Cross-colonial encounters and expressions of power in middlebrow literature and culture, 1890-1940
University of Reading, 8-10 September 2016
Professor Christoph Ehland, University of Paderborn, and Dr Kate Macdonald, University of Reading
Middlebrow studies are now well established as a literary-historical critical mode by which we can investigate the overlapping research areas of literature in the late Victorian age and the early twentieth century, studying such issues as the role of the publisher, streams of cultural production emerging in parallel to Modernism, reading taste, cultural dissemination, the creation of the canon, the notion of the literary gatekeeper, twentieth-century fashions in criticism, and the feminist importance of middlebrow writing. After Nicola Humble’s seminal study of the feminine middlebrow novel (2001), recent collections of essays have shown how middlebrow authors, publishers, readers and texts established a strong cultural presence (Brown and Grover, eds, 2012), developed a masculine mode of reading (Macdonald, ed., 2011), demonstrated a mediatory function between British literary cultures (Macdonald and Singer, eds, 2015), and supported the testing of gender restrictions (Ehland and Waechter, eds, 2016).
The most recent international interdisciplinary conferences on middlebrow have extended its study outside anglophone literature (European Middlebrow, January 2013, Brussels), beyond gender normativity (Inventing the Middlebrow, St Paul, Minnesota, June 2014), and beyond cultural hierarchies (Cultural Hierarchies and Middlebrow Practices, Amsterdam, January 2016). These are indicators of the strength of the discipline, since in its maturity it is extending and testing its borders, and reassessing how the middlebrow corpus grew under different cultural influences. Middlebrow is no longer solely anglophone, and needs to be reconsidered as a product of international readerly desires and needs, as well as the project of the author.
Middlebrow writing engaged with the realities and fictions of colonial life in a multitude of ways, and middlebrow writers catered for a readership eager to learn about and imagine the Empire. In particular, feminist enquiries into the Anglo-Indian novel (Moore-Gilbert 1996, Kapila 2010, Roye and Mittapalli 2013) have helped to highlight its role for the dissemination of imperial ideology. Their research has revealed not only the large amount of often almost forgotten material available for the study of middlebrow writing on the empire but also the subtle fault-lines that this engagement often exhibits.
Particular attention must be paid to the relationship that exists between middlebrow texts and the modernist rendering of the colonial theme. Symptomatically, the two most famous anti-colonial novels on British India, E M Forster’s A Passage to India and George Orwell’s Burmese Days, are rarely seen by critics in the wider context of popular writing, though both mimic and satirise the well-established Anglo-Indian romance.
Although it generally holds true that typical middlebrow engagement with the imperial theme aimed to familiarise its readers with colonial life and at the same time serve to naturalise colonial rule, we should note that even Joseph Conrad was initially seen as a proponent of the middlebrow. As this shows, aesthetic categorisation is a shifting affair and despite its generic constraints middlebrow writing sometimes directly and often indirectly maps the inherent fissures in the colonial endeavour and its frequently disconcerting realities.
With regard to such aspects as interracial contact or colonial legitimisation middlebrow writing can be seen as a form of anxiety management which allows unsettling issues to be raised while maintaining at least a superficial impression of narrative stability and security. In line with this development of the discipline we invite scholars working on middlebrow in an Imperial and / or colonial context to submit papers on Imperial Middlebrow texts, authors and readerships.
Call for papers
This conference is organised by the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, in collaboration with Professor Ehland of the University of Paderborn, with the intention of enabling a wide-ranging reappraisal of the position of middlebrow writing on the British Empire in its literary and historical contexts. We invite papers that explore the literary as well as the socio-political role middlebrow writing and its markets and audiences played in the propagation and naturalisation, but also in the critique of the British Empire between 1890 and 1940. We will also be interested in the discussion of the generic proliferation of the imperial discourse in the middlebrow from children’s literature to romance and the adventure novel.
We invite abstracts of no more than 250 words for 20-minute papers. We welcome panel proposals for linked papers, and we welcome abstracts from independent scholars with existing publications on any of the conference topics.
Please send your abstract(s), which should include your institutional affiliation, past or present, and details of any relevant publications or papers given on the conference subject, to Kate Macdonald at email@example.com, by Monday 29 February 2016. All authors will be contacted about their paper’s inclusion in the programme by mid-April, but if you need an earlier decision for funding application purposes, please let us know, with the deadline.
The conference will be held at the Whiteknights campus of the University of Reading. Local accommodation suggestions will be given when conference registration opens. The conference will open at around 16.30 on Thursday 8 September, and end in mid-afternoon on Saturday 10 September. After the opening session there will be a drinks reception and an exhibition at the university’s Museum of Rural Life, from the university library’s Special Collections, of editions of Robinson Crusoe covering the conference period. There will be a conference dinner on Friday 9 September, and the registration fee will include all lunches and teas.