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July 18, 2011
Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Narratives, Histories and Collections proved to be a highly enjoyable conference, really demonstrating the true value of interdisciplinary interactions: papers covered a diverse range of travellers, travel narratives and research approaches, whilst threads of continuity came through in intersecting themes, contexts, paradigms and questions that opened up often unexpected areas of discussion.
My write-up of the conference became rather long, so I've split this into 2 parts: this post focuses on the issues surrounding Europe, whilst in part 2 I look at discussions of intra-national mobilities and the novel.
The value of the interdisciplinary context were for me drawn out right from the very beginning of the conference in the panel "The Idea of Europe" in which I presented along with Paul Stock from LSE, and we were very fortunate to be chaired by James Buzard (MIT, and keynote presenter). Speaking on European journeys in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit, I contextualised the fictional travel narrative within the complex and often contradictory relationship between Britain and Europe which is particularly acute in the mid-nineteenth century. I suggested that, along with factors such as imperial rivalry and economic competition, changing travel practices played a huge role in Britain's tensions with Europe at this time, not just by increasing contact with the foreign "other" but also through the reshaping of global space that travel technologies facilitated: the (perceived) proximity and openness of European space afforded through developments in transport technologies interplayed with existing anxieties about cultural difference and national identity, suggesting the potential collapse of the spatial distances that kept the foreign (European) "other" at a safe remove. My discussion centred around the text's representation of the British body in European space, working out to the wider movements between different locations of the novel: I argued that the novel plays out familiar discourses about Europe through representational modes which also register the encroaching proximity of Europe and the potential for collapse of the certainties of space-time-distance relationships; the British body, surrounded by "a formation of a surface", provides a representational locus for these concerns in the novel.
This 1820 map by William Woodbridge, "Moral and Political Chart of the Inhabited World",displays the tensions between Europe as a space unified against "the rest of the world" as well as riddled with internal hierarchies that problematise the coherence of European identity.
In the discussion that followed I also talked about the function of the English Channel as border-zone and its representation in the novel (something I'm currently writing about in research on Bleak House); the problem of definition - "what is Europe?" in the nineteenth century/ Victorian novel?; and how the British-European tensions still resonate in contemporary socio-political debates. I have yet to decide how my Europe chapter fits into the future development of my research but I've come away with a renewed interest in pursuing this work into the representation of Europe in the Victorian novel.
This was nicely accompanied by Paul Stock's paper "Travel on the Edges of Europe: Greece and the Philhellenes in the 1820s". Stock's work focuses on the idea of Europe in the early nineteenth century, and in this paper he suggested that debates over Greece's position on the borders of Europe provide the locus for wider questions about the meanings of Europe in this period. Greece and Europe function as self-reflexive concepts, and Greece forms the site of an idealised Europe and brings into play the problematic impulses surrounding this idealised concept. The overlapping frameworks and ideas of Europe between our papers provided me with some useful context for my research into the later part of the century, and I was particularly interested to learn about Greece's position in these debates (I've previously come across similar mid-Century debates focused around Turkey but not Greece).
Ulrike Spring's paper "Northern Tours: collecting culture and nature in 19th century Scandinavia" also brought up similar questions in her focus on travel to northern Norway in the period. Norway similarly occupied a border-position on the geographical edges of European space; a North-South divide enabled the southern portion to be more easily ideologically incorporated into Europe (in reverse to the North-South axis of Italy which played a similar role). Spring's paper focused on the town of Tromso, located in the far northof the country, and discussed how the practice of travel helped to imaginatively incorporate Norway into the idea of Europe. Referring to maps of tours to the area, ideas about linearity were raised: the tours followed a set route visiting coastal ports in quick succession, visually constructing a strictly linear route that stands in stark contrast to the coastal geography of the region, and creates a sequential understanding of places, as well as demarcating only these areas as tourist sites - tours never ventured far inland. This really emphasised the extent to which touristic sites are produced as such through the practices of travel and, in particular, through the spatial selectivity of those practices. By way of this process the North gradually became ideologically encompassed in the idea of Europe because it was produced as a certain kind of "European" site - tellingly, Tromso is known as "the Paris of the North". There's also an interesting issue to do with linearity in designating a direct route which plays out a compressing space-time relationship and thus brings Norway into a perceived closer proximity with the "centre" of Europe.