“Something in the place”: Dickens 2012 and literary tourism

My next conference paper is in just under a month, at the annual Dickens Day at the Institute of English Studies in London on Saturday 13th October. This year’s theme is Dickens and popular culture, and I’ll be presenting a paper titled “’Something in the place’: Dickens 2012 and Literary Tourism” – abstract as follows:

The bicentenary of Dickens’s birth has prompted a wide range of celebratory responses across the world, and one prominent theme has been that of literary tourism: numerous talks and exhibitions have looked at the connections between Dickens’s literature, life and place; The Guardian’s “audio walks” series allows the listener to trace the places associated with the author’s life and works; and even a mobile App takes users “on a journey” of “Dickens’s London”. Why is literary tourism so popular? What are the implications for reading Dickens’s life and works? And how does the emphasis on Dickens and place fit within a wider context of “global Dickens”?

Nicola Watson’s The Literary Tourist (2006) and Juliet John’s recent discussion of “heritage Dickens” in Dickens and Mass Culture (2010) establish a framework for understanding Dickensian literary tourism, and I suggest that these discussions can be developed through a focus on the literary tour as a mobile experience of place. This paper focuses on two episodes from Dickens’s life and works that serve to illuminate, and open up further questions about, the popularity of Dickensian literary tourism. The first instance situates Dickens himself as a literary tourist, in his 1838 journey to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Accounts of the visit encapsulate a tension between resisting the “consecration” of literary authors within specific places whilst recognising the unnameable appeal of such sites– as Mrs Nickleby states, “there must be something in the place”. An episode in Bleak House goes further in exploring what this “something” might be: a passage in which the poor street boy Jo leads Lady Dedlock through the streets around Chancery is far from a typical example of tourism, but the passage carries strong resonances with the literary tour and offers an indicative exploration of the tour as a mobile experience of autobiographical place.

The Bleak House passage is further illustrative in opening up ideas around the connections between nation, place and identity, and I conclude by thinking about contemporary literary tourism in the context of national identity.  Acts of literary tourism work to reiterate the idea of authors as national symbols into a physical experience of national place; but how does this emphasis on Dickens’s placein national culture fits within broader discourses of “global Dickens” in 2012?

The paper explores further some ideas that I’ve previously blogged about, including a piece on Dickens and literary tourism and reflections on the connections between Dickens and the Shakespeare birthplace (a few other pieces tagged literary tourism can be found here). The next stage of my research is a field trip of sorts: putting myself in the place of a literary tourist and doing a few of The Guardian’s Dickens audio walks. I’m intrigued to see how I find these walks and will certainly be blogging about the experience.

Teaching with blogs

As some readers will know, as well as research blogging I also run a teaching blog for my classes on The English Nineteenth Century Novel. The blog has been featured in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online’s Teaching and Learning Showcase, where I write about how I use the blog and the advantages of doing so.

The showcase has featured a rich range of teaching methods, covering everything from digital resources, creative assignments, and field trips; if you’re a Victorianist who teaches then do take a look!

Global/mobile values: BAVS 2012 @ University of Sheffield (part 2)

In my first post on this year’s British Association for Victorian Studies conference, I focused on the main theme “Victorian Value” and its resonance to the current academic climate; in this post, I draw together a few of the papers that were closer to my own research interests in Dickens, mobility and material circulation.

In a panel on “Dickensian Things”, two papers explored the intersections of objects, circulation and commidification. Claire Wood (York) spoke about “Mortal Values: Life, death and the entrepreneurial spirit in Martin Chuzzlewit“, exploring human commodification, mortality and market value in Dickens’s 1844 novel. Wood spoke about the two systems of economy in the novel, a concrete form of money vs a more illusory sense of finance, and within this explored the representation of people as things, the market value of mortality, and ideas around bodies as producing money. The discussion of death drew out particular links with the novel’s transatlantic mobilities and the way in which the novel uses and represents America.

Following this, Hannah Lewis-Bill (Exteter) gave a paper titled “Not for all the tea in China: Dickens, Opium and the cultural value of things” which took us to the end of Dickens’s career to discuss the global circulation of things in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Lewis-Bill explored the issues of cultural identity raised through portable property in the novel, suggesting that novels like Drood question how the increasingly reflexive relationship between Britain and the rest of the world can be managed. Focusing particularly on tea and opium, she explored the ways in which opium remained a distinctly foreign object in Victorian Britain, whilst tea became absorbed and naturalised into British life through a process of assimilation that relies upon the separation of the object from its locale – with the suggestion, I thought, that movement through national networks of mobility enacted a process of distancing from the global networks that brought tea to British shores. Lewis-Bill also picked up on the importance of touch with objects, quoting this fantastic excerpt from chapter 4 of the novel by way of example:

If I have not gone to foreign countries, young man, foreign countries have come to me. They have come to me in the way of business, and I have improved upon my opportunities. Put it that I take an inventory, or make a catalogue. I see a French clock. I never saw him before, in my life, but I instantly lay my finger on him and say “Paris!” I see some cups and saucers of Chinese make, equally strangers to me personally: I put my finger on them, then and there, and I say “Pekin, Nankin, and Canton.” It is the same with Japan, with Egypt, and with bamboo and sandalwood from the East Indies; I put my finger on them all. I have put my finger on the North Pole before now, and said “Spear of Esquimaux make, for half a pint of pale sherry!

I love the implicit sense of proximity and global collapse in this passage, the complete annihilation of space not just between distant places but between foreign locations and the individual body – locating the subject within and connected to the global spatial economy, and firmly emphasising the significance of the physical body through the repeated emphasis on touch, literalising the idea of foreign contact. Lewis-Bill drew on John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move throughout her paper and offered some interesting extensions to Plotz’s arguments particularly in achieving a much more rigorous and rich exploration of “reverse portability”, something which I think is lacking from Plotz’s otherwise excellent study.

There was more Dickens to follow in an afternoon panel on Global Value, which began with Paul Young (Exeter) and “‘Bird, be quiet!’: Little Dorrit, Free Trade and Frictional Globalisation.” Young explored Little Dorrit as a global novel which refuses the spatio-temporal divisions of modernity, articulating a spatial economy of commodity interdependence such that circulation can be read as the novel’s organising imperative. Young emphasised the importance of attentiveness to the world, not just the Empire, in literary texts, particularly with regard to structures of British capitalism. Regenia Gagnier (Exeter) followed this theme in her paper “Victorian Studies in the context of World Literatures and Globalization Studies” which surveyed the developing themes of world literatures and global modernity within Victorian Studies. Gagnier’s paper gave an expansive overview of the state of the field and new directions that are emerging; particularly interesting to me were her reflections on the negotiation between local and global concerns, something which is prominent in my thinking as I write my monograph on these very issues, and which (happily!) will also form the theme of next year’s global convergence of Victorianists at the BAVS, NAVSA and AVSA conference on “The Global and the Local“.

Local-global relations were also the subject of Josephine McDonagh‘s paper “The Village Elsewhere: Mitford and the Politics of Place”. McDonagh discussed Nancy Russell Mitford’s Our Village a text which, in the vein of Cranford and Barchester Towers, depicts a very familiar idea of English village life, focused tightly on the local with the wider world just beyond its bounds (which I’ll be blogging about in reference to Cranford very soon). However, McDonagh identified that Our Village was much read among emigrants in the period (often villagers themselves), referred to by emigrant settlers as a handbook for creating an ideal village and inviting comparisons between Indian and English villages – ideas which resonated nicely with my recent reading of Ian Baucom’s Out of Place: Englishness, Empire and the Locations of Identity which identifies a strong locational impulse at the core of English identity, thrown into doubt by imperial expansion raising key questions about whether the Empire could contain “English” spaces. McDonagh’s paper addressed the significance of literary spatial productions in these spatial negotiations, and demonstrated how the strongly local Our Village was embedded in an international network of print exchange.

Print culture and emigration was also the subject of two further papers on this panel by Mary Shannon and Fariha Shaikh (both King’s College London). Shannon’s paper “Cultural Capital and the Emigrant’s Body: R. H. Horne and Melbourne Punch” looked at the emigration of print culture from London to Melbourne, and the establishment of a new print culture in Melbourne which resided in the adaptation of its old world connections. Fariha Shaikh explored emgirant travel narratives in a paper on “Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush: Domestic and Narrative Values”. Shaikh’s analysis of Moodie’s text looked at how emigration is not just a thematic concern of the narrative, but deeply embedded into the form and structure of the text, a highly indicative study of the relationship between mobility and narrative form.

Finally, in a slightly different direction was a paper by Catherine Malcolmson (Leicester) on “Investing in Sentiment: Finding Value in Dickensian Collecting” which looked at the enduring popularity of collecting things associated with Dickens and his works – different editions, character figurines (pictured is a Royal Doulton Mr Pickwick), things owned by or otherwise associated with Dickens, memorabilia items, and much more. Malcolmson talked about the ways in which Dickens collecting differs from other types of collecting, particularly in the emotional enthusiasm that motivates collectors who value objects not for their intrinsic worth but for their connection to Dickens; Dickens, to these collectors, is a saintly figure and these objects carry an inherent value by association. There was an undercurrent of circulation and mobility here, but what was interesting was the implication (as I interpreted it) that objects here become completely detached from their place of origin or production, and from the networks that circulate those objects: the end-point of the object’s movement, the collection, is its “true” place. Similarly, in light of my recent reading of Leah Price’s How to do things with Books in Victorian Britain, I was especially interested in the point that books are not (necessarily) given any special status by collectors, but rather are part of the same value-system as other objects, and even of little interest to some collectors. The emotional connection to the past through a physical, material thing is also something I’ll be thinking more about as I prepare my paper on literary tourism for Dickens and Popular Culture in October.

These speakers provided some truly stimulating thoughts that will be strong in my mind as I work on these themes in coming weeks, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s BAVS (if not Venice, then Royal Holloway at least…). Also worth noting is the fabulous efforts of JVC Online to preserve our tweets for all eternity, so if you want to find out more about papers not mentioned here then it’s worth taking a look through the thread where some very diligent tweeters did a very good job of tracking the event!

Victorian Value: BAVS 2012 @ University of Sheffield, 30th August – 1st September 2012

This year’s British Association for Victorian Studies conference was on the theme of Victorian Value: Ethics, Economics and Aesthetics, a topic which generated a rich and diverse range of responses across the three days of panels and plenaries. Given the length of the conference I couldn’t possibly write about each of the 21 papers and 4 keynotes that I heard, so what follows here are reflections on some of the main themes that emerged – in this post I focus on the idea of Victorian value, and in the next post I’ll write about a selection of papers on travel and mobility. If you want a glimpse of more of the conference you can check out #BAVS2012 on Twitter, where fellow tweeters did an excellent job of live tweeting the conference.

Professor Francis O’Gorman opened the conference with an engaging paper on the meaning of intellectual value, framing his discussion  of Victorians values within the highly pertinent contemporary context of debates around intellectual value or, as we most often hear it put these days, impact. O’Gorman started with the questions that are raised by a contemporary cultural obsession with valuing the past for its “relevance” today – citing the journalistic trend for asking “Why Dickens/Bronte/Eliot now?” – and questioned why we need to pose our engagement with the past in this way: why the need for “relevance”? What does it mean to speak of “relevance”? Is relevance all that matters, all that we value about the past?

In what followed O’Gorman turned to the work of John Ruskin which affords the opportunity for a deeper interrogation of the idea of value, with a particular view to disentangling the relationship between “relevance” and “impact”. What does it mean to ascribe impact as relevance, and can irrelevance have impact? Ruskin’s work is often described as having great “influence”, but is “influence” what matters? Influence might be easily measured, but is it a true measure of intellectual value? And when we measure significance as consequence does this privilege certain types of thinking – particularly a conformism to established ideas, a lack of originality- at the expense of other, deeper values? Work that is considered irrelevant in its time can come to have great significance and impact; true intellectual value supercedes the immediacy of influence, and uninfluential ideas can come to have immense intellectual significance.

O’Gorman’s paper offered a lot to think about in an academic climate currently dominated by measuring intellectual value as relevance and consequence, suggesting that we need to think more deeply about the assumptions that lie behind these terms and the values that they obscure. What especially struck me here was the shift away from the immediacy that “impact” entails, opening up a longer perspective that understands intellectual value as a historical process – a view that seems entirely absent from today’s fast-moving world of academia that turns on constant cycles of value assessment which leave little space for reflection on what is meant by value.

Dinah Birch’s plenary “Victorian Value: the economies of feeling” developed these themes through a discussion that again drew on Ruskin to explore the notion of what value meant to the Victorians. Birch’s paper highlighted the concept of connectedness as essential to the notion of “value”, positing Ruskin’s notion of value as a concept that embraces the interconnections between all spheres of human life – thought, feeling, emotion, moral value, economies or, as the conference theme put it, ethics, economics, and aesthetics. Birch drew comparisons with George Eliot’s notion of humanity as an organically interconnected web, and cited Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End “only connect” as the centre-point to Ruskinian value.

As with O’Gorman’s paper, Birch similarly opened up a more expansive set of perspectives on the meanings of intellectual value; whilst O’Gorman’s paper worked to expand value through temporality, Birch (as I saw it) complemented this approach by thinking laterally about value, achieving a more encompassing, expansive and organic conceptualisation of value. Both papers gestured towards the importance of a wider perspective and understanding and emphasised the necessity of deeper intellectual thought about the values structuring academia, opening up ideas that warrant much further reflection as we enter into this final year before the REF.

What’s the use of books?

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Leah Price’s How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain for Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature review site. Price’s work is a rich and evocative study of the many uses to which books were put in Victorian novel, and I’d strongly recommend it to any Victorianist – it’s one of those books full to the brim of fascinating information you never knew you wanted to know, whilst producing some important overarching arguments about Victorian culture more widely and gesturing towards new directions for the intersection of literary studies and material culture. It’s also highly pertinent to the theme of this week’s BAVS conference, Victorian Values, raising questions about the value of books in the Victorian age and the meaning of books today as we shift towards digital media.

You can find my review here, and I’d also highly recommend checking out the rest of the September issue of OLM – a review of John Bew’s Castlereagh: A Life and a piece on “Therapeutic Wordsworth” by Stephen Akey are particular highlights.