Travel in the 19th Century (2): Intra–national mobilities

This is the second of two posts on the conference Travel in the 19th Century which 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.