2013 Late Summer Lectures

Lecture 1: ‘Dickensian Steampunk: Charles Dickens and his Overlooked Mudfog Papers’

– Elizabeth Drialo

With the growing popularity of the Steampunk-style in books, film, and even video games, it is strange to think that somehow Charles Dickens, of all writers, fits into these new clockwork worlds. Whilst he is certainly no Wells or Verne, there is, surprisingly, an early set of texts written by Dickens that is not only often overlooked in scholarship, but also fits in to this genre filled with mechanical men, airships, and alternate histories. Originally written for Bentley’s Miscellany in the late 1830s, the three stories of the town of Mudfog – ‘Public Life of Mr. Tulrumble, Once Mayor of Mudfog’, and two reports of ‘The Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything’ – tell of an odd town and an interesting group of characters that present new inventions ranging from an impractical fire-escape to a walled off city governed by automaton police. This talk explores the world of Mudfog through the lens of the Steampunk style and tackles many questions the texts raise: Why do we tend to forget about Mudfog? Where does it fit in the rising popularity of Steampunk? And what are the effects on a world dominated by machines? Perhaps, in looking at these questions, we may find that Dickens’s little world of Mudfog is not as strange or as foreign as it appears.

 

Lecture 2: ‘Hauntings, House and Home in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre

A joint presentation, comprised of two shorter lectures:

(1) ‘Jane Eyre and Masculinity’

– Alison McManus

The story of Jane Eyre (1847) is so well known it has become iconic: a young woman, desperate for independence, finds employment in the only respectable profession available to her at the time, as a governess in a large manor house. She meets and falls in love with the Byronic owner of the estate, who has a dark secret kept hidden in an attic bedroom. Charlotte Brontë’s most famous character has inspired a wealth of criticism, interpretation, and re-interpretation, most famously by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which provides a prequel to the story so that the most marginalised character is given a voice. But what if Jane Eyre had been born a man?

Charlotte’s brother Branwell was employed as a tutor in a moderately-sized estate for a short time, and I have stolen details from his life in order to invert the narrative conventions of Jane Eyre in the novel I am writing as part of my PhD thesis in Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle. As the female characters in the story gain greater independence, the patriarchal edifice of the manor house begins to crumble and the male narrator, loosely based on Branwell Brontë, becomes increasingly unhinged. Meanwhile, the critical portion of my thesis explores the link between fact and fiction, arguing for the emergence of a certain genre that I call ‘playful parallelism’, in which the relationship between texts is so closely linked, both to each other as well as to the lives of their authors, that it transcends mere intertextuality.

In this paper, I will discuss the progress of my own novel in connection to Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, as well as other novels which exhibit this inter-relationship, such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (2002). Looking at the symbolism of the English country house, I will also discuss contemporary novels like The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009), incorporating literary parallelism, class, gender and masculinity.

(2) ‘Ghosting, Place, and Wuthering Heights

– James Quinnell

Wuthering Heights has been described as a haunted novel – it is more of a ghost story than a romance – and this haunting is an expression of homesickness. The lecture will explore the connection between haunting and homesickness in Emily Brontë’s novel and a selection of her poetry. For Brontë, ghosts are an expression of longing and desire; characters in Wuthering Heights and the Gondal-creations in the poetry seek out ghosts, and they raise, rather than exorcise, them. Emily Brontë’s vision of the ghostly is that home is made with them rather than that they are banished.

Using ideas from Stephen Greenblat, I will suggest that this hospitality to ghosts situates Brontë in a pre-Reformation world with its strong sense of the claims of previous generations. This is expressed in the Roman Catholic teaching of the communion of saints, where the dead have claims on the intercessions of the living. Brontë’s use of ghosts is an expression of a homesickness at living in a post-Reformation world, in which the dead are really dead and there is no possibility of return. Such a state is, arguably, what Heathcliff means by the ‘abyss’ where he cannot find Catherine.

Ghosts and homesickness suggest that Brontë was not at home in a post-Reformation world; by contrast, they intimate that she is strongly attached to earth. Her ghosts do not come from another world to admonish, but wander the earth as an expression of attachment to the earth and of rejection of heaven. The term ‘spirit of place’ will be considered towards the end of the lecture to articulate some final considerations of the way that Wuthering Heights haunts many readers with its strong sense of a vividly created place.

 

Lecture 3: ‘Hideous Repasts: From Varney, the Vampyre to Hannibal the Cannibal’

– Lauren Owen

This talk will examine importance of Varney, the Vampyre as a piece of vampire literature, and suggest that Varney, despite his self-pity, ineffectiveness, and dubious supernatural status, is a vampire worthy of attention.

I am particularly interested in the vulgarity of Varney; unlike earlier vampire tales, like John William Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), Varney does not pretend to high art. Instead, it is funny, preposterous, repetitive, and quite evidently written to entertain. Varney himself is a lover of adventure and romance, which is the only thing that keeps him tied to humanity.

I will look at how Varney adapted the literary vampire to its own purposes, combining the Byronic hero with conventions of the ‘penny dreadful’, noting similarities between Varney and Sweeney Todd, antihero of The String of Pearls. I will go on to look at how the figure of the vampire as popular villain (the evil equivalent to a folk hero) is still familiar today. Varney is significant because it illustrates how old certain tropes of fictional villainy really are, and demonstrates why they are so effective. I will conclude by discussing a modern example of the ‘folk villain’: Hannibal Lecter, a figure whose popularity shows no signs of abating.

It has been argued that serial killers have succeeded vampires in the popular consciousness. Whilst I believe that vampires are by no means defunct or exhausted, the connection between the vampire and the serial killer – especially the cannibal – does seem an obvious one. Whilst the serial killer has no supernatural powers at his or her disposal, I will suggest that the appeal of this figure is similar to that of the vampire, and that the fictional serial killer can be situated at the same intersection of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.

 

Lecture 4: ‘Airmen, Aeroplanes and Aesthetics: Pilots in Irish War Poetry’

– Amy Smith

The lecture aims to introduce the audience to Irish war poetry written between 1918 and 1945, using the symbol of the airman as a focal point. Many writers have been fascinated by flight, which often connotes liberation, transcendence and the imagination. The technological developments of the twentieth century meant that dreams of human flight rapidly became a reality, while the futuristic unreality of aviation fostered a discourse of heroism which represented pilots as super-human. Yet the First and Second World Wars caused a radical change in the ways in which airmen were represented in literature; as perpetrators of aerial attack, airmen were considered to be brutal tools of fascism, representative of the debasement of humanity in war-time, rather than the pinnacle of human achievement.

Poets to be discussed include the Nobel prize-winner W. B. Yeats, and the less-well known Irish writers John Hewitt, W. R. Rodgers, and Robert Greacen. Yeats celebrates Major Robert Gregory, a pilot killed in the First World War, as the epitome of physical and intellectual achievement; Gregory is cast as a poet who achieves a moment of immersion in the sublime immediately before his death. For Hewitt, Rodgers, and Greacen, however, all writing during the Second World War, the airman connotes brutal violence enacted against unarmed civilians and the impossibility of the heroism that Yeats envisaged. In a complex and lengthy engagement with the symbol of the airman, Rodgers aligns bombers with the middle and upper classes, and thus articulates strident left-wing criticism of the indifference of privileged classes to suffering, connecting aviation with contemporary calls for major political and social reform in the post-war reconstruction era.

 

Lecture 5: ‘”Such Terrifying Vistas of Reality”: Lunatic Landscapes in the Works of H. P. Lovecraft’

– David Varley

This paper will examine the ways in which Lovecraft uses landscape-based description as a means of constructing psychological effects, and in particular the manner in which he blurs the distinction between different kinds of spaces to effect a sense of the uncanny. The paper will begin with an introduction to the life, work and philosophy of Lovecraft, with particular focus on his literary philosophy of ‘Cosmicism’, a concept related to that of existential nihilism. It will be shown that even in his non-fictional writings, Lovecraft uses the imagery of landscapes as a means of presenting his own ideas of cosmic horror.

It will be suggested that Lovecraft’s fiction employs three different spheres of spatial reference: landscapes of the world, landscapes of the mind, and landscapes of the ‘other’. It will be shown that the interaction between these three spheres lies at the heart of Lovecraftian fictionsm, and that narrative tension is generated by the ‘friction’ caused by this interaction – a friction that leads to the ‘weirding’ of landscapes.

The paper will then move on to the role of the individual in Lovecraft’s fiction, and will demonstrate the ways in which the human mind is affected by interaction with these three kinds of landscape. It will be shown that the destabilisation of these landscapes, and the consequent blurring of their boundaries, is used by Lovecraft as a means of depicting the mental breakdown of the human brain, and how this lens of broken minds and broken landscapes is used by Lovecraft as a primary means of creating his characteristic ‘cosmic horror’. It will be suggested, in conclusion, that Lovecraft’s pervading sense of existential angst is caused not only by the existence of his trademark monstrous abominations, but also by his fundamental questioning of the certainty and validity of existence itself.

 

Lecture 6: ‘Monkey Besynesse: Pies, Patronage, and Print, or the Ape and the Book’

– Colin Davey

In the Huntington Library’s copy of the first book printed in English is a unique woodcut frontispiece. In what may perhaps be the only contemporary portrait of William Caxton, England’s first printer, a kneeling author hands two substantial volumes to a standing woman. The woman is Margaret of York: the King of England’s sister, recently married Duchess of Burgundy, and Caxton’s patroness. The volumes are the first English printed book, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye; Caxton maintained Margaret had been instrumental in encouraging his translation of this French romance. Easily overlooked, mediating between the merchant and the lady, mirroring Caxton’s pose, is the figure of a cheeky, smiling ape.

At the wedding of Margaret to Charles the Bold, shortly before Caxton began his translation, pies were presented as the duke’s towns, ready to be broken into by marmosets bearing axes, picks and shovels. In New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a lavishly enamelled fifteenth century Burgundian beaker depicts a sleeping merchant, his stockings being pulled off, his pockets picked, and his packs rifled by a troop of apes. Though not noted by anyone before, this exactly echoes another entertainment at the wedding, where a sleeping merchant was robbed by apes and his merceries distributed among the audience. Caxton, merchant of London, governor of the English nation in Bruges, and diplomat at the court of Charles the Bold, would certainly have been present. What might he have made of such a show?

What can this nexus of simian imagery with its examination of mimicry, theft, diligence and indolence, ‘besynesse’ and ‘ydlenes’, tell us about early print, authorship, translation, power and patronage? This richly illustrated talk seeks to examine the fascinating, potentially complex role of the ape in medieval iconography and at the birth of English print.

 

Lecture 7: ‘Daydreaming about Demons: Visions, Voices, and Anomalous Experiences in the High Middle Ages’

– Hilary Powell

Visions and other anomalous experiences such as voice-hearing are rarely discussed in the context of mental ill health in the Middle Ages. The reason these experiences were not pathologised owed to the widespread belief that these were actual perceptual events and not, in today’s terminology, hallucinations. The word ‘hallucination’ was rarely used, although the concepts it embraced were very much in evidence. Glossed by Roman authors to mean ‘wandering of mind’, ‘dream’, ‘reverie’ or ‘to have lost track of one’s thoughts’, the concept of mind-wandering was, in fact, prevalent in medieval culture, particularly in the context of demonic visions and anomalous experiences. This lecture will explore the relationship between thought‐wandering and visionary experiences found in hagiographical texts, chronicles, and miracle collections from England during the High Middle Ages. Lying at the heart of this endeavour are questions about how the inner senses – memory, imagination, cogitation – operated and interacted with ideas about the soul and the mind. The lecture will also briefly touch on the distinction between mental disorder and visions or anomalous experiences by considering how theological, physiological, and psychological theories of mind, mind-wandering, and mental disorder actually overlaid one another. Finally, the idea of mind-wandering will be explored through its antithesis: namely, ‘mindfulness’, particularly in the context of meditative prayer in the cloistered world of monastery – the scene of so many divine visionary experiences.

 

Lecture 8: ‘Howling From the City Walls: Poetry and Counter-Culture in 1960s Newcastle’

– Annabel Haynes

On 22 December 1965, something was stirring deep in Newcastle’s city walls. In the small upper room of the West Wall’s medieval Morden Tower, a seasoned poet sat surrounded by attentive young listeners. He began to read what would become his magnum opus, and a bastion of British modernist work. Basil Bunting’s first performance of Briggflatts signified his long overdue return to poetry, a revival instigated by a series of readings organised in the Tower by Newcastle poet Tom Pickard and his wife Connie.

The readings had begun in 1964, and throughout the 1960s the Tower helped to make Newcastle a centre of counter-culture, hosting experimental poets from all over the world, including Beats and Black Mountain poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Robert Creeley, Gregory Corso, and Ed Dorn, as well as British and Irish poets Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, Ivor Cutler, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill. What happened in Morden Tower captured the feeling of the time: a time when the positive potential of the new resonated in the architecture, art, music, and writing of a young generation.

Bunting was born in Newcastle in 1900, but spent much of his life travelling around the world: living in Paris, where he worked for the editor and famous author of The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford; Italy, where he found his first bout of success in the poetry world, befriending modernist luminaries, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams; Tenerife, where he played a game of chess with General Franco; and Tehran, where he worked as a correspondent for the Times and as a spy for the British government. After this period of international intrigue and activity, the poet settled in the North East again, where the financial demands of a growing family led to a decline in his creative pursuits. The Morden Tower and a group of young poets based in the North East were integral to Bunting’s recovery. Bunting’s interest in the music of poetry and in oral and folk culture, and his attention to local environment, coupled with a Quaker and socialist upbringing, made him a viable father-figure for the alternative culture and activism of the times: the group showed that poetry was for the people, not just professors.

The Morden Tower still stands today, and readings still take place. This lecture will look back at Basil Bunting’s life and at the history of the poetry scene in mid-twentieth-century Newcastle, using verse and photographs to help document this exciting time, and to pay homage to an often forgotten cultural treasure.

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