All posts by Charlotte Mathieson

Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century English Literature, University of Surrey

From the archive

I’ve been enjoying The Guardian’s “From the Archive” blog series, which is tracing the history of the paper’s reportage from its beginning in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian, progressing through the years by selecting a highlight from each year every day. They’ve now got to the end of the nineteenth century, and some of my top picks so far have been:

The opening of the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825, describing in great detail how the “locomotive engine, or steam-horse, as it was more generally termed, gave ‘note of preparation’; the cry of ‘all ready,’ was heard, and the enging with its appendages moved forward”, with “no less than 548 persons” on board.

The return of HMS Beagle from its voyage of discovery from 1825-36, surveying, amongst other things, “the whole coast of Chile and Peru […] no port or road-stead has been omitted,” and completing “a very valuable chain of chronometric measurements”.

A review of Gaskell’s Mary Barton which is decided to be “as a whole, beautifully written” but the “authoress” has worked “gravely against truth, in matters of fact either above her comprehension, or beyond her sphere of knowledge”.

Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition in 1851:”interest and excitement” prevailed throughout the “multitudes” of visitors from all sections of society; “the English showed most curiosity about the foreign half of the exhibition, while foreigners eagerly inspected the British department”.

An 1861 report on Crinoline: A Real Social Evil, in response to “recent deaths resulting from the prevailing fashion among ladies of wearing extended crinolines”, crinoline is here denounced as “responsible for more deaths than any other fashion ever caused”. Deaths by fire, crushing under carriage wheels and in machinery, are nothing compared to the “cases of actual disembowelling from the gashes inflicted by broken steel springs and hoops”.

And another review, this time of George Eliot’s Middlemarch , highly praised as “not a mere intellectual toy, to be smiled over in the drawing-room or coupled with a cigar at the club” but rather a “work of art” to be read and re-read.

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Old and new: from periodical to ipad

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This picture shows the presents that I (rather unexpectedly!) received from my (wonderful, generous) parents for completing my PhD. In the top right is, quite recognisably, an iPad: the future – or is it present? – of publishing. And the aged book and blue pamphlet next to it? That’s a first edition of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857) and one of the original serialised parts (No. XI, October 1856).

The contrast between these gifts couldn’t be more apparent, the past and future of the history of the book; and questions around the history and development of the book have been very much on my mind this week following the “What is Academic Writing” session run by IATL on Monday. In a day of interesting talks, it was Richard Miller’s discussion of writing instruction in the US which stuck with me, focusing as it did on the shift to new media and what this means for writing. Using images from Al Gore’s Our Choice recently published as an eBook app, which makes thoroughly innovative use of interactive features – Miller argued that this is what we are now – or will be, or need to be – writing for; the text is no longer just text, but increasingly embracing not just visual/auditory media, but this entirely responsive interactive style. And this, he stated, was what we now need to be teaching students to write for and with. With the example of his text2cloud blog he showed how he is changing the future of writing instruction by teaching students to work with new media so that their academic essays are written through and for digital technologies. Video, sound, and other audio-visual features were integrated into the text such that these became not just texts for critical reflection but part of the process of analysis themselves.

This raised a lot of interesting ideas about teaching and learning academic writing (and critical thinking more generally), and whilst I’m not convinced that the days of the academic essay are over, there were many discernable advantages that I could see in this, not least getting students really engaged in the writing process – not just focusing on the end product for the final mark, but really getting involved in critical analysis in a much more involved and responsive way. The open-endedness of the project seemed particularly valuable – that students continued to work on pieces past submission deadline because, as Miller pointed out, thinking doesn’t stop the moment the piece is turned in (or at least, we’d hope it doesn’t! hence the value of actively enabling that on-going process). The lingering question for me was whether the advent of new media needs to signal the end of the academic essay in the way Miller suggests; why does new media need to be positioned as diametrically opposed to the traditional academic essay? Can’t all of this fantastic work also develop into a reinvigorated approach to “traditional” academic writing? There’s a lot of value in the crafting of argument and reflective processes that enable that, which the immediacy of new media doesn’t seem to allow for.

periodicalAll of which I’m still mulling over as this academic year ends and fresh opportunities for teaching hopefully await at the end of the summer. But in the meantime there were some more immediately resonant questions about the history of the book and where we’re at with the move into the digital age, especially as I sit here with Dickens and the iPad side by side. The literary student in me wants to resist the move to the digital age, no more so than when handling a 160-year old copy of my favourite novel, in all its sturdy weightiness. I can’t help but feel guilty at downloading a book or two onto the iPad, which feels like another nail in the coffin for the physical book, even though it’s justifiably so much easier when your research largely focuses on 800-page novels. And what about this idea of writing for this new form of reading, crafting academic work into a form that not only embraces but is specifically designed for new technologies, which really seems like the final nail in the coffin for print publication, as though we’re thoroughly capitulating to digital media and decrying the end of the book as we know it.

But then the periodical pamphlet is a stark reminder that perhaps all of this is just sentimentalising the book, because the core concept here is nothing new: as the periodical reminds us, writing has always adapted to and embraced new forms. With the advent of serial publication, Dickens and others experimented with writing that was specifically crafted to the new possibilities this raised, utilising the formal qualities that the material format both enabled and delimited. (And if we bemoan the presence of targeted adverts on every webpage, the 27 (!) pages of advertising that precede and commence the pamphlet again stand as testament that this is nothing new!) Going further back, too, the development of writing has always been dependent on the material conditions of the book, evolving and adapting to new forms of print publication. The written text itself isn’t a “natural” product, it’s a cultural artifact, and writing is always a historically and materially conditioned process. So whilst it’s easy to despair as paper gives way to screen, perhaps it’s not so much the end of the book but just another stage in the evolution of what a book is, what it can do, and the possibilities it offers us as writers.

“Whirling through the pretty open country”: Modern mobility in Lady Audley’s Secret

In many of the texts I study in the thesis, railways make only a fleeting appearance – not least because, whilst written contemporaneously with the coming of the railways, many of these novels retreat into an earlier time period for their setting. Dickens’s Dombey and Son and Gaskell’s Mary Barton (both 1848) feature railway journeys, and others at least reference the railway, but it’s not until the sensation fiction of M. E. Braddon that more frequent occurences of train travel appear.

lady-audleys-secret-mary-e-braddon-paperback-cover-art.jpgThis isn’t so much a more sustained engagement with the mobilities of modernity, however; in Braddon’s best-known and most successful novel, Lady Audley’s Secret (1861-2), railways are assimilated into the fabric of everyday life and to take the train appears, at first glance, to no longer be a matter of great concern. Both male and female characters traverse the novel’s spaces with the ease and rapidity that, of course, characterises rail travel; through Robert’s movements between London, Essex, Portsmouth, and the northern sea-side town of Wildernsea, the railway allows for rapid developments of plot that hinge on mobility. The unfolding of the solution to the novel’s “secret” depends upon the acquisition of place-bound evidence, and the ease of movement afforded by the railway therefore enables the narrative progression – such that we might say this narrative is only made possible through the rapidity of modern mobility.

Yet whilst the narrative structure resides in the possibilities of modernity, at the same time the novel is often seemingly unconcerned with this; to take the train is no longer a remarkable occurrence, simply an accepted facet of everyday life. It’s worth noting in this respect that Braddon’s characters here, as typically in her other novels, are wealthy and thus their mobility is not dependent upon the democratisation of travel that the railways afforded. This fuels, however, a further facet of the novel’s articulation of mobility; for it seems, in large part, to be resistant to the mobile structures of everyday life and attempts to reside in the place-bound history of the aristocracy. From the opening pages, a concern with stasis pervades throughout descriptions of Audley Court; the emphasis on its location in a secluded hollow, removed from modern life, appears repeatedly in the first few chapters of the novel, and is frequently reiterated throughout. This contributes, of course, to constructing the atmosphere of mystery that is essential to the sensation narrative; but it also serves to emphasise a sense of stasis that contrasts with the facile mobilities elsewhere in the novel. It’s also a retreat from the concerns of capitalist modernity.

But what’s interesting is that these concerns emerge in the journeys of the novel which, whilst relatively brief in the narrative space afforded to them, significant in their representational features in which issues of capitalist modernity are played out; what is resisted elsewhere in the novel emerges in the journey narratives, the spaces of mobility inextricably tied up with modernity and the restructurings it effects. The details of this are reserved for a forthcoming article on the subject that I’m currently working on – “‘A perambulating mass of woolen goods’: Bodies in Transit in the mid-nineteenth century railway journey” – but suffice for now to say that the representational renderings of these journeys demonstrate both a fundamental anxiety about the modern mobile condition and its implications for the human subject, whilst also demonstrating the possibility of moving into modernity.

“Moving on and moving on”: Mobility in Dickens’s Bleak House

Last summer, I blogged on some of the novels that I write about in my thesis; this came to a halt in the final months before submission, but now I’m approaching my viva it’s a good time to be picking up the books again and getting my mind back into the right place.

Bleak HouseBleak House was a novel that I came to at a relatively late stage of my PhD, but quickly played an important role in my first chapter on issues of space and mobility in Victorian fiction; the novel draws out some key connections between mobility, space, and capitalist modernity that are undergoing fundamental reconfigurations at this time. Like many novels of the period, Bleak House is set before the coming of the railway – towards the end we see plans and preparations underway, ground staked out demarcating the new spaces the railway will construct. In terms of its geographical movement, too, Bleak House encompasses a relatively small spatial field (as I noted with David Copperfield): from the novel’s epicentre, London, the movements take us north to St. Albans and Lincolnshire, and south to Kent and Paris. India, Africa and Paris are there on the margins of the text, but as imagined spaces-away rather than occupying a substantial narrative presence.

Yet whilst not seeming to be hugely concerned with issues of modern mobility, throughout the novel the implications of the modern, mobile condition and the spaces produced by capitalist modernity are repeatedly played out. Indeed mobility is there right from the very first lines of the novel – not, as tends to be remembered, the image of fog pervading the city, but rather with foot-passengers jostling through the muddy streets, “adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, accumulating at compound interest”. A wonderful image in its recognition that space is on-going, lived, produced; and, crucially, produced through mobility.

From this point in the novel, mobility is present in such a way that the novel’s commentary on social relations becomes a commentary, too, on the mobilities produced by – and, crucially producing – those social relations. Many critics have noted how Bleak House is constituted from rich and complex networks of social interactions, with characters from all levels of society constantly becoming connected and inter-connected in interesting and unexpected ways as the narrative unfolds. But to me it’s not so much the narrative networks that form the interest of the novel, but rather that the novel is also intensely preoccupied with the movements between those social interactions; the mobilities that produce that network and that reveal both the indiscrepancies and the possibilities inherent in such a system.

In my thesis, I focused on how the novel plays out a commentary on the social inequalities produced by modernity through two instances of classed mobility: Jo the street-sweeper who, “moving on and moving on” through the streets represents the constant, enforced mobility of the lowest social order; as contrasted with Tulkinghorn whose journeying is so effortless that he does not so much travel as simply appears from one place to the next, “he walks into Chesney Wold as if it were next door to his chambers, and returns to his chambers as if he had never been out of Lincoln’s Inn Fields […] he melted out of his turret-room this morning, just as now, in the late twilight, he melts into his own square”. Unchanged by his journey, simply seeping through space, this effortless mobility demonstrates command over space and hints at the possibilities of modern mobility which will, if not utterly annihilate, at least extensively transform the relationship between space, time, and movement.

Here then, the novel’s critique on social inequality is played out in such a way that more specific connections begin to be made with capitalist modernity and the spaces it (unevenly) produces. In writing about Bleak House previously, I’d also noted a number of other ways in which mobility is presented: Woodcourt’s travel to India as a ship’s surgeon, or the brickmakers “on the tramp” from Hertfordshire to London. But what really struck me on this reading was just how pervasive mobility is throughout the novel: nearly – if not every – character is at some point discussed through reference to their mobility, from Mr Rouncewell the ironmaster who is “always on the flight”, to Miss Flite who “thinks nothing” of walking from London to Hertfordshire to visit the sick Esther, Mrs Bagnet who is the most “fresh and collected” of travellers at all times… and numerous other minor, as well as all of the major, characters are in some way constituted through their mobility. In terms of the representation of social relations, this draws out numerous different facets and meanings of mobility, constructing a rich and varied field of mobile possibilities that demonstrate both the inequalities and the possibilities of the new, mobile condition; different types of mobility thus offer a different perspective on the novel’s commentary on social status.

But taking a step back from this, what I think we’re also seeing here is a recognition of just how crucial, even fundamental, mobility is; this prevalence of mobility through every strand of the narrative’s networks recognises that mobility is intrinsic to modernity, not only in that different types of mobility offer means of commentary on social status, but further, that the mobilities that constitute, enable, and are produced by these networks, are essential and central to the modern condition. Whereas other novels offer illuminating representational instances of mobility, Bleak House is unique in just how saturated with mobility it is, its narrative structures residing in a fundamental preoccupation not only with the networks of social relations, but more importantly the mobilities through which those networks are lived and produced.

Bleak House has cropped up a lot recently in discussions of TV series such as The Wire which are similarly structured around complex networks of social relations, and I’ll be interested to think more about how this idea of mobility producing the network – as the network itself, even – figures in contemporary articulations of the narrative network.

Mapping the city?

Just a quick post after this caught my eye in the Guardian last week – the “maps” of photographer Sohei Nishino, who collates thousands of photos of cities into a diorama. The effect is a fascinatingly detailed and intricate vision of the city, and I particularly love how the final image seems to play with its own un/reality; both suggesting “reality” in using close-up photographs that attempt to capture every miniature truth of the city, yet constantly revealing its own artifice in the patch-work effect that results from collaging each individual photo, creating a jarring from the joins between multiple fragments. The visual appeal, I think, is one of fascination from the continual visual readjustment that the image demands; from a distance, the strangely familiar yet oddly fragmented image draws one in for a closer look at the individual pieces, yet in looking closer I almost immediately want to move back out again, realising that the detail is made meaningful only in contemplation of the whole. And so on.

All this, however, is only from the computer screen – I’ll hopefully visit the Museum of London’s exhibition of London Street Photography to view this, and what sounds like a wonderful collection of other street photographs on display there.

(and as an afterthought, which was going to be my starting-point before I realised I didn’t have a response, yet: how, and in what ways, is this a “map”?)

A year of feminist classics

Feminist Classics

I don’t do resolutions, but here’s something of interest for the year: a Year of Feminist Classics blogging project. Operating along the lines of an informal blogging-reading group, each month a different feminist text will form the subject of discussions on the blog – the reading list is an interesting and varied selection of classic feminist texts (about half of which I’ve read, some only in part, several which I’ve intended to read but never quite gotten round to, and others which I hadn’t thought to but am now thoroughly looking forward to reading this year). Anyone can participate and add their blog; I hope to do so, as it will be interesting to read a range of feminist perspectives on and responses to these texts, as well as writing about my own thoughts on these texts.

First up this month is Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (I’ll be getting stuck in just as soon as I’ve dealt with the pre-term to-do list that seems to have taken on a life of its own in my holiday absence…)

Happy 2011!