ‘Keynotes’.

Over the course of the two days in Loughborough it became clear to the assembled academics that ‘Discords’ was not only the title of Egerton’s second collection of short stories but a recurring conceptual theme; we repeatedly found ourselves discussing Egerton’s refusal to exist harmoniously within existing or expected overarching structures. The compelling transgressions and contradictions within her life and works lead to important conversations about the many ways in which Egerton embodies liminal states. In this post, I will describe some of the ways speakers at the conference engaged with this aspect of the writer’s work.

Margaret Stetz’s superlative keynote on Egerton and life writing did much to reconfigure the way in which scholars have come to understand Egerton’s biography and relationships through the highly problematic A Leaf from the Yellow Book, published by her cousin Edward De Vere White in 1958. While this text purports to be a well-meaning selection of extracts from correspondence interspersed with recollections of a close personal relationship, Stetz outlined the many ways in which White’s erasures, untruths, errors, and offensive opinions worked against securing Egerton’s posthumous reputation. That White’s book is nonetheless the only way that many scholars are able to access manuscript materials that are otherwise undigitized and unpublished has inevitably cast a shadow upon how the majority of people understand Egerton’s biography, personality, and achievements. This fundamental discord at the heart of Egerton studies is discouraging and damaging, rather than some of the more liberating liminalities that were drawn out by other speakers.

Fig1Stainthorp Stetz

Fig 1: Margaret Stetz poised to give her keynote address

A key example of this latter type of discord is how Egerton both propounds and undermines concepts relating to essential femininity, sexual liberation, and the figure of the New Woman, reinscribing the multivalency of feminism and encouraging reconfigurations of womanhood. My paper on the first morning sought to encourage the assembled academics to embrace such aspects of Egerton’s nature. I considered a few of the seeming contradictions that arise when we seek to pin down Egerton’s relationship with feminist thought, suggesting that it’s productive to work with, rather than against, the elements that make the contours of her intellectual project so enigmatic. Rosie Miles and Anthony Patterson both pursued this question in terms of considering what it is that makes Egerton so provocative, while Nathalie Saudo-Welby suggested that the stories in Keynotes and Discords communicate a specifically female incomprehensibility that rejects any expected, implicitly male, middle way.

Fig2Stainthorp Donna Quixote

Fig 2: Egerton is recognisable as a model for this figuration of the New Woman in Punch. ‘Donna Quixote’, Punch, 28 April 1894, p. 195

Egerton’s willingness to be confrontational is another type of discordance that arose. Nick Freeman drew this out with particular clarity in his paper on how the striking parables and allegories in Fantasias acted as rebuttals to negative aspects of her reception. Several other speakers drew upon Egerton’s (often tongue-in-cheek) pronouncements in correspondence that indicate her willingness to apportion blame for her discontents. Importantly, it became clear that Egerton retained significant self-awareness about her belligerence; it is this attitude that often gave rise to the discordances in her life and works and she remained actively provocative in a way that threw down the gauntlet to friends and scholars alike.

Internal and external conflicts around space and place were considered from multiple perspectives during the conference. Specifically, in the panel on Landscape and Nation we heard from Karen Power and Eleanor Fitzsimons about Egerton’s complicated relationship with Irishness, while a pair of papers on urban identities from Sravya Raju and Jennifer Nicol showed how Egerton was troubled in certain ways by city living. Several other speakers considered how Egerton traverses the border between centuries and eras. She lived and published in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and while she found most success in the 1890s, in many ways her innovative writings sit more comfortably alongside those of later writers. Camilla Prince convincingly argued that Egerton’s literary impressionism means that she should be understood as a ‘missing modernist link’ that directly connects fin de siècle writing with high modernism, and not as a mere stepping-stone. It was agreed by many that the tendency of university teaching and scholarly publications to reinscribe arbitrary temporal boundaries has exacerbated the difficultly of rehabilitating Egerton’s reputation.

Indeed, temporality as a schema is specifically troubled by Egerton’s writings. Stacey Sivinski’s compelling paper demonstrated the importance of Egerton’s unconventional spontaneity and deviance from (male) linearity, seeking to escape and rearrange the boundaries of hegemonic time in an act of specifically female liberation. As touched upon by many other speakers, this element of discordance can be traced through Egerton’s mixing of formal styles and willingness to test the rules of narrative, grammar, and punctuation (aligned, some argued, with patriarchal hegemonies) through fragments and ellipsis.

As was highlighted in the closing roundtable led by Stetz, Margaret Heilmann, Rosie Miles, and Sarah Parker, the fragmentation of Egerton’s corpus remains a point of contention. The array of conference papers largely reflected the landscape of publications on Egerton: the familiar short story collections Keynotes and Discords are the touchstones, the less well-known short story collections and the novel The Wheel of God are gaining traction, and there is a continued need to critically consider Egerton’s other novel, Rosa Amorosa, as well as her plays. Nevertheless, this inspiring, vivifying conference illuminated many new directions in Egerton studies. Her work undoubtedly traverses spectrums, embraces discords, and troubles the perceived boundaries of identity; it invites us to do the same.

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