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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 10, 2012
Travel and Mobility – research network
Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/postgraduate/students/enseba/research/network
I am currently establishing a new interdisciplinary research network to explore the different contexts, concepts, and approaches to travel and mobility studies across the arts, humanities and social sciences. This will be co-organised with a colleague in the German Department (Brian Haman). We are currently seeking participants with research interests including:
*travel literature (fiction and non-fiction),
*travel and the visual arts,
*migration and migrants,
* broader notions of transnationality
*in any national/international context from the early modern period to the present.
March 26, 2012
Baedeker's Southern Italy
One of my favourite things to do of a weekend is browse the shelves of secondhand bookshops and I've been on a bit of a roll with old travel books in Leamington's Oxfam Books & Music in recent weeks, which I'll be blogging in the next few posts.
The first of my finds is a 1912 edition of a Baedeker's handbook to Southern Italy and Sicily
Full title: Southern Italy and Sicily, with Excursions to Sardinia, Malta, and Corfu; Handbook for Travellers, with 34 Maps and 34 Plans, Sixteenth Revised Edition.
Baedeker's handbooks, along with Murray's Guides, were the key tourist handbooks of the 19th century, accompanying many a tourist on their travels across the continent and beyond. Although the "guidebook" had long been used to advice travellers about their journeys, the Handbook was a slightly different genre, designed as a compact edition to be carried by the traveller on their journey. The Handbook included practical information to prepare the traveller, but also set out a planned series of routes to be followed.
This is the first edition that I've seen up close, and it's fascinating to see just how detailed the guide is as well as to read the surrounding material; between the two, there's a clear tension between being a "true" independent traveller as opposed to a mere "tourist" (I am of course drawing here on James Buzard's discussion in The Beaten Track1). The Preface informs the traveller that the aim of the Handbook is to "supply the traveller wtih some information regarding the culture, art and character of the people he is about to visit" in order to "render him as independent as possible of the services of guides and valets-de-place".
But whilst the emphasis here is on a certain mode of "independence", the heavily prescriped form of the Handbook is also hinted at: it is "in every way to aid him in deriving enjoyment and instruction from his tour". The Handbook's purpose is not just to set out the correct path to follow, but to aid the traveller in deriving the correct enjoyment from each sight - to give the traveller the lens through which to view all that he sees. As Buzard writes, handbooks "preceded the tourist, making the crooked straight and the rough places plain for the tourist's hesitant footsteps; they accompanied the tourist on the path they had beaten, directing gazes and prompting responses" (75); Dickens's depiction of tourists in Italy in Little Dorrit satirises the tourist's reliance on the handbook, describing masses of tourists "walking about St. Peter’s and the Vatican on somebody else’s cork legs, and straining every visible object through somebody else’s sieve” (428).
Thus what follows are routes detailing exactly where to walk, what to look at, and even the timings of each stage: "from the piazza in front of the cathedral we proceed to the S. straight through a gateway, then ascend through the porch of the church of Sant'Antonio, pass the portal of the church of Santa Chiara to the left, and reach (8 min.) a door giving on the road." This level of detail constitutes most of the book's 500 pages, such that there almost seems little point to actually visiting the place itself!
The same can be said of the cultural attitudes of the English towards foreigners displayed throughout. The particular strength of feeling against Italians is demonstrated right from the start: the first paragraph of the Preface ends by stating "the Handbook will also, it is hoped, save the traveller many a trial of temper; for probably nowhere in Europe is the patience more severely taxed than in some parts of Italy." In the section giving practical advice, stereotypes of Italians abound: it is noted that begging "has in Italy been regarded from time immemorial as a legitimate mode of earning one's daily bread", reference is made to the "insolence and rapacity" of cab-drivers, and we are warned that "the popular idea of cleanliness in Southern Italy is behind the age, dirt being perhaps neutralized in the opinion of the natives by the brilliancy of their climate". The travellers' health is of great importance, with strict instructions on what to eat and drink (avoid "free indulgence" in most foods) and what to wear when: "always be provided with a greatcoat or shawl .... Woollen underclothing is indispensable." No detail is left out, even the traveller's body incorporated into the institutionalisation of travel.
This edition has certainly seen a few travels in the last 100 years, although it's in good condition and the colour maps and plans (as above) are still vibrant (and notably, all details in Italian). The next book I'll be blogging about is slightly different in focus and purpose, recounting a visit to Morocco in the 1920s.
1James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
July 18, 2011
Travel in the 19th Century (2): Intra–national mobilities
This is the second of two posts on the conference Travel in the 19th Centurywhich I attended at the University of Lincoln, 13-15th July 2011; in part 1 I focused on European travel, here I discuss papers on intra-national mobilities.
The effects of mobility in reshaping the relationship between space and time were a key theme of the European discussions throughout the conference but this also came up in the context of intra-national mobilities, most particularly in reference to railway journeys. Thursday morning saw a fascinating panel on Railway Travel, including Matt Thompson's (University of York) paper on a brilliant set of cartoon illustrations of the railways from the early 1840s, as well as Kara Tennant's (University of Cardiff) "A Restricted Ideal: Female Beauty in Transit" which focused on fashion and femininity in the railway carriage. I was most interested, though, in Di Drummond's (Leeds Trinity) paper on "Complimentary and Competing constructs of modernity in British and Indian narratives of the railway" which opened up an area of research I've long been interested in but haven't yet explored, the building of railways in 19th century India. Drummond's work on British railways has previously been of interest to me, exploring as it does concepts of space-time compression and the creation of new concepts of national space in Victorian Britain. Here a focus on India drew out similar issues to the spatial impact of British railways, which Drummond began by discussing through the intersection of modernity with colonial rhetoric, discourses which work to reinforce one another: the uneven development of India through the railway's spatial impact - an Old/New India - and a temporalised discourse around this solidified the modernity-imperial intersection. Drummond also looked at how national identity and the construction of national space were impacted by the railway: the extensive railway network suggesting the idea of an integrated and unified nation-space, whilst in Indian narratives discussions about national identity were generated through responses to the railway.
On the subject of intra-national mobilities, for me one of the key themes running throughout the conference was the need to expand the idea of what we think of as "travel" towards a concept that incorporates more diverse practices of mobility. This is a subject that remains central to the theoretical frameworks of my research; my thesis entered into debates around mobility theory, supporting the need for a conceptual shift from "travel" to "mobility" - a term that encompasses any form of movement through, and interaction with, socio-spatial contexts, thus situating the "production of meaning" of a subject-space interaction as the defining factor for what "counts" as a journey, rather than more arbitrary factors such as distance travelled or type of journey (leisure/pleasure) undertaken. Papers on the governess-traveller (Jenny Pearce, University of Hull), tramps (Ashley Fisher, University of Hull), and rambling clerks (Nicola Bishop, University of Lancaster) all pointed to the diverse forms of travel practice in the nineteenth century - particularly the value of what we might term "necessary" mobility - and the importance of expanding discussions to incorporate these practices; the representations such narratives produce are both significant in their own right, and in contributing to/working within the wider discourses about travel and transport in the nineteenth century. As my doctoral thesis sought to demonstrate, shifts in travel practice and the changing meanings this produced are manifest throughout all levels and scales of travel context, not just in those we might typically designate as "a journey", and it was encouraging to see others working from such a perspective and to learn more about the value of such narratives.
James Buzard's keynote paper offered an interesting perspective to these debates, bringing in another facet of expanding travel theory that has also been essential to my work: recognising that fictional narratives - particularly 19th century realism - contribute to, and work in the context of, discourses of travel. Centring his discussion around Madame Bovary, and building on the approaches of his Disorienting Fiction, Buzard offered an incisive and compelling reading of the relationship between travel, the novel, and ethnography which culminated in a renewed understanding of narrative technique in the realist text and the suggestion of free indirect discourse as the "stylistic variant of travel ethnography". In the wider context of his arguments, Buzard was, like the preceding papers, also thinking about the question of "what counts as travel" through looking at the discursive interactions of the novel with travel (Emma Bovary's imaginary wanderings - "with him she might have travelled all over the kingdom of Europe, from capital to capital" - provided the starting-point for discussion) and taking the 19th century text as an auto-ethnographic project. The role of the novel in wider travel cultures and discursive contexts is central to my research which takes a similar perspective in analysing fictional travel narratives as actively participating in 19th century travel culture.
But in light of the previous discussion about more inclusive mobilities, Buzard's approach distinctly differs, for he was dismissive of reading these travel practices as they appear in the novel: in setting out the context for discussion, he outlined the many and varied forms of movement in the novel and argued that these aren't really travel, not part of the same idea of travel culture with which the novel is interested. It's a point which stands in terms of his discussion of the relationship between narrative technique and travel culture, and the sophistication of this argument is not to be understated. But to me it seems to neglect the hugely important role that mobility does play in the novel and the perspectives on issues surrounding/emanating from travel culture that such movements offer - from the small-scale travels of characters through and between different places, to the wider-scale view of a novel's movement between geographical locations. These "actual" mobilities and the spaces they occupy play a different but nonetheless significant role in shaping narrative form, and reading through these movements and spaces offers a new perspective on how narratives might be seen to operate in the context of travel cultures. These journeys offer a rich and varied resource for developing further the relationship between travel and the novel. That aside, though, Buzard's paper offered some insightful new perspectives and I'll be thinking about this more as I revisit work on Dickens in the coming weeks.
As a final note on intra-national mobilities, we conference delegates were able to escape the confines of the campus to take a tour of Lincoln Cathedral, led by Jim Chesire, with focus on the Victorian stained glass of the cathedral. It was lovely to see more of the city, learn about the glorious cathedral and to have a shift in perspective - one which, quite aptly, positioned us as tourists!
Travel in the 19th Century @ University of Lincoln, 13–15th July 2011 (part 1: Europe)
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.
May 30, 2011
Modes of Transport: Travel Writing and Form, 1780–1914 @ KCL, 26th May 2011
Writing about web page http://travelconference.blogspot.com
This was the first of several conferences focusing on the theme of travel in the coming months, and what a wondefully stimulating start it was. Focusing on travel writing of the long nineteenth century, the conference specifically centred upon the impact of new technologies of movement on writing about travel; taking Franco Moretti's suggestion that "new space gives rise to a new form", the interest was in how new perspectives, markets, and networks enabled by technological developments gave rise to new literary forms and modes of travel writing.
Clare Pettitt's opening keynote presentation, "Travel in Print: Wonders, Miscellanies and News Culture" thoroughly encapsulated these ideas in an exploration of the relationship between print culture and travel writing. Pettitt began by outlining the notion of print culture as an alternative to the usual focus on print production in the period; print culture incorporates the uses and appropriations of print, thus opening up questions about the sociability of print form, the circulation of text and images, and the use of text as a participatory practice that goes beyond individual reading - summed up in the image of the Victorian scrapbook in which odds and ends of pictures and text are patched together to become appropriated into new compositions. In this, reading becomes a more active and participatory process and thus breaks down the distance between text and reader; this, Pettitt suggested, was vital to the changing forms of travel narrative as travel writing becomes a more porous practice, open to new forms of cross-cultural connection. Questions of fact and fiction, authorial trust, distance, and the gendered reception of travel writing were all opened up here. I was especially interested in the idea that scrap-booking was a particularly female practice, and thus a way of (actively) participating in the otherwise masculine domain of travel- but was this as positively undertaken as Pettitt suggested, and not accompanied by a longing awareness of the impossibilities of one's own movement? It was interesting also to think about the implications of this break-down of distance for the understanding of global spatial consciousness in the period. I've written before about travel writing playing a key role in the erosion of spatial boundaries and the resultant insecurities of national place that arise from the sense of compressing global space; this notion of travel-print circulation within Britain brings a new dimension to these ideas, resonating with ideas of intra-national mobility that I'm currently exploring as both a resistance to and complication of the meanings of global mobility.
The writing of Basil Hall and H. M. Stanley was used by Pettitt to exemplify these ideas, and throughout the day a vast array of travellers writing about a range of different locations were discussed: British women travelling in Norway, journeys to Rome, Romantic walkers, a female traveller to Chile, de Quincey's mail-coach journeys, female travellers in India, and contemporary travel writers were covered in the papers I attended and delegates I met with. The focus was almost exclusively on "true" travel narratives of journeys undertaken by the writers, but Anne Green's paper on fictional renderings of rail travel in France from 1852-70 proved especially complementary to my work. Although French writing doesn't register the shock of rail travel in the way that can be discerned in British writing of a similar period, Green's paper identified that many corresponding representational techniques are found in French renderings of the railway journey - speed and perception of the landscape, the dislocation of passivitiy vs movement, metaphoric descriptions, as well as the expected themes of sexuality, death, illness and so on. Her focus on Flaubert, however, identified how the railway's impact on shaping literary form was much greater in French writing, the railway really reshaping French literature and narrative form in a way that can't quite be said for British literature - at least not in the same, directly discernible way.
Although I could only attend the first of the two days of this conference, the day opened up a number of useful lines of enquiry for events of the coming weeks and months, including:
Travelling Identities at Birkbeck (18th June), a symposium for discussing ideas of travel and identity construction;
Global Cities: A Literary Atlas of Nineteenth-Century Urban Culturesat King's (25th June), a forum for discussing non-European urban cultures;
Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Narratives, Histories and Collections is a three-day conference at the University of Lincoln this summer, at which I'll be presenting a paper on Dickens's representation of Europe in Little Dorrit;
and a little way off yet, but this year's Dickens Day also picks up on the popularity of this theme by focusing on Dickens and Travel.
June 14, 2010
Travels into Print: Professor Charles Withers talk @ University of Warwick, 13th May 2010
Writing about web page http://www.hss.ed.ac.uk/chb/Correspondence.htm
This talk by Professor Charles Withers was part of his two-week IAS visiting fellowship in May- as it's taken me just over a month to write something on this, and the lecture can be found as a podcast on the website, I'm mostly writing this to record a few responses for myself.
Professor Withers is currently coming to the end of a 2-year project titled "Correspondence: Exploration and Travel from Manuscript to Print, 1768-1848"at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for the History of the Book, and his lecture at Warwick discussed some of the key points and issues on which the project has focused. Using the John Murray Archives, Withers has been reseaching the modes of production involved in the publishing of travel writing: he began the talk by setting out this context, asserting that too little consideration is given to the relationship between the experiences "in the field" and the final narrative that is produced; too often, the finished artifact is taken as read without thinking about the processes of production that it went through to get to that point. Yet perhaps more than any ofter form of writing, in travel writing there is a huge amount of correspondence between publisher and author that impacts upon how the original writing is shaped into what becomes the finished, published, travel narrative. There's a presumption of "truth" between the two; perhaps because of the nature of travel writing and the "eye-witness account" it promises, we assume that the words on the page bear a largely unmediated relationship to the initial experiences of the writer.
Of course in the critical study of travel writing there is an attentiveness to the literary nature of travel writing and the fictionalising processes that are at work in all writing, and so the work of the project offers an important contribution to opening up these frameworks further, extending this concern with literariness into thinking about the nature and making of the texts: exploring the demands of publishers, audiences, cultural reception, and meta-textual additions are just some of the areas Withers touched on in the talk.
I was especially interested in thinking about how this works to further break down the disciplinary boundaries between fictional and non-fictional accounts of travel writing, emphasising as it does the constructed natuer of travel writing. Despite the critical awareness of travel writing's "literariness", it seems to me that there remains a distinct disciplinary boundary between non-fictional travel accounts and the study of other types of literary journeys- in my case, fictional renderings of journeys in novels. There is, of course, a great difference between the genres and the discursive practices, forms, purposes, reception, and so on; how "travel writing" is produced, read, understood, interpreted is different to the ways in which fiction is produced. But, whilst taking these differences into account, I think that there are important ways in which the critical distinction can be broken down to offer useful and productive new perspectives. I've been working to re-orientate the frameworks within which we situate writing about travel, thinking about how all forms of "travel writing", fictional and non-fictional alike, can be seen as participating in discourses of spatial production; as Mary Louise Pratt writes, travel narratives have “produced ‘the rest of the world’ for European readerships at particular points” (Imperial Eyes p. 5). To define writing about travel as a mode of “spatial production” – albeit specifically of “other” spaces of the wider world rather than the immediate spatiality of a particular culture – opens up a framework in which we can understand all writing about travel, non-fictional and fictional accounts alike, as participating in the production of spatial imaginaries- as Charles Withers said, in the "cultural production of knowledge (and ignorance)". Whilst different forms of writing might play different roles in this production given the different modes of representation and reading practices involved across literary genres - and attention should be paid to these issues - nonetheless the core practice of constructing textual socio-spatial relations that are indicative of the wider cultural spatial consciousness and its discourses, situates "non-fictional" and "fictional" accounts of journeys as participating in a similar project. Such a perspective, that defines “travel writing” in terms of its function and effect rather than by the processes and origins of its production, is important both in understanding the wider meanings and interconnections of travel writing, and opening up the field to new forms of discourse, and, I think more importantly from my perspective, for extending the possibilities of how we think about literary journeys in more complex ways: not as spatial sites that are somehow enclosed in a vacuum of textual representation, but as engaged in practices and productions which extend beyond the realm of the text itself, contributing to wider discourses of spatial knowledge.
The work of Professor Withers and his research team seemed, at least in my reading of it, to be working towards a similar perspective - re-orientating the study of travel writing to think about the ways in which knowledge is produced and circulated - but from the opposite angle, bringing to light the very literary, constructed nature of travel accounts through looking at the transitions and transits - "voyages into print" - that are involved in producing knowledge about travel.
April 19, 2010
Maps on BBC Four
BBC 4 seems to be having something of a map-week - last night, "Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession", the first of a 3-part series, focused on tracing the development of mapping techniques over the last 3000 years. Whilst the framing analysis tended towards the simplistic (although it's encouraging that the programme did at least raise questions and prompt thinking about representation and so on), I was interested to learn more about the more technical side of mapping and how the processes and techniques have evolved over the centuries. A variety of fascinating maps were on display from a range of historical periods and places, opening up fascinating insights into the ways in which different cultures understand and conceptualise space, location and movement. Throughout, I found myself coming back to the centrality of movement to mapping, and the role it plays in spatial experience, understanding, and representation- from the Roman map which privileged distance as the organising principle between places, to the Polynesian map drawn from the memory - the memory of travelling through and experiencing the spaces it portrayed. Movement is the precondition of mapping, one of the primary reasons for needing a map. And thinking about maps and movement draws out the underlying tension that all maps display: the attempt at (and pretence of) an accurate representation of space, and the unrepresentability of spaces which always resist containment in representable form. To travel through space which has been mapped is to experience the disjuncture between representation and reality- I'm reminded here of Hetty in Adam Bede, who sets out on her journey from the midlands to Windsor and finds that a distance that “that seems but a slight journey as you look at the map" is in fact "wearily long" to the traveller.
1675 map of a journey - from Mapping the Imagination exhibition
And yet despite their inherent problems and contradictions, maps have that continuing, irresistable appeal; as George Eliot notes later in Middlemarch, “a map was a fine thing to study when you were disposed to think of something else, being made up of names that would turn into a chime if you went back upon them”. The series starting tonight on BBC Four suggests the promise of the delights that maps hold, titled as it is The Beauty of Maps. The website contains some interesting info and links (Maptube looks intriguing), and there's also an exhibition at the British Library running until September, which I'll be sure to get along to.
April 18, 2010
BWWC, "Journeys": 8th–10th April 2010, Texas A&M University
Writing about web page http://www-english.tamu.edu/index.php?id=1760
The 18th annual conference of the 18th and 19th Century British Women Writers Associationtook place last week at Texas A&M University. The theme this year was "Journeys", making the conference highly relevant to my research and well worth the trip to Texas. The 3 days provided many stimulating panels, as well as much intellectual discussion in between- the notes that follow are by no means a comprehensive account of the conference, just a few notes on things that interested me or related to my own work.
The first day was a good one for Victorian novels- the panels I attended included papers on Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot. Jessie Reeder, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented a paper on "Romola's Journeys", in which she focused on the novel's construction of the city wall surrounding Florence in the context of Victorian anxieties of national identity and national boundaries- the question of how to negotiate the tension between achieving global reach whilst upholding a defined national identity in a country that has no definite, material boundary. The representation of the city wall in the text materialises a response to this, embodying conflicting tensions- although responds more to the question of "national identity" in general, rather than British identity in particular. The novel plays a similar role to the city walls by expelling characters abroad, but ends by asserting an individualised notion of identity, constructing boundaries around the self as the strongest of all.
Two papers on Villette followed in the next panel. Patricia Frank, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke about spatial solitude in the novel, identifying how Lucy Snowe's control over space and over the self are interlinked in the novel. I was also interested that she mentioned how Mrs Bretton is often representationally associated with landscapes in the novel, something I hadn't paid detailed attention to before. Megan Burke Witzleben from Fordham University followed with a paper on home and interior travels in Villette which looked at Lucy's challenging of, and responses to, different home-spaces as part of her development of identity. She contended that the concept of "home" asserted through Lucy is a uniquely English cosmopolitanism.
In a panel on "Medical Travels: Mapping the Body", I was interested in Emily Baldys' paper on disability in Gaskell's shorter fiction, and her reading of the "flexibility" of disabled bodies. Kathleen Beres Rogers' paper on "Medical Geography in Elizabeth Barret Browning" also explored intersections between location and health. The two papers provided an interesting perspective on the relations between geographical movement, place, and embodied constitution as a fluid, mobile, and malleable process in texts.
I began the second day presenting my paper, "'Wandering out Into the World': Women Walking in the mid-Victorian Novel". The panel generated much discussion as my paper was preceded by Christi Blythin's "Why Ladies Can't Enjoy a Good View: The Freedom to Walk in Bronte's Shirley", which discussed the gendered issues that impact upon representations of women walking. Using George Meredith's The Egoist as a point of comparison, Christi identified the issues of restricted access to unmediated nature that faced women (of reasonable wealth) who could walk out, but only along the set paths and routes of English country-house gardens, which were crafted for the particular views and prospects they provided. Shirley celebrates the rare opportunity and freedom that unrestricted walking offers to women: Shirley and Caroline's friendship is forged whilst walking in a way that it can't be in the restricted environment of the drawing-room, which demands certain codes of feminine behaviour and conversation. But the novel recognises that this freedom is being lost, with changes to the landscape- namely enclosure, and the encroachment of industry/technology across the landscape- not just displacing the poor, but restricting access to "natural" nature which is set-up as a particular problem for women.
This provided an interesting contrast, and complement, to my own paper which also touched on issues of gendered space and the distancing of women from travel-spaces- although this is an implicit background context to my work, this was something I could only touch briefly upon as the main focus of my paper took a different direction. I looked at how Charlotte Bronte and Eliot depict female travellers (Jane Eyre, and Hetty Sorrel) undertaking lengthy walking journeys in which we see their awareness of gendered codes of travel impact upon the embodied experience of the female walkers. Whilst highly negative assumptions surround women walking alone- mainly sexual promiscuity and madness- in these narratives, the recognition of their contentious, highly visible, position in the streets opens up the texts to a heightened attentiveness to physicality and the embodied experience of travel. Both novels explore the body's physical experience of travel spaces, constructing a body-space relationship that asserts travel as a material, spatial practice; through this, a spatial understanding is forged, with the travellers coming to embody an understanding of spatial distance and scale. I contextualise this within the disruptions to spatial understanding that the railway effected in its annihilation of time-space relationship, situating these novels as constructing walking as a mode of travel which responds to this spatial challenge, forging an embodied relationship to the land through which space "makes sense" to the body.
On the final day, the panel titled "Doing the Continental" centred upon female travellers in European spaces. Mollie Barnes' paper on Felicia Hemans' The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy was interesting in considering the movement of objects out of their original context and posing questions about how new meanings are generated by the positioning of objects in a different place to the original location in which they were intended to be seen. Her discussion of Italy as an imaginary space for representations and ideas of nationality was also useful in broadening my thoughts about British conceptions of Europe into the earlier part of the century. Following this, Katarina Gephardt's paper on Menie Dowie's A Girl in the Karpathians discussed her writing as anti-travelogue, going against typical conventions of travel writing- issues of the gaze, the situation of the body, performance of the embodied self were all indicative contexts. Here, as with many other papers, I found myself looking forward to getting hold of a copy of the text on my return! Finally, Laura Olcelli's paper on "Ladies of the Grand Tour" discussed foreign linguistic innaccuracies in the works of writers such as Marianna Starke, who use Italian words and phrases throughout their works to acheive particular effects; identifying numerous mistakes and incorrect uses of words, however, provided an interesting reading of how these intended effects are countered or lost of translation.
Kate Flint's keynote, "Emotional Baggage: Reading, Affect, and the 19th-Century Woman Traveller", was a fascinating exploration of the intersecting themes of the conference. Centring around the question of "what might it be to be a female travelling reader", Flint's talk began discussing the ways in which "to read is to travel"- the reader as a literal traveller, mentally voyaging- before thinking about questions that are raised when the reader is in motion or abroad. The mental voyage here is perhaps not so much outwards, towards the unfamiliar, but rather turns to the familiar, home, national and personal identity. And the relationship between production of meaning and spatial location is crucial: a text acts differently upon the reader depending on where it's read; reading makes sense of places, and generates different senses in different places. I was particularly interested in thinking about the ideas around reading whilst in motion, in the act of physical mobility- something that was, whilst not new to industrialised travel, certainly much enabled by railway travel: reading was much more possible on the train than in a jolting carriage, and played a role in the changing meanings of being a traveller, contributing to the increasingly individualised experience of travel- asserting one's personal space within the public railway compartment - and the dislocation or removal from the embodied interaction of travel-space: travelling inwards rather than engaging, physically and mentally, with the space being traversed.
The conference drew to a close with dinner and awards, at which I was very grateful to be one of three recipients of the BWWC graduate student travel scholarship. I didn't hang around to explore Texas- a 2-hour shuttle bus back to Houston the next day was the most I saw of the surrounding area, but we were lucky to be driving through in wildflower season in full bloom so it was a more interesting landscape than I'd expected. I doubt I'll be able to attend next year's conference in Ohio, but hopefully in future years I'll return as it's certainly the liveliest conference, and most supportive of graduate students, that I've been to (and a lot of fun too, which is always a bonus!).
January 05, 2009
Past exhibition info
Follow-up to 'Mapping the Imagination' at the V&A from Charlotte's Research blog
I'm not sure how long this has been on the V&A website, but whilst preparing some material for my seminars tomorrow I came across thisarchived info about the exhibition "Mapping the Imagination" that I went to last year. The website is great as it has much better images of the maps than I managed to take, and it includes all of the exhibits, many of which I didn't photograph.