Brontë, Juvenilia, Literature

Reflections on the Sixth International Literary Juvenilia Conference, St. John’s College, Durham

The Sixth International Literary Juvenilia Conference was hosted this year by Durham University and took place in St. John’s College from 5-8th July 2018. These are my thoughts on its organisation, structure, success, and my experience of being an independent scholar in the midst of experienced critics in the field of juvenilia studies. To protect and respect people’s privacy, I won’t reveal the names of the attendees and participants, nor the titles of their papers, but I will highlight particularly interesting subject matters. I must stress though that this post is largely an attempt to convey my own personal experience of presenting at a conference for the first time. This post contains my own views and I will be happy to be corrected on any of the issues I have raised or facts I have stated.

Back in January, I was alerted to a call for papers for the event by Brontë scholar Christine Alexander, with whom I had been discussing contributing to a proposed new edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Angrian novelette Caroline Vernon (sadly I don’t think this is possible due to funding issues and my status as an independent scholar but I’ll keep my fingers crossed for somebody willing to take a chance on me or a lottery win!). I submitted an abstract for a paper based on my research on the connection between autobiography and juvenilia and Charlotte Brontë’s engagement with the concept of liminality. The abstract was accepted and I was scheduled to present my paper as part of a Brontë panel chaired by Alexander. Several months went by during which I tweaked and re-tweaked my paper more times than I can count, begged my PhD student friend to read it to make sure it made some kind of sense, and revised it again before finally setting off for Durham on Thursday morning. Durham University of course enjoys a Brontë connection as William Weightman, Patrick Brontë’s charming, handsome, and tragic curate was once a student there. Although the actual qualification received by Weightman is still debated, he graduated from Durham in 1838 before arriving in Haworth the following year. But alas, I digress.

William Weightman
William Weightman

There are so many issues to consider in a post like this, and I have so many reflections from the conference to share. Firstly I would like to discuss the issue of expectation. What expectations do people generally have when they sign up to present a conference paper? What were my own expectations? And what was the reality? I know the main reason people present conference papers is to share their research and to “network” and make useful contacts with others in their field of study. As for my own expectations, I expected to share my research with others in the field and to get people thinking about applying a theoretical framework to the study of juvenilia as this is a strangely neglected area. The problem with juvenilia is that the writings that make up the canon are so diverse that it is hard to pinpoint a specific theory that can apply to the genre as a whole. Some critics can’t even agree on what juvenilia are and whether or not there should be a cut off point regarding the age of the author. However, my paper aimed to demonstrate a snippet of my theory (sorry reader, I won’t divulge much information on this as I’m making it my mission to see some of my research in print this year) by applying it to a  sample of Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia. In order to further develop my ideas I need to examine more of Brontë’s earlier Glass Town texts, and also apply my theory to the works of her brother Branwell, who of course shared characters and settings with his sister in his own juvenilia.

With regards to the delivery of my paper, practice makes perfect, well, not perfect, but it certainly helped to prepare me for the real thing. My advice? Read over your paper as much as you can, both aloud and to yourself. It never hurts to familiarise yourself with your ideas. The audience were attentive and respectful listeners and if I came across as an amateur, that’s because I am. And if you’re lucky enough to get a bit of feedback on your delivery, then embrace it like I did.

Following the delivery of my paper, several other participants told me they had enjoyed it and that it had opened up new ways of thinking about the Brontë juvenilia for them. I was particularly pleased when one speaker told me how pleased she was to listen to a theoretical approach to juvenilia as this kind of approach is still quite rare within the field and should be the way forward. I agree wholeheartedly that more theory is needed, not necessarily to re-classify juvenilia, but perhaps to give the writings some kind of an identity based on content, and to open them up to readers from outside of the academic field who are wary of so-called juvenile writing. The whole point of the juvenilia studies movement is to protect and preserve writings dismissed as immature and unworthy of study, however, in my experience, these writings are not being perused by the wider reading public because people are either unsure of what juvenilia are, or they think they are merely literary curiosities and childish stories unworthy of serious attention. As the conference successfully demonstrated, there is much more to juvenilia than this; there were papers covering topics from teenage poetry, unpublished adult writings of celebrated authors, diaries and journals, and published novels written by children. However, as this conference was attended mainly by experts in the field of juvenilia studies (to whom I owe a great debt), PhD candidates exploring different forms of juvenilia, and myself (an independent scholar with an MA in literature and a love of the Brontë juvenilia), there was nobody new to promote the writings to. I believe a few students attended a few of the talks, but in order for juvenilia studies to move forward, new ideas need to be discovered and promoted. The conference was extremely successful in looking at what has been achieved in the field so far, but there is still so much that can be done.

The contributions from the speakers were outstanding, as you would expect from experts in their respective areas of research, and I will reiterate that I owe them a great debt with regard to paving the way for my own research. However, this was the perfect opportunity to discover new ways of thinking, but it didn’t quite work due to the lack of students and recent graduates such as myself attending. Social media is a powerful tool, and is not just a way of communication for millennials and students, but a way of life. The actual organisation of the conference was fantastic however, in terms of the promotion of the event, social media would have been a powerful and easy way to get the message across to a younger generation. completely. Another thought for future conferences is a panel made up entirely of students and/or independent scholars. This would help to encourage new ideas and the participation of less established speakers who despite their amateur status, know a great deal about their subject area, but may be slightly daunted by the idea of presenting on a panel with published and esteemed critics.

Another aspect that struck me was the international flavour of the conference. Yes, I know, the clue is in the title, but it really was amazing to see people living and working in so many different countries coming together to speak about juvenilia. I had automatically assumed that hosting the event in Durham would attract more British speakers, however, this was not the case. Consequently, this led me to wonder whether the U.K. is falling behind other countries with regard to juvenilia studies. I don’t have an answer for this, but the difficulty in finding somebody willing to supervise a PhD on juvenilia in the U.K (believe me, I’ve tried) suggests we might be. I know it can be done as the other members of the Brontë panel were both PhD students researching aspects of the Brontë juvenilia. However, I also had two PhD applications regarding juvenilia rejected last year despite eventually finding a potential supervisor and have been advised to find another area of study due to the obscurity of juvenilia studies in the U.K. by two different lecturers at my former university. This wasn’t suggested because my ideas weren’t sound, nor because the lecturers were being harsh, but because they wanted to prepare me for the difficulties that lay ahead.

I can’t quibble about the structure of the event. Papers were grouped appropriately to ensure they tied in with one another. I was honoured to be a part of the first-ever all-Brontë panel chaired by Christine Alexander. With regards to the content again, it really was fantastic. Some personal highlights for me were listening to the other speakers from my panel, discussing my contrasting view of Charlotte Brontë’s character Elizabeth Hastings with another speaker, learning more about diaries and journals as juvenilia through talks on Opal Whiteley, a fascinating talk on Hartley Coleridge (friend to Branwell Brontë), the wonderful world of Quaker school magazines, and being introduced to the work of child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett. There were so many more interesting papers, but these were the ones which really grabbed me. I must also highlight Christine Alexander’s wonderful keynote speech on Charlotte Brontë and print culture on Thursday, as well as her session on editing and the Juvenilia Press which was a nice way to round off the conference. However, I was the only person attending who hadn’t already contributed to a Juvenilia Press edition and it would have been nice to have had others in my position in attendance. Launching the newest Juvenilia Press edition on Thursday night (Branwell Brontë’s The Pirate) was also a nice way of kickstarting the conference.

One final aspect I must mention is my status as an independent scholar in the midst of so many respected critics and writers. Although there were other speakers who were technically independent scholars, they were also experts in their fields, published authors, and former teachers and lecturers. There wasn’t anybody else like me; a truly independent scholar, unpublished, unknown, and unattached to any particular institution. I’ll be honest, I found the PhD candidates easier to mingle with, partially because, although in a very different position to myself, we didn’t have the years, and in some cases, decades of history of working, learning, and teaching together as the other attendees did; it’s a hard, and potentially impossible, circle to crack.
Overall though, my first time speaking at a conference was a reasonably positive experience. I can’t thank everyone at St. John’s College enough for their kindness and hospitality. I would also like to thank the conference’s organiser, and also the other speakers who so kindly shared their research and expertise over the course of the conference.


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9 thoughts on “Reflections on the Sixth International Literary Juvenilia Conference, St. John’s College, Durham”

  1. What a wonderful conference report Nicola, and so glad that you found your first conference insightful and not intimidating. It’s always a challenge to step into that territory when not formally attached to an institution (fingers crossed for the Phd). Just a thought on building a community via social media: we did do quite a lot of tweeting and Facebook posting via READ in the run-up, but noticed that there didn’t seem to be a common hashtag to build a community around (a contrast with libraries and archives for instance which have all sorts of specialised ‘agreed’ terms). Perhaps that’s something to get started? #LiteraryJuvenilia or similar? The campaign starts here!

    Liked by 1 person

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