May 19, 2012

Unplanned Wildernesses: Narrating the British Slum 1844–1951 @ Uni of Warwick, 19th May

"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.

slumGabrielle'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

JVC Online Bloggers Fair

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.

May 10, 2012

Travel and Mobility – research network

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I am currently establishing a new interdisciplinary research network to explore the different contexts, concepts, and approaches to travel and mobility studies across the arts, humanities and social sciences. This will be co-organised with a colleague in the German Department (Brian Haman). We are currently seeking participants with research interests including:

*travel literature (fiction and non-fiction),

*travel and the visual arts,


*migration and migrants,

*mobility theory,

* broader notions of transnationality

*in any national/international context from the early modern period to the present.

The core of the network will be Warwick-based, but we have had expressions of interest from researchers at other UK and international universities with whom we hope to extend the collaboration in time.
Please feel free to contact me if you are interested or would like more information.

May 09, 2012

Spaces of Work, Britain 1770–1830 @ University of Warwick, 28th April 2012


This one-day conference held at the University of Warwick provided an excellent interdisciplinary analysis of the intersections between space and various forms of work in the Romantic period.

The discussions began with Karen Harvey's paper "Thinking through Boundaries: The House, Gender and Work" which explored masculinity and domesticity in the eighteenth century. Harvey began by suggesting a conceptual shift from the use of the word "home" to the concept of "the house" in studies of domesticity, positing that "house" can be used to signal more than the physical shell but that it carries a set of meanings that are distinct from the idea of "home". Harvey then turned to look at masculine identity and the house, exploring men's role in the management of the house through a selection of notebooks of 18th century men. These displayed the active role of men in household management, and demonstrated the irrelevance of the division between discourses of home, work, business and so on. She ended by moving out to the position of the house in the wider space of national community, and how men's domestic management helped to understand the porosity of the house to the wider world. The paper drew on her recently published book The Little Republic: Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain which I'm hoping to read at some point.

Of the papers on the two panels that followed, I was most interested in Kate Smith's paper on "The Work of Shopping". Smith argued for a reconceptualisation of shopping as "work", by way of offering a renewed understanding of critiques of female shopping - which become repositioned as critiques of the public act of female work. Smith looked at how shopping could be understood as skilled work, involving embodied knowledge, active participation, and a keen eye for quality; this focused in particular on the importance of female hands, looking at the surrounding contexts of female hands as signifiers of identity and class status, and the problematic visibility of female hands on display when shopping. This opened up an interesting set of intersecting discourses between embodiment, space and work, drawing out new ways of understanding the typical discourses around female bodies in public spaces; I was also reminded of ideas around the meanings of skin as a physical boundary, and associated issues around encasing the female body.

Other spaces of work discussed throughout the day included the bookshop, rural spaces, wharfs and warehouses, and theatres - a rich and varied set of contexts that made for an interesting and engaging day.

April 22, 2012

Consequential Ground: Dickens and the Shakespeare birthplace

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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.

April 20, 2012

Talking blogging @ Transforming Objects Conference

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A quick post to say that I'm very pleased to have been invited to participate in a roundtable on blogging at Transforming Objects, a conference at the University of Northumbria on the 28th-29th May 2012. The discussion is on single- and multi-author blogging, and I'll on the panel with James Mussell, Kieran Fenby-Hulse, and Martin Eve, all of whom are outstanding bloggers and I'm sure the topic will generate some stimulating and fruitful discussion.

May will be a good month for Victorianists as JVC online are holding a bloggers' fair to showcase Victorian blogs throughout the month. I'm pleased to be a part of this and looking forward to finding even more blogs to subscribe to!

April 04, 2012

A Novel Idea: the Victorian Books that TV forgot

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My latest podcast with the Knowledge Centre has been published with an accompanying article this morning.

Titled "A Novel Idea: the Victorian Books that TV Forgot", I discuss the limited range of nineteenth-century novels which are taken up by film and tv producers. However, the recent Wuthering Heights film is a good example of how new adaptations of familiar texts can add value to wider understanding and interpretations of novels; Andrea Arnold's casting of a black Heathcliff opened up postcolonial critical perspectives that are now well established in literary criticism but, judging by the media response to the film, are not so familiar to wider audiences. As literary criticism continues to develop new perspectives, new possibilities continue to arise even for those texts that have already been frequently adapted. That said, I do have a few suggestions for other texts that would make for good tv - you'll have to listen to the podcast to find out which ones!

March 26, 2012

Baedeker's Southern Italy

One of my favourite things to do of a weekend is browse the shelves of secondhand bookshops and I've been on a bit of a roll with old travel books in Leamington's Oxfam Books & Music in recent weeks, which I'll be blogging in the next few posts.


The first of my finds is a 1912 edition of a Baedeker's handbook to Southern Italy and Sicily


Full title: Southern Italy and Sicily, with Excursions to Sardinia, Malta, and Corfu; Handbook for Travellers, with 34 Maps and 34 Plans, Sixteenth Revised Edition.

Baedeker's handbooks, along with Murray's Guides, were the key tourist handbooks of the 19th century, accompanying many a tourist on their travels across the continent and beyond. Although the "guidebook" had long been used to advice travellers about their journeys, the Handbook was a slightly different genre, designed as a compact edition to be carried by the traveller on their journey. The Handbook included practical information to prepare the traveller, but also set out a planned series of routes to be followed.

This is the first edition that I've seen up close, and it's fascinating to see just how detailed the guide is as well as to read the surrounding material; between the two, there's a clear tension between being a "true" independent traveller as opposed to a mere "tourist" (I am of course drawing here on James Buzard's discussion in The Beaten Track1). The Preface informs the traveller that the aim of the Handbook is to "supply the traveller wtih some information regarding the culture, art and character of the people he is about to visit" in order to "render him as independent as possible of the services of guides and valets-de-place".

But whilst the emphasis here is on a certain mode of "independence", the heavily prescriped form of the Handbook is also hinted at: it is "in every way to aid him in deriving enjoyment and instruction from his tour". The Handbook's purpose is not just to set out the correct path to follow, but to aid the traveller in deriving the correct enjoyment from each sight - to give the traveller the lens through which to view all that he sees. As Buzard writes, handbooks "preceded the tourist, making the crooked straight and the rough places plain for the tourist's hesitant footsteps; they accompanied the tourist on the path they had beaten, directing gazes and prompting responses" (75); Dickens's depiction of tourists in Italy in Little Dorrit satirises the tourist's reliance on the handbook, describing masses of tourists "walking about St. Peter’s and the Vatican on somebody else’s cork legs, and straining every visible object through somebody else’s sieve” (428).

Baedeker map

Thus what follows are routes detailing exactly where to walk, what to look at, and even the timings of each stage: "from the piazza in front of the cathedral we proceed to the S. straight through a gateway, then ascend through the porch of the church of Sant'Antonio, pass the portal of the church of Santa Chiara to the left, and reach (8 min.) a door giving on the road." This level of detail constitutes most of the book's 500 pages, such that there almost seems little point to actually visiting the place itself!

The same can be said of the cultural attitudes of the English towards foreigners displayed throughout. The particular strength of feeling against Italians is demonstrated right from the start: the first paragraph of the Preface ends by stating "the Handbook will also, it is hoped, save the traveller many a trial of temper; for probably nowhere in Europe is the patience more severely taxed than in some parts of Italy." In the section giving practical advice, stereotypes of Italians abound: it is noted that begging "has in Italy been regarded from time immemorial as a legitimate mode of earning one's daily bread", reference is made to the "insolence and rapacity" of cab-drivers, and we are warned that "the popular idea of cleanliness in Southern Italy is behind the age, dirt being perhaps neutralized in the opinion of the natives by the brilliancy of their climate". The travellers' health is of great importance, with strict instructions on what to eat and drink (avoid "free indulgence" in most foods) and what to wear when: "always be provided with a greatcoat or shawl .... Woollen underclothing is indispensable." No detail is left out, even the traveller's body incorporated into the institutionalisation of travel.

This edition has certainly seen a few travels in the last 100 years, although it's in good condition and the colour maps and plans (as above) are still vibrant (and notably, all details in Italian). The next book I'll be blogging about is slightly different in focus and purpose, recounting a visit to Morocco in the 1920s.

1James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

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.

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