I heart NVSA conferences – I always come away feeling very happy to be a Victorianist and feeling super-inspired about my own work, even when I’m not giving a paper. As may have been clear from my last post-mortem, I’m kind of a fan of going to conferences just to hang out. And, as I discovered this past weekend, I’m even  more a fan of hanging out at conferences when they don’t involve three hours on the train punctuated by an hour on the platform at Rahway. (I borrowed my partner’s car to get from his house to Princeton, marking perhaps the first time in my life where I’ve driven to an academic event.)

The train ride came later, of course, and much of the following notes had their origin on my Monday midday commute back to New York. As usual, it’s highly selective and very stream-of-consciousness for the most part, characterized as well by the fact that I wasn’t at the first day, missed a bit of the keynote panel on Saturday morning, and was clobbered by a sugar crash during the after-lunch panel. I probably should have skipped the Official Princeton University Chocolate Chip Cookie. But anyway. It being NVSA, all of the papers were generally awesome and interesting – and they don’t need me talking about them to make them so. And onward:

So, Fighting Victorians. More accurately, it was an examination of both fighting and the ways of not fighting, of the boundaries of fighting – when, for instance, it becomes violence. Discussions of the displacement of aggression onto the worlds of commerce and economics, but also – at least implicitly – into areas of the social and the religious. How we avoid wars, but then also avoid talking about wars once we’re in them. Jonathan Farina’s paper on “thrash talking” was largely about the ways that the Victorian novel talks about fighting (a kind of periperformative, in Eve Sedgwick’s sense?) without actually coming to blows. (It’s a fun exercise to think about all of the duel scenes and duel scenes manqués that you can recall from Victorian literature.) Also, fighting as a mode of knowing, a physicalized epistemology that comes to be replaced by an increasing valuation of knowledge at a distance. We saw Newman in two poses: the fighter, drawing inspiration from the image of Deborah in the book of Judges or Jesus driving the moneylenders out from the temple, criticizing the lukewarmness of his age (a common theme in many of other papers) and suggesting that faith needed both hope and fear to be what it is (Lawrence Poston). But we also had Newman as a poet of conciliation, using poetic form to soften what had previously been devastatingly controversial (his ideas on purgatory from Tract 90) – and becoming a bestseller in the process with the Dream of Gerontius (Rebecca Rainof). Not specifically about fighting but more relevant for my interests was the idea of Newman’s purgatory as suspension with progression – a suspension without suspense. You know you’re saved, as someone in the audience (I think it was probably Herbert Tucker) said, there’s no doubt that you’re saved. As I realized looking at the passage from the handout later, there’s also no suspense about whether you’re dead – it’s possible that one of the very consolatory things about this poem is that it uses the language of uncertainty about the signs of death to set up and emphasize the fact that the speaker is unquestionably dead – a way of bringing suspension back under control, as it were. Religion also came up specifically around the Mormon question, which raised for Britain the question of what actually constitutes a religion, specifically one formed within the horizon of common memory and seemingly founded on the literal reproduction of older religious models (Sebastian Lecourt). Later, there were vampires used to personify the effects of capital on the working class (Jessica Kuskey), severed hands as both incontrovertible signs of colonial violence and a disturbing reminder of how even the most unequivocal marker of identity could be detached from its context (Aviva Briefel).

I think there’s still more to be done on the difference between fighting and violence. While violence certainly came up in a number of papers, I think a “violent Victorians” conference would have been quite different, darker. There’s something more comfortable about fighting, in a way, since it suggests that something’s fighting back – perhaps more of a sense of containment than is allowed by the word “violence.” Not unrelated, I think, was the relative absence of women as textual producers, historical actors, or even literary characters. Apparently, women don’t fight – even though the cover of the conference program was a Gibson drawing of a married couple experiencing “their first quarrel.” This absence was remarked on at Sunday’s wrap-up. With the exception of a “bloodthirsty” passage from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Casa Guidi Windows (Richard Bonfiglio) and an anecdote about resistance among teenage girls to regimes of institutional violence in an Irish workhouse (Anna Clark, a discussion I came to late on Saturday morning), there really wasn’t a lot of talk about women – even women who get fought over. I’m sure some of this is luck of the draw with what the program committee got, but I was somewhat surprised not to see, say, a discussion of Tennyson’s Princess Ida or some of the more startling passages in Christina Rossetti, not to mention marital strife, domestic violence, abusive mothers, and so on. Makes me wonder if there’s something else going on. Also makes me wish I’d been in a place in the fall where I had enough time to come up with an abstract. Which is always the way, of course.

That’s all for now. I’m going to do a separate post later on about Alex Woloch’s paper on the keynote panel. It’s sort of an outlier here, but it does continue some of the discussions that were talking place at the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel at MLA.

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