My article “‘A still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment’: Walking the city in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette” has beenpublished online in the Journal of Victorian Culture. In this piece, I suggest that Brontë’s writing of women’s city walking makes a significant contribution to the idea of the flâneuse. Through a reading of Brontë’s letters from Belgium and her 1853 novel Villette, I argue that Brontë writes herself and Lucy Snowe into a growing canon of strolling city women, and that she brings a new perspective to the construct of the flâneuse through an embodied articulation of urban city wandering.
I start by looking at the prevalence of travel in Brontë’s letters, locating her within a new wave of women on the move in the mid-nineteenth century. There is a competing tension between the desire for mobility – “such a strong wish for wings” – and the reality of containment within the home, that runs through her letters, and this goes on to shape her fictional writing.* I then turn to her letters from Belgium: the city afforded Brontë new opportunities for “threading the streets”, and she starts to develop an attentiveness to the relationship between body, mobility and space that is developed more substantially in Lucy Snowe’s city encounter in Villette. Here, the thrill of city walking – “a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment” – emerges as an acutely embodied experience, and I argue that through this Brontë carves out a new discursive space for her woman walker, shifting from the spectatorship of the flâneur to a more fully sensory experience of the urban environment. This becomes crucial to the strong sense of autonomy and agency that walking affords women; at the same time, Brontë recognises the difficulties of mobility for women, and in the final section I look at how she negotiates this tension through highly embodied accounts of Lucy’s wandering in later sections of Villette.
In this series of posts I am writing about my initial work on the transport history of the Great Exhibition that I presented last year at a workshop of the York Transport Historians. In the first post I wrote about how this project came about, and part II discussed the planning stages of the Exhibition. In this third post, I look at how goods moved across the world into the Crystal Palace.
III. Transporting Goods to the Exhibition
“It seemed as if magic only could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the Earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus… ruled and subdued by some invisible influence”
Charlotte Brontë, in a letter of 7th June 1851 to her father, Patrick Brontë
Such were Charlotte Brontë’s words upon entering the Crystal Palace in June 1851, the first of 2 visits that she made during her stay in London that year. Her reflections here capture the extraordinary co-ordination of forces that had come together to produce what another contemporary commentator described as a “monument to consumption” (Nikolas Pevsner, 1851).
While evocative, Brontë’s invocation of “the invisible influence” of supernatural hands belies the very visible presence of activity in the lead-up to the Exhibition; whether in the streets of London or in the pages of the press, objects on the move were recorded with intense fascination in the months and weeks leading up to the Exhibition.*
This started with the international packages, sometimes traced right from the point of origin; in one case, the route of a “monster lump of zinc ore” sent from the USA is followed from the mines, over the mountains to Dover, New Jersey, and then on to the coast to be shipped across the Atlantic (see The Times, 16th January 1851, p. 6).
Much of the sea-transportation was undertaken by the steamer ships that had largely outmoded sailing vessels by this point in the century, and Britain’s global network of steamships came into action: the Peninsular & Oriental company shipped items from Middle East and Mediterranean, the East India Company brought goods from India, and regular services between Britain and many ports across Europe served the continental contributors. Some ships were of especial interest, such as the Feiza Baari, the first Turkish steam-ship to ever visit England. The US frigate St Lawrence was also the subject of much anticipation, and for several months there are reports detailing the choice of ship, its fitting up, and then the awaiting of its eventual arrival on British shores, greeted with much excitement:
While the St Lawrence was of particular interest for the eagerly-awaited American contribution to the Exhibition, the attention given here to the packages it contains is not unusual. In the months leading up to the opening, the pages of The Times are filled with numerous such reports recording each arrival at the British docks with meticulous detailing of the number, and often the contents, of packages brought by each ship. As the weeks progress, this turns into something of a growing fixation at the numbers of goods received and the number still to arrive, as in this table from 22nd April 1851 recording the “return of foreign and colonial goods received to April 19 (inclusive):
Such figures are accompanied by frequent expressions of anxiety at the unknown quantities of goods still to be received, and concerns about scant intelligence from some countries: in February The Times writes, “the Executive Committee remain in profound ignorance as to what they may expect from most of the foreign countries” (The Times, 13th February 1851, p. 5) and this anxiety increases as 1st May approaches. Such concerns are a reminder that while it is easy to emphasise the global connectedness that the Exhibition depended upon, it also brought to the fore the realities of disconnection and the persistence of gaps in the networked world.
International goods arrived into either the London Docks, or to other ports such as Southampton (as in the case of the St Lawrence, above), which were connected to London by rail; many of Britain’s contributions also arrived on the railways (hence the importance of the Exhibition’s proximity to mainline stations, as outlined in this previous post). Upon arrival into the city, packages then made their way to the Crystal Palace by road.
Road-congestion around Hyde Park had been the subject of much discussion in the planning stages, but as the Exhibition approached this turned from concern to a source of wonder. The sight of waggons laden with goods arriving and departing at every hour becomes a spectacle in and of itself, one that The Times comments on frequently, and at length:
“waggons laden with every species of commodity have deposited their burdens in the interior… the string of conveyances in waiting often extended down the Kensington-road as far as the end of Sloane-street. Such a spectaclewas probably never witnessed in any thoroughfare of the metropolis before, and passers-by stopped to gaze at that long procession … more wonderful in its character than even the rows of splendid equipages assembled in the adjoining park during the height of the season. On Monday 600 waggon loads were received; yet the whole of this vast consignment was deposited with the utmost regularity, and without any inconvenience to the ordinary traffic of the thoroughfare.”
(The Times, 3rd April 1851, p. 5)
This wonder is not only at the number of things, but also at the movement of things: the “utmost regularity” by which so many packages are moved with order and precision. This sense of the ceaseless, repeated mass movement of items through the streets is evocative of technologized motion; while the waggons are an old form of pre-industrial transport, the consciousness of the railway age here turns them into the mechanisms of a machine-like motion filling London’s streets.
By May 1st 1851, most of the items for display had arrived in the Exhibition – with a few notable omissions, such as “the contributions of native produce from Western Australia, including the newly discovered woods from Shark’s-bay […] which were delayed by an accident to the vessel they were shipped in” (The Times, 8th May 08, 1851; pg. 6). But while a few late announcements of displays follow, attention now mostly turned to passenger transport which will be the subject of my next post.
*my focus here, as in previous posts, is on The Times; I’m currently working through local and regional newspapers to compare with and complement the London focus.
The Transport & Mobility History Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, London, starts again for summer term this Thursday, 27th April. Nicola Kirkby (King’s College London) is giving a paper titled “End of the line: Mental mobility in Howards End”. The seminar starts at 5.30pm, and is in N304, 3rd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House (n.b. slight change of room from last term).
The remaining two dates of the summer programme are:
25th May: James Fowler (University of York): “Who Shall Guard the Guards? – London Transport Governance 1905-33″
22nd June: Meet the Transport Archivists: confirmed speakers are Tamara Thornhill (Corporate Archivist, Transport for London) and Faye McLeod (Archivist for Jaguar Heritage Trust Archive, British Motor Museum); final speaker tbc.
The seminar is convened by David Turner (York), Tamara Thornhill (Transport for London), Christopher Phillips (Leeds), Charlotte Mathieson, (Surrey), Oliver Betts (National Railway Museum), Mike Esbester (University of Portsmouth). Details of the seminar can also be found here.
Like the series, the conference aimed to provide a forum for scholars working at the intersection of literary and cultural studies and mobilities theories – scholars drawing upon cultural geography and/or sociology to gain new insights into literary and cultural texts, and those making use of literary and cultural texts in theorizing of space and movement. We invited papers discussing a broad range of transport modes, in a variety of textual forms, across historical periods and geographical spaces, and we were not disappointed by the wonderful variety of work presented. Across the two days we had papers from the Roman era to the present day, on different modes of movement across land and sea – railways, cycling, walking, running, boat; a variety of textual forms and genres, from Chinese landscape painting, Hollywood cinema, Early Modern drama, oral narratives, locative sound art, crime fiction, and nineteenth-century novels; spaces of mobility such as the American roadside and hotels; and travelling things, from cases of whisky to bodily organs. We were also delighted by the international response to the CFP and welcomed scholars from South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Poland, Lebanon, Austria, Switzerland, France, and Spain.
The panel sessions were framed by two fantastic plenary papers. Kat Jungnickel (Goldsmiths, London) began proceedings with her paper ‘Secret Cycling Selves: How Victorian women negotiated multiple mobile identities through patented cycle wear’, a fascinating exploration of how women came up with innovative solutions to the problem of cycling in unsuitable skirts by creating adaptable clothing – wonderfully demonstrated by Kat, who wore a replica 1890s skirt that had been recreated by her and a small research team from Victorian patents of the original inventions. On the second day, Marian Aguiar (Carnegie Mellon) spoke about ‘Drifting: Agency, Mobility, and the Image of the Maritime Migrant’. Marian’s timely work looks at “drifting” as a form of sea-mobility that allows us to rethink key issues of the mobilities paradigm; from the identity of the maritime subject, the vectors of geographical movement when they are released from mapped routes, and the intersections of politics, legality, environment, and cultural representation through which migrant subject experiences of drifting are enacted and perceived.
The conference concluded with the screening of a new film by director Andrew Kotting, who has undertaken mobile projects with Iain Sinclair. Their latest, Edith Walks, traces a 108-mile pilgrimage from Waltham Abbey in Essex to St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex, in memory of Edith Swan Neck, wife of King Harold, reconnecting the lovers after 950 years. The film raised questions around the role of mobility in memory and recreation, temporality and the landscape as a source of memory, and the relationship between past and present in mobile practices.
The conference team also spoke on a roundtable on future directions in mobility studies, with invited participants Peter Merriman (Aberystwyth), Ruth Livesey (Royal Holloway, London), and Nick Dunn (LICA, Lancaster). The roundtable discussion reiterated what the conference as a whole encapsulated: that mobility studies is at an exciting moment, now well-established as a dynamic point of intersection between the humanities and social sciences, and with many new directions to explore in future work.
The series editors – myself, Marian and Lynne – finished the conference by talking with prospective authors about projects for the series. If you would like to know more or are interested in submitting a proposal, the poster is below and you can either contact our Palgrave editor Allie Bochicchio or get in touch with me or the other editors directly to discuss an idea.
The conference also had a very lively twitter feed #MLCConf17 – thank you to everyone who captured this all! – and I have created a Storify of tweets here.
Thank you to everyone who presented, participated, and followed along online, and to the Lancaster Centre for Mobilities Research which provided a fantastic venue for the conference.
Today I spoke at “Researching our Futures“, a student-led conference on career options post-PhD. My talk was titled “Digitising our futures: early career professionalization in the digital sphere” and I spoke about how an online identity can help you develop as an ECR. The slides from my talk are here. For quick reference, I’ve listed below the websites and resources from the end of the slides.
I’m pleased to be hosting a “special topic panel” at this year’s Victorian Popular Fiction Association conference “Travel, Translation and Communication“, taking place in London on 19th-21st July. The theme of my panel is “Transport”, and the 2-hour session will allow for a longer in-depth discussion of the papers and their relationship to the field at present.
Full details of the CFP are on the VPFA website, and anyone interested in the special topic is also welcome to get in touch with me directly.
The special issue of the Journal of International Women’s Studies, featuring winning and shortlisted entries from the 2016 Feminist and Women’s Studies Association’s Annual Student Essay Competition, is now published. The issue is co-edited by me and Laura Clancy, and this was the last round of the competition that I worked on before moving to my current role of Chair of the FWSA. Once again, it was a pleasure to work on the competition and it’s wonderful to see these entries published.