September 29, 2010 — Realistic, thickly plotted, crowded with characters and long — these are ways in which Victorian era literature is typically described. One does not immediately think of numbers and mathematics when examining the 19th-century literary genre.
That is, however, exactly what the University of Virginia College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences' English Department is asking members of the Victorians Institute to do at their annual conference, to be held at U.Va. this weekend.
This year's conference boasts the theme "By the Numbers," and invites literary experts to consider themes of mathematics, counting and measurement in 19th-century literature, said U.Va. English professor Andrew Stauffer, who is organizing the event. Scholars will join together to discuss such topics as the perception of time in Robert Browning's poetry, census and population data, and the quantification of beauty.
"We're hoping the conference topic offers an arresting opportunity to look into little-studied aspects of the century that not only counted and tabulated many more things than its predecessors, but even invented methods recognizably statistical for analyzing them," U.Va. English professor Herbert Tucker added. He also noted that the theme will allow for discussion and analysis of some more familiar topics, such as physics in Charles Dickens' writing or the importance of symmetry and meter in the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
"It's sort of a literature and science crossover," Stauffer said. The scientific theme allows for some discussion of the digital age and its impact on publishing efforts, as well as the study of humanities, he said.
Stauffer is particularly knowledgeable on the topic of digital humanities as the director of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, or NINES. This organization, he said, focuses on connecting the texts and materials of Victorian literature with the "digital research environment" of the modern age.
Because so much of Victorian writing was printed on such ephemera as handbill advertisements or short-lived periodicals, Tucker said, digitizing the totality of the era's products is nearly impossible. However, "even the samples already available in electronic form are transforming the way many of us in the field work," he explained, noting that digitization allows texts to be read and questioned in new and innovative ways.
Stauffer said that U.Va.'s Rare Book School, headed by Michael Suarez, will be an important component of the conference. As a cosponsor of the event, the Rare Book School will host talks on such topics as Victorian illustration, bookbinding and book history.
"I like the idea of combining the Rare Book School and the digital," Stauffer said. "The conference theme is a way of making room for all of these different approaches to interact in a constructive way."
Though planning the conference has been a time-consuming process, Stauffer is excited about the opportunities the event will present for the University.
"It's always good to be at the center of an exciting conversation," he said. Not only will the conference showcase U.Va's contributions to Victorian scholarship, but the University will also have the opportunity to shape the program.
Tucker noted, also, that the conference will give the current graduate students the opportunity to meet and network with seasoned scholars in the field.
"This sort of exposure to persons doesn't affect thousands of viewers," Tucker said, "but a surprising amount of the scholarly exchange that launches institutional projects, and refines interpretive ideas about texts, originates at gatherings that number in the dozens, where real conversation can take place."
The conference, which is attended primarily by faculty and graduate students, will be held from Oct. 1-3. In addition to readings and round-table discussions, the conference will feature keynote lecturer Daniel Cohen, a professor at George Mason University and author of "God: Pure Mathematics and the Victorian Faith."
Stauffer expressed his gratitude to the Page-Barbour Endowment at the University of Virginia for its generous financial support.
To register and for details, visit here.