Homecoming, Return and Recovery: The BSECS conference, 2023

Happy New Year! Can it really be 2023 already? The New Year got off to a good start for two members of the ‘Books and Borrowing’ team – Josh and I had a great time attending the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) Conference, held at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, from 4-6 January. Appropriately, given that it was the first time the Society had been able to meet in person since the Covid pandemic began, the conference’s theme was ‘Homecoming, Return and Recovery’.

We enjoyed a number of excellent papers, panels, and plenary sessions, as well as the wonderful treat of a concert of eighteenth-century music, played on period-appropriate instruments by Barnaby Ralph (Recorder) and Matthew Nisbet (Theorbo), with Brianna Kirkland-Robertson joining them at the end to sing a beautiful Scots song, ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. Given that Brianna was also one of the conference organisers, this was particularly impressive! We also attended the two conference dinners, and very much enjoyed reconnecting with members of the Eighteenth-Century Studies community.

A woman in a gold dress plays a theorbo, a large lute-like stringed instrument.
John Michael Wright, An English Theorbo Player (1670). From Wikipedia.

Because of the difficulties of getting to Oxford amidst the on-going train strikes, I didn’t manage to make it to the first session of the conference. But Josh had cleverly come down the night before, and went to this session. He writes: My BSECS began with the panel ‘Displacement, Commerce and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England’. Using the diaries of four ‘middling men’, Tyler Rainford discussed compulsory drinking practices and social anxiety in the early eighteenth century. Roseanna Kettle analysed the poetry of William Roscoe and Edward Rushton to explore themes of dehumanisation and displacement in late-Georgian Liverpool. Both papers spoke to the fears and concerns so often found in eighteenth-century records and the desire of many to achieve ‘independence’ from either economic burdens, social expectations or the forces of trans-imperial trade.

The first panel I attended was in the afternoon of the first day, on ‘New Approaches to Book History’, where four scholars considered different parts of the communications circuit. Hazel Wilkinson discussed the importance of printers’ ornaments, Sam Bailey considered the reading of erotic books in coffee house libraries, Helen Williams talked about the fascinating work done by the women of the Southey household in pioneering artisanal bookbinding of the so-called ‘Cottonian’ books in Southey’s library, while Adam James Smith drew our attention to the work of the radical printer Joseph Gale in Sheffield. The Annual General Meeting followed, and then we congregated at a reception sponsored by Wiley-Blackwell, followed by a convivial dinner where the conversation ranged extremely widely.

On Thursday 5 January, the first session I attended was the excellent panel on Politics and Representation in which Josh was giving his paper, alongside Alex Mortimore and Ioannes Chountis, the former speaking on the political representation of bürger in Johann von Goethe’s explicitly political play Die Aufgeregten, and the latter on the relationships between the political influence of nabobs (representatives of the East India Company), Roman History, and Edmund Burke’s Indian speeches.

Caricature of Nabobs, unknown author, 1811. From Wikipedia.

Josh gave a wonderful account of how politics, patronage and control worked in the two libraries on which his PhD thesis focuses – the Bristol Subscription Library and the Leighton Library – and argued that subscription libraries were inherently political associations. He suggested that members accrued social and cultural capital from their administration of the library, and that taking part in the libraries’ management processes was a political education in itself, which later stood many members in good stead when they entered into wider worlds of business and politics. This was a noticeably coherent panel, with all three papers asking us, in different ways, to think about the nature of the political subject in our period. A lively question and answer session demonstrated the audience’s interest in the topics raised.

I had hoped to be able to go to the panel on recovering subscription library records in North America and the British Isles given by our friends at Liverpool, but was chairing a different panel at the same time. Luckily Josh was able to go. He writes: Another digital humanities project swiftly nearing its conclusion, but one with which we are certainly familiar, is the Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic project. Their panel at BSECS, ‘Recovering Subscription Library Records in North America and the British Isles’, drew a large crowd and was standing room only. Mark Towsey introduced the project and provided a sneak peak as to the look of the final database. Sophie Jones recovered the habits of rural American readers in Pennsylvania and the varying social and familial networks which supported and donated books to libraries there. Lucy Moynihan, speaking about the Liverpool Athenaeum and literary societies in the Caribbean, re-imagined Robert Darnton’s communications circuit to include enslaved and marginalised participants in the life cycle of the book. Finally, Rita Dashwood examined female readers and the reading of conduct books at the Bristol Library Society, discovering that although conduct books were few in number, those that were present in the library were enjoyed by readers of both sexes. Together, the papers raised important questions about libraries and reading in the eighteenth-century that we’re also pondering in the Books and Borrowing project: what were the social and civic networks which underpinned these libraries, who are the voices still excluded from a library’s borrowing or administrative records and what role did female readers, authors and works of European literature play within these bibliographical networks?

While Josh was enjoying these fruitful papers, I chaired a panel entitled Romanticism and Homecoming, in which Hannah Moss spoke about Radcliffe’s novels as ‘whole works of art’, arguing that Radcliffe was radically experimenting with the form of the novel, and discussing the incidents in Radcliffe’s novels and travel writing where she is most obviously influenced by visual art and music, as well as pointing out the ways in which Radcliffe’s poetry is integral to the novels in ways that we don’t always appreciate. Jo Yates then spoke eloquently on the poetry of the often under-rated Mary Leapor, introducing the audience to some of Leapor’s lesser-known poems, and arguing that Leapor was a writer who deliberately subverted neo-Classical forms to allow her to present a new form of feminine interiority.

Judith Hawley gave the plenary lecture, entitled ‘At Home with Alexander Pope’, in which she discussed Pope’s villa at Twickenham, the on-going work on the restoration of Pope’s grotto there, and the ways in which the location of the villa was influential in Pope’s relations with the other members of the Scriblerian Club, as well as much more. It was a lively, entertaining and erudite lecture.

One of the pictures Judith showed – A Plan of Pope’s Grotto, by Samuel Lewis, 1785. From the website of the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust, https://popesgrotto.org.uk/ .

Josh then enjoyed going to the panel of The Eighteenth-Century Political Participation and Electoral Culture (ECPPEC) project, who, he writes, provided an update as to their progress in the digitisation and analysis of electoral poll book data for elections in eighteenth-century England. Their panel, chaired by the project’s principial investigator Matthew Grenby and with papers from James Harris, Kendra Packham, Hillary Burlock and Elaine Chalus, all ably brought to life the vibrancy and culture of electoral politics in this period and we can look forward to the release of the project website and database later in the year.

I attended a fascinating panel on Cooking and Recipes, which featured Judith Bailey Slagle speaking on Christmas in Eighteenth-Century British Literature, Susan Helen Reynolds on the Czech cookery-book writer Magdalena Dobromila Rettingová and her role in the Czech National Revival, and Rachel Feldberg on eighteenth-century manuscript collections of recipes and their relationship to epistemology.

The plenary round table, on the theme of ‘Migration’ was attended by Josh, who writes that this year’s special plenary round table discussed the theme of migration in the eighteenth century and the twenty-first, with talks by Alison Cotti-Lowell, Ryan Hanley and Murray Pittock, chaired by Matthew McCormack. Each panellist discussed differing conceptions of migration in the eighteenth-century and its prominence as a global issue today, before the floor was opened up to allow for a lively discussion and conversation amongst the audience. This was followed by the aforementioned concert, and then the annual conference dinner, which was again joyfully convivial.

Josh was lucky enough to meet the St Hugh’s college cat, pictured here.

My own panel took place at 9am the next morning (I was glad I had refused pressing invitations to join other delegates in the Rose and Crown pub the night before – apparently many were there until closing time). Yael Shapira, Jennie Batchelor and I all spoke on the theme of Recovering Women Readers. I spoke first, highlighting some of the research findings relating to women readers and women writers that have featured on the pages of this blog over the past two years, and arguing that borrowers’ registers are a largely untapped, but hugely useful source, for recovering the history of women readers and writers. Jennie then discussed the Lady’s Magazine, pointing out its huge reach, ubiquity and popularity in the period, and suggesting that paying more attention to both the form and the contents of the magazine allows us to understand the role of women in the print culture of the period in more subtle, nuanced and helpful ways.

Banner from Jennie’s The Lady’s Magazine project webpage, available at https://research.kent.ac.uk/the-ladys-magazine/

Yael then argued for the importance and value of Minerva Press novels and novelists, and presented a brilliant discussion of the ways in which careful attention to these novels might allow us to come to a different understanding of women’s engagement with novel reading and writing in the period. We were lucky to have plenty of time for the Q&A, which was lively, good-tempered, and full of valuable insights from the audience and my fellow panellists.

In the final panel session of the conference, I attended a panel on ‘Reading in Historic Spaces’, in which Abigail Williams talked about the reading practices of a family of yeoman farmers in the Lake District, the Brownes of Troutbeck, and showed us some wonderful examples of readerly engagement with the parts of books we might too often ignore, such as their indices and errata pages. Amy Solomons gave a very interesting paper on uncovering the book collection of the seventeenth-century Swiss-born Sabine Winn at the National Trust’s Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, and finally Jemima Hubberstey talked us through the coterie reading of a group of friends based at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire.

The closing round table featured three early-career scholars, who reflected on their experience at, and the themes of, the conference.

It was an inspiring, welcoming and fun conference, and I’d like to thank the whole BSECS committee, and in particular the conference organiser, Brianna Kirkland-Robertson, for their tireless work on behalf of the Eighteenth-Century Studies community.