Category Archives: Victorians

Writing a transport history of the Great Exhibition I: introductory thoughts

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“London in 1851”, by George Cruikshank; first published in Henry Mayhew, 1851: or the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys (London, 1851)

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 result of 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.

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The Times,  Thursday January 16th, 1851, p. 6; image from The Times Digital Archive 1785-2010 at Gale Cengage Learning

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.

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SS Baltic, built in 1850 for transatlantic service with the American Collins Line; N. Currier, 1851, U.S. Library of Congress

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.

Interview about Sea Narratives on New Books in Critical Theory

I was recently interviewed by Dave O’Brien of Goldsmiths University about Sea Narratives: Cultural Responses to the Sea, 1600-present for New Books in Critical Theory. The podcast is available here and can be downloaded or streamed.

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.

Literary Yorkshires workshop, 21 May 2016

 

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I will be speaking next weekend at the Literary Yorkshires workshop, taking place at the University of York on Saturday 21st May 2016. My talk ‘Brontë Countries: The Literary Landscapes of Haworth and Brussels in Charlotte Brontë’s Legacy’ will explore the different ideas that have collected around Haworth and Brussels in Brontë’s legacy, and how Brussels might offer a useful space for re-thinking some of the ideas about Brontë at Haworth.

Finding Brontë in Brussels – reflections on literary tourism

In honour of Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary later this month (21st April), the Brussels Brontë group are running a series of blog posts throughout April. I have contributed a piece on “Finding Brontë in Brussels – reflections on literary tourism” in which I reflect on the trip I made two years ago as I started to research “Brontë’s Brussels” (full photo-essay here). This research will be published later this year in a collection Charlotte Brontė: Legacies and Afterlives (ed. by Amber Regis and Deborah Wynne, Manchester University Press 2016) and in the blog post I look at how the trip helped me to conceptualise some of the ideas in that piece.

I’m also presenting this work twice next month, first at Charlotte Brontë: A Bicentennial Celebration of her Life and Works (13-14 May 2016, Chawton House) and then at a symposium on Literary Yorkshires (more details to follow).

New publication – Britain and the Narration of Travel in the 19th century

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Britain and the Narration of Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Texts, Images, Objects, edited by Kate Hill and published by Ashgate, is out now. The book offers a rich exploration of British travel to Europe, Australia, China and Africa, and looks at encounters through travel writing as well as objects such as guest books, posters, and guidebooks. My essay “‘The formation of a surface’: European travel in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit” reads the European journey of the Dorrit family through its articulation of borders and boundaries: from the dissolving landscapes of the Alps to the “formation of a surface” by the socially-conscious British abroad.

Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation published today

I’m delighted to say that my monograph Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation is published today by Palgrave Macmillan.

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Mobility in the Victorian Novel explores the role of mobility in Victorian novels by authors including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Focusing on representations of bodies on the move, it reveals how journeys serve to create the place of the nation and understand its relationship to a global landscape that was being restructured by new modes of mobility. Looking at journeys by rail, stagecoach, and on foot, undertaken by travellers and tourists, governesses and dairymaids, sailors and factory girls, and many more figures in between, this book reveals a rich and varied canvas of mobile practices and argues that these are central to understanding the idea of the nation, and its connections to the rest of the world, in the Victorian novel.

A sample chapter is available on the publishers website, where you can also order a copy for your university, and I’ve put a detailed chapter breakdown on this blog.

Forthcoming publication: Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation

I’m very pleased to say that my monograph Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation is scheduled for publication with Palgrave Macmillan in September 2015, and a short blurb and contents can now be found on the publishers’ website.

And here’s a quick preview of the various novels discussed in chapter:

Chapter 1: ‘Wandering out into the World’: Walking the Connected Nation

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

George Eliot, Adam Bede

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Chapter 2: ‘Flying from the grasp’: Embodying the Railway Journey

Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret

Chapter 3: ‘It’s all one’? Continental Connections

Charlotte Brontë, The Professor and Villette

Charles Dickens,  Little Dorrit

Chapter 4: ‘The distance is quite imaginary’: Travelling beyond Europe

Charles Dickens,  David Copperfield

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford

Conclusion: The Mobile Nation of The Moonstone

The Moonstone