This semester has been quite a whirlwind, but it was great to commence the end of year conference season with a visit to Canberra for the 2019 Romantic Studies Association of Australasia Conference at UNSW’s Canberra campus, from 20-23 November.
The programme was diverse but cohesive, and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to bring my work on twentieth century Britain into dialogue with the longer intellectual history of Romanticism. I filled my notebook very quickly (always a mark of a good conference!) and have been following up many of the kind recommendations and ideas of fellow researchers since my return.
My paper was entitled “Walking, grief and national heritage in British domestic travel writing, c.1930-1990” and focused on the construction of a body-mind-place canon through writerly re-enactments of J.B. Priestley’s English Journey:
This paper argues that British domestic travel writing during the twentieth century, particularly from 1930 to 1990, can be interpreted as a subgenre of neo-romantic writing, centred around mystical representations of place, antipathy to modernism and to processes of historical change. Such literature developed with reference to self-referential canon, from Cobbett to Priestley to Nairn, and framed its affective, mournful and grief-laden language as representative of both subjective and objective reality. By reading historic landscape forms as containers of meaning which had been disrupted, breached and violated through the imposition of new forms such as modernist architecture, postwar urban design, the expansion of motorways, and the adoption of new agricultural methods, this genre used narratives of personal journeys through rural and urban space to map a wider trajectory of national and imperial decline from an idealised past. Domestic travel writing therefore provided a framework for locating political anxieties about processes of change, understood as a loss of historical continuity, within embodied and emplaced authorities. By locating this literature within its wider historical contexts, the paper argues that these literatures contributed to wider culturally conservative narratives of bodily exclusion, fixed and absolute meanings of place, and a vitalist orientation towards the binding connections of ‘blood’ and ‘soil’, articulated through narratives of walking across the British landscape. The paper concludes by considering continuities between these literatures and other vitalist embodied narratives of connection to landscape in British political rhetoric.
My attendance at this conference was generously facilitated by a Sessional Researcher Support Grant from the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, where I was a sessional teacher in the third year urban cultural studies unit City Cultures this semester. This is a really wonderful grant programme which makes a significant difference to early career researchers, and I hope to see other schools and departments adopt similar programmes to support their sessional staff in developing their research profiles.