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!