Grave Matters 

Death and Dying in Victorian Britain    

RSVP Conference: Murder, religion and… umbrella’s?!

It has been an awful long while since I have written a blogpost, as a lot has been going on, but I am not writing to blog about that. Instead, I would like to devote this blogpost to the RSVP (Research Society for Victorian Perodicals) 2015 conference, which was held from July 10 – 11 in the lovely city of Ghent.

As I am a true introvert going to conferences always is a bit of a “thing” for me. You can pretty much compare it to climbing the mount Everest, going bungee jumping for the first time because a friend talked you into it or something of the sort. I am always incredibly nervous. Not so much about giving the presentation itself (well, OK that still gets to me a little), as the entire networking which surrounds it. But looking back, with this conference there really was no need to be worried. All the RSVP members are extremely kind and welcoming. They easily strike up a conversation with you and are sincerely interested in the research that you are conducting. It really has been one of the most lovely conferences I have visited up to now, both with regard to the people, as well as the quality of the papers

The conference was marked by some surprising discoveries, which unfortunately did not always receive the attention they deserved. Jeremy Parott’s discovery of a 20 volume set of All the Year Round presumably owned and annotated by non-other than Dickens himself, hit like a bomb, and as many of my readers will have noticed, was picked up by the media rather quickly. However, I would like to draw attention to a panel which undermined many of the prejudices which have come into existence regarding religious popular fiction.

The panel I am referring to was entitled “the religious press”, and unfortunately was not attended by many. Through a clever use of graphs Anne DeWitt was able to show us just much more media coverage (think advertisements, reviews etc.) religious novels were receiving during the end of the century than non-religious novels. What her graphs and research appear to indicate is that a now obscure religious novel entitled Robert Elsmere [1888] by Mrs Humphry Ward was in comparison far more popular than the now famous George Elliot’s Middle March [1871]. This was quite the eye opener for me, as a lot of the sources I have been consulting state that the religious novel became less popular over the course of the Victorian era. DeWitt’s research appears to indicate that this was indeed not the case.

On the same panel Louis James disclosed another really interesting discovery; contrary to what scholars have argued/ assumed, religious tracts and tract magazines aimed at the lower-classes were actually incredibly popular during the early- and mid-Victorian era. Although many scholars of popular fiction have stated that the lower-classes did not much care for religious journals, and preferred more sensation publications such as penny bloods, James’ research showed that during 1858 there were no less than 18 major religious journals aimed at the lower classes, of which approximately 900.000 copies were sold per issue! Needless to say I am very much looking forward to reading more of his work on this subject.

Both papers made several of us wonder how it is possible that there existed such a big gap in our knowledge regarding religious popular fiction. As the incredibly interesting discussion which ensued after this panel made clear, there appears to be a taboo on writing and speaking about religion, even in Victorian studies. Whereas, now-a-days we write numerous articles and books about the way in which the Victorians dealt with death, the authors of these texts often desperately try to stay away from the religious aspect of it. Yet, for many Victorians one did not exist without the other. So yes, definitely some food for thought.

As stated above, the quality of the papers was extremely high, so it will be impossible to give credit to all the wonderful papers I listened to. Really, there was not one talk which I did not enjoy. Nevertheless, I would like to highlight 3 more presentations. In one of the first panels Maria Damkjaer gave a very witty and interesting presentation entitled “Suspicious Movements: The Secret Lives of Umbrellas in the Periodical Press”. In her talk she explained that especially in its early years the umbrella was not considered to be anyone’s property. It was quite normal to visit the club with an old, battered umbrella, only to emerge from it with a brand new one. This ungraspable quality quickly gave the umbrella the reputation of being incredibly unreliable, much akin to those traitorous women who might leave you for another man any time. I am sure there were not many in the room who had previously been especially interested in the literary life of umbrella’s, but I am probably not the only one who now has R. L. Stevenson’s “The Philosophy of Umbrella’s” on her ‘to read’ list.

Source: Illustrated Police News, issue unknown

The other two papers I would like to quickly discuss were part of the panel I was on, which had the wonderful title “Sex, Murder and Violence”, and was chaired by the awesome Andrew King (I honestly wish I had talked to him more; I will blame that on lack of time as well as my damned introvertedness). As this was the final panel of the conference, and it was a staggering 28 degrees (inside and outside) none of us actually expected anyone to show up. Imagine our surprise when the room was so crowded that all the seats were taken! First up was Bob Nicholson, who really is one of the best presenters that I have ever seen (and I have been fortunate enough to see quite a few good ones). In his paper he traced the change which Illustrated Police News underwent from being a sensational newspaper focusing on violence and murder, to becoming something akin to a “lad’s magazine”. He drew some really interesting comparison to more contemporary magazines whilst doing so. All this he did in a way that was both incredibly funny and easy to follow. I sincerely hope that someday I will have the confidence to let go of that piece of paper on which I have carefully jotted down every word and sentence, to which I am currently still cling desperately with shaky hands, and can just “wing it” with some much flare as he did.

Did I mention I was up right after this? *gulp* I had the pleasure of presenting a paper entitled “Poisonous Corpses and Lurking Threats: Changes in the Representation of the Murdered Body in Ada, The Betrayed and The String of pearls”, in which I trace shifts in the representation of murder and the murdered body in the work of James Malcolm Rhymer. Whilst in his earlier work Rhymer very much attempted to influence his reader’s emotions – especially that of disgust – by presenting him/her with truly gruesome descriptions of murders and murdered bodies, he opted for a non-representation of these in his later work in order to appease his critics. I received some really lovely comments on my presentation afterwards. Someone even pointed out that apparently writing about an eye ball having fallen out of its socket is an academic accomplishment.

Last on the panel, but definitely not least was Patrick Low, who no one would have believed to be a first year PhD student, if this had not been announced by Andrew King first. In his paper he discussed how phrenology became increasingly popular and began to influence the way in which suspects in court cases were viewed. He looked especially at Mayor John Five whose obsession with phrenology might have influenced his rulings. For those interested, Patrick also wrote a blogpost on the conference which you can find >here<.

So in the end I came away with a notebook once again filled with lots of interesting notes. I greatly enjoyed the RSVP conference and I hope to be able to attend again next time.

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