It was with much relief that sixteen of us were able to meet face-to-face for the annual meeting of the Society, at one of the Scarborough’s oldest and most celebrated hotels, the Crown Spa.  Only one person was able to make it from abroad – Josie McQuail from the US – and the rest of us came from around the UK.  The plenary lecture on the first day was given by Bruce Collins, on Victorian Scarborough, and accompanied by maps and pictures. We gained a clear picture of one of the earliest resorts in the UK and how it grew during the nineteenth-century and up to the present day.  This picture was to stay with us on our various trails in Scarborough and Whitby later in the conference.

The first full conference day began with a paper from David Hamilton and Gaby Weiner (me), reflecting on the legacy of Elisabeth Arbuckle Sanders’ online biography of Harriet Martineau.  It was argued that Elisabeth’s biographical version matched Harriet’s general perspective, as pre-disciplinary rather than inter-disciplinary, both opting to investigate the ‘unfolding frontiers of life’.  Further, it reflected on the reasons for Elisabeth’s difficulty in finding a mainstream publisher for her biography yet also celebrated its online availability. The second paper of the morning was by John Vint on ‘Adam Smith’s Daughters’ – nineteenth-century female economists, Jane Haldimand Marcet, Harriet Martineau and Millicent Fawcett.  Additionally, and helpfully, John provided us with a paper showing the economic principles covered in each of Martineau’s Illustration tales. Following a short coffee break, Sue Brown provided an account of how Fanny Wedgwood managed to stay friends both with Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell throughout their lives, despite Martineau’s difficult relationships with many of her contemporaries.  Sue also informed us that her book on Fanny’s daughter Julia Wedgwood, was due out in the Spring!! The last paper of the day came from new member Bob Stillwell, who argued that Harriet Martineau can be clearly be identified as operating within the utopian tradition,  with her most important contributions, her ground-breaking work as a social thinker/analyst.

After a sandwich-wrap lunch, with the sun on our backs and guided by Valerie, we embarked on an Anne Brontë trail through Scarborough via the Cliff Bridge (built 1827), the plaque on Grand Hotel on the site where Anne died, her gravestone in St Mary’s Church, and on to Scarborough Castle and wonderful views.  The evening closed with an after-dinner quiz on Scarborough, the Martineaus and General Knowledge, set by Valerie.  My group, Black Stockings came 2nd!!

The second full day of the conference began with a presentation by Stuart Hobday on Harriet Martineau’s environmentalism, focusing on her active involvement in the creation of a two-acre farm and the claimed benefits of having two cows, one pig and a variety of poultry – which she asserted, allowed her household to be self-sufficient in milk, cream, eggs and meat! The next presentation, by Josie McQuail, explored the impact on Harriet’s travel arrangements and safety on her trip to the US, of her coming out publicly for the Abolitionist cause. Josie argued that Harriet’s writing on the evils of slavery and prejudice are as relevant today and that we should grasp the opportunity of the heightened interest in Black Lives Matter, to propose her as a foremother of this movement.  The morning’s presentations came to an end with a short update from Bob Gamble on his recently published book Mrs Gaskell’s Personal Pantheon: Illuminating Mrs Gaskell’s Inner Circle, a paper from which was presented at the 2019 conference. The AGM followed.

After an early lunch, and with the sun still blazing down, we embarked in the afternoon on a coach ride to Whitby, stopping off at the Abbey and then variously, making our way down to the town, harbour and beach, the shops – and for Geraldine L. and Victorine M., an open top bus tour of the town and its cultural history.  Others walked along the pier or took a boat trip, some repaired to the pub, or the jade shops, and Valerie tracked down the holiday lodgings of Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins and Lewis Carroll, as well as the quirky Alice in Wonderland garden in Cliff Street – proving that Dracula doesn’t have a monopoly on Whitby! It had been decided, rather late in the day, to hold a fund-raising auction after dinner on the last night – so many of us spent some time searching for something suitable. As always, the auction proved good fun and raised upwards of £150 for the Society coffers.

The final day of the conference was somewhat cooler.  There was only one paper, by Valerie Sanders, on Harriet Martineau’s perception of men and masculinity in her 1830s illustrative tales.  Valerie showed that Martineau was able to produce a range of credible male characters from different classes and backgrounds and in so doing, displayed a depth of understanding of male character that was perhaps surprising in such a renowned feminist.

There was one scheduled activity left – a short walk round the corner from the hotel to view some marvellous Pre-Raphaelite, stained glass windows in St Martin’s Church. A guide introduced us to the history of the church as well as the symbolism hidden in the designs. And I learned that the word ‘stunner’ often used by the tabloid press to describe glamorous women, had first been used by Rosetti to denote the stunning effect, for good or evil, of female beauty.

As always, the conference ended with lunch and farewells, and the agreement that despite Covid, the conference had gone remarkably well.  It was suggested at the AGM that next year, the conference venue might be Broadstairs on the South Coast – since a seaside venue in late July was preferable to overheated cities and towns. Any other suggestions for venues for next year and subsequent conferences will be greatly appreciated!

Gaby Weiner

24 July 2021