by Julia Coole (Keele University)
Placing the Author could not have been hosted in a more appropriate venue. The recently reopened house in 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester, which had previously been the home of Elizabeth Gaskell, provided a stimulating backdrop for discussions on literary tourism, and the significance of author’s houses. The pleasing location was topped only by the dedication, knowledge, and professionalism of the venue’s staff and volunteers, as well as the wonderful treats on offer in the house’s brand new tea room.
The suitability of the venue was not lost on Helen Rees Leahy (who acts as Curatorial Adviser for the house), who set the pace for the conference with an entertaining and insightful opening keynote on the changing importance of Elizabeth Gaskell’s home throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of particular interest was Rees Leahy’s analysis of the different ways in which Gaskell has been “placed” in 84 Plymouth Grove, from Gaskell’s own “self-placement” at the core of the home in her lifetime, to the placement of her literary and personal legacy in the house by her daughters, Julia and Meta, and ending with the reconstructive and restorative efforts of those involved with house in the present day.
After much internal debate, I opted for Panel B of the morning talks, entitled “Encounters Past and Present,” and was not disappointed. Charlotte May (Nottingham University) kicked off with a lively paper on Samuel Rogers; his position as an eighteenth century literary tourist; and lasting legacy as a tourist destination. May argued that Rogers’ acquisition of important contemporary works of art (which May termed a “cultural monopoly”), as well as his hosting of exclusive literary breakfasts, cemented his position as an important contemporary cultural figure, whilst justifying the extent to which his home remains a literary tourist destination. Dr Christopher Donaldson (University of Birmingham) followed this with a detailed account of Harriet Martineau’s influence on the nineteenth century Lake District through her important work the Complete Guide to the English Lakes (1855), and its effect on both the popularity of the Lake District as Victorian tourist destination, and Martineau’s place in the contemporary literary marketplace.
The afternoon talks were just as strong. Highlights include a stimulating and original paper by Kimberley Braxton (Keele University), whose discussion of the acquisition of Brontë relics following their deaths, and the significance of the Victorian obsession with death on the psychology of owning and collecting was truly fascinating. Similarly, Amber Regis (University of Sheffield) honed in on the Brontë legacy through her insightful paper on Gaskell’s portrayal of Howarth parsonage in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), and demonstrated how Gaskell’s combination of realism and fantasy in this work, complicates ideas of the domestic space and disturbs established trends in contemporary literary biography.
Sadly, I lack the space here to discuss sufficiently every paper, or even begin to describe the level of organic discussion which was stimulated. I do, however, have room to warmly thank and congratulate the organisers, who worked hard to ensure a seamless, productive day, and one which continues to provoke interesting and important conversations.