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London Nineteenth-Century Seminar Graduate Conference: Reflections from an Opera Studies Perspective by Corrina Connor

The London Nineteenth-Century Studies Seminar takes place regularly on Friday evenings at the Institute of English Studies at Senate House Library in London. The Seminar also organises a day conference for graduate students researching the long nineteenth century, and this year – generously supported by UCL and QMCUL – the conference took place on 26 April in the Court Room at Senate House. While there were no musicological papers in any of the panels, there were contributions from graduate students at MA and PhD level in history of art, English literature, history, and modern languages; their incredibly diverse areas of research filled a day that illustrated many extraordinary aspects of nineteenth-century culture.

The day began with a keynote from Professor Cora Kaplan, whose lecture ‘Loving Dickens and Dickens in Love’ asked ‘what do we mean when we say we “love” an author?’ Kaplan explored the problems of biography for an author who is acknowledged to be a ‘cultural icon’ and ‘national treasure’. She also discussed the public images which Charles Dickens created for himself, the breakdown of his marriage and family, and his relationship with Nelly Ternan. There is huge conflict between these aspects of his life, and late twentieth and early twenty-first-century attitudes towards marriage and family, particularly if we read his fiction as autobiographical. Kaplan reminded us of the difficulty of separating the man and the writing, which is a problem which also affect musicologists; in opera studies especially it is even more tempting to read autobiographical references in a composer’s choice and treatment of libretto. The second part of Kaplan’s lecture discussed how a modern audience deals with melodrama and realism in nineteenth-century literature (specifically Dickens), and her comments on the collision between melodrama and realism in his fiction, as well as in biographies and the recent film The Invisible Woman were pertinent to understanding better some of the more improbable – and to our minds sometimes repellent or misogynist – aspects of later nineteenth-century opera.

The student panels began with a session on ‘The Body and Representation’, which included papers on corsetry and photography (Beatrice Bazell, Bickbeck), parallels between narratives about childhood by Stephen King and in David Copperfield (Katie Bell, Leicester) as well as ‘enforced maturation’ in Lewis Carroll and how Tenniel’s illustrations enhance these themes (Jasmine Jagger, Cambridge). Jessica Hancock, a DPhil student at Oxford University, spoke about musical training and performance as expressions of masculinity in William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung– his rewriting of the Poetic Edda and Volsunga Saga – which created an indirect link between Morris’s exploration and re-casting of these Norse legends and Wagner.

After lunch we moved away from the matters of the body for the second panel, ‘A Culture of Paper and Print’. Here, the birth of the ‘New Journalism’ epitomised by the bold style of W. T. Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette (a style and a paper both admired and decried by Matthew Arnold and Edmund Yates) was dealt with by Philip March (Birkbeck) in the context of the religious views of these three men; Melissa Score (Birkbeck) also discussed the ‘New Journalism’ but in an examination of newspaper taxation and press regulation. Ideas about increasing readership and accessibility, the social and political importance of newspaper journalism, and a perceived bias towards sensation and celebrity are all relevant to opera studies scholars, as newspapers are an important source of material about opera reception and celebrity culture. Alexandra Ult (UCL) spoke about ‘Victorian Media Hierarchies and the Printsellers’ Association, 1840-1912’, revealing the relationship between prototypes (in this case John Everett Millais’s Minuet), replicas made by Millais, and engravings of the picture which were immensely popular. Engravers were considered artists in the own right, the engraving and printing industries were vast enterprises carefully regulated by the Printsellers’ Association, and prints were the means by which ‘ordinary’ people could enjoy ‘art’ at home. Again, the issues about intellectual property, copyright, and the dissemination of art in society had parallels with the ways in which images of singers were disseminated in the nineteenth century and arrangements of operatic music which could be played at home. Finally, there was a fascinating paper from Kathleen McIlvenna about occupational pensions for “Old and Worn Out” workers in nineteenth-century Britain. I cannot, despite a lot of hard thinking, make any connections between the Civil Service Superannuation Act of 1859, how white-collar and working class employees of certain companies and organisations (in this case, the East India Company and the Post Office) were supported in old age and decrepitude by their former employers, and issues pertinent to opera studies. However the paper illustrated fascinating aspects of nineteenth-century working lives and legislation, and is relevant today, when pensions, welfare, and the retirement age are still politically contentious.

I couldn’t stay for the third and fourth panels (‘Perceived Places’, and ‘Experiential Space and the City’), or the Plenary from Matt Rubery (QMCUL), but the programme can be found here. The Nineteenth-Century Seminar is a valuable resource for anybody studying nineteenth-century culture, and I plan to attend more of their regular Friday afternoon sessions.

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