Modes of Transport: Travel Writing and Form, 1780–1914 @ KCL, 26th May 2011

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.

From the archive

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

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

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

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

Great Exhibition

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

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

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

Old and new: from periodical to ipad

picture1

This picture shows the presents that I (rather unexpectedly!) received from my (wonderful, generous) parents for completing my PhD. In the top right is, quite recognisably, an iPad: the future – or is it present? – of publishing. And the aged book and blue pamphlet next to it? That’s a first edition of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857) and one of the original serialised parts (No. XI, October 1856).

The contrast between these gifts couldn’t be more apparent, the past and future of the history of the book; and questions around the history and development of the book have been very much on my mind this week following the “What is Academic Writing” session run by IATL on Monday. In a day of interesting talks, it was Richard Miller’s discussion of writing instruction in the US which stuck with me, focusing as it did on the shift to new media and what this means for writing. Using images from Al Gore’s Our Choice recently published as an eBook app, which makes thoroughly innovative use of interactive features – Miller argued that this is what we are now – or will be, or need to be – writing for; the text is no longer just text, but increasingly embracing not just visual/auditory media, but this entirely responsive interactive style. And this, he stated, was what we now need to be teaching students to write for and with. With the example of his text2cloud blog he showed how he is changing the future of writing instruction by teaching students to work with new media so that their academic essays are written through and for digital technologies. Video, sound, and other audio-visual features were integrated into the text such that these became not just texts for critical reflection but part of the process of analysis themselves.

This raised a lot of interesting ideas about teaching and learning academic writing (and critical thinking more generally), and whilst I’m not convinced that the days of the academic essay are over, there were many discernable advantages that I could see in this, not least getting students really engaged in the writing process – not just focusing on the end product for the final mark, but really getting involved in critical analysis in a much more involved and responsive way. The open-endedness of the project seemed particularly valuable – that students continued to work on pieces past submission deadline because, as Miller pointed out, thinking doesn’t stop the moment the piece is turned in (or at least, we’d hope it doesn’t! hence the value of actively enabling that on-going process). The lingering question for me was whether the advent of new media needs to signal the end of the academic essay in the way Miller suggests; why does new media need to be positioned as diametrically opposed to the traditional academic essay? Can’t all of this fantastic work also develop into a reinvigorated approach to “traditional” academic writing? There’s a lot of value in the crafting of argument and reflective processes that enable that, which the immediacy of new media doesn’t seem to allow for.

periodicalAll of which I’m still mulling over as this academic year ends and fresh opportunities for teaching hopefully await at the end of the summer. But in the meantime there were some more immediately resonant questions about the history of the book and where we’re at with the move into the digital age, especially as I sit here with Dickens and the iPad side by side. The literary student in me wants to resist the move to the digital age, no more so than when handling a 160-year old copy of my favourite novel, in all its sturdy weightiness. I can’t help but feel guilty at downloading a book or two onto the iPad, which feels like another nail in the coffin for the physical book, even though it’s justifiably so much easier when your research largely focuses on 800-page novels. And what about this idea of writing for this new form of reading, crafting academic work into a form that not only embraces but is specifically designed for new technologies, which really seems like the final nail in the coffin for print publication, as though we’re thoroughly capitulating to digital media and decrying the end of the book as we know it.

But then the periodical pamphlet is a stark reminder that perhaps all of this is just sentimentalising the book, because the core concept here is nothing new: as the periodical reminds us, writing has always adapted to and embraced new forms. With the advent of serial publication, Dickens and others experimented with writing that was specifically crafted to the new possibilities this raised, utilising the formal qualities that the material format both enabled and delimited. (And if we bemoan the presence of targeted adverts on every webpage, the 27 (!) pages of advertising that precede and commence the pamphlet again stand as testament that this is nothing new!) Going further back, too, the development of writing has always been dependent on the material conditions of the book, evolving and adapting to new forms of print publication. The written text itself isn’t a “natural” product, it’s a cultural artifact, and writing is always a historically and materially conditioned process. So whilst it’s easy to despair as paper gives way to screen, perhaps it’s not so much the end of the book but just another stage in the evolution of what a book is, what it can do, and the possibilities it offers us as writers.