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July 15, 2012
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.
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.
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 05, 2012
On Friday 29th June, I presented a paper at the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar which focused on the theme of "Victorian Things Revisited" (full conference write-up here). My paper "'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place, c. 1851" represents a new direction in my work, developing a gradually emerging interest in material culture and the ways in which objects can be reconsidered in the context of space and mobility.
The paper originated in some research on Bleak House last summer, when I began to think more about the significance of the Great Exhibition for the national-global relations in the novel. I was particularly interested in some images by George Cruikshank (below), and the many questions they open up around the relationship between people, things, and place. As I blogged at the time, in looking at these images one can't help but recall the central question of Bleak House: "what connexion can there be [...] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!”
Cruikshank's images illustrate the text of Henry Mayhew's comic novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to 'enjoy themselves' and to see the Great Exhibition, and it was this that formed the focus of my paper. Most attention to this text has focused on the glimpses Mayhew gives us of the Exhibition, where we find an interest in the objects on display, the new people present in an internationalised London, and the potential social good of the Exhibition (against the backdrop of Mayhew's other work of the same year, London Labour and the London Poor). But what interested me most was the way in which the narrative surrounding this also demonstrates a continual interest in things, people, and place, and their changing relations to one another. As the Sandboys family make their way to and around London, they encounter a continual stream of comic accidents and misfortunes in which people and things repeatedly surface and come into contact in unexpected ways. In particular, it's the connections forged through the mobility of people and things, and the implications for the space of the nation, which emerges as a key question of the text.
The wider framework for this reading, which I'm still teasing out somewhat, is the move towards thinking about objects in the context of global networks of mobility. This has emerged particularly in the context of imperial networks of commodities, and John Plotz's Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move is a fascinating study of objects "on the move", suggesting that pieces of "portable property" become resonant repositories of national identity in an increasingly global, mobile world. Plotz's main concern is with objects moving out from Britain, and his reading of "reverse portability" is concerned primarily with identifying an "imperial panic" raised by objects coming into Britain. I think, though, there's a lot more to be said about the circulation of objects (both British and foreign) within Britain not just as producing an adverse imperial reaction but also for the narratives of national identity, and physical traces of national space, that mobile objects create. There is, too, further scope for thinking about the ways in which objects function within a world being physically reshaped through mobile networks; objects make visible the abstract concept of a compressing world space, leave tangible traces of the connectedness of the nation to wider networks of mobility.
These are ideas that I'll be exploring as I develop the paper further, and the discussion that followed was extremely helpful in shaping some of the directions this will take. I'll be thinking more about 1851 alongside Bleak House, another novel written in the wake of the Great Exhibition and similarly preoccupied with the connections between people and things on the move; I was reminded, though, that there's the potential for connections to work as a more positive, benevolent force in Dickens, whereas my reading of Mayhew focused more on the anxiety surrounding these interactions. There's also more to be said around ideas about bodies and/as places/things: my discussion of body-thing interactions started to stray into ideas around embodiment and of the body-as-place, with feminist geography theory lurking in the background; in my next reading of the text I'll be thinking more about the mobility of the gendered body and the more nuanced readings of place/space relations that this might open up.
I'm entering into discussions of objects from the perspective of someone more familiar with ideas around space and mobility rather than material culture and I've still got a way to go with fully drawing out the nuances of these arguments - and I'm aware that a lot more reading (and re-reading) on material culture awaits - but I'm excited by the wealth of ideas this has opened up; it feels like this work will be productive both in terms of the perspectives on objects and material culture that it provides, and for refreshing my thinking on mobility and space.
July 02, 2012
This meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar focused on the theme of "Victorian Things Revisited", seeking to explore where the "material turn" has taken us in Victorian Studies and what new possibilities for research still remain. Throughout the day, each of the 6 presenters approached the theme of material culture from a different angle, demonstrating the rich diversity of approaches to material culture and opening up many new possibilities for new directions in this research.
The day started with a panel comprising of myself and Mary Addyman, a first-year PhD student also based in the Department of English here at Warwick. I gave a paper titled "'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place c. 1851", which I'll write about in a separate post as the panel generated a lot of ideas that I want to follow up in more detail. Mary's paper explored new research into the collection of Richard and Henry Cuming, a father and son who collected a vast array of objects from the 1780s to 1900, including geological and archaelogical artefacts, art, textiles, ceramics, Egyptian objects, and objects representative of British social history - including everyday packaging. The disorganisation and variety of the Cuming collection goes against our usual understanding of the Victorians as systematic collectors imposing order in a disordered world, but Mary sought to find a more nuanced reading of the way in which this disorganised mode of collecting might be read, thinking about the collector recording his place in the world and the sense of responsibility to future generations involved in this accumulation and preservation of the present. Mary ended by considering the temporality of collecting, drawing out some fascinating links between collecting and geology.
Image from Southwark Collections
In the second panel, two papers centred around objects that sit at the intersection between bodies and things and trouble the binaries between living and dead, natural and artificial. Julia Courtney (Open University) raised the question of "Living Things?" in her paper on Victorian taxidermy. This focused first on taxidemied animals and birds that are posed in scenes that recreate their "natural" environments, and then on animals that are anthropomorphised in artificial scenes, such as a scene of mice sat at a table playing cards. This raised interesting questions about the relationship between bodies and things, the point at which a body becomes a "thing", and by what means the status of "thing" is ascribed. Courtney also thought about the differences in cultural appreciation for taxidermied animals, comparing the Victorian fashion for and fascination with taxidermy as something that evokes a pleasurable response, versus the rather more reluctant way in which taxidermy is viewed - with humour? disgust?- today.
Walter Potter's Red Squirrels Playing Cards, c.1871
Courtney was followed by Michael Lee (Leeds Met) whose body-object discussions took a literary turn in a paper on "Eating Things in Lewis Carroll". Lee began with a theoretical exploration of the different conceptualisations of things and objects, raising the question "what kind of a thing is food?" His subsequent discussion of Alice in Wonderland suggested that through Carroll's use of food the borders between different types of things are blurred: food is a social thing which moves within a network of circulation that supercedes the human. Food also troubles the boundaries of body/thing and life/death: the body itself has the potential to be a thing that can be consumed, moving from subject to object status. In networks of consumption, Lee suggested, everything is edible and everything is social.
In the final panel of the day we moved towards science and industry. Stella Pratt-Smith's paper "Material, Manufactured, Modern: the Science of Victorian 'Thing' Culture" posited a more thorough understanding of the relationship between science and material culture: science was not just one aspect of Victorian material culture but central to allowing that material culture to come about. Her paper demonstrated how putting Victorian things into the contexts of their production, exploring and understanding how things were made, is not only illuminating for our understanding of particular Victorian objects but also for interpreting the significance of the Victorians' fascination with things. Pratt-Smith's discussion of the science of various objects, such as the development of purple dyes that held a particular allure and new glass technologies, provided a fascinating insight into the scientific developments fuelling material culture. This was particularly interesting in light of the recent Transforming Objects conference: Stella referred to Jim Mussell's discussion of chlorodyne (and I must thank Stella for her generous mention of this blog in her talk and handout!), and I was also reminded of Eugenia Gonzalez's talk on narratives of doll production.
Stephen Etheridge (Huddersfield) finished the day with a paper on "Brass Instruments, Bandsmen and Working-Class Identity: Brass Bands in the Southern Pennines and the creation of working-class identity, 1840-1900". Etheridge began by noting the overly romanticised notion of brass bands as symbolic of northern working-class culture, but moved in to offer a more nuanced understanding of the role of brass bands in the Southern Pennine region and the various ways in which bands featured as a centre-point of masculine working-class identity. Etheridge noted the strong community element of this identity: bandsmen forged a strong group identity within their band and were well known within the local community, and this was strengthened by the competitiveness between bands from different towns. But there was also a particularly strong individual identity forged through relation to one's own instrument: after the death of a player the instrument would feature as a strong reminder of the individual, often proudly displayed in his memory - we were also shown the image of a gravestone decorated with a trombone engraving. Here again the intersections between people and object, life and death, and the permanence of objects in comparison with the mortality of people - taking us full circle to the ideas raised about collections in Mary's paper.
There were many interconnections arising throughout these papers, more than I could hope to cover here, and I was struck by how such a diverse range of perspectives on material culture could simultaneously raise so many points of interaction. This was interdisciplinarity at its best - balancing breadth and depth, generating new ideas without losing particularity or focus, and enabling stimulating and lively discussion in each of the question sessions. The day revealed material culture to be a thriving area of study with many possibilities for new directions and approaches, suggesting that this is an area which we can keep visiting and revisiting for some time to come.
June 15, 2012
Writing about web page http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13555502.2012.689504
A quick post to note that this blog has been featured in an article on "Early Career Victorianists and Social Media: Impact, Audience and Online Identities" (due to appear in an issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture published later this year, but available online now).
Written by Amber Regis (who blogs over at Looking Glasses at Odd Corners), the article explores the ways in which a new generation of Victorian studies academics are utilising blogs and twitter in their research and career development. Along with Bob Nicholson and Paul Dobraszczyk, I was interviewed on my use of social media and appear in the finished article in a section discussing the value of blogging for academic practice. Throughout the article, Amber discusses issues of Impact and the REF, the value of Twitter for academic communities, and the ways in which we craft online identities.
The article is one of a pair on social media, accompanied by Rohan Maitzen's "Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Pratice"; Rohan blogs at Novel Readings and writes here about the many ways in which blogging has served to enhance her teaching and research. Both articles provide valuable discussion of the new forms of academic practice that are opening up new possibilities and changing the ways in which we think, write, and research. I'm proud to be a part of this new academic community and grateful that I was able to participate in this discussion - many thanks to Amber for including me in the article.
June 13, 2012
"Have you any distinct idea of Spitalfields, dear reader? A general one, no doubt you have—an impression that there are certain squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches, far below the steeples, somewhere about London,—towards the East, perhaps..." (Dickens, "Spitalfields")
"I am a stranger here": An East End Exploration took us where many an urban observer has been before, through the crooked streets, marketplaces, and bustling thoroughfares that so intrigued Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Arthur Morrison, and many more since. Yet unlike many of these narratives, this walking tour sought to capture the diverse complexity of Spitalfields' history, presenting the multiple perspectives that comprise the myriad identities of the area. Lead through the streets by Alan Gilbey - lifelong East Ender and excellent guide - and an energetic supporting cast of actors, this was part tour, part theatre, part history, that continued to inform, amuse and entertain for the two hours that we walked the streets on a cold and drizzly Sunday afternoon.
Taking the role of "social explorers", we moved between locations which each revealed a different perspective on the region. Having learnt about the origin of the name Spitalfields - a contraction of "Hospital Fields", as the area originally lay in empty land behind a hospital - we started with a heavily gated building and the story of the Huguenots, French Protestant refugees who brought the silk industry into the area in the 17th century; the building we stood at was one where imported goods were moved after shipping, away from the docks but just outside the city bounds. This was the first in a long tradition of textile manufacturers, and as we moved into Petticoat Lane we heard about the Jewish community that came to populate the region from the late 17th century, bringing in weaving expertise and establishing the Sunday markets. From there, it was swiftly past the multistory car park that stands on the site where Jack the Ripper murdered his last victim (this was emphatically not a Jack-the-Ripper tour), and on into one of the narrow, crooked streets that characterizes our idea of the nineteenth-century slum; for by the Victorian era, Spitalfields had declined to become one of the nation's biggest social problems, seemingly beyond all hope and the subject of many social commentaries. One such text, Jack London's The People of the Abyss, provided vivid illustration of this theme, and several passages from the text were read and performed at various sites throughout the tour, giving a continuous narrative (and temporal) thread to our understanding of the space.
As we reached Brick Lane, the final parts of the region's history unfolded with stories about the Bangladeshi community developing in the later 20th century, bringing new cultural influences to the area whilst retaining the textile industry. All around us, though, was the contemporary history of an area that has been regenerated in recent years through an influx of artists that gave the region a trendy urban edge which is now becoming increasingly mainstream, causing the artists to move on and out; meanwhile, the city encroaches ever closer as buildings start to be bought up for office space (although happily, just last week the old fruit and wool exchange was saved from conversion into an office block).
The tour came to an end in a church where we encountered stories about the Salvation Army's attempts to save the poor, and then for the last half hour we had the opportunity to hear more stories of the streets. Alan Gilbey recounted his own experience of growing up in the area, focusing on the 1980s when a group of teenagers were encouraged to write about their life in the East End, eventually forming a published collection which marked a significant shift in the narrative history of Spitalfields; no longer narrated by the urban explorer, the people constructed their own accounts of Spitalfields life. The final part of the tour continued this theme: in the format of speed-networking/dating, we moved between tables where actors inhabited the role of different characters to each tell a 5-minute story about an aspect of Spitalfields life: stories included the matchgirls' and sailors strikes of the late 19th century, a more complex account of the different groups and communities that have inhabited Spitalfields, a story about the Salvation Army, and the bandstand at the centre of a park. It was an imaginative and effective end to the tour, a chance to explore more of the detail behind the bigger narratives.
The tour was a highly enjoyable experience, excellently well organised and performed. For me, it was a useful opportunity to hear a different set of perspectives on a region that, just a couple of weeks ago, I'd attended a conference about. It's also very helpful to have finally been on a walking tour and I'll be thinking more about the experience as I work more on thoughts about literary urban tours.
The tour was part of Spitalfields Music Festival which is still running until 23rd June and has an exciting line-up of events over the next week; the tour has now ended, but Alan Gilbey runs East End history walks which, if this experience was anything to go by, I'd highly recommend checking out.
June 12, 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'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!"
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.
June 02, 2012
Writing about web page http://www.transformingobjects.blogspot.co.uk/
This two-day conference at the University of Northumbria brought new perspectives to the study of material culture by focusing on ideas around objects and transformation, both in terms of the movements of objects, and the processes of change that objects themselves might effect. Papers from a wide range of disciplines, covering the 18th-20th centuries, looked at a fascinating array of objects: shawls, tea, glass, medicines, art, feathers, paper, dolls, rags, post and clocks, were just a few of the things discussed.
The first panel on "Transforming Objects in Gaskell" opened up a rich discussion of material culture in Elizabeth Gaskell's works, initiating wider contexts of domesticity, industrialisation and imperialism that recurred throughout the following two days. Alison Lundie's paper on clothing and needlework in Gaskell looked at how character and identity can be interpreted through objects of domestic arts in Gaskell's works, and focused in particular on shawls which are especially desired garments; Lundie illustrated this with beautiful images of Gaskell's own shawls. Her discussion included Miss Matty's Indian shawl in Cranford, and the factory workers' shawls in Mary Barton; this intersected nicely with the next presenter Tara Puri, whose paper on "unstable objects" in North and South included Indian shawls as part of a wider discussion about symbols of middle-class domesticity which also included tea and calico. The relationship of these objects to the representation of Margaret Hale brought out ideas around bodily presence and sexuality, and the role of imperial objects in the constructiong of middle-class English femininity. Both papers hinted towards physical borders of the self, touch, and embodiment that, to me, resonated with Kate Smith's paper at the Spaces of Work conference I attended recently. With this paper in mind, I was particularly interested in two points Lundie had made in her discussion of shawls and Mary Barton - about how factory workers are referred to as "hands", and the references to literal hands in the text. I wondered afterwards (in a not entirely coherent comment!) about how ideas around hands might interplay, literally and metaphorically, with the use of shawls and other textiles.
An afternoon panel on "altering states" looked at the power of objects to transform from one state to another. James Mussell's paper on chlorodyne raised wider questions about framing of discussions of material culture and the secret lives of things: we come to know and understand the material world through the narratives we create about it, and uncovering material history is thus a process of "telling tales about the tales that were told" about objects. His narrative of chlorodyne was a fascinating exploration of the ways in which legal and medical discourses intersect with the physical experience of the body, highlighting that medicine's powerful transformative effects on the body is situated within a wider context of authoritative discourses that speak for the body. Mark Blacklock followed with a paper on "Hinton's cubes" and late-19th century theories of 4-dimensional space, which discussed the role of objects in altering conceptual thought and opened up ideas about the relationship between things and thought.
The next morning, I chaired a panel on "Transforming objects and the creation of nation" in which themes of travel and networks of circulation were central throughout. Ruth Scobie began with a paper on Elizabeth Montagu's feathered objects, featured in William Cowper's poem "On Mrs Montagu's Feather Hangings." As in the first panel, the intersection of femininity, domesticity and imperialism came to the surface here, but Scobie looked at how the feathers - as items obtained specifically through acts of violence - made particularly visible the tensions between exotic desirability and destructive violence inherent in colonial encounters. Emalee Beddoes' paper also looked at an imperial commodity within English national space, discussing tea advertisements as an emblem of Britishness in the 19th century. Advertising played a crucial role in normalising tea from exotic artefact to everyday domestic object. Middle-class femininity featured strongly in this, with adverts typically using women; if men featured in adverts, it was typically only in the context of the international, public sphere.
The next two papers turned from objects to travellers: Maria Grazia Messore discussed Daniel Defoe's A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, a piece of travel writing which seeks to construct an idea of English national identity through the process of travelling the nation, and particularly emphasises the importance of trade and the figure of the merchant in this identity. I was interested in the importance of the circuit in this delineation of national space: each route begins in and returns to London, thus insisting on the importance of London as the centre-point of the nation - but also, with London being the centre-point of an international network of trade, thus emphasising the signficance of the global in the idea of the nation. The final paper of this panel, by Fariha Shaikh, drew on emigrants' narratives to consider travellers' objects and the ways in which travelling objects construct ideas of space for the traveller. Shaikh noted that in emigrants' accounts, much attention is given to the physical positioning of objects and everything being in its right place, and she considered how this suggests a reconceptualisation of the journey space as not so much an invisible backdrop to the journey, but as a space to be worked through, experienced and reshaped by the traveller.
The final panel I attended gave a fascinating account of paper in its many and various forms. Claire Friend discussed the process of making paper in 18th century Edinburgh, from collecting the rags and scraps that were used as the basic material, to the finished product - of which there were over 300 types being made in Edinburgh alone. Eugenia Gonzalez then looked at objects made from paper: dolls, which often had faces made from papier-mâché. Gonzalez's paper explored narratives of doll production, i.e. books which informed their young readers of how dolls were made, again raising interesting questions about the intersection between objects and narrative processes, as well as the desire to know the secret histories of things and how they came to be. Katie McGettigan brought together several strands of discussion in a paper that considered the material form and circulation of the book, demonstrating Melville's engagement with the literary marketplace and the idea of book as object through a series of metaphoric connections between books and whales in the text.
Two keynote papers also provided stimulating ideas and perspectives on the conference theme. John Holmes spoke about the pre-Raphaelites and science, which proved to be a fascinating exploration (and demonstration) of interdisciplinarity in arguing that the pre-Raphaelites transformed what art could achieve through an engagement with science, which in turn transformed how science represented itself. Sarah Haggarty's paper returned to ideas of national circulation, space and time; I particularly enjoyed her comments on the postal service and its role in transforming the experience of time, in which individual sense of temporality depends upon a regulated, national system of circulation.
As well as the academic discussions that ensued from these excellent papers, a particular highlight for me was participating in the Roundtable discussion on blogging. The theme of our discussion was single- or multi-author blogging, but in the hour and a half we ranged over issues of academic identity, narrative voice, the importance of "impact", web presence, and the different forms that academic blogging might take. Lucinda Matthews-Jones, who chaired the roundtable, has done an excellent job of capturing the discussion in a blog post for JVC Online- which is itself a great example of a multi-author blog and well worth a read for Victorianists!
My thanks again to the conference organisers for inviting me to join the discussion, and for an extremely interesting two days of thinking about things! It's proved very timely as the next event of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies seminar is on the theme of "Victorian Things", and I'll be giving a paper titled "What connection can there be?: People, Objects and Places, c. 1851". The paper draws out some ideas around material culture, national/global networks, and the Great Exhibition, so the Transforming Objects conference has provided a useful stimulus for developing these thoughts.
May 19, 2012
"Unplanned Wildernesses: Narrative the British Slum 1844-1951" was a one-day conference, held at Warwick and organised by Gabrielle Mearns, which opened up a fascinating range of perspectives on British slums from the mid-19th to mid-20th century.
Gabrielle's opening remarks positioned the slum as a site of contestation in a range of debates over gender, class and race, and a space that challenges representation, and papers throughout the day explored the full extent of these remarks. Seth Koven's keynote began by taking this idea of the power contest to the smallest-scale place within the slum: the body. In particular, he focused on a young woman from the slums, Nellie Dowell, and two competing accounts of her body: medical records that document her hospitalisation for chorea (rheumatic fever), and her letters to her friend Muriel. Koven began by questioning why, as a historian, reading the medical records felt a far more invasive act than the intensely personal letters, and the paper that followed offered various answers to this. In the first part he constructed a narrative of Nellie through her medical records, intensely (and invasively) detailed accounts of her bodily state; Koven positioned these within discourses of "technologies of interiority" and explored ideas around the individual body within the regimented instituition of the hospital. Nellie's letters to Muriel provided a different narrative of her illness, one which opened up deep intimacy and forms of desire that were suggestive of something deeper than friendship; Koven raised the possibility (and difficulties) of reading unknown queer desire, but what was particularly interesting here was the way in which illness provided the means through which that desire operated, opening up the boundaries of the bodily self/ other and a language of exchange and connection. Returning to his initial question about the historian's position to subject material, it was clear that this latter material felt less invasive because of its voluntary nature, rather than the involuntary nature of institutional documentation, and Koven drew on Spivak to leave us with questions about "(how) can the Cockney subaltern speak?"
The first panel saw a paper from Warwick's Mick Carpenter and Alice Mah who are undertaking a project on Coventry's slum history - an act of reclaiming an "outcast slum", as the city's pre-war urban history has received little attention. They charted the 19th century development of the city, which effectively skipped the normal processes of the Industrial revolution and underwent rapid urbanisation in the late-century period; as such, it is a "non-classical" slum, and their project is understanding this history through local accounts, collections and narratives. This was followed by Christopher Bischof's paper on slum schools, looking at the role of teachers who chose to work at these schools and their relationship to the slums which they lived and worked on the edge of; this put them in an ambivalent relationship to the space of the slum, and raised questions around the borders of respectability in the slums, and urban environments more widely. Indeed a running theme of the morning was the idea of encounter between the personal and professional, the body and the institution, in urban locations.
Borders and boundaries was also a theme throughout the panel I chaired on "Slum Geographies". Jessica Hindes' paper looked at G.W.M. Reynolds' Mysteries of London, beginning by raising questions around the representation of the space of the slum through different genres, particularly the Gothic - modes of representation more typically found in descriptions of European castles become transferred to the London streets. Jessica thought in particular about the spatial dynamics of above/below ground which opened up a different mode of spatial structure, and one which was appropriate to her final point that just as the Gothic taps into the deepest layers of the psyche, the slum holds the secrets of society itself. New forms of mapping the slum were also a theme of Eliza Cubitt's paper on Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago. The slum on which this narrative is based is represented on an OS map of the city only as a blank space, unrepresentable and unmapped; Morrison's account creates a fictional mapping of the space which, interestingly, is still bordered by the "real" streets surrounding the slum. Eliza's paper explored the relationship between text and map, including a fascinating visual re-mapping of the text through a 3D simulation that recentred the importance of embodied experience in mapping. Nell Stevens' paper also considered competing spatial discourses through looking at the Salvation Army's practice of rewriting popular music-hall songs with Salvationist lyrics; this was a popular way of appealing to the urban poor, but Nell also suggested that it reflected the broader Salvation Army project of remapping London spatially, and considered the role that music played in this project.
In all of these papers I was really interested by intersecting themes of the competing modes of both spatial and textual representation taking place over the slums, the questions over the boundaries of the slum and its relationship to the surrounding urban space, suggesting perhaps that the way in which these narratives sought to spatially and textually contain the slum was underpinned by an anxiety about its potential uncontainability. As much as these discourses sought to articulate the problem of the slum it was obvious, too, that the slum made visible a whole host of problems of modernity: not just its problematic socio-economic changes, but also wider conceptual questions about the relationship between different places in a changing world-space. This is, of course, drawing more on my own research framework than that proposed by the papers themselves, but it felt like one useful way of positioning and contextualising the ideas around modernity, space and representation that the slum poses. All in all a useful and productive day, and great to hear such a range of perspectives on the British slum.
May 11, 2012
Throughout May, the Journal of Victorian Culture Online is hosting a bloggers fair, showcasing a different Victorianist's blog each day. It's already proving to be a great opportunity to find out about new blogs of interest - among some of my current favourite reads (Amber Regis's Looking Glasses at Odd Corners, Rohan Maitzen's Novel Readings), I've been pleased to discover Gaby Malcolm's Braddon blog, and MA student Jolette Roodt's wonderfully named blog The Old Curiosity Shop which supports a Victorian-themed reading group.
I'm very pleased to have been featured as today's blog; in fact, it was two-for-the-price-of-one with my entry as I also spoke briefly about my teaching blog for The English Nineteenth-Century Novel. JVC will soon be releasing an article about early career Victorianists and social media by Amber Regis, in which I speak more about this blog; I'll also be writing a blog entry about my use of blogs in teaching which will feature as part of a JVC series on teaching methodologies and practices over the summer.
I've also got three forthcoming talks on blogging, and social media more widely: Embracing Digital Tools as an Academic (17th May, Warwick), a panel on Social Networking and new media at "Making an Impact with your Research" (21st May, Warwick), and Single and Multi-author Blogging panel at Transforming Objects (29th May, Northumbria). It's encouraging to see so much interest and different debates around these topics, and I hope I can continue to improve my own practice through all of this reflective activity.
April 22, 2012
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.
Dickens 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.