All 8 entries tagged Bleak House

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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".


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 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.


December 16, 2011

Dickens's dark London

Follow-up to "Can you shew me the places?"; Dickens 2012 and literary tourism from Charlotte's Research blog

Following on from my previous musings on Dickens 2012 and literary tourism, this new apptakes the literary tour to a new level: an interactive map of Dickens's "dark London" which promises to "take users on a journey through the darker side of Charles Dickens’ London". In light of my previous post, this suggested some similar questions about the literary tourism and the mapping of represented/historical spaces onto contemporary "real" spaces. By virtue of its nature, though, an ipad app removes what I previously perceived as a crucial component of the literary tour: its opportunity for a mobile experience of history and the author.

I was intrigued, then, as to what the app would deliver; and the answer is, not an awful lot. The basis of the app is an interactive map of London, in which an 1862 map is overlaid onto a contemporary satellite image; a sliding bar at the bottom of the page allows you to move gradually from one to the other, along with the usual touch-screen navigation and zoom tools around both of the maps. For someone who loves maps, it's nice to have an 1862 city map to hand (although the app as a whole is frustratingly ill-referenced so I'm not sre which map edition this is based on) and the sliding time-scale is neatly done, although of limited use after a few goes.

map

The map screen contains links to the "editions" that are being released every month - graphic novels that incorporate excerpts from Dickens's writing, primarily Sketches by Boz as well as some of the novels such as Bleak House in this first edition, illustrated and with an accompanying narration. There are also "hotspots" which offer more contextual information on some pages. The emphasis in the content, as I suspect will be the case in subsequent editions, is on excerpts detailing the streets of London, whilst accompanying images on each page attempt to "bring to life" the written descriptions:

"from the irregular square into which he has plunged, the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined"

rooftops

Except here the app not so much falls flat, as simply undoes itself; because Dickens's descriptions of the streets speak for themselves, or rather say more than any image, map, or accompanying historical fact can offer. It doesn't take anything else to breathe life into the written word, and placing the text in this context ultimately only serves to highlight that, really, the accompanying paraphenelia is redundant: ultimately, it's the written word that stands out most strongly here. Not only that, but this all detracts from the complexity and meaning that lies in Dickens's representations of the city, reducing the idea of "Dickens's London" to a single meaning and suggesting that these excerpts are little more than historical fact that we read for the truths they tell us about the Victorian streets.

As with the literary tour, this resides in a fundamental misreading of the relationship between real and literary spaces, but positions this within a wider framework of misreading the relationship between literature and history/ text and culture.


December 01, 2011

"Can you shew me the places?"; Dickens 2012 and literary tourism

As term draws to a close and 2012 gets nearer I've been catching up on the latest Dickens bicentenary news in order to plan a few trips to exhibitions over the vacation. It's particularly interesting noting some of the themes that emerge in coverage: the emphasis on film adaptations is hardly surprising, and neither is the biographical focus around Dickens's life and times. Another theme is that of literary tourism: the association of Dickens and London is central to the cultural idea of Dickens, and it's therefore no surprise that events reiterating the notion of "Dickens's London" feature in the 2012 celebrations. There are events like the Museum of London's "Dickens and London" exhibition which promises to "recreate the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projection" or a talk on "Oliver Twist's London". More interesting, for me, are the Dickens-themed walking tours such as the Guardian's audio walks, a podcast to listen to whilst walking a specific route; the latest walk traces the places associated both with the author's life and David Copperfield (Dickens's "most autobiographical" novel, as the website points out).

But what is the purpose of this kind of literary tourism? What does a novel gain from our walking the streets it depicts some 150 years later? A form of connection with author and characters? To reach a new understanding of the textual representation through seeing the "real" thing? Simply a more interesting way of experiencing history?

I'm immediately sceptical and resistant to the connections that this makes between place, text and author; aside from the problems of reading a text as strictly biographical, this understanding of literary place resides in a fundamental misjudgement about both the relationship between real and represented places/spaces. A tour of a text’s locations draws together text and "real" space as though literary place is a neutral reflection of a location, and space is presented as offering some kind of authentic connection to, or reflection of, the text. It also overlooks the slight problem of history: how do we read contemporary space as indicative of the past? What does it mean to search for a text's meaning in a place over 150 years later?

Nonetheless, there's such cultural importance around the notion of Dickens and place, and an attraction in "experiencing" that place in some way, that it's worth thinking more about why this is so resonant today.

I've been thinking about the urban tour recently in my work on mobility in Bleak House: one of the central moments of the novel sees Jo, the poor street boy, leading Lady Dedlock to view the places associated with her long lost, and now deceased, lover:

“Are you the boy I have read of in the papers?’ she asks behind her veil. […]

‘Listen and be silent. Don’t talk to me, and stand farther from me! Can you shew me all those places that were spoken of in the account I read? The place he wrote for, the place he died at, the place where you were taken to, and the place where he was buried?’” (p. 261)

bh_ground.jpg

In the passage that follows there are strong resonances with the urban tour and, more specifically, with the literary biographical tour: Jo takes the role of paid guide as he leads Lady Dedlock through the streets to view the places associated with another’s life. A strong connection is forged here between place and knowledge: this passage doesn’t offer any new information to either characters or reader, but the tour serves to affirm the connection between Lady Dedlock and the dead law-writer. For Lady Dedlock, the walk brings her back into a connection with the past and into understanding of a history she hasn't experienced. It is a locational, place-bound knowledge which has to be experienced and the act of walking the streets serves as a reiterative act that reawakens old thoughts.

Biographical literary tours perhaps offer a similar kind of knowledge and knowledge-gaining process: reaffirming an idea we already have (e.g. the notion of Dickens's London) which somehow seems more valuable in the physical act of experiencing that place. There is, perhaps, a (perceived) value in experiencing place, a sense that being in a place serves to reinforce abstract knowledge. In an insightful post about a recent Dickens discovery, Amber Regis reflects on the value of material objects in biographical readings: the objects offer, she writes, "an insight into the life narratives that emerge from, and are constructed by, material objects -- human interactions with objects, and the crafting and shaping of objects, become a form of storytelling". I think there's a similar process in literary tours of crafting and constructing a narrative through human interaction with place; the city is experienced like a material object, giving the idea of Dickens and London a physical manifestation in the city streets.

But Dickens's use of mobility in Bleak House also points us towards a possible wider cultural resonance inherent in these ideas: national identity. In Bleak House, acts of mobility serve to reinforce the idea of nationality, solidifying an abstract idea in a concrete experience of the physical space of the nation. Literary tours perhaps serve a similar purpose: after Shakespeare, Dickens is arguably the author we most strongly associate with English culture, and the urban literary tour serves to reiterate this connection in terms of national space, investing specific sites with national cultural meaning and thus giving the idea of Dickens as national symbol a physical manifestation in place. More than offering any illuminating ideas about the text or author, the literary tour ties both to the places of the nation as a way of locating and strengthening a cultural idea, and of investing the "space of the nation" with (national) cultural meaning.


October 12, 2011

Dickens and Google Maps

I've been using Google maps in preparing a paper for this weekend's Dickens Day conference, I've been playing around with the "my places" function - I only discovered the other day that you can save places to create different maps. It's been fun creating maps of the locations in a couple of novels I'm writing about (I've just been drawing on print-out maps until now); here are my maps of the places of Bleak House and David Copperfield.

BH david_copperfield.png

(Click to enlarge. Yes, my graphics skills need a little work!)

Of course this is just a more hi-tech form of what Morretti does in Atlas of the European Novel, and a starting-point for ideas rather than an end in itself; but it's nonetheless a useful way for stimulating ideas about location and place in individual novels, and indeed for re-thinking, revising, or even complicating initial readings of place.

In Bleak House, for example, it's notable that the significant locations fall upon this linear North-South axis: from London, to Bleak House in Hertfordshire, and up again to Chesney Wold in Lincolnshire; and then directly(ish) down to Paris. A brief excursion to Deal breaks this, but predominantly it's this movement up and down the country that forms the basis of the novel. In David Copperfield, this visualises what I've written about before about the tight, restricted geography of the text.

And in Little Dorrit, this is even more noticeable:

LD

London (and the "suburb" Twickenham) is the only English location in the text; this is accompanied by a European narrative, but limiting the text to London locations opens up more questions about the relationship between those two parts of the narrative and how "Englishness" is represented in the text.

I'm not sure yet if I'll be using these maps in the talk itself as my focus is on the movements between these locations; but as I'm looking at how mobility reshapes the space of the nation, these maps provide a useful and concise visualisations of some of the key ideas I'm presenting. This might also feed in nicely to my teaching on the English C19th novel, where we're thinking a lot about place and nation, and (as Moretti's work shows), mapping the places of texts such as Austen's works provides a useful way into thinking about these ideas for the first time.


August 18, 2011

"What connection can there be?": the Great Exhibition of 1851

All the World Going to the Great Exhibition

I took a short research trip to the British Library last weekend, doing some work on the Great Exhibition of 1851 as context for current writing on Dickens's Bleak House, and while I was there I took the time to look at the originals of these pictures which I've come across in a couple of articles on the subject. They're illustrations from Henry Mayhew's comic novel 1851: or, The Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and Family, who came up to London to "enjoy themselves" and to see the Great Exhibition. I haven't yet read 1851 (the title doesn't exactly leave much to the imagination, but I do know that the Sandboys never actually make it to the Exhibition...) but these images are wonderful depictions of the anxieties surrounding the Exhibition. The opening image, above, shows "All the World going to see the Great Exhibition of 1851"; with the Crystal Palace standing on top of the world as the triumphant, celebrated achievement of the modern era, people of all nations encroach in to see it. Cultures are identified through stereotypical tropes typical of the period, but whilst people are visibly different in the bottom half of the picture - there's a clear sense of a scale of "civilization" operating across this globe - closer to the Palace the crowd becomes a homogenous, undistinguishable mass of people. This visibly depicts Prince Albert's words that the Exhibition signalled “that great end, to which, indeed, all history points – the realisation of the unity of mankind". It's notable, too, that this is a boundariless and borderless world; people are different, but the space in which they move is one.dispersion

The final image of the book, titled "The Dispersion of the Works of All Nations from the Great Exhibition of 1851”, is suggestive of the uncertainty of such unity: the objects of the Exhibition burst out from the Crystal Palace, dispersing into random confusion. Whilst the Exhibition attempted to impose neat systems of categorisation and re-asserted national borders by arranging objects by country, this image shows the complete disruption of organising systems; bringing all the world together does not result in a harmonious unity, but rather a descent into chaos that resists all containment. Notably, it's only objects that are dispersing, not the people of the previous image; things overrun the globe, highlighting the move into global capitalism that the Exhibition space stands as representative of. The Palace itself is in the centre of the picture, obscured by flying objects, yet in tact and unharmed - I can't decide, looking at it now, if it's suggesting a spontaneous explosion of objects out of the building that can't contain all this chaos, or rather an active expulsion of things away from British shores (as implied in the title "dispersion"). Both readings work, I think, and stand to assert the problems inherent in the Exhibition's global project and the counter-response of national introspection that we find in a novel like Bleak House.

Finally, these two images bring to mind one of the central questions of Bleak House: “what connexion can there be […] What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!” (256). We might easily substitute "things" in place of "people" and read the Exhibition as an attempt to form the connections between the diverse places and cultures of the world but which, as Cruikshank's second image suggests, simultaneously signalled the impossibility of such understanding. The question lingers through Dickens's text as another element of the novel's anti-Exhibition project, never giving us the totalizing view but rather revealing the impossibility of knowing the whole in a world in which everything is "moving on and moving on".


March 20, 2011

"Moving on and moving on": Mobility in Dickens's Bleak House

Last summer, I blogged on some of the novels that I write about in my thesis; this came to a halt in the final months before submission, but now I'm approaching my viva it's a good time to be picking up the books again and getting my mind back into the right place.

Bleak HouseBleak House was a novel that I came to at a relatively late stage of my PhD, but quickly played an important role in my first chapter on issues of space and mobility in Victorian fiction; the novel draws out some key connections between mobility, space, and capitalist modernity that are undergoing fundamental reconfigurations at this time. Like many novels of the period, Bleak House is set before the coming of the railway - towards the end we see plans and preparations underway, ground staked out demarcating the new spaces the railway will construct. In terms of its geographical movement, too, Bleak House encompasses a relatively small spatial field (as I noted with David Copperfield): from the novel's epicentre, London, the movements take us north to St. Albans and Lincolnshire, and south to Kent and Paris. India, Africa and Paris are there on the margins of the text, but as imagined spaces-away rather than occupying a substantial narrative presence.

Yet whilst not seeming to be hugely concerned with issues of modern mobility, throughout the novel the implications of the modern, mobile condition and the spaces produced by capitalist modernity are repeatedly played out. Indeed mobility is there right from the very first lines of the novel - not, as tends to be remembered, the image of fog pervading the city, but rather with foot-passengers jostling through the muddy streets, "adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, accumulating at compound interest". A wonderful image in its recognition that space is on-going, lived, produced; and, crucially, produced through mobility.

From this point in the novel, mobility is present in such a way that the novel's commentary on social relations becomes a commentary, too, on the mobilities produced by - and, crucially producing - those social relations. Many critics have noted how Bleak House is constituted from rich and complex networks of social interactions, with characters from all levels of society constantly becoming connected and inter-connected in interesting and unexpected ways as the narrative unfolds. But to me it's not so much the narrative networks that form the interest of the novel, but rather that the novel is also intensely preoccupied with the movements between those social interactions; the mobilities that produce that network and that reveal both the indiscrepancies and the possibilities inherent in such a system.

In my thesis, I focused on how the novel plays out a commentary on the social inequalities produced by modernity through two instances of classed mobility: Jo the street-sweeper who, "moving on and moving on" through the streets represents the constant, enforced mobility of the lowest social order; as contrasted with Tulkinghorn whose journeying is so effortless that he does not so much travel as simply appears from one place to the next, “he walks into Chesney Wold as if it were next door to his chambers, and returns to his chambers as if he had never been out of Lincoln’s Inn Fields [...] he melted out of his turret-room this morning, just as now, in the late twilight, he melts into his own square”. Unchanged by his journey, simply seeping through space, this effortless mobility demonstrates command over space and hints at the possibilities of modern mobility which will, if not utterly annihilate, at least extensively transform the relationship between space, time, and movement.

Here then, the novel's critique on social inequality is played out in such a way that more specific connections begin to be made with capitalist modernity and the spaces it (unevenly) produces. In writing about Bleak House previously, I'd also noted a number of other ways in which mobility is presented: Woodcourt's travel to India as a ship's surgeon, or the brickmakers "on the tramp" from Hertfordshire to London. But what really struck me on this reading was just how pervasive mobility is throughout the novel: nearly - if not every - character is at some point discussed through reference to their mobility, from Mr Rouncewell the ironmaster who is "always on the flight", to Miss Flite who "thinks nothing" of walking from London to Hertfordshire to visit the sick Esther, Mrs Bagnet who is the most "fresh and collected" of travellers at all times... and numerous other minor, as well as all of the major, characters are in some way constituted through their mobility. In terms of the representation of social relations, this draws out numerous different facets and meanings of mobility, constructing a rich and varied field of mobile possibilities that demonstrate both the inequalities and the possibilities of the new, mobile condition; different types of mobility thus offer a different perspective on the novel's commentary on social status.

But taking a step back from this, what I think we're also seeing here is a recognition of just how crucial, even fundamental, mobility is; this prevalence of mobility through every strand of the narrative's networks recognises that mobility is intrinsic to modernity, not only in that different types of mobility offer means of commentary on social status, but further, that the mobilities that constitute, enable, and are produced by these networks, are essential and central to the modern condition. Whereas other novels offer illuminating representational instances of mobility, Bleak House is unique in just how saturated with mobility it is, its narrative structures residing in a fundamental preoccupation not only with the networks of social relations, but more importantly the mobilities through which those networks are lived and produced.

Bleak House has cropped up a lot recently in discussions of TV series such as The Wire which are similarly structured around complex networks of social relations, and I'll be interested to think more about how this idea of mobility producing the network - as the network itself, even - figures in contemporary articulations of the narrative network.


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