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December 16, 2011

Dickens's dark London

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

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

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

map

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

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

rooftops

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

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


December 01, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bh_ground.jpg

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

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

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


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 20, 2011

From the archive

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog

I've been enjoying The Guardian's "From the Archive" blog series, which is tracing the history of the paper's reportage from its beginning in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian, progressing through the years by selecting a highlight from each year every day. They've now got to the end of the nineteenth century, and some of my top picks so far have been:

The opening of the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825, describing in great detail how the "locomotive engine, or steam-horse, as it was more generally termed, gave 'note of preparation'; the cry of 'all ready,' was heard, and the enging with its appendages moved forward", with "no less than 548 persons" on board.

The return of HMS Beagle from its voyage of discovery from 1825-36, surveying, amongst other things, "the whole coast of Chile and Peru [...] no port or road-stead has been omitted," and completing "a very valuable chain of chronometric measurements".

A review of Gaskell's Mary Barton which is decided to be "as a whole, beautifully written" but the "authoress" has worked "gravely against truth, in matters of fact either above her comprehension, or beyond her sphere of knowledge".

Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition in 1851:"interest and excitement" prevailed throughout the "multitudes" of visitors from all sections of society; "the English showed most curiosity about the foreign half of the exhibition, while foreigners eagerly inspected the British department".

An 1861 report on Crinoline: A Real Social Evil, in response to "recent deaths resulting from the prevailing fashion among ladies of wearing extended crinolines", crinoline is here denounced as "responsible for more deaths than any other fashion ever caused". Deaths by fire, crushing under carriage wheels and in machinery, are nothing compared to the "cases of actual disembowelling from the gashes inflicted by broken steel springs and hoops".

And another review, this time of George Eliot's Middlemarch , highly praised as "not a mere intellectual toy, to be smiled over in the drawing-room or coupled with a cigar at the club" but rather a "work of art" to be read and re-read.


August 28, 2008

Thomas Cook Archives

Writing about web page http://www.thomascook.com/about-us/thomas-cook-history/company-archives/

Perhaps it's the dismal British weather making everyone long for far-off places, but there seems to have been a lot of travel news and events this last week or so! (I have yet to write about the exhibition I went to at the weekend too). I read this story a couple of weeks ago in the Times but have just been reminded of it online: in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Thomas Cook are opening up the company archives, offering free appointment-only tours of the collections to researchers. Thomas Cook's organised tours began in 1841, with an excursion on the railway from Leicester to Loughborough for around 500 people; the first continental tour took place in 1855. Cook played a significant part in effecting the nineteenth century shift from a notion of "travel" as an exclusive, independent pursuit to "tourism" as a mass enterprise that made travel available to many more people. Cook not only recognised the possibilities offered by transport developments like the railways, but was also instrumental in facilitating the evolution and integration of the various institutions involved in travel, establishing a network of systems to become the "leisure industry" that made tourism possible on increasingly greater scales. The archives look fascinating- guidebooks and brochures, diaries of travellers, railway timetables, films and photographs, and copies of the company's newspaper that began in 1851.

Now to find a piece of research that will take me there...


May 11, 2008

TV adaptation of Little Dorrit

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2008/05_may/06/dorrit.shtml

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


February 25, 2008

50 years of The Victorian Society

Writing about web page http://www.victorian-society.org.uk/news/11113/nation_prepares_to_celebrate_the_victorian_societys_golden_jubilee.html

albert.jpg

This week marks the 50th year of the Victorian Society, which acts to preserve Victorian and Edwardian architecture. Over the years the society has saved buildings such as the Albert Memorial and St Pancras Station in London, Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, and Liverpool's Albert Dock, as well as running events and promoting public interest in Victorian and Edwardian arts and architecture. More info on the website.


February 14, 2008

V–day

Writing about web page http://v10.vday.org/

Apart from the obvious, today is also the 10th anniversary of V-Day. V-Day is a global movement to stop violence against women, begun by Eve Ensler in 1998 with the production "The Vagina Monologues". V-Day now organises many campaigns and events across the world, and there will be many more this year to celebrate the 10th anniversary- which is being marked with an event in New Orleans in April. The dates have yet to be announced but there will be events in both Birmingham and Stratford-Upon-Avon in the coming months, as well as many other locations around the country.


February 08, 2008

90 years of the vote

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/gallery/2008/feb/06/1?picture=332400075

A couple of days late, but I just came across this interesting collection of pictures from the suffragette movement, marking the 90th anniversary since the right for many women to vote was gained on 6th February 1918.

October 30, 2007

Women's No Pay Day

Women

Go to the Fawcett Society Women's No Pay Day campaign page to find out more, sign the petition, and find out other ways to support action for equal pay.


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