"With more than fifty papers lined up for the third ICVWW international conference, this year’s event, Reassessing Women’s Writing of the 1880s and 1890s certainly looked to be our biggest yet, but would it be our best? Early signs were promising, with delegates arriving early organising an impromptu pre-conference meal, re-establishing old acquaintances and forging new ones in the beautiful surroundings of medieval Canterbury. Monday morning dawned bright and sunny as more than sixty delegates descended on Old Sessions House for Ann Heilmann’s keynote lecture discussing the gender bending exploits of James Barry, a British Army surgeon considered to be the first qualified female British doctor and the subject of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1882 novel Madeline’s Mystery. The scarcity of the novel and the critical disagreement over its subject only lends intrigue to the tale, set against a backdrop of cross-dressing pirates and amazons from the mid eighteenth century and perceived in the light of fin de siècle scientific discourses.
Several cups of tea and biscuits later, delegates selected their preferred panel from three parallel sessions: ‘Man and Woman Both’, ‘Literary Tradition and Genre’ and ‘Literary Encounters’ discussing writers including George Eliot, Eliza Lynn Linton, Michael Field (the pseudonym of aunt and niece Catherine Bradley and Edith Cooper) and Amy Levy. Each paper offered an intriguing insight into the literary marketplace of the late nineteenth century, introducing authors previously unknown to many of the delegates and showcasing texts long since forgotten. Discussion continued over lunch, with lively debate taking place and twangs of research envy as researchers shared their archival tales and current research projects. After lunch another diverse range of panels were on offer considering politics, the natural and the supernatural and the construction of the woman’s voice to consider contextual motivations, social influences and to ponder authorial intentions in the works of Vernon Lee, Baroness Orczy, Mary Eliza Haweis and Florence Marryat amongst others.
The arrival of the long anticipated lemon torte (something of an excess of torte in fact) generated almost as much excitement as the papers in the refreshment break following a small catering mix-up in previous years, nicknamed ‘Tortegate’ by our regular attendees! With the sugar rush paving the way for lively afternoon panels discussing ‘Approaches to Amy Levy’, ‘Journalism and the Periodical Press’ and ‘Women of Science’, it became increasingly clear that many of these forgotten or under-studied Victorian women were vivacious, independent and determined individuals whose struggles to survive deserve further research and recognition. Many of the assumptions of domesticity and docility which belie the image of Victorian women were exploded by the stories told in the research papers, recalling the stunt journalism of wannabe London socialite Elizabeth Banks, the scientific exploits of Frances Power Cobbe and the social and political autonomy of Amy Levy, who died tragically young by her own hand.
A well-deserved glass of wine followed the day’s academic musings with a drinks reception in the grounds of historic St Martins Priory. As ever, ICVWW upheld the accidental conference tradition with surprise entertainment in the form of Tom Carradine, Cockney sing-a-long entertainer who regaled us with well-known songs from the fin de siècle music hall tradition, a fun end to a thought-provoking day and a great way of experiencing the same frivolities as our conference subjects, though perhaps with less gin!
Day two began early with an engaging and funny keynote address from Catherine Pope, known to many delegates as the director of publishing house Victorian Secrets and to whom many Victorianist scholars are indebted for critical editions of previously out of print novels. Using Helen Black’s Notable Women Authors of the Day as the starting point of her paper, Pope considered which authors made Black’s shortlist and why, citing Black’s own agenda and middle-class readership as possible reasons for the inclusion of now forgotten authors such as Edna Lyall, Mrs Edward Kennard and Mrs Henry Chetwynd, many of whom were reviewed by Black as wives and mothers first, seemingly becoming authors by mere accident. Pope’s witty discussion showcased modern problems with digitising such texts and the difficulties of identifying which female authors should be recovered and why, using her own research into Florence Marryat as case in point, pointing out that some of the 68 novels that Marryat wrote are so badly written and constructed that they can hardly warrant reprint whilst others remain utterly beguiling.
Inspired by the keynote address and fuelled by coffee, delegates attended panels which considered gender and genre, looking at short stories, novels and journalism written by authors on both sides of the Atlantic. The panel devoted to Margaret Harkness is evidence on recent critical engagements with lesser-known authors and the impact of collaborative research on bringing such writers to the forefront of contemporary research. Discussions around the short story centred on the million-dollar question – just how short is a short story and their perceived value, particularly those written by authors more readily associated with the novel form.
With two more sets of panels to go, delegates made the most of lunchtime to reconnect and discuss future plans, trade CFPs and invite research proposals before heading off to the penultimate set of panels, covering travel, nature vs the city and life writing. The scope of the panels neatly illustrated the range of women’s writing from all over the world and gave recognition to women who fought for the causes in which they believed, with Kirsty Bunting’s enthusiastic portrayal of the political activist Ada Chew providing a shining example. The unpublished diaries of Mary Seyton Watts and the poetry of Alice Meynall provided further evidence of the variety and purposes of writing on offer at the conference and with delegates travelling from as far afield as Bangladesh, America and Hungary it’s evident that Victorian women’s writing still holds intrigue and appeal for modern scholars worldwide.
The final panels of the conference, focussing on Marie Corelli and the figure of the New Woman respectively, saw an energetic discussion of Sarah Grand’s Heavenly Twins and Marie Corelli’s Sorrows of Satan, perhaps some of the best known texts featured at the conference, alongside Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds and Netta Syrett’s Nobody’s Fault once again proving how much more we still have to discover as readers as well as scholars. Sporting a burgeoning reading list and a still greater network of colleagues and friends, the delegates dispersed back to their offices, archives and libraries to contemplate the legacy of literature we are so fortunate to have. Congratulations and thank you to all participants for chairing panels, delivering papers, tweeting updates, asking questions, singing cockney tunes and eating cake – what an inspiring, friendly and supportive crowd you are!
A small army of tweeters helped to showcase the main themes of the panels to absent friends and to allow delegates present to see what they were missing, the difficulties of choosing the best panel seeming almost an impossible task at times. The conference proved so popular that #ICVWW2016 was tending on Twitter throughout both days of the event."