This week I “attended” Dickens’s World, a free online conference at which I was an invited discussant. The conference was a fascinating event, with both the quality and quantity of papers exceeding my expectations – keynote video addresses, papers and special virtual issues of existing Dickens scholarship presented a wealth of information for Dickens scholars and enthusiasts across the world. Such was the volume of material that I’ve only watched the keynotes and read a selection of the main papers and articles, whilst the special issues will have to wait until I’m back to research time. A few things particularly took my interest, and I thought I’d draw together my comments and thoughts here.
The conference opened with a keynote address “Beginning the World” from Professor John Bowen, exploring travel in Dickens’s life and works. Bowen began by giving a sense of the “world” in which Dickens moved, discussing Dickens’s own interest in and experience of travel, before focusing on a novel in which the idea of “the world” is a central concern, Bleak House. Bowen highlighted the recurrence of the phrase “in the world” throughout the novel, a matter of some interest in a novel which aims to present a complete world in its expansive vision of society. Bowen suggested that the very idea of “the world” is an uncertain concept, further emphasised through repeated references to “the earth” as perhaps a more physical locating of the abstract idea. This provided an interesting perspective to my work on the novel, and I hadn’t realised just how many uses of the phrase “in the world” occur in the text. As I suggested in the comments, the sense of ambivalence around the idea of “the world” is further underscored by the restricted physical “world” within which Bleak House operates, simultaneously entertaining the idea of “the world” whilst withdrawing into the nation. Bowen’s discussion of Esther’s “beginning the world” at the end of the text further iterates this: the final “world”, the second Bleak House, is firmly situated within the heart of England at the northernmost location of the novel.
Bowen also drew out the global literary resonances of Dickens’s writing, something explored more fully in John O. Jordan’s paper “Global Dickens“. Jordan provides an expansive overview of the circulation and critical reception of Dickens’s works across the world, an ambitious and fascinating piece of work full of many interesting suggestions for further reading.
On the subject of global circulation and mobility, I also enjoyed reading Glen O’Hara’s paper on the ‘Networked World’ of the 19th – early 20th Centuries in the first Special Issue. O’Hara’s discussion of networks focused on the telegraph, advocating a note of caution as to how we read nineteenth-century technological development and the global connectedness enabled by such technologies – in the age of the internet we’re too quick to assume that developments were as fluid as they might seem. As with the development of transport networks of the period, the telegraph displayed uneven patterns of development and intensified national tensions. As other papers hinted at, such developments occur within a complex field of meanings and reading the Victorian “response” is never simple, often fraught with ambivalence and anxiety.
I’m looking forward to discovering more from this conference, and reflecting more on the format of the online conference; one thing I noticed with this is that you really do create a very individual conference experience and I’m sure interpretations and perspectives differ a lot as a result, so I’ll be interested to hear what others thought and to read all the comments on the conference papers. This was a timely stimulus for me, though, as I’ll be getting back into lots more travel research and blogging over the coming weeks.