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July 11, 2012
Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 2)
Follow-up to Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 1) from Charlotte's Research blog
Day 2 of Dickens and the Visual Imagination took us to the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Artin London. The wonderful cavern of an underground library provided the perfect setting for a day of papers that focused more specifically on art and film historians' perspectives on Dickens.
The day began with Lynda Nead's keynote "'To let in the sunlight': Dickens, Lean and the Chiaroscuro of Postwar Britain", a fascinating analysis of David Lean's 1946 Great Expectations. Nead started with some stimulating questions that pushed at the wider frameworks of the conference: what do we mean by "the visual imagination"? What is our "visual imagination" of Dickens: what do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why? Nead began by thinking about how we read the relationship between text and film, arguing for a reciprocal relationship in which neither text nor film is privileged but rather seeing adaptation as a process of creative transformation evolving new forms and opportunities - this, she suggested, might offer one way in which to understand the concept of a visual imagination. With this in mind Nead moved on to read Lean's Great Expectations in the context of postwar Britain, providing a detailed analysis of a selection of stills from the film which focused on the complexity of Lean's use of black and white.
The use of chiaroscuro - the interplay between light and shadow- constructs a subtle "language of shadow" which achieves a rich depth to images, and constructs an aesthetic of decay and ruin which was highly resonant with the postwar Britain in which the film was produced. Nead seemed to be suggesting that the aesthetic language of the film is not "Dickensian" as such, but rather creates a visual language of its own that very much belonged to the moment in which the film was made.
The next panel on Perception and Perspective began with Andrew Mangham's paper (read by Greg Tate) on Dickens, Hogarth and Perspective, an interesting analysis that took Dickens's references to Hogarth in the preface to Oliver Twist as a starting-point for identifying a Hogarthian sense of visual perspective in Dickens's realism. Janice Carlisle followed with an exploration of Great Expectations and JMW Turner's painting; this worked towards centring Estella in the novel's visual economy, particularly in terms of how Estella constructs Pip as artist. Aleza Tadri-Friedman presented on "Art Appreciation and Visual Perception in Dombey and Son", considering the recurrence of art throughout the novel with a particular focus on how the transgressive Edith Granger is positioned within wider debates about art and perception in the nineteenth century; in another indicative text-illustration reading, Tadri-Friedman looked at the interplay between the narrative construction of Edith through Dombey and Carker, and the illustration that accompanies one key scene in this narrative.
Panel 2 explored Dickens and Painting, beginning with Dehn Gilmore's "Reading the Dickensian Gallery" which suggested ways in which art and artistic vocabulary in Dickens might offer a new way of understanding Dickens's relationship to his early reviewers. Pat Hardy's Dickens and Portraits looked at the ways in which Dickens employs the language of portrait painting, focusing on Bleak House which represents a key moment in engaging with ideas around portraiture, exploring key ideas about physiognomy and using this not only as a way in which to read individuals, but also with an interest in how people see one another. Vincent Alessi finished with a paper on the influence of Dickens on Vincent van Gogh, offering a complex examination of van Gogh's development as a painter and analysing particular paintings of or influenced by Dickens.
The day concluded with a final keynote presentation by Kate Flint on the subject of "Pavement Art". Flint began with a short story by Dickens, "His Brown Paper Parcel" ("Somebody's Luggage"; All the Year Round, 1862 Christmas edition), in which the narrator is a pavement artist: why, Flint asked, would such a figure be so interesting to Dickens? In what followed, Flint offered a wonderfully rich exploration of pavement artists in the nineteenth century and explored the questions raised through this unique form of visual culture. Pavement art occupies an interesting, often contradictory, space: it is emphemeral yet immobile/immoveable; outside of institutions and the marketplace, yet necessarily public and invites the viewer to participate in a form of artistic patronage; often produces a copied image but never produces a definitive replica and depends upon being constantly reproduced; creates delight amongst its audience through the process of its creation more than in existing as a finished product. Pavement art troubles and challenges the definition of art and artist, and in turn raises complex questions about the relationship between author and art work, raising issues of ownership and authorship, creation and performance, and the position of art in the public sphere- all especially important to Dickens at a time when he was touring the country performing extracts of his own work in his final years. Ideas were raised here too about the mobility of the artist and the circulation of art, resonating with the rise in print circulation throughout the nineteenth century and Flint picked up on this relationship, as well as questions around the legitimacy of wandering and loitering.
Illustration of a pavement artist from The Graphic, September 1874
Flint's talk provided a stimulating end to the day, and in its analysis of a different form of culture also spoke to some of the issues that Lynda Nead had raised in questioning the idea of the visual imagination: there was here an idea about how we might define the visual imagination as being, like pavement art, something transient, ephemeral and almost impossible to truly grasp, something forged and re-forged in different contexts and places, resisting (or defeated by) the permanence of the art forms that it tries to get a hold of, and always part of a process of creative transformation that evolves, adapts, and opens up new possibilites for interpretation.
Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 1)
Writing about web page http://www.ias.surrey.ac.uk/workshops/dickens/
Dickens's Dream, Robert William Buss (1875)
This two-day conference at the University of Surrey and the Paul Mellon Centre in London gave a fascinating array of responses to the idea of Dickens and the visual imagination, from Dickens's engagement with visual material, the interplay between text and image in his writing, and the lasting influence of Dickens in visual culture.
The conference began with Andrew Sanders's keynote on "Dickens's Rooms". Sanders covered a myriad of rooms - prison cells, grand rooms, poor rooms, ship berths, empty rooms, and many more - often drawing on both written description and accompanying illustrations, the latter often playing against or revealing more about the text, particulary in the inclusion of objects, portraits, and the interplay of light and shadow within rooms. Sanders's discussion focused particularly on class and characterisation, offering some suggestive insights about the wider textual resonances of small details of rooms.
Illustration "I am hospitably received by Mr Peggotty" from David Copperfield
The first panel I attended took London as its theme. Christine Corton presented on "London Fog: from the Verbal to the Visual", exploring the particular visual resonances of the fog metaphors that Dickens frequently employs in his writing on London - such as the variety of different colours that the fog takes (the "pea-souper" of Bleak House, for example). This gave a greater complexity to the use of fog as a metaphor for ambivalence, and revealed the changing nature of fog throughout Dickens's writings. The murkiness of London was also present in Ursula Kluwick's paper on "The Dickensian Thames in Word and Image" which looked at the interplay between visual and verbal representations of the River Thames in Dickens's writing. The river frequently features as dirty and unhygenic, echoing contemporary concern over the condition of the river by those calling for sanitary reform; it is also used as a metaphor for the moral corruption of London, although takes on a contradictory, more pleasant appearance in rural scenes. However, Kluwick noted that in accompanying illustrations the river is often less prominent, obscuring these issues to suggest ambivalence at facing up to the state of London.
Illustration of Quilp's death from The Old Curiosity Shop
A final paper in this panel by Estelle Murail took us above the city to look at the influence of sketches and panoramas on Dickens's cityscapes. Sketches and panoramas are different forms of urban representation, the former a detailed close-up of particular sites whilst the latter provides a sweeping vision of the city recreated in an all-encompassing visual experience. A panorama by Rudolph Ackermann challenges this, as Ackermann incorporated detailed sketches into his construction of the panorama, and Murail used this as a basis to explore how Dickens's writing also challenges the distinction between the two modes of viewing the city, moving between panoramic perspective and the detail of a sketch. Murail finished with some indicative ideas about the function of technologies of vision in the new landscape of modernity, drawing on Wolfgang Schivelbusch's ideas about the urban panorama teaching a particular mode of vision that served as preparatory for the panoramic perspectives of the railway journey.
The next panel focused on architecture and interiors, starting with a paper by Emma Gray on Victorian domestic interiors in Dickens's writing. Emma spoke last year at my conference on Rural Geographies of Gender and Space 1840-1920, and it was interesting to hear her discussion of country houses such as Tyntesfield and Hughenden Manor in the context of Dickens's writing. Gray suggested that Dickens's depictions of domestic interiors often resonate with the work of distinguished decorators JG Crace & Son, and she analysed scenes such as the redecoration of Dombey's house in Dombey and Son and the handling of the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend through contemporary fashions in home decoration. Clare Pettitt considered Dickens's response to visual material during his time in Italy in the mid-1840s, suggesting that his viewing of Baroque art and architecture effected a profound stylistic change in his work of the period, opening up a new understanding of historical time and mode through which to understand the present through reference to the past. Dominic James finished the panel with a paper that considered the depiction of gothic art and architecture in The Old Curiosity Shop, in which the contemporary ambivalence to the gothic revival is revealed in complex and contradictory ways.
A second keynote by Sambudha Sen concluded the day. In a paper titled "City Sketches, Panoramas and the Dickensian Aesthetic", Sen explored how Dickens constructed an urban aesthetic heavily influenced by visal technologies such as sketches and panoramas. Discussion focused on Bleak House which Sen argued demonstrates an impulse to grasp visual modes of representing London, constructing a spatial aesthetic that contrast with Thackeray's Vanity Fair in which time provides depth and organisation to social experience. This provided a rich and detailed reading with which to finish the first day of the conference, and I'll be thinking more on Sen's reading as I come to revise work on Bleak House this week.
The first day also provided two opportunities to enjoy visual material associated with Dickens. At the University of Surrey we viewed "Dickens Illustrated", an exhibition of illustrations from and inspired by Dickens's works - a nice opportunity to see a huge range of editions of Dickens's works, from the earliest editions illustrated by Phiz to more recent childrens' books and comics inspired by his writing. After the conference, we headed to a reception at the Watts Gallery in Compton, where an exhibition on Dickens and the Artists is currently on display, exploring the influence of Dickens on artists of the 19th century such as the image of the conference, Buss's "Dickens's Dream". This was an excellent end to the day, and apt preparation for the art history focus of day 2, on which more in my next post.
"The Watts Gallery is a place where the past meets the future,
where myth joins reality,
where the principle of beauty embraces the facts of truth"
June 02, 2012
Transforming Objects @ Northumbria University, 28–29th May
Writing about web page http://www.transformingobjects.blogspot.co.uk/
This two-day conference at the University of Northumbria brought new perspectives to the study of material culture by focusing on ideas around objects and transformation, both in terms of the movements of objects, and the processes of change that objects themselves might effect. Papers from a wide range of disciplines, covering the 18th-20th centuries, looked at a fascinating array of objects: shawls, tea, glass, medicines, art, feathers, paper, dolls, rags, post and clocks, were just a few of the things discussed.
The first panel on "Transforming Objects in Gaskell" opened up a rich discussion of material culture in Elizabeth Gaskell's works, initiating wider contexts of domesticity, industrialisation and imperialism that recurred throughout the following two days. Alison Lundie's paper on clothing and needlework in Gaskell looked at how character and identity can be interpreted through objects of domestic arts in Gaskell's works, and focused in particular on shawls which are especially desired garments; Lundie illustrated this with beautiful images of Gaskell's own shawls. Her discussion included Miss Matty's Indian shawl in Cranford, and the factory workers' shawls in Mary Barton; this intersected nicely with the next presenter Tara Puri, whose paper on "unstable objects" in North and South included Indian shawls as part of a wider discussion about symbols of middle-class domesticity which also included tea and calico. The relationship of these objects to the representation of Margaret Hale brought out ideas around bodily presence and sexuality, and the role of imperial objects in the constructiong of middle-class English femininity. Both papers hinted towards physical borders of the self, touch, and embodiment that, to me, resonated with Kate Smith's paper at the Spaces of Work conference I attended recently. With this paper in mind, I was particularly interested in two points Lundie had made in her discussion of shawls and Mary Barton - about how factory workers are referred to as "hands", and the references to literal hands in the text. I wondered afterwards (in a not entirely coherent comment!) about how ideas around hands might interplay, literally and metaphorically, with the use of shawls and other textiles.
An afternoon panel on "altering states" looked at the power of objects to transform from one state to another. James Mussell's paper on chlorodyne raised wider questions about framing of discussions of material culture and the secret lives of things: we come to know and understand the material world through the narratives we create about it, and uncovering material history is thus a process of "telling tales about the tales that were told" about objects. His narrative of chlorodyne was a fascinating exploration of the ways in which legal and medical discourses intersect with the physical experience of the body, highlighting that medicine's powerful transformative effects on the body is situated within a wider context of authoritative discourses that speak for the body. Mark Blacklock followed with a paper on "Hinton's cubes" and late-19th century theories of 4-dimensional space, which discussed the role of objects in altering conceptual thought and opened up ideas about the relationship between things and thought.
The next morning, I chaired a panel on "Transforming objects and the creation of nation" in which themes of travel and networks of circulation were central throughout. Ruth Scobie began with a paper on Elizabeth Montagu's feathered objects, featured in William Cowper's poem "On Mrs Montagu's Feather Hangings." As in the first panel, the intersection of femininity, domesticity and imperialism came to the surface here, but Scobie looked at how the feathers - as items obtained specifically through acts of violence - made particularly visible the tensions between exotic desirability and destructive violence inherent in colonial encounters. Emalee Beddoes' paper also looked at an imperial commodity within English national space, discussing tea advertisements as an emblem of Britishness in the 19th century. Advertising played a crucial role in normalising tea from exotic artefact to everyday domestic object. Middle-class femininity featured strongly in this, with adverts typically using women; if men featured in adverts, it was typically only in the context of the international, public sphere.
The next two papers turned from objects to travellers: Maria Grazia Messore discussed Daniel Defoe's A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, a piece of travel writing which seeks to construct an idea of English national identity through the process of travelling the nation, and particularly emphasises the importance of trade and the figure of the merchant in this identity. I was interested in the importance of the circuit in this delineation of national space: each route begins in and returns to London, thus insisting on the importance of London as the centre-point of the nation - but also, with London being the centre-point of an international network of trade, thus emphasising the signficance of the global in the idea of the nation. The final paper of this panel, by Fariha Shaikh, drew on emigrants' narratives to consider travellers' objects and the ways in which travelling objects construct ideas of space for the traveller. Shaikh noted that in emigrants' accounts, much attention is given to the physical positioning of objects and everything being in its right place, and she considered how this suggests a reconceptualisation of the journey space as not so much an invisible backdrop to the journey, but as a space to be worked through, experienced and reshaped by the traveller.
The final panel I attended gave a fascinating account of paper in its many and various forms. Claire Friend discussed the process of making paper in 18th century Edinburgh, from collecting the rags and scraps that were used as the basic material, to the finished product - of which there were over 300 types being made in Edinburgh alone. Eugenia Gonzalez then looked at objects made from paper: dolls, which often had faces made from papier-mâché. Gonzalez's paper explored narratives of doll production, i.e. books which informed their young readers of how dolls were made, again raising interesting questions about the intersection between objects and narrative processes, as well as the desire to know the secret histories of things and how they came to be. Katie McGettigan brought together several strands of discussion in a paper that considered the material form and circulation of the book, demonstrating Melville's engagement with the literary marketplace and the idea of book as object through a series of metaphoric connections between books and whales in the text.
Two keynote papers also provided stimulating ideas and perspectives on the conference theme. John Holmes spoke about the pre-Raphaelites and science, which proved to be a fascinating exploration (and demonstration) of interdisciplinarity in arguing that the pre-Raphaelites transformed what art could achieve through an engagement with science, which in turn transformed how science represented itself. Sarah Haggarty's paper returned to ideas of national circulation, space and time; I particularly enjoyed her comments on the postal service and its role in transforming the experience of time, in which individual sense of temporality depends upon a regulated, national system of circulation.
As well as the academic discussions that ensued from these excellent papers, a particular highlight for me was participating in the Roundtable discussion on blogging. The theme of our discussion was single- or multi-author blogging, but in the hour and a half we ranged over issues of academic identity, narrative voice, the importance of "impact", web presence, and the different forms that academic blogging might take. Lucinda Matthews-Jones, who chaired the roundtable, has done an excellent job of capturing the discussion in a blog post for JVC Online- which is itself a great example of a multi-author blog and well worth a read for Victorianists!
My thanks again to the conference organisers for inviting me to join the discussion, and for an extremely interesting two days of thinking about things! It's proved very timely as the next event of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies seminar is on the theme of "Victorian Things", and I'll be giving a paper titled "What connection can there be?: People, Objects and Places, c. 1851". The paper draws out some ideas around material culture, national/global networks, and the Great Exhibition, so the Transforming Objects conference has provided a useful stimulus for developing these thoughts.
May 19, 2012
Unplanned Wildernesses: Narrating the British Slum 1844–1951 @ Uni of Warwick, 19th May
"Unplanned Wildernesses: Narrative the British Slum 1844-1951" was a one-day conference, held at Warwick and organised by Gabrielle Mearns, which opened up a fascinating range of perspectives on British slums from the mid-19th to mid-20th century.
Gabrielle's opening remarks positioned the slum as a site of contestation in a range of debates over gender, class and race, and a space that challenges representation, and papers throughout the day explored the full extent of these remarks. Seth Koven's keynote began by taking this idea of the power contest to the smallest-scale place within the slum: the body. In particular, he focused on a young woman from the slums, Nellie Dowell, and two competing accounts of her body: medical records that document her hospitalisation for chorea (rheumatic fever), and her letters to her friend Muriel. Koven began by questioning why, as a historian, reading the medical records felt a far more invasive act than the intensely personal letters, and the paper that followed offered various answers to this. In the first part he constructed a narrative of Nellie through her medical records, intensely (and invasively) detailed accounts of her bodily state; Koven positioned these within discourses of "technologies of interiority" and explored ideas around the individual body within the regimented instituition of the hospital. Nellie's letters to Muriel provided a different narrative of her illness, one which opened up deep intimacy and forms of desire that were suggestive of something deeper than friendship; Koven raised the possibility (and difficulties) of reading unknown queer desire, but what was particularly interesting here was the way in which illness provided the means through which that desire operated, opening up the boundaries of the bodily self/ other and a language of exchange and connection. Returning to his initial question about the historian's position to subject material, it was clear that this latter material felt less invasive because of its voluntary nature, rather than the involuntary nature of institutional documentation, and Koven drew on Spivak to leave us with questions about "(how) can the Cockney subaltern speak?"
The first panel saw a paper from Warwick's Mick Carpenter and Alice Mah who are undertaking a project on Coventry's slum history - an act of reclaiming an "outcast slum", as the city's pre-war urban history has received little attention. They charted the 19th century development of the city, which effectively skipped the normal processes of the Industrial revolution and underwent rapid urbanisation in the late-century period; as such, it is a "non-classical" slum, and their project is understanding this history through local accounts, collections and narratives. This was followed by Christopher Bischof's paper on slum schools, looking at the role of teachers who chose to work at these schools and their relationship to the slums which they lived and worked on the edge of; this put them in an ambivalent relationship to the space of the slum, and raised questions around the borders of respectability in the slums, and urban environments more widely. Indeed a running theme of the morning was the idea of encounter between the personal and professional, the body and the institution, in urban locations.
Borders and boundaries was also a theme throughout the panel I chaired on "Slum Geographies". Jessica Hindes' paper looked at G.W.M. Reynolds' Mysteries of London, beginning by raising questions around the representation of the space of the slum through different genres, particularly the Gothic - modes of representation more typically found in descriptions of European castles become transferred to the London streets. Jessica thought in particular about the spatial dynamics of above/below ground which opened up a different mode of spatial structure, and one which was appropriate to her final point that just as the Gothic taps into the deepest layers of the psyche, the slum holds the secrets of society itself. New forms of mapping the slum were also a theme of Eliza Cubitt's paper on Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago. The slum on which this narrative is based is represented on an OS map of the city only as a blank space, unrepresentable and unmapped; Morrison's account creates a fictional mapping of the space which, interestingly, is still bordered by the "real" streets surrounding the slum. Eliza's paper explored the relationship between text and map, including a fascinating visual re-mapping of the text through a 3D simulation that recentred the importance of embodied experience in mapping. Nell Stevens' paper also considered competing spatial discourses through looking at the Salvation Army's practice of rewriting popular music-hall songs with Salvationist lyrics; this was a popular way of appealing to the urban poor, but Nell also suggested that it reflected the broader Salvation Army project of remapping London spatially, and considered the role that music played in this project.
In all of these papers I was really interested by intersecting themes of the competing modes of both spatial and textual representation taking place over the slums, the questions over the boundaries of the slum and its relationship to the surrounding urban space, suggesting perhaps that the way in which these narratives sought to spatially and textually contain the slum was underpinned by an anxiety about its potential uncontainability. As much as these discourses sought to articulate the problem of the slum it was obvious, too, that the slum made visible a whole host of problems of modernity: not just its problematic socio-economic changes, but also wider conceptual questions about the relationship between different places in a changing world-space. This is, of course, drawing more on my own research framework than that proposed by the papers themselves, but it felt like one useful way of positioning and contextualising the ideas around modernity, space and representation that the slum poses. All in all a useful and productive day, and great to hear such a range of perspectives on the British slum.
May 09, 2012
Spaces of Work, Britain 1770–1830 @ University of Warwick, 28th April 2012
This one-day conference held at the University of Warwick provided an excellent interdisciplinary analysis of the intersections between space and various forms of work in the Romantic period.
The discussions began with Karen Harvey's paper "Thinking through Boundaries: The House, Gender and Work" which explored masculinity and domesticity in the eighteenth century. Harvey began by suggesting a conceptual shift from the use of the word "home" to the concept of "the house" in studies of domesticity, positing that "house" can be used to signal more than the physical shell but that it carries a set of meanings that are distinct from the idea of "home". Harvey then turned to look at masculine identity and the house, exploring men's role in the management of the house through a selection of notebooks of 18th century men. These displayed the active role of men in household management, and demonstrated the irrelevance of the division between discourses of home, work, business and so on. She ended by moving out to the position of the house in the wider space of national community, and how men's domestic management helped to understand the porosity of the house to the wider world. The paper drew on her recently published book The Little Republic: Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain which I'm hoping to read at some point.
Of the papers on the two panels that followed, I was most interested in Kate Smith's paper on "The Work of Shopping". Smith argued for a reconceptualisation of shopping as "work", by way of offering a renewed understanding of critiques of female shopping - which become repositioned as critiques of the public act of female work. Smith looked at how shopping could be understood as skilled work, involving embodied knowledge, active participation, and a keen eye for quality; this focused in particular on the importance of female hands, looking at the surrounding contexts of female hands as signifiers of identity and class status, and the problematic visibility of female hands on display when shopping. This opened up an interesting set of intersecting discourses between embodiment, space and work, drawing out new ways of understanding the typical discourses around female bodies in public spaces; I was also reminded of ideas around the meanings of skin as a physical boundary, and associated issues around encasing the female body.
Other spaces of work discussed throughout the day included the bookshop, rural spaces, wharfs and warehouses, and theatres - a rich and varied set of contexts that made for an interesting and engaging day.
April 04, 2012
A Novel Idea: the Victorian Books that TV forgot
Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/culture/anovelidea
My latest podcast with the Knowledge Centre has been published with an accompanying article this morning.
Titled "A Novel Idea: the Victorian Books that TV Forgot", I discuss the limited range of nineteenth-century novels which are taken up by film and tv producers. However, the recent Wuthering Heights film is a good example of how new adaptations of familiar texts can add value to wider understanding and interpretations of novels; Andrea Arnold's casting of a black Heathcliff opened up postcolonial critical perspectives that are now well established in literary criticism but, judging by the media response to the film, are not so familiar to wider audiences. As literary criticism continues to develop new perspectives, new possibilities continue to arise even for those texts that have already been frequently adapted. That said, I do have a few suggestions for other texts that would make for good tv - you'll have to listen to the podcast to find out which ones!
March 16, 2012
Celebrating Dickens, 1 month on
It's just over a month since Dickens's 200th birthday and in that time the Celebrating Dickens app has had over 10,000 downloads!
I spoke about the app and the Celebrating Dickens project this afternoon on BBC West Midlands, available to listen again online (1hr 43mins in).
February 03, 2012
Dickens, Travel and Little Dorrit
This 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
Following 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?
There 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.