Don's Diary

May 3, 1996

Wednesday. It is bitterly cold as I set off from Gatwick. At the check-in a man asks the purpose of my visit. I tell him I'm going to a conference in Columbia, South Carolina, and he says he has just checked in a professor heading for a conference in the same city. What is mine on? Eighteenth and 19th-century women writers, I tell him. Oh well, he says, it cannot be the same one as the professor was a man. The check-in queue hardly seems the place for an ideological discussion, so I smile and move on.

Waiting for my connection in Atlanta, I meet Gary Kelly from Keele, who is one of the plenary speakers on the conference (though not the professor on my Gatwick flight). By 8pm United States time I am in my room. I am saving money by staying in a dorm and am supposed to be sharing a room, though my roommate has not appeared yet. I feel predictably depressed by the room, which is all concrete and lino, with a shared shower-room down the hall. It is also bitterly cold, so I pile the bedclothes from the second bed onto mine, hoping Ms X will not appear and demand them back. I sleep reasonably well, though I am wide awake for an hour at 2am.

Thursday. It is still very cold, but bright and sunny. Spend the morning wandering around Columbia which has some attractive old (by American standards) buildings including part of the campus of the University of South Carolina, which is hosting the conference. At lunchtime I turn up for registration and discover that Gary Kelly and I are the only non-US participants. Everyone I speak to seems astonished that although I have come all the way from England, I am not reading a paper: I would have done, but found out about the conference too late. I attend the first two sessions, and am impressed by the professionalism of the papers. Mostly by graduate students, they are all very well researched, and informed by critical theory without being overloaded with it.

In the evening I attend the first plenary lecture, by a high-flying female academic. It is mainly about women riding horses. I also feel it is rather anglophobic - she makes a lot of jokes about the English weather and national character. No point in taking offence, though. I am exhausted by the end of the evening. Still no roommate! And I have discovered how to turn on the heating, so the room is tolerably warm now.

Friday. Papers start at 8am! Unable to decide which sessions to attend (each time-slot has five to choose from) I session-hop. By the end of the afternoon, I've heard 12 papers plus Gary Kelly's plenary lecture. My head is spinning with terminology and I am increasingly irritated by the way everyone says "quote. . . unquote" and/or signals same by waving their fingers in the air. Time to go back to the dorm for a rest.

In the evening, there is a reception, with the most lavish provision of food and drink imaginable, everything constantly replenished. Everyone gets very jolly. I meet Paula Feldman, on the faculty at USC, who invites me back for drinks. I make my excuses, saying I am too jet-lagged, then regret it. After all, I have come to make contacts.

I meet some interesting people at the reception, though, and volunteer to help publicise next year's conference in Europe. I also sign up to write an entry in a forthcoming dictionary of literary biography.

Walking back to the dorm, I finally meet someone who has read and apparently enjoyed my book on Mary Wollstonecraft, which seems to have only just appeared in the US. Feel pathetically gratified. Sleep like a log. Still no room-mate.

Saturday. I've heard nine papers by lunchtime, some better than others. I am unable to concentrate on one, about two little-known verse dramas by Mary Shelley, because both the moderator and the speaker persist in pronouncing the title of one of them as "PORsepine", which makes me think about pigs. Lunch is laid on in a revolving restaurant, which induces mild nausea.

The afternoon brings the third and final plenary lecture, followed by a round-table discussion under the title "Where do we go from here?", which mostly deplores the lack of women's texts of the period to teach from, and persistent prejudice on interviewing committees towards those who admit to an interest in same.

In the evening I get a second chance to go to Paula Feldman's, and enjoy myself enormously. Champagne is flowing, strawberries and ice-cream appear, we all inspect, and are suitably impressed by, her huge collection of 19th-century women's poetry. Addresses and email addresses are exchanged. I express my intention of attending, and contributing to, next year's conference, which will be in California.

Back in the dorm I reflect on what I have learned. First, the fact that much excellent work is being done on what was, until very recently, an almost unknown body of literature. Second, that though English undergraduates, despite slipping standards, are still rather better informed than their US contemporaries, the gap has certainly closed by graduate level. Third, that conferences are always worth attending for social and intellectual networking, fatigue notwithstanding. The weather has started to warm up, and I have two days to relax in the sun before my flight home.


Senior lecturer in English, Edge Hill University College.

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