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.

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