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Past and Present: Narratives of Progress and Decline in Nineteenth-Century Britain

March 19, 2018
Christ Church, Oxford

Christ Church
Oxford OX1 1DP
United Kingdom

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The fascination and persistence of the past in nineteenth-century life and thought have been the subjects of notable recent scholarship. Contemporaries inhabited a fragmented present, in which narratives of progress overlapped and clashed with depictions of historical decline, as critics sought to define and locate their own age in the larger sweep of time. Such conceptualisations were integral not solely to the practice of Victorian historiography, but also to the framing of a much broader range of cultural and political debates. This symposium seeks to encourage further reflection and discussion in the field, by inviting papers from historians and scholars in other disciplines which address the ways in which nineteenth-century actors represented, celebrated and critiqued the threads of historical change that connected together past, present, and future. The organisers therefore hope that the symposium will make visible the intimate relationship between historical narration and all kinds of cultural criticism in the period.

This one-day interdisciplinary symposium will focus on different kinds of nineteenth-century narrative as a means of exploring the breadth and depth of historical engagement in contemporary culture. The conference will centre on the Victorian period, but the organisers also welcome perspectives on other parts of ‘the long nineteenth century’. We therefore invite 250-word abstracts for 20-minute papers on topics that may include, but are by no means limited to, the following themes:

  • The ‘Historical Method’ and the quest for a ‘science of politics’;
  • The role of, and intersections between, religion and the constitution in Victorian narratives of historical change;
  • Historical narrative as a mode of political critique;
  • Historicist and organicist philosophical thought;
  • Understandings of religious decline and renewal in past and present;
  • Contemporary attempts to historicise changing family and gender roles;
  • The historical dimensions of nineteenth-century racial thought;
  • Histories of scientific advance and regression;
  • Narratives of commercial and imperial expansion and decay;
  • The dynamics of the past in Victorian social criticism;
  • Historical retrospect and projection in nineteenth-century literature;
  • The interplay between rhetoric and narrative in these and other topics;
  • Visual culture.

Our keynote speaker will be Professor Stuart Jones (University of Manchester).

The conference will take place at Christ Church, University of Oxford. There will be no registration fee and speakers will be provided with free accommodation for the nights of 18 and 19 March, but speakers will be responsible for funding their own transport costs. 

We particularly welcome paper proposals from postgraduate and early career researchers. Thanks to the generosity of the Royal Historical Society, postgraduate students presenting a paper or attending the conference may apply for a Royal Historical Society bursary (to a maximum of £60) towards travel and accommodation costs. Priority will be given to those presenting a paper, and you should apply by explaining your travel and accommodation needs in a statement of 250 words or fewer by 30 September 2017.

Proposals consisting of a 250-word abstract and a brief note giving institutional affiliation, professional status (doctoral student, lecturer, etc.), and a contact e-mail address should be sent to by 30 September 2017.

Organisers: Dr Joshua Bennett (Christ Church, University of Oxford), Dr Emily Jones (Pembroke College, University of Cambridge), Paul Kerry (Brigham Young University / Rothermere American Institute, Oxford).

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February 19, 2018, 9:00am BST

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