Why ‘Nineteenth Century Matters’ Mattered to Me

victorian-supperThe PhD is a strange thing. You spend three years (or four, or seven, depending on where and how you’re working) fixated on a single topic. You read lots of things you don’t need to read, and explore many avenues that will turn out to be dead ends. Your time is largely yours to spend how you choose, although there are more than enough obligations to choose from. In many ways, it represents a kind of academic freedom that you’re unlikely to ever see again.

After your PhD, potential employers seem interested in everything but your thesis. They want to know what you have published, what you have taught, and what additional impact and engagement skills you can bring to the table. The interstitial space between the PhD and the mythical academic job is feared, densely populated, and vigorously prepared for. Speaking to those who are there already, it can also be incredibly soul-crushing. Applications require a great deal of time and effort, but you are competing against hundreds of other highly qualified people, often your friends, and your chances of success are slim. The sea of tick-boxes, online forms, and buzzwords can be depressingly dehumanising.

Th graves of Jane Austen's mother and sister at Chawton House
Th gravestones of Jane Austen’s mother and sister at Chawton House

This is why I was especially glad to be able to attend the Nineteenth Century Matters training day at Chawton House Library, a public engagement event organised by Catherine Han and sponsored by BARS and BAVS on 28 January, 2017. I’m not going to give a content summary of the day—that’s already been done by a number of different reviewers. You can also check out the live tweets using the #c19Matters hashtag. I do want to comment on a couple of things I particularly enjoyed about the event, though.

Most people at the training day were what we call ECRs (Early Career Researchers), and many were in that uncertain space between the PhD and full-time employment. The first thing that became immediately clear was how much everyone cared about their research. Yes, we exchanged the usual banter about the dire state of the job market, the gruelling commutes between part-time teaching jobs, and our lack of future prospects, but the subject always turned back around to the work. Most had a clear idea of why the research they were conducting into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was still important and relevant. If the world couldn’t see that, we would find a way to show them.

Chawton House
Chawton House, in Alton

This was one important difference Mark Llewellyn, research director at the AHRC and one of the speakers, identified between scholars of his generation and ours. Where some established academics don’t see the need to make their research directly relevant to the public, ECRs tend to immediately see the benefits of getting their research out there. This willingness to get out there and do the work is partly born out of necessity, of course, but Llewellyn sees this as vital to the future of the humanities.

Llewellyn and the other speakers (full programme here) also did a great job of breaking down the meaningless buzzwords that circulate around funding and public events. What does ‘engagement’ actually mean, for instance? Addressing the neo-Victorianists in the room, Llewellyn asked whether the Victorians even mean the same thing to us as they do to the people we’re trying to engage. In the mad dash for employment we often feel it’s our job to somehow make people care about our work, but the process is much more organic than that. It requires connecting with specific people and communities, learning about their needs, and building up a relationship that is fulfilling for both parties. We need the public to engage, but they also need us to be engaged.

Sound a bit saccharine? Fortunately the tone of the day wasn’t at all patronising or abstract. Claire Wood had a few useful tips about identifying who this mystical ‘public’ actually is, and who we should really be talking to. Gillian Dow, Mary Guyatt, and Holly Furneaux all shared direct examples of the strengths and pitfalls of public engagement. The presenters also did a brilliant job of dispelling the Romantic myth of the scholar, who dispenses knowledge from an irony tower to the ignorant masses. For each speaker, engagement had impacted their own research in profound and resoundingly practical ways. It was precisely the act of doing something for and with the public, without worrying about the immediate relevance to the research, that yielded new and unexpected results.

Four of the speakers at the training day
Four of the speakers at the training day

The training day also did a remarkable job of making us, the participants, feel like human beings again—no mean feat for an event with so many big names attached. Each speaker was very approachable, and was not only excited to talk about our ideas, but also keen to offer help and advice. The staff at Chawton House were kind and very professional, and the day was organised without a hitch. Because there weren’t too many of us—several dozen in total—there was just enough opportunity to chat without making the networking feel like a chore. The location itself was also quiet and intimate, and made the whole thing feel like a relaxing retreat rather than an ideas mill.

Image © Vic Jane Clark
Image © Vic Jane Clarke

The only thing I would have liked more of were the workshops, for which we split into small groups based on our research and expertise. I’m still in the early stages of my public engagement plan, and so was matched with a group designed to generate some ideas for how to bring your research to specific groups of people. Our research was randomly paired with two categories: a target group and a type of project. Target groups included easier audiences (retired adults) and more challenging ones (youth not in education or employment), and it was interesting to think about which groups fit best with which topics. The projects also ranged the gamut from exhibitions to podcasts to board games. Everyone in my group was encouraging and full of ideas, and though we had to move quickly from project to project, many of us exchanged contact information so we could take these ideas further after the event.

Despite the renewed confidence in both academia and in public engagement this training day has given me, I remain convinced that the current state of affairs is not a good one. As Furneaux pointed out during her talk, the ability to build bridges outside of academia and engage in impact research still requires a fair amount of privilege. It is often done out of pocket or in a volunteer capacity, and not everyone has the luxury of that kind of free time or disposable income. Researchers are still required to be jacks of all trades—extroverts, scholars, teachers, self-publishers—which ignores the realities of twenty-first-century academia and the value of individuals who don’t fit this mould. Until we figure out how to build a fairer system, however, it’s good to know that people on both sides of the job divide are committed to being there for each other, and ensuring that this important research has a future.

Selfie at the training day
Selfie at the training day

Well and Unwell: The Body in the Nineteenth Century (possibly NSFW)

George Goodwin Kilburne junior (1863-1938), A Game of Tennis (1882).
George Goodwin Kilburne junior (1863-1938), A Game of Tennis (1882).

Last week Thursday I flew from Cardiff back to the Netherlands, where I’ll be whiling away the holidays with my partner. It’s not all oliebollen and ice skating, though. I am determined that there will be at least some thesis work conducted during this break.

‘Her Majesty’s Corset’ from the H. O’Neill & Co. 1897-8 Fall & Winter Fashion Catalogue

On Friday (the day after I arrived) I made a trip into Amsterdam for my very first Dutch-language conference – Well and Unwell: The Body in the Nineteenth Century.This was the most recent in an annual series of conferences, hosted by the Werkgroup De Negentiende Eeuw, which also publishes a journal. Because I figure some of you might be interested in the proceedings (but unable to speak Dutch), I thought I would translate some of the highlights for you and post them here.I was especially interested to experience how the nineteenth century is studied outside of the Anglophone world. Most of the day’s lectures focused on Dutch, German, French, or Belgian sources, which offer a very different perspective on ‘Victorian’ culture than British or American ones. Though all of the papers were excellent, the notes I took were naturally biased by my own research interests. Hopefully you’ll have a decent overview of the seven papers we heard, including the names of the presenters in case you’re interested in learning more.

From the very beginning of the day it was clear that the group of academics gathered for this conference was extremely diverse (skin colour being the only visible exception) and interdisciplinary. We had people working in history, literature, archeology, visual arts, and sports studies, focused on multiple time periods. There were seasoned scholars and MA students, old and young, from all over the country – and from the neighbouring Belgium.

After the requisite cup of coffee (who says you can’t have a coffee break before the conference starts?) we launched into the day’s lectures with a short introduction by Professor Wessel Krul, the president of the workgroup. He emphasised the link between the body and culture, and revisited the nineteenth-century prevalence of the idea that one’s physical, external body reflected one’s internal, spiritual, or mental state.

In her paper ‘Representations of Homosexuality in the East around 1900’, Professor Mary Kemperink from the University of Groningen used travel journals and literature to examine the development of ideas about homosexuality during that period. Specifically, she cited Charley van Heezen’s 1918 novel Anders (‘Different’), in which two men from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are united in their sexual orientation, and are also described by others as having a strangely similar appearance due to their shared ‘femininity’ and ‘sensuality’. For a good period at the turn of the century homosexuality was apparently conflated with the Orient, or the ‘inverse’ side of the globe. Here Kemperink also cited British Orientalist and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), who suggested a relationship between pederasty and the area around the equator (which he called the Sotadic Zone). Towards the end of the 19th century homosexuality moved from being recognised a tourist attraction for Europeans in the Orient (and here the French author Gustave Flaubert was cited as an example) to a state of being that was not only unique to the East, but united people in all parts of the globe.

A Victorian woman, drawn by Luke Fildes and published in 1880
A Victorian woman, drawn by Luke Fildes and published in 1880.

Following this came Utrecht University‘s Dr Willemijn Ruberg, who spoke about ‘Menstruation in Court: The Female Body and Forensic Medicine in the Nineteenth Century’. At the beginning of the nineteenth century (before 1860), menstruation was part of the humours school of medicine, in which the bodies four fluids (or humours: ) had to be in balance in order for a person to be healthy. Problems with menstruation were theorised to cause blockages in the head or genitals, causing temporary madness (called ‘monomania‘). This kind of temporary madness was a common defense in nineteenth-century courts, especially for young girls. By way of example, Ruberg shared some Dutch arson cases (including that of Marretje Moonen in 1840) where problems with menstration were linked to pyromania, and sometimes resulted in the girls being absolved of direct responsibility for their actions. After 1850 people began to criticise the idea of pyromania as temporary madness, and menstruation came to be seen as a sickness, less directly linked to the psyche.

 A 'Venus' medical mannequin from the 'Anatomie des Vanités' exhibit at the Erasmus House in Brussels, Belgium
A ‘Venus’ medical mannequin from the ‘Anatomie des Vanités’ exhibit at the Erasmus House in Brussels, Belgium

The last paper before lunch was by Tinne Claes and Veronique Deblon, PhD researchers at KU Leuven. Their paper (‘Bodily Confrontations in Popular Anatomical Musea: 1850-1870’) dealt with Dutch and Belgian anatomical exhibits, and the changing ways these marketed themselves over the decades. In addition to shifting focus from religion (the human body as the pinnacle of God’s creation) to discipline (the abnormal human body as a warning against deviant behaviour), the audience for anatomical exhibits broadened in the 1860s to include women and the lower classes. Claes and Deblon pointed out an interesting contrast here with anatomical exhibits in the UK, where publicists had long used the fact that their visitors included women to emphasise the wholesomeness of their displays. There was also (to my uncontainable glee) a section of the talk dedicated to freak shows and the ‘abnormal’ body, which usually took up a separate section in these exhibits and would require that you pay an additional fee.

Portrait of a man with tribal scarification, Bahia, Brazil, 1860 © Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Portrait of a man with tribal scarification, Bahia, Brazil, 1860
© Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

After the lunch break (sandwiches and milk all around), we carried on with the last four papers. The first was Erasmus University Rotterdam‘s Professor Alex van Stipriaan on ‘The Enslaved Body’. Van Stipriaan prefers the term slaafgemaakt (enslaved) to slaaf (slave) when speaking about a person or people, as it places the emphasis on the state a person is placed in (he was enslaved), rather than associating that state directly with the person (he is a slave). He dealt with an extremely broad range of topics – and actually went quite a bit over time – but gave a good overview of the ways the enslaved body (in this case the black body) was portrayed and perceived in nineteenth-century Holland and its colonies. Some points that particularly stood out were the comparison between the brand as a symbol of slavery and scarification as a symbol of resistance, the mass ‘lightening’ of the coloured population in Suriname as a form of upward mobility, and the fact that unlike enslaved men, who were often described purely in bodily terms, as machines or animals, enslaved women were typically written about or envisioned in terms of their characters or actions, humanising them in a small sense.

In a completely different tone, Jelle Zondag from the Radbound University in Nijmegen presented on the writings of C.M.J Muller Massis (1870-1900), who published extensively on sports in the context of national health and nationalism. The material he presented is difficult to translate into an English context (though Muller Massis apparently cited sports teams at English boarding schools as the reason for their success as an empire), but it involved an interesting discussion of the concept of a ‘natural’ and ‘national’ body, and the emergence of the bicycle as a Dutch national icon.

"Dear diary, today I was indisposed..."
“Dear diary, today I was indisposed…”

Dr Leonieke Vermeer, also from Groningen, is working on a long-term project examining nineteenth-century diaries to learn more about the way sickness and health care was experienced by the patients, which represents a gap in the current, professionally dominated discourse. She has already discovered some interesting uses of terms and remedies, including the fact that most diary keepers describe illness (from mild to serious) using the word ongesteld (literally ‘indisposed’, but used today only to describe menstruation). Although she only had time to mention it briefly, one aspect of Vermeer’s research that I found very interesting was the use of ‘silence’ or empty space in diaries, particularly following traumatic events or entries. One woman left an entire blank page after an entry on the death of her mother. Using examples of the ways diary writers record illness to help them deal with emotion, for reflection, or simply to make themselves feel better, she explained how a ‘bottom up’ approach to studying illness in the nineteenth century has a lot to offer us. Among other things, it shows us how the medical discoveries of the nineteenth century were actually being implemented, and the kinds of things patients would have expected (and accepted) from medical professionals.

Finally, we had a lecture by Dr Marjan Sterckx from the University of Ghent on female artists from Belgium, France, and the Netherlands who created nude sculptures. Nude sculpture was still quite scandalous in the nineteenth century, though less so in France, and female sculptors of nudes generally either sculpted children or used classical tropes, both of which were less controversial. You can actually read an article by Sterckx in English on what seems to be a very similar topic at this link. Specifically, Sterckx looked at the work of French/Belgian sculptor Marie-Louise Lefevre-Deumiers (1812-1877), in particular her 1861 La Nymphe Glycera and her 1865 Diana, which was also exhibited in the Hague. Sadly no photographs of Diana exist (that we know of.

This is actually a nineteenth-century drawing

We closed the session with a general 45-minute panel discussion on the body in the nineteenth century, which mainly consisted of several rounds of questions. All in all it was a productive day, and I can’t imagine where else I could have heard papers on such vastly different topics in so short a span of time. Also, where else but the Netherlands do you get books like Seks!… in de negentiende eeuw (‘Sex!… in the nineteenth century’) with awesome covers like the one pictured here. The conference book stand was full of interesting titles, though I didn’t take any home this time around.

And naturally, we wrapped up the day with a good borrel, where we could mingle with each other and with the speakers over a glass of something tasty. I managed to get in a couple of questions that I would never have been brave enough to ask the speakers in the public, post-lecture rounds, and I got some great blog suggestions (Quigley’s Cabinet and Morbid Anatomy anyone?) from Tinne Claes and Veronique Deblon, who also blog themselves (in Dutch).