Saturday, 16 July 2016

Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil, event Review

Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil
24-27 June, University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield recently hosted an international conference to commemorate the bicentenary of the infamous summer of 1816, where a small circle of radical intellectuals (Mary Godwin, P.B. Shelley, Lord Byron, his no.1 fangirl Claire Claremont and John Polidori) came together at the Villa Diodati to exchange ghost stories on a dark and stormy night. We all know the stories: nightmares, orgies, Shelley flying from the room in a fit of panic after hallucinating about nipples with eyes. Of course, we don’t know if any or all of them are true, but it’s certainly fun to speculate. And speculate we did (with rigorous research to back us up, of course).

Organised by the dream team that is Angela Wright and Madeleine Callaghan, ‘Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil’ attracted a plethora of papers on all aspects of 1816, not just the feats of the Diodati party. Although it was an aptly Shelley and Byron-centric event, I managed to slip under the radar with my paper on John Keats and our own Adam James Smith presented on James Montgomery. In addition, there were several papers on Jane Austen; so all in all, there was a diverse mix of topics to appeal to Romanticists, Gothicists and eighteenth/nineteenth century specialists alike. 

On the Friday, our keynote speakers (Michael O’Neill, Jane Stabler and Jerrold Hogle) lead a series of masterclasses on the Diodati circle for postgraduates and early career researchers. Highlights include having a go at deciphering Byron’s pesky punctuation in his manuscripts, re-examining the Gothic-Romantic relationship and discussing the Scope-Davies notebook.

The conference began in full swing the following day and we (Sheffield Gothic) tried our best to live tweet across the parallel panels, fuelled by excellent cake courtesy of our conference caterers. Saturday concluded with Michael O’Neill’s plenary lecture that examined the ways in which Byron and the Shelleys influenced each other in 1816-17. Afterwards, delegates headed over to 99 Mary Street for conference dinner and drinks. This was followed by another full day of papers on Sunday, rounded off with Jane Stabler’s poignant plenary lecture on Mary Shelley’s transcriptions of Byron’s poems. After Stabler’s keynote, the winners of the ‘Creativity and Turmoil’ ghost story competition were announced. Delegates were then given some free time to explore the city before the final day of the conference.

After the last panel on Monday morning, Jerrold Hogle delivered his closing plenary lecture on the ‘Gothic Image’ as manifested in the ‘hideous progenies’ produced from the Diodati gathering in 1816. Jerrold’s lecture crystallised a recurring theme of this conference: the fraught yet undeniably interwoven relationship between Gothic and Romantic literature, which the Diodati party were instrumental in shaping.

Finally the remaining delegates set out on a conference excursion to Castleton to see the ancient ‘Devil’s Arse’ Peak Cavern that Byron had ventured into during his youth. The tour guide pointed out Byron’s graffiti inside the cave, though some of us doubted its authenticity. Delegates had the opportunity to glimpse the Peak District countryside and take in the sights before heading back into Sheffield for the end of the conference.

The overall atmosphere of ‘Summer of 1816’ e was one of excitement and encouragement. The high calibre of papers provoked stimulating discussions and it was a fantastic opportunity for global scholars to come together and share their enthusiasm for the extraordinary Gothic encounter of 1816. It was great to see so many familiar faces from Radcliffe 250 and I think we can all agree that, in light of recent political turmoil, this conference could not have happened at a better time. 

Carly Stevenson is a perpetually caffeinated PhD student in the School of English at Sheffield, researching Gothic Keats.

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