‘Preserves and Poetry at NAVSA 2017’, Erin Farley

The 2017 North American Victorian Studies conference was held in Banff, Alberta, Canada in November 2017, with the theme of ‘Victorian Preserves.’ Partly due to the theme, and partly due to the place itself, whose climate and topography were impossible to ignore, ideas of the memories and connections attached to landscape were often present. Banff has its origins as a Victorian railway town, settled around 1880 on the Canadian-Pacific railway route, and soon became a tourist resort after settlers realised the combination of scenery and its natural hot springs (sacred to the indigenous Stoney Nakoda people) could be used to attract health-conscious visitors. Today, it continues to do so, a magnet for skiiers and mountaineers. Delegates from places where neither snow nor mountains come in such volume – which was most of us – spent much of the break times staring out of the windows in awe.

View from Banff Centre

As the idea of the preservation of nature made its way onto the 19th-century agenda, Banff became the centre of the first Canadian national park in 1887. 2017 also marked 150 years of Canada’s existence as an independent nation. The name of Banff, and many other places nearby – Canmore, Calgary, Airdrie, Mount Ishbel – are a constant reminder of the role Victorian Scots took in colonising the area. The realities of Scotland’s role in empire and colonisation are still underplayed in public history, and something that we struggle to face up to. But the issues do not go away. A newspaper story in the local paper, Rocky Mountain Outlook, during the week of the conference covered an application from the Stoney Nakoda community to the Alberta Geographical Names programme, proposing that some place names be officially changed back to traditional ones. The first keynote of the conference, Coll Thrush’s paper on Indigenous histories of London, was preceded by a formal acknowledgement that we met on land which traditionally belonged to Stoney Nakoda people.

Beyond the specific local context, ideas of how selective preservation affects our idea of the past and the present appeared throughout a number of the panels. My paper was scheduled on the first day as part of a panel on ‘Nature, history and naturalism in the face of Victorian modernity,’ discussing how popular poetry reflected social and political meanings attached to public green spaces preserved within the city of Dundee, and how the circulation of these poems through newspapers and broadsides had very real effects on how people interacted with these places. I was joined on the panel by Sarah Leonard, who also focused on urban landscapes, looking at the London Society for Photographing Relics and what their practices told us about Victorian priorities for recording history. Thomas Recchio’s paper on ‘Natural Science and the Preservation of “Wonder” in Neo-Victorian fiction’ explored a view of science in which deepened understanding of the natural world added to the sense of magic and religious feeling inspired by observing nature, rather than diminishing it.

Our contemporary relationship to the Victorians and what they wrote was a strong theme among the poetry panels. Charles LaPorte’s ‘Victorian Women’s Poetry and the Preserves of Faith’ took Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Cry of the Human’ as a base from which to explore our contemporary attitudes to women’s religious verse. As long as we do not address the effect of secularisation on our readings, and do our best to bring genuine respect for Victorian women’s position of faith, LaPorte warned, we will be poor interpreters of these poems. These concerns were paralleled in Melissa Gregory’s paper on the same panel, about child elegies which often contain depictions of grieving which often seem disturbing to contemporary eyes. The discussion following this panel addressed the discomfort modern readers (even those very well acquainted with 19th century poetry) often feel upon encountering Victorian feelings that do not reflect what we feel, or expect others to feel, not only in the case of religion but in terms of a contemporary culture in which death is rarely spoken about. Trying to fully ‘listen’ to poets about not only the cultural but the emotional perspective they write from is a practice I aim to maintain throughout my own research, but it can be a challenge. Hearing the importance of doing this – and the inherent difficulties – acknowledged and discussed was encouraging and inspiring.

Our ongoing relationship to Victorian poetry was also the primary theme for Marjorie Stone’s paper Stone’s ‘A Diminishing Preserve? Victorian Poetry, Field Transformations, and Neo-Victorianism,’ which considered Victorian poetry studies itself as a preserve, and questioned how the current academic field affects what we consider Victorian poetry to be. Her paper was informed by academics’ responses to a questionnaire on how they perceived changes in the field of Victorian poetry studies during the time they had been involved in it.

As well as a shift away from studying traditionally canonical poets towards broader research directions taking in movements or themes in poetry, people reported a declining number of specialists in poetry, particularly among the younger generation (something compounded by the increasing difficulty of finding academic jobs, and a broader shift away from historical literature and the humanities in general in twenty-first century universities.) Stone also remarked on the dominance of the novel in Neo-Victorian studies and representations – as well as a worrying tendency for poetic lives to be portrayed in a tragic/glamorous mode tinged by conservatism masquerading as transgression. The discussions after Stone’s paper included several testimonials from people who felt like they now had to almost sneak poetry into 19th-century syllabi in order to attract students’ interest. There were also suggestions for an informal Victorian poetry caucus, which would allow people to collaborate and disseminate research, but also raise the profile of the discipline within the wider Victorian Studies field in North America.

The conference also covered many other aspects of Victorian preservation, including issues around archiving documents and objects. Evening activities also preserved Victorian entertainments through reviving them, with a film showing of the 1890 Blue Jeans, and a 19th Century Theatre Caucus performance of How We Live, an 1856 stage adaptation of London Labour and the London Poor directed by Taryn Hakala. The themes that NAVSA 2017 centred, as well as those brought up by the location itself, combined to provoke a number of interesting discussions on how we relate to the past through ideas of particular places or pieces of writing as representative, and the ways in which this relationship changes depending on contemporary concerns.

How We Live (photo credit: Amy Kahrmann Huseby and Taryn Hakala)

Erin Farley
I am grateful to the British Association of Victorian Studies for their award of the Sally Ledger Memorial Travel Bursary, which allowed me to attend this conference.

Erin Farley is a PhD student on the Collaborative Doctoral Award project “Poetry, Song and Community in the Industrial City: Victorian Dundee”, working with the University of Strathclyde and Dundee Central Library to explore the importance of locally-produced verse and song cultures in shaping communities in Dundee.