Brown Bag Lunch Series: Dr. Ashley Cross Discusses Literary Dialogue and Queer Panic in Robinson’s Works

Cross reads excerpts from her book at the WAGS event. Photo by Pamela Segura.
Cross reads excerpts from her book at the WAGS event. Photo by Pamela Segura.


Dr. Ashley Cross, chair of the English department, spoke at the most recent brown bag event, a series hosted by Manhattan’s Women and Gender Studies (WAGS) program. Students and faculty members gathered in Cornerstone on March 26 to hear Dr. Cross read bits from her forthcoming book, “Mary Robinson and the Generation of Romanticism: Literary Dialogues and Debts, 1784-1832.” The event was entitled, “The Curious Case of the Ivory Cabinet: Queer Panic and Mary Robinson’s ‘Walsingham’.”

“The turnout has been generally good, but occasionally, because of the block schedule, we run up against other lunchtime events,” Dr. Bridget Chalk, English professor and coordinator of WAGS, said about the brown bag series. “This year, audiences have ranged from about 10 to about 40 at Dr. Cross’s talk this week.”

Chalk handles the planning of the brown bag lunch series, which can include both faculty members and students.

“At the beginning of each academic year, I solicit volunteers to give Brown Bag talks,” Chalk said. “Each proposal typically fits well within our purview. So I schedule the faculty members that volunteer, and given the interdisciplinary nature of the program, we have a wide variety of talks.

“We are interested in getting more student talks together, but they need to be well-researched, informed papers, perhaps emerging from courses focusing on WAGS topics. Any student who has written a provocative paper that she/he feels would make a good talk should contact me,” Chalk continued.

The WAGS minor and events focus on the ways in which gender shapes the human experience both across decades and on day-to-day basis. WAGS classes are offered in religious\ studies, English, sociology, psychology, modern languages and other areas of study.

Cross began her talk with a focus on representations of Robinson, which are constantly in flux as academics continue to revive her works.

Robinson, who was born in England in 1758, was an English writer, actress and celebrity. Her wide-ranging catalogue—which includes dramas, poems and novels—was often overshadowed by her affairs, marriages and divorces. Portraits of Robinson immortalized her beauty; she was known as “the English Sappho.”

Indeed, the most famed writings on Robinson and her legacy have focused on sexual and social stories. Other writings do not position Robinson in complete relation to her period in history. Robinson was publishing her work during the Romantic period in British literature and culture. Yet, her works are not consistently placed in relation to this cultural setting.

Her legacy as a Romantic writer has been in recovery during the last 25 years. Dr. Cross contributes to that recovery in her book.

“This book is really trying to make the case for her as a Romantic figure,” Dr. Cross said.

“It’s a book about intertextuality. I’m thinking about Mary Robinson’s dialogues with other big-
name Romantic writers.”

Cross’ WAGS talk on Wednesday focused on the textual connections between Robinson’s novel, “Walsingham: or, The Pupil of Nature, A Domestic Story,” and fellow writer, William Godwin. She focused primarily on issues of looking and being looked at, gender fluidity and “Sapphic monstrosity.” She described the latter of the three ideas as the fear of relationships between females; these relationships can have romantic, sexual, platonic or familial contexts.

Cross’ ideas, of course, have evolved over time. She began work on Robinson quite early in her career. She also initiated the process to make women and gender studies a minor at the school.

“Gender is never by itself. It’s not separate from all the other ways in which we shape our reality,” Cross said. “Gender and race come into play. Gender and class. Gender is about power. It’s about signifying. It’s used as a metaphor. It shapes things that aren’t about gender at all.”

As such, students can find it play out not only in the materials they study, but also the ways in which their classes and other areas of social life are structured on campus.

“Gender is a constitutive part of our world,” Cross continued. “It’s a way in which we organize reality. Studying it is thinking about how we live and exist and define ourselves.”

Next week’s WAGS lecture is on April 2, at 4 p.m. in Hayden 100. Journalist Gaiutra Bahadur will talk about her new book, “Coolie Woman.”