Placing the Author: Reflections Part I

By Emily Bowles, University of York
Elizabeth Gaskell’s House Exterior Credit: Jill Jennings

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House Exterior Copyright: Jill Jennings

Placing the Author: Literary Tourism in the Long Nineteenth Century took place on 20 June 2015 in the wonderfully appropriate venue of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester, a site that has been beautifully restored and was newly opened to the public at the end of 2014. The conference welcomed attendees from around the world, from undergraduates and postgraduates to senior academics and those working in the heritage sector. Throughout the day, the house itself formed the basis of discussions about what is important when it comes to literary tourism and how houses should be preserved and presented, providing a unique backdrop to the event.

The conference opened with Professor Helen Rees Leahy (University of Manchester) exploring authenticity and imagination at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, giving attendees the opportunity to consider the conference setting against the themes that recurred throughout the day: questions of gender and authenticity; how the interior life of the writer and the nature of the ‘tourist’ site are key to our interpretation of literary places; and the process by which certain houses become sites of literary pilgrimage. These themes were explored further during the morning’s parallel panels, the first exploring tourism networks in Italy and the second the ways in which authors and, later, their families, shaped their own legacies.

Following lunch in the Elizabeth Gaskell House tearoom and the chance to discover the exhibitions and objects of the house, ‘The Brontës at home’ panel saw four papers examining different aspects of the Brontës’ legacy, from relics in Kimberley Braxton’s (Keele University) paper on the cultural, economical and spiritual power of the Brontë relics to Dr Amber Regis’s (University of Sheffield) exploration of the ‘fantasied’ parsonage in Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. The facilitating of discussions and networking between senior academics, postgraduates and even the undergraduate conference assistants was one of this event’s key strengths, as postgraduate presenters were able to share their ideas and research with a diverse and engaged group of scholars and practitioners to gain a new perspective. The setting also encouraged new researchers to think about how their work connects to the heritage and museum sector, and opened up the possibility for future collaborations.

The tearoom at Elizabeth Gaskell's House

The tearoom at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

The final set of parallel panels widened the thematic debates to include not only tourism relating to Victorian authors, but also nineteenth-century visits to Shakespeare’s house and visits to Victorian sites today in a panel on ‘(Re-)visiting the past’.  In ‘The Business of Literary Tourism’ the discussion centred on the creation, classification and maintenance of sites, from Dr Gillian Hughes’s (Visiting Scholar, University of Edinburgh) paper on the problem of locating James Hogg as a working-class author to Associate Professor Sue Carson’s (Queensland University of Technology) examination of the problems facing Coleridge’s Lime Street cottage. The day ended with an inspiring keynote from Professor Nicola J. Watson (Open University) on ways of animating the author, focused in part on objects and displays in Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Once again, the venue formed a key part of discussions about the nature of literary tourism and attendees were encouraged to apply their research in a practical way.

Just as the process of literary tourism starts before the reader visits the literary site, the Placing the Author project had been growing and developing before the conference opened on 20 June. The organisers, Dr Amber Pouliot (Bishop Grosseteste University), Dr Claire Wood (University of York), and Joanna Taylor (Keele University) had set up ‘The Postcard Project’ to find out more about literary tourism practices today. During each conference break, attendees were encouraged to discuss different topics and interact with the postcard map, adding questions about approaches to literary pilgrimage based on the responses to the project. This formed the starting point for a closing discussion over wine about the kinds of things that still draw us to tourist sites and the future of the industry. The Postcard Project is ongoing, and will continue to show the fascinating trends emerging in the way literary tourism is thought about today.

The Placing the Author conference is hopefully the start of an exciting conversation about literary tourism that includes figures like Gaskell, the Brontës and Dickens, but also lesser-known figures and sites. I would like to thank the organisers for putting together such an inspiring day, and moulding the traditional conference format in a way that brought together undergraduates, postgraduates, senior academic staff, the museum and heritage sector and others, for engaging and open discussions about the future of literary tourism.

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