English and Scottish Literature

Shaping the Self

In brief

Title - Shaping the Self: The Construction of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Organisers - Céleste Callen and Emily Vause (PhD students in English Literature, University of Edinburgh)

Programme highlights - 4 panels of 3 to 4 speakers and a roundtable discussion with Dr Jonathan Wild (University of Edinburgh)

About the conference

This one-day conference explored the changing perspectives on individual identities and the construction of the self in nineteenth-century fiction.

From Austen’s exploration of subjectivity to Wilde’s portrayal of conflicting Gothic identities, we explored the period’s rapidly changing conceptions of the self in an age of significant social, scientific and economic change.

Individual lives were undergoing perpetual adaptation in the face of scientific innovation, industrialisation and urbanisation. Oscillating between the stability and familiarity of the past and the instability of a world that was establishing a new identity: nineteenth-century lives were shaped by the simultaneous fear and enthusiasm inspired by progress.

But literature has much to do with life, that is, ordinary experience, or, to put it another way, it helps in that never-ending, never fully-realizable, process of finding out what we are, and, to a certain extent, what we must do.

John Henry Raleigh,Time, Place, and Idea: Essays on the Novel


8:45am - Registration

9am – Welcome and Introductory Remarks: Celeste Callen and Emily Vause

9:10am to 10:45am – Panel 1: The Constrained Self: Society, Class and Structure

  • Michela Gerardin (The University of Edinburgh) – ‘John Keats, A Poet of No Identity’
  • Kristy Strange (independent researcher) – ‘It’s In Their Blood: Identity creation inside monstrous family units in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things’
  • Dr Helena Ifill (University of Aberdeen) – ‘Identity as Reputation and Identity as action in Charlotte Riddell’s City Fiction’
  • Deborah Giggle (University of East Anglia) – ‘Making sense of the middle men: Analysing lower middle-class authorship and identity at the fin de siècle’

10:45am to 12am – Panel 2: The Gendered Self

  • Amal Abdi (The University of Edinburgh) – ‘Emma Through Time’
  • Ishita Krishna (University of York) – ‘“One doesn’t do that kind of thing!”: Subject-Object Inversion as Resistance to Victorian Female Suicide Genre in Hedda Gabler’
  • Milly Kate Harrison (Loughborough University) – ‘Uncovering Queer Undercurrents: Water and Queer Identity in Late Nineteenth-Century Weird Fiction’

12 to 12:45pm – Lunch Break

12:45pm to 1:55pm – Panel 3: The Physical Self: Visual Identity and the Senses

  • Chao Lin (independent researcher) – ‘Faces with Masks: Transgression of Identities’
  • Aija Oksman (The University of Edinburgh) – ‘Re-imagining the Self: The Portrait Photography of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth’
  • Dr Isabella Brooks-Ward (University College London)– ‘Eliot’s Onion: Self-taste in George Eliot’s ‘A Minor Prophet’’

1:55pm to 3:10pm – Panel 4: Locating the Self: Place, Landscape and Dialogic Space

  • Nick Smith (University of Exeter) – ‘Becoming the Ettrick Shepherd: James Hogg and Highland Journeys’
  • Alexia Ainsworth (Stanford University)– ‘Madame Bovary’s Dialogic Frameworks and the Unseen Mad Scene of Lucia di Lammermoor’
  • Lara Virrey (The University of Edinburgh) – ‘Haunting landscapes and the self in time in The Story of an African Farm (1883) and After London (1885)’

3:10pm – Tea, coffee and biscuits

3:30pm to 4pm – Roundtable Discussion with Dr Jonathan Wild and Closing Remarks

Speaker bios

Dr Jonathan Wild

After completing his PhD at the University of Kent, Jonathan Wild held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Centre for the History of the Book, before being appointed as Lecturer at Edinburgh in September 2005.

He is the author of 'The Rise of the Office Clerk in Literary Culture, 1880-1939' (Palgrave, 2006), and 'The Great Edwardian Emporium: The Literature of the 1900s' (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming).

He has also published articles on George Gissing, Jerome K. Jerome, Arnold Bennett, and the popular literary magazine John O’London’s Weekly.

Céleste Callen (organiser)

Céleste Callen is a third year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests focus on time, selfhood and subjective temporal experience in nineteenth-century fiction.

She holds a BA (Hons) in English Literature from King’s College London and an MSc in Enlightenment, Romantic and Victorian Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Her postgraduate dissertation explored the relationship between the self and time in the works of Balzac, Stevenson and Wilde.

Her doctoral research explores subjective temporal experience in Dickens’ fiction, and more specifically Dickens’ anticipation of a modern conception of temporal experience, by reading his fiction through the lens of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of durée or duration.

She has published an article titled ‘Undesirable Darkness and Frightful Deeds: Spectacle and Guilt in Oliver Twist and Lady Audley’s Secret’ in The ESSE Messenger, Vol. 29-2, Winter 2020 Issue, Sensation, Mystery and Detection in the Victorian Novel.

Emily Vause (organiser)

Emily Vause began her studies at the University of East Anglia where she obtained a BA (Hons) in English Literature. She holds a an MSc from the University of Edinburgh where she is currently a third year PhD Candidate.

Her research interests largely focus on nineteenth century and Gothic fiction, specifically depictions of science, gender, nature, and the uncanny within it.

Her ongoing doctoral thesis investigates the relationship between unconventional parenting or parental figures and the creation of literal and metaphorically monstrous “children” in the nineteenth-century novel, including within the works of Shelley, Hardy, and Edgeworth.

How to join

This was an in-person event. The event was free, and everyone was welcome.


Arthur Edmund Grimshaw, The Strand, 1899. Oil on Canvas.

Marked as public domain on Wikimedia Commons

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May 19 2022 -

Shaping the Self

A one-day conference that explored the changing perspectives on individual identities and the construction of the self in nineteenth-century fiction.

Project Room, 1.06
University of Edinburgh
50 George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LH