by Siobhan Smith
Last week I had the pleasure of attending the “Vernon Lee, Aesthetics and Empathy” conference at Churchill College, Cambridge. As a new graduate this was a daunting prospect, but I harbour lofty aspirations to continue onto PhD study and so decided to seize the opportunity. I didn’t regret it!
As it was an interdisciplinary conference, the discussions were incredibly varied and I found myself unexpectedly learning about serpentine curves, the effect of music on aesthetic experience and World War One propaganda. Not only did these insights broaden my wider knowledge, they also helped develop a more holistic and comprehensive appreciation of Vernon Lee. I was expecting to learn new things but some of the discoveries still took me by surprise. For instance, I didn’t know that Lee also wrote a book for children, The Prince of the Hundred Soups (1883), which I now plan to use to complement the module on Classic Children’s Literature that I am taking this trimester.
I won’t lie, there were several moments in several papers when I was completely clueless, and I panicked. However, the feeling of imposter syndrome didn’t have the chance to linger for long because I quickly found myself caught up in the next conversation and was busy scribbling down ideas for my own research. Similarly, I was initially embarrassed in having to confess that; “No, I haven’t read that one” a lot but was relieved and reassured to hear the same reply to my questions about books that I’d read. It turns out that one of the joys of nineteenth-century literature is its abundance of obscure or lesser-known authors and texts.
I had expected to meet brilliantly impressive academics and was not disappointed – Professors from Cambridge and New York, and Assistant Professors from Venice and Germany were just the start. But I was also incredibly impressed by scholars currently outside of the academy. I had the privilege of meeting Eda Caglar who studied English Literature at Blacksea Technical University in Turkey. As part of the Erasmus student exchange programme, she spent the second year of her degree at the University of Chichester, where she was introduced to Lee. In June 2022, Eda produced the first ever Turkish translation of one of Lee’s stories – Amour Dure – and hopes to publish it along with more translations of her Haunting Collection.
I also met Scarlette-Electra LeBlanc, who completed her English degree at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, her Master of Letters at St Andrews and is currently considering PhD options. Scarlette’s undergraduate dissertation looked at Changelings in Victorian Literature whilst her postgraduate dissertation focussed on Fallen Women and Motherhood. Scarlette and I immediately bonded over a shared interest in gothic literature and proceeded to discuss ideas, plans and book recommendations. Scarlette proved to be a font of knowledge and signposted me to the online seminar series ran by the Gothic Women Project. I felt a real sense of camaraderie in our discussions – if this was an insight into how female academics support and encourage each other then sign me up! The most unexpected person I met was Mary F. Burns, a historical fiction novelist from San Francisco. Mary was inspiring, not only because of her successful career, enthusiasm and warm affability, but also because of the impressive way in which she developed on Lee’s study of writing style and used punctuation to analyse the reader/writer relationship. In my follow up e-mail discussion with Mary, she talked about the “formidable walls of academia” which perfectly captured my own fears as a new graduate attempting to join the world of academia. Mary said:
“Although I have graduate degrees in literature and taught for a while, my main career has been in corporate communications. In the last two decades, I have pursued a long-held dream to write fiction, and now have nearly a dozen novels of historical and literary fiction published. But my university years, and memories of late-night conversations, always had me yearning to find that level of intellectual and collegial interaction that comes with having access to people who are passionate about reading, writing, talking and learning about themselves, ideas, and other people. So, armed with some knowledge of Vernon Lee (whom I made a major character in my novels), I ventured to breach the formidable walls of academia and come to the conference held in Cambridge—and I found there to be no walls or barriers to my entry at all, though I was only an “independent scholar” without credentials or affiliation! The people gathered at Churchill College were warm and welcoming, funny and kind, erudite and amazing in their reach and range of ideas and theories, their willingness to really listen and think about what everyone was saying, and their thoughtful support and encouragement to each other in trying out new ideas and directions. I found myself thinking, These are my people, at last!”
Mary, Scarlette and Eda were an integral part of making my conference experience a positive one and so this is partly to thank them and partly to highlight that the real benefit of attending a conference is the incredible people that you will meet. I highly recommend any new graduate to ‘be brave’ and attend a conference, yes you will probably feel inspired and intimidated in equal measure, but when it’s finished the overriding feeling is one of being energised and you will be inspired to do more.
Siobhan Smith has recently graduated from Teesside University with a First-Class Honours Degree in English Studies. She received the Professor Leni Oglesby Prize for Achievement and the Book Corner Prize for Best Performance. She has just started an MA in English Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University and is interested in cross-dressing within nineteenth-century literature, decadence and the New Woman.