For many people, the word ‘Victorian’ is synonymous with traditional, staid, old-fashioned, and pious. Yet, as scholars at the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies (LCVS) have shown, the Victorian era saw reform and innovation, and a questioning of accepted beliefs and values.
When Professor Karen Sayer and I took over as LCVS Co-Directors in September 2019, we committed to building on its 25-year reputation by reconsidering the Victorian era for the 21st century: looking at different expressions of Victorian culture around the globe; considering Victorians of all races, genders, (dis)abilities, and classes; extending the temporal reach back to the 18th century and forwards to today; and (with contributions from our colleague Dr Kate Lister, author of A Curious History of Sex), showing that sex was invented well before the 1960s. Although the LCVS has always been interdisciplinary, colleagues from an even wider range of disciplines came on board. Most notably, in what we hope to be the first of many collaborations with English and Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity, we sponsored An Insubstantial Universe (Yaffle Press, March 2020), a collection of poems for George Eliot’s bicentenary commissioned and edited by Dr Amina Alyal and PhD student Edwin Stockdale.
Despite our rebranding, however, the first activities we planned were all traditional and on-campus: we put together a seminar series; we appointed a Visiting Professor (Ann Heilmann from Cardiff University) and started planning workshops and a high-profile public lecture with her; we planned a launch for An Insubstantial Universe, and the wine was already chilling for a party on 17 March…
When the world as we had known it came juddering to a halt on 16 March, all our plans should have been put on hold, but with the inventiveness of the Victorians, we took to cyberspace and #LCVSVirtual was born. Amina Alyal marshalled the 50 poets from An Insubstantial Universe to take part in a book launch on Zoom on 12 May. The great benefit of going online was that poets who could never have come to Horsforth were able to make their contributions from the far corners of England as well as from Romania and Canada.
We had hosted three seminars on campus (with speakers Dr Josh Poklad and Dr Juliette Taylor-Batty, and our MA in Victorian Studies graduate showcase), but then we took to Twitter with ‘Managing Convicts, Understanding Criminals’ by Dr Laura Sellers of the Thackray Medical Museum: an illustrated presentation in 15 tweets on prison reform during the Victorian era. Our next event will be a podcast, ‘Victorian Theatre at Home’ by Dr Michael Meeuwis of the University of Warwick on 29 June, followed by a Twitter presentation on ‘The Campaign for “Votes for Women” and the English Radical Tradition’ by Dr Di Drummond (Leeds Trinity emeritus) on 13 July. We will round off the year with a presentation by Animesh Chatterjee on the ‘Social Life of Electricity in India’. Remote working has also given LCVS scholars unexpected opportunities for international guest lectures, such as my presentation on ‘Religion in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’ for the University of Denver.
We revived the LCVS Blog with two postings for lockdown: Karen Sayer wrote a piece inspired by the packhorse route near campus that local residents were using for their daily exercise, and I reflected on how the Victorian Clapham Sect can help us cope with the closure of churches.
#LCVSVirtual will continue into the next academic year: all our autumn events will be held via videoconferencing and, though we hope to hold some events on campus in 2021, these will become virtual if the need arises. The LCVS not only aims to bring you research from the forefront of the discipline: we aim to lead the way in the virtual research culture at Leeds Trinity too.
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