The latest issue of Victorian Network, “Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture”, is now available. I had the pleasure of guest editing this issue, which was a fantastic job due to both the excellent contributors and editorial board involved. The issue features essays that cover a myriad of themes on sexuality and marriage: fallen women in Gaskell, sexual risk and theatrical performance, masculinity and marital rape in Trollope, ageing and sexual selection in Haggard, pederasty in Wilde, and concealed eroticism in Eliot. My introduction to the issue discusses George Eliot’s Adam Bede and surveys the critical field on sexuality and marriage in Victorian studies.
I hope you enjoy reading the issue as much as I enjoyed putting it together!
In a quick break from normal service, I thought I’d take a moment to mention the University of Warwick Book Festival, which is taking place at Warwick Arts Centre on Saturday 15th June 2013. Organising the Festival has been my main project this year as Research Fellow at the IAS, and it’s been quite an undertaking (a very interesting one at that!) to work on a large-scale public engagement project. We’ve drawn together authors whose works fit broadly around the theme of history – lots of literature, biography, politics, art, and more – and hope it’ll be a really exciting and varied day for audiences.
Of course the only downside to organising the Festival is that I’ve lined up a day of fascinating speakers that I’m not going to get a chance to see myself! But if you’d like to go to any of the talks then, for a mere £5.50 per event, you can book on the Arts Centre website.
I’ve been watching with interest the new BBC series The Village that follows the life of a rural Derbyshire community in the early 20th century. Among the most common response to this seems to be that the series is too depressing and bleak in its portrayal. Now admittedly with at least one death per episode, the background of World War I, and the on-going themes of poverty, domestic violence, criminality and injustice, set against a landscape that is not so much idyllic rolling hills but rather rugged, bleak, and by the looks of things, darned windy… it does not make for cheery Sunday night viewing. But I’m finding it enjoyably refreshing to see a series portray rural life without the twee gloss of rose-tinted nostalgia for an idyllic English past, and instead approaching something closer to the “rural realism” as described by George Eliot.
George Eliot’s early works - Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861) – all focus around rural Midlands locales in the early part of the nineteenth century, and in doing so address a key problem that Eliot had earlier noted as dominating over typical representations of rurality. In 1856, writing in the Westminster Review on Riehl’s Natural History of German Life, Eliot argued that the true condition of the rural classes had been obscured from view:
How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories. Where, in our picture exhibitions, shall we find a group of true peasantry?
There are, she notes, certainly many depictions of the rural peasantry, but these show “the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred”, rather than “the truth of rustic life”:
The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life. The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life. Idyllic ploughmen are jocund when they drive their team afield; idyllic shepherds make bashful love under hawthorn bushes; idyllic villagers dance in the checkered shade and refresh themselves, not immoderately, with spicy nut-brown ale.
Yet, Eliot counters, “no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry”; if we look more closely, we find that
The slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humor twinkles, the slow utterance, and the heavy, slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal the camel than of the sturdy countryman, with striped stockings, red waistcoat, and hat aside, who represents the traditional English peasant.
The rural scenes of Eliot’s early fiction therefore move away from the idyllic towards a closer observation of the conditions of rural life and people. There are certainly instances where we find nostalgia for the rural past creep in as rebuttal to the forces of modernity, most famously in the “old leisure” passage of Adam Bede which looks fondly back on “those old leisurely times” that have gone, “gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars”, and replaced by the steam-engine that “only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in” (AB chapter LII).
But Eliot also complicates this with the harsh realities of rural life, particularly with regards to the moral codes of the community: as she points out in the essay on Riehl, rural simplicity does not beget intrinsic morality, for “to make men moral something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass”. Accordingly, her fiction repeatedly shows up the problems of the moral codes of rural communities, from the suspicion with which “settlers from distant parts” are regarded by a community for whom “the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery” (Silas Marner, chapter 1), to the stringent gendered codes that operate to exclude sexually transgressive women whilst giving slight punishment to the men who are responsible for their wrongdoing (as in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss).
And I think The Village works in this vein of “rural realism”, offering a portrayal that complicates the idyllic simplicity and the intrinsic morality of the countryside with a rather harsher vision of rural life. Particularly notable I’ve felt is this idea of the complicated moral codes that operate within the community: social relations continually shift from a sense of a closely bounded community within the village, to the familial isolation upon the farm, and there’s a similar sense of unstable social codes operating in the shifts between exclusion and inclusion of individuals based on moral judgements that are at times dubious or wrongly biased. In last week’s episode, Grace Middleton’s internal struggle at the religious salvation of her previously violent drunk husband nicely pulled out the complexity of individual emotional responses vs the wider sense of what is “right” in the community, in a way that nicely captured the moral tensions and individual difficulties faced. Throughout, the harsh realities of rural life continually intersect with these themes, coming back to the basic facts of life and death on the farm, whilst recognising the wider forces that are shaping, and shaped by, the rural landscape.
The Village isn’t without its problems – it’s taking me a while to get on board with the Big House family and the obvious move to the “all is not as grand as it seems” theme that seems to preside over most of their story-lines – and it’s not without the occasional vision of “cheery villagers on the green”. But it’s nonetheless an important shift in the representation of rurality, and a welcome turn away from the simplified idyllic vision of the rural past towards something more closely evoking Eliot’s call for a vision of rural realism.
Following on from the previous Bleak House post, here are links and images from the Little Dorrit class this week.
We started off with some context on the 18th century Grand Tour, and these two images as indicative of the sites and ideology behind the Grand Tour. The first image is by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, who painted many Grand Tourists and this is typical of such paintings.
This second image is “Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome” by Giovanni Paolo Pannini (1759) and shows many of the popular sites of Rome that would be visited by tourists.
The travel guidebook that I showed in the lecture was a 1912 Baedeker’s Guide to Southern Italy, which I have blogged about here (and have another post on the Sardinia sections forthcoming) and there is information on the history of the guides here. I also showed this image of Cook’s tours and there’s some interesting history to the firm and you can also view some more images here.
The final two images of Venice and Rome are a 19th century view of Venice (anonymous) and an 1823 engraving of St Peter’s Basilica and Castel Sant’ Angelo by Rossini. In the extract on Rome, Dickens refers to “the celebrated Mr Eustace”, writer of A Classical Tour through Italy.
Finally, I have recorded a podcast about travel in Little Dorrit which is available here.
For students at the University of Cagliari who attended my classes this week, here are some images and further reading that I referred to.
These two images are watercolours of the Great Exhibition by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, that I have written more about here:
You can read a contemporary response to the Great Exhibition here, and the full text of Dickens’s “The Last Words of the Old Year” (quoted on the handout) can be read online here. I have also written about the ideas of “people and things” at the Exhibition in the context of Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851 and Bleak House.
This image of the London slums is taken from this website on Victorian London where you can find some more contemporary writing about the slums and related issues.
Dickens’s writing on the Niger expedition is discussed in the book by Tim Carens cited on the handout, plus a number of others including Grace Moore’s Dickens and Empire (2004).
Finally, this podcast that I recorded for the University of Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens project is of relevance to some of the issues raised, and on the Celebrating Dickens website you will find many other podcasts and videos of interest to Charles Dickens’s life and times.
“Curiously brought together” or “travelling surely hither”? Journeying from Bleak House to Little Dorrit
I’m currently revising a chapter on European travel in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, and have been pondering for the last couple of days the way in which, as in Bleak House, Dickens’s narrator suggests to us something of a framework for reading the patterns of mobility and interconnections in the novel. In the early pages of Little Dorrit, Miss Wade’s “cold farewell” to her fellow quarentined travellers at Marseilles comprises of these lines:
“In our course through life we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us, from many strange places and by many strange roads, and what is set to us to do to them, and what is set to them to do to us, will all be done.”
“you may be sure that there are men and women already on their road, who have their business to do with you, and who will do it. Of a certainty they will do it. They may be coming hundreds, thousands, of miles over the sea there; they may be close at hand now; they may be coming, for anything you know, or anything you can do to prevent it, from the vilest sweepings of this very town.”
And after this, we then get another iteration of this sentiment by the narrator on the next page:
“And thus ever, by day and night, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life.”
Coming from reading Bleak House, these lines immediately call to mind that novel’s central statement on the narrative interconnections that arise from mobility: “what connexion can there be [...] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!” In both novels there’s a sense of “great gulfs” being crossed, of travel providing the means for endless possibilities of curious connections. Yet in Bleak House the statement rings as an open question that is never fully answered – what connection can there be?, we are constantly led to ask, the novel constantly entertaining that sense of curiousity such that the limitless possibilities of chance encounters remain an on-going possibility until the end.
But by Little Dorrit this seems to have shifted away from the openness of random interactions towards a greater sense of inevitability: while the narrator’s iteration entertains the more random sense of travellers going “to meet and to act and react on one another” (I have a mental image with that phrase of atoms bobbing about in a jar…), Miss Wade’s words emphasise the idea of individuals being drawn specifically to one another by a magnetic pull - ”we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us” and “who have their business to do with you” both stressing the fated nature of encounters. Little Dorrit seems to recognise that the limitless possibilities afforded by travel is only a conceit; the freedom of the multiple open roads ahead is but an illusion, and all journeys have their appointed end.
On the one hand, this reads like the self-conciousness of a writer who knows that the apparent chance encounters of the novel are of course intricately plotted and pre-planned; the narrative of Little Dorrit does away with much of the illusion of randomness that Bleak House so relishes in, in part because the pared-down cast affords less opportunities for characters to “meet and act and react” on one another in unexpected ways, and because the narrative resolution inescapably rests upon tight plotting. Little Dorrit might be less complexly plotted, but it’s also more assured in not working to conceal the networks on which the narrative depends.
But there’s also a shift here in the possibilities of place afforded through movement. Some 100 or so pages later in Little Dorrit, Dickens returns again to a recapitulation of this phrase: as Affrey dreams one night, the narrator asks
“which of the vast multitude of travellers […] journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and re-act on one another, which of the host may, with no suspicion of the journey’s end, be travelling surely hither?”
That “hither” is a vital inclusion in this latter phrase: now we have not just the idea of fated interactions, but a specific locatedness that draws all possibilities of journeying towards a particular time and place. The openness that Bleak House entertains in its phrase ”curiously brought together” has now completely gone: all is travelling towards a particular moment that can be located in place and time – heading towards a vanishing-point. This is of course the final resolution that the novel reaches: as Clennam reflects,
“Looking back upon his own poor story, she was its vanishing-point. Everything in its perspective led to her innocent figure. He had travelled thousands of miles towards it [...] beyond there was nothing but mere waste, and darkened sky”
Everything has its time, place and meaning, its moment that makes sense of everything. What’s perhaps most interesting about this plotted inevitability is that it underscores and further iterates the confinement throughout the novel, resisting the possibility to break free from the literal and figurative bonds that pervade Little Dorrit. But I’m still curious as to what this does to the sense of place and mobility in the novel: why this insistence on locatedness and on drawing everything into an end-point, and what does this tell us about the novel’s handling of movement and mobile cultures? Is Dickens suggesting the entrapment of a modernity that purports to provide limitless freedom? or something more to do with the changing sense of space that is emerging through new mobile networks? And what is the effect of this on how we read the novel’s enclosed spaces throughout the text?
On Thursday 27th June 2013, the Travel and Mobility Studies Research Network is holding its first symposium on the theme of “Contact and Connections”. We are delighted that keynote presentations will be given by Dr Cathy Waters (University of Kent) and Professor Tim Youngs (Nottingham Trent University), and invite submissions for papers as per the cfp below.
Full details about the Network and symposium are on the website.
Submissions are invited for the first annual symposium of the University of Warwick Travel and Mobility Studies Research Network, on the theme of “Contact and Connections”.
The symposium aims to address the various connections and forms of contact produced through different forms and representations of travel practice. How does travel connect cultures? What new cultural formations are produced through the process of travel? What are the implications of connection across local, national and global mobile networks? How does travel connect people to the spaces around them and through which they move? What new theoretical connections are produced through the intersections of travel and mobility theory with other disciplines?
Proposals are welcome from researchers working across the arts, humanities and social sciences, including such subjects as travel literature (fiction and non-fiction), the visual arts, tourism studies, migration and migrants, commodity circulation, transnationality, philosophies of travel, and mobility theory in any historical period and within any global context.
Topics might include:
- Cultural connections forged through travel
- Contact zones in colonial contexts
- Intra-national and local networks of mobility
- Global networks and transnationality
- Connections within and between literature, visual arts, and other cultural modes
- Circulation of people, commodities, texts
- Connections between people and places
- Theoretical connections within travel studies
- Touristic connections with spaces of travel
- Meeting points and places of contact
Please send abstracts of 300 words for a 15-20 minute paper by 26th April 2013; acceptance will be confirmed by 3rd May.