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Interdisciplinary Dickens Symposium 2017 | Write up by Katy Jackson & Colette Ramuz

Posted on 28/07/2017


This July Team 19 jetted off to Boston for the Dickens Symposium. Professor Juliet John participating in the ‘Why are we Here?’ panel presented her paper, ‘Throwing the Baby out with the Bath Water: Dickens, Literariness and the Politics of Disciplinarity’. PhD students Katy Jackson (who won the the Robert B. Partlow, Jr. prize, for her paper on ‘Controlling Cutlery’ ) and Colette Ramuz (speaking on David Copperfield and Mouth Fetish) both gave their first papers alongside Douglas Scully who is a graduate of the Victorian MA and about to start his PhD at Louisiana State. Both Colette and Katy have kindly written up candid accounts of their experience. 

Write Up by Colette Ramuz

            Long-awaited with eagerness, and some trepidation on my part (I was scheduled to speak on the last day with Royal Holloway colleagues, Katy Jackson, Helen Goodman and Douglas Scully) the Dickens Symposium took place over the weekend of July 14th- 16th at Boston University College of General Studies. Sponsored by the College in conjunction with The Dickens Society, it was brilliantly organised and hosted by Natalie Mc Knight and her colleagues at Boston University.

            We were greeted on the first day with a generous breakfast, a selection of critical journals to take away and the opportunity for quick networking, before the welcome address by Natalie. Outside, it was an unexpectedly cool, damp morning but inside the atmosphere was warm and convivial, helping to allay any pre-conference jitters. Within the broad symposium theme of Interdisciplinary Dickens, the range of papers was exceptional and thus it was even more difficult than usual to choose between them. Fortunately, we had a strong Royal Holloway contingent so we could often catch up on the panels we had missed. To begin the day’s presentations, I selected ‘Dickens at Play’ where Sean Grass opened with ‘The Memory Game: Dickens, Game Theory and Narrative Play’. It proved to be an insightful and entertaining opening talk, exploring how Dickens presents play as a means to subsume or ameliorate trauma. Using the example of Pip’s fraught game of cards with Estella, Sean argued that the rules and social codes recognised by Dickens, promote a sort of orderly violence in Pip’s relationships. As play displaces the immediacy of the abuse, Pip only recognises the trauma as excessive afterwards, on a sort of ‘index of humiliation’. Developing the idea of trauma as identity, the paper was certainly an engaging start to the weekend.

            The following panel that morning was of special interest, as Professor Juliet John participating in the ‘Why are we Here?’ panel presented her paper, ‘Throwing the Baby out with the Bath Water: Dickens, Literariness and the Politics of Disciplinarity’. With a bold and apposite argument, Juliet emphasised the need to reflect on the politics of interdisciplinarity and the potential risk to pure literary corpus work. She stressed how the accessibility, marketability and pragmatism of interdisciplinary research can render the literary vulnerable. This was a comprehensive, timely paper that encompassed critical issues relevant to us all, including curriculum shaping, the presentism agenda and the concept of literary culture.

            After stimulating panels on ‘Urban Dickens’ and ‘Dickens, Disease and Death’, I was lucky enough to be invited to the planning meeting for future Dickens Society Symposia— the Dickens Society of America annual symposium 2020 will be held in Bloomsbury and jointly run by RHUL and the Dickens Museum. Our ‘Bloomsbury Group’ was composed of Professor Juliet John, Cindy Sughrue, Katy Jackson and me; it was exciting to be there at the start of what I’m sure will be a tremendous series of events in 2020. The day’s papers ended for me on a personal high, listening to April Kendra’s talk on Dickens and Vampire Melodrama; as my paper was on Dickens and the mouth with a focus on biting, it couldn’t have been more relevant. She focused on the vampiric nature of John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, drawing attention to his physical features and Dickens’s familiarity with the vampire myth. She argued that the vampire was integral to melodrama, pointing out critical aspects of vampire sexuality and the supernatural in performance, and how they formed important connections with Dickens’s novel.

            The highlight of our evening at the Dickens Dinner, at Omni Parker House (where Dickens stayed during his 1867-68 visit) was Katy Jackson’s award for the Robert B. Partlow, Jr. prize, for her paper on ‘Controlling Cutlery’. It was a hugely enjoyable evening, although I have to admit, most of us took the T train to the venue and did not walk the three miles from college, as Dickens undoubtedly would have done. The hotel has a rich history beyond Dickens, as Natalie informed us, with links to Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau and later JFK and Jackie, not to mention Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X as staff!

            Saturday’s papers reflected the very high standard of Dickens research globally, including papers on neuroscience, addiction discourse, fertility and sociological metaphor, Dickens’s presidents, aviation, architecture and debt. Sunday arrived too quickly and I was, at last, about to present my paper. Despite plenty of experience at speaking in public, this was a rather daunting occasion for me speaking in the presence of such distinguished scholars, but I needn’t have worried as the audience were warm in their appreciation and keen in their questioning. I was proud to share the panel with Joel Brattin and his groundbreaking work on ‘Dickens’s Proofs of Tale of Two Cities’, the very engaging Dano Cammarota on ‘Bow-wow-wow & Quack-Quack: The Language of Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit and Our Mutual Friend’, and of course, Katy Jackson, for whom, like me, this was her first presentation.  It felt like a lively end to a thrilling conference!

            Overall, it was a memorable experience and, with such a wonderful group of delegates and excellent hosts, the best initiation into presenting conference papers. Full of inspiration and a new set of contacts, I can’t wait to get back to the library!

Write Up by Katy Jackson 

Travelling to Boston for the Interdisciplinary Dickens Symposium, held at Boston University, was a fantastic opportunity. This conference was incredibly useful because of the range of interdisciplinary methods used to yield new readings of Dickensian texts, providing a range of possible techniques useful for research. The variety of speakers bringing together new styles and approaches showed the breadth of research being done in this area. The city of Boston itself was well know to Dickens, and provided a vibrant setting to the conference itself. Holding the Annual Dickens Dinner at the Omni Parker Hotel, a hotel Dickens himself stayed and dined in, was a brilliant opportunity for networking with Dickensian academics from across the world. It was at this event that I was presented with the Partlow essay prize.

After three days of parallel panels I won’t attempt to give an overview of each paper — these are just some of the highlights of a packed conference. The panel ‘Dickens and the Arts’ focused on Dickens’ intersection with the musical, pictorial and theatrical world, both personally and in his literature, and considered the complexities of these relationships. ‘Storytelling, Chance, and Melodrama’ combined close readings of the novels with extra-textual or largely unknown facts; Kylee-Anne Hingston discussed the role of disability inBleak House, while Daniel Siegel explored the possibilities of his odd discovery — that Mr Peggotty is only found at the beginning and end of the monthly instalments — and explained why, or why not, this may be an important fact. April Kendra spoke about Dickens’ knowledge of vampires, and the possibilities of vampires and implicit vampirism inThe Mystery of Edwin Drood. In ‘Dickens, Gender, and Economics’ Margaret Darby discussed her thoughts on windows and glass found in the Autobiographical Fragment. Douglas Scully then talked about the lack of explicit evidence of Nancy’s prostitution in modern film depictions of Oliver Twist.

My paper, ‘Controlling Cutlery: Objects of Anxiety, Humiliation and Identity’ was in the panel ‘Words & Things.’ In this paper I examined how David Copperfield repeatedly identifies himself in terms cutlery due to his given identity of ‘Mr Brooks of Sheffield’ and how this binding of his identity to cutlery provides an anxiety about the use of the objects that pervades the novel. The wider focus in this essay related to Dickens using a comedy of disorderly cutlery to distinguish the good and bad households of his novels.

Having the chance not only to attend but also to present at this conference was truly an invaluable experience. I want to thank all the organisers of this symposium, particularly Natalie McKnight, for putting together such a stimulating and friendly event. Everyone who attended helped, though their questions, conversation, and general enthusiasm for Dickens, to make this a marvellous time.


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