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Walter Pater's European Project: Selves and Others at the Fin de Siècle

The Carlsberg Foundation's 'Semper Ardens' Fellowships within the Humanities and Social Sciences

What

My project explores the cohesive power of a pan-European identity in the fictitious imaginary portraits of the Victorian writer Walter Pater (1839-94). It focuses on the interplay between the individual, the spirit of place and historical moment and argues that Pater envisioned his imaginary portraits as contributing to a coherent history of national and individual identity in Europe from Antiquity to modernity. The full project was cut short by Pater's early death, but enough portraits remain to give us a sense of a grandly conceived oeuvre which raises profound questions about the status of the individual at moments of great historical change, such as war or scientific, religious or artistic revolutions. The project positions Pater's writings firmly within a nineteenth-century context.

Why

My project is important within Pater scholarship as the first study ever to conceive of his 'European project' and examine all of his fiction from this perspective. By repositioning Pater's fiction within European cultural history, rather than narrowly within a Victorian context, the author's immense frame of reference and the impressive import of his writings should become much clearer than hitherto. Within a broader context, my project contributes significantly to the study of cosmopolitanism within fin-de-siècle literature. It positions Pater as a European writer on a new scale and reveals his close links to especially French literature and thought. The imaginary portraits make us contemplate the interrelationship between nation and individual, background and foreground more broadly.

How

The project requires a thorough study of all of Pater's writings, both published and unpublished, together with extensive reading of the European thinkers and writers who influenced him profoundly. Given the significance of the spirit of place in the portraits, field trips to the European sites which provided Pater with the setting for his fiction form another part of my research, so trips to Medieval French cathedrals and monasteries, Dutch burghers' houses and German, French and Italian art collections form another part of my research. No one has ever pursued 'the Pater trail', and I expect to obtain a totally new understanding of the interplay between geography, architecture, painted portraits and character in the imaginary portraits through these field trips.

SSR

My book will emphasize the cohesive power of European culture across borders, historical periods and artistic genres through the ages, from Antiquity till the late nineteenth century. In a post-Brexit world, scholarly work which demonstrates such interdependence and stresses the need for an understanding of history is much needed. The significance of retaining the past in the present in order to embrace a fragmented modernity in flux cannot be underestimated. My study of a late-nineteenth-century writer's ambitious European project will address the significance of such a cohesive view of European culture and should encourage transnational collaboration and understanding rather than insular isolation.