Tag Archives: Bleak House

Publication: “A brown sunburnt gentleman”: Masculinity and the Travelling Body in Dickens’s Bleak House

My article “A brown sunburnt gentleman”: Masculinity and the Travelling Body in Dickens’s Bleak House is now available online in the new issue of Nineteenth-Century Contexts (36.4) – a special issue on the Male Body in Victorian Literature and Culture, edited by Nadine Muller and Jo Parsons.

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Coming up: Border Masculinities and special issue publication

September brings a second invitation to a symposium at Lancaster University – I’ve already mentioned Mobility Cultures, which will be followed two weeks later by Border Masculinities on 19-20th September.

Border Masculinities will bring together scholars from a wide range of specialisms to discuss spatial and conceptual borders with regard to the representation of masculinities.

I will be presenting on masculinity and the travelling body in Victorian literature, focusing on the figure of the sunburnt gentlemen traveller and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford.

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Incidentally, September will also see the publication of my article on the sunburnt gentleman in Dickens’s Bleak House, in a special issue of Nineteenth-Century Contexts on “the male body in Victorian literature and culture”. The editors Nadine Muller and Joanne Ella Parsons have made the first draft of their introduction available online, so you can get a taste of what looks to be an excellent issue!

Coming up: Mobility Cultures Colloquium at Lancaster, September 2014

I’m very pleased to have been invited to speak at the Mobility Cultures Colloquium at the Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University, on 5th September 2014.

‘Mobility Cultures’ brings together people who draw upon literary/cultural texts in their mobilities research (e.g., sociologists, geographers, environmentalists, those working in transport studies)and Humanities scholars (across the disciplines) whose research has a mobilities dimension.

I will be speaking on Victorian literary mobilities and the case of Dickens’s Bleak House, developing ideas from this article with material from my current book project. I’m especially looking forward to approaching this work more from the theoretical perspective of mobilities/geography frameworks, particularly after Peter Merriman’s interesting talk on this subject at the What is Space workshop at Warwick this week.

“A fiery devil, thundering along”: HS2 and the Victorians

Over the last few months, debates over the High Speed 2 railway line have been mounting, with a succession of reports on the future of the line following the submission to Parliament of the HS2 bill back in November 2013. I’ve followed with interest the development of the planned line over the last few years, with a focus on two areas that will be affected if the HS2 line goes ahead: where I currently live in Warwickshire, the HS2 line will pass about a mile from the University of Warwick’s campus, cutting across the Kenilworth fields and passing  just north of Leamington Spa; and then further down the route passes a few miles from my hometown in South Bucks, where there remains a campaign to further protect the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), including ancient woodland, which the line traverses. HS2 Studying as I do the Victorian railways, it’s been interesting to see the resonances in response to the HS2 line in the context of arguments surrounding the “coming of the railway” in the 1840s. In particular, it’s been indicative to identify a reiteration of ideas around the railway as a symbol of modernity. For the Victorians, the railway was the most evocative symbol of a new, modern era, often depicted as a “fiery devil, thundering along” (Dombey and Son) that seemed to come from another age and was pernicious in its spread into the furthest corners of the country that had yet been (seemingly) untouched by modernity. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874 – but set earlier in the century), the “projected line was to run through Lowick parish where the cattle had hitherto grazed in a peace unbroken by astonishment” (chapter 56); in Bleak House (1852-53) Dickens depicts an era pivoting on the edge of the railway era, contrasting the rural quietude of a place that is thus far beyond the reach of modernity – “the post-chaise makes its way without a railroad on its mind” – with the anticipation of the coming railway line which will soon change this: “with a rattle and a glare the engine and train shall shoot like a meteor over the wide night-landscape, turning the moon paler” (chapter 55). Wherever it went, the railway decisively announced that modernity had arrived, and had irrevocably changed the landscape: Dombey and Son shows us a landscape literally torn apart by the new railway line, Staggs’ Gardens “rent to its centre” and in a mess of chaos and confusion as the building of the railway tears houses to dust and creates a chasm in the city landscape.  HS2 sign HS2 poses much the same problem: as in the Victorian period, the requisite of the railway track to follow as straight a line as possible necessitates that everything in the projected path is demolished, moved or transported in order to make way for the tracks. There are countless areas where housing will be knocked down: in Burton Green, the track will cut through “straight as a ruler” and “slice” the village in half; in the Chilterns, the line will “bisect” the AONB although this has been avoided in plans for the northern phase 2 of the route. In this recent episode of Countryfile, farmer Robert Brown is among those to speak of the impact that the line will have on farmland (from c.17 mins in): running through the existing field layout, the route will change the way in which the land is managed and accessed, severing an existing field in two. It’s the same problem faced by the farmers of Middlemarch, who are occupied by “the vivid conception of what it would be to cut the Big Pasture in two, and turn it into three-corned bits, which would be ‘nohow’” (553). Railways don’t just destroy spaces, they change the organisation of space and restructure how it can be moved around.

There are of course crucial differences with the Victorian period, but what is interesting is the perception, as in the Victorian period, that this represents the onset of modernity for rural regions. HS2 does, of course, entail hardhitting and forceful destruction; but at the same time, HS2 is just one component of contemporary modernity’s impact upon the land. Every day, rural (and urban spaces) are being reshaped by the demands of new (and often contested) structures and it can no longer be said (if it could even of the Victorian period) that there are areas “untouched” by modernity: the rural areas through which HS2 travels are no less “modern” than the cities where it originates; modernity is here, now, in the machines that work the land, in the fibre-optic broadband cables that run beneath it, and in the planes that fly overhead. But as in the Victorian era, there is something about the railway that generates a more resonant and deeply felt response: then as now, the railway seems to stand for something more than the sum of their parts, forming an evocative site around which these other ideas about space and modernity coalesce. Railways make visible the latent structures that already permeate and produce the landscapes of modernity: as in the instances above, railways have a tangible impact on the organisations of locales and regions; in the railway network, uneven development becomes visible as those “off the railway” lose out; and in some iterations, the railway even becomes placed as the Moloch-like god of capitalism, which we are asked to view as an “act of faith“.

How the HS2 plans play out in practice has yet to be seen, and there is still time in which some of these impacts can hopefully be reduced, if not averted altogether: the next round of petitioning starts in July, and with near-daily news reports on the case against HS2, it can but be hoped that the government will reassess the situation; meanwhile attention is beginning to turn to phase 2 which will continue the line from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester, and it will be interesting to see how the impact is perceived in these regions too.

Bleak House – Cagliari lecture resources

For students at the University of Cagliari who attended my classes this week, here are some images and further reading that I referred to.

Bleak House

These two images are watercolours of the Great Exhibition by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, that I have written more about here:

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You can read a contemporary response to the Great Exhibition here, and the full text of Dickens’s “The Last Words of the Old Year” (quoted on the handout) can be read online here. I have also written about the ideas of “people and things” at the Exhibition in the context of Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851 and Bleak House.

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This image of the London slums is taken from this website on Victorian London where you can find some more contemporary writing about the slums and related issues.

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Dickens’s writing on the Niger expedition is discussed in the book by Tim Carens cited on the handout, plus a number of others including Grace Moore’s Dickens and Empire (2004).

Finally, this podcast that I recorded for the University of Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens project is of relevance to some of the issues raised, and on the Celebrating Dickens website you will find many other podcasts and videos of interest to Charles Dickens’s life and times.

“Curiously brought together” or “travelling surely hither”? Journeying from Bleak House to Little Dorrit

I’m currently revising a chapter on European travel in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, and have been pondering for the last couple of days the way in which, as in Bleak House, Dickens’s narrator suggests to us something of a framework for reading the patterns of mobility and interconnections in the novel. In the early pages of Little Dorrit, Miss Wade’s “cold farewell” to her fellow quarentined travellers at Marseilles comprises of these lines:

“In our course through life we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us, from many strange places and by many strange roads, and what is set to us to do to them, and what is set to them to do to us, will all be done.”

She follows,

“you may be sure that there are men and women already on their road, who have their business to do with you, and who will do it. Of a certainty they will do it. They may be coming hundreds, thousands, of miles over the sea there; they may be close at hand now; they may be coming, for anything you know, or anything you can do to prevent it, from the vilest sweepings of this very town.”

And after this, we then get another iteration of this sentiment by the narrator on the next page:

“And thus ever, by day and night, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life.”

Coming from reading Bleak House, these lines immediately call to mind that novel’s central statement on the narrative interconnections that arise from mobility: “what connexion can there be […] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!” In both novels there’s a sense of “great gulfs” being crossed, of travel providing the means for endless possibilities of curious connections. Yet in Bleak House the statement rings as an open question that is never fully answered – what connection can there be?, we are constantly led to ask, the novel constantly entertaining that sense of curiousity such that the limitless possibilities of chance encounters remain an on-going possibility until the end.

But by Little Dorrit this seems to have shifted away from the openness of random interactions towards a greater sense of inevitability: while the narrator’s iteration entertains the more random sense of travellers going “to meet and to act and react on one another” (I have a mental image with that phrase of atoms bobbing about in a jar…), Miss Wade’s words emphasise the idea of individuals being drawn specifically to one another by a magnetic pull – “we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us” and “who have their business to do with you” both stressing the fated nature of encounters. Little Dorrit seems to recognise that the limitless possibilities afforded by travel is only a conceit; the freedom of the multiple open roads ahead is but an illusion, and all journeys have their appointed end.

On the one hand, this reads like the self-conciousness of a writer who knows that the apparent chance encounters of the novel are of course intricately plotted and pre-planned; the narrative of Little Dorrit does away with much of the illusion of randomness that Bleak House so relishes in, in part because the pared-down cast affords less opportunities for characters to “meet and act and react” on one another in unexpected ways, and because the narrative resolution inescapably rests upon tight plotting. Little Dorrit might be less complexly plotted, but it’s also more assured in not working to conceal the networks on which the narrative depends.

But there’s also a shift here in the possibilities of place afforded through movement. Some 100 or so pages later in Little Dorrit, Dickens returns again to a recapitulation of this phrase: as Affrey dreams one night, the narrator asks

“which of the vast multitude of travellers […] journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and re-act on one another, which of the host may, with no suspicion of the journey’s end, be travelling surely hither?”

That “hither” is a vital inclusion in this latter phrase: now we have not just the idea of fated interactions, but a specific locatedness that draws all possibilities of journeying towards a particular time and place. The openness that Bleak House entertains in its phrase “curiously brought together” has now completely gone: all is travelling towards a particular moment that can be located in place and time – heading towards a vanishing-point. This is of course the final resolution that the novel reaches: as Clennam reflects,

“Looking back upon his own poor story, she was its vanishing-point. Everything in its perspective led to her innocent figure. He had travelled thousands of miles towards it […] beyond there was nothing but mere waste, and darkened sky”

Everything has its time, place and meaning, its moment that makes sense of everything. What’s perhaps most interesting about this plotted inevitability is that it underscores and further iterates the confinement throughout the novel, resisting the possibility to break free from the literal and figurative bonds that pervade Little Dorrit. But I’m still curious as to what this does to the sense of place and mobility in the novel: why this insistence on locatedness and on drawing everything into an end-point, and what does this tell us about the novel’s handling of movement and mobile cultures? Is Dickens suggesting the entrapment of a modernity that purports to provide limitless freedom? or something more to do with the changing sense of space that is emerging through new mobile networks? And what is the effect of this on how we read the novel’s enclosed spaces throughout the text?

From year to year: 2012 round-up and 2013 look-ahead

It wouldn’t be the new year without a traditional round-up reflecting on blogging and research activity, so in this post I thought I’d pick out some of my blog highlights of the year (both most-read and personal favourites) and look at how 2013 is starting to shape up.

2012 was of course the year of Dickens, and this blog has seen more than it’s fair share of Dickens posts this year (by March I was considering renaming the blog accordingly!) and as such I’m giving Dickens a round-up of his own:

1. Happy Birthday Dickens! On the day of the bicentenary I spoke on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire radio about Dickens’s connections to the Warwick and Coventry area, which I picked up on in this birthday blog post about Dickens and Leamington Spa.

2. Consequential Ground: Dickens and the Shakespeare birthplaceas a tie-in to Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations we recorded a short film at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust about Dickens’s role in saving the birthplace and Shakespearean influences in his work, which I wrote about in this blog post (and spoke about in the Stratford Observer).

3. Celebrating Dickens – I recorded two further podcasts, on Bleak House and Little Dorrit, for the University of Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens project and wrote a piece about Dickens’s enduring appeal. The app had 10,000 downloads in the first month of release and is still going strong with extra features added later in 2012.

4. Walking Dickens’s London – in a post for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online I took a walk around London following The Guardian’s Dickens at 200 audio walks, and reflected in this post about the value of retracing literary places.

5. Dickens Day 2012: Dickens and Popular Culture – there were many Dickens conferences this year but Dickens Day 2012 was undoubtedly my highlight (I also attended Dickens and the Visual Imagination, Dickens’s World, Dickens and the mid-Victorian Press, and I blogged about the strong Dickens presence at this year’s BAVS conference)

6. Mobility, Space and the Nation in Bleak House – I ended the year with the first of my Dickens publications in print in the winter volume of English, which is packed full of fabulous articles on Dickens and travel.

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I also managed the occasional post on other aspects of my research, of which my top picks are:

1. “‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place c.1851” – in a new direction for my research I explored mobility and material culture in Henry Mayhew’s 1851: or the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys, a follow-up of a paper I gave at the Midlands Victorian studies seminar.

2. Baedeker’s Southern Italy – a few thoughts on this 1912 edition of the popular travel guide.

3. Great African Travellers: Attenborough on Livingstone – in another travel-related post I reflected on the resonances of 19th century imperialism in Attenborough’s early work.

4. Locating the Local in William Cobbett’s Rural Rides slightly earlier than my usual research focus but this reading fit nicely with my current work on Gender and Space in Rural Britain in the long Victorian period.

5. Spitalfields Music – I went to events at both the summer and winter Spitalfields’ Music Festivals and thoroughly enjoyed these explorations of urban history through walking tours. I am a Stranger Here: An East End Exploration toured the Spitalfields streets, while In the House took us into the drawing rooms of Spitalfields Houses for an evening of musical performances.

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2012 was also a good year for guest blogging. I joined the Journal of Victorian Culture online blogging team as a regular contributor – all of my posts are collected here. I also recorded a further piece for the Knowledge Centre on the Victorian Books that TV Forgot, and wrote a piece on Leah Price’s How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain for Open Letters Monthly. In my work role in early career researcher support I guest-blogged about “Getting out there with your research” for the Religious Studies Network, and joined the Guardian Higher Education Network as a panellist for a Live Chat on Academic Blogging. I was also very pleased to be featured in this article on “Early Career Victorianists and Social Media” by Amber Regis, in the Journal of Victorian Culture 17.3, and invited to join the panel on a roundtable about academic blogging at the Transforming Objects Conference in May 2012.

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Looking ahead to 2013 there are lots of exciting projects in the works. First up, I’ve been invited as guest editor for the next issue of Victorian Network on “Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture” which will be out in March. Two big publications deadlines are looming: I’m hoping to submit the manuscript of my monograph Journeys in the Victorian Novel: Gendered Mobilities and the Place of the Nation for review in April, and Gender and Space in Rural Britain, 1840-1920 will be submitted to Pickering and Chatto in August, ready for publication in March 2014. I’m writing up a paper on gender and rural mobility in George Eliot’s early works for this, and also planning to write up work on Henry Mayhew’s 1851 in the near future.

And there’s still more Dickens to come! I’m redrafting my paper on Dickens and literary tourism, and working this into a collaborative piece with Dr Peter Kirwan titled “A Tale of Two Londons: Shakespeare and Dickens in 2012” which will reflect on issues of canonicity and the politics of place employed in the parallel celebrations of Dickens and Shakespeare in 2012, exploring how these shaped and located the nation’s cultural capital in the Olympic year. In April I’m heading to the University of Cagliari in Sardinia as a visiting lecturer to teach classes on Dickens and travel, and later in the year there’s a potential Brussels trip which will enable me to get started on some work in preparation for (yes, really) the 2016 bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.

Thank you to everyone who has read, commented and tweeted me about the blog this year, and all the best for 2013!