Conference Reviews: VPFA “Authenticity and Artifice” and PGMedHums2015

In academia, summer means several things: lugging impossibly large books in your holiday suitcase (Thomas Hardy = perfect poolside reading, yes?); finally turning your mind to those forgotten projects you ‘put to one side’ in term time, and – one of my personal favourites – conference season. Last month, less than twenty-four hours after returning from a week in Istanbul, I plunged myself headfirst into the fray with two incredible conferences: the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s (VPFA) 7th Annual Conference in Senate House, London (13-15 July) and the Postgraduate Medical Humanities Conference at the University of Exeter (20-21 July).


The VPFA Annual Conference is always one of my guilty pleasures. Not only is it filled with papers bearing suitably sensational titles but since it’s held only a stone’s throw (in Greater London that means a half-hour train ride) from my parents’ house, I can swing by even when not presenting myself. Last year they played affable hosts to my first-ever paper, so this summer I decided to just sit back and enjoy the proceedings.

Given my interest in nineteenth-century medicine, I’m particularly delighted with the way in which the VPFA conferences can always be relied upon to deliver bodies. Two years I reviewed its annual conference on that very theme. Since the Association privileges conversations about sensation fiction and penny dreadfuls (among other genres), however, it’s hardly surprising that bodies in their diseased, disordered and deviant states are high up on the agenda each and every year. 2015 was no exception, with the latest theme – Authenticity and Artifice – lending itself to discussions on bodily performativity, both emotional and physical. This encompassed a lively paper on the cross-dressing female body in Florence Maryatt’s Her Father’s Name (courtesy of Catherine Pope) and an interesting Q&A on the (still-all-too prevalent) discourse surrounding the “fraudulent” disabled body, prompted by a paper from Helen Goodman. We touched on the impulse to render bodies legible and the perceived threat presented by those which cannot be classified. Louise Creechan provided a particularly welcome example of the “liminal” body, with a detailed reading of the representation of “semi-literacy” in 1830s fiction.

My research interests were particularly piqued by the various nods towards illness (with Pam Lock’s fascinating paper on the possible inspirations behind/ influences on George Eliot’s depiction of alcoholism in “Janet’s Repentance” and Emma Kareno’s delineation of brain fever in detective fiction) and – best of all – doctors! We were treated to a wonderful panel on “Mesmerism” on Day Two, which considered the blurred lines between quackery and legitimacy, superstition and scientificity, in representations of the medical profession. My very hearty thanks go to Jennifer Diann Jones and Helena Ifill for introducing me to “Dr Carrick”, a brilliant sensational short story from the pen of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Ifill suggested that in “Dr Carrick” and “The Good Lady Ducayne” (another Braddon short story), the seemingly reputable or successful practitioner (rather than the quack) is revealed to be unscrupulous and exploitative. “Dr Carrick” is a particularly interesting example for me because its titular practitioner engages in his nefarious mesmeric-murderous practices in rural Cornwall. I’m currently writing a chapter on the country doctor and have been looking for some outright fiends to add to my gallery of village and provincial practitioners in the Victorian novel. Dr Carrick makes Thomas Hardy’s Dr Fitzpiers (The Woodlanders) seem almost a prince among practitioners!

While I enjoyed mining the papers for material to further my own academic interests, I also enjoyed the sheer diversity of subject matter tackled over the three days. Authenticity and Artifice allowed me to hear Jeremy Parrott deliver his astonishing findings on authorship in All the Year Round first-hand, while a day later I could learn about the vogue for Victorian dog-dramas in a delightfully quirky keynote from Ann Featherstone. Perhaps more than ever before, this year’s conference encouraged us to think about the elasticity of the concept “popular fiction” – on Day One, David Glover’s keynote prompted us to discuss ideas about novelistic genres (using a provocative chronology of sub-genres proposed in Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees) and was followed by a wonderful panel on “Reassessing Genre” which encompassed realism, silver-fork fiction and a practical discussion from Anna Gasperini on how to integrate penny bloods in the course syllabi.

Ideas about genre and teaching also came to the fore in the lively reading pack discussion on “Legitimizing Victorian Popular Fiction”. Thanks go to our hosts for putting together a marvellous array of extracts from primary and secondary sources – ranging from The Mysteries of London to G.H. Lewes and F.R. Leavis – that stimulated us to think about canonicity and populism. We interrogated the perennial problem of studying popular fiction (and indeed, English Literature more widely): how to ‘defend’ what we do and whether we should adopt this defensive posture at all. I am concerned that in today’s political climate, this sadly remains all too imperative. The discussion also prompted delegates to reveal their rich and divergent responses to popular fiction, from those who mine it for all its historicist worth to those who revel in the pleasures and thrills we derive from the written word(s). Importantly, we acknowledged that these approaches need not be incompatible or mutually exclusive.

As ever, the conversations felt inclusive and encouraging, while still proving challenging and engaging. The VPFA Annual Conference was one of the first academic conferences I ever dipped my toes into while I was a Masters student and it remains a great place for postgraduates and early career researchers. At the same time, I welcome it efforts towards a renewed focus on literary theory and criticism, which helps guide discussion and keep it fresh. We’ve long been conditioned to regard popular fiction as fun and theory as somewhat intimidating – bringing the two even more firmly into conversation should help generate some interesting, and perhaps unexpected, results. I look forward to seeing where the discussions head in the coming years.

Postgraduate Medical Humanities Conference


The view from our wonderful Exeter Uni accommodation block.

A few days after the close of the VPFA Annual Conference, I headed across to the University of Exeter to attend its Postgraduate Medical Humanities Conference for the first time. Initially, this promised to be less of a guilty indulgence, given that there was a pricier train ticket attached and I was set to deliver a paper on the first panel of day one. However, it soon proved to be equally welcoming, with a similar offering of high-quality postgraduate papers and chances to network over tea, coffee, and wine. (How else does one fuel themselves through such a packed schedule?)

My interest in medical humanities stems from two sources. First up, there’s my current DPhil research on the doctor/patient relationship in nineteenth-century medical writing. Then there’s my three years of experience working in health policy and public affairs. (My fledgling career before I made a return to full-time academic study.) Pleasingly, this conference spoke to both my interests, with plenty of papers on the history/ literature of medicine in the nineteenth century (and further back) as well as reflections on contemporary healthcare.

The afternoon of Day One promised back-to-back Victoriana, with panels on “Charles Dickens and Medicine” (kudos to Emma Curry for making the common cold as lively as Dickens did) and “Nineteenth-Century Literature and Medicine”, which took us from depictions of precarious health in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (thanks Siobhan Harper for tapping into my current reading!) to representations of slavery as an embodied experience in pro-slavery and abolitionist writing, courtesy of Philippa Chun. Particular praise goes to Roisin McCloskey, who on Day Two ably handled a forty-five minute panel by herself after another delegate had to drop out last minute. She offered a rigorous exploration of contemporary child psychology and Henry James‘s What Maisie Knew considering ways in which the child is positioned outside language and how (s)he negotiates the relationship between language and truth  before giving a stellar performance in the extensive Q&A, teasing out correspondences with The Turn of the Screw.

There was also ample opportunity for me to dip into my more contemporary interests over the two days. Roberta Bivins’s opening keynote on “Medical Humanities and the Politics of Health: Medicine, Migration, and the NHS” was a fascinating overview of representations of, and attitudes towards, migrants as both consumers and providers of healthcare in the decades following the inception of the NHS. Her whistlestop tour through press coverage and advertising campaigns illustrated astonishing resonances with contemporary rhetoric, particularly conversations around health tourism. I’m excited to follow developments in Bivins’s wider project on the Cultural History of the NHS. Among the papers grappling with more recent medicine, my other highlights included Natasha Feiner’s reflections on the representation of fatigue in young adults (which raised broader questions about our expectations of health among different age groups), and Hannah Charnock’s overview of her oral history project looking at women’s experiences of contraceptive use in pre-marital sex from 1960-2000. Given that the latter came at the end of a very busy two days and still managed to generate considerable interest in the Q&A is testament to the potency of her research. At its heart are key questions about the formation of sexual identity, the provision of sex education, and power negotiations in sexual relationships.

I appreciated the way in which the conference organisers planned panels which not only spoke to a single, unified theme but also those which were trans-historical and crossed disciplinary boundaries. My paper – about nineteenth-century medical women – was nestled alongside a presentation on narrative medicine in Chinese culture, an exploration of approaches to psychiatric patients’ artwork, and a paper considering experiences of embodiment in doctors’ memoirs. It was a something of a challenge (though definitely a welcome one) to write a 15-minute paper that would interest an audience not simply comprised of my usual peers – ardent Victorianists! In my view, such an eclectic panel really did help bring together a diverse audience which made for a rich and varied Q&A session – something I was pretty nervous wading into but ultimately enjoyed!

As well as the usual offering of papers and keynotes, the conference also comprised sessions with a slightly different dynamic, including workshops and interactive discussions. Ryan Sweet and Betsy Lewis-Holmes, our brilliant conference organisers, shared their experiences of public engagement from their event “Exewhirr” and we had presentations from those working in local archives. The fact that the conference closed with a roundtable discussion on medical humanities was particularly welcome – Stuart Murray’s excellent keynote paper earlier that day undoubtedly had us all reflecting on what work the discipline performs and how we engage and interact with others. Importantly, we acknowledged the need to incorporate scholars working in other countries (there were some fascinating insights into European, Asian and African medical history during the conference, but calls for more internationalist perspectives in future) and in other fields, while discussing working with the public and the media as well.

What I most enjoyed about the conference (as well as the wonderful, wine-fuelled dinner in an ex-hospital wing and the stunning views from our on-campus accommodation – see image) was how ambitious it was in scope. I think that in academia there is sometimes a perception that postgraduate conferences are somehow less demanding or academically rigorous. While the atmosphere in Exeter was welcoming and encouraging, it certainly didn’t feel like a soft-touch approach to conference participation. The papers were stimulating, the speakers confident and articulate, the Q&A sessions dynamic. The bar was set admirably high. Ultimately, the conference was a fantastic opportunity to forge connections with others at the outset of their careers, and, from the calibre of their papers, I have no doubt they’ll produce some fascinating research in the next few years.

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