Victorians in Cambridge
Yesterday I gave my "Pompeii for Victorians" lecture to the big Victorian conference in Cambridge: the joint meeting of the British Association for Victorian Studies and the North American Victorian Studies Association. I thought it went OK, though it was five minutes too long (55 minutes is somehow always better than 60). The truth was I had dug up huge amounts of material and had to much to say.
I came away thinking that there was a great book to be written about Victorian Pompeii, even if not necessarily by me. I started with the re-enactments of Roman life staged on the site in 1884 (in aid of the victims of the recent Ischia earthquake, though in truth the whole spectacle made such a loss that the poor victims got nothing).
There were three days of performance -- a staged chariot race, a Roman wedding (that's in the picture) and a funeral, and of course some gladiators in the amphitheatre (with 'Falernian" served from the original bars of the city in genuine fake "antique vases". The British reaction to this was a bit mixed. One of my old friends, Jane Ellen Harrison, was characteristically acerbic: "Some of us,” she wrote in the Magazine of Art, “have perhaps felt that all this, amusing and archaeologically interesting though it is, is just a trifle out of tune. We may study the dead past to our profit, but we need not call it back to life and bid it dance for us.”
Anyway, my point was that the nineteenth-century reaction to Pompeii (like the twenty-first I suspect) was always caught between seeing it as a place of the dead -- and seeing it as a place where the past could come, literally, to life (as in the re-enactments). Earlier in the nineteenth century, there are even weirder stories of idiosyncratic British men actually choosing to "become Roman" for a week or two, living in reconstructed houses in the city.
The conference centre has been good (Churchill college knows how to do this kind of thing -- and have succeeded where many college fail in having enough coffee stations so that you do not need to queue). And I've learned heaps from the papers (from the history of Blue Plaques on British houses to nineteenth-century debates on polychromy on Achaemenid sculpture). Actually it can be much more fun going to a conference a bit off your home territory: the effort/reward ratio on the learning curve is much more advantageous, as it were.
Anyway this afternoon I chaired a lecture by Philip Hensher on the neo-Victorian novel (like his own The Mulberry Empire). This was brilliant I thought -- and a nicely uncomfortable provocation. Hensher has one foot in the academy (he did a PhD in Cambridge and now teaches creative writing at Exeter). But he is enough outside it, that he can prick the academic bubble a bit.
On this occasion, he set the academic hearts a flutter by writing off Edward Said (in a casual aside) as someone whose ideas were "discredited". Now, whatever the problems with Orientalism, I still have quite a bit of time for the Said view. But, hearing the shocked intake of breath at this blasphemy on one of the current theoretical gods, I found myself suddenly lining up on Hensher's side. It was if someone in the nineteenth century had casually observed that Jesus was dead.
The best papers at conferences are always those that get the audience out of their comfort zone and a bit cross. There there was certainly still plenty of chat about this at dinner.