This year’s NAVSA centred around two buildings: the Yale Center for British Art (where that miracle of miracles happened–the transformation of a conference registration fee into decent coffee, and enough to feed an army of Victorianists) and the Linsly-Chittenden Building (where the registration desk was located and many of the conference panels). For some reason I can’t really explain, I think it’s fantastic that in between these two buildings is located this edifice:


It’s the Skull and Bones “Tomb”–the secret society (founded in 1832–there must be a connection to the Reform Bill!) which was the subject of so many conspiracy theories in that election of which we shall not speak when two “Bonesmen” competed for the Presidency of Ohio. [Weird sexual trivia follows, repressed Victorianists be warned!: I heard something from another conference goer that sounded too good to be true–that the initiation ceremony involved initiates being masturbated upon by members of the Bones–meaning that the 41st and 43rd President would not legally be allowed to donate blood, at least according to Canadian regulations. However, this seems an exagerration of a rumour reported in more reputable circles (here from the Washington Post): “Some accounts say each member lies naked in a stone coffin and describes his most intimate experiences while masturbating, but Robbins speculates that the coffin confessions went out of style decades ago and Bonesmen now fess up more civilly.”]

I came across two other windowless buildings owned by Yale secret societies, but I won’t waste your bandwidth with the pictures I took…

So here’s my tell-all account of the day’s ultra-secret Victorianist activity:

The panel on “Defining Styles” and “Ephemeral Arts” were two of the best panels I’ve seen, both in terms of the quality of the individual papers and the numerous connections between the papers. Each of the papers on style offered fresh takes on what I had kind of assumed was an antiquated and etiolated category of evaluation.  Catherine Maxwell’s talk contrasted the aesthetic of the vague and the aesthetic of the definite, with particular attention to Walter Pater and Vernon Lee, who definitely prefered the vague. What intrigued me the most though was Maxwell’s genealogy of the aesthetic of the vague–one which would extend back to Shelley and go forward all the way to Pound with the Metro poem. And during the Q & A, she cited our very own Gerhard Joseph’s Tennyson and the Text as an inspiration for her work. Vanessa Ryan did the improbable and made me want to read not just one, but perhaps more than one George Meredith novel. She compared Meredith’s novels with sensation fiction–not in terms of content, which has been done, but in terms of the physical effects on the reader. In contrast to the quick read of the sensation novel, Meredith’s “effortful style” produced the “blood-heat of feeling” in the reader because of the cognitive demands required to piece together events related by the elliptical narration. Victorians thought thinking hard was a physical action with physical demands, as anybody who’s read Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain can confirm. Finally, William McKelvey’s paper on “The Last Duchess” took the line “Fra Pandolf’s hands / Worked busily a day” and suggested that it should be read according to the undergraduate intuition (painted in one day) rather than the scholiasts’ gloss (painted day after day). This stylistic contrast was between traditional portraiture using oils (which my studio arts friends tell me perfectionists like because it takes days to dry, so touch-ups can be performed long after the paint hits the canvas) and painting a la fresco, where a large area of wall needs to be painted quickly in a day so it can be plastered over. I can’t comment fairly on how it works as a reading of the poem, because my prosaic mind balks at Browning (although now Vanessa Ryan’s made a case for the “Robert Browning of prose,” I’ll work harder), but I love the idea of speed of execution being a central problematic in early and mid-Victorian aesthetics.

I’m going to have to be brief with the Ephemerality panel, as this post has not been as hastily executed as I originally intended. Laurel Brake’s presentation provocatively argued that Victorian periodicals were not the ephemera we take them to be. Publishers carefully prepared bound volumes of issues, removing issue covers and adverts (more truly ephemeral), and adding outer covers and an index. There was lots more going on to the talk, but I took awful notes, as always, so I’ll leave it there. Rachel Buurma’s talk seemed to pick up right where Laurel Brake’s left off: her paper was on reprints of reviews, and the qualities of both timelessness and datedness that periodical articles paradoxically had to have to be reprinted. Dagni Bredeson’s paper (which was actually in between the ones above) found some ridiculously cool stuff about mid-Victorian female detectives, most importantly, that they actually existed in both fiction and in real life. She also mentioned that Old Bailey records were a source–I’m looking forward to seeing what other scholarship comes out of that resource. Finally, Paul Fyfe’s paper dealt head on with the digital research that was present in all of the previous papers, either in methodology or in actual paper content. We, like the Victorians, are embarking on a new era of different forms of random access. I’m glad that my love of randomness is shared by many, although I don’t know quite what I’d do if I found somebody who appreciated random wikipedia-style quite as much as I do.