I reviewed the exhibition “Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy” at Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London, for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. I very much enjoyed the exhibition and it runs for a few more days, so do catch it if you can.
I’m very pleased to be co-convening this new research seminar on Transport and Mobility History at the Institute of Historical Research, along with David Turner (York), Tamara Thornhill (Transport for London), Christopher Phillips (Leeds), Oliver Betts (National Railway Museum), and Mike Esbester (University of Portsmouth).
The seminar starts next term with the schedule as follows:
19/01/2017: Dr. David Turner (University of York) – Paddling with partners: British railways, resort authorities and the promotion leisure travel, 1909-1914
16/02/2017: Dr. Rudi Newman (Independent) – From Stephenson to Suburbia: the Socio-Economic Impacts of the Coming of the Railways to the Chilterns.
16/03/2017: Dr. Chris Philips (Leeds Trinity) – “Privileged Greatly to Serve his Nation in Days of Mortal Danger”: Sir Eric Geddes and transport management on the Western Front.
All events are at 5.30pm on Thursdays in the Pollard Room N301, 3rd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House. We can be contacted at IHRtransportseminar@gmail.com and details are also posted here.
This week I’ve been finishing an essay on Dickens 2012 and ‘locating the Victorians in the bicentenary year’; although I’ve written and spoken about this work quite a few times now (including an essay in this forthcoming book), this piece has given me the opportunity to focus on more detailed analysis of content included in Dickens apps, maps, podcasts and films. It’s led me to discover some great resources on the theme of Dickens and London, so I thought I’d collect these together into a blog post with a brief review of each.
Apps and audio podcasts
- The Guardian audio walks; this five-part series of walks around Dickens’s London, Rochester and Portsmouth by The Guardian are excellent: informative, engaging, and lively discussion, interspersed with readings from the text. In 2012 I tried out two of the walks – The Heart of the City and David Copperfield – and wrote about them for JVC Online.
- Dickens in Southwark; I haven’t had the chance to do these walks myself, but I’ve been greatly impressed just using the app and listening to the audio of this walk. The core content is lively and informative, while there is extra audio on the map that was developed from a creative project involving Southwark residents. The app is easily navigable, has a well-functioning map, and with a total of 25 ‘stops’ there is lots of content to explore.
- Dickens Trail, Charles Dickens Museum; this app uses Dickens’s characters as a guide to his London locations, with four themed walks following Magwitch, Lady Dedlock, the Artful Dodger, and Samuel Pickwick. The real shame of this app is that there is no audio content, only text on a map, which makes for a much less engaging experience.
- Dickens Dark London; this was one of the first Dickens apps that I came across and reviewed, a little harshly perhaps. The idea of the content is nice, with illustrations accompanying a reading of extracts from Dickens’s works, themed around his night walks, but it’s a shame there is so little free content – only one serial installment is provided and the rest are priced at £1.49 each. The best thing about this app is its map feature, which combines an 1862 map with a map of contemporary London, and allows you to scroll between each or view a composite image of the two – great for easily viewing structural changes to the city.
- Celebrating Dickens; the University of Warwick’s Dickens offering includes a wealth of material from researchers and students at the University of Warwick on many aspects of Dickens’s life and writing, and the app features a navigable map of Dickens locations not just in London but also in East Anglia, Kent and the Midlands. Highly recommended, of course!
- “The Houseless Shadow“; directed by William Raban, this is a short version of the full film installation that was commissioned by the Museum of London for their Dickens and London exhibition. The piece uses a reading from Dickens’s essay “The Night Walks” with images of the contemporary city. Raban discusses the aims behind the piece in this conversation recorded at the BFI.
- The Uncommercial Traveller; this project by the British Council created a series of theatrical audio guides to Penang, Melbourne, Singapore and Karachi. The audio aims at creating a really evocative experience of each city and makes for interesting listening even if you aren’t in the relevant city.
- Sketches by Boz: Sketching the City; another British Council project that developed written and artistic creative responses to cities around the world through a Dickensian lens
- Dickens and London film; the British Council produced a collection of teaching resources on Dickens 2012 and I particularly enjoyed this short piece on Dickens and London
As part of my visit to Brussels I attended the events organised by the Brussels Brontë group, who hold an annual Brontë weekend in March/April. This year the speaker was Dr Nicholas Shrimpton from the University of Oxford, and his subject was Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley (1849).
It’s fair to say that this is the least favourite of Charlotte Brontë’s novels, among readers and critics alike, and from the time of its publication to the present day has attracted far less interest than Jane Eyre and Villette. I’m in the minority who find the novel both enjoyable and of academic interest, and having taught Shirley a couple of times on The English Nineteenth-Century Novel I’ve definitely gained a much greater appreciation of it – it’s a pleasure to teach as there is simply so much to say, and the novel is rich with interesting scenes to analyse in light of gender and political debates (it’s also one of the few novels where I find myself wanting to really persuade students of how much they should love it, something I usually try to resist!).
But it has to be said that much of this interest, and indeed the novel’s scope for analysis, comes from its problematic nature in terms of thematic and structural integrity. It this that formed the basis of Nicholas Shrimpton’s talk, in which he assessed the case for and against Shirley, exploring in detail both the novel’s problems and its possibilities. Most interesting was that Shrimpton made the case for Shirley as a ‘panoramic’ novel on a par with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: we know that Charlotte Brontë greatly admired Thackeray’s work, and Shirley, he argued, is her attempt at undertaking a novel of such scale and scope. Ultimately, it is hugely flawed, but it is also hugely ambitious. Shrimpton really captured that what makes the novel so exciting is the many fractures and disjunctures that occur throughout the text. The text’s handling of the “woman question”, and its eventual ‘failure’ at sustaining proto-feminist arguments, is an apt case in point: while on the one hand, the final marriages of Caroline and Shirley come as a disappointment after the novel’s earlier promise in questioning and challenging gender conventions, at the same time it is here that Brontë most usefully illustrates the strength of such conventions and the need for change – for both the women in the story, and for the woman writer, there simply is no other realistic option but to end with a marriage.
Shrimpton also highlighted other contextual issues that are illuminating on how we read it – he focused particularly on the Luddite/Chartist conflation (or not), and also spoke of Brontë’s worry that the text would be read as too similar to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, published the year before. It was also interesting, in light of my literary geography excursion that weekend, to hear Shrimpton discuss the idea of ‘Shirley country’ (as distinct from ‘Brontë’ country’) as well as talking about the novel’s continental connections. The talk was an excellent reminder that Shirley deserves more attention as perhaps the most interesting, and certainly illuminating, of Charlotte Brontë’s works.
Yesterday (31st March) marked the anniversary of the death of Charlotte Brontë, and it is fitting that I have just returned from a weekend exploring an oft-overlooked part of her life: Charlotte Brontë’s time in the city of Brussels. Although it is well known that two of her novels, Villette (1853) and The Professor (published 1857) are based on her time as a student and teacher in the Belgium capital, the importance of Brussels is typically given less attention other than as a topographical reference-point for her novels. In my research I’m exploring the legacy of Charlotte Brontë in Brussels over the past 150 years, and this visit was the first step in seeing the sites for myself and meeting the Brussels Brontë Group: the group’s regular events and tours bring together people of all nationalities who are united by their love of the Brontës, with a special interest in Emily and Charlotte’s time in the city. I had a wonderful time attending a lecture (more of which in the next post), having dinner with the group to talk all things Brontë and Brussels, and then going on a walking tour of Brontë locations. I also retraced the route alone, and what follows here is a photo-essay of my journey around this lesser-known “Brontë country” – if you’re unfamiliar with the Brontë story, you can start by reading more about what brought the sisters to Brussels, and how it influenced their work, here.
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.
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).
In a quick break from normal service, I thought I’d take a moment to mention the University of Warwick Book Festival, which is taking place at Warwick Arts Centre on Saturday 15th June 2013. Organising the Festival has been my main project this year as Research Fellow at the IAS, and it’s been quite an undertaking (a very interesting one at that!) to work on a large-scale public engagement project. We’ve drawn together authors whose works fit broadly around the theme of history – lots of literature, biography, politics, art, and more – and hope it’ll be a really exciting and varied day for audiences.
Of course the only downside to organising the Festival is that I’ve lined up a day of fascinating speakers that I’m not going to get a chance to see myself! But if you’d like to go to any of the talks then, for a mere £5.50 per event, you can book on the Arts Centre website.