March 06, 2012

Dickens's World Online Conference

charles-dickens.jpgDickens's World is an online conference that will be taking place over the next couple of days, starting at 8am on 7th March. I am an invited discussant for the event, which will involve commenting on papers, video addresses, and the reading room resources.

The program looks very interesting - I'm particularly looking forward to John Jordan's "Global Dickens" and Prof David Paroissien's keynote address on "Shifting Perspectives in Dickens's Fiction".

If you haven't registered there's still time to join the 500 delegates! This is my first online conference so it'll be an interesting experience, and I'll blog again after the event.


February 29, 2012

On Blogging

Writing about web page /researcherlife/entry/academic_blogging/

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

Some readers of my blog will know that I also blog over at Researcher Life: the early career researcher experience, where a group of Warwick ECRs discuss various aspects of our research life. I don't usually cross-post given the different nature to this blog, but my latest post is about blogging as an academic and reflects on my research blogging activity here, so do pop over if you're interested in my thoughts on this blog or are an ECR/Victorianist blogger yourself!


February 15, 2012

After Dickens 2012; Brontë 2016?

"So, 4 years until Charlotte Brontë's bicentenary"

I was only half-joking as I made this my first tweet on the 8th February, the day after the Dickens bicentenary - as I mentioned in a post on Researcher Life, I've realised over the past couple of months that it really is worth looking ahead for any commemorative dates or other celebrations related to your research, and thinking about timing some relevant work accordingly. And thus it was that, fearing Dickens fever would soon die down (even I'm a little Dickens-fatigued), I found myself having a quick look to see which of authors are next up for the big 2-0-0: four years for Charlotte Brontë, a whole seven years until George Eliot, and Gaskell quietly came of bicentenary age in 2010. Which raises the question of whether Dickens 2012 will change the way we "do" bicentenaries; will Brontë or Eliot, arguably equally as "great" as Dickens, receive anywhere near the amount of fuss that Dickens's birthday has created?

Dickens 2012 has, understandably, wearied a lot of Victorian scholars; whilst you could easily think that Dickens was the only man born in 1812, many have been quick to point out that Robert Browning, Edward Lear and the lesser-known Geraldine Jewsbury are also 200 this year. This has prompted some interesting reflections on the literary politics of bicentenaries and even wider questions about genre preferences in our contemporary ideas about the Victorian period: Alison Chapman raised an interesting discussion about poetry vs prose on the Victorian Poetry Network, reminding us that whilst poetry doesn't hold such a strong place in our idea of the Victorian period today, there was an intrinsic relationship between poetry and prose in the period; she also points out that Dickens should be remembered not just as novelist, but also for his role in the evolving culture of Victorian poetry.

Whilst individual poets are, unfortunately, unlikely to ever get such sustained media attention as novelists (I'd suggest the potential of novels to be adapted for film and tv, and the particular adaptability of Dickens's writing, goes a long way towards the general preference for novelists in general, and Dickens in particular, today), the upcoming bicentenary of another novelist raises the question of whether Dickens 2012 will prove to be a unique event in celebrating Victorian authors, or if this will instead set a precedence for future commemorations. Charlotte Brontë is especially pertinent to this discussion, as she remains one of the most popular nineteenth-century authors today: Jane Eyre is widely read and regarded as one of the Greats, and only last year yet another film adaptation was made, suggesting its enduring popularity.

But Jane Eyre is Brontë's only really popular work, and her wonderful Villette and Shirley remain much less widely read despite containing much of what is loved about Jane Eyre: the psychological depths and mysteries of Villette are much darker, whilst Shirley's feminist heroines are problematic but the novel much more overtly and bravely probes into "the woman question". As a result, I suspect that Brontë's birthday will be a rather quieter affair, with a number of conferences and a small amount of media attention. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing: Dickens's vast corpus of writing presents a rich opportunity for multiple reflections and responses, and the familiarity of many of his works has provided a springboard for opening up such wide interest in the bicentenary; the opportunity for "celebrating Dickens" is there itself in the sheer variety and volume of his works.

Charlotte Brontë presents us with a rather different legacy, and thus the need for a rather different response; what I hope is that her bicentenary will provide an opportunity to go beyond Jane Eyre and encourage wider recognition and enjoyment of her other works. Dickens 2012 has suggested the potential for not just for celebrating what we already know but discovering the new, forgotten, or neglected works; whilst the model of Dickens 2012 might not be appropriate for other celebrated authors, it has opened up a value in bicentenary (or similar) celebrations. It'll be worth tracing the on-going impact of the projects and learning from this how other bicentenaries can best be used to encourage new forms of engagement with Victorian literature.

Now, will someone please write a screenplay of Villette...?!


February 08, 2012

Guest post on JVC blog

My blog "'Can you show me the places'? Dickens 2012 and literary tourism" has been published on The Journal of Victorian Culture's "Victorians Beyond the Academy" blog - if the title sounds familiar, it's a re-write of a post I wrote here a while back, updated to include some further reflections after re-reading Nicola Watson's The Literary Tourist and some more thoughts about the politics of national culture that emerge around the bicentenary celebrations... Do go and have a read!

And if you haven't seen it already, take a look around Victorians Beyond the Academy- it's a really interesting initiative by the journal to encourage Victorians to discuss "the presence and treatment of the Victorian in our contemporary world".


February 07, 2012

Happy Birthday Dickens!

Today marks 200 years of Dickens's birth.

There are plenty of celebratory websites and blogs reflecting on Dickens's life and works, and I've already written my piece on why Dickens remains so popular and important today. So by way of a celebratory birthday post, I thought I'd take the opportunity to focus on some of Dickens's local connections.

Dickens visited Leamington Spa several times, including one visit in 1838 which included Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Kenilworth. A letter from November 1st 1838notes:

We found a roaring fire, an elegant dinner, a snug room, and capital beds all ready for us at Leamington, after a very agreeable (but very cold) ride. We started in a postchaise next morning for Kenilworth, with which we were both enraptured, and where I really think we MUST have lodgings next summer, please God that we are in good health and all goes well. You cannot conceive how delightful it is. To read among the ruins in fine weather would be perfect luxury. From here we went on to Warwick Castle, which is an ancient building, newly restored, and possessing no very great attraction beyond a fine view and some beautiful pictures; and 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.

Ten years later in the novel Dombey and Son we see a similar visit undertaken by the main characters: in one of the novel's most well-known passages Mr Dombey travels on the train (the London-Birmingham railway line, as Leamington wasn't connected to London by railway until 1852) and then stays in the town at "the Royal Hotel"; Mrs Skewton and her daughter stay "in lodgings that were fashionable enough, but rather limited in point of space and conveniences" (323). They visit the Pump-room several times (in the image below, you can see a sign pointing "to the Pump Room"), and make an excursion to Warwick which takes the party over a landscape of "smooth undulations, wind-mills, corn-grass, bean fields, wild-flowers, farmyards, hayricks" (423) before visiting the Castle where "grim knights and warriors looked scowling on them". Having exhausted the Castle, they ride "to several admired points of view in the neighbourhood" to sketch the views, and then take "a stroll among the haunted ruins of Kenilworth".

Dombey

In a later visit to Leamington in 1858, Dickens notes his travel on the railway line between Leamington and Wolverhampton, saying

We came through a part of the Black Country that you. know., and it looked at its blackest. All the furnaces seemed in full blast, and all the coal-pits to be working

Less well known, however, is that Dickens also visited Coventry in 1857 and 1858; on the first visit he gave a reading of A Christmas Carol in the city and on the second visit in December 1858, he was thanked by the city with the presentation of a gold watch. In his speechto mark the occassion he stated:

the memory of to-night, and of your picturesque and interesting city, will never be absent from my mind, and I can never more hear the lightest mention of the name of Coventry without having inspired in my breast sentiments of unusual emotion and unusual attachment.

Coventry's connection to Charles Dickens will be the focus of BBC Coventry & Warwickshire's feature on the bicentenary later this morning (available on iplayer for a week)


February 03, 2012

Dickens, Travel and Little Dorrit

postcardsThis week the Knowledge Centre have published a second piece based on my podcasts, "Dickens, Travel and Little Dorrit":

"Charles Dickens was fascinated with travel, and this is reflected in Little Dorrit which features continental locations such as Marseilles, Rome and the Alps. Yet why did he represent Europe as a hostile place in this novel, and what can we glean from him about British tourists of the period"


January 27, 2012

The Interconnected Worlds of Bleak House

thamesFollowing the podcasts I recorded for the Celebrating Dickens site, Warwick's Knowledge Centre have run a piece on my work, titled "The Interconnected Worlds of Bleak House". A piece on travel in Little Dorrit will also be published next Friday.


January 26, 2012

Dickens's enduring appeal

This is a cross-post of a piece I wrote for the University of Warwick's Celebrating Dickens site: you can read the original here.

In the last few months building up to the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth, there has been an unprecedented level of interest in Dickens’s life and works. Dickens’s popularity is, of course, not just a trend of recent years but stems right from his earliest publications, when Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers grabbed the attention of readers and established Dickens as a household name. But many popular writers of the nineteenth century haven't remained so prominent in our literary culture, so what is it about Dickens's work that continues to appeal to readers?

charles_dickens_pd_copyright_expired.jpgThere is much to be said about the prominence of Dickens in our national cultural heritage, or the literary politics that determine why some writers’ legacies perpetuate whilst others become lost; not to mention the ways in which “Dickens” has become somewhat synonymous with our idea of the “Victorian novel”, and even the Victorian era more widely. But at the heart of Dickens’s legacy lies his writing: vivid and richly detailed language, the ability to succinctly capture human character, and to evocatively depict a wide spectrum of emotions, from humour to sympathy, across characters from all levels of society.

Whether of places, things, or character, Dickens's observation is acute. Our idea of "Dickens's London" comes from his sharply perceived descriptions of the city streets: the opening of Bleak House, for example, depicting foot passengers jostling through the city enveloped in dense layers of fog, remains one of the most memorable literary descriptions of London. A detailed knowledge of the city streets recurs throughout his novels, from characters like Pip or David Copperfield entering the city for the first time and becoming overawed “by the immensity of London” (Great Expectations), to those who see only the monotony of the claustrophobic city, with “nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up” in the “streets, streets, streets” (Little Dorrit, chapter 3).

These city movements frequently take us into the spaces of the poor, placing narrators as urban observers revealing the squalor of urban life: one account in Sketches by Boz traverses “streets of dirty, straggling houses, with now and then an unexpected court composed of buildings as ill-proportioned and deformed as the half-naked children that wallow in the kennels”. In this emerges Dickens’s sympathetic portrayal for those at the lowest end of the social spectrum: from individuals like Jo, the poor crossing-sweeper in Bleak House who “don’t know nothink,” to the multitudes of “stragglers who come wandering into London” only to provide “food for the hospitals, the churchyards, the prisons, the river, fever, madness, vice and death” as they are swallowed up by the monstrous city (Dombey and Son).

As this makes clear, Dickens’s narration always situates individual experience within wider social structures. His satire comes into full force when attacking social institutions, demonstrating varying degrees of inadequacy, inefficiency, and downright injustice. The Circumlocution Office of Little Dorrit is a memorable example: “the most important Department under government” has “its finger in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart”; nothing can be done “without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office” and yet it is “beforehand in all public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT”.

Dickens’s characterisation of individuals is also always attentive to detail and his novels are populated by a host of memorable characters – all the more so for their names: Pumblechook, Pancks, Micawber, Peggotty, Bagstock, Mr. F’s Aunt, Chuzzlewit, Turveydrop, and M'Choakumchild are just a few of the vividly inventive names. Dickens’s descriptions of character are often ironic or humorous, and typically succinct in capturing the essence of character: in Bleak House, for example, his introduction to Sir Leicester Dedlock tells us "his family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks." Those two short sentences encompass Sir Leicester’s mode of feeling, raising a smile with something of a humoured sympathy towards the blinkered vision of the aristocracy.

Finally, what has often interested me in Dickens’s works is his approach to new technologies such as the railway, met with an ambivalence that produces a fearful fascination: who can forget the railway journey of Dombey and Son in which the train moves “away, with a shriek and a roar and a rattle, plunging down into the earth again, and working on in such a storm of energy and perseverance, that amidst the darkness and whirlwind the motion seems reversed.” The insistent urgency of the passage is expressive of the railway’s capability for destruction, but is all the more effective for the way it renders human experience within this landscape: the railway serves to represent Dombey’s tormented psychological state at this point in the narrative, his distress at the death of his son clearly conveyed as he “hurries headlong, not through a rich and varied country, but a wilderness of blighted plans and gnawing jealousies.”

200 years after his birth, Dickens’s writing remains as evocative as ever and the range of responses to the bicentenary stands as testament to the variety within his writing.


January 17, 2012

Celebrating Dickens

Dickens

As I have mentioned previously, Warwick have a Celebrating Dickens website that draws together researchers from across the university discussing their perspectives on Dickens and Victorian life.

The website has just been updated with more podcasts from researchers around the University, and I've contributed two podcasts discussing my own research: the first is on travel and mobility in Bleak House, and the second discusses representations of Europe in Little Dorrit.


January 13, 2012

Borders in the Long 19th Century @ Loughborough, 13th January 2012

This joint meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar (MIVSS) and the Midlands Romantic Seminar (MRS) focused on the idea of borders and periodisation in the long nineteenth century, particularly thinking about the Romantic-Victorian border: where do we draw the line between Romantics and Victorians in teaching and research, what purposes do they serve, and what about the grey areas in between?

I only attended the afternoon sessions, which began with Julian North speaking about "teaching and researching across the Romantic/Victorian border", and it's this paper which I want to focus on here. Julian started by discussing the plurality of Rom/Vic borders, suggesting the possible dates that might be chosen - the beginning of Victoria's reign in 1837, the deaths of the Romantic poets in the 1820s, the Reform Bill of 1832 - the possibilities are endless and always problematic in their attempt to neatly define the end/ beginning of an era. From my perspective, I'd suggest the coming of the railway in the 1830s as the decisive moment separating the Romantics and Victorians: Thackeray's comment that “we who have lived before the railways were made, belong to another world ... It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then!” encapsulates the sense of the railway creating the world anew, but even with this we can't neatly date "the coming of the railway" (the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825? the first passenger line between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830? or the spread of the railways in the "mania" of the 1840s?). Or from a global perspective,we might take 1815, the re-opening of continental borders at the end of the Napoleonic wars, as signalling the first moves into a new era of global modernity.

Turner, "Rain, Steam, Speed"

Julian North also thought about the motives for imposing and crossing borders - something, it emerged later in the discussion, that is particularly a product of literary studies (and perhaps history of art), rather than history where the borders tend to depend on the specific research project. Periodisation was posed as a product itself of the Victorian period: the impulse in Victorian biography to impose a sharp distinction between the Romantic and Victorian periods- a generational conflict, in which the Victorians assert themselves as the responsible grown-ups to the young, immature Romantics.

The borders for teaching purposes were also raised: how do we define a module, what kind of borders do we construct within and around it, and what does this say to students about the period they're studying? How do we teach the nuances of different parts of the periods in question, and how much does it matter? I wondered here too about generic differences: are the Rom/Vic borders more clearly defined or more easily imposed, perhaps, with regards to poetry (neatly divided here between term 1 on the Romantics, term 2 on the Victorians) than with the novel? The 19th century novel course on which I teach moves back and forthwithin the period 1800-1899 at various points as it's structured thematically rather than chronologically; and as a result, we rather quietly cross - or rather, leap - over the problematic Rom/Vic area: there's a noticeable gap in our chronology of texts from Austen in 1814 to Emily Bronte in 1848. Arguably when teaching the novel it's the mid-century period where things begin to get really interesting (I'm biased, yes) but that's not to say there isn't a lot of interesting work going on around the Rom/Vic borderlines and it is of course indicative to think about the kinds of negotiations in literary form going on around that period, and how that leads the way for what feels more firmly established by the later decades.

The question of the end-point of the century was also discussed - are the 1890s the start of a new period completly defined from what comes before? - and I'll be thinking about these questions more over the next few weeks as we move into the later nineteenth-century and start to think about what kind of meaningful connections are to be made (or not) both with the mid-century and across the period as a whole.

The MIVSS/ MRS event also raised some interesting questions around collecting objects, with Kate Hill's paper on Romantic and Victorian collections, which was pertinent in light of this cfpfor a conference on "Transforming Objects" which was recently announced - I'm considering revisiting a short section of the thesis on foreign objects in the Victorian novel, which will provide a nice change of direction to all the Dickensian mobility of late.


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