by Anneliese Ng
I am very grateful for the travel support by the University Research Committee (URC), which enabled me to attend the Victorians Institute’s 2018 conference held in Asheville, North Carolina on November 9-10. At one stroke, three of my dreams came true: it was my first Victorian conference, my first conference outside Asia, and my first time in the United States. The novelty of it all gave me a dreadful excitement that was not a good combination with my anxious nature, as testified by the terrible stomachache I had on my way to Hong Kong Airport.
The Victorians Institute was established in 1971 as an interdisciplinary academic society for Victorian studies based in the southeastern United States. The Institute has held a conference every year since its inauguration, and for 2018, the Institute’s 47th conference was titled “Consuming [the] Victorians”, and its theme was consumption. My paper considered how a capitalist’s consumption of the Bible alleviates industrial exploitation in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848). My presentation aside, there was much talk on eating, drinking and buying. Consumption understood literally includes alcoholism in Oxford novels and carnism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and figuratively Lewis Carroll’s gastronomic metaphors for reading. Read this delightful excerpt from Carroll’s Feeding the Mind:
‘Why, what have you been doing with this mind lately? How have you fed it? It looks pale, and the pulse is very slow.’
‘Well, doctor, it has not had much regular food lately. I gave it a lot of sugar-plums yesterday.’
‘Sugar-plums! What kind?’
‘Well, they were a parcel of conundrums, sir.’
‘Ah, I thought so. Now just mind this: if you go on playing tricks like that, you’ll spoil all its teeth, and get laid up with mental indigestion. You must have nothing but the plainest reading for the next few days. Take care now! No novels on any account!’
I came away from the panel with the contrite realization that I had been very indulgent with my mind. It was fed primarily on novels and it may have gotten too fat already. And Carroll cautions: ‘I wonder if there is such a thing in nature as a FAT MIND? I really think I have met with one or two: minds which could not keep up with the slowest trot in conversation; could not jump over a logical fence, to save their lives; always got stuck fast in a narrow argument; and, in short, were fit for nothing but to waddle helplessly through the world.’
Is there a more fitting way to conclude a Victorian conference on consumption than Victorianists consuming? The conference ended with a brewery tour with eight pub visits on its trail. Dubbed the ‘Beer City’, Asheville boasts one of the highest brewery-to-resident ratios in the country. On a side note, Asheville has also been called the ‘Happiest City in America.’ In a 2016 University of Vermont study which analyzed millions of tweets on Twitter, Asheville came out on top in happiness scores. Had it to do with the beer?