‘Portable property!’ is the mantra of Great Expectations’ Wemmick. The centrality of objects to Victorian families, homes, and public culture, can be seen wherever you turn: the auction in Vanity Fair; the jewellery Dorothea denies herself in Middlemarch; the Great Exhibition. Even working-class homes take pride in their ‘bright green japanned tea-tray’, as Mary Barton emphasises, even if they only have six teacups and need extra visitors to bring their own.
In Orlando, Virginia Woolf characterised the Victorian period as ‘heterogeneous, ill-sorted objects piled higgledy-piggledy in a vast mound’. Victorians are famous as collectors, hoarders, but also as curators. This is the era that saw not only the Great Exhibition, but the founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the opening up of the National Gallery and British Museum to cheap public entry, and new historical disciplines, archaeology and anthropology, epitomised in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum.
Recent developments in material culture and Thing Theory have highlighted objects’ diverse practical as well as symbolic functions. Paraphernalia! was a one day colloquium, held at Leeds Trinity University, under the auspices of the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies (LCVS) and The Northern Nineteenth-Century Network, that sought to extend these discussions by asking some persistent questions: why were Victorian homes so full of clutter? Do changing fashions – for example the development of Steampunk – change the way we relate to this? Victorian objects, particularly buildings, still surround us today: do objects change their meaning in new contexts? Does this also apply to objects that came to Britain from around the world; and what about objects created in the industrial powerhouse of northern England for export worldwide?
The conference was co-ordinated through The Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies by Dr. Helen Kingstone and Dr. Kate Lister, and through The Northern Nineteenth-Century Network by Emma Butcher and Emily Bowles. The colloquium received numerous applications from scholars all over the world, but we finally whittled it down to seventeen diverse and exciting papers, and seven postgraduate poster presenters. We were fortunate enough to secure Professor Rohan McWilliam (president of the British Association of Victorian Studies) and Professor Valerie Sanders (Director of the University of Hull’s Graduate School) early on as the keynote speakers.
The day started at 10 am with the first keynote by Professor McWilliam.
Professor McWilliam’s paper focused on the importance of the opulent London West End in mass retail and entertainment; focusing in particular on the function and space of the shopping arcade in Victorian consumer culture. Professor McWilliam teased out the, at times, conflicting class interests in the ‘controlled’ spaces of the Royal Opera, Burlington and Lowther arcades. This was a fascinating paper that successfully explored numerous themes and interests that underpinned the objectives of the conference: commercialism, consumerism, objectification and materialism.
After a brief Q&A, the colloquium then began the first of parallel sessions. Rather than asking speakers to each deliver a twenty minute lecture on their research, this year LCVS decided to try a new style whereby papers were pre-circulated amongst attendees and the speakers presented a five minute introduction to their research. This proved to be very successful and allowed the audience to engage with the speaker’s work in their own time and formulate a more detailed and considered response.
The first parallel sessions of the day were titled ‘Wealth and its Objects’ and ‘Paper and Print’. ‘Wealth and its Objects’ was chaired by Claire Wood and the papers and speakers were as follows; Julia Courtney (independent scholar): ‘The secret lives of dead animals’; Silvia Granata (University of Pavia): ‘The marine aquarium in the Victorian home’; Odile Boucher-Rivelain (Université de Cergy-Pontoise): ‘Victorian women's dress: a polemical object/subject’. These papers brought together debates surrounding objects of material wealth and their significance to the Victorian sense of self, space and culture.
The second session, ‘Paper and Print’, was chaired by Anne Anderson, and the papers and speakers were as follows; Alice Crossley (Bishop Grosseteste University): ‘Paper Love: Valentines in Victorian literature and culture’; Peter Yeandle (University of Manchester): ‘Advertising the exotic in late-Victorian illustrated periodicals: a preliminary sketch’; Lucy Bending (University of Reading): ‘Home chat and class aspiration’. This session examined how the Victorians constructed a sense of self through the print mediums of Valentines, advertisement and magazines. Each paper shed new light on how historians and critics have interpreted these mediums and suggested new and innovative responses.
The next session was the first of two titled ‘Objects Interventions’, where speakers discussed numerous Victorian objects, ranging from the first telephones through to earlier hearing aids and vacuum cleaners. Kitty Ross (Leeds Museums and Galleries), delivered a fascinating lecture, ‘Leeds-made Victorian gadgets in the Leeds collections’, which expanded upon the industrial heritage of Leeds. Then Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds) delivered a paper on his work with Karen Sayer (Leeds Trinity University), ‘Objects of audibility: the material cultures of Victorian hearing loss’. Graeme had brought in several examples of Victorian hearing aids for the audience to see.
After lunch, the afternoon sessions kicked off with a postgraduate poster presentation session. This was a really great opportunity for postgraduates, who are very early on in their studies, to present their arguments and network with those in their field. Maureen England (King’s College London) presented ‘The Curious Case of Dolly Varden’; Sophie Franklin (University of Durham) presented ‘“Layer after Layer of Perception and Reflection”: George Eliot and reflective surfaces’; and Smina Ould Saada (Université de Cergy-Pontoise) presented ‘The Knoll, Harriet Martineau’s literary and personal accomplishment’. Several established academics made comment on how impressive these students were.
Stephen Basdeo (Leeds Trinity University), Tessa Kilgarriff (National Portrait Gallery and University of Bristol), Una Brogan (Université Paris Diderot) and Ralph Mills (MIRIAD) all addressed the conference with a five minute introduction to their work. This proved to be a very strong session and covered such diverse subjects as: Staffordshire figurines of Robin Hood, ‘British theatrical portraiture and celebrity, 1830-1870’, ‘The bicycle as text and technology’, and ‘A chimney-piece in Plumtree Court, Holborn’.
Professor Valerie Sanders then delivered the second keynote speech, entitled ‘Objects of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century Children’s literature: E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett’. This lecture on non-toys adapted to be toys by children examined the ‘troublesome’ nature of things in children’s books, how children’s experiences with ‘things’ are different to that of adults, and unnatural use of objects in texts such as Alice in Wonderland, The Water Babies, Last Doll, and The Secret Garden.
After a brief coffee break, the conference then split again for the second of the parallel sessions. The first, titled ‘Objects and Selfhood’, was chaired by Alice Crossley and examined how objects confirmed or constructed Victorian sense of identity, and asked the question how did the Victorians define themselves through objects? The speakers and papers were as follows: Anne Anderson (Associate of LCVS; Exeter University): ‘Bric-à-Brac hunting or a life “Antiquing”’; Maria Damkjær (University of Copenhagen): ‘Awkward appendages: comic umbrellas in the periodical press’; Francois Ropert (Université de Cergy-Pontoise): ‘Within “the Coil of Things”: The figurative use of devotional objects in the poems of Charles Algernon Swinburne and Oscar Wilde’.
The second session, ‘Text as object, object as text’, was chaired by Emily Bowles and brought together research that examined how text itself became objectified and commoditised, as well as how text was employed to define an object, gender or identity. The papers were as follows; Sophie Ratcliffe (University of Oxford): ‘Curl papers and papillotes’; Heather Hind (University of York): ‘“Golden Lies”? Reading locks of hair in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Ringlet” (1864)’; Lauren Padgett (Leeds Trinity University): ‘‘Honest and Fair’ or ‘Passive and Shallow’: Representations of Victorian women in contemporary museums and heritage sites’.
The final session of the day was the second of the ‘Object Interventions’. It was chaired by Rosemary Mitchell, and featured Claire Wood (University of York): ‘Memorial cards and the language of grief’; Jim Cheshire (University of Lincoln): ‘The 5th edition of Tennyson’s 1842 Poems – an optimised commodity’; and Tara Puri (University of Warwick): ‘Print on the move: The case of The (Indian) Ladies' Magazine’. All three papers allowed the audience to get very up close and personal with Victorian use of printed mediums.
Dr Kate Lister is a historian, author, lecturer and researcher at Leeds Trinity University. She was the co-organiser of the Paraphernalia! colloquium and lectures in English Literature, History, Creative Writing and Media.
Image details: The title image shows a Victorian hearing aid owned by Professor Karen Sayer, one of the objects that appeared in the 'Object Intervention' session (photo by Jack Gann).