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Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies: Autumn Term 2015

Unless otherwise noted, all sessions take place in the Keynes Library (Room 114, School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, WC1H 0PD), and sessions are free and all are welcome, but since the venue has limited space it will be first come, first seated.

Thursday 22 October 2015, 7.30-9.00pm

David McAllister (Birkbeck): '"Better Thoughts of Death": Dickens, Association Psychology and the Birth of the Garden Cemetery.


  • ‘If I have put into my book anything which can fill the young mind with better thoughts of death’, Dickens said after the publication of The Old Curiosity Shop, ‘I shall consider it as something achieved’. This paper explores the significance of Dickens’s claim, which not only indicates his awareness of the novel’s ability to shape individual subjectivity but also reveals his engagement with the psychology of death and grief—an interest that he cultivated following the death of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. I argue that Dickens was not alone in self-consciously aiming to change the ways in which ‘the young mind’ thought about death and the dead; his representation of Little Nell’s final months alive drew upon four decades of educational speculation in which psychological theories of association were brought to bear upon the question of precisely what, and how, children should learn about mortality. Did death always have to be terrifying? Might we learn to live with it in comfort? One of the starting points for this exploration of death’s psychological presence was Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’; one of its enduring legacies was the garden cemetery: this paper touch on both in an attempt to understand the ‘better thoughts of death’ that Dickens had in mind.

Thursday 12 November 2015, 7.30-9.00pm

Richard Adelman (Sussex): 'Our "Strange Disquietude": Ruskin and Gothic Literature'.


  • John Ruskin's account of the gothic spirit, from the central chapter of The Stones of Venice, 'The Nature of Gothic' (published in 1853), is highly influential and much fêted. Such influence has long been recognized over figures such as William Morris, over the architectural practices of Victorian Britain, and over political economic thought, especially after Ruskin's 1862 publication of 'Unto This Last', which develops the earlier work's critique of laissez-faire economics. But Ruskin's innovative theorization of the concept of the gothic in 'The Nature of the Gothic' has never been connected with gothic literature itself. This is a significant oversight, as this paper will demonstrate, one that has left a fundamental shift in Victorian gothic literature unrecognized, and that has allowed the eighteenth-century, consistently negative associations of the gothic to stand unchallenged in the very different world of post-Ruskinian gothic literature. Ruskin's considerable influence over gothic fiction will be reconstructed, in this paper, by analysis of Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1853), Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly (1872) and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886).

Thursday 26 November 2015, 7.30-9.00pm

Ruth Phillips (Carleton University): 'Mississauga Methodist: Peter Jones and the Visual Mediation of Ojibwe Identity in Nineteenth-Century Canada'.


  • The Reverend Peter Jones, or Kahkewaquonaby, was born in 1802 into an Indigenous world in what is now southern Ontario and died in 1856 as a respected member of a settler society on the brink of achieving self-government within the British empire. The son of a Mississauga mother and a Welsh father, he married into a prominent British Methodist family and devoted his life to missionary work amongst fellow Mississauga traumatized by the rapid dispossession, dislocation, alcoholism and family violence they suffered during the first half of the nineteenth century. This lecture explores Jones's visual and textual modes of self-fashioning as mediations of these struggles, his own bicultural heritage and the divided loyalties he sought to reconcile.

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