BAVS Conference 2018: Global Patterns and Victorian Crossings

Rena Jackson is an early career researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Salford, UK. She recently completed her doctoral studies at the University of Manchester, with a thesis entitled ‘Metropolitan Dissent in Thomas Hardy’s Fiction: Class, Gender, Empire.’ Her research focuses on the entanglement of Hardy’s Wessex with overseas imperial spaces, arguing for multiple and deeply uneven forms of contact with the empire. Rena tweets @DrRenaJackson

One of the aims of twentieth-century postcolonial and imperial enquiry was to establish the depth and extent of imperial knowledge, support and participation within Victorian Britain. The historian John M. MacKenzie has demonstrated that knowledge of the empire was pervasive and influential within British culture and society. Foundational contributions to the field of postcolonial criticism, most memorably by Edward Said and Simon Gikandi, focus on both explicit and coded representations of empire within Victorian writing in order to outline contours of national solidarity or collusion with Britain’s overseas interests.

British Empire

Map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886 by Walter Crane

A number of panels and keynotes themed around the ‘Global Patterns’ strand of the BAVS 2018 ‘Victorian Patterns’ conference expanded our understanding of metropolitan cultural crossings into, and response to, the empire, often in surprising and unexpected ways. On the whole, these interventions invited thought for plural kinds of engagement with global affairs in Victorian Britain. In so doing, they enhance and enrich twenty-first-century insights in which earlier paradigms of metropolitan knowledge, uniformity and complicity have been complicated or inflected (Burton, ed.; Thompson; Gandhi; Claeys; Tabili; Thrush; Wagner; Gopal). 

Regenia Gagnier’s (University of Exeter) theoretical contribution at the opening plenary panel, for example, laid stress on types of interdependence or transculturation between Britain and its spheres of global influence that might be refracted through the lenses of region, locale and occupation. Introducing her book Literatures of Liberalization (forthcoming 2018), Gagnier considered how specificities of place or advances in technology influenced the way in which lives and literatures of the nineteenth century responded to processes of globalisation. She distinguished between different kinds of literary production within what might be termed ‘total environments’, for example literatures fashioned in the context of global cities or, conversely, villages or mines, or those traversing the plantation–manor house arc. The introduction of machinery and modern systems and technologies – railways, steamships, tractors – might also help to contextualise more effectively processes of globalisation and transculturation. 

Lines of investigation of this kind, especially in relation to sites of imperial coercion and oppression, Gagnier further noted, can unravel shared cultures of ‘inconsolability’ (here she borrows Neil Lazarus’s term). These directions are being energetically pursued, of course, in studies that are coming out of the Warwick Research Collective’s (WReC) persuasive uses of world-systems theory to engage critically with world literature. To my mind, research that focuses on global sites of shared oppression and common struggle in the nineteenth century – in line with Gagnier, Lazarus and WReC – shows some of the limitations of criticism confining itself to parameters of nation. 


Photo by João Silas

Other papers at the conference explored the complexities of Victorian cultural crossings and exchange, ones that similarly trouble critical claims for the existence of cohesive metropolitan approaches to other cultures in nineteenth-century Britain. In his compelling keynote lecture, Stefano Evangelista (University of Oxford) explored ‘the aesthetic, ethical and political implications of [Lafcadio] Hearn’s act of “crossing” into Japanese culture’ (abstract). Hearn, born to a Greek mother and an Irish father, spent his early years in Ireland and Britain, leaving for the U.S. during his teens and latterly migrating to Japan, where he eventually settled and became legally naturalised. His relocation to Japan, notes Evangelista, resulted in ‘a series of popular books that changed British and American perceptions of that country’ (abstract). Like him, other Victorian authors and readers ‘found new ways of relating local and global identities in a world that they experienced as increasingly interconnected’ (abstract). And yet, as Evangelista reflected, Hearn’s cosmopolitanism also had its contradictory sides, since he was known to have supported Japanese patriotism and wariness of foreigners.

Duncan Milne’s (Edinburgh Napier University) fascinating panel talk about Robert Louis Stevenson’s cultural crossing into Samoa bore parallels to Evangelista’s analysis but included a different approach to what might – perhaps just as problematically – be construed as cosmopolitan practice. Known to have been ‘deeply invested in historical narratives of his native Scotland’ (abstract), with fiction that drew on Romantic constructions of the Highlands, Stevenson relocated to Samoa in the late 1880s, where he became recognised for his strident objections to the impositions of western colonial powers in the Pacific. Despite his anti-colonial protest, Stevenson scripted Scottish histories into Samoan politics in his work. Thus, for example, he theorised the First Samoan Civil War in terms of the Jacobite rising of 1745. 

Unlike Hearn, then, who seems to have landed more firmly at the side of Japanese claimed rights to national self-determination, Stevenson appears to have exported metropolitan ideas about nation and sovereignty to Samoa. It is possible, however, not to place the two examples of Victorian crossing at polar ends of intercultural encounter. The two authors, after all, themselves hailed from cultures that underwent similar processes of colonisation within the metropolitan centre (Scots, Irish, Greek); the two writers’ expressions of solidarity – varied and controversial as they may be – with cultures outside of Europe may be unconscious expressions of shared ‘inconsolability’ (to return to Gagnier’s paper) with their host cultures.  

In an especially engaging panel on Victorian expeditionary literature and the digital archive, Justin D. Livingstone (Queen’s University Belfast), Heather F. Ball (St John’s University), Kathryn Simpson (Edinburgh Napier University) and Adrian Wisnicki (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) demonstrated how digital technologies might lead to a reconsideration of received ideas about Victorian crossings and travel accounts. Digital humanities methodologies, in this case applied to David Livingstone’s travel records and to those written by ‘a small set of non-British authors and interlocutors’ (panel overview), reveal how editorial and archival practices in Victorian Britain, including processes of redaction and archival exclusion, depoliticised or marginalised voices that could be perceived to upset Victorian fondness for narratives of white heroism abroad.


Photo by Arthur Edelman

For example, ‘a digital image-based edition of [Livingstone’s] Missionary Travels manuscript’ (J. Livingstone’s abstract), due to be published at Livingstone Online, presents a Livingstone who questioned colonial practice: most notably in his reflections on the Cape Frontier Wars. This digital humanities remediation initiative depicts a more political Livingstone and therefore creates scope within my own research to nuance some of my claims for imperial critique in Thomas Hardy’s fiction. Hardy relied on previously unpublished records of Livingstone’s travels in the African interior, ones that were assembled in William Garden Blaikie’s The Personal Life of David Livingstone (1880), for his own African imaginary in Two on a Tower (1882). Through anti-heroic presentations of the African explorer, Two on a Tower subverts some of the qualities of daring, tenacity and ‘good’ service ascribed to Livingstone in The Life. The digital efforts of Livingstone Online invite greater alertness in my own work to processes of mediation and editorship and to the possibility that Hardy’s dissenting response was more pointedly in relation to lionised versions of Livingstone.

Digital technologies, as Wisnicki went on to argue in the final paper presented at this panel, are being employed in a similar vein to give greater exposure to ‘Victorian-era Anglophone narratives of travel from non-western writers (e.g. Arabs, Africans, Indians)’, which often exist ‘at the margins of the Victorian archive’ (Wisnicki’s abstract). In showing non-western voices to be co-produces of knowledge about global spaces and colonial lifeworlds, digital tools help us ‘to rethink and work against the patterns of dominant, contemporary, and standardized models of Victorian data publication’ (Wisnicki’s abstract).

These impressive contributions, rewarding on many levels, continue a welcome trend in Victorian studies of reaching for more robust enquiry into nineteenth-century responses to Britain’s global dealings. What the BAVS 2018 interventions show is the presence in the Victorian metropole of plural voices, divided approaches and, more importantly, the capacity for dissent and critique in relation to Britain’s overseas interests.

Cited Works and Relevant Resources

‘BAVS Paper Abstracts’. [accessed 11 October 2018].

Blaikie, William Garden. The Personal Life of David Livingstone. John Murray, 1880.

Burton, Antoinette, ed. After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation. Duke UP, 2003.

Claeys, Gregory. Imperial Sceptics: British Critics of Empire, 1850-1920. Cambridge UP, 2010.

Gagnier, Regenia (forthcoming). Literatures of Liberalization: Global Circulation and the Long Nineteenth Century. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Gandhi, Leela. Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship. Duke UP, 2006.

Gikandi, Simon. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. Columbia UP, 1996.

Gopal, Priyamvada. ‘The British Empire’s Hidden History is One of Resistance, Not Pride’, Guardian, 28 July 2017, [accessed 11 October 2018].

Gopal, Priyamvada (forthcoming). Insurgent Empire: Anticolonialism and the Making of British Dissent. Verso, 2019.

Lazarus, Neil. The Postcolonial Unconscious. Cambridge UP, 2011.

‘Livingstone Online’, [accessed 11 October 2018].

MacKenzie, John M. Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960. Manchester UP, 1984.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. Vintage, 1994.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Pantheon, 1978.

Tabili, Laura. Global Migrants, Local Culture: Natives and Newcomers in Provincial England, 1841-1939. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Thompson, Andrew. The Empire Strikes Back? The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Pearson, 2005.

Thrush, Coll. Indigenous London: Native Travellers at the Heart of Empire. Yale UP, 2016.

Wagner, Tamara S. Victorian Narratives of Failed Emigration: Settlers, Returnees, and Nineteenth-Century Literature in English. Routledge, 2016.

Warwick Research Collective [WReC]. Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World Literature. Liverpool UP, 2015. 

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