Dickens Day 2019: Dickens and Bodies, by Shani Cadwallender (MA Victorian Studies).
Saturday 19th October 2019 marked my introduction to Dickens Day, and it proved quite the meet-cute. The conference is now in its thirty-third year, which means that it has existed two years longer than I have; unlike me, though, it shows no signs of declining energy. Run jointly by Birkbeck, Cardiff University, the Dickens Fellowship and the Institute of English Studies, this year’s event took place at a new location — the Mary Ward House Conference Centre — and the theme was ‘Dickens and Bodies’. This theme happens to align so closely with my creepy academic preoccupations that it had been in my diary for several months before registration was possible, but its appeal was by no means limited to over-eager postgraduate students and the friends they dragged out of bed for a Saturday of lectures. The amassed expertise, diverse interpretation of theme, range of presentational styles and array of break-time biscuits were enough to attract a large audience, and the day was warmly introduced by Bethan Carney, Holly Furneaux, Lucy Whitehead and Ben Winyard, all of whom made so many body-related puns in the space of five minutes that I felt immediately at home.
During the conference, panel discussions were alternated with charming readings from Dickens organised by Tony Williams, who was joined by Thelma Grove and Michael Slater. The morning’s plenary panel, featuring Emma Curry, Michael Slater and Clare Walker Gore, proved a varied introduction to the topic, with a focus on misbehaving bodies, including hiccups, both literal and metaphorical, and the symbolic significance of the wooden leg. I particularly enjoyed Clare Walker Gore’s fascinating exploration of disability and narrative significance in the minor characters of Our Mutual Friend.
In the rest of the day, parallel panel discussions took place, and the two I attended, entitled ‘Medical and scientific bodies’ and ‘Body language and orality’ did not disappoint. Indeed, my only regret was that I was unable to be in two places at once. With that suitably bodily caveat, particular highlights for me included what chair Simon James called the ‘thrillingly interdisciplinary’ paper on ‘Dickens’s Emotional Bodies’ by Helen Goodman, the engrossing exploration of feline females in Colette Ramuz’s paper on the ‘Sexuality and Semiotics of the Feline Mouth in Dickens’, and Michaela Mahlberg and Viola Wiegand’s presentation on patterns of body language in Dickens, or to my somewhat Luddite brain, How Computers Can Help Us With Literature.
To conclude the conference, William Cohen gave a masterful presentation on Dickens’ ‘Disembodied Voices’, which provoked much discussion about Dickens’ own body as we considered how his public readings might have affected the style of his prose. This proved a fitting conclusion, and a nice link back to the earlier embodiments of the readers; as if I needed it, here was another piece of evidence that this event is a thoughtfully orchestrated labour of love. Here’s to another thirty-three years.