2011 round–up

2011 saw a bit of a change in direction for this blog, reflecting my change in position: back in April I was awarded my PhD, meaning a shift in my status as a researcher and less consistency to my research activity. I’ve been working on lots of smaller research projects, and have been adapting to fitting research into a busy teaching schedule accompanied by a part-time job. As well as the time taken by these activities, I now run 3 other blogs – 2 for my students on The English 19th-century novel and Modes of Reading, and 1 through my role as ECR project officer in the Research Exchange – so research blogging is often not a priority in my limited “spare” time.

Having said that, all of this has been productive for my blog – in fact, only in 2008 did I write more posts than this year! Multiple smaller projects simply means that there are more bits and pieces to blog about, and it’s been a busy year for Victorianists thanks to a certain birthday approaching next year. Joining the academic community on Twitter has also proved stimulating and further increased the interactivity and enjoyment of blogging – for example, leading to some cross-referencing in blogging as well as the discovery of several new Victorianist blogs to read (see the recently updated sidebar).

So to wrap up the year, here are my favourite and most-read posts of 2011:

1. “Moving on and moving on”: Mobility in Bleak House; written 10 days before my viva, this post is a good example of the uses of academic blogging: this blog provided the starting-point for ideas that grew into one of my most enjoyable and productive pieces of research. I’ve since presented a paper, written an article, and am now formulating my monograph proposal around this research.

2. Old and new; reflections on the past, present and future of new media drawing together the iPad and Victorian periodical publication. I also wrote two other posts on Victorian studies and new technology: reviews of The Waste Land appand the Dickens’s Dark London app.

3. “What connection can there be”: the Great Exhibition of 1851; some research on the Bleak House paper led me to read more about the Great Exhibition, and here I blogged about the images that accompany Henry Mayhew’s comic novel 1851 – I still find these images fascinating.

4. “Can you shew me the places?” Dickens 2012 and Literary Tourism; one of my bicentenary reflections, using the urban tour of Bleak House to offer perspectives for interpreting the popularity of Dickens walking tours.

5. Wuthering Heights: it’s not all about Dickens! This is my initial response to the recent film of Wuthering Heights.

That’s my top 5, but also noteworthy are the posts about 3 excellent conferences I attended: Modes of Transport at KCL in May, Travel in the 19th Century at Lincoln in July, and (if I may say so myself!) the symposium Rural Geographies of Gender and Space, Britain 1840-1920 that I organised in September.

Looking ahead to 2012 I expect there will be the odd Dickens post or two (!), but my latest emerging projects are diverging into some different directions: I’ll be revisiting my work on George Eliot’s Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss in preparation for a paper to be presented at Moving Dangerously in April; the work on Rural Geographies is continuing with plans for a publication of papers from the conference; and I’m looking into developing a research network on 19th century mobility with another Warwick post-doctoral researcher. I’ll also be contributing soon to Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens 2012 website.

I’ll be back in the new year with posts on all of these activities; until then, have a happy new year!

Dickens’s dark London

Following on from my previous musings on Dickens 2012 and literary tourism, this new app takes the literary tour to a new level: an interactive map of Dickens’s “dark London” which promises to “take users on a journey through the darker side of Charles Dickens’ London”. In light of my previous post, this suggested some similar questions about the literary tourism and the mapping of represented/historical spaces onto contemporary “real” spaces. By virtue of its nature, though, an ipad app removes what I previously perceived as a crucial component of the literary tour: its opportunity for a mobile experience of history and the author.

I was intrigued, then, as to what the app would deliver; and the answer is, not an awful lot. The basis of the app is an interactive map of London, in which an 1862 map is overlaid onto a contemporary satellite image; a sliding bar at the bottom of the page allows you to move gradually from one to the other, along with the usual touch-screen navigation and zoom tools around both of the maps. For someone who loves maps, it’s nice to have an 1862 city map to hand (although the app as a whole is frustratingly ill-referenced so I’m not sre which map edition this is based on) and the sliding time-scale is neatly done, although of limited use after a few goes.

map

The map screen contains links to the “editions” that are being released every month – graphic novels that incorporate excerpts from Dickens’s writing, primarily Sketches by Boz as well as some of the novels such as Bleak House in this first edition, illustrated and with an accompanying narration. There are also “hotspots” which offer more contextual information on some pages. The emphasis in the content, as I suspect will be the case in subsequent editions, is on excerpts detailing the streets of London, whilst accompanying images on each page attempt to “bring to life” the written descriptions:

from the irregular square into which he has plunged, the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined”

rooftops

Except here the app not so much falls flat, as simply undoes itself; because Dickens’s descriptions of the streets speak for themselves, or rather say more than any image, map, or accompanying historical fact can offer. It doesn’t take anything else to breathe life into the written word, and placing the text in this context ultimately only serves to highlight that, really, the accompanying paraphenelia is redundant: ultimately, it’s the written word that stands out most strongly here. Not only that, but this all detracts from the complexity and meaning that lies in Dickens’s representations of the city, reducing the idea of “Dickens’s London” to a single meaning and suggesting that these excerpts are little more than historical fact that we read for the truths they tell us about the Victorian streets.

As with the literary tour, this resides in a fundamental misreading of the relationship between real and literary spaces, but positions this within a wider framework of misreading the relationship between literature and history/ text and culture.

Wuthering Heights

“With regard to the rusticity of Wuthering Heights, I admit the charge, for I feel the quality. It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of heath.”

In Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights,these reflections by Charlotte Brontë on her sister Emily’s novel become more pertinent than ever: not so much in that it is moorish, wild, knotty, rustic, but in the suggestion that we “feel the quality”. In Arnold’s stripped-bare adaptation it is feeling, both physical and emotional, that dominates this Wuthering Heights.

It is, from the start, a violent film: raw and bleak, muddy and bloody. The film doesn’t shy away from a brutal violence either amongst its characters, or in its depictions of rural life. The landscape is, throughout, prominent – more so, perhaps, than in Brontë’s novel – but not sentimentalised, idealised or romanticised. Here, the landscape simply is; through camera-angles burrowing through the heath or focusing on a grub, the land is left to speak for itself. The absence of music – or even much speech –contributes to this: detailed sights are accompanied by sharply focused sounds that further add to the effect of not just seeing, but really feeling the landscape.

Likewise, the emotions here are raw, bleak, simple; characters simply are rather than given the feeling of being “interpreted” or presented. They are left largely unexplored in terms of psychological depth, driven by emotion – not so much in terms of there being explicit, recognisable forces or motivations, but that there is little other than response and feeling behind each action and movement. Interpretation seems to take a back seat for both actors and viewer; it’s a strange experience to watch this film, as we’re not asked to interpret, question or even engage in the way we might usually with a film or text. It’s a form of realism which, whilst appearing to strip back technique, or mediation simultaneously persists in making us aware of the process of viewing.

Wuthering Heights

As a result, the film seems to resist much of what we might want to read into it in terms of its depiction of gender and race. In the first half of the film the young Cathy and Heathcliff, both individually and together, resist being interpreted as raced/ gendered types and, as with the rest of the text, simply exist in and of themselves; individual mannerisms, behaviours, emotions surface here.

This in turn complicates how we read what has become the most talked-about aspect of the film, that this Heathcliff is the first non-white Heathcliff; but how significant is this in the film’s presentation? The problem with so much critical interest in this aspect of the film is that the viewer goes in with an expectation and, perhaps, an agenda to focus on the portrayal of race and what interpretation this lends to the text. This is, to an extent, always true in so far as a film of Wuthering Heights has to take a critical judgement on the most interesting ambiguity of the text, Heathcliff’s unknown origins. One of the most interesting and anxiety-ridden elements of the text is that the question of Heathcliff’s origins resist interpretation: it’s the fact that Heathcliff could potentially be from anywhere that lingers as the text’s most pervasive yet unspoken fear.

Equally, it isn’t impossible that Heathcliff “could” be black: his origins are unknown and he is variously read as being Chinese, Indian, Spanish, American, or African. As critics such as Susan Meyer have argued, regardless of his “actual” origins, Heathcliff is read by others in the text as “black”, positioned as the black subject through the treatment by other characters who subject him “to the potent gaze of a racial arrogance derived from British imperialism” (Imperialism at Home).

Here, Heathcliff’s origins remain a subject of some doubt: the film retains lines in which he’s referred to as a “little Lascar”, or speculating that he might be “the son of an African prince or Chinese queen” (slightly altered from “your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen” in the text). This brings to the surface the nineteenth-century Imperial perspective in which all non-white subjects are collectively grouped together as “black”, regardless of actual origins; the brutality of violence enacted on Heathcliff here served to reiterate the power dynamic within this. But beyond this, it didn’t feel as though the film was working to make a particular point “about” race and the nineteenth century; the violence extends throughout all characters and, as with other elements of the text, his race is presented in a matter-of-fact manner.

If the film does anything to make this about Heathcliff, it’s that it centres him as narrative perspective. This gives more structure and coherence to a text which is notably unstable in its narrative perspective, and for that reason this becomes a narrative of Heathcliff. Perhaps as a result of this, the blurred relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff felt less prominent and less intense; and of Cathy’s most famous lines “he’s more myself than I am” and“Nelly, I am Heathcliff”, the first is cut short and the latter omitted. Interestingly, this therefore serves to break what Susan Meyer notes as a recurrent motif in the nineteenth-century novel of a representational yoking of white women with people of non-white races.

In terms of structure, the film follows most other adaptations in only focusing on the first half of the novel. Having said that, it’s still very much a film of two halves, with the switch in actors when Cathy marries and Heathcliff leaves and then returns. As others have noted, whilst Solomon Grave and Shannon Beer are excellent, the second pairing of James Howson and Kaya Scodelario doesn’t maintain much of what the younger actors achieve so well, and the relationship lacks the earlier chemistry; but in some ways, this discontinuity and jarring seemed right to me. Heathcliff returns changed by his journey away, and to find Cathy socialised as Edgar’s wife; the connection of their youth is clearly lost, and the stilted atmosphere that now existed between the two reiterated the inability to recapture what had been lost and the new maturity of the characters. There’s a commentary here, too, about the social impossibility of their relationship, something the text doesn’t engage so much with in its focus on the passion between them. This half of the film therefore operates in the way that the second half of Bronte’s novel does, holding up the first half to scrutiny.

These are just some initial reflections on a film that offers much both in terms of its interpretation of Bronte’s text and in terms of wider ideas about adaptations of nineteenth-century texts; but I’ll be thinking more about both the film and adapations of nineteenth-century texts in general in a piece for the Knowledge Centre with Francesca Scott.

“Can you shew me the places?”; Dickens 2012 and literary tourism

As term draws to a close and 2012 gets nearer I’ve been catching up on the latest Dickens bicentenary news in order to plan a few trips to exhibitions over the vacation. It’s particularly interesting noting some of the themes that emerge in coverage: the emphasis on film adaptations is hardly surprising, and neither is the biographical focus around Dickens’s life and times. Another theme is that of literary tourism: the association of Dickens and London is central to the cultural idea of Dickens, and it’s therefore no surprise that events reiterating the notion of “Dickens’s London” feature in the 2012 celebrations. There are events like the Museum of London’s “Dickens and London” exhibition which promises to “recreate the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projection” or a talk on “Oliver Twist’s London“. More interesting, for me, are the Dickens-themed walking tours such as the Guardian’s audio walks, a podcast to listen to whilst walking a specific route; the latest walk traces the places associated both with the author’s life and David Copperfield (Dickens’s “most autobiographical” novel, as the website points out).

But what is the purpose of this kind of literary tourism? What does a novel gain from our walking the streets it depicts some 150 years later? A form of connection with author and characters? To reach a new understanding of the textual representation through seeing the “real” thing? Simply a more interesting way of experiencing history?

I’m immediately sceptical and resistant to the connections that this makes between place, text and author; aside from the problems of reading a text as strictly biographical, this understanding of literary place resides in a fundamental misjudgement about both the relationship between real and represented places/spaces. A tour of a text’s locations draws together text and “real” space as though literary place is a neutral reflection of a location, and space is presented as offering some kind of authentic connection to, or reflection of, the text. It also overlooks the slight problem of history: how do we read contemporary space as indicative of the past? What does it mean to search for a text’s meaning in a place over 150 years later?

Nonetheless, there’s such cultural importance around the notion of Dickens and place, and an attraction in “experiencing” that place in some way, that it’s worth thinking more about why this is so resonant today.

I’ve been thinking about the urban tour recently in my work on mobility in Bleak House: one of the central moments of the novel sees Jo, the poor street boy, leading Lady Dedlock to view the places associated with her long lost, and now deceased, lover:

“Are you the boy I have read of in the papers?’ she asks behind her veil. […]

‘Listen and be silent. Don’t talk to me, and stand farther from me! Can you shew me all those places that were spoken of in the account I read? The place he wrote for, the place he died at, the place where you were taken to, and the place where he was buried?’” (p. 261)

In the passage that follows there are strong resonances with the urban tour and, more specifically, with the literary biographical tour: Jo takes the role of paid guide as he leads Lady Dedlock through the streets to view the places associated with another’s life. A strong connection is forged here between place and knowledge: this passage doesn’t offer any new information to either characters or reader, but the tour serves to affirm the connection between Lady Dedlock and the dead law-writer. For Lady Dedlock, the walk brings her back into a connection with the past and into understanding of a history she hasn’t experienced. It is a locational, place-bound knowledge which has to be experienced and the act of walking the streets serves as a reiterative act that reawakens old thoughts.

Biographical literary tours perhaps offer a similar kind of knowledge and knowledge-gaining process: reaffirming an idea we already have (e.g. the notion of Dickens’s London) which somehow seems more valuable in the physical act of experiencing that place. There is, perhaps, a (perceived) value in experiencing place, a sense that being in a place serves to reinforce abstract knowledge. In an insightful post about a recent Dickens discovery, Amber Regis reflects on the value of material objects in biographical readings: the objects offer, she writes, “an insight into the life narratives that emerge from, and are constructed by, material objects — human interactions with objects, and the crafting and shaping of objects, become a form of storytelling”. I think there’s a similar process in literary tours of crafting and constructing a narrative through human interaction with place; the city is experienced like a material object, giving the idea of Dickens and London a physical manifestation in the city streets.

But Dickens’s use of mobility in Bleak House also points us towards a possible wider cultural resonance inherent in these ideas: national identity. In Bleak House, acts of mobility serve to reinforce the idea of nationality, solidifying an abstract idea in a concrete experience of the physical space of the nation. Literary tours perhaps serve a similar purpose: after Shakespeare, Dickens is arguably the author we most strongly associate with English culture, and the urban literary tour serves to reiterate this connection in terms of national space, investing specific sites with national cultural meaning and thus giving the idea of Dickens as national symbol a physical manifestation in place. More than offering any illuminating ideas about the text or author, the literary tour ties both to the places of the nation as a way of locating and strengthening a cultural idea, and of investing the “space of the nation” with (national) cultural meaning.