Dickens Day 2012: Dickens and Popular Culture

This year’s Dickens Day, held at the Institute of English Studies on Saturday 13th October, was the last in what has been a very full year of Dickens conferences, exhibitions and other celebrations, and it made for a wonderful end to a year of Dickens celebrations. Befitting the bicentenary year, the theme of Dickens Day 2012 was “Dickens and popular culture”, a topic which invited a diverse range of responses to Dickens’s popularity both then and now.

The day opened with a plenary panel that brought together Malcolm Andrews (University of Kent), Jenny Hartley (University of Roehampton), and Paul Schlicke (University of Aberdeen), to explore the resonances of Dickens in popular culture through the lenses of laughter and vulgarity (Andrews), public speaking (Hartley), and the circus (Schlicke) – I particularly enjoyed Schlicke’s discussion of circus performances of various Dickens novels, which saw characters like Pickwick and Sam Weller set on horseback performing in the circus ring.

In the following panel, “revolting bodies” were the theme. Helen Goodman (Royal Holloway, University of London), presented on ‘Dickens, Lunacy and Asylums in Early-Victorian Popular Culture’, looking at Dickens’s conflicted relationship with popular culture in the context of shifts in understandings of mental health in the early Victorian period, particularly around the notion of lunacy as spectacle, and exploring Dickens’s handling of mental illness in characters such as Mr Dick in David Copperfield. Joanne Ella Parsons (University of the West of England) took us from mental to physical health with her paper ‘Dickensian Appetites: The Influence of Dickens’s Monstrous Meals’, exploring how Dickens uses food to convey aspects of character and examining the ways in which this interacts wtih wider Victorian discourses of food. Parsons focused particularly on Miss Havisham’s non-consumed feast in Great Expectations – with some interesting discussion of the different types of wedding cake that evolved throughout the early 19th century – and the vulgarity of food in relation to Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. She also considered the centrality of food in one of Dickens’s most prominent afterlives, the idea of the Dickensian Christmas.

Sign for The Boot, Cromer Street, London W1; Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Two further papers on this panel drew mobility and space into their discussion of “revolting bodies”. In Emma Curry’s (Birkbeck College, University of London) paper, the embodied mobility of the revolting body was central to a discussion which focused on ‘Legends and Leg-Ends: History, Feet and Mass Movement in A Tale of Two Cities’. The idea of the revolting, revolutionary body is central to the text’s handling of the French Revolution, but Curry identified that within this the novel repeatedly draws attention to representations of feet and shoes, taking us down to the material motivations and consequences of the mob. Curry explored the dynamics of materiality and embodiment, the mobility of the mob, and notions of history and intellectual thought, suggesting ways in which representations of feet contribute to a reading of the novel’s handling of revolution and historical events. Matthew Ingleby’s (University College London) paper also (sort of!) took feet as its theme, looking at ‘Dickens’s Boot: Popular Violence, the Public House, and the City’s Limits’. Ingleby looked at the urban-rural interactions of Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, locating the pub “The Boot” – a real pub in London which becomes fictionalised as a rural pub in the novel – as central to the delineation of urbanization (or (pub)urbanization as Ingleby neatly coined it), marking as it does the rapid spread of London in the period between the novel’s late-18th century setting and Dickens’s time of writing. Further interesting was discussion of the afterlives of Barnaby Rudge, in which Ingleby noted that a new development in Birmingham, Alabama called “The Preserve” specifically draws on “Dickensian” tropes in its advertising material and has replicated a pub named “The Boot”, and yet in doing so somewhat confuses the urban/rural discourses that surround the pub in the novel.

Cover image of Down in the Hole: The Unwired World of H.B. Ogden, by Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson

In the afternoon, I spoke on a panel which looked at Dickens’s influence and afterlives. Karen Hornick’s (New York University) paper on ‘Popular Critical Discourse and “The Dickensian Aspect”’ looked at critical discourse around The Wire as “Dickensian”. Although it’s become something of a (misused) commonplace to refer to the series as “Dickensian”, often used in ways that overlook the complex dynamics of race, class, economics etc that the series explores, Hornick suggested more critical ways in which the term applies, identifying the totalizing social vision, absence of any solution, and lack of a final “installment” as key to both. Hornick also discussed the awareness of the writers themselves at their handling of this term, particularly in the focus on journalism in the final series (and the conscious play on “The Dickensian Aspect” in one of the later episodes). I was very interested to see that Down in the Hole: The Unwired World of H.B. Ogden, a faux-Victorian serial novel of The Wire, has been released in full form (following the initial mock-up article last year). I followed this with a paper on ‘“Something in the Place”: Dickens 2012 and Literary Tourism’, themes that will be quite familiar to readers of this blog and which I’ll follow up with a few more thoughts in another post. Finally, in an impressive technological move, Tom Ue (University College London) skyped in from the USA with his paper on ‘Dickens, Gissing, and the Life of Writing’, an indicative exploration of the relationship between the two authors.

The day ended with Juliet John’s (Royal Holloway, University of London) keynote presentation on ‘Things, Words and the Meanings of Art’. John was a highly fitting keynote for the conference theme given her recent Dickens and Mass Culture (2011) which informed many of the papers throughout the day, and her keynote opened up some indicative new directions in its exploration of things in Dickens’s writing. Her paper is available as a chapter in the very recently published collection Dickens and Modernity and I therefore won’t detail too much here – suffice to say that John suggested more attentiveness to the relationship between words and things not just as semiotic systems but within representational frames, and then took us through a fascinating discussion which ranged across commodity culture in Household Words, money as “thing”, Dickens and celebrity, statues (the celebrity author as thing), and the afterlives of Dickensian things.

Once again the organisers put together an excellent day that prompted some fruitful discussion, and I’m very grateful that I had the chance to be a part of another Dickens Day. Also worth noting is that papers from last year’s Day on Dickens and Travel are to be published in the next issue of English, and should very soon be available via advance access on the website.

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Academic blogging – Guardian HE Network Live Chat

On Friday I was on the panel of The Guardian HE Network’s Live Chat, on the subject of “academic blogging: the power and the pitfalls“. It was a diverse set of participants which generated an interesting and varied discussion over the course of the two hours. You can catch up with the discussion on the blog, and join in with future Live chats at 12-2pm every Friday.

Thanks to The Guardian HE Network for inviting me onto the panel!

Dickens at Warwick Words

Last week saw the annual Warwick Words Festival of Literature and Spoken Word. Among the many wonderful talks, workshops, readings and other events on offer, there were a good selection of Dickens-related evenings.

On Monday, author Gaynor Arnold spoke at Leamington Waterstones as part of the Festival’s new “On the Edge” series in Leamington Spa. Arnold is a “Vic-lit” author, writing novels set in and inspired by events and people of the period. Her first novel Girl in a Blue Dress is inspired by the marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens, who become Mr and Mrs Gibson in Arnold’s imaginative fictionalisation. Arnold spoke about how she came to write the novel, which stems from a life-long fascination with Dickens; she’d spent much time pursuing this interest and amounting a huge mass of knowledge about Dickens, but felt that Catherine’s side of the story needed to be told. The narrator of Girl in a Blue Dress is the fictional Mrs Gibson, and the novel explores her thoughts and feelings in the aftermath of Dickens’s death, coming to terms with the discrepancies between Dickens’s public and private personas. Arnold was clear that she sees the Gibsons as very much distinct characters in their own right, and that although the plot is structured by biographical information she very much makes the story and characters her own, finding freedom in reimagining the past rather than seeing this as an attempt to fill the historical gaps. Arnold also spoke about her latest novel After Such Kindness which is loosely based around Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, and was written out of a desire to tell the story from the point of view of the child Alice, although the novel did in fact develop to incorporate Carroll’s perspective and attempts at understanding his behaviour and feelings towards the young girl.

I enjoyed hearing Arnold talk about her process of writing and imagining the past, although it was also interesting how cautious she seemed about positioning herself as a “historical writer” or “bio-fiction author”. I’ve only just started reading Girl in a Blue Dress so can’t comment too much on this, although I am finding that there seems to be a certain hesitancy in the writing and the characters thus far don’t quite feel as fully realised as they might – the text hasn’t quite reached the point of finding that freedom in the past that Arnold spoke of.

The next evening biographer Claire Tomalin spoke at the Bridge House Theatre in Warwick, focusing on Charles Dickens: A Life which was published last year. I immensely enjoyed reading Tomalin’s fascinating account of Dickens’s life: it’s rich on historical detail, compelling in its exploration of Dickens’s character, beautifully interweaves analysis of the novels into stages of his life, and is wonderfully written. It’s an engaging, acutely perceptive, and often sharply honest piece of work. As with all the best writing, although I’ve never been that interested in reading biography this left me wanting to read the rest of Tomalin’s work, and hearing her talk last week renewed my interest again. Tomalin spoke mostly about a range of different aspects of Dickens’s life and works, covering themes of education, social commentary, his writing process, and his relationship with the Public – it was impressive in just how much depth Tomalin could respond to such a variety of questions about Dickens, and made for an evening diverse in scope. She also touched on the trajectory of her writing and her development as a biographer, and both The Invisible Woman and her work on Jane Austen are now high on my wish-list, after everything else that I have to read – happily, though, Tomalin also noted that there is a film of The Invisible Woman currently in production, directed by Ralph Fiennes who plays Dickens himself.

There was a third and final Dickens event at Warwick Words with Lucinda Hawksley, who was talking about her new book which explores Dickens the man – you can, however, see Lucinda talking about Dickens the husband and father on the latest film for Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens project.

Journal of Victorian Culture online

I’m very pleased to have been invited to join the Journal of Victorian Culture Online blogging team as a regular contributor, having previously written some guest blog posts for the site. The first of my regular posts on “Walking ‘Dickens’s London‘” was published this morning, and is a review of The Guardian’s Dickens audio walks. From now on I’ll be writing twice a month on all things Victorian, with a range of research-related and some more fun posts on museums, talks, and so on – current ideas in the works include some George Eliot literary tourism, a visit to Cromford Mills, and Simon Callow’s take on Dickens.

Also, JVC Online is searching for more bloggers to contribute to the site – either as a one-off blogger, or by entering the competition to become a regular contributor. Being part of a multi-authored blog is an excellent way to gain blogging experience, and if you’re a Victorianist then there’s no better place to do so than JVC Online. The site is becoming an exciting hub of online activity for Victorianists, and I’m certainly proud to be part of its on-going expansion and very much looking forward to seeing how it grows in coming months.