Aesthetics and Form in Victorian Art, Literature, & Culture


Despite the inclement Lake Shore weather on Saturday, 28 October 2017, attendees of the Loyola University Chicago Victorian Society’s second day conference “Aesthetics and Form in Victorian Art, Literature, & Culture” were warmed by copious amounts of tea and coffee and maintained rapt attention throughout the day. On four panels, a succession of professors and graduate students from institutions across the United States such as Benedictine University at Mesa, University of California at Davis, St. Louis University, and Harvard University presented their research on topics ranging from narrative temporality to the sovereignty of the liberal subject to the significance of the nonhuman in affecting narrative change. After a pastry and fruit breakfast at 8am, one of the conference donors, Dr. Sherrie Weller (Director of LUC’s Writing Program), gave a warm welcome to conference attendees. Briefly listing the upcoming events listed on the program, she praised LUCVS members for arranging the conference. She thanked the Department of English, the Faculty Center for Ignatian Pedagogy, and Dr. Paul Eggert, (Martin J. Svaglic Chair of Textual Studies for also financing an event bringing so many Victorian scholars together for fruitful discussion. Dr. Priyanka Jacob (LUC’s Department of English) introduced the plenary speaker Dr. Florence Boos (Iowa University), citing her sterling research and publications and formidable record of serving on more than sixty graduate student dissertation committees throughout her decades-long academic career.

Boos began her address by referencing the subject of Victorian science and the perception of time marked by tension between transcendentalism and scientific relativism. She claimed that in the art and poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, liminal spaces depict interactions between life and death as seen in his poem “Jenny” (1870). She noted that Augusta Davies Webster’s poem “Medea in Athens” (1879) with its revision of classical myth and collapse of time was influenced by William Morris’s Life and Death of Jason (1867). Utopian historicism, Boos claimed, centers on historical process and possible futurist dreams. Seeing history anew in the present, Morris’s “pilgrims of hope” revisit past revolutions in his literature to inspire an improved socioeconomic future just as he resurrects his author from history. According to Morris, history is the result of careful evolution and must not cease until systems of production are equable. Boos concluded by noting that William Morris’s view of history sees it as making demands on the present by offering possibilities for progress.

Panel 1: “Aesthetics and the Individual” moderated by Brett Beasley (LUC) concerned the work of the author in objectifying the subject in literature, whether for artistic or thematic purposes. Heather Bozant Witcher (St. Louis University) posited that a reconsideration of Pre-Raphaelite drafting techniques revealed in manuscripts, sketches, and ephemera, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s revisions to the poem “Jenny,” illuminates the overlapping influences of multiple media as a means of revising and perfecting style. Emily Datskou claimed that the narrative structure of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) queers temporality by routing time through objects instead of the normative conventions of family, linearity, and developmental temporal markers, specifically arguing that the presentation and discussion of aesthetically-decadent objects in Chapter XI removes Dorian from normative conceptions of temporality and reproductive futurism and instead positions him as a queer, perpetual child. Maria Granic (Benedictine University at Mesa) wound up the first panel of the day with another paper on The Picture of Dorian Gray, insisting that Wilde’s novel illustrates how through hedonism and inherent narcissism and mesmerism, the individual loses dasein (meaning “presence” or “existence”), rejects the reality principle, remains in the mirror stage, and becomes dehumanized.

Panel 2: “Form and Social Structures” moderated by Mary Lutze (LUC) dealt with the thematic impact of various kinds of imposed order or explicit meanings assigned to social signifiers on works of Victorian literature. Charlie Tyson (Harvard University) started off the first panel with a presentation on Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), identifying three fixed forms, the cell, the choir, and the crowd, used by the author to arrange discordant elements into temporary wholes, bringing into relief crucial aspects of collective experience: agglomerative over-closeness; harmony and discord; collective deliberation and collective wildness. In a study of unassertive ownership in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (1910), Lindsay Munnelly (Indiana University) alleged that the country house as a form urges reconsideration of the complex position of the upper classes at the fin de siècle, as the economic and cultural conditions of the late nineteenth century marginalized their role and the institutions that sustained them. Finally, Ryan Napier (Tufts University) explained that while J.K. Huysman’s Against Nature (À rebours) (1884), depicts the power operating beneath aesthetics, it also includes a vision of another kind of subjectivity in the character of Salome, who has transcended her own individuality and thus embodies the jouissance that threatens the sovereignty of the liberal subject.

During the lunchtime break, Kathy Young, archivist since 2001 at LUC’s newly remodeled Special Collections, gave a Rare Books Presentation briefly explaining how the collections grew out of the original libraries of LUC’s Jesuit founders before highlighting the Chiswick and Michalak Collections. Among other features of interest, Young mentioned that the collections boast significant amount of Victorian travel literature written by both male and female authors, illustrations by popular Victorian illustrators including George Cruikshank, Halbot Knight Browne, Aubrey Beardsley, and Georgina Bowers. Young closed by inviting attendees to attend the next Special Collections open house, search the collections online on their website, and come back to LUC to consult the archives for their own research. Among the books displayed at the exhibit table were The Hunting of the Snark (1876) by Lewis Carroll, an illustration of impoverished Irish from the book A Little Tour in Ireland (1859) by illustrator John Leech, a several foot-long color illustration of Queen Victoria’s coronation procession. The serial edition of Dombey and Son (1848) by Charles Dickens, The Tower of London (1840) by William Harrison Ainsworth, and the multi-volume set of Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) by George Eliot were some of the volumes on the nearby display cart. Attendees milled around and handled the rare books throughout the event, enjoying the chance to interact with primary sources and historical artifacts.

Panel 3: “Form and Narrative Structures” moderated by Aleks Galus (LUC) focused on Victorian authors’ uses of various kinds of structure, design, and narration to produce a desired effect in their literary works. Laura Strout (University of Michigan) stated that in Margaret Oliphant’s Stories of the Seen and Unseen (1876-1897) she orchestrates a feedback loop between the thematic content of the story and its formal features in order to theorize the fundamental relationship between the form that produces powerfully real fictional worlds and affects associated with experiences of love and loss. Next, Lauren Peterson, (University of California) contended that the prophetic visions in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) expose the limits and affordances of the serial form, claiming that as the serial form’s design holds captive both the novel’s author and characters, so do the prophetic visions create the serial’s required suspense. Lastly, Mary Harmon (Loyola University Chicago) examined John Keble’s aesthetic principles in The Christian Year (1827) and argued that Victorian scholars should return to studying his work because of his widespread influence in the 19th century and the implications his poetry could have on contemporary literary and ethical issues.

Panel 4: “Aesthetics and Aestheticism” moderated by Joe Wapinski (LUC) scrutinized the impact of Victorian aesthetics in art, illustrations, and print ephemera, which all worked to influence societal definitions of beauty then and now. Concurrent with a beautiful PowerPoint presentation, Erica Kanesaka Kalnay (University of Wisconsin-Madison) read an essay which argued that as literary, cultural, and technological transformations rendered books with color illustrations widely available for the first time, fin-de siècle aesthetic theory concurrently began to associate the aesthetic experience with the colorful world of the child’s imagination, Robert Louis Stevenson, Vernon Lee, and other writers on aesthetics looking to form and color to theorize the interaction between the art object and the viewing subject. Megan Lease (Boston College) argued against Frederic Jameson that Victorian aesthetics are indeed relevant in the Postmodern era, revisiting how the discussions of John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and John Henry Newman on the relationship between beauty and action help illuminate the aesthetic questions raised by Ben Lerner’s recent novel, 10:04 (2014). In the last panel paper of the day, Eric Holzenberg (Director of the Grolier Club) demonstrated how the Aesthetic Movement manifested in print, discussing how Aesthetic ideas and motifs influenced a generation of children, showing members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to have promoted their art through prints and illustrated books aimed at adults, and pointing out how printed ephemera such as trade cards, greeting cards, and sheet music, responded to some of the more disturbing and transgressive aspects of the movement by ridiculing the Aesthetes and their enthusiasms such as a limp wrist with an Oscar Wilde teapot.

After a quick coffee break, Dr. Paul Eggert (Martin J. Svaglic Chair of Textual Studies) introduced the keynote speaker Dr. Caroline Levine (Cornell University) and welcomed her to LUC. Eggert praised Levine for her engagement with graduate students formerly at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and currently at Cornell University, and expressed the great interest of LUC faculty and students in her ongoing work on formalism. Levine’s keynote address entitled “Reading for the Common Good: Formalism and Politics” focused on the possibilities inherent in restructuring social forms to realize a new, more sustainable world instead of merely imagining future utopias as in Theodor W. Adorno’s utopian epistemology. Faulting humanists for uselessly indulging in reactionary political negativism towards the undefined, Levine claimed that the study of forms offer positive ways to organize humanity, as the best future no longer lies in expansive disruption. As the polis depends on forms, forms travel, and have general properties, Levine stated, we can make predictions on how political forms work and improve on them. Seeing sustainability as a neutral affordance, Levine insisted that multiple intersectional forms act to sustain a system, evidenced in the continuing longevity of bad, apparently eschewed forms like patriarchy and racism. Learning from such bad forms, Levine concluded, as well as studying routine forms (usually the province of female citizens), and violent infrastructural forms (such as transportation), in conjunction, can indicate methods by which to create new, more sustainable forms.

The evening wound up with a cheerful and delicious dinner at Rogers Park favorite Uncommon Ground, attended by Drs. Boos, Clarke, Eggert, Jacob, and many LUCVS members and their affiliates. LUCVS would like to thank all participants and LUCVS members who came together to arrange this event, particularly our guest speakers, members, sponsors, and Dr. Micael Clarke and Dr. Melissa Bradshaw for their enthusiasm, advice, and interest in LUCVS. We also would like to thank Dr. Priyanka Jacob for her helpful suggestions and eager participation in LUCVS meetings and events. Photos of the event can be viewed here. We look forward to shortly announcing next year’s conference theme and details on our website. 

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