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June 08, 2011

"The Waste Land" for iPad

Follow-up to Old and new: from periodical to ipad from Charlotte's Research blog

Following on from my previous musings on this subject, the first scholarly edition designed for the iPad was launched yesterday - an app of TS Eliot's The Waste Land. I haven't purchased it yet, and I won't be rushing to (it's £7.99 - pretty expensive as apps go, and it's not a text that I teach or research so my decent and well-annotated edition serves me well enough) but the Guardian videocast (linked above) and description on the Apple Apps store give a good idea of the features. My first impressions are that it looks like a well thought out and potentially very useful material: the surrounding material includes critical commentary and annotations, recordings of the text by Eliot, Ted Hughes, and a filmed performance of Fiona Shaw's reading, as well as facsimile manuscript pages. All of this is not only very helpful for student use, but especially so in the way that it's been designed for use on the iPad - the ease with which you can switch between recordings, watch video alongside text, and bring up different recordings all make use of the iPad's features and the simultaneity of different media the iPad allows for that you just can't get as easily on a Pc.

WL app

(Screenshot from the Apple website, where more info and screenshots are available)

It strikes me that this would be a very useful teaching tool - recordings and manuscript versions are resources that I use in teaching Ginsberg's Howl, and having such an app would handily cut out the sometimes tedious work of compiling resources before a class- no more trawling the internet to find the best recording, or trying to get a good photocopy of poor-quality manuscript pages, it's all just there and readily available on an easily portable object. But the size of the iPad and it's lack of connectivity to an external device means this isn't going to work for anything more than a seminar, and even then it's limited if you want the students to interact with their own copy of the material; and once the students leave the classroom it's useless unless they own iPads (and if they did, would I recommend they buy the iPad edition over the printed text? Unlikely).

I also wonder at how far the usefulness of these extra materials goes; visual and auditory media might stimulate some aspects of seminar discussion, and having annotations for a complex text like The Waste Land are undoubtely valuable in freeing-up discussion time that might otherwise be spent simply explaining the many references and intertextual points; so with a text like this, you can cut out some of that textual work and move more swiftly to the critical analysis. But at the end if all this, it's the text itself that really matters and the students' interpretations and responses to that which I'm really interested in getting to in the seminar - the extra media and material provides the stimulus for that, but I wonder if having all of this in such a format enables or inhibits the individual response? Is this all that different to the usual scholarly annotated edition? It feels to me as though having all of this material compiled together might somewhat inhibit the student response outside of those parameters- there seems to be something formalised and thus limiting about the material being set in screen, as though this is all the "right" material that one needs to understand the text, perhaps? There's also something about the barrier I feel this puts between the reader and text - from my brief experiences in reading on the iPad for my own research, I do feel at one remove from the text; without getting all nostalgic about the look and feel of a book, you can't scribble notes or underline the etext, it doesn't feel you can make it your own in the same way. And although there's an ease to reading and moving around material quickly on the iPad screen, the easy skimming through the text further encourages a move away from slow and detailed reading and the response that such a reading generates.

Despite these reservations I'd certainly be willing to give this a go if there was a similar app for a text I teach, and it'd be interesting to see if this could enhance teaching and learning, and how students and tutors might use this as a starting-point for more interactive work.

May 12, 2011

Old and new: from periodical to ipad


This picture shows the presents that I (rather unexpectedly!) received from my (wonderful, generous) parents for completing my PhD. In the top right is, quite recognisably, an iPad: the future - or is it present? - of publishing. And the aged book and blue pamphlet next to it? That's a first edition of Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit (1857) and one of the original serialised parts (No. XI, October 1856).

The contrast between these gifts couldn't be more apparent, the past and future of the history of the book; and questions around the history and development of the book have been very much on my mind this week following the "What is Academic Writing" session run by IATL on Monday. In a day of interesting talks, it was Richard Miller's discussion of writing instruction in the US which stuck with me, focusing as it did on the shift to new media and what this means for writing. Using images from Al Gore's Our Choice recently published as an eBook app, which makes thoroughly innovative use of interactive features - Miller argued that this is what we are now - or will be, or need to be - writing for; the text is no longer just text, but increasingly embracing not just visual/auditory media, but this entirely responsive interactive style. And this, he stated, was what we now need to be teaching students to write for and with. With the example of his text2cloud blog he showed how he is changing the future of writing instruction by teaching students to work with new media so that their academic essays are written through and for digital technologies. Video, sound, and other audio-visual features were integrated into the text such that these became not just texts for critical reflection but part of the process of analysis themselves.

This raised a lot of interesting ideas about teaching and learning academic writing (and critical thinking more generally), and whilst I'm not convinced that the days of the academic essay are over, there were many discernable advantages that I could see in this, not least getting students really engaged in the writing process - not just focusing on the end product for the final mark, but really getting involved in critical analysis in a much more involved and responsive way. The open-endedness of the project seemed particularly valuable - that students continued to work on pieces past submission deadline because, as Miller pointed out, thinking doesn't stop the moment the piece is turned in (or at least, we'd hope it doesn't! hence the value of actively enabling that on-going process). The lingering question for me was whether the advent of new media needs to signal the end of the academic essay in the way Miller suggests; why does new media need to be positioned as diametrically opposed to the traditional academic essay? Can't all of this fantastic work also develop into a reinvigorated approach to "traditional" academic writing? There's a lot of value in the crafting of argument and reflective processes that enable that, which the immediacy of new media doesn't seem to allow for.

periodicalAll of which I'm still mulling over as this academic year ends and fresh opportunities for teaching hopefully await at the end of the summer. But in the meantime there were some more immediately resonant questions about the history of the book and where we're at with the move into the digital age, especially as I sit here with Dickens and the iPad side by side. The literary student in me wants to resist the move to the digital age, no more so than when handling a 160-year old copy of my favourite novel, in all its sturdy weightiness. I can't help but feel guilty at downloading a book or two onto the iPad, which feels like another nail in the coffin for the physical book, even though it's justifiably so much easier when your research largely focuses on 800-page novels. And what about this idea of writing for this new form of reading, crafting academic work into a form that not only embraces but is specifically designed for new technologies, which really seems like the final nail in the coffin for print publication, as though we're thoroughly capitulating to digital media and decrying the end of the book as we know it.

But then the periodical pamphlet is a stark reminder that perhaps all of this is just sentimentalising the book, because the core concept here is nothing new: as the periodical reminds us, writing has always adapted to and embraced new forms. With the advent of serial publication, Dickens and others experimented with writing that was specifically crafted to the new possibilities this raised, utilising the formal qualities that the material format both enabled and delimited. (And if we bemoan the presence of targeted adverts on every webpage, the 27 (!) pages of advertising that precede and commence the pamphlet again stand as testament that this is nothing new!) Going further back, too, the development of writing has always been dependent on the material conditions of the book, evolving and adapting to new forms of print publication. The written text itself isn't a "natural" product, it's a cultural artifact, and writing is always a historically and materially conditioned process. So whilst it's easy to despair as paper gives way to screen, perhaps it's not so much the end of the book but just another stage in the evolution of what a book is, what it can do, and the possibilities it offers us as writers.

March 28, 2011

"Whirling through the pretty open country": Modern mobility in Lady Audley's Secret

In many of the texts I study in the thesis, railways make only a fleeting appearance - not least because, whilst written contemporaneously with the coming of the railways, many of these novels retreat into an earlier time period for their setting. Dickens's Dombey and Son and Gaskell's Mary Braddon (both 1848) feature railway journeys, and others at least reference the railway, but it's not until the sensation fiction of M. E. Braddon that more frequent occurences of train travel appear.

lady-audleys-secret-mary-e-braddon-paperback-cover-art.jpgThis isn't so much a more sustained engagement with the mobilities of modernity, however; in Braddon's best-known and most successful novel, Lady Audley's Secret (1861-2), railways are assimilated into the fabric of everyday life and to take the train appears, at first glance, to no longer be a matter of great concern. Both male and female characters traverse the novel's spaces with the ease and rapidity that, of course, characterises rail travel; through Robert's movements between London, Essex, Portsmouth, and the northern sea-side town of Wildernsea, the railway allows for rapid developments of plot that hinge on mobility. The unfolding of the solution to the novel's "secret" depends upon the acquisition of place-bound evidence, and the ease of movement afforded by the railway therefore enables the narrative progression - such that we might say this narrative is only made possible through the rapidity of modern mobility.

Yet whilst the narrative structure resides in the possibilities of modernity, at the same time the novel is often seemingly unconcerned with this; to take the train is no longer a remarkable occurrence, simply an accepted facet of everyday life. It's worth noting in this respect that Braddon's characters here, as typically in her other novels, are wealthy and thus their mobility is not dependent upon the democratisation of travel that the railways afforded. This fuels, however, a further facet of the novel's articulation of mobility; for it seems, in large part, to be resistant to the mobile structures of everyday life and attempts to reside in the place-bound history of the aristocracy. From the opening pages, a concern with stasis pervades throughout descriptions of Audley Court; the emphasis on its location in a secluded hollow, removed from modern life, appears repeatedly in the first few chapters of the novel, and is frequently reiterated throughout. This contributes, of course, to constructing the atmosphere of mystery that is essential to the sensation narrative; but it also serves to emphasise a sense of stasis that contrasts with the facile mobilities elsewhere in the novel. It's also a retreat from the concerns of capitalist modernity.

But what's interesting is that these concerns emerge in the journeys of the novel which, whilst relatively brief in the narrative space afforded to them, significant in their representational features in which issues of capitalist modernity are played out; what is resisted elsewhere in the novel emerges in the journey narratives, the spaces of mobility inextricably tied up with modernity and the restructurings it effects. The details of this are reserved for a forthcoming article on the subject that I'm currently working on - "'A perambulating mass of woolen goods': Bodies in Transit in the mid-nineteenth century railway journey" - but suffice for now to say that the representational renderings of these journeys demonstrate both a fundamental anxiety about the modern mobile condition and its implications for the human subject, whilst also demonstrating the possibility of moving into modernity.

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.

January 01, 2011

A year of feminist classics

Writing about web page

Feminist ClassicsI don't do resolutions, but here's something of interest for the year: a Year of Feminist Classics blogging project. Operating along the lines of an informal blogging-reading group, each month a different feminist text will form the subject of discussions on the blog - the reading list is an interesting and varied selection of classic feminist texts (about half of which I've read, some only in part, several which I've intended to read but never quite gotten round to, and others which I hadn't thought to but am now thoroughly looking forward to reading this year). Anyone can participate and add their blog; I hope to do so, as it will be interesting to read a range of feminist perspectives on and responses to these texts, as well as writing about my own thoughts on these texts.

First up this month is Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (I'll be getting stuck in just as soon as I've dealt with the pre-term to-do list that seems to have taken on a life of its own in my holiday absence...)

Happy 2011!

October 04, 2010

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Following the Eliot novels I blogged about earlier in the summer, my progression through re-reading all the novels of my thesis slowed somewhat as I reached the final stages of writing up my full draft- long working days left me with little time to do anything much else, let alone read David Copperfield at any great pace (in retrospect, at 900 pages of cramped tiny font, this was not a wise choice to accompany the stressful writing phase. But at least there was Dickens' humour to maintain my enjoyment of the novel and spur on my, at times somewhat flagging, motivation). The blog too has also taken a little longer than usual to write up, but here are a few notes on the novel.

dc2.jpgDavid Copperfield (1850) is a very mobile novel, with almost all characters taking, at one point or another, a substantial journey that sees them uprooted from one permanent location to another. David's own movements set out the typical structure which the mobility of most of the other characters follows, in particular delineating the geographical scope of the novel from Suffolk to London to Kent. These three locales - the only British places in the novel - form a microcosmic world within which David and the other characters move: that Yarmouth and Dover are situated at the ends of David's earth is nicely alluded to when the young David first travels to Yarmouth and is surprised at the flatness of the landscape, wondering as he does, if "the world were really as round as my geography-book said, how any part of it came to be so flat. But I reflected that Yarmouth might be situated at one of the poles; which would account for it" (p. 27)*. London features as the centre-point to this world: all journeys are either to, or pass through, London, and all characters, whether they start out either South or North of the city, eventually migrate, through the culmination of various circumstances, to London; meanwhile those who start out in London, the Micawbers, follow the opposite pattern, ending up in Canterbury.

There's a neat, tight structure to the novel's geography, then, a national space that is at once both constricted in its expanse and yet far from static given the constant mobility of even minor characters. As with most novels of the period, though, one or two characters break out of this setting and venture into the wider world beyond southern England. The most substantially detailed of such journeys is that of Mr Peggotty, who goes off to Europe in search of his niece "little Em'ly". Interestingly, considering the tight plotting of English space, his journey to the continent is into a vague and unknown space: no specifics are given as to where he is going to seek her, only that he is going abroad "to seek her, far and wide". the first movement out of southern England is into a vague and undefined foreign space - there's a seeming reluctance here to engage with the specifics of foreign travel, further suggested when Peggotty describes arriving in France as having "landed theer, as if I'd fell down from the sky” (p. 567). In the narration of his cross-continental travels, it is specifically social interactions which form the basis of his narrative rather, and the continental space appears to be a protracted, expansive space: as he approaches the Swiss mountains, he finds that "ever so fur [far] as I went, ever so fur the mountains seemed to shift away from me" (p. 568).

Beyond Europe, two journeys further afield also provide the subject for a more richy imagined geography of other spaces, firstly with Jack Maldon, and later the Mills', journeys to India. The surrounding discussions of these travels mostly focus around the dangers to health that the country's "trying climate" poses - Mrs Markleham is sure that Jack will die there - thus contributing to familiar Victorian discourses about the potential threat that colonial spaces pose to the British body (in other novels of the period many other travelling subjects become visibly marked or ill as a result of their journeys, and India is perceived as an especially dangerous space for the vulnerable (white) British body- think of Jane Eyre, for example, who is warned that to travel to India would be going towards a "premature death"). India also provides a space for the young David's rather imaginative constructions, "floating dreams concerning golden shawls and elephant's teeth", no doubt inspired by the travel stories he reads as a young boy. It is Australia, though, that figures as the space for imaginative freedom in the novel, with the Micawbers, Mr Peggotty and Em'ly setting sail to begin a new life there. Whilst India represents a potential threat to the healthy British subject, Australia is perceived as a space conducive to health - "the climate is healthy ... finest in the world!" - and as a space of opportunity - "no better opening anywhere for a man who conducts himself well, and is industrious". Its potential comes largely from the perception that this is a blank space, unconquered and uncharted, open for the British subject to roam free; the Euroimperialist mindset is nowhere more clearly stated than when Mrs Micawber tells of how she hopes her husband will, as they approach Australia, "'take his stand upon that vessel’s prow, and firmly say, “This country I am come to conquer! Have you honors? Have you riches? […] They are mine!”’" (p.788).

Throughout these other journeys, the movements of little Em'ly thread through somewhat silently; the story of her journey, eloping with Steerforth and then, having escaped, making her way home on her own, is told only through her uncle's narration. Like Hetty and Maggie, Em'ly's story is one of sexuality and wandering- interestingly, there's a similar early set-up of this theme between her and David, for as children they walk together but on David's next visit at a slightly older age ("more of a little woman than I had supposed"), she will no longer walk with him but instead avoids him, running home another way; in this, there's something of a suggestion of female temptation and seduction played with, as David notes "when I went to meet her, [she] stole home another way, and was laughing at the door when I came back, disappointed" (p. 137). Later, though, it is Em'ly who is tempted into straying away from home, seduced into eloping with Steerforth to the continent, thus playing into another familiar foreign trope of the continent as the space of illicit sexuality. Em'ly returns a "fallen woman", emphasised all the more strongly by her returning to the most "sombre" of London streets, a space of "corruption and decay". The strong condemnation of Em'ly is played out through her near-removal from the novel - she is barely glimpsed by the narrating David, only appearing as a shadowy figure in the background as if the narrative can't quite be brought to encounter the wrongdoing she represents. Her fate for this wrongdoing echoes that of Hetty, for though not transport, Em'ly is taken to Australia by her uncle, thus safely displacing her from Britain just as many other novels cast out villainous or disreputable characters to foreign spaces.

David also journeys beyond the borders of Britain, undertaking a continental journey in search of peace and the restoration of his health following the deaths of Dora and Steerforth; but this also operates as something of a Grand Tour for him, giving him the opportunity to see "the novelties of foreign towns" and improve his "store of knowledge". Like many other young men of the period (and earlier), this gives him the freedom to roam and wander before returning to England and settling into his adult, married, life.

*Page numbers refer to the 1999 Oxford World's Classics edition, ed. Nina Burgis.

August 02, 2010

"Wanderin' like a wild thing": women walking in Eliot's The Mill on the Floss

As part of my work re-writing my thesis this summer (in preparation for submission next term) I'm re-reading all of the novels that have provided the basis for my discussions; most of my work focuses on shorter passages from the texts -always trying to keep the wider context in mind, but it's easy to get absorbed in the details of fragments and the themes of the thesis, and lose sight of what else is going on. It's useful to take a step back from the detail, read the novels in their entirety again, as well as taking a fresh look at how the themes of travel, space, movement work in the wider scope of the novels. As I progress through the novels (about 20 in total), I'll blog a short piece on each novel, summarising the notes I've made on the central themes. First up, for no reason other than I was looking forward to reading it again and it's relevant for the earlier chapters of the thesis, is George Eliot's 1860 The Mill on the Floss.the-mill-on-the-floss.jpg

From the opening passage of the novel, the river Floss is established as central to the text: it passes alongside the Tullivers' home at Dorlcote Mill and connects several of the main places, including the town of St Oggs and the Deane's house. The river has an important function in terms of the everyday space of this local setting: the novel rarely moves beyond the close proximity of a few key settings, but the river operates as a reminder of the wider circuits with which the locality of place is connected, suggesting the possibility of a wider spatiality beyond, within which the events are situated. The river is significant in the development of key narrative moments too: most notably for the gender/travel theme, Stephen's attempt to seduce Maggie into eloping with him, carrying her off miles downstream; there is also repeated mention of the river having flooded in the past, and at the end of the novel this possibility is realised, with the great flood in which Maggie and Tom are drowned.

Walking is an equally, if not more, important form of movement, particularly significant in how it functions in the development of Maggie's character. As a young girl, Maggie is fond of playing out doors and somewhat prone to wandering off, "wanderin' up an' down by the water like a wild thing" as her mother says; the epitome of this is when she runs off to join the gypsies. Maggie is of a passionate nature, walking just one element of her "wildness", her non-conformity to the social expectations of femininity as defined by her mother and aunts: her habit of wandering is part of this straying, uncontainable character and so, from an early point in the novel, this sets up the theme of women's walking as having negative associations as an act which goes against conventional feminine propriety.

The novel skips to a few years later, and Maggie at 17 years old is equally fond of walking in the "Red Deeps"; notably the first time we encounter Maggie having developed into "the mould of early womanhood" is out walking here. But now Maggie's walking is no longer expressive of her wild, passionate nature but has a slightly different resonance; for Maggie is no longer the girl she once was, now passive and accepting of her fate, preventing herself from engaging with anything that would "make her long to see and know many things", and walking seems here to be a way of coping with the narrow proximity that characterises her life. It is, as she says, her "one indulgence" that makes the rest of her life bearable; no longer a wild running, then, but a quiet form of release or escape from the narrow boundaries of her life.

But these walks swiftly take a different turn. The negativity surrounding Maggie's walking (she is again scolded at this older age for walking) is connected to wider discourses about women walking, which has highly sexualised associations: women walking alone in the street risk being regarded as sexually promiscuous, and to walk alone with a man that is not one's husband is entirely unrespectable. Maggie's walks in the Red Deeps turn into meetings with Philip Wakem, who she is otherwise banned from meeting; their love for one another develops through these encounters in the woods, and the entire of their secret relationship is conducted through such meetings: following the first meeting, it is implied that they have continued to meet out walking in the woods regularly for a year (p. 344-50). Unlike Eliot's previous Adam Bede, the relationship between Maggie and Philip remains sexually innocent, but nonetheless the impropriety of their meetings is made quite clear in Tom’s accusations of Maggie's behaviour, which specifically focuses on the throwing away of her respectability to her "walking out" in the woods with Philip (p. 356).

However, Maggie is, it seems, somewhat prone to such illicit meetings, and when Stephen Guest goes to meet Maggie at her aunt Moss’ they too walk out in the lane: and again, Tom’s later criticisms of this behaviour is that she “walked alone with him in the lanes”, something that “no modest girl would have done”- at the time, too, Maggie is worried about how this behaviour will be construed by her aunt. But the pivotal point for Stephen and Maggie is the boat trip down the river. Here the typical gendered discourses of travel space are played out: Maggie is moved by Stephen who rows her miles downstream, and she expresses that she does not consent to this, yet still it is she that faces the censure and accusations of impropriety for this, her movement which takes her out of the bounds of local place and transgresses the lines of social respectability, regardless of whether it is she moving herself or being moved by another. Notably, too, Maggie must return home if she is to have any hope of restoring her propriety; here she must face the censure of the society around her, with no possibility of freedom to escape from this (her options are limited and not entirely within her own control). Meanwhile, Stephen travels to Holland, free to move as he wishes and escape from any blame or implications of his actions, even though he is the one who has facilitated and enforced her movement.

It's all for nothing, though, when the flood comes and sweeps away Tom and Maggie, re-uniting them in a final embrace as they are drowned together. The novel's close asserts both the inevitability of the continual changes to place, with the town repaired and renewed after the flood, life carrying on and spaces evolving accordingly, whilst memorialising Tom and Maggie in the tomb that stands to hold onto the continuity of the past.

September 07, 2008

"A Story of Indian Life: The Story of a Child's Life in India During the Mutiny" by Grace Ogilvie

Besides hearing about new research and meeting other people working in similar areas, if there's one thing conferences are good (or dangerous!) for, it's the book stalls. In addition to a number of journal publishers at the BAVS conference, there was also a second-hand book stall with a number of Victorian editions- which is how I came across "A Story of Indian Life: The Story of a Child's Life in India During the Mutiny" by Grace Ogilvie. I've never heard of the author before -and a bit of internet searching hasn't revealed much either, this looks like her only story and I have no idea where she's from or why/how/when she travelled to India - but when it comes to beautiful old books I have very little willpower, and was willing to part with £20 for a copy of this book. The book was published by The Religious Tract Society in London, and there's no date of publication, just a hand-written inscription inside the cover which reads "Clara A.M. Hadgrove(?). Awarded for good conduct and general improvement, June 16th 1876. Miss Lowley's (?). St Albans Place".

The book is a piece of travel writing for children, with a very simple story but interesting narration that uses many of the tropes familiar to travel writing of the period. The narrator is the aunt of the central character, a little girl named Grace Ogilvie, born in India to English parents- her father is a Colonel. The first half of the novel establishes the peaceful and idyllic life of the young Grace in the family's large white house in colonised India; the second half charts the disruption to this order with the breakout of the mutiny of 1857, forcing the family into hiding in the depths of forests, through which they travel to reach Calcutta. The flight from the Edenic land of plenty into the uncivilised wilderness of the country has clear religious parallels, and the book indeed seems to have primarily been written as an instruction book to teach young girls how to be good Christians: there is much explanation of the ways of God, the importance of prayers and Bible-reading, and the aunt-narrator figure frequently reminds Grace of her religious duty. Grace is depicted as the perfect child, good, virtuous, and with "a higher love for all things holy and good"; her teaching of Christianity to the native servants and her early death, following the suffering of illness, at the age of twelve, locate her as a saintly, even Christ-like, figure in the text who remains eternally pure and virtuous through her death. In this, the text strongly resonates with the Eva St. Clare narrative in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which similarly depicts a young girl as the epitome of religious faith, finding redemptive power in her early death.

As is to be expected from travel writing of the period the novel is imbued with colonialist discourse, constructing India as an "other" space which, by strongly contrasting with the British ideal of "civilisation", providing a testing-ground in which the ideologies of imperialism are challenged, but ultimately strengthened through this testing. This is most noticeable in the portrayal of religion; India figures in this Christian narrative as an "othered" space in which the ideals of religious purity are emphasised against a backdrop of "heathen" behaviour: Chapter 3 depicts a "frightful" festival of "heathen gods", the idols of which are "hideous, terror-inspiring creaters adored and venerated by the Hindoo". Against this "darkness" and evil, Grace's purity stands out as all the more virtuous through the contrast: the narrator notes of Grace standing next to the servants that their "dark complexions and jet-black hair formed a strange contrast to the little golden-haired fairy before them". The descent into the wilderness of the jungle is not only a religious parody but a challenge to colonial order, challenging imperial values to withstand a journey through the uncivilized jungle- in which the darkness becomes "deeper and deeper" until the tall trees are "like shades of evil". That the family come through this symbolises the ability of "Britishness" to uphold such testing (a recurrent feature of travel writing). However, the mother dies as a result of exposure in the jungle, suggesting the danger, disease and contagion associated with uncivilised spaces, as well as the weakness of femininity to withstand physical ordeal. With the exception of the narrator/aunt, only the Colonel remains alive at the end of the book, thereby re-asserting the ideal of civilisation with the white, male, British, imperial subject as the sole survivor of the trials of the book. The closing lines also reiterate the strength and importance of the family unit, with Grace's gravestone inscription joining "Grace, child of Robert and Annie Ogilvie".

There's a lot more to say about this narrative in the context of Victorian travel writing, and it provides an insightful supplement to the texts I've read thus far as it is written for children- specifically girls, as the narrative reiterates the importance of being a "good girl" several times and appeals to Victorian discourses on femininity with emphasis on beauty, purity, and the family. It would be interesting to think more about how travel writing has been aimed at children and how this goes about reinscribing colonial discourse for a younger generation.

May 11, 2008

TV adaptation of Little Dorrit

Writing about web page

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

November 21, 2007

Wisdom sits in places

My research so far has mainly consisted of a great deal of reading to expand my knowledge of an area that is still very new to me, and more particularly with a view to developing a clearer sense of some of the key terms and concepts on which my thesis is based, such as space and place. This has inevitably lead me back to some of the work I did for the Literatures of the American Southwest module on the MA course last year- although the primary texts of my thesis are Victorian novels, some of the foundational ideas of my proposal emerged from spatial and cultural theories developed about the American Southwest, and part of my longer-term plan is considering whether concepts developed in studies of the Southwest can transfer to studies of space in other literatures. The critical attention to the "New West" that has emerged in recent years demonstrates great attentiveness to issues of space, place, landscape; these theories are influenced by postmodern notions of hybridity, thirdspaces, and socio-spatial relations, which offer a new approach to older visions of the western landscape. However, whilst offering a positive reconception of a landscape traditionally conceived of in binary terms, the new ideas of hybridity etc are not so new to the land; in the Native American cultures of the Southwest, we find eloquent and complex anticipations of many of the ideas posited by postmodern geographers. Which brings me to the book I've been reacquainting myself with, Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. This is a work of cultural anthropology that sets out to understand the place-names of the Western Apache people, and in doing so explores the relationship between people, place, history, language and identity.

The place names of the Western Apache are detailed, descriptive, and notably long: "Water Lies With Mud In An Open Container," "Green Rocks Side By Side Jut Down Into Water," ""Circular Clearing With Slender Cottonwood Trees." But in addition to these visually evocative names are those that relate to historical events, such as "They Are Grateful For Water," "Trail to Life Goes Up," "She Carries Her Brother On Her Back." These place-names are effectively the titles of stories from the past in which socially disruptive acts occur, and when a place is named in the present moment the name functions not only as a signifier of place but as a reminder of the story behind it. The landscape provides a spatial mapping of stories, and naming places involves a constant tapping into a collective cultural memory; in an oral culture, the features of the land function as ever-visible mnemonics.

It therefore begins to become clear how integral the land is to social life: visual features of the land offer wisdom, guidance, warning. As Basso writes, "Here, there, and over there, I see, are places which proclaim by their presence and their names both the imminence of chaos and the preventive wisdom of moral norms" (p.28). Yet the strength of place-names reaches further than this act of remembering as this process is not simply one of "recalling" the past; just as the land is visible and experienced in the present moment, so the retelling of a story takes place as if it is happening in the present moment. Past and the present intersect so that the past retelling happens now, there. This is particularly clear in accounts which are narrated in the present tense, but is a feature of all the stories: to speak a place-name and to recount its story is to preserve the words of ancestors not as a historical past but as constantly bearing on the present. Basso likens this intersection of past and present to Bakhtin's concept of chronotopes "points in the geography of a community where time and space intersect and fuse. Time takes on flesh and becomes visible for human contemplation; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time and history and the enduring character of a people" (Bakhtin qtd., p.62). It is a powerful evocation in which the landscape becomes a repository of wisdom and tradition, and is integral to cultural meanings and stories: if stories constitute and continue cultural behaviours and beliefs, and if the stories cannot be separated from geographical locations, then it is clear how central the land is to social and cultural understandings.

This interpretation of the land can be more succinctly termed "place-making". This term encompasses the above ideas to describe the moment in which the past is spatially constructed in the present so that "by one insightful account, the country of the past transforms and supplants the country of the present" (p. 5). But the notion of constructing a "place-world" introduces a further significant element to the act of place-naming with regards to how the land is interacted with. In the moment of place-making, the land is not simply a material, physical space, or an imagined mental concept: it is something between the two, a "real-and-imagined place". Place-making is not a process of representation but an active imagination that relies on social interaction with the physical space; the land is invested with a meaning beyond its raw physical qualities, whilst cultural stories held in the mental landscape take on a physical shape. Material space and mental space intersect, their meaning becoming inseparable from each other. This is an idea that resonates strongly- arguably even anticipates- with an idea from postmodern geography, Edward Soja's concept of "thirdspaces." Put simply, Soja proposes that "thirdspace" offers a new way of thinking about space and social spatiality; whilst a "firstspace" perspective is concerned with real, material, measurable space and "secondspace" is a mental space of imagined representations of spatiality, "thirdspace" deconstructs and reconstitutes these into a notion of simultaneously "real and imagined places". Soja's theory of course becomes much more complicated and certain ideas do not transfer; but nevertheless, the similarities in the core concept provoke fascinating questions for further exploration- even the crucial terminological difference of place-making as opposed to a thirdspace raises a number of questions about theory, practice, distinguishing space and place, lived vs. theorised space...

Basso's exploration is much more complex and wonderfully written than I've managed to convey here, and the concept of place-naming explored in much greater detail through the stories and accounts of Western Apache people. The notions of space and time can initially seem daunting, being so unfamiliar from a linear understanding of history, and Basso demonstrates great skill in slowly uncovering and exploring these concepts. Yet whilst emerging from an entirely different background, it is clear that these ideas accord with some contemporary theories of spatiality and similarly offer a provocative challenge to conventional modes of spatial thinking.

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