BSECS vs BARS: Clash of the Conference Titans! Part II

bars_sidebar_logoIt was 2am by the time I got back to Cardiff from Belfast and the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies postgrad and early career conference, and by 9 I was up and clothed and in the university in time to catch the second day of the BARS Romantic Imprints conference.

BARS – that’s the British Association of Romantic Studies – is one of the largest conferences in the discipline of English Literature, and the change in scales was vertiginous. BSECS only had one or two panels per session; BARS never had less than seven or eight. The collected abstracts of the BSECS papers covered a dozen sides of A4; the BARS abstracts had been collected in book form, with a table of contents and an index at the back. BSECS only needed one or two rooms; BARS took over an entire building, and annexed the cafeteria of another.

minions

BARS Conference Reps

Wacky minions of an evil genius

Wacky minions of an evil genius

At this scale there was far too much happening for the conference organisers to keep track of, so Anthony Mandal and Jane Moore recruited a small cadre of conference reps, myself among them, to make sure all the speakers were adequately hydrated, the PowerPoint presentations hadn’t crashed, and to handle any emergencies. Anthony had contrived to make us instantly recognisable by providing us all with bright yellow t-shirts with the conference logo on the back, and we swiftly became known as the yellow minions, after the wacky goggled monsters from the Despicable Me movies. We were from every conceivable level of the academic hierarchy – postdoctorate, doctoral student, postgraduate, graduate and undergraduate – but we developed fast friendships and a striking esprit de corps over the course of the conference.

The first panel I supervised, ‘Locating the Imprint’ was enlivened by multiple dives for the light-switch since the building seemed only willing to give us twenty minutes illumination at a time. This didn’t too much disturb a fascinating panel – the material on obscure literary clubs and books rejected from the Bodleian for being too populist turned out, in typical academic fashion, to be a mine of interesting details and unexpected connections. Leonard Driscoll’s paper on John Clare’s antiquarianism also proved to be deeply engaged, not just with the countryside that John Clare knew and the material traces that remained, but with Clare’s poetry as well – something that can often get buried in papers that deluge you with background detail without a particularly close examination of the text. John Clare – a poet my secondary school teacher once dismissed as ‘a gardner who went mad’ – seemed to be having a good conference, with a plethora of interesting papers.

James Chandler’s plenary lecture on ‘The Romantic Impression: Locke, Hume and Wordsworth’ was a sober and in-depth examination of the history of the notion of impression that felt a little more like an essay than a presentation, but which cast a revealing light upon the conference’s central theme. The first of the afternoon panels, on ‘Disruptive Romantic History and Technologies of Mediation’ boasted an illuminating paper by Ian Newman on ‘Consuming Sedition in the 1790s’, examining the metaphors of consumption surrounding radical texts such as Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Brian Rejack’s paper ‘Keats’s Joy in the Time of Photography’ revolved around the famous opening lines of Endymion:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever,
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness;

Rejack examined the reproduction of those lines in various contexts throughout the nineteenth century, after which I brought things into the twenty-first – and caused a small sensation – by admitting I had them tattooed on my right shoulder!

I rounded off the day with a panel on ‘The Romantic Writer and the Imprint of the Humanities’, where Brecht de Groote’s paper on Thomas De Quincy caught my imagination. There’s no sound quite like the murmur of an academic audience with its interest roused, and a striking susurrus arose as de Groote showed De Quincy grasping the onset of the information age, and going on to predict something strikingly similar to the internet.

I skipped the plenary lecture in order to go offer comfort and consolation to an unhappy friend of mine who had travelled all the way down from Newcastle to present a paper, only to be struck down by food poisoning on the very first day! That evening’s entertainment was the early career pub outing, and it was a pleasure to catch up with various people from earlier conferences, and to buy my MA dissertation supervisor, Mary Fairclough, a drink at last. Some serious drama erupted when Alex, one of my fellow yellow minions, who had a nut allergy, started going into anaphylactic shock and had to be whisked off to hospital by Mikey Goodman, the hero of the hour. Alex was stable, however, Mikey was back before last orders, and the rest of the evening passed without life-threatening incident.

The next day’s began with a panel on ‘Coleridge’s Afterlives’, populated by Philip Aherne, Anna Mercer and Jo Taylor, all of whom I knew from an earlier conference, and none of them worse for the previous evening’s adventures. Philip reprehended me for paying too much attention to Coleridge’s poetry, which is a mere 10% of his total output – and neglecting his prose; Anna Mercer analysed some of the poems of Sara Coleridge, his daughter, somewhat of a new discovery and still causing a stir in Romantic circles; while Jo Taylor did a paper on Coleridge’s grand-daughter Edith, the winner of the Coleridge-least-likely-to-acquire-a-major-critical-edition award, which was an intriguing consideration of how to analyse and make use of terribly bad versifying.

At the next plenary, I nipped down to the stage to check the organisers wanted for nothing. The speaker, Devoney Looser, was friendly, eye-catching in peacock leggings and one of the few academics to bring her kids along, but it wasn’t until Gillian Dow introduced her to the lecture theatre at large that I realised she was that Devoney Looser – famous for proving that academia and roller derby are not mutually exclusive, and known to her team-mates as Stone Cold Jane Austen. Her paper on the illustrated editions of Jane Austen’s novels was an interesting examination of a little regarded area, and I made a note of a few editions to investigate.

IMG_0896The afternoon featured a coach trip to South Wales’s Romantic Location of choice: Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire. I’d walked past it many times before, following the line of the riverbank or peering down from the Devil’s Pulpit on Offa’s Dyke above, but it was the first time I’d actually spent time among the ruins. A poetry reading had been laid on for us, but sadly the acoustics were far inferior to when the roof had been vaulted with grave arches rather than open to the sky above us – but there was something to be said, I mused, for listening to Wordsworth’s great ode as ‘a soft inland murmur’, sprawling upon the greensward while the swallows flit in and out of the empty chancel windows.

Getting all the academics back onto the bus turned out to be like herding cats, and we still would have ended up short a few if someone hadn’t had the bright idea of checking the pub. There was just time in Cardiff for us reps to dash home, throw off the yellow t-shirts and don the gladrags for the conference dinner. What a crowd of luminaries there were, packed into the dining hall, and how pleasant to troop up to the stage and receive our acknowledgements for helping the conference come to be such a success. I stayed up afterwards – with my friend Harriet as my glamorous assistant – to read out the raffle tickets. Nicola Watson, the president of BARS, was kind enough to come over and say that if I somehow didn’t get a teaching job after a PhD I clearly had a bright future ahead of me as a bingo caller!

After dinner and several glasses of wine, we trekked over to the Urban Taphouse, where over another couple of pints of high a.b.v. ale the subject of my Keats tattoo came up again. Some of the ladies were importunate to catch a glimpse of it.

Which is how I woke up the next morning and realised I’d just done a striptease in front of bunch of academics and a senior Jane Austen scholar.

Oh my.

A 9:30 panel on a Sunday morning is never easy under the best circumstances, but somehow, I hauled myself up from the shower floor and went into university for the final day of the conference. ‘Material Culture and Intermedial Relationships’ turned out to be worth the effort, covering such little-considered artefacts as literary annuals, relief maps and ceramic transferware: the description of how the ceramicists swooped down on new books of topographical views like a flock of vultures was arresting, as was the analysis of how they collaged their compositions from various sources.

In despite of the fact that the speaker, Peter Garside, was one of the nicest academics it was my pleasure to dogsbody for all conference, inquiring politely into my PhD and Miltonic interests, the plenary lecture ‘Another Golden Age for the Novel?’ proved beyond my (by now severely limited) comprehension. I dallied in the last panel session for two excellent papers on Robert Southey before heading downstairs to take part in the general clean-up. Then Anthony and Jane said their closing words – there was a round of applause – and all was suddenly over! I had survived the week of conference bedlam with nothing more than a mild case of the caffeine shakes and the loss of a few IQ points through sheer fatigue, and I had just enough left in me to cycle home before I lost consciousness. A success by any measure!

BARS Romantic Locations Conference 2014

BARS Locations - Thomas Tyrell

My account of the conference is reblogged from the BARS blog, curated by Matthew Sangster.

– – – – – – –

I had not even started my PhD when I first saw the call for papers for the BARS early career and postgraduate conference on Romantic Locations, but I had come away from an internal postgraduate conference at York brimful of misplaced confidence, and that very week I was hitch-hiking into Keswick for a few nights free board at the youth hostel where my friend worked. I took a copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the District of the Lakes with me, and in the meditative moments between the rambles and the wild swims, an idea took root. It grew slowly – I sent my final abstract from a public library in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the three month interregnum, and I received my invitation to present a paper just before I moved into Cardiff for my PhD.

As the conference approached, I was filled with nervousness. I was after all a PhD of only three months seniority, and my research area wasn’t even properly in Romantic Studies. Would the others sniff me out as a romantic imposter, the Dr. Polidori amidst the Byrons, Clairmonts and Shelleys around me?

Such was the gloomy tenor of my thoughts, but as the train left Oxenholme and began to rumble towards Windermere, I found myself uplifted by the sublimity of the scenes around me. Arriving in Grasmere, I followed the hum of mighty workings into the Jerwood Centre, and over a reviving cup of tea I was reassured to discover that more than a few of my peers had cudgeled their brains, ransacked their notes and creatively re-interpreted their research plans in order to attend a conference in so splendid a location as Wordsworth’s own Grasmere; furthermore, I was the only one who would be talking about Romanticism and cartography, and would have a wide field in which to range. Feeling much more confident, I sat down to the first panel.

Highlights of the first day included Kate Ingle’s paper on ‘Personal Place-names and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Writing of Grasmere’, which immediately made me want to run out and find all the places mentioned; Daniel Eltringham’s on upland enclosure and Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, which read more critical theory into the practice of sheep-farming than I thought it ever could hold; and the final panel of the day, where Alexis Wolf, Honor Rieley and George Stringer introduced us to the impact of Romanticism in places as diverse as France, Canada and India. The concluding plenary lecture was given by Professor Simon Bainbridge of Lancaster, whose paper on Romanticism and the history of mountaineering made every postgraduate with a pair of muddy boots in their luggage wish they had thought of the idea first. The wine reception, held by candlelight in Dove Cottage, was an experience I am sure that none of us will forget.

Next morning dawned bright and early, and in despite of having drunk an inadvisable amount of wine the night before, the fresh air and change of location wrought wonders. This was a good thing too, as my paper on ‘The map, the territory, and the small cloud between Scafell and Great Gavel’ opened the first panel of the day, at 9:30 in the morning. Other highlights included Philip Aherne’s ‘Incomplete Communion: The Reception of the Conversation Poem’ and Leanne Stokoe, whose paper on Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith and Shelley’s prose I had secretly been dreading, but which turned out to be absolutely fascinating. The day was varied by a talk from Jeff Cowton, curator of the Wordsworth Trust’s collection (pictured below), who passed around plenty of original manuscripts for us to coo over and sent us home with our very own love letters – from Mary to William. This was followed by a seminar with Jeremy Davies on Percy Shelley’s time in Tremadoc, North Wales.

BARS Locations - Jeff Cowton

After the last panel of the day, we adjourned to the Traveller’s Rest for dinner. Last orders was called at eleven o’clock, but by a combination of special pleading and skilful flirting, we kept the drinks coming until well after midnight, and it was a little after two in the morning before this bleary postgraduate scrambled into his bunk. Nonetheless, Shoshannah Bryn Jones Square, Hannah Britton and Joanna Taylor had clearly eaten their Shreddies the next morning, and their panel on Romantic Borderlands was one of the best of the conference. It left me eager not only to discover Mary Shelley’s Matilda, but to reread The Eve of St Agnes and the poems of Hartley Coleridge with the benefit of their insights.

Interesting papers on Byron’s closet dramas, Mary Tighe’s sonnets and the layout of Hardwick Park followed, alongside a film by MA students from Newcastle University, who took on the challenge of presenting Wordsworth to a new audience with fortitude and invention. Sadly, after two nights of wine and revelry, not even the combined brilliance of Craig Lamont, Tristan Burke and Mary Shannon could keep my head from nodding a little during the final panel. I was, however, much refreshed by the second plenary lecture, where Professor Nicola Watson, president of BARS (below), entertained us all with her tales of fell walking with Jonathan Bate and Duncan Wu, and the wizard-like way in which she transformed a block of wood from a thing, to an object, to a literary artifact before our very eyes.

BARS Locations - Nicky Watson

With that, the conference concluded. Some were whisked off by minibus to Windermere to begin their journey home, while others (myself among them) remained for a weekend of walking the fells and communing with nature. As Wordsworth said,

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.