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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.

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 16, 2010

"The terror of wandering out into the world": George Eliot's Adam Bede

Following on from my previous post on George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, next up is Eliot's Adam Bede (1859). Written the year before Mill, Adam Bede provides a nice complement, with many resonances of theme, tone, and style between the two.

In many ways, Adam Bede is situated as very much a precursor to Mill, especially in the characterisation of the central female figure which becomes, I think, much better developed in Mill. The title Adam Bede is somewhat misleading, because although Adam's narrative provides the overriding arch of the novel, much of the narrative focuses on Hetty Sorrel; Eliot seems drawn towards centralising Hetty, but doesn't quite give Hetty's character the full interior development that we get with Maggie in Mill. Reading the novel this time around, I was struck by how very silent Hetty is: although the third-person focalization of the narrative gives us a sense of "Hetty's world" (as chapter IX is titled), it's striking how little she says to those around her, her dialogue mostly limited to a yes or no here and there.

Adam Bede

Yet whilst in this sense I think Mill achieves something that isn't quite realised in AB, in one of the central themes, the love affair between Hetty and Arthur Donnithorne, AB resonates with Mill in ways that situate the former as something like Mill's grown-up sister. Like Maggie, Hetty too is restricted from walking freely and her aunt doesn't like her to go out walking much, scolding her for being late home. But her walks to visit the lady's maid up at the Donnithorne residence bring Hetty into the path of Arthur, the heir to the estate. As with Maggie and Philip, what follows is a series of the illicit meeting between lovers on woodland walks, and it is implied that Hetty and Arthur meet frequently in this way for a couple of months; but where the relationship in Mill remained sexually innocent, here things are carried further with the resulting "dreadful consequence" of Hetty's pregnancy. The novel quite explicitly realises the social presumptions of the sexual dangers of women "out walking", that women’s wandering is dangerous and risks compromising women’s sexual purity.

In a bitter mirroring of these circumstances, Hetty gives birth to the resultant baby whilst wandering alone and on foot, on her journey in search of Arthur who has long gone away with his regiment to Windsor; and then, when she finds that they have left for Ireland, Hetty must make her way back again. It's this journey that I spend most time on in the thesis, so I don't want to say too much about it here. One thing I haven't been able to explore (yet? at all? with time rapidly running away from me, I imagine it's going to be the latter) in amongst the social meanings of women walking - associations with madness and wildness, being subject to condemning remarks and so on- is the fact of Hetty's being heavily pregnant on this journey. In a period in which the visible presence of a woman in the streets leaves her open to comment, criticism, and in which birth entails "confinement", how much does Hetty's pregnant body further transgress social codes of respectability? What did it mean to be, specifically, a pregnant woman out walking?

In contrast with Hetty's (mostly) limited mobility, Dinah Morris stands as a challenge to social conventions. As a Methodist preacher, she is afforded a mobility rarely seen amongst other female characters, moving between the Stoniton and Hayslope locales in the Midlands, as well as further afield up to Leeds. This goes hand in hand with her position outside of the typical notion of femininity: dedicating herself to religious work, she is in a position to refuse taking a husband and she lives an independent life. This isn't exactly condoned by those around her: her aunt Poyser bemoans her wandering ways and her refusal to marry, which would make her settle down, root her in one place; but, she can live this life without accusations of impropriety and unrespectability. Still, though, it seems Eliot is uneasy with Dinah's position and at the end of the novel draws her into a conventional conclusion, although at least reaches something of a compromise whereby Dinah marries Adam but he allows her to keep up the preaching, mobile lifestyle - that is, until the wider forces of patriarchy step in and ban women preachers altogether, and so Dinah ultimately ends up with the same fate as all other women, being a wife and mother safely confined within her home-place. 

Also in contrast to Hetty's journeying is that of Adam, whose walking provides a nice gender contrast. This is especially noticeable in the journey that follows Hetty's: after a few chapters of her weary toiling on foot, Adam sets out in search of her, briskly walking 10 miles with ease and enjoyment. Her struggle and endurance are utterly at odds with his ability to so easily walk a long distance. Whilst women are constrained from much walking, and condemned when they do, walking in men is a celebrated feature: right at the start of the novel, we see Casson singing Adam's praises to the stranger on horseback, and amongst his list of positive attributes is Adam's ability to walk forty miles a day. This episode of Adam following after Hetty, trying to trace her movement, reminded me of a frequent trope in later mid-Century novels (Braddon and also Collins, I think) whereby a woman runs away and is followed by a man, detective or otherwise: only this becomes so much easier with the advent of railways, where one can go from station to station, following pre-laid route after pre-laid route, and rely on the inevitability of someone having spotted a woman alone on the train as something of an oddity. For poor Adam, there is no regularised, standard route to follow, and he can only guess at where she might have taken a carriage or cart from (not knowing, of course, that she set off after her first coach ride on foot). If you're going to get lost in the nineteenth-century novel, do so before Industrialised transport comes along.

Hetty is, however, ultimately the greatest traveller of all in Adam Bede: for her punishment for the abandonment (and thus, murder) of her child is transportation to Australia. The narrative doesn't follow, and we're left only to imagine how great "the terror of wandering out into the world" would be for Hetty making this final journey.

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.

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