27th-29th June Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Lois Thomas
In June this year, with the support of a postgraduate travel bursary, I packed my bags and merrily boarded a well-known budget airline flight for Trapani, Sicily to attend the inaugural conference of the Universities of Ghent and Catania. The subject was ‘Victorian Orientalism(s)’ and presented an opportunity for me to finally commit to paper my thoughts about the persistence of oriental imagery in the accounts of transgressive and revelatory experience that form the basis of my PhD thesis.
Arriving on the west coast of the island, the first challenge was to negotiate Sicily’s bus service to travel across to the tiny, perfect baroque town of Ragusa Ibla in the South East. This turned out to be no great hardship. Cruising along through the Sicilian countryside accompanied by wonderful views, good tunes and air conditioning, I was able to take in the cities of Palermo and Catania en route to the conference venue. A new favourite food was discovered (arancini – stuffed rice balls – immense) along with a new ‘best drink in the world’ (peach iced tea with peach sorbet in lieu of ice cubes!). Ragusa, however, was by far the highlight. Arriving late on the Thursday afternoon there was just time to drop off the bags and head down to the evening’s welcome drinks in the picturesque square.
Beautiful Ragusa Ibla
The following morning saw the start of the conference proper and I headed off with my new-found friend and fellow conference attendee Nilay Erdem of Firat State University, Turkey to find the conference venue. Eleonora Sasso opened proceedings with a paper on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting ‘The Beloved’ (‘The Bride’). This image was used on all of the conference promotional materials and we soon began to see its relevance. Capturing a traditional moment in Middle-Eastern custom whereby the bride’s face is unveiled to her husband for the first time, the image features a Japanese robe, Chinese hair ornaments and a North African pendant. The picture also includes bridesmaids of many different races and present an ideal of beauty that consciously distances itself from any particular place or time.
Poster nailed to venue door featuring The Beloved (‘The Bride’)
Our appetite was whetted for Florence Boos’s keynote which treated us to more Pre-Raphaelite discussion, focusing on the work of William Holman Hunt and his attraction to the East. We looked in detail at his painting ‘The Scapegoat’ and I felt a civic pride hearing about a painting we can view so close to home in the Lady Lever gallery whilst sitting in such an exotic location.
Francesco Marroni’s paper on Charlotte Brontë and the Byronic paradigm was a highlight of the first day for me. He teased out the references to the East (so culturally distant to the gloomy moors) picking out the proposition to travel for missionary work in Jane Eyre and the image of Vashti in Villette. He argued that these allusions bring colour to the novels, weaving an Oriental rainbow throught he more muted tones of Yorkshire. I wondered whether this is part of what forms the appeal of the Brontës to the working class memoirists featured in my paper, who are all fans of the Brontë classics: the conjuring up of glimpses of other worlds without the need for physical travel.
Next, Gloria Lauria-Lucente of the University of Malta, considered orientalism on-screen, with a consideration of Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Austen’s Mansfield Park. Gloria explained that the director was criticised for the inclusion of disembodied voices of the ‘black cargo’ and her foregrounding of the slave trade which makes itself felt at the fringes of Austen’s novel. The director is similarly taken to task for gothicising the text – taking it to the realm of Bronte melodrama at times in a way that seems incongruous to the lighter satirical note Austen is renowned for. This paper tied in nicely to Simon Layton’s presentation on James Brooke and Rudyard Kipling in his wonderfully entitled paper: ‘Pirates and Prejudice: James Brook, The Man Who Would Be King’. Nilay Erdem also covered Kipling with an appraisal of his detective fiction and short stories.
Friday afternoon lent itself to Japanisme. Pamela Ivinski of City University New York presented a lovely paper on her favourite painter Mary Cassatt and the interdisciplinary theme continued with a fascinating presentation on Granada’s Alhambra Palace and its history. To close what had been a wonderful day, Ann Heilmann introduced us to the New Woman in China, linking the voyage to spiritual transformation.
This just left time for an evening tour of the nearby castle of Donnafugata where we all got hopelessly lost in the maze before coming together for a fantastically cheesey group photo and a fine four course dinner.
Saturday morning began with Andrew King’s wonderful keynote paper on Lord Leighton entitled: Orientalism at Art School, in which he connected abstraction with stasis. Again I found myself pondering some questions for my own research, wondering if the ambiguity and uncertainty reported by my authors acts as an explanation for their inability to resolve and transform their current status. Andrew also challenged how correct it is to believe that orientalism always rejects capitalism. This gave me much to think about – particularly in relation to my forthcoming paper that morning: ‘Relocating Revelation – Working-Class Memoir and the Oriental Utopia’ and what I was to suggest about Buddhism and materialism.
Overall the trip was unique and hugely beneficial. My own paper was thankfully well received although a packed schedule left quite little time for questions and feedback. I really enjoyed the process of writing it and am looking forward to expanding it as the basis for a chapter for my own thesis and if I am lucky, may be included in the proceedings of the conference which would be extremely exciting. I’d like to extend huge thanks to everyone who helped me get to Sicily – here are some of the best bits! : )
Sicilian pasta and churches
Sicilian flowers and domes