WSG member Miriam al Jamil reports from the recent BSECS conference.
WSG members make an increasingly strong showing at BSECS conferences, both as participants in our own panel and as speakers on others. This year’s conference took place in Oxford 4-6 Jan 2019 and the theme was ‘Islands and Isolation’, which inspired a broad and eclectic range of papers across a range of disciplines. Our panel was titled ‘Fallen Women, Missionary Wives and Castaways: Exploring Women’s Isolation in the Long Eighteenth Century’. It was organised by Carolyn Williams and chaired by Yvonne Noble.
Tabitha Kenlon’s paper was ‘Scold, Punish, Pity or Seduce? The Confused Rhetoric of Advice to Unmarried Women (1791)’. Readers of our book Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837 will be aware of Tabitha’s work on conduct manuals and her paper explored contradictions in an anonymous advice manual of 1791. Description of the process of seduction is combined with moralistic counselling of the young women at risk, characterised as victims who succumb to temptation. The language borders on the salacious as the reader is addressed directly as a fallen woman, her shame a ‘chronicle of male triumph’. The writer exhorts reform but is not convinced that a woman will ever be exonerated for her failure to anticipate the actions of her seducer. Tabitha interpreted ‘isolation’ as the social and moral wilderness into which the fallen woman was propelled.
Trudie Messent presented on a WSG panel for the first time. Her paper was titled ‘Yesterday I left my native land and have now gazed upon it for the last time’: Isolation viewed through the life writing of Missionary wives in the Sandwich Islands and New Zealand, 1819-1832’. Trudie examined both the harsh physical journey and the emotional one which young newly-married wives experienced as they adjusted to life on the other side of the globe. She suggested that the letters and descriptions written by her subjects had a cathartic effect in the absence of social contact that their new lives entailed. Trudie’s paper was accompanied by some beautiful slides, showing routes taken, portraits and scenes which enriched the descriptions and quotations in her paper.
Carolyn Williams’ paper ‘Ladies unus’d to such hardships: Women on Desert Islands in two Eighteenth-century Novels’ began with a witty admonition for the incompetence shown by such desert island dwellers as Ben Gunn and Robinson Crusoe who were unable to recognise the potential resources available to them on their islands, such as the fermenting grapes or sea salt which could be put to good use to supply yeast or enable cheese-making. The delicate languishing ladies in Penelope Aubin’s The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and his Family (1721) were given short shrift in Carolyn’s discussion which highlighted the shortcomings of an upper-class life as preparation for survival on an island. Their practical working-class counterpoint was identified in Charles Dibdin’s Hannah Hewit; or, The Female Crusoe (1792) whose scientific and mechanical facility rendered her desert island sojourn a period of comfort and creative energy.
Other WSG members who gave papers at the conference included Gillian Williamson, Miriam Al Jamil, Brianna Robertson-Kirkland, our bursary winner Madeleine Pelling, and Judith Hawley who contributed her insights at a round table discussion on ‘#MeToo’. I am sure there were other members and friends at the conference. There were many familiar faces. Speakers Olivette Otele and Cynthia Wall mined their academic experience for thoughtful keynote talks, and a delightful concert of eighteenth-century songs by soprano Valeria Mignaco and guitarist Jelma van Amersfoort put us in a convivial mood for the conference dinner. Plans are already underway for next year’s conference which will be ‘Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural’ and we are sure WSG will have a strong presence again in 2020.