“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.

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

  1. This is very interesting. I’ve written about the “sense of place” in cultural tourism, which drove “my” late 18th/early 19th century Scottish song collectors to travel collecting songs (or songs with their airs), and to write about their travels. Am vaguely planning my own “literary tour” in the Scottish Borders sometime, but Abbotsford has to re-open first!

  2. Your research sounds really interesting, and I like the idea of your tour! I’ve been reading Juliet John on the Dickens heritage industry this afternoon and she draws out a lot of points around the emotional resonances, especially nostalgia, in lit tourism. One of the things I’m interested in drawing out further is how that fits with more geographical ideas of sense of place and particularly the experience of place through movement, ie the physical act of walking. I’d be interested also to contrast the urban dickens tour with the kind of walking tour you have in mind, two very different types of walking and therefore of literary-place-experience…?

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