In theory the big academic conferences have the whole wide expanse of the summer break to stake out dates in, but in practice they all tend to cluster in July, possibly because in June everyone’s catching upon on their paperwork and in August they want to go on their holidays. Sod’s law being what it is, sometimes they clash. This year, two of the biggest beasts in my field have locked horns – The British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (BSECS) postgrad and early career conference in Belfast, and the British Association for Romantic Studies (BARS) general conference in Cardiff. I had a paper accepted at BSECS, but the BARS early career conference in Grasmere was the first place I’d ever given a proper paper, and I’d made a lot of friends I wanted to catch up with. Not to mention the fact it was in my home town and the organisers needed people to help out. This led to five solid days where I lived on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night, barely ate anything but conference food and ran mostly on caffeine and alcohol. Academics tend to party hard.
For my flight to Belfast I’d consigned myself to the vagaries of the public transport system, which meant a 2am start in order to catch the 7am flight to Bristol. The weather was so low, grey and drizzly there was nothing to be seen after the plane leapt into the air, and scarcely anything before. I dozed gently in my seat, to wake as the plane began to descend towards the sunnier shores of Northern Ireland. I caught the bus into Belfast town centre, and walked to Queens University.
I come from a city that likes to think it can do Victorian Gothic, hosting as it does the medieval fantasy of Cardiff Castle – with the fairytale Castle Coch not far up the Taff trail – and a variety of chapels and private dwellings now largely converted into hotels and restaurants. Still, I have to admit that the postgraduate building at Queens, with its gargoyles and waterspouts and gorgeously renovated interior, complete with setpiece spiral staircase, took my breath away. I found the conference in the back, and had just time for a revitalising cup of tea and a few introduction, before I went to the catch the first panel, on the saucy subject of Sex and Illegitimacy.
Marie Michlova’s opening paper ‘Sex in Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Scotland’ was a whistlestop tour through the sex lives of some of my favourite literary characters: James ‘Alas, too too plain was the dread approach of Signor Gonorrhoea’ Boswell, Robert ‘Fornicator’ Burns and James Hogg, the original naked rambler. I was also pleased to see an honorary mention go to J.G. Lockhart, famous for using an ellipsis of no less than thirty asterisks to suggest unlawful congress in his 1822 novel Adam Blair.
The revelation of the panel, however, was Kate Gibson’s ‘Natural Alliances: Connections between illegitimate children and their families’ which yielded the intriguing information that it was the not-terribly-subtle habit of the Pembroke family to give their illegitimate children anagrammatic surnames: hence such oddities as Augustus Reebkomp and Miss Mebkoper. I spent an entertaining five minutes deciding what to name my hypothetical illegitimate child, before settling on the pseudo-Welsh ‘Llyrret.’
After a coffee break I had a second panel on Philosophising Connections. Philosophy not being my strong suit, I recall very little about it beyond Audrey Borowski’s valiant attempt to explain to me the subtleties of Leibnitz’s thought, which held me engaged through sheer force of presentation alone. It was pleasant also to hear from someone as early in her career as Laura Griffin presenting her MA research. As someone who cut his teeth presenting at York University’s internal humanities conference, I know the experience will stand her in good stead.
After a disappointingly greasy lunch, we gathered once again to hear Professor Matthew Grenby talk to us about ‘Applying for External Funding’ who succeeded in imparting information, keeping us amused, and not crushing our spirits – three important features in an info-talk.
The following panel seeming rather heavy on papers about eighteenth-century Romanian dictionaries, I took the opportunity to go explore the city with a few fellow renegades – John-Erik Hansson, Grace Harvey and Jen Wood, whose panel on the works of William Godwin I had regrettably given over for the Sex and Illegitimacy panel. There are some conferences by the end of which I seem to know everyone by their first name – Locating Fantastika, earlier in the month, was like that – and others where you spend all your time hanging out with a small group of friends. John-Erik, Grace and Jen were a fine example of the latter – no sooner did they hear that I was planning on spending the following month deep in Godwin’s works as I prepared to write about his early novel Imogen then I was declared an honorary Godwinist with Corresponding Society privileges. We had a pleasant wander into town via an independent bookshop and an upmarket cafe before returning to the next panel, Challenges to Enlightenment Science. Stephen Server got us off to an excellent start with an entertaining paper about gout and therapeutic networking amongst its victims, but the next two papers were fascinating subjects let down by poor presentation. A paper on Catholicism, exorcism and the supernatural in Ireland, with a gripping case study at its heart, was delivered in a mumbled monotone, and during another interesting paper about native medical practices versus Spanish colonial attitudes in South America the speaker seemed to be groping for every word. it was left to Dr Caroline Warman to restore energy to proceedings with her vibrant keynote, in which she defiantly upheld the importance of Denis Diderot’s neglected late work, Element of physiology, and restored it to its proper place in the canon.
The conference dinner at Molly’s Yard proved one of the best I’d ever been treated to, and after rounding off the evening with a few pints of Guinness at a convenient tavern (when in Ireland) the Godwinists and I retired to our accommodation.
Conscious, perhaps, of one Guinness too many, I breakfasted frugally on a bowl of muesli, but stepped off the bus to Armagh with a song upon my lips. The location chosen for the second day of the conference was even more impressive than the day before. We were speaking in the reading room of the majestic Armagh Public Library, founded in the eighteenth century but extended, the archivist admitted, in the nineteenth. The old boards were perfumed with that fabulous old book smell I recollected well from many hours spent among the special collections and archives. An original edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with the author’s own corrections, was proudly on display amongst the manuscripts, incunabula and rare editions, while the library’s eccentric habit of storing books by size and not by subject meant that running an eye along the shelves was an entertaining treasure hunt.
I opened the first panel with my paper ‘The Forger, the Lexicographer and the Poet’s Granddaughter: Samuel Johnson and John Milton in 1750’ and I was followed by a pair of enthusiastic and knowledgeable papers – Sophie Liu’s on paper wars and crises of succession, and Cameron Quinn’s on the French authors Voltaire and Jean Meslier. Sadly in our enthusiasm we had all over-ran, and were limited to one question each, which was a disappointment as well as something of a relief.
I’m aware once more of perhaps overtaxing the patience of my audience, so let me just say that the stand-outs among the remaining papers included Samantha Lin’s intriguing talk about the creation of her romance game, Regency Love, for iOS, though her – perhaps overfaithful – recreation of eighteenth-century female accomplishments and strictures of courtship raised a few feminist hackles. Peter Collinge’s work reconstructing the network of places, clients and connections created by Jane Williamson at the Derbyshire servant’s registry office also proved fascinating in its complexity.
I’d had all too little time to see the sights of Belfast, Armagh, and their surroundings – what little I’d seen had tantalised rather than satisfied, but no matter – I was on the plane home that evening, and in despite of having the most uncomfortable seat on the flight (middle, back, non-reclinable) I was asleep soon after take-off. I got back to Cardiff by 2am and sunk gratefully into my bed – after all, I’d have to be up bright and early next morning for the next conference.
For details of more fascinating academic papers, together with how I completely missed my friend Mikey saving a man from anaphylactic shock, my free trip to Tintern Abbey and how I wound up doing a strip-tease in front of a senior Jane Austen scholar, tune in for Part Two!