BSECS 2017. Final Day Reflections.
Trundle trundle trundle. Trundle trundle trundle. Is there a more melancholy sound in all creation than the noise elicited by a suitcase being dragged across gravel and paving stone on the final day of a British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Conference?
I think not.
The important thing is to keep busy.
The day began with two rather strangely juxtaposed papers – strangely juxtaposed largely because the missing third paper represented in many ways the third term that would have glued them together. We learned about some quite disturbing images of children in prints of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as well as the relationship between Mary Wollstonecraft and the poetry Alexander Pope. The description of Alexander Pope as a “grappler” rather than as an unproblematic sexist may make it easier for me to teach Pope in future. What could be more useful than that?
Following the injection of some coffee I was in a fit state to attend a wonderful session on ghosts on stage. The strategic loyalist implications of Sarah Siddons’ portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a commentary on the recently decapitated Lady Macbeth was presented, along with a paper on Collier’s response to Dryden’s response to Ben Jonson, along with underground French closet drama satirising the legitimating violence of the revolution. The subsequent discussion could have gone on forever but we needed to eat.
In the most isolated corner of the college, in the loneliest panel venue, a few of us heard a wonderful paper about Carl Michael Bellman, Sweden’s Robert Burns, and the sung poetry of love, lust, death and disaster. We were even privileged to hear one of his verses about a disreputable part of Stockholm burning down, being sung out loud in Swedish. I am determined to one day find myself in Stockholm on Bellman’s birthday and enjoy what I’m sure will be one of the best nights out anyone could ever have.
Finally, we became a plenary again, and discussed, the conference theme of friendship and enmity and alliance building. This was enjoyable enough, especially as we had (as we’ve had for the past few years), fizz to wash it down.
Something we didn’t have a chance to discuss though, was quite how much death we’ve had this year. I don’t mean that lots of people died at the conference (none did!) or even that lots of wonderful people have died since the previous conference (true), but rather than the conference discussed death quite a bit. Our discussions were full of bereavement and dismemberment and decomposition and dissection. I thought maybe my own somewhat morbid route through the conference might be to blame, but chatting to someone on the westward train out of Oxford, I concluded that my perception was not eccentric. It’s as though our collective discussion of eighteenth-century friendship requires the poignant sharpening provided by proximate mortality to make the improvised affinities between us all the more cherishable.
Sombre thoughts, rendered even more sombre by the grim, inevitable, and annual reflection that I must now endure 362 consecutive days of not being at a BSECS conference.