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Conference report for Four Nations Fiction: Women and the Novel, 1780-1830

It’s not often that you get the chance to go to a conference which will involve a trip to the pier, a day spent at one of Wales’ national treasures, and introductions to several undeservedly-forgotten Romantic-era novelists. Four Nations Fiction: Women and the Novel, 1780-1830 brought together scholars from across all four nations in a setting that reminded us all of the importance of pushing back the boundaries of the canon. That no one author was the focus of multiple papers indicates the diversity of topics covered throughout the day.

The conference grew out of the recent work on four nations fiction by the likes of Evan Gottlieb, Susan Manning and Kristan Kumar. It aimed, as organiser Liz Edwards explained in her introduction, to enter into the rapidly-expanding conversations on the role of women in the Romantic literary marketplace, and specifically women novelists in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. The conference focused on the ways that these writers (re-)constructed their homeland in their fictions in a way that, as keynote speaker Claire Connolly highlighted, emphasized the problems inherent in a regionalist framework. As this conference proved, for these writers the ‘nation’ was not a simple concept; the four nations together provided the basis for a metaphoric system which explored the place and perceptions of women in contemporary society.

The opening panel explored divisions, practical, aesthetic and metaphorical, between Wales, Scotland or Ireland and England. The first paper, from Mary Chadwick, introduced these themes with an exploration of interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft in the Wales-related fictions of Anna-Maria Bennett and Mary Barker. Chadwick argued that both of these writers constructed Wales in opposition to England as the ideal place in which to live out Wollstonecraft’s ideologies. Wales comes to represent nature, whilst England – and London particularly – was used to foreground the artifice inherent in polite society. Anthony Mandal’s focus on Mary Brunton’s didactic novel Self-Control (1811) highlighted a similar dichotomy, this time between Scotland and England. Mandal demonstrated how the divisions between the four nations could be seen as being enacted in the very act of publishing: Brunton’s novel, for instance, was published in Edinburgh and shipped to London. Mandal emphasized Brunton’s publishing strategy, and demonstrated how Brunton’s evangelical use of the novel form and careful manipulation of the stereotypical domestic/public divide contributed toward her success. (Brunton’s profit for this novel alone was £800 in a year, whilst Jane Austen earned £1400 for all of her novels, most of that posthumously). Finally, Nicola Lloyd examined the ways in which Ireland was revalued in terms of global power relations after the introduction of the canal system. She suggested that canal age, which began in Ulster in the 1730s and reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, acted as a means of creating transnational sympathy through commerce, and suggested that the closer relationship between Ireland and England was indicative of the increasing homogeneity of Europe that had been promoted through more advanced trade networks. In Sydney Owenson’s novel O’Donnel, Lloyd argued, canals are indicative of the advance of modernity and act to connect the disparate parts of the nation through their use in fostering international sentimental bonds.

Claire Connolly’s keynote address continued this exploration of the ways in which Romantic-era women writers considered the nations as interlinking aspects of one whole country. By focussing on Maria Edgeworth, Connolly questioned the practical and imaginative consequences of union in women’s fiction of the period in light of the infrastructural and cultural links between the four nations. Like Mandal, Connolly explored the use of the practicalities of the print industry in communicating their responses to national issues; in Edgeworth’s case, Connolly highlighted the use of footnotes in avoiding accusations of plagiarism. She suggested that Irish Romanticism was a response to English colonialism, and raised questions about what constituted a permissible imitation. Connolly’s paper recalled Lloyds in its exploration of the ways in which technological advances – particularly steam ships and the improving postal service – enabled the vicarious creation of social networks through which families could share reading experiences, the sometimes large distances between them notwithstanding.

Following a notably excellent lunch, the afternoon’s first panel was begun with Deborah Russell’s exploration of the little-known Irish novelist Regina Roche’s use of Gothic architecture as a metaphor for transnational antiquarian virtues. Russell demonstrated how Roche’s use of these buildings acted as an alternative to the public sphere; these private homes inspired domestic fictions haunted by the ghosts of maternal figures. Kaley Kramer’s paper picked up on these themes through a reading of Sophie Lee’s The Recess (1783), a novel which imagines the lives of the fictional twin daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots. The novel explores the impossibility of writing oneself out of history; the elusive figure of the executed queen reminds the reader of the impossibility of leaving no trace, in spite of determined efforts to the contrary. Yi-cheng Weng’s paper, ‘History and Fiction: Representing History in Elizabeth Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers and Letters of a Hindoo Rajah’, continued the focus on the role of history in four nations fiction by demonstrating the blurring of literary boundaries between fact and fiction in Hamilton’s two works. This narrative was reinforced by the final paper in this panel, in which Katie Garner explored women’s uses of Arthurian legend throughout the Romantic period. She observed that there were three republications of the Morte D’Arthur throughout the Romantic period, after a hiatus of more than two-hundred years, including abridged versions which were deemed more suitable for feminine and infantile audiences. This rise in interest in medieval legend, supplemented by Thomas Percy’s Reliques and the continued interest in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, ensured that Arthurian legend became a key metaphor for women writers, particularly poets, throughout the era in a way that is yet to be fully explored.

The conference’s final panel explored the constructions of the nation by three early-nineteenth-century writers: Ann Julia Hatton (alias Ann of Swansea), Anna Eliza Bray and, surprisingly making her only sustained appearance of the day, Jane Austen. Jane Aaron’s paper Sarah Siddons and Charles Kemble, Ann Hatton (née Curtis and Kemble) was congenitally lame, and was excluded from the family because of her inability to partake in the family theatrical business. (So benighted was she by her family that her siblings agreed to pay her an annuity of £90 on the condition that she moved at least 150 miles away from London.) She was not shy of using her connections; her sister’s name was used to promote her first collection of poems, and she later caused tensions at Swansea by her blatant caricaturing of local figures in her novels, including her first novel Cambrian Pictures (1810). Diane Duffy’s paper on Anna Eliza Bray continued this exploration of the connection between real people and places and fictional ones; Bray’s first novel was set in Tavistock. Duffy’s paper recalled Russell’s in its focus on the uses of antiquarian images, and Duffy convincingly made the case for Bray to be recognised as an overlooked but important force in the antiquarian movement. Finally, Harriet Guest concluded the conference with her paper ‘Jane Austen and the Idea of the Nation’, which used Persuasion to explore the ways in which Austen negotiated the creation of individual identities through interactions with the familiar landscape. Guest’s paper neatly drew together the major themes of the day, whilst indicating the importance of continuing these lines of thought into future study.

The National Library of Wales provided the ideal setting for this conference; their support for the work being discussed was evident in their display of Honno publications, including Katie Gramich and Catherine Brennan’s collection Welsh Women’s Poetry, 1460-2001 (2003), which served to emphasize the wealth of works which still remain largely, and unjustifiably, unexplored. Thanks are due to the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, who supported the event, and to the conference organiser, Liz Edwards, whose flawless organising of such a constructive day will have ensured that the conversations begun here develop into important contributions to and revisions of perceptions of Romantic women writers from across the four nations.

Jo Taylor

Jo Taylor is a third-year PhD Candidate at Keele University. Her thesis explores the use of poetic spaces in negotiating influence anxieties in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s children and grandchildren. She blogs here and can be found on Twitter: @JoTayl0r0

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