VPFA Colloquium Report

Helen Potter is a part-time postgraduate research student at the University of Wolverhampton. Her research project is “A Critical Biography of Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler” who was an author of best-selling popular fiction at the end of the Victorian period and into the Edwardian era.

VPFA Colloquium 6th – 8th May 2021

Religion and Victorian Literature and Culture

This spring’s colloquium was based on the theme of religion and Victorian popular literature and culture which inspired a wonderfully diverse range of presentations and even more varied range of discussions encompassing: Oscar Wilde, archaeology, vampires, railways, Sunday Schools, the Crimean War, Trojan rocking-horses and dinosaurs to name but a few!  The colloquium had originally been planned as a small study day to be held in Sheffield in May 2020 but had to be postponed because of the pandemic and was replaced with a Twitter Taster, for what then grew into an international online colloquium with delegates from as far away as Canada, the United States and Australia. This success can only be attributed to the perseverance and tenacity of organisers Naomi Hetherington and Clare Stainthorp whose hard work more than paid off.

Of course, the format of the event had to be adapted due to the pandemic. Pre-recorded papers were available to be viewed online before live online panel discussions took place on the 6th-8th May. Although very different to the usual arrangements for such an event, this format gave presenters the freedom to experiment effectively with different methods of presentation.

Pre-recorded papers gave presenters the opportunity to reflect upon their own ideas in relation to those of fellow panel members leading to insightful, considered and sometimes surprising connections and panel discussions which were warmly received by panellists and audience members alike. Delegates used chat to add some fascinating facts and links to useful additional resources which was greatly appreciated by other attendees. Alicia Barnes paper on “Religious Imagery and Railway John Herapath’s Railway Magazine” included a cryptic challenge in her presentation but only Naomi Hetherington was brave enough to admit to giving it a try! Live coverage of the event on Twitter was made available by the quick-fire efforts of Jen Baker and Janine Hatter.  Those who missed the live event can catch summaries of the presentations and discussions at the conference hashtag #VPFA Religion.

The keynote was given by Anne-Marie Beller, Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature at Loughborough University and Kerry Featherstone, Lecturer in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. Their talk – “‘No greater spiritual beauty than fanaticism’ Women Travellers’ Encounters with Islam in the Nineteenth Century” – focussed upon Victorian travellers: Lady Floretia Sale, Emily Eden, Amelia B. Edwards and Isabelle Eberhardt. Beller and Featherstone revealed the experiences of these travellers in north Africa and their encounters with the Islamic faith and local individuals and the bearing that all of this had upon their own lives and reception of those experiences back in Britain.

The opening Panel Discussion was on the theme of “Writing for Children” responding to presentations on “Growing up by growing down: Time, Space and a Theology of Eternity in Kingsley, MacDonald and Carroll” by Karen Gardiner, “Where are the Bible Heroines?: Women and Narrative in an example of the Child Temperance Press” by Cath H. Kennedy and “‘Daddy, My Pwayers’: Narrative and Song in The Little Soldier of The Salvation Army” by Stephen Spencer.  The papers in this panel drew out some fascinating intersections between the redeeming function played by central infant/child figures in a variety of texts published in different formats with regard to the restitution of an adult character within each respective plot. This parallel spilled over into a later panel discussion with Jen Baker’s treatment of child ghosts/spectres within Frances Trollope’s The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy and Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story resulting in some thought-provoking observations on the role of the child and apparitions in the form of children within Victorian fiction.

The following Panel Discussion was entitled “The Shock of the New” responding to presentations on “Religious Imagery and the Railway: John Herapath’s Railway Magazine by Alicia Barnes, “‘God will aid us up to the end’: Religious Protection in the Victorian Vampire Fiction” by Matthew Crofts and “The Ecstasy of the Everyday: Idolatry as Sacrement in Oscar Wilde’s Salomè” by Marie Heneghan. Dual visions of the new scientific technological advancements and modern culture as hellish and yet at the same time heavenly played across these presentations revealing some of the anxieties of those living through this period of rapid change. The need to somehow retain elements of Christian ceremony and traditional faith as protection or as a way of everyday living pervaded these seemingly disparate fields of study.

The next Panel Discussion was the theme of “Glancing Forwards and Backwards” and responded to presentations entitled: “‘Tarry thou, till I come’ Salathiel, Supersessionism, and George Croly’s ‘Wandering Jew’” by Mary Going, “Sex Religion Sells! The Preacher, the Journalist and the Novel” by Helena Goodwyn and “The Popular Reception of Gladstone’s Religious Syncretism in the Homeric Thesaurus” by Maddelena Ruini. Once again, papers within in this discussion group made for stimulating debate and provoked further discussion when compared with those talks in other panels.

The Panel Discussion on Sin and Fallenness responded to talks by Jen Baker on “Navigating the Sacro-Secular Afterlife of the Victorian Child”, Laura Gill on “Sensation Fiction, Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost and Isadora Quirarte-Ruvacaba on “My journey through Hell Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh”. Gill’s presentation highlighted the pervasiveness of Milton’s life on Victorian culture. Gill focused upon how Milton’s Satan and Eve were translated into the figures of the fallen woman and degenerative figures in Victorian sensation fiction. This paper was useful contextually as Quirarte-Rivacaba’s presentation showed how Barrett-Browning’s Aurora Leigh was its author’s conscious attempt to reject the persistent influence of Milton upon Victorian writing in her own work.

The Panel Discussion on “Militarism, Socialism, Pacifism, Anarchism”, responded to papers on “Reforming People and Society through the Salvation Press ‘Life’s a Misery, and I’m Such a Big Sinner!’” by Flore Janssen, “From Christian Socialism to Tolstoyan Christian Anarchism: Isabella Fyvie Mayo in the Popular Religious Press” by Lindy Moore and “‘The God of Battles’ and the ‘Prince of Peace’: Religious Debates in the Crimean War” by Petros Spanou. Janssen’s and Spencer’s presentations usefully complemented one another. Janssen’s paper extended the discussion on the work of the Salvation Army and the methods utilised by its press in a range of titles to raise awareness of its social improvement work to increase donations to its cause and, to instigate and encourage positive ways of living amongst those individuals the organisation aimed to help.

The final Panel Discussion included talks on “Hair Dye, Transvestism – Serialising The Iliad for Young Folks” by Rachel Bryant Davies and “Roman Catholicism in the Tractarian and Anti-Tractarian Popular Novel” by Monika Mazurek. Davies’ paper provided a fascinating insight into the editorial considerations that went into adaptations of this ancient classic into “appropriate” forms for young Victorian readers. This talk added to our understanding of how the classical world influenced Victorian culture and thought after Ruini’s previous discussion considers the influence of the discipline of archaeology upon Gladstone’s analysis of the Homeric poems.

The success of this colloquium has extended beyond the scope of the online event. It also saw the launch of a CFP inviting abstracts for a forthcoming special issue of the Victorian Popular Fictions Journal on Religion and Victorian Popular Literature and Culture edited by Naomi Hetherington and Clare Stainthorp (forthcoming 2023). Naomi Hetherington is also General Editor of a new four-volume  Routledge Historical Resource for researchers, teachers and students on Nineteenth-Century Religion, Literature and Society also edited by Richa Dwor, Angharad Eyre, Clare Stainthorp and Rebecca Styler. This set contains a range of difficult to access religious sources with introductions and interpretive commentaries.

The hard work of the organisers and presenters cannot be overstated and resulted in a highly successful and enjoyable colloquium. The live online event closed with thanks to the organising team and to BAVS for a conference grant and VPFA for match funding that made this event possible. The organisers also paid tribute to the memory of the late Nickianne Moody whose contribution in the early stages of planning this event cannot be understated and who is much missed by friends and colleagues.

Finally, we were serenaded out by a recital of a comic poem penned by keynote speaker Kerry Featherstone that was based upon some of the unintended humour created by the automated Zoom transcripts – a fitting end to this year’s gathering of the Victorian Pumpkin Fiction Association!

This post has been re-published by permission from the
BAVS Postgraduates Blog
. Please see the original post at https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2021/06/15/vpfa-colloquium-report/