All entries for Sunday 11 May 2008

May 11, 2008

Victorian Feeling: Touch, Bodies, Emotions

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Victorian Feeling Conference Image

This year's BAVSconference on "Victorian Feeling: Touch, Bodies, Emotions" is taking place at the University of Leicester from 1st-3rd September 2008. My paper, "Embodying the City in the Victorian Novel" will explore how the city is interpreted through spatially embodied subjets in novels such as Charlotte Bronte's Villette and Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. This analysis will propose ways in which reading the interaction between the body and the city spaces offers new approaches to reading embodiment in the Victorian novel, emphasising the significance of theorising embodiment within a spatial context.

TV adaptation of Little Dorrit

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My current favourite Dickens novel brought to TV by the wonderful Andrew Davies: in a word, yay!

"Fashioning Gender: Contexts and Approaches": Saturday 10th May, University of Warwick

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“Fashioning Gender: Contexts and Approaches” was a one-day conference that invited historians, museum researchers, and those based in art and design fields to discuss the interrelation between fashion and gender, and the methodologies involved in these processes.

Elizabeth Wilson gave the keynote talk on “What do Feminists want? Fashion and Second-wave Feminism” which drew on her writing of Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Having lived through first- and second-wave feminism, Wilson provided a highly insightful overview of the developments and changes in feminist issues, and the part that dress has played in the feminist movement: from the 1960’s “sexual liberation”, which a sceptical Wilson contended was in some ways a period of sexual repression and an era in which dress, whilst critiqued by feminists, remained a real issue for many concerned about how to look feminist/ “different”; to the 1980s, which saw feminism to some extent influencing fashion trends such as punk, in addition to confusion amongst feminists over whether critiquing clothes was simply “shooting the messenger”, attacking the symbolic product rather than the producers behind fashion.

With regards to the present day, Wilson argued that the most significant change to the fashion industry (along with celebrity culture and “fast fashion”) is the issue of individualism; individualism, said Wilson, has reached a point of stifling social meanings, the ideology of choice so great that it’s become difficult to find tangible meanings in fashion, there’s so much choice that the choices one makes have become essentially meaningless. Wilson suggested that the only real choice left is that of Islamic dress, and the most meaningful critique of Western dress is emerging from Islamic discourses. Yet in spite of the difficulties of finding meanings in fashion, Wilson’s central message was to assert that fashions do have collective and social meanings which we should attempt to retain.

The first panel began with a paper by Catherine Richardson on “Fashioning Early Modern Gender Between Literature and History”. Richardson’s discussion of 16th and 17th century clothing covered both the practical elements of clothing- such as the closer relationship between clothing and the body in a period when clothes are largely made personally for the wearer- and the cultural implications of choices about dress, which was an important point of discussion in religious debates as well as signifying social status and contributing to developing notions of gender construction. Richardson’s talk posed some interesting questions about the relationship between fashion and gender: where do ideas about gender and fashion come from: the elite, or lower down the social scale? And do material gender practices construct or reflect culture?

Barbara Burman followed with “Dress, Gender and the Object” which drew on Burman’s research into pockets, focusing here particularly on the nineteenth century. Significant differences were identified between men’s and women’s pockets- men’s clothing contains numerous pockets visible on the outer garment, whereas in women’s dresses pockets are hidden away in a number of places, such as in folds or pleats of the dress, between the several layers of skirts, in the bustle, or the petticoat, and could either be part of the dress itself or a separate attachment tied around the waist. For women the pocket provided an alternative space of personal privacy within the fashioned dress; the interplay between the two demonstrates, Burman stated, how fashion may be owned and enjoyed, but also resisted. Burman also asked the question, to what extent can gender be inside an object, suggesting that pockets of this kind are inherently gendered.


The second panel looked at the construction of masculinities and fashion in papers by Peter McNeil and Christopher Breward. McNeil’s talk “Crafting Queer Spaces: Privacy and Posturing” considered the connections between interior design, spatial planning, privacy, and same-sex desire. Looking at specific interiors of eighteenth-century Europe, specifically designs by Sir Horace Walpole, McNeil asked, to what degree did these spaces make the queer subject visible? These spaces of opposition, removed from the world, provided a specific space for the queer subject. Breward’s paper, “Modes of Manliness: Issues in the Histories of Masculinities and Fashion” addressed the problem of the general disinterest in the collection of, and research into, men’s everyday clothing from previous centuries. The lack of special attention to men’s attire has become naturalized, strengthening the assumption that fashion is a feminine phenomenon. However, men’s clothing does reveal discourses involved in men’s self-fashioning concerning political, social and sexual power- the Englishman’s suit, for example, suggests an efficient, organised, patriarchal order, figuring as the material projection of the bourgeois desire for self-discipline.

Breward ended by asserting that an emphasis on men’s gender construction helped to bridge the public-private dichotomy that assumes men have little-to-no connection with elements of the “private” (and implicitly, the body) such as fashion. This discussion of public-private relations provided an interesting connection to some of the issues raised the previous day at the Street Life conference, offering a point of intersection between these two fields which are both explored in my reseach exploring the situation and gendered construction of the spatially positioned body in public and private spaces. As I continue to reflect on these two days of conferences, I hope some more useful connections between these and other ideas will emerge, thereby really embracing and developing the inter-disciplinary focus of each event.

(Final note: there was one more panel at this conference but I had to leave early).

"Street Life: Victorian Culture at the Crossroads": Friday 9th May, King's College London

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This was a one-day symposium bringing together a range of established academic and postgraduate Victorianists to discuss the subject of the "Victorian Street" from a diverse range of perspectives. All the papers focused specficially on London streets, as the city far exceeded the size and significance of any other in the Victorian period.

David L. Pike's talk on "Afterimages of the Nineteenth-Century City" provided a stimulating start to the day. Pike's concern was with the perpection and representation of the "Victorian city" in contemporary culture, and he began by posing a number of provocative questions regarding this theme: what constitutes the "Victorian"? What persists of the Victorian city? How "Victorian" are the spaces which we term as such- how do we experience these as lived spaces when really, the notion of "Victorian spaces" can only ever be purely conceptual? The persistence of our idea of the Victorian city suggests a continuity in the lived spaces that persist, but to deem spaces of the city today as Victorian neglects to recognise the period in between then and now, the hundred years or so that have contributed to the formation of how these spaces have persisted.

Following on from these introductory comments (which are themselves persistent questions to which there are no easy answers), Pike argued that the image of the Victorian city which has become dominant in the cultural imagination is that of the "underground"- literally and metaphorically. Victorian spaces of the past have assumed a "subterranean identity"- associated with a darkness, spectres, a grimy vision of the city; it is these notions of the city that have predominantly been assimilated into modern culture, and this vision keeps expanding to include the "detritus" of the early 20th century. The "Victorian" endures as a particular moment to which certain elements of the past- the underground, subterranean, darker side of city life- are ascribed. The talk was accompanied by discussion of images from contemporary culture, particularly some terrible 1970s horror movies like Death Linewhich nevertheless provided relevant depictions of typical cultural representations of the city; a more recent example was From Hell. Pike also offered some illuminating comments in his response to questions, such as when asked whether the "underground" notion is different to that of the "edgelands", the marginal, peripheral spaces around the city; Pike replied that he consciously situates the concept of the "underground|" against ideas of border/edge-lands in order to posit a different spatial relation that opens up traditional ways of thinking about the past. I wondered also whether the most important aspect of this idea is that it reinstates the the peripheral as central to cultural formation, whilst the idea of spatial layering is significant in remind us of the relationship between space and time- that spaces are subject to a temporal accumulation of changes, that the "Victorian" spaces of the city encompass a century of cultural associations. Pike's talk was fascinating and I can't wait to read his books Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945 and Metropolis on the Styx: The Underworlds of Modern Urban Culture, 1800-2001. I'll hopefully be able to write a more developed and articulate response to Pike's ideas when I do.

Sadiah Qureshi followed with "Glimpsing the Urban Savage: Henry Mayhew and Street Spectacle in Victorian London". The theoretical framework of the paper was the flâneur figure, the idle, detached, observing wanderer of the city streets that gained prominence in the writings of Walter Benjamin. Qureshi entered into the debate amongst many feminist historians and literary critics that have contended with this restrictive definition of the flaneur (a specfically male spectator), hoping to expand the concept to a definition of an "urban spectator" that is not defined by gender, class, race etc. but through the role of spectator, observer. Qureshi explored this idea through the writing of Henry Mayhew, whose social observations of London in the mid-nineteenth century are regarded as among the first of their kind. However, Qureshi positioned Mayhew within a tradition of urban literature, and attempted to move away from the concept of "social observer" by instead positing Mayhew as a "street ethnographer". Qureshi revealed through her talk how ideas from contemporary ethnography theory are present in Mayhew's discourse, such as the categorisation of peoples as either "wandering" or "civilised" tribes. Mayhew offers the social equivalent of these terms, narrating the London streets as wild an unknown territories by drawing on racialized discourse, for example using nineteenth-century racial stereotypes such as that of the "lazy African" in his descriptions of the white urban poor, in this case the representation of an Irish family.

These ideas particularly interested me as, since auditing the course on travel writing, I've been thinking about the ways in which travel narratives influence modes of representation in English fiction, considering how discourses, ideologies, and extra-textual features like maps, are brought into play in the writing of fictional nineteenth-century journeys. Qureshi's talk stimulated a further topic for thinking about this, whilst also prompting me to get started on some reading about race in nineteenth-century London. However, with regards to the challenge that Qureshi posed to the concept of the flâneur, I remained unconvinced that Mayhew provided an adequate alternative. The paper did touch on issues relating to this issue, crucially the fact that Mayhew actively participates with what he sees rather than simply observing his subjects from a distance, thereby identifying the necessity for constructing alternative categories for modes of spectating the city- something I'm interested in doing with regards to gendered experiences of the city. Yet Mayhew, as a white, male (middle-class?) figure doesn't really, in my mind, offer enough of an alternative position from which to reconceive the spectator position as he still occupies a privileged position in terms of his abilility to wander the city streets. However, this wasn't really the main focus of the paper and the work on Mayhew is part of a much larger project, so I'll be interested to see what emerges from the project in the future.

After lunch, the symposium took the form of two panels presenting postgraduate work on the Victorian streets. Panel 1, "Networks/Mapping", began with an exploration of Regency London, before moving onto Katharina Boehm's talk on Dickens and the Great Ormond Street Hospital. Boehm touched on the issue of public/private spaces, identifying the displacement of the private street of the home into the public space of the hospital in Dickens' writing. The issue of public/private was a recurrent theme throughout the day and I was interested to hear several references to the street as a space which is neither public nor private, but situated between (or outside?) the two. My understanding of the issue from the works I've read has always been that the street is typically regarded as part of the "masculine"/"public" arena- although I should add that these works, as I have too, challenge the demarcation of public/private through their analysis of the "public" street. It was therefore useful to hear an alternative perspective emerging in which the street isn't taken for granted as a public space, and this is a thought that I will be bearing in mind as I progress to think about gender in the city. I'm interested to know if this reading of the street as in-between a public-private space is one that's been explored much elsewhere, and will certainly now be looking out for such theorisations as I continue to explore the issue in my research.

Panel 2, "At Home and Abroad in London", began with Brian Murray's paper on "Savages and Street Arabs: Henry Morton Stanley in Darkest England". This returned to the ideas raised by Sadiah Qureshi, as Murray identified how Stanley's observations of London's urban poor were represented through the racialized discourses of "barbaric Africa", constructing a "darkest England" equivalent to the typical trope of "darkest Africa". I was previously unaware of Stanley's writing on London, having only encountered his travel writing such as Through the Dark Continent yet as with Henry Mayhew, it seems that this will provide another useful source for thinking about the influence of travel discourses on representations within England. Thomas Marks followed with "'Architectooralooral': Building Experience in Great Expectations", which through a reading of Dickens' novel posed some indicative questions about architecture and knowledge: what is it to "know" architecture? what is it to "know" spaces? how is the city "read" by those who can and can't read? what are the available images through which we make sense of the city? These questions are always useful to hold in mind when thinking about the lived experience of space, and the connection between architecture and knowledge could provide the basis of an interesting re-visiting of Foucault's explorations of the relationship between space, power, and knowlege.

The symposium drew to a close with two longer papers by academics Matthew Beaumont and John Stokes. Beaumont's "The Curiosity of the Convalescent" returned to the idea of the flâneur, positing a similarity between the flâneur and convalscent as social archetypes, as both wander the city with the "joy of watching". Yet it was Stokes' paper on "'This grey, monstrous London of ours': Wilde at Work" which was for me the highlight of the day. Stokes began by thinking about what kinds of journeys typically provide the focus of work on the city streets, noting that our attention to figures like the flâneur pays greater attention to walking journeys that are undertaken for pleasure, loitering and spectating at leisure. But what about functional journeys- those that take people around the city on their day-to-day business, between shops, appointments, and so on? Stokes identified the three modes of transport available for these movements around the city in late-Victorian London: walking, horse-drawn carriages, and the London Underground.

The theoretical framework for the ensuing discussion was Michel de Certeau's discussion of journeys and spatiality in The Practice of Everyday Life, in which Certeau's idea of "spatial stories" closely connects narrative, movement, and spatial practices: "every story is a travel story - a spatial practice" he writes in Chapter 9.

With these ideas in mind, Stokes posited the question "what stories do cab journeys tell us?" Cab journeys can provide social comedy, given the close proximity between passengers that the confined compartment necessitates; and cabs are often the location of sexual event, as in the famous cab journey of Madame Bovary. But cab journeys also offer an interesting theoretical possibility, suggested Stokes. Certeau's analysis of "spatial stories" discusses the distinction between space and place, defining space as the actualization of place, a practiced place. Stokes argued, through a reading of an episode in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, that the cab journey demonstrates and enables Certeau's theories of space-place; the cab journey is narrated as an urban adventure in which urban place becomes a space of confusion, the loss of direction, time and velocity effecting a loss of spatial situation and thereby opening up place to become space. Stokes therefore suggested a reading of a literary journey which renegotiates the relationship between space and place- an idea that really resonates with my work on journeys in which I'm positing a similar renegotiation between space-place practices across the journey. It was encouraging to hear someone else discuss these ideas, and I want to think further about Stokes' paper having read The Picture of Dorian Gray and also re-read Certeau- at the moment, after 3 days of different conferences (that's 21 papers!), my head is simply too full to think through this in any great detail. The questions at the end of Stokes' paper also brought in the difference between railway and cab journeys, another point for thought as my work is increasingly becoming about the railway journey.

All in all, this was an extremely thought-provoking end to a very successful conference which demonstrated the persistent endurance of the Victorian city in the intellectual imagination and situated the Victorian streets as provocative spaces that continue to produce new and evocative challenges.

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