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July 15, 2012

Dickens's buildings and the partial perspective

What do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why?

This was the question with which Lynda Nead began her keynote at Dickens and the Visual Imagination this week, and one which I kept coming back to over the last few days, with a couple of instances prompting further reflection on Nead's talk.

The first instance was watching David Lean's Great Expectations, having realised this week that I've never seen the film in full; crucially though, I felt as though I had because its key images are so familiar - as Nead said, it's so much a part of our visual imagination of Dickens. On reaching the scene in which Pip arrives in London for the first time, I was reminded of an instance a few years ago when my memory of the text had become confused by memory of the film, which previously I'd seen fragments of in undergraduate lectures. At the time, I was writing a section of my PhD thesis on arrivals into London, and dug out Great Expectations intending to write about Pip's entrance into London and the foreboding vision of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral that looms over his arrival. Upon re-reading the book, I was surprised to find that the episode is only a slight, brief mention in which Pip recounts "I saw the great black dome of St Paul's bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison" (chapter 20); a mere handful of words for what had become, for me, a strikingly visual image.

Pip

Image of Pip's arrival in London in Lean's Great Expectations

I was convinced that the episode was textually described in far more vivid and lengthy detail; it wasn't the text, but the image from Lean's film that I had in mind. The image had mingled into my memory of the text to create a new, composite image existing, for me, somewhere between text and film. Nead spoke this week about how the visual imagination isn't so much a process of "geological layering" but rather one of creative transformation which explodes the boundaries of both text and image and creates new imaginative forms in its wake; it's a description that seemed more than fitting for my memory of Great Expectations.

In watching Great Expectations this week I was particularly attentive to a further point of Nead's talk, in which she noted that we never see a complete vision of the exterior of Miss Havisham's house, only partial fragments - the clock tower, the gate, the steps. We might think that we have a complete vision of the house, but in fact this is largely constructed through the house's interior; so powerful are the images of Miss Havisham's rooms that they work to build a vision of the house from the inside out.

Great Expectations

The interior of Miss Havisham's house

This resonated strongly with the theme of Andrew Sanders's talk on Dickens's rooms, in which it was notable that so many of the illustrations from the novels depict interiors; rarely (at least, from what I can think), do we see exteriors of the houses. And today, as I was reading Julian Wolfreys' Writing London, these ideas came to mind again. Discussing a passage from Our Mutual Friend, he notes the resistance to the whole, complete vision in Dickens's architectural description: 'the entire architectural meaning is brought into question, deconstructed as it is into a series of ambiguously architectural details... The eye is moved from piece to piece, but the gaze is ultimately refused an overall meaning, a monumental, organized presence on which it can fix' (p. 150)

How often does Dickens give us a description of the exterior of a house? When are we given the complete perspective of the whole, or is Nead's idea of Lean's construction of Satis House from "inside-out" true also of the written descriptions in Dickens's novels? How often are buildings constructed only from within or with a view to partiality?

And, to reorient Nead's question, what do we imagine when we think of Dickens's houses, and why? That is to say, what role does film play in the visual imagination of Dickens's buildings? Where do film/tv adaptations give us the complete exterior perspective that the text denies, and how does this play into our visual idea of Dickens's houses and other architectural forms?

***

David Lean, Great Expectations (1946)

Julian Wolfreys, Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens (Palgrave, 1998)


July 11, 2012

Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 2)

Follow-up to Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 1) from Charlotte's Research blog

Day 2 of Dickens and the Visual Imagination took us to the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Artin London. The wonderful cavern of an underground library provided the perfect setting for a day of papers that focused more specifically on art and film historians' perspectives on Dickens.

The day began with Lynda Nead's keynote "'To let in the sunlight': Dickens, Lean and the Chiaroscuro of Postwar Britain", a fascinating analysis of David Lean's 1946 Great Expectations. Nead started with some stimulating questions that pushed at the wider frameworks of the conference: what do we mean by "the visual imagination"? What is our "visual imagination" of Dickens: what do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why? Nead began by thinking about how we read the relationship between text and film, arguing for a reciprocal relationship in which neither text nor film is privileged but rather seeing adaptation as a process of creative transformation evolving new forms and opportunities - this, she suggested, might offer one way in which to understand the concept of a visual imagination. With this in mind Nead moved on to read Lean's Great Expectations in the context of postwar Britain, providing a detailed analysis of a selection of stills from the film which focused on the complexity of Lean's use of black and white.

great expectations

The use of chiaroscuro - the interplay between light and shadow- constructs a subtle "language of shadow" which achieves a rich depth to images, and constructs an aesthetic of decay and ruin which was highly resonant with the postwar Britain in which the film was produced. Nead seemed to be suggesting that the aesthetic language of the film is not "Dickensian" as such, but rather creates a visual language of its own that very much belonged to the moment in which the film was made.

The next panel on Perception and Perspective began with Andrew Mangham's paper (read by Greg Tate) on Dickens, Hogarth and Perspective, an interesting analysis that took Dickens's references to Hogarth in the preface to Oliver Twist as a starting-point for identifying a Hogarthian sense of visual perspective in Dickens's realism. Janice Carlisle followed with an exploration of Great Expectations and JMW Turner's painting; this worked towards centring Estella in the novel's visual economy, particularly in terms of how Estella constructs Pip as artist. Aleza Tadri-Friedman presented on "Art Appreciation and Visual Perception in Dombey and Son", considering the recurrence of art throughout the novel with a particular focus on how the transgressive Edith Granger is positioned within wider debates about art and perception in the nineteenth century; in another indicative text-illustration reading, Tadri-Friedman looked at the interplay between the narrative construction of Edith through Dombey and Carker, and the illustration that accompanies one key scene in this narrative.

Dombey and Son

Panel 2 explored Dickens and Painting, beginning with Dehn Gilmore's "Reading the Dickensian Gallery" which suggested ways in which art and artistic vocabulary in Dickens might offer a new way of understanding Dickens's relationship to his early reviewers. Pat Hardy's Dickens and Portraits looked at the ways in which Dickens employs the language of portrait painting, focusing on Bleak House which represents a key moment in engaging with ideas around portraiture, exploring key ideas about physiognomy and using this not only as a way in which to read individuals, but also with an interest in how people see one another. Vincent Alessi finished with a paper on the influence of Dickens on Vincent van Gogh, offering a complex examination of van Gogh's development as a painter and analysing particular paintings of or influenced by Dickens.

The day concluded with a final keynote presentation by Kate Flint on the subject of "Pavement Art". Flint began with a short story by Dickens, "His Brown Paper Parcel" ("Somebody's Luggage"; All the Year Round, 1862 Christmas edition), in which the narrator is a pavement artist: why, Flint asked, would such a figure be so interesting to Dickens? In what followed, Flint offered a wonderfully rich exploration of pavement artists in the nineteenth century and explored the questions raised through this unique form of visual culture. Pavement art occupies an interesting, often contradictory, space: it is emphemeral yet immobile/immoveable; outside of institutions and the marketplace, yet necessarily public and invites the viewer to participate in a form of artistic patronage; often produces a copied image but never produces a definitive replica and depends upon being constantly reproduced; creates delight amongst its audience through the process of its creation more than in existing as a finished product. Pavement art troubles and challenges the definition of art and artist, and in turn raises complex questions about the relationship between author and art work, raising issues of ownership and authorship, creation and performance, and the position of art in the public sphere- all especially important to Dickens at a time when he was touring the country performing extracts of his own work in his final years. Ideas were raised here too about the mobility of the artist and the circulation of art, resonating with the rise in print circulation throughout the nineteenth century and Flint picked up on this relationship, as well as questions around the legitimacy of wandering and loitering.

Pavement Artist

Illustration of a pavement artist from The Graphic, September 1874

Flint's talk provided a stimulating end to the day, and in its analysis of a different form of culture also spoke to some of the issues that Lynda Nead had raised in questioning the idea of the visual imagination: there was here an idea about how we might define the visual imagination as being, like pavement art, something transient, ephemeral and almost impossible to truly grasp, something forged and re-forged in different contexts and places, resisting (or defeated by) the permanence of the art forms that it tries to get a hold of, and always part of a process of creative transformation that evolves, adapts, and opens up new possibilites for interpretation.


Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 1)

Writing about web page http://www.ias.surrey.ac.uk/workshops/dickens/

Dickens

Dickens's Dream, Robert William Buss (1875)

This two-day conference at the University of Surrey and the Paul Mellon Centre in London gave a fascinating array of responses to the idea of Dickens and the visual imagination, from Dickens's engagement with visual material, the interplay between text and image in his writing, and the lasting influence of Dickens in visual culture.

The conference began with Andrew Sanders's keynote on "Dickens's Rooms". Sanders covered a myriad of rooms - prison cells, grand rooms, poor rooms, ship berths, empty rooms, and many more - often drawing on both written description and accompanying illustrations, the latter often playing against or revealing more about the text, particulary in the inclusion of objects, portraits, and the interplay of light and shadow within rooms. Sanders's discussion focused particularly on class and characterisation, offering some suggestive insights about the wider textual resonances of small details of rooms.

David Copperfield

Illustration "I am hospitably received by Mr Peggotty" from David Copperfield

The first panel I attended took London as its theme. Christine Corton presented on "London Fog: from the Verbal to the Visual", exploring the particular visual resonances of the fog metaphors that Dickens frequently employs in his writing on London - such as the variety of different colours that the fog takes (the "pea-souper" of Bleak House, for example). This gave a greater complexity to the use of fog as a metaphor for ambivalence, and revealed the changing nature of fog throughout Dickens's writings. The murkiness of London was also present in Ursula Kluwick's paper on "The Dickensian Thames in Word and Image" which looked at the interplay between visual and verbal representations of the River Thames in Dickens's writing. The river frequently features as dirty and unhygenic, echoing contemporary concern over the condition of the river by those calling for sanitary reform; it is also used as a metaphor for the moral corruption of London, although takes on a contradictory, more pleasant appearance in rural scenes. However, Kluwick noted that in accompanying illustrations the river is often less prominent, obscuring these issues to suggest ambivalence at facing up to the state of London.

Old Curiosity Shop

Illustration of Quilp's death from The Old Curiosity Shop

A final paper in this panel by Estelle Murail took us above the city to look at the influence of sketches and panoramas on Dickens's cityscapes. Sketches and panoramas are different forms of urban representation, the former a detailed close-up of particular sites whilst the latter provides a sweeping vision of the city recreated in an all-encompassing visual experience. A panorama by Rudolph Ackermann challenges this, as Ackermann incorporated detailed sketches into his construction of the panorama, and Murail used this as a basis to explore how Dickens's writing also challenges the distinction between the two modes of viewing the city, moving between panoramic perspective and the detail of a sketch. Murail finished with some indicative ideas about the function of technologies of vision in the new landscape of modernity, drawing on Wolfgang Schivelbusch's ideas about the urban panorama teaching a particular mode of vision that served as preparatory for the panoramic perspectives of the railway journey.

The next panel focused on architecture and interiors, starting with a paper by Emma Gray on Victorian domestic interiors in Dickens's writing. Emma spoke last year at my conference on Rural Geographies of Gender and Space 1840-1920, and it was interesting to hear her discussion of country houses such as Tyntesfield and Hughenden Manor in the context of Dickens's writing. Gray suggested that Dickens's depictions of domestic interiors often resonate with the work of distinguished decorators JG Crace & Son, and she analysed scenes such as the redecoration of Dombey's house in Dombey and Son and the handling of the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend through contemporary fashions in home decoration. Clare Pettitt considered Dickens's response to visual material during his time in Italy in the mid-1840s, suggesting that his viewing of Baroque art and architecture effected a profound stylistic change in his work of the period, opening up a new understanding of historical time and mode through which to understand the present through reference to the past. Dominic James finished the panel with a paper that considered the depiction of gothic art and architecture in The Old Curiosity Shop, in which the contemporary ambivalence to the gothic revival is revealed in complex and contradictory ways.

A second keynote by Sambudha Sen concluded the day. In a paper titled "City Sketches, Panoramas and the Dickensian Aesthetic", Sen explored how Dickens constructed an urban aesthetic heavily influenced by visal technologies such as sketches and panoramas. Discussion focused on Bleak House which Sen argued demonstrates an impulse to grasp visual modes of representing London, constructing a spatial aesthetic that contrast with Thackeray's Vanity Fair in which time provides depth and organisation to social experience. This provided a rich and detailed reading with which to finish the first day of the conference, and I'll be thinking more on Sen's reading as I come to revise work on Bleak House this week.

The first day also provided two opportunities to enjoy visual material associated with Dickens. At the University of Surrey we viewed "Dickens Illustrated", an exhibition of illustrations from and inspired by Dickens's works - a nice opportunity to see a huge range of editions of Dickens's works, from the earliest editions illustrated by Phiz to more recent childrens' books and comics inspired by his writing. After the conference, we headed to a reception at the Watts Gallery in Compton, where an exhibition on Dickens and the Artists is currently on display, exploring the influence of Dickens on artists of the 19th century such as the image of the conference, Buss's "Dickens's Dream". This was an excellent end to the day, and apt preparation for the art history focus of day 2, on which more in my next post.

watts.png

"The Watts Gallery is a place where the past meets the future,

where myth joins reality,

where the principle of beauty embraces the facts of truth"

(Andrew Motion)


June 12, 2012

Dickens and London exhibition @ Museum of London, June 2012

Writing about web page http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Explore-online/Past/Dickens-London/Default.htm

The Museum of London has been celebrating the Dickens bicentenary with an exhibition on the author's connections with the city. Given the wealth of associations betweeen Dickens and London in his life, works and on-going legacy, this exhibition promised much and it certainly did provide an impressive range of material relating to Dickens and Victorian London. Ultimately, though, I felt this didn't quite deliver what it could have done.

We began with biography, looking at paintings and photographs of Dickens, his friends and family, before moving into the main part of the exhibition which was organised thematically, commencing with Dickens and the theatre. Playbills, puppets, a model theatre and costumes illuminated Dickens's lifelong interest in the theatre, and playbooks of theatrical adaptations of Dickens's works demonstrated the two-way direction of this engagement.

Dickens

"Dickens's Dream"; Robert William Buss, 1870

From there it was on to Dickens and the home, where we were told about Victorian ideals of domesticity and Dickens's strength of attraction to the idea of the home. The painting Dickens's Dream was brought to life in an animated film, whilst Dickens's letters, a selection of household objects, and contemporary paintings provided visual illustration of the ideas being raised. A section on Progress had a particular focus on transport and communication technology - a particular highlight for me was a wonderful selection of photographs showing "the coming of the railway" into city spaces - and we finished with Life and Death, exploring Victorian ideas of mourning and Dickens's last years.

Throughout, many (if not most) of the artefacts on display were from the Victorian period more generally, rather than specifically related to Dickens, providing a visual exploration of Dickens's life and times. This wasn't altogether a bad thing: amongst the objects on display were an ornately carved piano and model railway train that were displayed at the Great Exhibition, pieces of telegraph cable, all of which were rather more interesting than many of the truly "Dickensian" objects - whilst his writing desk made for reasonably interesting viewing, Dickens's soup ladle did not. The paintings also offered interesting points for discussion and nicely drew out some of the links being made throughout the exhibition. It was also especially valuable to see so many manuscript and proof copies of the novels: Dombey and Son, Bleak House, and David Copperfield were among the copies on display, and whilst these were safely stowed behind glass cabinets, plastic-bound replica versions of the periodical issues were available at benches throughout. I particularly enjoyed seeing the performance copies of the texts that Dickens used in the readings he gave in his later years: a copy of Oliver Twist was heavily annotated with Dickens's performance notes, "Action!", "Mystery", "Terror to the end!"

manuscript

Whilst this was all nicely done, I felt that the links between the material on display, and between Dickens and London, could have been much more strongly drawn out. The visual material made for pleasant viewing, and gave a decent enough overview of Victorian life, but it didn't feel like it particularly added anything to the idea of Dickens and his works; with the exception of the Dickens letters and manuscripts, this could have been any exhibition about Victorian life. Similarly, the connections between Dickens and London felt underexplored; much of this could have been an exhibition about Dickens more generally, and there was little that really explained what this was adding specifically to an understanding of Dickens and London. I felt this all lacked an overarching narrative that really drew out the potential connections of the objects and texts on display, and that used these objects to offer something more to the understanding of Dickens.

I suspect that this lack of narrative arose from a focus on the design of the exhibition space which sought to "recreat[e] the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections" so as to take the viewer "on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired his writings." The dark, dimly-lit space was decorated with big letters, moons and stars hanging from the ceiling, supposedly aiming to replicate the idea that we were going on one of Dickens's famous night-walks around the city. It was a nice touch but added little to the experience; in so far as it attempted to provide a narrative journey through the exhibits this was definitely a case of style over substance.

The exhibition made for interesting viewing, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed with what the exhibition had achieved, and the sense that it could have been more given the subject at hand. This was rather emphasised when we went on to explore the rest of the Museum of London: it is a rich resource of artefacts from the prehistoric period to the present day, and the eighteenth and nineteenth century collections which I spent most time in present a wealth of material and much more successfully draw together themes, ideas, and narratives. Although the Dickens and London exhibition has now closed, I'd highly recommend a visit to the rest of the museum.


April 22, 2012

Consequential Ground: Dickens and the Shakespeare birthplace

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/dickens/victorian/dickensandsbt

Update: the film on Shakespeare and Dickens can be viewed here.

I've been writing a lot about a certain birthday this year, but tomorrow (April 23rd) is the day we celebrate another important literary figure: William Shakespeare. Many who have read Dickens's works will be familiar with the influence that Shakespeare had on Dickens's writing, but Dickens also played an important role in the preservation of Shakespeare's literary heritage. In a short film due to be released tomorrow, I talk to Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trustabout Dickens's connections to the birthplace and particularly the events of 1847 when the house was put up for auction. The podcast was filmed on location and includes some fascinating materials from the Birthplace archives, including the visitor book signed by Dickens, playbills from productions Dickens put on, and some of Dickens's letters. In this post, I wanted to think more about how we read Dickens's initial response to the birthplace, and the issues around literary tradition, tourism and heritage that it raises.

Shakespeare birthplaceDickens first visited Shakespeare's house on a trip to the region in 1838. In his letters, Dickens writes: "we went thence to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth". It's almost disappointingly brief in its pragmatic recounting of the visit and lacks the emotional investment we might want to find in the meeting-point of two such significant authors. The brevity is, I think, explained when we look at how Dickens treated the idea of Shakespeare and literary places in his fiction.

Dickens refers to the visit in his next work Nicholas Nickleby, humouring those who claim to feel such intense connection to Shakespeare: in the film, I read from a passage in which Mrs Wititterly claims that visiting the house "kindles quite a fire within one", to which her husband retorts "There is nothing in the place, my dear - nothing, nothing", and in turn Mrs Nickleby then replies, "I think there must be something in the place...". The discussion is interesting in its choice of language and the polarities of thought around which the discussion centres: there is either "something" or "nothing" in the place (the use of "nothing" being of course resonant as a significant recurrent word in many of Shakespeare's plays). In the dichotomy of something/nothing Dickens highlights the extremes of opinion to which people go when talking about Shakespeare, bounding from extreme reverance to complete irreverance (another episode in Nicklebysimilarly recounts such extremes, when Mrs Wititterly claims "I'm always ill after Shakespeare!").

The debate over whether there is "something" or "nothing" in the place also highlights here the extent to which places themselves can be over- or under-invested with meaning. But it also opens up a space in which we become aware that, in going to extremes, the characters are missing the more important question: there is of course something in the place as a physical site, but what is that "something"? What is the meaning of a place and what is the appropriate meaning it holds? What kind of meaning do we, or should we, invest in places of significance?

I've talked about before about a passage in Bleak House in which Jo leads Lady Dedlock through the London streets, eventually arriving at the site where Nemo is buried: it is a burying-ground for the poor, prompting Lady Dedlock to ask "is this place of abomination consecrated ground?" to which Jo, with characteristic linguistic misunderstanding, replies "I don't know nothink of consequential ground". The question of what is "consequential ground" - i.e., of meaning, significance and value- becomes a key issue of the novel. That slippage between consecrated and consequentialground is, I think, the crux of the issue in the Nickleby discussion: how do we acknowledge "consequence" or significance without moving into the (un)holy consecration of a site as sacred, and thus invest it with a (false) meaning beyond its true value.

This was an era, of course, in which Bardolatry - an idolatrous investment of Shakespeare as the national poet - was on the rise. Dickens was resistant to the model of authorship this was founded on and the author-worship that this inspired: his use of Hamlet, for example, is typically only to achieve comic effect, whilst others saw Hamlet as epitomising the romantic figure of the author. Dickens's hesitancy to investing the birthplace with "consecrated" meaning reads as a part of this response to Bardolatry: the brief mention of the visit - "we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth" - recognises the consequence of the visit, but acknowledges that a place can be of consequence without being consecrated, of importance without being over-invested with an excess of meaning.

That's not to undermine the fact that Dickens does recognise that there is something in a place and that there is a value in preserving literary heritage as a site of significance for the nation. His role in the saving of the birthplace is further interesting in light of the fact that literary tourism would come to play such a central part of Dickens's own literary heritage. The issue of national place, and what makes national place "consequential", runs throughout Dickens's work; in the Shakespeare birthplace, Dickens clearly found a site of national consequence and meaning, and his role in saving the house has preserved one of the most important sites of Britain's literary heritage.

The podcast on Shakespeare and Dickens will be launched tomorrow on the Celebrating Dickens website and accompanied by an article on the Knowledge Centre.


March 16, 2012

Celebrating Dickens, 1 month on

It's just over a month since Dickens's 200th birthday and in that time the Celebrating Dickens app has had over 10,000 downloads!

I spoke about the app and the Celebrating Dickens project this afternoon on BBC West Midlands, available to listen again online (1hr 43mins in).


March 10, 2012

Dickens's World, 7th–8th March 2012

Follow-up to Dickens's World Online Conference from Charlotte's Research blog

This week I "attended" Dickens's World, a free online conference at which I was an invited discussant. The conference was a fascinating event, with both the quality and quantity of papers exceeding my expectations - keynote video addresses, papers and special virtual issues of existing Dickens scholarship presented a wealth of information for Dickens scholars and enthusiasts across the world. Such was the volume of material that I've only watched the keynotes and read a selection of the main papers and articles, whilst the special issues will have to wait until I'm back to research time. A few things particularly took my interest, and I thought I'd draw together my comments and thoughts here.

The conference opened with a keynote address "Beginning the World" from Professor John Bowen, exploring travel in Dickens's life and works. Bowen began by giving a sense of the "world" in which Dickens moved, discussing Dickens's own interest in and experience of travel, before focusing on a novel in which the idea of "the world" is a central concern, Bleak House. Bowen highlighted the recurrence of the phrase "in the world" throughout the novel, a matter of some interest in a novel which aims to present a complete world in its expansive vision of society. Bowen suggested that the very idea of "the world" is an uncertain concept, further emphasised through repeated references to "the earth" as perhaps a more physical locating of the abstract idea. This provided an interesting perspective to my work on the novel, and I hadn't realised just how many uses of the phrase "in the world" occur in the text. As I suggested in the comments, the sense of ambivalence around the idea of "the world" is further underscored by the restricted physical “world” within which Bleak House operates, simultaneously entertaining the idea of "the world" whilst withdrawing into the nation. Bowen's discussion of Esther’s “beginning the world” at the end of the text further iterates this: the final “world”, the second Bleak House, is firmly situated within the heart of England at the northernmost location of the novel.

Bowen also drew out the global literary resonances of Dickens's writing, something explored more fully in John O. Jordan's paper "Global Dickens". Jordan provides an expansive overview of the circulation and critical reception of Dickens's works across the world, an ambitious and fascinating piece of work full of many interesting suggestions for further reading.

On the subject of global circulation and mobility, I also enjoyed reading Glen O'Hara's paper on the ‘Networked World’ of the 19th - early 20th Centuries in the first Special Issue. O’Hara's discussion of networks focused on the telegraph, advocating a note of caution as to how we read nineteenth-century technological development and the global connectedness enabled by such technologies - in the age of the internet we're too quick to assume that developments were as fluid as they might seem. As with the development of transport networks of the period, the telegraph displayed uneven patterns of development and intensified national tensions. As other papers hinted at, such developments occur within a complex field of meanings and reading the Victorian “response” is never simple, often fraught with ambivalence and anxiety.

I'm looking forward to discovering more from this conference, and reflecting more on the format of the online conference; one thing I noticed with this is that you really do create a very individual conference experience and I'm sure interpretations and perspectives differ a lot as a result, so I'll be interested to hear what others thought and to read all the comments on the conference papers. This was a timely stimulus for me, though, as I'll be getting back into lots more travel research and blogging over the coming weeks.


March 06, 2012

Dickens's World Online Conference

charles-dickens.jpgDickens's World is an online conference that will be taking place over the next couple of days, starting at 8am on 7th March. I am an invited discussant for the event, which will involve commenting on papers, video addresses, and the reading room resources.

The program looks very interesting - I'm particularly looking forward to John Jordan's "Global Dickens" and Prof David Paroissien's keynote address on "Shifting Perspectives in Dickens's Fiction".

If you haven't registered there's still time to join the 500 delegates! This is my first online conference so it'll be an interesting experience, and I'll blog again after the event.


February 07, 2012

Happy Birthday Dickens!

Today marks 200 years of Dickens's birth.

There are plenty of celebratory websites and blogs reflecting on Dickens's life and works, and I've already written my piece on why Dickens remains so popular and important today. So by way of a celebratory birthday post, I thought I'd take the opportunity to focus on some of Dickens's local connections.

Dickens visited Leamington Spa several times, including one visit in 1838 which included Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Kenilworth. A letter from November 1st 1838notes:

We found a roaring fire, an elegant dinner, a snug room, and capital beds all ready for us at Leamington, after a very agreeable (but very cold) ride. We started in a postchaise next morning for Kenilworth, with which we were both enraptured, and where I really think we MUST have lodgings next summer, please God that we are in good health and all goes well. You cannot conceive how delightful it is. To read among the ruins in fine weather would be perfect luxury. From here we went on to Warwick Castle, which is an ancient building, newly restored, and possessing no very great attraction beyond a fine view and some beautiful pictures; and thence to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth.

Ten years later in the novel Dombey and Son we see a similar visit undertaken by the main characters: in one of the novel's most well-known passages Mr Dombey travels on the train (the London-Birmingham railway line, as Leamington wasn't connected to London by railway until 1852) and then stays in the town at "the Royal Hotel"; Mrs Skewton and her daughter stay "in lodgings that were fashionable enough, but rather limited in point of space and conveniences" (323). They visit the Pump-room several times (in the image below, you can see a sign pointing "to the Pump Room"), and make an excursion to Warwick which takes the party over a landscape of "smooth undulations, wind-mills, corn-grass, bean fields, wild-flowers, farmyards, hayricks" (423) before visiting the Castle where "grim knights and warriors looked scowling on them". Having exhausted the Castle, they ride "to several admired points of view in the neighbourhood" to sketch the views, and then take "a stroll among the haunted ruins of Kenilworth".

Dombey

In a later visit to Leamington in 1858, Dickens notes his travel on the railway line between Leamington and Wolverhampton, saying

We came through a part of the Black Country that you. know., and it looked at its blackest. All the furnaces seemed in full blast, and all the coal-pits to be working

Less well known, however, is that Dickens also visited Coventry in 1857 and 1858; on the first visit he gave a reading of A Christmas Carol in the city and on the second visit in December 1858, he was thanked by the city with the presentation of a gold watch. In his speechto mark the occassion he stated:

the memory of to-night, and of your picturesque and interesting city, will never be absent from my mind, and I can never more hear the lightest mention of the name of Coventry without having inspired in my breast sentiments of unusual emotion and unusual attachment.

Coventry's connection to Charles Dickens will be the focus of BBC Coventry & Warwickshire's feature on the bicentenary later this morning (available on iplayer for a week)


February 03, 2012

Dickens, Travel and Little Dorrit

postcardsThis week the Knowledge Centre have published a second piece based on my podcasts, "Dickens, Travel and Little Dorrit":

"Charles Dickens was fascinated with travel, and this is reflected in Little Dorrit which features continental locations such as Marseilles, Rome and the Alps. Yet why did he represent Europe as a hostile place in this novel, and what can we glean from him about British tourists of the period"


October 2014

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