A new year brings a new project focus, although this one – on sunburn and tanning in Victorian medicine and culture – isn’t exactly new; it has been developing over the last few years, and has already generated a couple of publications, a number of talks, and some funding applications. The research process to date has been very piecemeal however, fitting around multiple jobs, cross-country moves and other publication priorities; but now that I am settled in a job and have wrapped up some other projects, this can take centre-stage as the next big project that I’ll be working on in coming years. It therefore felt about time that I (finally) write about the project here.
The project’s genesis was a footnote in my PhD thesis, where I noted that the suntanned traveller is a common trope in the Victorian novel, and that he typically appears as a positive figure: the benevolent imperialist (Peter Jennings in Gaskell’s Cranford), the doctor-saviour (Woodcourt in Dickens’s Bleak House), the marriageable sailor (Captain Kirke in Collins’s No Name). While these are often fleeting, incidental references, there seemed to be something interesting going on in the way in which suntanning was being used with these characters; suntanning was clearly being used to signify something, although it wasn’t immediately apparent exactly what. My attempts at interpretation were somewhat slippery, moving across and between different possible meanings; and these suntanned figures, almost all of them white British gentlemen travellers, seemed to push at the borders of so many expectations and concerns around Victorian bodily norms – race, masculinity, class, health.
I wrote this up into an article and then a section of my book on global journeys, and as I researched the subject I began to collect (and then, amass) a wealth of references to sunburn and tanning across the literary and cultural sphere. Suntanned figures are everywhere in Victorian writing, from dashing bronzed gentlemen travellers to lightly browned ladies in the Lakes, reddened jolly sailors to ruddy, hale farmers. Not only are they everywhere, but these references generate many, often conflicting, meanings, not just about suntanning but also more broadly about health, identity, status, and nationhood.
This project started then from trying to situate the suntanned traveller’s body and understand what he (and sometimes she) might mean. It has grown into a broader enquiry into understanding sunburn and tanning across the medical and cultural sphere, centring around the question: what did the Victorians think about when they thought about sunburn and tanning? What did suntanning mean to them, and why?
The commonly held assumption is that the Victorians thought about sunburn and tanning either negatively, or not at all; that sunburn was a marker of the labouring body – in the fields, at sea, or at war – and that it was only in the early twentieth century, with the advancement of scientific understanding about suntanning and health, that the tan became aesthetically appealing. My work moves existing research back by a period of 70 years or so to reveal a more nuanced picture about the history of suntanning in the Victorian period, one which has much to tell us about the Victorians’ attitudes to bodies and health, and about the ongoing cultural fascination with tanning today.
Looking at the period from around 1820 to 1890, I’m focusing on three areas of enquiry:
How was sunburn and tanning understood in Victorian science and medicine? Where did it fit in Victorian scientific enquiry – who was studying it, how and why?
How were sunburnt and tanned bodies ‘read’ in Victorian culture; what might this tell us both about what suntanning was coming to signify, and more broadly about Victorian ideas of the body?
How did knowledge move across the scientific and cultural spheres: how did advances in medical knowledge inform cultural perspectives on sunburn and tanning, and how was scientific enquiry into tanning shaped by cultural attitudes?
The range of literature the project encompasses is broad, to say the least. In science and medicine I am looking at literature in biomedicine and photomedicine which reveals early advances in understanding the constitution of the skin and the composition of UV light, and the field of tropical medicine which examines the impact of climate on health. My literary and cultural research includes the appearance of suntanned figures in fictional and non-fictional writing, from novels, poems and plays to rural and travel literature, examining these in relation to discourses of race, gender, class and health.
The fluidity across medical and cultural spheres takes shape in the (loosely termed) field of public health literature, from advice books and guides aimed at travellers and colonial settlers, to pamphlets and advertisements for new products to treat sunburnt skin – products like Rowland’s Kalydor, advertisements for which appear frequently in the pages of literary periodicals (this one is found in the adverts accompanying Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, for example):
As things currently stand I’ve done a lot of work in identifying sources for further research and in mapping out the conceptual framework of the project; the next stage is to undertake further archival research on the primary literature to build up a more detailed and nuanced understanding of these bigger questions. Thanks to a pump-priming funding award from Surrey’s Faculty of Arts I’m able to start on some library trips this month, in preparation for further grant applications this year. Once this is underway I’ll also start to work on the next publication outputs, revisit the monograph plans, and begin presenting on the research again – something which has generated a lot of useful feedback so far – as well as working on the opportunities for public engagement generated by this research, which speaks to some contemporary issues around cultural attitudes towards tanning today. Suggestions for further reading are very much welcome and I’d be grateful for any other leads that readers that might have.
In this series of posts I am writing up some of my initial work on the transport history of the Great Exhibition, on which I recently presented at a workshop of the York Transport Historians. In the first post I wrote about how this project came about and gave an overview of the shape of the research as it currently stands. In this piece, I start by exploring the planning stages of the Exhibition.
II. Planning the Exhibition
Transport networks were crucial from the early planning stages of the Exhibition in the late 1840s. A network of committee members travelled around the country to garner support for the Exhibition, making use of the railways to do so, and Joseph Paxton noted that his first meeting with Robert Stephenson about the design of the Crystal Palace was a chance encounter on the railway.
As the international remit of the Exhibition became certain a global network of representatives came into effect, operating mostly via postal correspondence – the speed of which was facilitated by quickening times of steamers. In fact Henry Cole, in his lecture “On the International Results of the Exhibition of 1851”, anticipated that one of the first legacies of the Exhibition would be the formation of a global Postal Association which would create a standardised, uniform system of postal rates, much like that effected by Rowland Hill’s Post Office Reform, across the world.
Back in London the first planning decisions centred upon where the Exhibition would be located. Hyde Park was one of just several possible options, with sites at King’s Cross, the Isle of Dogs, and Battersea fields among others proposed:
Transport was central to discussions about the site: access was vital not only for the large number of visitors anticipated, but more importantly for the delivery of objects. Proximity to railway termini was one factor: as can be seen from the map, despite the growing national scale of the railway network the number of termini in the city was still relatively limited in 1851. King’s Cross offered an ideal site given that the railway station connected with the north and west of England, from where the majority of UK displays would be arriving.¹
Access to water was equally, if not, more important though: a far greater number of goods would be arriving from overseas. Transporting a large number of items overland from the docks by waggon, on the scale required, would be costly, time-consuming, and potentially disruptive to the city’s road network. Battersea fields and the Isle of Dogs had the advantage of proximity to the river, removing the need for overland journeys – ships would be able to sail straight up-river, or send on smaller loads by boat.
Hyde Park had neither the advantage of rail nor water access:
“There are no means of access, either by water or by railway, to Hyde-Park. This is so serious an objection that were there none other forthcoming it should be decisive upon the subject. The cost of transporting the materials and of removing them, the expense of conveying the bulkier objects that are to be exhibited to the repository, must of necessity be vastly increased in amount in consequence of the selection of Hyde-park as the site of the intended Exhibition.”
(The Times, 2nd July 1850, p. 5)
It is almost surprising that Hyde Park was the final choice, given how much surrounding discussion focused on the significance of transport networks. What Hyde Park did offer, however, was the benefit of centrality for visitors, removing the need for lengthy cross-city journeys for those who would already have travelled into London. But its river and rail connections did continue to be a feature throughout the ensuing preparations, a theme I’ll come back to in a later post.
Transport preparations were also coming into effect around the country: repairs to railway lines were pushed forward, and a new locomotive series built. This wasn’t limited to Britain: plans were underfoot to ensure the smooth passage of Austria’s contribution:
“A committee has been formed, under the auspices of Government, for taking into consideration the best means of worthily representing Austria at the great exhibition of manufacturers &c., in London. 10,000l. has been granted by the Minister of Commerce for the construction of roads in Croatia and Sclavonia, and it is proposed to construct a railroad between the Banat and the sea coast.”
(The Times, 25th March 1850, p. 3)
While Spain and America announced early on that there would be free passage for exhibitors:
“Spain had offered large rewards and free passages for the articles of exhibition. The Governor of New York would represent the American people, and free passage would be given for objects intended for the exhibition.”
(The Times, 3rd May 1850, p. 3)
The precursor to the Exhibition, then, was a climate of discussion about transport, both nationally and internationally. There is a sense, in these early months, that Britain begins to realise the capabilities of the networks it has created, and to recognise the Exhibition as the moment in which they will come to fruition. As one poem of 1851 reflects,
“The Prince conceiv’d his giant scheme,
Invok’d he then the aid of steam,
And all the energies of man,
To realise his glorious plan.”
TheCrystalHive; or, the first of May, 1851, Charlotte Theresa Wheler (London, 1852)
This paved the way for the transport of exhibits, the subject of my next post.
¹ The King’s Cross Station building that stands today wasn’t completed until 1852, but a temporary passenger station at the end of the Great Northern Railway line was open from 1850.
Two book reviews published this month: my review of Jude Piesse’s British Settler Emigration in Print, 1832–1877 is now available in Literature & History 25.2, and my piece on The Brontë Sisters In Other Wor(l)ds by Shouhua Qi and Jacqueline Padgett is in the latest issue of Victorian Studies (58.4).
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.
On Wednesday I spent an excellent day at the York Transport Historians workshop “Making the Connections: Transport and its Place in History“. It was a very fruitful day of interesting papers and discussion on everything from canals to Concorde, and every mode of transport in between. I was pleased to get the opportunity to present on some research that I’ve been carrying out on a transport history of the Great Exhibition.
This work emerged from an older paper on Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys. The paper is on the mobility of material culture, something that Mayhew’s novel quite wonderfully depicts in a succession of comic (often absurdly so) instances. I was writing a footnote, when I found myself needing to cite a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition – something that told me the what, when and where of exactly how 6 million people and 100,000 objects moved across Britain and the world to the doors of the Crystal Palace. As I researched it, I realised that the work I needed to cite was one that needed to be written, and so this paper was born.
It would, of course, be remiss to state that no work on Exhibition transport exists. The symbiotic relationship between the Great Exhibition and the transport revolution has long been acknowledged: to Victorian commentators the Exhibition was the “natural result” of steam technology, a spontaneous outburst of the age of steam:
“The German journals are quite captivated by the idea of the great exhibition […] They regard it as a great step in the progress of different countries towards cosmopolitanism, and treat it as a natural resultof the development of railways, steam communication, the electric telegraph…”
(The Times, 31st October 1849, p. 6)
This has become something of a critical commonplace; but little dedicated attention has been given to detailing a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition. Of course the notable exception is railway passenger travel, studies of which have abounded and become a familiar part of the broader narrative of railway history. But the railways have been studied largely in isolation from the many other modes of transport that were fundamental to passenger travel – steamboats, sail ships, carriages, omnibuses, cabs and pedestrianism. Consideration of the movement of objects to the Crystal Palace has also been a theme in discussions of the emergence of commodity culture, global commodity flows, and the international politics of the Exhibition. Less has been studied, though, of the practical logistics of how things actually travelled from, say, a mine in upstate New Jersey to the doors of the Crystal Palace.
This work started, then, as an enquiry that seeks to create an account that is detailed and nuanced in its understanding of Exhibition mobilities, while working towards an expansive grasp of the range of these journeys. In doing so, I want to both account for the (often fascinating) practicalities of Exhibition transport, and better understand the relationship between the Great Exhibition and the mobile culture of mid-Victorian Britain. By the end of the Exhibition, The Times posed a retrospective question:
“one of the most wonderful facts of the Exhibition is the mode in which its visitors came to it. How did they all get there?”
(The Times, 20th October 1851, p. 4)
It is this question that I seek to answer, as well as to reflect upon the interests, motivations, and cultural contexts that lay behind it.
In the paper I presented yesterday, I traced a brief overview of this work: from the planning and preparation discussions in which transport was a crucial factor in decisions about the location and scope of the Exhibition, through to reflections on the Exhibition’s outcomes in which bold statements about a new mobile culture could be made – “a new phase in the history of the world”, as one piece in The Times put it (Wednesday, June 11th, 1851, pg. 4). I followed the movements of objects as they travelled over land, sea, and across London to reach the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, and then explored the many and varied ways in which people journeyed to the Exhibition by ship, horse-drawn transport, and even on foot.
My sources thus far have been a variety of cultural documents: novels such as Henry Mayhew’s 1851, as well as poems, plays, diaries, and religious tracts. My focus in yesterday’s paper was the research that has occupied me recently, a survey of 1209 newspaper reports published in The Times from 1st January 1849 to 31st December 1851. The Times survey – while making no claims to comprehensive breadth – has provided a useful lens through which to construct a ground-narrative of Exhibition history as it unfolded across the period. In foregrounding chronology, it has allowed me to perceive the nuanced ebbs and flows in attitudes towards different forms of mobility across the period: to realise, for example, that attention to (and celebration of) the railways comes relatively late in the Exhibition period, and that attention to shipping forms a vast and, to my knowledge, largely unexplored history of the period.
As this starts to make clear, the focus and tone of newspapers reportage also helps us to think about how the Victorians produced and consumed knowledge about transport technologies. What has become most apparent to me through this is the extent to which, I argue, the Exhibition represents the moment when modern mobility became acutely visible to the Victorians for the first time: while the networks that it relied upon had been growing for years, the Exhibition stimulated a rapidly emerging consciousness, accompanied by a great sense of excitement, at what it meant to be living in a newly mobile age. While this is easily equated with “Exhibition fever” as a whole, there is a particular narrative of mobility within this that was important in Britain’s thinking about itself as a nation on the move, and as interested in understanding and, crucially, in charting its own transport history as it was unfolding in the present moment.
In a series of blog posts to follow I will post some of the initial thoughts and findings from this research.
What is the relationship between the sea and culture? In Sea Narratives: Cultural Responses to the Sea, 1600-Present (Palgrave, 2016) , Charlotte Mathieson, a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Surrey, assembles a new collection of essays to explore this question. The book develops the concept of a “sea narrative,” thinking through the connection between this and a variety of forms of cultural production. The essays are eclectic, but unified, reflecting the emerging interest in both the subject and the approach the book uses. The book travels across the globe as well as across the centuries since 1600, taking in French accounts of the Atlantic crossing; prisoners of war; newspaper articles; Soviet technology and propaganda; Irishness and Ireland’s sense of itself; Du Maurier’s understanding of the coast; A S Byatt’s work; the idea of the Anthropocene; and “coastal exceptionalism.” Each essay is fascinating in its own right, but the collection builds to reorientate the study of the sea for historians and literary scholars, as well as any academic interested in how we narrate and culturally produce the sea.
Many thanks to Dave for the opportunity to speak about the book.