Rhyme and Reform: Victorian Working-Class Poets and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Cry of the Children”

a multi-site, digitally networked symposium organized by
the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University (US)
and the Universities of Strathclyde and Manchester (UK)

October 4-5, 2018
To register and learn more, please visit
baylor.edu/library/rhymeandreform

Many know that Victorian factories and mines were dangerous places to work, but how often do we really consider the human lives and stories they shaped?  What was it like to be a child working in these places? How did workers write about their conditions? How did authors on the outside respond to reports of labor abuse? Can these stories still speak to our times?

Please join us in considering these questions at “Rhyme and Reform” as we investigate Victorian portrayals of industrial labor in verse and narrative.  This multi-site, digitally linked series of events will be hosted by the Armstrong Browning Library in partnership with the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and the University of Manchester in England.

“Rhyme and Reform” marks the 175th anniversary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “The Cry of the Children,” which protested the abuse of child workers in British mines and factories.

This symposium will put “The Cry of the Children” and representations of labor by Victorian working-class authors in conversation through scholarly presentations, performances of laboring-class balladry, interactive workshops, and a combination of physical and digital exhibitions by scholars and students.

The centerpiece of these exhibitions is “‘Orphans of earthly love’: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Protest for Working Children,” which was designed by undergraduates in my recent Victorian Poetry seminar at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL). This exhibition will open at the ABL on the first day of “Rhyme and Reform.”  We would be especially delighted for Benefactors of the library to join us for this occasion, when students from the class will attend—in person and digitally—to discuss their work.  A version of this exhibition will also be on the event site, where it will be accompanied by displays about working-class poetry supplied by the “Piston, Pen & Press” project, which highlights the literary cultures of workers in nineteenth-century industrial Scotland and northern England.  This project is sponsored by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council, and led by faculty and staff at the University of Strathclyde, the University of Manchester, and the National Railway Museum (York, UK).

Through “Rhyme and Reform,” we hope to illuminate the contexts, concerns, and ongoing relevance of Victorian depictions of industrial labor. Calling these subjects “relevant” might seem a stretch.  Most who witness this conference will probably have no personal experience of mines or factories, which have largely moved out of eyesight in “first-world” countries.  Yet our wardrobes and powerplants still depend upon their often-inhumane operation around the globe, and far more children endure slavery and forced labor today than in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s time.  Furthermore, people everywhere are feeling the effects of another legacy from Britain’s industrial age, dependency on fossil fuels.  How we respond to this inheritance will define our shared future.

This symposium seeks to contribute to that response by experimenting with a more sustainable form of international conferencing and collaboration.  Rather than flying everyone to one site, it will digitally link two event centers across the Atlantic, use a digital suite of tools called COVE to create a cooperative annotation of “Cry of the Children,” and invite participants around the world to access exhibitions and live-streamed presentations through the event website.

I warmly encourage you to visit this website to review the schedule and make time in yours to attend.  If you are unable to join us physically, please make a note to return to the website during the symposium for streamed and prerecorded events.

Dr. Joshua King
Associate Professor of English, Baylor University
Margarett Root Brown Chair in Robert Browning and Victorian Studies
Armstrong Browning Library

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