|What We Didn’t Quite Look Like (except in spirit)
A few of you asked if I’d feed back on the conference I attended last week, and I’m more than happy to do so. It was called Space and Place in Middlebrow: 1900-1950, mostly organised by Kate Macdonald whom you may know from the podcasts Why I Really Like This Book. When you see that her most recent podcast is about E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia, you’ll sense that we were in the right hands to enjoy a wonderfully middlebrow conference…
I didn’t speak at this conference (although had given my first proper conference paper at the equivalent conference last September, on Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes and Edith Olivier’s The Love-Child.) This was a mixed blessing – I enjoyed being able to sit back and relax, and just listen to the fascinating papers, but I also got to the end of the two days wishing I’d contributed something more. But when the call for papers came out I couldn’t think of anything to submit, since I was busy writing up what I’d spoken on in 2011. Oh well – I certainly had a really amazing couple of days. If all academia was like this, then I would jump on board wholeheartedly.
I think different specialities attract people akin to their topics. I’ve heard that conferences on the 18th century have banquets and are a bit formal. People studying the middlebrow seem to be so relieved that other people know what the middlebrow is, and have read some of the same authors, that we bond delightedly over tea and cake. It was lovely to see people I knew from last year, including blogger Tanya/20th Century Vox who gave a brilliant paper on E.M. Delafield’s The Suburban Young Man, and it was an especially fun surprise to meet Nick of A Pile of Leaves, since neither of us knew the other would be there. Amusingly, he came over and asked if I were Stuck-in-a-Book (as it were) entirely based on someone pointing me out as a Simon who owned too many books.
The papers were deliciously middlebrow, of course, and great fun to listen too – as well as thought-provoking and scholarly. Finally, after three years, I have got enough confidence to ask questions and join in conversations – a shame it didn’t come at the beginning of my DPhil, but better late than never! It was a very positive experience to feel like I might have things to contribute to discussions, and some knowledge about the subject. Last year people were really supportive of and interested in my paper, but I was a blur of nerves for a lot of it. This year I could hear the papers without worrying about my upcoming contribution.
I shan’t reveal much about people’s arguments in their papers, because of intellectual property etc., but I imagine a few of you will be drooling enviously at the knowledge that topics covered included: views of the English Riviera in Rebecca; women writers in Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages to Fortune and Angela Thirkell’s High Rising; national identity in Agatha Christie’s novels; the middlebrowness of Woolf’s literary pilgrimages; bedrooms in Jeeves and Wooster novels; alternative rooms of one’s own in Lettice Cooper’s The New House and Stella Gibbons’ Bassett; middle-class uncanny in Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost; Elizabeth Bowen and the suburbs… and that’s only a selection of the papers I thought most interesting! Last year’s conference had quite a few topics which were really only on the peripheries of the middlebrow, so it was joyous to have so many papers slap-bang in the middle of the middlebrow. Can you imagine people not only having read these novels, but having original, exciting arguments to put forward about them? I was on cloud nine!
There was also a very entertaining discussion by always-hilarious Erica Brown and Chris Hopkins about a new venture at Sheffield Hallam University called Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950. They’ve collected together nearly 1000 books (of various ‘brows’, but lots of middlebrow titles) from those fifty years, and as part of the project have got book groups reading their way through them and producing reports. It all sounds very like something the blogosphere could support – watch this space to see if things open up to the wider world. In fact, watch this space, because that is their blog, and has more info etc. They’re also looking for further donations (in the form of books) to the collection, so if you have anything going spare… well, check out that blog or this website.
All in all, a wonderful couple of days! In November I’m speaking at a conference on The Marginalised Mainstream, which seems to have a somewhat wider remit, but will hopefully be as interesting. Oh, if only this conference could have gone on for months and months!