From year to year 2013-14

A quick end-of-year round-up of my blogging and reviews from 2013, starting with my favourite and most-read pieces from this blog:

Mapping the Past, today: TVs trend for treading the historical beaten track: early in the year I was thinking about the TV trend for series that retrace historical routes – whether it’s railway lines, canal routes, or guidebook tours – but always with a view to capturing the idea of treading in a predecessor’s footsteps.

Curiously brought together” or “travelling strangely hither“?: inspired by some research I was working on, a quick snippet looking at the idea of connections in Dickens’s Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Dickens was also present in my most-read post of this year: a 201st birthday reflection on the bicentenary year.

“A group of true peasantry”? Rural realism and The Village: I enjoyed the BBC’s series The Village, set in rural Derbyshire in the early 20th century, but many viewers found it too bleak. In this post I reflected, through George Eliot’s writing on rurality, on why a little ‘rural realism’ was in fact rather refreshing.

You are now entering the Big Brother House”: Heritage, houses and the location of cultural value: one of my personal favourites to write – in response to the National Trust temporarily taking over the Big Brother house as a heritage site, I reflected on why this seemed to touch such a nerve with some opponents, and argued that it represented an interesting move in light of Britain’s heritage houses

A new Crystal Palace?: following the announcement of plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, I wrote about the history of the building and posed the question of whether there is any value, from a Victorianist’s perspective, in this move.

'View in the West Nave' by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851
‘View in the West Nave’ by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851

I continued blogging for a number of other sites, including the Journal of Victorian Culture online. I especially enjoyed the public history series earlier this year, and wrote about my experience of public engagement with Dickens 2012 and how it had been both fun and intellectually stimulating for my research. It was also for JVC that I wrote about two great events that I attended this year: the London Transport Museum’s Lure of the Underground – Tube at 150 exhibition and a production of the play Brontë by Polly Teale – the latter was a fun departure from my usual blogging, recorded as a skype conversation between myself and fellow Victorianist Amber Regis and covering topics including femininity, life-writing, the Brontë sisters’ afterlives, and more.

I also guest blogged for Brandy Schillace’s blog The Daily Dose on the subject of travelling bodies in the Victorian novel, and was pleased to contribute to the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association series of ‘historical groundbreakers’ with a piece on George Eliot as a complex historical feminist figure.

The Victoria regia

It was for the FWSA that I reviewed two recent studies on women’s travel writing: Judith Johnston’s Victorian Women and the Economies of Travel, Translation and Culture, 1830-1870, and Churnjeet Mahn’s British Women’s Travel to Greece, 1840-1914: Travels in the Palimpsest. I was also pleased to review again for Open Letters Monthly, especially as Tatiana Holway’s The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian water lily, the quest to make it bloom, and the world it created was a fascinating and enthralling read. Also available for reading online is the issue of Victorian Network that I guest edited, on the subject of Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture.

Finally, the year was a busy one for conferences and trips. I was lucky to have two journeys to Italy earlier this year, first to Sardinia as visiting lecturer at the University of Cagliari (lecture images and further reading for which I blogged here), and then to Venice for the NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA conference in June: I wrote about the Dickens: Local and Global seminar I participated in for JVC online. Travel was also the subject of Contact and Connections, the first symposium of the Travel and Mobility Studies network that I co-run at Warwick; we were delighted to have Tim Youngs and Cathy Waters as keynote speakers, and the whole day provided a fascinating array of papers around the theme.

Victorians at the Olympic Opening Ceremony
Victorians at the Olympic Opening Ceremony

Over the summer, I went to Liverpool for Neo-Victorian Cultures: the Victorians Today, and had a very enjoyable time rediscovering my love of neo-Victorian fiction! In light of this, Rethinking the Nineteenth Century at the University of Sheffield provided some interesting reflections on 19th-century and Victorian studies today, and in addition to my conference write-up I wrote a follow-up piece for JVC on Victorian or Nineteenth Century: definitions and positions. I finished the year with, predictably, some Dickens and Shakespeare: there was the annual Dickens Day in London, this year on the theme of Dickens and History, and Shakespeare On the Road, a symposium in Stratford-upon-Avon launching an exciting collaboration between the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the University of Warwick.

The start of 2014 is a busy one, and I’m most excited about the upcoming publication of Gender and Space in Rural Britian, 1840-1920 in a month or so. A co-authored piece on Dickens and Shakespeare in 2012 is also out soon, as well as two reviews for Studies in Travel Writing. I’m tying up a lot of loose ends at the moment in my research, with work on Mayhew and the Great Exhibition, Europe in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, male travelling bodies in the Victorian novel, neo-Victorian spaces in Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s and, of course, the book on Journeys in the Victorian Novel all nearing completion in the next few weeks (or so). I’ll also be taking a trip to Brussels and then Haworth in March as research for a piece on Charlotte Brontë and then hopefully getting started on what may well be the next book-length project over the summer.

Thank you for reading my blog over the last year, and a very happy new year to all!

Sea Narratives symposium, 24th January

Paul Morstad, ‘High Seas Hobo Victrola’, 2012.
Paul Morstad, ‘High Seas Hobo Victrola’, 2012.

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that gray vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.

– Derek Walcott, ‘The Sea is History’

This symposium aims to provide a forum for an interdisciplinary exchange on the theme of ‘sea narratives’, looking at how the sea has figured as an important site in different cultural and geographical contexts. We are interested in how humans have interacted with the sea through trade, labour, migration, leisure and exploration; how it has figured in national contexts as a site of geopolitical control; and how it has featured in the cultural imagination as a space of danger and the unknown, but also as a source of inspiration. Derek Walcott constantly returns to the sea in his poetry, linking it powerfully with a colonial history and struggles with the difficulty of retrieving the stories it holds. The artist Paul Morstad uses old maps for his canvases, on which fantastic creatures hover over geographic boundaries, raising questions about mapping the water world. This symposium takes these varied, contested and provocative ways in which the sea has been chronicled as its beginning and invites its speakers to present their own critical perspectives.

Papers by:

Jon Anderson (Cardiff) ‘Exploring the space between words and meaning: knowing the relational sensibility of surf spaces’

Will Wright (Sheffield) ‘Encountering the tsunami: the sea, memory and communities of practice in south-eastern Sri Lanka’

Emma Spence (Cardiff) ‘“You can’t be on a boat and not explode when you get to land”. A study of maritime mobility in the South of France’

Michael Harrigan (Warwick) ‘Narrating the early modern French sea voyage to Asia: trajectory and text’

Elodie Duché (Warwick) ‘“A Sea of Stories”: Narratives of Capture at Sea During the Napoleonic Wars’

Barbara Franchi (Kent, ‘Travelling across Worlds and Texts in A. S. Byatt’s Sea Narratives’

The symposium will be held at the University of Warwick on Friday 24th January, at the Institute of Advanced Study. See the event webpage for full details and registration (free, including lunch, but please fill in the online form for our records).

A new Crystal Palace?

It’s a couple of months now since the first press release announcing plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace. My initial response was amazement that it may be possible in coming years to see the rebuilding of one of the most important buildings of the nineteenth century; but as further details unfurl I, like many others, am increasingly ambivalent about the project, which would see a £500 million investment by a private Chinese corporation into the building and surrounding parkland. While the regeneration of the park seems long-overdue and supported by the local community, the corporation currently have an exclusivity agreement with the local council that prevents other proposals for the site’s development to be submitted until February 2015; during this time there is a call for the community to express their feedback on the scheme but it seems this has come rather late in discussions and from what I’ve read of the news articles, local people are unconvinced that this is the right sort of investment for the park. I’m not familiar with the area to comment further on the local impact of the project, but have been wondering from a Victorianist’s perspective what would be the value in rebuilding the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 - 1852 (courtesy of V&A Museum)
Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 – 1852 (courtesy of V&A Museum)

It’s easy to say that the Crystal Palace was one of the most iconic building of the Victorian age, but its history is much more complicated and complex than that: its a story of two phases, and the symbolic meaning of the building changed over the years. In its first incarnation, the Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations: the first international Exhibition of its kind, showcasing over 100,000 objects from all over the world. The Exhibition organising committee ran a public call for proposals for the design of the building, and after many unsuccessful suggestions it was Joseph Paxton’s design that caught the imagination of the organisers. Paxton had long been designing specialist greenhouses made from glass and iron for the large collection of exotic plants at the Chatsworth estate (including the famous giant Victoria Regia water lily). His design for the Exhibition space replicated the basic principles of these glasshouses, but at 562m long, 124m wide, and with an interior height of 39m, the building was by far the largest structure of its kind, and required sheets of glass bigger than any produced before. It was a piece in Punch that saw the building christened “the Crystal Palace”, a name that captured the semi-mythical, iconic status of the new building.

"The Dispersion of the Works of all Nations" by George Cruikshank, 1851
“The Dispersion of the Works of all Nations” by George Cruikshank, 1851

The Crystal Palace inspired mixed responses, ranging from hyperbolic praise at the wonder of its design, to ridicule that it was simply a very large greenhouse. So too was it site of contestation: as one Household Words article points out, not so far away from the great building lay “our over-crowded burial grounds, generating a poisonous atmosphere in the thick of the living and loathing people! There, runs the polluted Thames, of which we are compelled to drink!” (Richard Horne, 22/03/1851). Once filled with the exhibits, the wonder of its design was that although the structure was such a spectacle in and of itself, it receded into the background as a translucent space in which the objects on display could take centre-stage – as the colourful “Watercolours of the Great Exhibition” nicely demonstrate.

'View in the West Nave' by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851 (V&A Museum)
‘View in the West Nave’ by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851
Crystal Palace Sydenham - photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte
Crystal Palace Sydenham – photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte

But it is arguably in the second phase of the Palace’s life that the strongest ideological meanings became invested in the building itself; the wealth of objects on display at the Exhibition overwhelmed visitors and ultimately preside most strongly in accounts of the Exhibition), but devoid of these things the Crystal Palace was both more open to interpretation, and open to retrospective investment as a symbol of a past era. After the closure of the Exhibition in October 1851, it was decided that the Palace should be rebuilt at Sydenham and, from its construction in 1854, it remained there until 1936. But while retaining the original features of Paxton’s design, this was an altogether different building: shorter in length, but with a much greater footprint (nearly 100 acres more) and rising to six stories (from the initial three), resulting in a much larger capacity than its first incarnation. Just from looking at pictures, it is clearly a much more commanding, overpowering presence as a structure, and I think this is crucial to the way in which the Palace (and, by association, the Great Exhibition) retrospectively became symbolic of a golden age of British imperial superiority to a much greater extent than in its original incarnation at the time of the Exhibition. The new Palace was put to a range of uses as a leisure space, hosting many concerts, events, exhibitions, and surrounded by 200 acres of park land used for recreation and sport. In 1936, the building was destroyed by a fire but the park has remained, and over the years there have been many suggestions for rebuilding or otherwise restoring the site of the Palace.

So what would be gained by rebuilding the Crystal Palace today? I suppose my initial fascination with the idea stems from an inability to quite grasp the scale and size of the building (both the original, and the redesigned version), and particularly the effect of being inside such a large glass structure. To be able to see and experience that wouldn’t be able to recapture the Victorian experience of the building in any real way, but it would provide an interesting exercise in accompanying the interpretation of accounts from the period. Perhaps more indicatively, it would represent a very interesting contribution to a contemporary neo-Victorian landscape which is marked by a fascination with the buildings and places of the past as sites of meaning, and I’m intrigued as to how a rebuilt Palace would play into both public perceptions and contemporary critical responses on these themes.

Because if there’s one thing that’s noticeable about the design (see the brochure download), it’s that the proposed building is evocative of a neo-Victorian aesthetic that befits the contemporary landscape, rather than standing as a monument to the past. While in images of Paxton’s design the iron bars of the structure are heavily visible, the design foregrounding the contrast between glass and iron, light and dark, weight and weightlessness, in the new design this is gone or at least downplayed in the overall visual effect: transparency, light, airiness are the themes of this structure, emphatically a reinterpretation rather than a straightforward homage to the Victorians. At the same time, heritage looms large over the project: “The park will be restored in line with the approved masterplan to create a modern 21st century park of national importance which reflects Joseph Paxton’s original ideas and responds to the needs and aspirations of local residents” (p. 5). It’s a rather empty statement however, with no explanation of what is understood by “Paxton’s original ideas”, and the talk of “originality” is further interesting given the Palace’s two design formulations – the new building uses the second design, not the true original from Hyde Park.

This reinterpretation is also interesting in that it demonstrates the global afterlives of Victorian Britian’s national heritage. The plans have come from the Chinese ZhongRong Group, and in the opening statement Mr Ni states that “the former Crystal Palace is celebrated in China as a building of great achievement. Its ingenuity and scale is magnificent and this project is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring it back to life […] I have admired the Crystal Palace for many years and am passionate about this project. The Palace’s story is fascinating and I am hoping to add the next chapter by providing a gift to London and the world” (p. 3). It’s a telling statement about the ongoing resonances of the Victorian period and the dis- or re-location of national culture into international contexts, and to see that re-located back into Britain would bring interesting opportunities to analyse these currents further.

As the project gets underway it will be interesting to see how these themes develop; I’m not, from what I’ve heard so far, in favour of the project and hope that the local concerns around it are taken seriously. Insofar as the potential for discussion around the Victorians and their neo-Victorian afterlives goes, though, the project raises some indicative questions and I’d be intrigued to hear more about what other Victorianists make of the proposals as they unfold.