Grave Matters 

Death and Dying in Victorian Britain    

Monthly Archives: September 2016

BAVS conference: Death, dustmen and arcades

Having visited the absolutely splendid BAVS conference “Consuming (the) Victorians” in Cardiff, I could not resist the urge to write about it. Especially since I know some of my followers/ readers have had to miss the conference. It has been tough to decide which of the multitude of wonderful papers I was going to write about. As I know BAVS has asked at least one delegate to produce a blogpost on the conference, and because I am confident that this person will cover the excellent papers delivered by the keynote speakers, I will refrain from mentioning them in my blog and focus on the papers given in panels instead.

As it is impossible to cover all the papers I have had the pleasure of listening to I have decided to stick with the theme of my blog (and own research) and to mostly focus on the papers related to death. I am sure, however, my readers will forgive me the inclusion a short description of two papers with more cheerful topics, which have absolutely nothing to do with death, decomposition or decay, to balance things out a bit.

Before I start I have to complement the organizers on creating an interesting and extremely well organized conference with really interesting PGR/ECR workshops, arcade tours and the most impressive conference reception and dinner I have hitherto had the pleasure of attending. The reception and conference dinner were held at the absolutely stunning National Museum, which to everyone’s surprise had some incredibly famous paintings on display, including the waterlilies of Monet. I honestly had a wonderful time at the conference, and met a lot of interesting and lovely people (you know who you are). So thank you very much for creating such a great conference!

With regard to the workshops I have to say I really enjoyed the creative writing workshop in which Prof. Damian Walford Davies and Dr. Lucy Andrews discussed how their academic writing informs their neo-Victorian fiction/ poetry and how they tackle writing poetry/fiction set in the 19th century whilst being a 21st century author. Davies urged the audience not to eradicate the ideologies of the 21st century from their texts, but instead to embrace them, as the texts will otherwise come across as artificial. He at the same time emphasized the importance of being aware of the notions, ideas and values which one as an author brings to the text. I was very grateful when Andrews explained to us how she goes about collecting ideas and background information for her work, as it gave me (and I am sure others in the room) an idea about where to start if I wished to begin working on a creative writing project of my own. The highlight for me was when Andrews shared with us her murder board. This board  is filled with pictures which have formed the basis for the characters in her novel. I really, really loved this idea and cannot wait to read her book when it comes out.

Picture taken by Katie Bell and shared with Dr. Lucy Andrew’s permission

The workshop was truly inspiring. The only downside is that I now really, really want to write a novel on death and funerals in the 19th century, without having the time to do so… *Adds “novel on Victorian death and funerals” to bucket list and starts carrying around a notebook to jot down ideas*.

The papers were no less wonderful than the workshops. During the very first panel of the conference I had the pleasure of listening to Laura Foster’s interesting paper “Consuming Paupers: Cannibalism in Workhouse Representations”. In her paper she discussed how the workhouse diet became connected to Cannibalism and how this is represented in contemporary fiction, ballads and satirical illustrations. Foster, for example, discussed the ballad “The Workhouse Boy” which is about a boy who goes missing during Christmas and is eventually discovered to be one of the ingredients of the workhouse soup. Drawing on this example and others, Foster explained that the workhouse soup eventually became a melting pot for all the anxieties regarding the new poor law. She also showed how the representations of paupers simultaneously displayed the anxiety of the higher classes regarding the potential animalistic and savage nature of the paupers.

In the second panel I particularly enjoyed Jen Baker’s paper on “‘Mental Dram-drinking’: The Queer Consumption of the Dead Child Body in the Nineteenth Century”. In her paper Baker discussed the representation of child murders in the Victorian press, focusing on the murders of John Bird Bell and Fanny Adams. She explained how especially the coverage on the murder on Fanny Adams was curious in that it was exceedingly detailed. Not only did the press give an account of the numerous pieces in which her murderer Fredrick Baker had cut up her body, but also conveyed directions as to where each of the numerous body parts were found. As a result, such articles functioned as a guide to quite a large number of Victorians who, in search for some excitement, decided to pay the murder scene a visit. As Jen Baker explained these visitors subsequently took away any souvenirs they could get their hands on, including strands of grass.

Now, to turn to a less morbid topic. On the second day I had the pleasure of listening to Janice Li’s paper ‘From Great Exhibition to department stores: A Victorian spectacle of commodified social lives’. In her paper Li explained how the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace greatly affected the way in which Victorian shops and department stores displayed their goods. As Li explained the Great Exhibition was the first space where everyday objects with a common theme were grouped together and enclosed within glass cases. In choosing to place these everyday objects behind glass, the organizers invited the spectators to change the way in which they looked at them. The mundane, everyday thing, now became an object to be gazed at. Before long shops and department stores began to mimic the ways in which the Great Exhibition displayed its objects, thus giving rise to the phenomenon of window shopping. Commodities now became worthy of the public’s admiration, and were thus no longer merely objects to be touched and handled, and bargained over. In her paper Li discussed how the Crystal Palace also influenced the very architecture of shops, by pointing out that the arcades which were being built during the second half of the 19th century greatly mimicked the structure of the Crystal Palace. As one of the other members of the audience pointed out: Li’s paper was an eye opener for many of us.

Li’s paper was the perfect preparation for the Cardiff Arcades Tour which took place directly after this panel. The tour was organized Join Martin Willis, Ruth McElroy, and Caroline Langley who did a brilliant job. The tour was super informative, whilst not overburdening the listener with information. It was really nice to hear information regarding how and when the arcades were built, as well as about the kinds of shops that could originally be found there. The tour lasted for about 40 minutes, but was over in a flash. They are planning to make this a public tour, so make sure to keep an eye out for that if you were unable to attend it during BAVS. It’s definitely worth taking!

Now, to bring this already rather lengthy blogpost to a close, I would like to end with the panel that I was fortunate to be a part of myself, namely “Death, Decomposition and Dirt”. The first speaker was the wonderful Professor Brian Maidment, who gave a splendid paper entitled “Dusty Bob in the Marketplace: The Dustman as Consumer”, in which he discussed the cultural representation of the Victorian dustman with the aid of a number of satirical sketches. He showed us a number of wonderful prints which displayed the dustman as a source of, amongst others, contamination, noise and violence. Prof. Maidment has definitely convinced me that I do not know nearly enough about dustmen. Thankfully, he has written a book on that topic entitled Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780-1870, which if it is anything like his presentation (which I am sure it is) will be well worth reading.

The second speaker was Clare Horrocks who gave a very interesting paper on ‘Corpulence and corruption: Punch’s Campaign for the removal of Smithfield Market’, in which she explored the controversy surrounding Smithfield Market in London. As concerns regarding miasma and effluvia arose during the 1840’s the Victorians began to worry about the injurious effects which the pollution produced by Smithfield market could have on the public health. Harrocks included a number of wonderful Punch cartoons which were produced for their campaign for the removal of Smithfield market.

I myself was the last speaker of the panel and presented a paper entitled ‘Not just about the pies: Consuming human matter in The String of Pearls. In this paper I explained how James Malcolm Rhymer’s refusal to describe the corpses of Sweeney Todd’s victims in The String of Pearls allowed him to exploit the concerns raised by the burial reform movement regarding the threat which the invisible, decomposing body had come to represent to Victorian society. If you would like to know more about this, please leave a comment to let me know. I am planning to publish an article on this topic, but would be more than happy to elaborate on it here.

Well, there you have it my reader, a small selection of the multitude of marvelous papers that I have witnessed. I truly hope that others will be blogging about the conference as well so they may cover some of the excellent papers which I have unfortunately not been able to mention in detail or have had to miss altogether.

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