Global/mobile values: BAVS 2012 @ University of Sheffield (part 2)

In my first post on this year’s British Association for Victorian Studies conference, I focused on the main theme “Victorian Value” and its resonance to the current academic climate; in this post, I draw together a few of the papers that were closer to my own research interests in Dickens, mobility and material circulation.

In a panel on “Dickensian Things”, two papers explored the intersections of objects, circulation and commidification. Claire Wood (York) spoke about “Mortal Values: Life, death and the entrepreneurial spirit in Martin Chuzzlewit“, exploring human commodification, mortality and market value in Dickens’s 1844 novel. Wood spoke about the two systems of economy in the novel, a concrete form of money vs a more illusory sense of finance, and within this explored the representation of people as things, the market value of mortality, and ideas around bodies as producing money. The discussion of death drew out particular links with the novel’s transatlantic mobilities and the way in which the novel uses and represents America.

Following this, Hannah Lewis-Bill (Exteter) gave a paper titled “Not for all the tea in China: Dickens, Opium and the cultural value of things” which took us to the end of Dickens’s career to discuss the global circulation of things in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Lewis-Bill explored the issues of cultural identity raised through portable property in the novel, suggesting that novels like Drood question how the increasingly reflexive relationship between Britain and the rest of the world can be managed. Focusing particularly on tea and opium, she explored the ways in which opium remained a distinctly foreign object in Victorian Britain, whilst tea became absorbed and naturalised into British life through a process of assimilation that relies upon the separation of the object from its locale – with the suggestion, I thought, that movement through national networks of mobility enacted a process of distancing from the global networks that brought tea to British shores. Lewis-Bill also picked up on the importance of touch with objects, quoting this fantastic excerpt from chapter 4 of the novel by way of example:

If I have not gone to foreign countries, young man, foreign countries have come to me. They have come to me in the way of business, and I have improved upon my opportunities. Put it that I take an inventory, or make a catalogue. I see a French clock. I never saw him before, in my life, but I instantly lay my finger on him and say “Paris!” I see some cups and saucers of Chinese make, equally strangers to me personally: I put my finger on them, then and there, and I say “Pekin, Nankin, and Canton.” It is the same with Japan, with Egypt, and with bamboo and sandalwood from the East Indies; I put my finger on them all. I have put my finger on the North Pole before now, and said “Spear of Esquimaux make, for half a pint of pale sherry!

I love the implicit sense of proximity and global collapse in this passage, the complete annihilation of space not just between distant places but between foreign locations and the individual body - locating the subject within and connected to the global spatial economy, and firmly emphasising the significance of the physical body through the repeated emphasis on touch, literalising the idea of foreign contact. Lewis-Bill drew on John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move throughout her paper and offered some interesting extensions to Plotz’s arguments particularly in achieving a much more rigorous and rich exploration of “reverse portability”, something which I think is lacking from Plotz’s otherwise excellent study.

There was more Dickens to follow in an afternoon panel on Global Value, which began with Paul Young (Exeter) and “‘Bird, be quiet!’: Little Dorrit, Free Trade and Frictional Globalisation.” Young explored Little Dorrit as a global novel which refuses the spatio-temporal divisions of modernity, articulating a spatial economy of commodity interdependence such that circulation can be read as the novel’s organising imperative. Young emphasised the importance of attentiveness to the world, not just the Empire, in literary texts, particularly with regard to structures of British capitalism. Regenia Gagnier (Exeter) followed this theme in her paper “Victorian Studies in the context of World Literatures and Globalization Studies” which surveyed the developing themes of world literatures and global modernity within Victorian Studies. Gagnier’s paper gave an expansive overview of the state of the field and new directions that are emerging; particularly interesting to me were her reflections on the negotiation between local and global concerns, something which is prominent in my thinking as I write my monograph on these very issues, and which (happily!) will also form the theme of next year’s global convergence of Victorianists at the BAVS, NAVSA and AVSA conference on “The Global and the Local“.

Local-global relations were also the subject of Josephine McDonagh‘s paper “The Village Elsewhere: Mitford and the Politics of Place”. McDonagh discussed Nancy Russell Mitford’s Our Village a text which, in the vein of Cranford and Barchester Towers, depicts a very familiar idea of English village life, focused tightly on the local with the wider world just beyond its bounds (which I’ll be blogging about in reference to Cranford very soon). However, McDonagh identified that Our Village was much read among emigrants in the period (often villagers themselves), referred to by emigrant settlers as a handbook for creating an ideal village and inviting comparisons between Indian and English villages – ideas which resonated nicely with my recent reading of Ian Baucom’s Out of Place: Englishness, Empire and the Locations of Identity which identifies a strong locational impulse at the core of English identity, thrown into doubt by imperial expansion raising key questions about whether the Empire could contain “English” spaces. McDonagh’s paper addressed the significance of literary spatial productions in these spatial negotiations, and demonstrated how the strongly local Our Village was embedded in an international network of print exchange.

Print culture and emigration was also the subject of two further papers on this panel by Mary Shannon and Fariha Shaikh (both King’s College London). Shannon’s paper “Cultural Capital and the Emigrant’s Body: R. H. Horne and Melbourne Punch” looked at the emigration of print culture from London to Melbourne, and the establishment of a new print culture in Melbourne which resided in the adaptation of its old world connections. Fariha Shaikh explored emgirant travel narratives in a paper on “Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush: Domestic and Narrative Values”. Shaikh’s analysis of Moodie’s text looked at how emigration is not just a thematic concern of the narrative, but deeply embedded into the form and structure of the text, a highly indicative study of the relationship between mobility and narrative form.

Finally, in a slightly different direction was a paper by Catherine Malcolmson (Leicester) on “Investing in Sentiment: Finding Value in Dickensian Collecting” which looked at the enduring popularity of collecting things associated with Dickens and his works – different editions, character figurines (pictured is a Royal Doulton Mr Pickwick), things owned by or otherwise associated with Dickens, memorabilia items, and much more. Malcolmson talked about the ways in which Dickens collecting differs from other types of collecting, particularly in the emotional enthusiasm that motivates collectors who value objects not for their intrinsic worth but for their connection to Dickens; Dickens, to these collectors, is a saintly figure and these objects carry an inherent value by association. There was an undercurrent of circulation and mobility here, but what was interesting was the implication (as I interpreted it) that objects here become completely detached from their place of origin or production, and from the networks that circulate those objects: the end-point of the object’s movement, the collection, is its “true” place. Similarly, in light of my recent reading of Leah Price’s How to do things with Books in Victorian Britain, I was especially interested in the point that books are not (necessarily) given any special status by collectors, but rather are part of the same value-system as other objects, and even of little interest to some collectors. The emotional connection to the past through a physical, material thing is also something I’ll be thinking more about as I prepare my paper on literary tourism for Dickens and Popular Culture in October.

These speakers provided some truly stimulating thoughts that will be strong in my mind as I work on these themes in coming weeks, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s BAVS (if not Venice, then Royal Holloway at least…). Also worth noting is the fabulous efforts of JVC Online to preserve our tweets for all eternity, so if you want to find out more about papers not mentioned here then it’s worth taking a look through the thread where some very diligent tweeters did a very good job of tracking the event!

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  1. #1 by Christian on September 8, 2012 - 7:12 am

    These papers sound very interesting. One can see why Karl Marx loved and read Dicken’s novels. Dickens understood how everything becomes commodified (I am thinking just now of the opening to Our Mutual Friend where the Gaffer and his daughter are trawling the waters of the Thames looking for dead bodies from which they could extract something of value) and how capitalism became globalised and globalised all culture along with it. Thanks for posting these summaries.

  2. #2 by Charlotte Mathieson on September 8, 2012 - 7:43 am

    absolutely, commodification is there right through Dickens’s works and it was interesting in these papers to see how that theme develops from the earlier to last years of his works. Right around the 1850s (Bleak House, Little Dorrit) is, I think, when the spread of capitalism starts to manifest as an underpinning global structure. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  1. From year to year: 2012 round-up and 2013 look-ahead « Dr Charlotte Mathieson

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