VPFA Conference 2017: Gender and Adventure Panel

This blog post was originally written for the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s blog following the Association’s annual conference this summer. The theme of Travel, Translation and Communication made for an engaging and varied programme, and I couldn’t resist attending this panel on gender and adventure. 

VPFA image

The papers of this panel promised adventure, and did not disappoint.

Alisha Walters’ paper was titled ‘A “woman-comrade upon the bleak and barren heights before Sebastopol”: Mary Seacole and the Affective, Feminine Modelling of Wartime British Identity’. Walters’ paper focused on Seacole’s autobiography, which, as it was written to save her from bankruptcy, after the Crimean War, consciously deployed the tropes of the adventure story in both title – “The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole” – and style.

As well as a profitable adventure story, though, the autobiography was a chance for Seacole to construct herself as an imperial subject, and Walters provided a fascinating analysis of how Seacole did this. Most radically, Seacole created and sustained her imperial identity through affect, stressing her emotional connection with the British soldiers and the imperial project of war. In locating identity in this communal, emotional experience of imperialism, she challenged Robert Knox’s inheritance model of identity.

Walters’ gave a great impression of the fun Seacole had as an imperial subject among the British servicemen – including when, as a joke, they presented Seacole to some Russian soldiers as Queen Victoria! Sadly though, all this adventuring came to an end when the war ended, and Seacole had to return to England, and a less certain imperial position.

Imperial identity was also seen as communal in Matthew Crofts’ paper, ‘Crossing The Bounds of Decorum and Travelling in the First Ages: Transformation and Travel in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast”’. However, Crofts emphasised ambivalence around ideas of the communal project of imperialism, which led writers like Conrad and Kipling to write new forms of gothic horror in response.

Crofts argued that both writers display a fear that the imperial position was by no means secure – that reverse colonisation could occur, and darkness could return to the civilised world. But Crofts also argued that these stories show an awareness that darkness was already inherent within the imperial race and that the gothic is used to express this deep dark truth. In Kipling’s story, the supernatural Other literally transforms the coloniser into a beast. However, after his transformation, his companions continue to act alongside him, even allowing the torture of a colonised subject, and are seemingly bound to the beast by their shared nationality. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness there is no need for anything supernatural to turn Kurtz into a monster: only the machinery of empire is required.

Ambivalence about imperial identity continued with Elly McCausland’s paper, ‘”I wouldn’t trust that map”: Unmapping Adventurous Masculinity in Victorian Imperial Romance’. At its heart, this paper was a captivating reading of the relationship between maps and adventure, with adventure being defined as a sudden temporal event, an attitude, and a rejection of plans. Though this might seem to go against the structure of maps, McCausland reminded us that in boys’ adventure stories maps enact a slippage between knowledge and possibility: some can’t be trusted, there are blank spaces and edges – in effect, they offer a false omniscience and become the inspiration for adventure.

Adventure stories developed boys’ imperial masculinity by providing hypothetical situations in which boys could imaginatively be prepared (like boy scouts) for their imperial future. However, McCausland noted that there was ambivalence around this form of literature for boys, and fears that the genre was creating an ever-increasing appetite for adventure. The heroes of these stories arguably suffer from too much adventure: in the end they are left restless and unsatisfied, unable to make plans, and therefore unable to be of much help as the imperial project developed.

Overall, the British imperial project was a hard to ignore backdrop to these papers, but the speakers showed how this context offered rich opportunities for identity creation, new literary genres, and, of course, adventure.

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2017 update

About two years ago, when I relaunched this blog, I wrote that 2016 would be the year of the book.

Instead, it turned out to be the year of Trump, and Brexit, and a somewhat difficult return to the UK. 2017 started well with the publication, not of the book, but at least a book: the book version of the Women’s History special issue that I had co-edited with some colleagues the year before (available here). It’s also been a year of conferences, a short-term fellowship at the John Rylands Research Institute, and a British Academy application. I still believe that I’ll write the book of my PhD – how women’s missionary writing shaped the development of nineteenth century women’s literature – especially now that I’ve been given the opportunity to also edit a volume of primary texts related to my subject.

So it looks like I’ve another busy academic year ahead – follow my blog to see how it goes. Any advice always welcome!

Mission: a dangerous enthusiasm?

Or thoughts prompted while organizing my folder of public domain images…

(Woman’s Holy War, 1874, By Currier & Ives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As I worked through my PhD, I developed a basic argument that went something like this:

Evangelical religion allowed women in the nineteenth century to do things that they would not normally be allowed to do.

For example, if a woman felt strongly that she had been called by God to be a missionary (or, in the early period, a missionary’s wife), she could leave the domestic sphere and go out to the mission field, where she would usually experience more agency and power than women back at home. (It has to be remembered that missionaries were often ill, and wives often temporarily took over the running of the mission.)

Other women became activists in the anti-slavery or temperance movements, because they believed that their religion required them to act. Still others became successful writers of religious tracts and even novels, in order to use their talents for a godly cause. And later in the century, Constance Maynard believed that she had to establish a university college for women, because that was what God had called her to do.

The advantages that these women enjoyed have led some of us in the 20th/21st century to question whether they perhaps feigned their faith in order to access life beyond the domestic sphere. In fact, I started out at this position.

I changed my mind though, when faced with the evidence of emotions felt by these women – and men – on embarking upon their various missions. In the early nineteenth century, sailing to the mission field was highly dangerous and pretty much meant never returning to your home and family. Missionaries, and their families, did not live very long. Biographies made these facts very clear, and letters from missionaries to loved ones show their understanding of the case.

Later in the century the interaction between faith and ambition may have been more complex. I was often struck by how convenient it was that Constance Maynard’s god-given vocation was so in line with her aspiration to become the principal of a London college… However, certainly in Maynard’s case, evidence suggests that vocation was an emotional issue, involving serious soul-searching and inspired by enthusiastic faith. I was struck by her description (in her diary) of how she felt that her struggle to establish a women’s college was part of the evangelical crusade:

I would like to fly high, to attack the very top, storm the very citadel within, to shew my brothers that nothing is too strong if we have the Lord with us, and that after very patient, skilful obedient working, we may shout for the Lord hath given us the city!

(La Battaglia di Legano By Amos Cassioli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I decided to take women missionaries’ and activists’ attestations of faith seriously, and it led me to a greater understanding and sympathy of Victorian woman, beyond my initial judgement: ‘Victorians were crazy’.

Of course, another question is whether other Victorians believed that women activists were being truthful about their motivations. The image above ‘Woman’s Holy War’ would suggest that many in America around the time of the Temperance movement did believe in the notion of religiously motivated, righteous women agents taking action to redeem mankind. However, this other image of the American temperance movement (1874) reminds me very much of Dickens’s attitude towards women missionary supporters (for so long one of the only mentions of women and mission I could think of in literature!):

(By BPL (Flickr: Mother’s Gone Crusading) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Like Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby (in his novel Bleak House), these women campaigners are neglecting their home duties for the sake of what they present as their religious duty to go ‘crusading’. The main criticism of activist women is that they have misunderstood their religious duties – which clearly lie in the home with their angelic children, saving their babies, husbands – and pets – from the distress of their absence. (Library catalogues use keywords such as ‘distress’ and ‘children crying’ to categorise this image.) But is there also in this image a suggestion that some Victorians didn’t buy women activists’ justifications of faith for their activities outside the home? The women’s studied expressions of harsh solemnity, the hands prominently folded to indicate prayer, are depicted in a way to accuse them of cant and hypocrisy. Though the women can be seen as martyrs being burnt at the stake (the steam of father’s tea-making becomes the smoke surrounding them), it is their family, the artist suggests, who are the real martyrs.

The song itself (available here) might be taken to continue this theme as it is from the point of views of the neglected child at home, who sings of the happiness of family life when alcohol is absent:

There’s no cruel blows at our home, no bitter words or brawls. And King Alcohol don’t know us, And so he never calls.

In fact, though, the song is not that critical of mother going crusading; the child is proud of his mother and calls on others to join the crusade. The text of the song was written by Mrs M.A. Kidder, who also wrote hymns. And in its advertisement for the song in 1874, the Folio (a Boston musical journal) promoted it for the use of temperance societies:

A wide awake Temperance song […] It hits the spirit of the times to a T, and all Temperance people and societies should have it. Selling fast. A humorous lithograph title-page. (Folio, July 1874)

The popularity of the song would suggest that temperance societies weren’t put off by the ‘humorous’ title-page.

It is possible to blame people other than the crusading women for the domestic chaos depicted in the lithograph. The father, though he is said to be ‘for temp’rance’, does not crusade with his wife and by the end of the song is ‘fast asleep’. As the descriptor used in the Folio’s advert shows, the temperance movement used the phrase ‘wide awake’ for themselves and their songs, meaning that they were so alive to the evils of the alcohol industry they simply had to take action.

And of course, the alcohol industry and ‘the times’ themselves can also be blamed. The fact that a mother, in her zeal to save people from the broken homes caused by alcohol, in effect ‘breaks’ her own domestic haven through neglect can be read as ironic. But it can also be read as a necessary – and temporary – sacrifice: until ‘other fellows fathers […] go for temp’rance too’, until others can enjoy ‘happy households’, these women must sacrifice their domestic havens and take to a life of crusading martyrdom.

In the end I tend to come to the conclusion that when Victorians accuse activist religious women of hypocrisy they aren’t usually questioning the faith that inspires their activism. What’s more in question is whether they are truly being martyred. I think Victorians accepted that it was ok that evangelical religion caused women to do things that they would not normally do. As long as they didn’t enjoy it.

May’s Tips for Tuesday

In case anyone missed them, here are the pieces of advice (or anti-advice in one case) from Twitter and the blogosphere that I found most helpful in the past few weeks.

First, from one of my most trusted blogs, advice on how to revise a messy first draft: https://patthomson.net/2016/04/25/tackling-a-messy-first-draft/

Some of the advice reminded me of my experience revising a chapter submitted about a year before, that I wrote about here.

And then Will Pooley’s blog post was just what I needed as I struggled over yet another job application: https://williamgpooley.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/the-advice-you-didnt-ask-for/

I love my research, even though it’s a topic that sometime other people sneer at.

I like social media: I think it contributes to my career, and I find it useful.

I applied for jobs people told me I would never get. And I got some of them.

Well I can honestly make the first two statements about my own work and life, so hopefully I’ll be writing similar advice about jobs in a few years time!

April’s favourite blogs

I had three favourite blog posts this month – though really one of them comes from January 2015!

That one was Lucinda Matthews-Jones’s post on Henrietta Barnett’s office, which was re-posted to link with the Guardian Higher Ed’s #MyHEoffice. Despite feeling rather jealous – my ‘portable office’ of a laptop and library gear has to be lugged around with me in a Penguin bag – I’ve enjoyed peeking into others’ work spaces, and this piece on Henrietta Barnett made me think of the physical lives of the professional women I write about, such as Constance Maynard, from a similar time period.

Lucie screenshot

More recent was this post from the Snapshots of Empire project at the University of Sussex: Security, Economy and Education in Mauritius, 1857. It’s not a part of the world that has featured in my research, but the to-and-fro between pragmatism and idealism on the part of the Imperial government was familiar to me from my research on missionaries.

Finally, I really enjoyed Charlotte Mathieson’s blog post on literary tourism in Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels. Brontë, of course, was born almost exactly 2o0 years ago (last Thursday), and I’m looking forward to attending Chawton House Library’s conference marking this anniversary in May – and presenting some of my own thoughts on Brontë and literary tourism.