Founded in 2000, The British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) is a multidisciplinary organisation dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge about the Victorian period. It has over 600 members based in the UK and beyond, and drawn both from the academic community and the general public. Our members have a wide range of interests in the nineteenth century, including art history, cultural studies, history, literary studies, performance studies and the history of science.
Click here to read our constitution.
President’s Address 2013
The organisation is called the British Association for Victorian Studies, which seems straightforward. But what is BAVS for exactly? Clearly, we exist to promote research and engagement with Britain’s long nineteenth century. We do this because the legacy of the Victorians has been profound not only for Britain but across the world. Making a statement about the Victorians usually involves making a statement about the present day.
But BAVS is a special organisation for other reasons. Right from the start, it has defined, as part of its remit, the promotion of interdisciplinarity. This means that it exists to create serious dialogue between scholars in History, Literature, History of Art and History of Science. Increasingly, I would like to see far more engagement with scholars in Geography, Politics, Sociology, Anthropology and Communications. BAVS is at its best when it creates encounters between different fields and encourages a dialogue which can sometimes be difficult or uncomfortable but which can allow new themes and paradigms to emerge. Interdisciplinarity is always transformative; topics that we thought we knew suddenly emerge in a different light when scholars in different disciplines come together and argue about the meanings of the Victorian world and its legacy. Genuine interdisciplinarity requires all concerned to interrogate the nature of their own working methods and assumptions.
Whilst we can find scholars devoted to cross-disciplinary encounters in other fields (such as Renaissance Studies), Victorian Studies has always been distinctive in the way that it has spectacularly failed to police boundaries between disciplines. Instead, historians find themselves quizzed about the literariness of the sources they are investigating and English scholars pursue texts in historical archives that go way beyond what was once conventionally defined as ‘Literature’.
We can see some of this when we look at our recent and forthcoming activities. In June 2013, BAVS came together in Venice with the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) and the Australasian Victorian Studies Association (AVSA) for a conference titled ‘The Global and the Local’. It was the first time all three organisations had worked together and the results were spectacular. We brought scholars from all over the world to think about the Victorians in trans-national ways. There was a strong feeling that Victorianism did not just happen in the British Isles but was exported, and experienced differently, around the globe. BAVS provided two plenary speakers: Robert Hewison, the distinguished cultural critic, who spoke about Ruskin and Venice, and Lynda Nead, one of this country’s finest art historians, who explored the painting, ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’ and opened up perspectives on race and visual culture. We all left Venice with a strong sense that our organisation must continue to develop international links and forms of collaboration not only with NAVSA and AVSA but also with scholars in other countries. For that reason, at last year’s BAVS conference in Sheffield, we were proud to host a well attended panel on Victorian Studies in France where French scholars discussed what was significant and distinctive about their work. We hope to do more of this, fostering greater dialogue across national boundaries.
The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Nineteenth Century Numbers’. From census data to the mania for collecting and the issues of the ‘residuum’, the Victorians were obsessed with statistics and counting. BAVS is the only organisation in the UK that can bring scholars together who take the issue of ‘numbers’ and use it to rethink our period in stimulating and diverse ways. As always, BAVS is promoting new agendas that are emerging but also shaping them at the same time. The same will be true next year when the BAVS conference is hosted by the University of Kent. The theme will be ‘Victorian Sustainability’. We will be looking at all aspects of the Victorian environment and heritage, considering the links between the Victorians and the natural world but also the ways in which the Victorian legacy is being sustained (we are using the term ‘sustainability’ both in its literal and its poetic senses). Mindful of the possibility that one Victorian legacy may be climate change, it is difficult to imagine a more important set of issues to reflect on at the present moment. Over the next two years, I aim to use my Presidency to stage a number of events at BAVS conferences whose purpose is to get scholars to rethink the shape of the way we see the Victorian period as a whole. We are at a moment when scholars are de-familiarising the Victorians, showing that theirs was a more complex and perhaps stranger (to us) world than we thought. We need to consider new narratives and forms of periodization to explain their culture.
Another feature of BAVS’s work (of which we are proud) is our role in the formation of postgraduate and early career Victorianists. Our conferences have always featured events directed at assisting the next generation of Victorian scholars and we were delighted that BAVS members could attend the Professionalization Workshop that preceded the Venice conference. Leading figures in the field offered sessions on the job market and getting published but also on current issues in Victorian Studies. Throughout our history we have always made money available through bursaries to help postgraduate and early career scholars attend Victorian events. I am delighted to announce that this year we have decided to increase the BAVS funding grant from £400 to £800. This decision emerged from consultation with our membership over the kind of funding that would be most effective. Furthermore, we are reinstating our awards for individual research. There will be two funding rounds (November and May) and details can be found on our website. We are determined that this kind of service will continue to be a feature of our work which is just one of the ways in which BAVS makes a difference.
BAVS has actively created a Victorian Studies ‘republic of letters’ that anyone can participate in. We do this through our conferences but crucially also through our online presence; through the newsletter and regular emails which alert members to events and publications that are taking place not just in the UK but all over the world.
So what is BAVS for? We have created a variety of spaces for scholarly interaction but we have also created a community.
Professor of History, Anglia Ruskin University
President of the British Association for Victorian Studies