BSLS 2019 - British Society for Literature and Science annual conference

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference


'Literature and Colour Vision from Dickens to Joyce'

During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, colour vision acted as a keystone in discussions on economics, public safety, employment, medicine, philosophy, anthropology, and genetics. Maynard Keynes analysed the patterns of heredity in red-green colour blindness and William H. R. Rivers published on colour perception within ‘primitive’ populations. In 1890, the Royal Society’s Committee on Colour-Vision reported that many shipping and railway accidents were caused by colour-blind drivers being unable to distinguish between red and green signals.

This multifaceted fascination with colour vision is reflected in literary works across the late-Victorian and modernist periods, including in Charles Dickens’ ‘The Signal-man’ (1866), Joseph Conrad’s The End of the Tether (1902), Virginia Woolf’s ‘Blue and Green’ (1921) and Orlando (1928), and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). Dickens’ and Conrad’s texts engage, albeit indirectly, with the debates about shipping and railway accidents – with Conrad also alluding to ‘primitive’ colour vision. Woolf’s and Joyce’s texts are more abstracted, though Woolf is known to have discussed colour blindness with Keynes and Joyce regularly conversed with his own opticians.

As well as analysing the literary texts above, my paper will draw upon collections-based research conducted as part of my research fellowship at the Science Museum, London.
Period4 Apr 20196 Apr 2019
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • modernism
  • medical humanities
  • Victorian literature and culture