Tuesday, 6 December 2011

David Amigoni's visit to the University of Regensburg

Last week I attended the excellent international conference ‘The Cultural Politics of Ageing in the Nineteenth Century’ at the University of Regensburg, Germany (24-26 November), organised by Prof. Anne-Julia Zwierlein and Dr Katharina Boehm (Department of English and American Studies), and funded by the DFG. While my involvement in ‘Ages and Stages’ has been one of the most exciting and satisfying things that I’ve experienced in my research life of the last two years, for others there seemed to be a nagging question of my fit. Conversations would go like this: ‘so, you’re a professor of Victorian literature? so what are you doing working on a project about the representation of ageing in twentieth-century theatre?’ I suppose this has conditioned me to begin talking about my involvement by saying things such as ‘well, I’m a Victorian literature expert, BUT …’  In fact, and jokes aside, a significant portion of the Vic’s documentary output, on which our project largely focuses, was rooted in the nineteenth-century history of the Potteries community; thus, having a knowledge of the nineteenth century has always seemed to me to be a help, rather than lumber I have to clear away before I can get down to business. This conference was, consequently, an excellent opportunity for me to test out the thesis that so much of what we understand, today, about the meaning of age and provision for older persons, has its origins in the nineteenth-century representations, and a history of urban expansion, which concentrated older people, making them visible to representation as never before; and which also drove the need for institutional solutions, such as workhouses (post-1834), almshouses, and (after 1908) pensions.

 This is, in fact, the thesis of Karen Chase’s ground breaking interdisciplinary work on The Victorians and Old Age (Oxford University Press, 2009), which examines across the century and in detail the interaction between social and cultural history, and strategies of representation employed by nineteenth century novelists and social investigators. Karen Chase (University of Virginia) was a speaker at the conference, showing us how she was extending her important work in this field by exploring representations of later life sexuality (as opposed to sensuality), through a beautifully nuanced reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (which is likely to become the canonical of text of a Victorian literature of ageing).  Teresa Mangum (University of Iowa) is another leading Victorianist who has made important critical interventions on the representation of age over the years: her paper , on age and the cultural phenomenon of the late nineteenth-century ‘New Woman’ illustrated two trends: first, an intergenerational emphasis on the representations of gendered ageing embedded in wish-fulfilment narratives about ‘elixirs’ of permanent youth. Indeed, intergenerational representations of ageing, and successful ageing, were prevalent in unexpected places (as revealed in Jochen Petzold’s [Regensburg] paper on The Girl’s Own Paper of the 1880s). Secondly, Teresa Mangum’s paper illustrated an increasing interest in recovering a late Victorian ‘science’ of ageing that was emerging from discussions of heredity, evolution and cellular science. Anne-Julia Zwierlein’s paper on ageing and the science of vitalism was another illustration of this trend, while Lynn Botelho’s (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) paper addressed the way in which a nascent, if non-professional, medical gerontology can be traced to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Another scholar of the early modern period who was present at the gathering was Gordon McMullan (King’s College, London). Gordon presented his work on Shakespeare and the idea of ‘late style’, illustrating the way in which nineteenth-century constructions of an ‘ageing’ Shakespeare can shape (and misshape) assumptions about late life creativity. This is one of the topics that Gordon and I will return to in our AHRC-funded research network on late life creativity, which will launch at Keele in March 2012, and continue at King’s in May (watch this space for details of the supporting website). For my part, I was able to present a paper on the representation of ageing in Arnold Bennett’s post-Victorian The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), and its adaptation by Joyce and Peter Cheeseman for the Vic Theatre in 1971, richly illustrated from the Peter Cheeseman Archive. For me, this was a new, and localised, take on the idea of ‘neo-Victorian fiction’, and further evidence of the fact that nineteenth-century discourses on ageing figure as afterlives in our own lives.

With all of this going on, the conference organisers still generously and hospitably enabled us to experience something of the beautiful medieval city of Regensburg, a World Heritage site since 2006. The Christmas Market, experienced on a cold and dark Saturday evening, illuminated by real fires, more spit-roasting pork than you could conceive, and Christmas lights, was a special experience; as was the Sunday-morning guided tour of the Old Town before boarding the planes for home.  

David Amigoni

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