Early Career Victorianists and Social Media

A quick post to note that this blog has been featured in an article on “Early Career Victorianists and Social Media: Impact, Audience and Online Identities” (due to appear in an issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture published later this year, but available online now).

Written by Amber Regis (who blogs over at Looking Glasses at Odd Corners), the article explores the ways in which a new generation of Victorian studies academics are utilising blogs and twitter in their research and career development. Along with Bob Nicholson and Paul Dobraszczyk, I was interviewed on my use of social media and appear in the finished article in a section discussing the value of blogging for academic practice. Throughout the article, Amber discusses issues of Impact and the REF, the value of Twitter for academic communities, and the ways in which we craft online identities.

The article is one of a pair on social media, accompanied by Rohan Maitzen’s “Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Pratice“; Rohan blogs at Novel Readings and writes here about the many ways in which blogging has served to enhance her teaching and research. Both articles provide valuable discussion of the new forms of academic practice that are opening up new possibilities and changing the ways in which we think, write, and research. I’m proud to be a part of this new academic community and grateful that I was able to participate in this discussion – many thanks to Amber for including me in the article.

“I am a stranger here”: An East End Exploration @ Spitalfields Music Festival, June 2012

“Have you any distinct idea of Spitalfields, dear reader? A general one, no doubt you have—an impression that there are certain squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches, far below the steeples, somewhere about London,—towards the East, perhaps…” (Dickens, “Spitalfields”)

“I am a stranger here”: An East End Exploration took us where many an urban observer has been before, through the crooked streets, marketplaces, and bustling thoroughfares that so intrigued Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Arthur Morrison, and many more since. Yet unlike many of these narratives, this walking tour sought to capture the diverse complexity of Spitalfields’ history, presenting the multiple perspectives that comprise the myriad identities of the area. Lead through the streets by Alan Gilbey – lifelong East Ender and excellent guide – and an energetic supporting cast of actors, this was part tour, part theatre, part history, that continued to inform, amuse and entertain for the two hours that we walked the streets on a cold and drizzly Sunday afternoon.

Taking the role of “social explorers”, we moved between locations which each revealed a different perspective on the region. Having learnt about the origin of the name Spitalfields – a contraction of “Hospital Fields”, as the area originally lay in empty land behind a hospital – we started with a heavily gated building and the story of the Huguenots, French Protestant refugees who brought the silk industry into the area in the 17th century; the building we stood at was one where imported goods were moved after shipping, away from the docks but just outside the city bounds. This was the first in a long tradition of textile manufacturers, and as we moved into Petticoat Lane we heard about the Jewish community that came to populate the region from the late 17th century, bringing in weaving expertise and establishing the Sunday markets. From there, it was swiftly past the multistory car park that stands on the site where Jack the Ripper murdered his last victim (this was emphatically not a Jack-the-Ripper tour), and on into one of the narrow, crooked streets that characterizes our idea of the nineteenth-century slum; for by the Victorian era, Spitalfields had declined to become one of the nation’s biggest social problems, seemingly beyond all hope and the subject of many social commentaries. One such text, Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, provided vivid illustration of this theme, and several passages from the text were read and performed at various sites throughout the tour, giving a continuous narrative (and temporal) thread to our understanding of the space.

As we reached Brick Lane, the final parts of the region’s history unfolded with stories about the Bangladeshi community developing in the later 20th century, bringing new cultural influences to the area whilst retaining the textile industry. All around us, though, was the contemporary history of an area that has been regenerated in recent years through an influx of artists that gave the region a trendy urban edge which is now becoming increasingly mainstream, causing the artists to move on and out; meanwhile, the city encroaches ever closer as buildings start to be bought up for office space (although happily, just last week the old fruit and wool exchange was saved from conversion into an office block).

The tour came to an end in a church where we encountered stories about the Salvation Army’s attempts to save the poor, and then for the last half hour we had the opportunity to hear more stories of the streets. Alan Gilbey recounted his own experience of growing up in the area, focusing on the 1980s when a group of teenagers were encouraged to write about their life in the East End, eventually forming a published collection which marked a significant shift in the narrative history of Spitalfields; no longer narrated by the urban explorer, the people constructed their own accounts of Spitalfields life. The final part of the tour continued this theme: in the format of speed-networking/dating, we moved between tables where actors inhabited the role of different characters to each tell a 5-minute story about an aspect of Spitalfields life: stories included the matchgirls’ and sailors strikes of the late 19th century, a more complex account of the different groups and communities that have inhabited Spitalfields, a story about the Salvation Army, and the bandstand at the centre of a park. It was an imaginative and effective end to the tour, a chance to explore more of the detail behind the bigger narratives.

The tour was a highly enjoyable experience, excellently well organised and performed. For me, it was a useful opportunity to hear a different set of perspectives on a region that, just a couple of weeks ago, I’d attended a conference about. It’s also very helpful to have finally been on a walking tour and I’ll be thinking more about the experience as I work more on thoughts about literary urban tours.

The tour was part of Spitalfields Music Festival which is still running until 23rd June and has an exciting line-up of events over the next week; the tour has now ended, but Alan Gilbey runs East End history walks which, if this experience was anything to go by, I’d highly recommend checking out.

Dickens and London exhibition @ Museum of London, June 2012

The Museum of London has been celebrating the Dickens bicentenary with an exhibition on the author’s connections with the city. Given the wealth of associations betweeen Dickens and London in his life, works and on-going legacy, this exhibition promised much and it certainly did provide an impressive range of material relating to Dickens and Victorian London. Ultimately, though, I felt this didn’t quite deliver what it could have done.

We began with biography, looking at paintings and photographs of Dickens, his friends and family, before moving into the main part of the exhibition which was organised thematically, commencing with Dickens and the theatre. Playbills, puppets, a model theatre and costumes illuminated Dickens’s lifelong interest in the theatre, and playbooks of theatrical adaptations of Dickens’s works demonstrated the two-way direction of this engagement.

Dickens

“Dickens’s Dream”; Robert William Buss, 1870

From there it was on to Dickens and the home, where we were told about Victorian ideals of domesticity and Dickens’s strength of attraction to the idea of the home. The painting Dickens’s Dream was brought to life in an animated film, whilst Dickens’s letters, a selection of household objects, and contemporary paintings provided visual illustration of the ideas being raised. A section on Progress had a particular focus on transport and communication technology – a particular highlight for me was a wonderful selection of photographs showing “the coming of the railway” into city spaces – and we finished with Life and Death, exploring Victorian ideas of mourning and Dickens’s last years.

Throughout, many (if not most) of the artefacts on display were from the Victorian period more generally, rather than specifically related to Dickens, providing a visual exploration of Dickens’s life and times. This wasn’t altogether a bad thing: amongst the objects on display were an ornately carved piano and model railway train that were displayed at the Great Exhibition, pieces of telegraph cable, all of which were rather more interesting than many of the truly “Dickensian” objects – whilst his writing desk made for reasonably interesting viewing, Dickens’s soup ladle did not. The paintings also offered interesting points for discussion and nicely drew out some of the links being made throughout the exhibition. It was also especially valuable to see so many manuscript and proof copies of the novels: Dombey and Son, Bleak House, and David Copperfield were among the copies on display, and whilst these were safely stowed behind glass cabinets, plastic-bound replica versions of the periodical issues were available at benches throughout. I particularly enjoyed seeing the performance copies of the texts that Dickens used in the readings he gave in his later years: a copy of Oliver Twist was heavily annotated with Dickens’s performance notes, “Action!”, “Mystery”, “Terror to the end!”

manuscript

Whilst this was all nicely done, I felt that the links between the material on display, and between Dickens and London, could have been much more strongly drawn out. The visual material made for pleasant viewing, and gave a decent enough overview of Victorian life, but it didn’t feel like it particularly added anything to the idea of Dickens and his works; with the exception of the Dickens letters and manuscripts, this could have been any exhibition about Victorian life. Similarly, the connections between Dickens and London felt underexplored; much of this could have been an exhibition about Dickens more generally, and there was little that really explained what this was adding specifically to an understanding of Dickens and London. I felt this all lacked an overarching narrative that really drew out the potential connections of the objects and texts on display, and that used these objects to offer something more to the understanding of Dickens.

I suspect that this lack of narrative arose from a focus on the design of the exhibition space which sought to “recreat[e] the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections” so as to take the viewer “on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired his writings.” The dark, dimly-lit space was decorated with big letters, moons and stars hanging from the ceiling, supposedly aiming to replicate the idea that we were going on one of Dickens’s famous night-walks around the city. It was a nice touch but added little to the experience; in so far as it attempted to provide a narrative journey through the exhibits this was definitely a case of style over substance.

The exhibition made for interesting viewing, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed with what the exhibition had achieved, and the sense that it could have been more given the subject at hand. This was rather emphasised when we went on to explore the rest of the Museum of London: it is a rich resource of artefacts from the prehistoric period to the present day, and the eighteenth and nineteenth century collections which I spent most time in present a wealth of material and much more successfully draw together themes, ideas, and narratives. Although the Dickens and London exhibition has now closed, I’d highly recommend a visit to the rest of the museum.

Transforming Objects @ Northumbria University, 28–29th May

Transforming ObjectsThis two-day conference at the University of Northumbria brought new perspectives to the study of material culture by focusing on ideas around objects and transformation, both in terms of the movements of objects, and the processes of change that objects themselves might effect. Papers from a wide range of disciplines, covering the 18th-20th centuries, looked at a fascinating array of objects: shawls, tea, glass, medicines, art, feathers, paper, dolls, rags, post and clocks, were just a few of the things discussed.

The first panel on “Transforming Objects in Gaskell” opened up a rich discussion of material culture in Elizabeth Gaskell’s works, initiating wider contexts of domesticity, industrialisation and imperialism that recurred throughout the following two days. Alison Lundie’s paper on clothing and needlework in Gaskell looked at how character and identity can be interpreted through objects of domestic arts in Gaskell’s works, and focused in particular on shawls which are especially desired garments; Lundie illustrated this with beautiful images of Gaskell’s own shawls. Her discussion included Miss Matty’s Indian shawl in Cranford, and the factory workers’ shawls in Mary Barton; this intersected nicely with the next presenter Tara Puri, whose paper on “unstable objects” in North and South included Indian shawls as part of a wider discussion about symbols of middle-class domesticity which also included tea and calico. The relationship of these objects to the representation of Margaret Hale brought out ideas around bodily presence and sexuality, and the role of imperial objects in the constructiong of middle-class English femininity. Both papers hinted towards physical borders of the self, touch, and embodiment that, to me, resonated with Kate Smith’s paper at the Spaces of Work conference I attended recently. With this paper in mind, I was particularly interested in two points Lundie had made in her discussion of shawls and Mary Barton – about how factory workers are referred to as “hands”, and the references to literal hands in the text. I wondered afterwards (in a not entirely coherent comment!) about how ideas around hands might interplay, literally and metaphorically, with the use of shawls and other textiles.

An afternoon panel on “altering states” looked at the power of objects to transform from one state to another. James Mussell’s paper on chlorodyne raised wider questions about framing of discussions of material culture and the secret lives of things: we come to know and understand the material world through the narratives we create about it, and uncovering material history is thus a process of “telling tales about the tales that were told” about objects. His narrative of chlorodyne was a fascinating exploration of the ways in which legal and medical discourses intersect with the physical experience of the body, highlighting that medicine’s powerful transformative effects on the body is situated within a wider context of authoritative discourses that speak for the body. Mark Blacklock followed with a paper on “Hinton’s cubes” and late-19th century theories of 4-dimensional space, which discussed the role of objects in altering conceptual thought and opened up ideas about the relationship between things and thought.

The next morning, I chaired a panel on “Transforming objects and the creation of nation” in which themes of travel and networks of circulation were central throughout. Ruth Scobie began with a paper on Elizabeth Montagu’s feathered objects, featured in William Cowper’s poem “On Mrs Montagu’s Feather Hangings.” As in the first panel, the intersection of femininity, domesticity and imperialism came to the surface here, but Scobie looked at how the feathers – as items obtained specifically through acts of violence – made particularly visible the tensions between exotic desirability and destructive violence inherent in colonial encounters. Emalee Beddoes’ paper also looked at an imperial commodity within English national space, discussing tea advertisements as an emblem of Britishness in the 19th century. Advertising played a crucial role in normalising tea from exotic artefact to everyday domestic object. Middle-class femininity featured strongly in this, with adverts typically using women; if men featured in adverts, it was typically only in the context of the international, public sphere.

The next two papers turned from objects to travellers: Maria Grazia Messore discussed Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, a piece of travel writing which seeks to construct an idea of English national identity through the process of travelling the nation, and particularly emphasises the importance of trade and the figure of the merchant in this identity. I was interested in the importance of the circuit in this delineation of national space: each route begins in and returns to London, thus insisting on the importance of London as the centre-point of the nation – but also, with London being the centre-point of an international network of trade, thus emphasising the signficance of the global in the idea of the nation. The final paper of this panel, by Fariha Shaikh, drew on emigrants’ narratives to consider travellers’ objects and the ways in which travelling objects construct ideas of space for the traveller. Shaikh noted that in emigrants’ accounts, much attention is given to the physical positioning of objects and everything being in its right place, and she considered how this suggests a reconceptualisation of the journey space as not so much an invisible backdrop to the journey, but as a space to be worked through, experienced and reshaped by the traveller.

The final panel I attended gave a fascinating account of paper in its many and various forms. Claire Friend discussed the process of making paper in 18th century Edinburgh, from collecting the rags and scraps that were used as the basic material, to the finished product – of which there were over 300 types being made in Edinburgh alone. Eugenia Gonzalez then looked at objects made from paper: dolls, which often had faces made from papier-mâché. Gonzalez’s paper explored narratives of doll production, i.e. books which informed their young readers of how dolls were made, again raising interesting questions about the intersection between objects and narrative processes, as well as the desire to know the secret histories of things and how they came to be. Katie McGettigan brought together several strands of discussion in a paper that considered the material form and circulation of the book, demonstrating Melville’s engagement with the literary marketplace and the idea of book as object through a series of metaphoric connections between books and whales in the text.

Two keynote papers also provided stimulating ideas and perspectives on the conference theme. John Holmes spoke about the pre-Raphaelites and science, which proved to be a fascinating exploration (and demonstration) of interdisciplinarity in arguing that the pre-Raphaelites transformed what art could achieve through an engagement with science, which in turn transformed how science represented itself. Sarah Haggarty’s paper returned to ideas of national circulation, space and time; I particularly enjoyed her comments on the postal service and its role in transforming the experience of time, in which individual sense of temporality depends upon a regulated, national system of circulation.

As well as the academic discussions that ensued from these excellent papers, a particular highlight for me was participating in the Roundtable discussion on blogging. The theme of our discussion was single- or multi-author blogging, but in the hour and a half we ranged over issues of academic identity, narrative voice, the importance of “impact”, web presence, and the different forms that academic blogging might take. Lucinda Matthews-Jones, who chaired the roundtable, has done an excellent job of capturing the discussion in a blog post for JVC Online– which is itself a great example of a multi-author blog and well worth a read for Victorianists!

My thanks again to the conference organisers for inviting me to join the discussion, and for an extremely interesting two days of thinking about things! It’s proved very timely as the next event of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies seminar is on the theme of “Victorian Things”, and I’ll be giving a paper titled “What connection can there be?: People, Objects and Places, c. 1851”. The paper draws out some ideas around material culture, national/global networks, and the Great Exhibition, so the Transforming Objects conference has provided a useful stimulus for developing these thoughts.