Ah, the post-Christmas return to work. Those of us who went to BSECS did it in style. This was my second BSECS annual conference, so I had some idea of what to expect this year: a packed programme of talks from people at all stages of their academic career, punctuated by keynotes from established academics and followed by lively discussion in the Rose and Crown. It didn’t disappoint.

Our first talk came from Professor Robert D. Hume of Penn State University, who highlighted the very real importance of this year’s conference theme: Credit, Money and the Market. Professor Hume argued that, ‘grubby’ as it might seem, it is crucial that we have an understanding of the real financial value of money in order to understand eighteenth-century society and culture. He went on to challenge the idea of a rising middle-class market for culture across the century, arguing that even a five-shilling book cost the equivalent of about £50-£70 in modern money – an amount most of us would think twice about spending regularly. According to Hume’s calculations, much culture was limited to a small and very wealthy group of elites. Furthermore, beyond a few big names, actors, musicians and writers rarely earned a living, with some orchestra players, for example, earning as little as five shillings a night, so those involved in the production of culture would usually have to supplement their work with other occupations. An awareness of monetary values can also, Hume argued, completely alter our understanding of a novel such as Pride and Prejudice. As readers, we tend to share the affection Elizabeth and Jane have for their father, who we think of as a sensible man, especially when compared to his frivolous, superficial wife. However, once we understand the value of his £2,000 annual income, we have to question why he has been so careless as to fail to save anything for his daughters. His callousness comes into even sharper relief when we see how gleeful he is to accept Mr Darcy’s support to help Lydia, with the c.£2500 laid out by Darcy calculated by Hume as an eyewatering £50000 in modern money. Mr Bennett suddenly seems a much less sympathetic character than his wife, who is perhaps far more sensible in advising her daughters to marry as soon and as well as possible to avoid the straitened circumstances they have been condemned to by their father’s inexplicable failure to provide for their future. Following the opening plenary, I had to dash off to prepare for my own panel, but questions were raised about the alternative ways in which people could access culture, with those unable to buy new books, for example, using circulating libraries, accessing second-hand copies, or clubbing together with others in order to read. I’m looking forward to reading more of Professor Hume’s work and considering his arguments in relation to my own work on plebeian material culture.

In the first panel session, I spoke with two fellow PhD students on the theme of ‘Performing the Self’. My paper looked at the ways in which Samuel Bamford used descriptions of his home life to project an image of respectability in Passages in the Life of a Radical, and considered how his domesticated persona was challenged by his role as a radical leader. I had some really interesting questions and suggestions from the audience which I’m looking forward to following up. Serena Dyer spoke next, discussing the practice of shopping by post using the case study of Lady Sabine Winn of Nostell Priory. She talked about the way Lady Winn’s dressmaker, Ann Charlton, used letters to project a positive image of herself and her products, and showed us some of the wonderful fabric samples which offered the customer an opportunity for sensory engagement with the product they were to purchase. Serena compared the surprisingly intimate correspondence between the two women with other sensory shopping experiences, but questioned whether the gifts sent by Lady Winn to Ann Charlton might actually represent the limits to this intimacy, with the display of benevolence emphasising the difference in social class. The final paper of our panel was presented by Adam Perchard, who showed us how changing portrayals of the Arabian Nights’ Scheherazade in Britain enabled false dichotomies between Western feminism and Islamic culture. Scheherazade, Adam argued, represented a distinctly Eastern tradition of empowered femininity, and it was only through the sidelining of her character in editions of the Arabian Nights towards the end of the eighteenth century that Islamic male despotism could be set against supposed Western freedoms, an othering that still has ramifications for feminism today.

After a quick break for tea, it was off to a panel on ‘Eighteenth-Century Patronage’, in which Professor Richard Terry and Helen Williams, both of the University of Northumbria, showed us archival papers from the Delaval collection, which demonstrated the extent of the family’s patronage of the writers Kit Smart and John Cleland. By cross-referencing the letters in this collection with other sources, Terry and Williams were able to show just how crucial Smart and Cleland’s North-Eastern collections were to their survival and writing careers. Perhaps, Terry argued, we have been too used to reading literary history from a southern perspective, and hopefully the increasing accessibility of material in regional collections will help us to rebalance this. The final paper on the panel continued the theme of patronage, but from a very different perspective. Adrian Teal was keen to stress that his wasn’t an academic paper, but the light relief at the end of the day. In fact, he gave us a fascinating, funny and filthy insight into his work as a caricaturist, the influence of Gillray, his recently published romp through Georgian sex and scandal and his decision to fund the publication of the Gin Lane Gazette by crowdfunding, the 21st century equivalent of the literary subscription. Quite aside from saucy courtesans and hilariously rude poems, the talk gave us a new perspective from outside academia, and it would be interesting to see more conference talks from people in different fields for whom the eighteenth century remains interesting and important in different ways.

The commerce in ‘Sex and Scandal’ was also a key theme on Friday. Marilyn Morris offered a fascinating talk on Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose rise to gentlemanly status was facilitated by his romantic behaviour with his first wife, Elizabeth Lindley, and both partners’ affairs with prominent Whigs. However, Sheridan’s jealous over the romantic entanglements of one of his mistresses led to the breakdown of friendships, exacerbating his unstable finances and problems with debt. Though Sheridan’s gentlemanly persona required the affection of indifference about money, it remained a preoccupation throughout his life, damaging his personal relationships and leading to considerable wrangling after his death. Ironically, Sheridan’s own careless attitude to money meant that he had assumed his debts were much higher than they were found eventually to be, and thus his reputation had perhaps been needlessly damaged. Amy Culley followed with a discussion of the self-presentation of two women who chose to expose in print their lives as high-class courtesans. While Harriette Wilson was candid about the financial motivations for her memoir, her rival Julia Johnstone claimed to be selflessly ‘setting the record straight’. Culley showed us the challenges of reconciling the mercantile aspects of writing with a desire to appear authentic, as well as the possibilities of the different traditions in which the two women wrote. While Johnstone adopted a ‘fallen woman’ persona, in the hope of securing the sympathies of her readership, Wilson’s work was in the tradition of scurrilous literature associated with the Mary Ann Clarke and Queen Caroline affairs –  a tradition which used the humorous potential of sexual scandal to make ridiculous the most powerful of men. Nell Darby’s work on bastardy examinations also revealed possibilities for female agency in the exposure of their transgressive sexual behaviour. The magistrates’ notebooks studied by Darby show some women going into extraordinary detail about their sexual experiences, recounting places, times, people and even positions. One woman described how she and a partner had sex behind a haystack whilst working in the fields, the other employees continuing to work unawares. Darby argued that by giving such evidence, women could establish their status as deserving of relief. A woman who described having had sex standing up, for example, could be highlighting the precautions taken against illegitimate pregnancy, while others could show that they had been unwillingly seduced or given false promises. Providing a considerable level of detail also increased the chances of the father being identified and encouraged to support the woman and child. However, we must not overestimate the power of these women, who were often forced to marry the father without consultation of their wishes. Sometimes, marriage was not possible – for example, in cases where a servant was impregnated by her master – and in these cases the woman was usually forced to struggle on limited poor relief, unable to continue with her work and with her reputation and future chances severely damaged.

In the later session, I decided to see a paper I knew very little about, and went to hear Jenny Nex of the Royal College of Music discuss musical instrument makers as businesses in Georgian London. As well as some lovely photos of the instruments, the paper showed the variety of financial arrangements and fortunes of several London firms. Broadwood and Sons, for example, flourished to the extent that both sons were able to purchase country estates, while for the music warehouse of Longman and Broderip, the financial crisis of 1793 spelled disaster. Ms Nex also gave some interesting insights into other aspects of the trade and its customers, such as the class and gender spread of purchasing particular instruments – the flute used to be viewed as particularly masculine, for example – and the fact that many instrument makers encouraged their daughters to play as a means of demonstrating the instrument to customers. This was followed by Dr Matthew Spring’s presentation on music shops in Georgian Bath, in which he showed the various ways in which musicians and music businesses could survive in a town which, at one point, had three music shops on one street. As well as promoting musical events, selling tickets, offering music lessons and performing, music shop owners diversified in interesting ways. Underwoods, for example, sold a whole range of musical instruments, but their customers could also pick up pickled mushrooms and ketchup in store!

After this, I did a quick dash between panels in the hope of catching a paper by Sophie Coulombeau, discussing name changing in the long eighteenth century. Sadly, I was a little too late, but caught the end of an interesting talk by Min Wood on the correspondence between Lord Grenville and his banker, Thomas Coutts, as well as a lively question and answer session. In a half-hour discussion led by Frank O’Gorman, the panel and audience discussed everything from the importance of names for locating businesses, to whether or not, in Dr Conrad Brunstrom’s memorable words, “lending to Charles James Fox is rather like donating a liver to George Best.”

The final day of the conference brought a panel on didactic literature in which Alexandra Prunean elaborated the ways in which female authors of children’s literature used their prefaces to appeal to their audience. These often emphasised that the author was a woman, usually a mother, who understood the education of children from experience and who had tried and tested the works on her own young relatives. This tied into a range of other marketing strategies, such as playing upon feelings of guilt or fear of providing children with an inadequate education, and the use of such obvious pseudonyms as “Mrs Teachwell”. While these texts played upon their female authorship, the writers of the texts discussed by Steven White faced the difficult task of reconciling their own gender with the limited female role they advocated in print. White argued that Elizabeth Moody’s 1798 The Housewife constructed domesticity as the natural state for a woman through the use of words associated with women’s biological, childbearing role, while Hannah More depicted her Sinful Sally as becoming more and more monstrously unnatural in her pursuit of sexual freedom. Though both women largely discouraged female involvement in politics – although Moody’s Housewife was seen as a guardian of the natural hierarchy – they were themselves engaging in a politicised print culture, an activity acceptable for women only when in support of conservative values.

Overall themes emerging from the conference were the importance of understanding the structures which enabled the working eighteenth-century commerce in goods, services and ideas. Business structures and the value of money emerged as crucial, as did the value of a good reputation as a means of securing credit. Meanwhile, pub conversation was preoccupied with issues such as the accessibility of academia and the balance between research and teaching, as well as less serious discussions of favourite novels and irrational phobias (guess which academic hates tiny pieces of paper?!) I’m left with plenty to think about, and will be reflecting in my own research on concrete as well as symbolic values of the household and its contents in response to the conference theme. But the best thing about BSECS is returning to work revitalised and enthusiastic, ready for all kinds of new projects and challenges. Happy new year!

PS. Obviously I couldn’t get round everything or talk to everyone, so please do feel free to add comments about your own BSECS! You can find two other views of BSECS here and here, and the event was live tweeted by a number of attendees under the hastag #bsecs.