Dickens and History: Dickens Day 2013 @ IES London, 12th October

This was my third Dickens Day and the first where I wasn’t presenting a paper, so it was good to sit back and enjoy what is always a stimulating day among the Dickens community. This year’s theme of Dickens and History elicited some interesting responses on a good range of Dickens’s novels, including some that tend to receive less attention – Michael Slater’s plenary paper on A Child’s History of England was one example of this, opening the day with illuminating discussion of how Dickens handles historical themes and subjects in this work. Ruth Livesey followed with a very interesting reading of place and the past in Martin Chuzzlewit, exploring how different spaces and sites are employed in the novel’s central handling of the pull between past and present.

Eden - illustration by Phiz from Martin Chuzzlewit

Papers in the panel sessions opened up various lines of enquiry into how Dickens understood history and how we situate Dickens as historical figure today. Emily Bowles explored Dickens’s handling of personal history in the later journalism which demonstrates a complex and often peculiar narrative voice that can’t easily be categorised, her reading drawing out indicative perspectives on the pursuit of self-knowledge and Dickens’s sense of his own history in these writings. Hadas Elber-Aviram’s paper on the “alternative histories” of  Little Dorrit and David Copperfield looked at how the narratives pose a series of undeveloped relationships that present an on-going sense of “what might have been” that becomes central to the idea of history and the present in these novels. The making of “Dickens and history” in the contemporary moment was the subject of Claire Wood’s paper about the archiving of Dickens 2012 activities; I was especially interested in how 2012 was positioned in relation to previous Dickens celebrations, which Claire defined as moving from “reverential” in 1912, “faithful recreation” in 1970, to “rediscovery” in 2012. It will certainly be indicative to see how the bicentenary continues to be discussed as it becomes part of recent history (I’m aware already from writing about it of the potential impulse to mythologise or over-emphasise certain aspects of that year), and the papers here on Dickens and History provided some thoughtful issues to consider in both the crafting and interpreting of histories of Dickens.

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Shakespeare on the Road symposium, 11th October 2013

Shakespeare's Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

I spent Friday 11th October in Stratford-upon-Avon at the launch of Shakespeare on the Road, a project between the University of Warwick, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and Misfits, inc. to celebrate the 2014-16 anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death. In what sounds like a rather wonderful (and enviable!) summer, the team are travelling across the United States visiting around 17 Shakespeare Festivals to provide an account of the as-yet-undocumented ways in which Shakespeare is performed, experienced and interpreted in US Festival settings.

This symposium marked the launch of the project and was an opportunity to discuss some of the initial questions proposed by and arising from the project. Throughout the day we heard a fascinating range of papers about different aspects of Shakespeare and/in the USA: Nicola Watson spoke about Shakespeare Gardens in the US as sites of memorial and commemoration that cultivate a particularly “English”, and feminised, space; Andrew Dickson talked about Shakespeare’s presence in the history of the American West – place-names, accounts of reading on the road – a theme picked up on later in Tim Lockley‘s paper on the appropriation of Shakespeare in the colonial period as a legacy of “Englishness”.

There’s also the long history of American interest in the Birthplace, including the (perhaps mythical) story of the American showman P.T. Barnum who, so it is said, tried to purchase the Birthplace in 1847 with the intention of shipping it to the USA where it would become part of his travelling circus (more on that here) – a point I picked up on at the end of my paper on the interconnections between literature, nation and place to pose the question: what if Barnum had been successful and transported the Birthplace away from Stratford-upon-Avon – so that it became, in the words of Dickens’s Wemmick, ‘portable property’? What might this lead us to ask about the location of national culture – is it in the walls of the house, the ground on which it stands, the national audience that experiences it, all of those things together; can national culture be detached from national place and still have meaning, and what alternative perspectives might new national contexts have generated?

Ideas of place were central to Stuart Elden’s paper on Shakespeare’s territories which, following on from his new book The Birth of Territory, began to explore the ways in which territory is used and understood in Shakespeare’s plays. Steve Purcell also raised questions about the appropriation of space in festival contexts, where the carnivalisation of outdoor spaces often plays a central role in crafting ideas and expectations around Shakespeare Festivals and Ruth Leary spoke about festivals from a cultural policy perspective, and posed interesting ideas about the idea of creative economy and cultural entrepreneurship today and in Shakespeare’s own activity.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to participate in such an enjoyable day generating some stimulating research questions, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the project develops over the next couple of years.

George Eliot: guest post on the FWSA blog

George Eliot 2The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association blog recently started an exciting series on historical groundbreaking women, showcasing the life and work of some fascinating and lesser-known figures, and I’m very pleased to have contributed a post on George Eliot. Although Eliot is well known, I’ve tried to offer some thoughts on the complexities of her ‘groundbreaking’ life and work, and to draw out some smaller examples from her fiction that might not be so widely recognised.

And if you haven’t done so already, do go and check out the rest of the series, and indeed the whole blog which is full of excellent feminist content!