Thursday, 6 June 2013

neo-Victorian Villainy Symposium report

Apologies that this has taken so long to appear. I was quite unwell for a few days of this and last week. Many thanks again to Ben Poore for organising such a brilliant conference. 
The Neo-Victorian Villainy conference was accompanied by a regularly updated Facebook page which heightened one’s expectations ahead of the event. By the time Saturday 25th May arrived, I was very excited to travel to York for the one-day symposium. The venue was fabulous; the new facilities of the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York were perfect for such a multi-media interdisciplinary conference.

In the state-of-the-art Holbeck Theatre, organiser Dr Ben Poore introduced the day and opened proceedings with his brief provocation on the theme for the day. His hilarious introduction was a well-delivered and perfect opener for the near two dozen attendees. After opening with references to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ the musical, the short paper interestingly compared the darkness within the psyche, as seen in Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde’, with the ‘melting down’ of the modern celebrity; Ben commented that the unfortunate contemporary celebrity is forced to expose their ‘darkness’ in the glare of the flashbulbs, where it is intensified. A closing remark was that we are not free of what we class as Victorian.

Following the initial remarks, delegates were faced with the unenviable option of two panels. Panel A was titled ‘Looking Back at the Victorians’ and featured papers on BBC Dickens adaptations, the Nineteenth-Century stage, and the 1959 film adaptation of The 39 Steps. Panel B was titled ‘Reinventing the Monstrous’ and included papers on Gothic creatures, Mister Creecher, and The Grand Guignol (and beyond). I chose Panel B in order to hear Vanessa Gerhards deliver her paper, ‘From Gothic Ghoul to Harmless Harbinger – Representations of the Archetypal Gothic Creature in Contemporary Media’. 

Vanessa Gerhards spoke about the progression of the Victorian ghost, popular in ghost stories and séances during the period, to the haunted house and ghost as shown in film today, which still resembles the Victorian ghost strongly. Vanessa took us on a tour of the evolution of the ghost through film and television, before doing the same with the figure of the vampire. We heard how the Victorian Gothic vampire was a seducing aristocrat, whereas the modern vampire is both emotionalised and humanised, with love as a new motivation for the vampire.

Following this fascinating paper, Chloe Buckley presented a paper regarding Chris Priestley’s 2011 novel Mister Creecher, which combines the legend of Frankenstein and his monster with the childhood of the Dickens archetypcal villain, Bill Sykes. Having not read the book, Chloe’s paper inspired me to go out and get a copy. She discussed the making of a monster, and how the book charts the moral decline of Sykes from street urchin to true monster. The paper was particularly interesting for those of us who were unfamiliar with the book, and I believe it’s fair to say that more than my own appetite was sufficiently whet!

The final paper of the panel came from Will Nelson, and he delivered a paper on the Grand Guignol. I must admit, I knew very little about Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, so I found the paper especially interesting. The illuminating paper charted the movement of horror from highbrow Victorian entertainment, to the low brow view of it today. It has definitely inspired me to read more on the subject of the history of this fascinating theatre and its productions.  

After the first Panel, the fantastic first keynote was presented by Dr Guy Barefoot on the subject of ‘Hollywood’s image of melodramatic villainy (just) after the Victorians’. Dr Barefoot gave a fantastic paper on the Hollywood villain in the early part of the Twentieth century. His animated delivery was particularly appreciated after a long morning session! It was very interesting to see how the traditional Victorian villain was so rife in early Hollywood productions, and how this character has clearly transferred to the modern screen too. I especially liked the discussion of Professor Moriarty, from his initial drawn depiction in the Victorian press, to his Hollywood representation.

Lunch was served in the foyer, and was very enjoyable indeed. Afterwards, the conference took a very different direction, and certainly a very unique one! Delegates were treated to a performance by York University students of extracts from Michael Punter's neo-Victorian play Summerland. The performance was outstanding, and the play itself was intriguing. The thrill and suspense of the Victorian séance was vividly brought back to life. Following the dramatisation, Ben Poore interviewed playwright Michael Punter, adding a further dimension of understanding to the fantastic play. 

The interview was followed by a second interview, this time with young playwright Laura Turner regarding her recent adaptations of Jane Eyre and The Hound of the Baskervilles. As an Undergraduate with an interest in creative writing, I found Laura absolutely inspirational; her achievements so far in her career are fantastically impressive. The interview with her regarding Victorian adaptations was very interesting, especially in the context of a day examining neo-Victorian texts. The creative plenary session was concluded by Ben Poore reading a paper on 'Writing the neo-Victorian Villain' by author Anne Featherstone, who unfortunately was unable to attend the conference in person, which was a shame as the paper was entertaining and engaging.

The second keynote was given by Professor Eckart Voigts, on Nell Leyshon's The Colour of Milk. In a brilliant twist, similar to that of the novel in discussion, the author herself was connected live via Skype and listened to the paper before engaging in an interview, and question and answer session with the audience. Listening to the author's comments on her own book and hearing her perspective was probably my highlight of the day. Professor Voigts's paper certainly inspired me to read the book for myself. His paper discussed the language and grammar choices of the book, which sound very interesting. Comparisons drawn to Alias Grace (Atwood) and Affinity (Waters) made the book sound even more appealing. I was fascinated by Nell Leyshon's explanation of how she 'found' her narrator's voice and its biblical language inspiration. 

The final panel of the day again gave delegates two options. Panel C was titled 'The Pull of the Past: Victorian Villains Abroad', whilst Panel D was titled 'Neo-Victorian Women Going Rogue'. My own paper was the first in Panel D, so despite being very interested in one of the Panel C papers, I was unable to listen to it. I delivered my paper titled ''Come on, you little bitch,' she said to me, 'sing out!'' - Villainous doctors and cruel [neo-]Victorian nurses. I felt my paper went well, especially because when writing it I was overwhelmed with the amount of material on the villainous asylum doctor in Victorian and neo-Victorian fiction. It was certainly difficult to condense into a twenty-minute paper!

Following my paper, Sarah Artt gave a paper on the post-feminist tart in the BBC drama Ripper Street. As an avid watcher of the programme, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the application of post-feminist theory on the figure of the prostitute. I have to admit, it has definitely altered how I will view the programme in future! It was enjoyable to listen to such an interesting paper following my own, as I calmed down from those presenting nerves!

The third and final paper of the panel was presented by Antonija Primorac, and was titled 'Adapting Victorian Villainy Today: Gender, melodramatic mode and the question of agency'. Again, the paper proved to be thoroughly interesting and applied some intriguing theory to the adaptation of the Victorian villain. This paper, along with the previous one, went together incredibly well - a credit to the organisation of the conference. The questions following the papers raised interesting discussion and could have gone on for a lot longer than the allotted time, but we had a final keynote to attend. 

The final keynote of the day was given by Professor Richard Hand, and discussed Joseph Conrad, adaptation and neo-Victorian villainy. Having previously studied Conrad, it was very interesting to hear about neo-Victorian adaptations of his work and the villains within them. It was also nice to hear a discussion about adaptations other than the most commonly referred to Apocalypse Now

Following the keynote, there was a wine reception, and later almost all of the delegates made their way to the centre of York for a delicious meal at the Meltons Too bistro. 

All in all, the conference was simply fantastic and an especially inspiring day from my perspective as an Undergraduate, relatively new to the field of neo-Victorianism. I have also spent a lot of time recently going through Victorian texts, so it was brilliant to have my eyes opened to a number of neo-Victorian sources, authors and texts. The symposium was very well organised and the creative plenary was a great touch. I had such a good time meeting some wonderful people and hearing some enlightening papers. 

Roll on the next conference!


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