All entries for December 2009

December 14, 2009

2010 British Women Writers Conference

I'm very pleased to have had my paper proposal accepted for next year's 18th-19th Century British Women Writers Conference, taking place at Texas A&M University from the 8th to 11th April 2010. This will be my first time speaking at a conference abroad, and I'm especially pleased to be able to go as the conference theme is "Journeys" so in addition to this being a good opportunity to present my own research, it will be very interesting to find out more about the kind of work that is being carried out in this field in the US academic community. My paper is provisionally titled "'Wandering out into the World': Women Walking in the mid-Victorian Novel" and will explore accounts of women walking alone in selected novels by Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. Taking the framework of the gendered associations of travel spaces as a starting point, I argue that Bronte and Eliot contend with these assumptions by positioning women walking alone in the streets, and explore spatial gendering through the embodied experience of travellers by demonstrating how gendered codes act to alter the ways in which bodies and spaces interact. Furthermore, these narratives go beyond gendered codes to explore the process of travel as a material, embodied practice and thus offer illuminating perspectives on the subject-space relationship that have implications for the critical understanding of literary geographies. The paper will demonstrate how focusing on the movement of characters through space – particularly in the process of walking – enables the development of a more fluid, mobile theorisation of spatiality that is attentive to the transitory nature of the embodied subject-space relationship.

December 11, 2009

The Railways in Art

I've spent the term writing about representations of railways in Victorian literature, out of which have emerged some interesting and unexpected themes and ideas. So far the chapter falls around two main themes: the carriage as a disruptive force that severs the body from connection with the surounding journey-space; and the new spatial context that the carriage produces within itself. In both, images of the body of the travelling subject provide a locus for understanding the new and disrupted spatial contexts that the railway produces.

Often, literary representations are characterised by absence: many journeys aren't described in great detail, travelling bodies often disappear from view. This makes the fleeting glances of travellers all the more interesting- often, the merest appearance of a hand here, or a railway rug there, provide rich sites for analysis within the context of spatiality. For instance, Dickens' description of Dombey's journey notes how objects appear "close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the travellers, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly with him” (p.311); that slight reference to Dombey’s hand is so crucial in articulating the loss of embodied contact with journey-space that the railway journey enforces, capturing how spatial perception is thrown into confusion not only due to the velocity of the train but also because the body has lost its relational sense of spatial understanding in this new mode of travel in which space can only be perceived, not experienced in an embodied sense, through the barrier of the window.

Much of this analysis depends on constructing theoretical frameworks for understanding the significance of these passages, and artistic representations of the railways are useful here in supporting and developing a sense of how the carriage-space was perceived and understood. The exhibition Art in the Age of Steam that I went to last year has been extremely useful in this respect, thanks to the wonderful exhibition catalogue that I was lucky enough to be given. I've been looking in particular at images of railway carriage interiors, which aren't often detailed in the texts I'm looking at, and paintings therefore provide a useful supplement for thinking about how this new spatial context was conceptualised. Augustus Egg's "The Travelling Companions" (1862) is especially indicative, full of suggestions that resonate with the ideas I've been working on.

"Travelling Companions"

The painting emphasises the enclosure and privacy of the railway carriage: the framing of the visual field is such that the compartment is seemingly little bigger than that of a horse-drawn carriage, and everything is close, pushed in upon itself. The mirroring of the two girls exaggerates this sense of enclosure, drawing the carriage space in upon itself, and also creates this as an intensely private scene, locking the girls (presumably sisters) into a self-contained unit. This private bond between them places the domestic as central to the image, and everything about the interior operates to suggest that they are within a domestic interior; there's a complete denial of this as public, open space and the doubling furthers this by acting to exclude the possibility of anything else entering into this frame of vision.

The possibility of anything else entering the carriage is further prevented by the voluminous dresses that take up almost half of the picture - this provides an interesting resonance with literary depictions in which we so frequently see characters bundelled or parcelled up in numerous coats, rugs, blankets etc. Here, this "parcelling up" asserts their class status, surrounding the women in wealth and luxury which offers layers of protection from the industrialised mode of transport - there is not the merest suggestion of the railway as machine ensemble here. The dresses also act on gendered terms - that these women can travel alone in the carriage reflects the new travel possibilities that railways provided women with; but questions and concerns of the propriety of women travelling alone were subject of much discussion in the early years of railway travel and in literature women risk being villified for doing so (in the texts I've read, women often travel alone only in desperate or extraordinary circumstances). The enclosure of the carriage entailed potential connotations as a sexualised space (although that goes back to horse-drawn carriages too- think of Madame Bovary): but here, there's safety suggested as the "travelling companions" ensure propriety is upheld; and the layers of their dresses conceal their bodies from the possibility of sexual contact or the intrusion of a gazing male - there's literally no space for a male intruder with all those layers of silk!

So we have here a space that seems to be drawing away from its reality as a railway-compartment and instead seeking to recreate a feminised, domestic sense of space. Even the view from the window resists the railway: although this centralised, the view beyond features as little more than a back-drop to the foreground. It's also so static: there is no suggestion that the train is moving rapidly, not only is the view perfectly framed but only the curtain tassle at the top of the window shows any sign of movement. It's typical, too, to see the girls engaged in reading and sleeping- the railway journey enables the traveller to do something other than travel; travelling is now a privatised, individual experience. But this is, of coures, only to consider the first-class carriage; a very different experience of rail travel is presented in images of third-class carriages- but I'll save that for another blog post soon.

December 06, 2009

"Through the Sash Window": History of Art Seminar @ University of Warwick, 2nd December 09

As part of the History of Art Department's Seminar Series, Dr. Steven Parrissien gave a talk on Wednesday entitled "Through the Sash Window: Space and the Home in the Early 19th Century". I found this to be a thoroughly interesting and engaging talk which gave me a fresh perspective on ideas of space in the 19th Century. The focus was on the early 19th century- just up to the 1830s- which Parrissien situated as a period in which the middle-classes were able, for the first time, to choose how to decorate their homes (the term "interior decoration" was first used in 1807): with industralisation and the subsequent growing wealth of middle classes, people were more able to devote time an money to the decoration of the home. Home design was largely about demonstrations of wealth, with the home as a venue for displaying new wealth; but Parrissien also emphasised the importance of having choice over how the home was decorated, conveying the sense of excitement and possibility in this new mode of display- pictures of interiors of homes showed the new fabrics and designs on offer; the talk also touched on the periodicals and magazines on home interior design which were being produced by the 1820s, displaying all the wonderful items that could be chosen.

Much of the talk focused on windows- a subject which has interested me since reading Isobel Armstrong's Victorian Glassworlds, and many of the themes here resonated with Armstrong's work. Parrissien detailed the revoltions in glass production that allowed for developments in the construction and design of window: glass could be produced as bigger panes, and with greater clarity (earlier, thicker types of glass offered limited visibility, with windows functioning predominantly to let in light); the window could therefore be constructed to offer a bigger, clearer viewing space. The view from the window now featured as integral to a room, almost part of its decoration: this is emphasised in paintings that position the window view as almost a painting-within-a-painting, creating a landscape in itself.

However, not only was the view out improved, but so too was the view in: the passer-by on the street could more easily see into the home. This de-stabilised the typical public/private sense of space: whilst the home might be ideally conceptualised as an enclosed, private world, the window disturbs this relation and opens up the home which is now a transparent, more vulnerable space that can be penetrated by the gaze of those outside, as well as being more aware from inside of the presence of that "beyond". Parrissien ended by positing the increased importance of spaces around the home, such as the front garden and the front door, as a form of protection and boundary from the outside world.

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