Nineteenth Century Seminar @ IES
The London 19th Century Studies Seminar's theme for the term is "Novel Spaces", which kicked off this morning with two fascinating papers. Whilst I found Andrew Thacker's "Rhymers on Fleet Street" to provide a stimulating continuation of his other work on modernism*, it was Josephine McDonagh's paper "Provincialism: Affect and Mobility in Our Village and elsewhere" on which I want to focus some thoughts on, as it was this that was more pertinent to what I'm working on now.
McDonagh's discussion of provincial writing focused in particular on Our Village, Mary Russell Mitford's series of sketches of life in a Berkshire village, published throughout the 1820s-30s. The paper began with an indicative contextual setting, situating provincial writing within a global context as McDonagh identified how the provincial "place-writing" of the 1820s was popular with emigrants and settlers abroad. Centring upon the question of "what kind of space does provincial writing produce?", the early part of the talk considered the differentiation between regionalism and provincialism through reference to Ian Duncan's 2002 essay on the subject: in particular drawing out Duncan's assertion that the provincial place is defined specifically against the metropolis (over 150 miles becomes regionalism), and that any provincial location is substitutable for any other, whereas regionalism is sustained by the specifics of its particular region. McDonagh also noted the critical concern with provincial writing as, consequently, a static and nostalgic genre, but argued instead for reading provincial writing as necessarily engaged with modernity, produced in and by cultures of mobility. This is a literature in which mobility is central to the narratives, in which the process of place-making, constructing a "sense of place", is key; thus, the appeal to settlers and emigrants elsewhere, involved as they were in the practice of producing space.
The paper raised some fascinating insights for my own work; to go back to that initial wider context, I was especially interested in this situating of place-making literature within the global context of mobilities, resonating as this does with David Harvey's assertion that in an era of space-time compression and global expansion, place becomes increasingly important. The increasing importance of place can be easily supported by turning to, say, regional literature and the way in which it asserts, in this era of global expansion, specific (British) places as unique, identifiable, and important. But what I was getting from Jo McDonagh's ideas here is that in provincial literature there's a further, more complex, process going on, which is that not just specific places but rather a "sense of place", an idea of what place is as a more abstract concept, is also being worked out. The emergent spatial consciousness of what space "is" is accompanied by a similar process occuring on the level of place, in which place, too, is becoming more abstractly conceptualised. And, perhaps more crucially, this "sense of place" seems to be one in which mobility, movements within places as well as mobile connections with wider surrounding networks of spaces, is centralised, perhaps suggesting that what's forming here is something like Doreen Massey's idea of place not as a bounded and distinct entity but rather as "articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings" (Space, Place and Gender). The assertion of place isn't just part of the process of nation-building etc. but also something on a more complex conceptual level, and something which recognises the impossibility of statis as a foundation for the solidity of place in the mobile, modern world.
* ( - as an aside, it was his Moving Through Modernity that sparked my initial interest in my phd topic, provoking the necessary combination of agreement and contention that gave me the first roots of a thesis idea... so it was great to finally see/hear the person with which this all began),