Tag Archives: Bleak House

Publication: Mobility, Space and the Nation in Bleak House

My article “‘A moving and a moving on’: Mobility, Space and the Nation in Dickens’s Bleak House‘ has today been published in the journal English via Oxford Journals advance access. The article will appear in print in December 2012 as part of a special issue on Dickens and Travel, following on from last year’s Dickens Day; I’m very pleased to be included in this volume and looking forward to reading the rest of the articles.

The link above follows through to the pdf, but you can also view the abstract and full text here.

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“Something in the place”: Dickens 2012 and literary tourism

My next conference paper is in just under a month, at the annual Dickens Day at the Institute of English Studies in London on Saturday 13th October. This year’s theme is Dickens and popular culture, and I’ll be presenting a paper titled “’Something in the place’: Dickens 2012 and Literary Tourism” – abstract as follows:

The bicentenary of Dickens’s birth has prompted a wide range of celebratory responses across the world, and one prominent theme has been that of literary tourism: numerous talks and exhibitions have looked at the connections between Dickens’s literature, life and place; The Guardian’s “audio walks” series allows the listener to trace the places associated with the author’s life and works; and even a mobile App takes users “on a journey” of “Dickens’s London”. Why is literary tourism so popular? What are the implications for reading Dickens’s life and works? And how does the emphasis on Dickens and place fit within a wider context of “global Dickens”?

Nicola Watson’s The Literary Tourist (2006) and Juliet John’s recent discussion of “heritage Dickens” in Dickens and Mass Culture (2010) establish a framework for understanding Dickensian literary tourism, and I suggest that these discussions can be developed through a focus on the literary tour as a mobile experience of place. This paper focuses on two episodes from Dickens’s life and works that serve to illuminate, and open up further questions about, the popularity of Dickensian literary tourism. The first instance situates Dickens himself as a literary tourist, in his 1838 journey to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Accounts of the visit encapsulate a tension between resisting the “consecration” of literary authors within specific places whilst recognising the unnameable appeal of such sites– as Mrs Nickleby states, “there must be something in the place”. An episode in Bleak House goes further in exploring what this “something” might be: a passage in which the poor street boy Jo leads Lady Dedlock through the streets around Chancery is far from a typical example of tourism, but the passage carries strong resonances with the literary tour and offers an indicative exploration of the tour as a mobile experience of autobiographical place.

The Bleak House passage is further illustrative in opening up ideas around the connections between nation, place and identity, and I conclude by thinking about contemporary literary tourism in the context of national identity.  Acts of literary tourism work to reiterate the idea of authors as national symbols into a physical experience of national place; but how does this emphasis on Dickens’s placein national culture fits within broader discourses of “global Dickens” in 2012?

The paper explores further some ideas that I’ve previously blogged about, including a piece on Dickens and literary tourism and reflections on the connections between Dickens and the Shakespeare birthplace (a few other pieces tagged literary tourism can be found here). The next stage of my research is a field trip of sorts: putting myself in the place of a literary tourist and doing a few of The Guardian’s Dickens audio walks. I’m intrigued to see how I find these walks and will certainly be blogging about the experience.

Global/mobile values: BAVS 2012 @ University of Sheffield (part 2)

In my first post on this year’s British Association for Victorian Studies conference, I focused on the main theme “Victorian Value” and its resonance to the current academic climate; in this post, I draw together a few of the papers that were closer to my own research interests in Dickens, mobility and material circulation.

In a panel on “Dickensian Things”, two papers explored the intersections of objects, circulation and commidification. Claire Wood (York) spoke about “Mortal Values: Life, death and the entrepreneurial spirit in Martin Chuzzlewit“, exploring human commodification, mortality and market value in Dickens’s 1844 novel. Wood spoke about the two systems of economy in the novel, a concrete form of money vs a more illusory sense of finance, and within this explored the representation of people as things, the market value of mortality, and ideas around bodies as producing money. The discussion of death drew out particular links with the novel’s transatlantic mobilities and the way in which the novel uses and represents America.

Following this, Hannah Lewis-Bill (Exteter) gave a paper titled “Not for all the tea in China: Dickens, Opium and the cultural value of things” which took us to the end of Dickens’s career to discuss the global circulation of things in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Lewis-Bill explored the issues of cultural identity raised through portable property in the novel, suggesting that novels like Drood question how the increasingly reflexive relationship between Britain and the rest of the world can be managed. Focusing particularly on tea and opium, she explored the ways in which opium remained a distinctly foreign object in Victorian Britain, whilst tea became absorbed and naturalised into British life through a process of assimilation that relies upon the separation of the object from its locale – with the suggestion, I thought, that movement through national networks of mobility enacted a process of distancing from the global networks that brought tea to British shores. Lewis-Bill also picked up on the importance of touch with objects, quoting this fantastic excerpt from chapter 4 of the novel by way of example:

If I have not gone to foreign countries, young man, foreign countries have come to me. They have come to me in the way of business, and I have improved upon my opportunities. Put it that I take an inventory, or make a catalogue. I see a French clock. I never saw him before, in my life, but I instantly lay my finger on him and say “Paris!” I see some cups and saucers of Chinese make, equally strangers to me personally: I put my finger on them, then and there, and I say “Pekin, Nankin, and Canton.” It is the same with Japan, with Egypt, and with bamboo and sandalwood from the East Indies; I put my finger on them all. I have put my finger on the North Pole before now, and said “Spear of Esquimaux make, for half a pint of pale sherry!

I love the implicit sense of proximity and global collapse in this passage, the complete annihilation of space not just between distant places but between foreign locations and the individual body – locating the subject within and connected to the global spatial economy, and firmly emphasising the significance of the physical body through the repeated emphasis on touch, literalising the idea of foreign contact. Lewis-Bill drew on John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move throughout her paper and offered some interesting extensions to Plotz’s arguments particularly in achieving a much more rigorous and rich exploration of “reverse portability”, something which I think is lacking from Plotz’s otherwise excellent study.

There was more Dickens to follow in an afternoon panel on Global Value, which began with Paul Young (Exeter) and “‘Bird, be quiet!’: Little Dorrit, Free Trade and Frictional Globalisation.” Young explored Little Dorrit as a global novel which refuses the spatio-temporal divisions of modernity, articulating a spatial economy of commodity interdependence such that circulation can be read as the novel’s organising imperative. Young emphasised the importance of attentiveness to the world, not just the Empire, in literary texts, particularly with regard to structures of British capitalism. Regenia Gagnier (Exeter) followed this theme in her paper “Victorian Studies in the context of World Literatures and Globalization Studies” which surveyed the developing themes of world literatures and global modernity within Victorian Studies. Gagnier’s paper gave an expansive overview of the state of the field and new directions that are emerging; particularly interesting to me were her reflections on the negotiation between local and global concerns, something which is prominent in my thinking as I write my monograph on these very issues, and which (happily!) will also form the theme of next year’s global convergence of Victorianists at the BAVS, NAVSA and AVSA conference on “The Global and the Local“.

Local-global relations were also the subject of Josephine McDonagh‘s paper “The Village Elsewhere: Mitford and the Politics of Place”. McDonagh discussed Nancy Russell Mitford’s Our Village a text which, in the vein of Cranford and Barchester Towers, depicts a very familiar idea of English village life, focused tightly on the local with the wider world just beyond its bounds (which I’ll be blogging about in reference to Cranford very soon). However, McDonagh identified that Our Village was much read among emigrants in the period (often villagers themselves), referred to by emigrant settlers as a handbook for creating an ideal village and inviting comparisons between Indian and English villages – ideas which resonated nicely with my recent reading of Ian Baucom’s Out of Place: Englishness, Empire and the Locations of Identity which identifies a strong locational impulse at the core of English identity, thrown into doubt by imperial expansion raising key questions about whether the Empire could contain “English” spaces. McDonagh’s paper addressed the significance of literary spatial productions in these spatial negotiations, and demonstrated how the strongly local Our Village was embedded in an international network of print exchange.

Print culture and emigration was also the subject of two further papers on this panel by Mary Shannon and Fariha Shaikh (both King’s College London). Shannon’s paper “Cultural Capital and the Emigrant’s Body: R. H. Horne and Melbourne Punch” looked at the emigration of print culture from London to Melbourne, and the establishment of a new print culture in Melbourne which resided in the adaptation of its old world connections. Fariha Shaikh explored emgirant travel narratives in a paper on “Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush: Domestic and Narrative Values”. Shaikh’s analysis of Moodie’s text looked at how emigration is not just a thematic concern of the narrative, but deeply embedded into the form and structure of the text, a highly indicative study of the relationship between mobility and narrative form.

Finally, in a slightly different direction was a paper by Catherine Malcolmson (Leicester) on “Investing in Sentiment: Finding Value in Dickensian Collecting” which looked at the enduring popularity of collecting things associated with Dickens and his works – different editions, character figurines (pictured is a Royal Doulton Mr Pickwick), things owned by or otherwise associated with Dickens, memorabilia items, and much more. Malcolmson talked about the ways in which Dickens collecting differs from other types of collecting, particularly in the emotional enthusiasm that motivates collectors who value objects not for their intrinsic worth but for their connection to Dickens; Dickens, to these collectors, is a saintly figure and these objects carry an inherent value by association. There was an undercurrent of circulation and mobility here, but what was interesting was the implication (as I interpreted it) that objects here become completely detached from their place of origin or production, and from the networks that circulate those objects: the end-point of the object’s movement, the collection, is its “true” place. Similarly, in light of my recent reading of Leah Price’s How to do things with Books in Victorian Britain, I was especially interested in the point that books are not (necessarily) given any special status by collectors, but rather are part of the same value-system as other objects, and even of little interest to some collectors. The emotional connection to the past through a physical, material thing is also something I’ll be thinking more about as I prepare my paper on literary tourism for Dickens and Popular Culture in October.

These speakers provided some truly stimulating thoughts that will be strong in my mind as I work on these themes in coming weeks, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s BAVS (if not Venice, then Royal Holloway at least…). Also worth noting is the fabulous efforts of JVC Online to preserve our tweets for all eternity, so if you want to find out more about papers not mentioned here then it’s worth taking a look through the thread where some very diligent tweeters did a very good job of tracking the event!

‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place, c.1851″; paper at MIVSS, 29th June

On Friday 29th June, I presented a paper at the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar which focused on the theme of “Victorian Things Revisited” (full conference write-up here). My paper “‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place, c. 1851” represents a new direction in my work, developing an emerging interest in material culture and the ways in which objects can be reconsidered in the context of space and mobility.

The paper originated in some research on Bleak House last summer, when I began to think more about the significance of the Great Exhibition for the national-global relations in the novel. I was particularly interested in some images by George Cruikshank (below), and the many questions they open up around the relationship between people, things, and place. As I blogged at the time, in looking at these images one can’t help but recall the central question of Bleak House: “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!”

Cruikshank’s images illustrate the text of Henry Mayhew’s comic novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to ‘enjoy themselves’ and to see the Great Exhibition, and it was this that formed the focus of my paper. Most attention to this text has focused on the glimpses Mayhew gives us of the Exhibition, where we find an interest in the objects on display, the new people present in an internationalised London, and the potential social good of the Exhibition (against the backdrop of Mayhew’s other work of the same year, London Labour and the London Poor). But what interested me most was the way in which the narrative surrounding this also demonstrates a continual interest in things, people, and place, and their changing relations to one another. As the Sandboys family make their way to and around London, they encounter a continual stream of comic accidents and misfortunes in which people and things repeatedly surface and come into contact in unexpected ways. In particular, it’s the connections forged through the mobility of people and things, and the implications for the space of the nation, which emerges as a key question of the text.

The wider framework for this reading, which I’m still teasing out somewhat, is the move towards thinking about objects in the context of global networks of mobility. This has emerged particularly in the context of imperial networks of commodities, and John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move is a fascinating study of objects “on the move”, suggesting that pieces of “portable property” become resonant repositories of national identity in an increasingly global, mobile world. Plotz’s main concern is with objects moving out from Britain, and his reading of “reverse portability” is concerned primarily with identifying an “imperial panic” raised by objects coming into Britain. I think, though, there’s a lot more to be said about the circulation of objects (both British and foreign) within Britain not just as producing an adverse imperial reaction but also for the narratives of national identity, and physical traces of national space, that mobile objects create. There is, too, further scope for thinking about the ways in which objects function within a world being physically reshaped through mobile networks; objects make visible the abstract concept of a compressing world space, leave tangible traces of the connectedness of the nation to wider networks of mobility.

These are ideas that I’ll be exploring as I develop the paper further, and the discussion that followed was extremely helpful in shaping some of the directions this will take. I’ll be thinking more about 1851 alongside Bleak House, another novel written in the wake of the Great Exhibition and similarly preoccupied with the connections between people and things on the move; I was reminded, though, that there’s the potential for connections to work as a more positive, benevolent force in Dickens, whereas my reading of Mayhew focused more on the anxiety surrounding these interactions. There’s also more to be said around ideas about bodies and/as places/things: my discussion of body-thing interactions started to stray into ideas around embodiment and of the body-as-place, with feminist geography theory lurking in the background; in my next reading of the text I’ll be thinking more about the mobility of the gendered body and the more nuanced readings of place/space relations that this might open up.

I’m entering into discussions of objects from the perspective of someone more familiar with ideas around space and mobility rather than material culture and I’ve still got a way to go with fully drawing out the nuances of these arguments – and I’m aware that a lot more reading (and re-reading) on material culture awaits – but I’m excited by the wealth of ideas this has opened up; it feels like this work will be productive both in terms of the perspectives on objects and material culture that it provides, and for refreshing my thinking on mobility and space.

Consequential Ground: Dickens and the Shakespeare birthplace

Update: the film on Shakespeare and Dickens can be viewed here.

I’ve been writing a lot about a certain birthday this year, but tomorrow (April 23rd) is the day we celebrate another important literary figure: William Shakespeare. Many who have read Dickens’s works will be familiar with the influence that Shakespeare had on Dickens’s writing, but Dickens also played an important role in the preservation of Shakespeare’s literary heritage. In a short film due to be released tomorrow, I talk to Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust about Dickens’s connections to the birthplace and particularly the events of 1847 when the house was put up for auction. The podcast was filmed on location and includes some fascinating materials from the Birthplace archives, including the visitor book signed by Dickens, playbills from productions Dickens put on, and some of Dickens’s letters. In this post, I wanted to think more about how we read Dickens’s initial response to the birthplace, and the issues around literary tradition, tourism and heritage that it raises.

Shakespeare birthplaceDickens first visited Shakespeare’s house on a trip to the region in 1838. In his letters, Dickens writes: “we went thence to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth”. It’s almost disappointingly brief in its pragmatic recounting of the visit and lacks the emotional investment we might want to find in the meeting-point of two such significant authors. The brevity is, I think, explained when we look at how Dickens treated the idea of Shakespeare and literary places in his fiction.

Dickens refers to the visit in his next work Nicholas Nickleby, humouring those who claim to feel such intense connection to Shakespeare: in the film, I read from a passage in which Mrs Wititterly claims that visiting the house “kindles quite a fire within one”, to which her husband retorts “There is nothing in the place, my dear – nothing, nothing”, and in turn Mrs Nickleby then replies, “I think there must be something in the place…”. The discussion is interesting in its choice of language and the polarities of thought around which the discussion centres: there is either “something” or “nothing” in the place (the use of “nothing” being of course resonant as a significant recurrent word in many of Shakespeare’s plays). In the dichotomy of something/nothing Dickens highlights the extremes of opinion to which people go when talking about Shakespeare, bounding from extreme reverance to complete irreverance (another episode in Nicklebysimilarly recounts such extremes, when Mrs Wititterly claims “I’m always ill after Shakespeare!”).

The debate over whether there is “something” or “nothing” in the place also highlights here the extent to which places themselves can be over- or under-invested with meaning. But it also opens up a space in which we become aware that, in going to extremes, the characters are missing the more important question: there is of course something in the place as a physical site, but what is that “something”? What is the meaning of a place and what is the appropriate meaning it holds? What kind of meaning do we, or should we, invest in places of significance?

I’ve talked about before about a passage in Bleak House in which Jo leads Lady Dedlock through the London streets, eventually arriving at the site where Nemo is buried: it is a burying-ground for the poor, prompting Lady Dedlock to ask “is this place of abomination consecrated ground?” to which Jo, with characteristic linguistic misunderstanding, replies “I don’t know nothink of consequential ground”. The question of what is “consequential ground” – i.e., of meaning, significance and value- becomes a key issue of the novel. That slippage between consecrated and consequentialground is, I think, the crux of the issue in the Nickleby discussion: how do we acknowledge “consequence” or significance without moving into the (un)holy consecration of a site as sacred, and thus invest it with a (false) meaning beyond its true value.

This was an era, of course, in which Bardolatry – an idolatrous investment of Shakespeare as the national poet – was on the rise. Dickens was resistant to the model of authorship this was founded on and the author-worship that this inspired: his use of Hamlet, for example, is typically only to achieve comic effect, whilst others saw Hamlet as epitomising the romantic figure of the author. Dickens’s hesitancy to investing the birthplace with “consecrated” meaning reads as a part of this response to Bardolatry: the brief mention of the visit – “we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth” – recognises the consequence of the visit, but acknowledges that a place can be of consequence without being consecrated, of importance without being over-invested with an excess of meaning.

That’s not to undermine the fact that Dickens does recognise that there is something in a place and that there is a value in preserving literary heritage as a site of significance for the nation. His role in the saving of the birthplace is further interesting in light of the fact that literary tourism would come to play such a central part of Dickens’s own literary heritage. The issue of national place, and what makes national place “consequential”, runs throughout Dickens’s work; in the Shakespeare birthplace, Dickens clearly found a site of national consequence and meaning, and his role in saving the house has preserved one of the most important sites of Britain’s literary heritage.

The podcast on Shakespeare and Dickens will be launched tomorrow on the Celebrating Dickens website and accompanied by an article on the Knowledge Centre.

Guest post on JVC blog

My blog “‘Can you show me the places’? Dickens 2012 and literary tourism” has been published on The Journal of Victorian Culture’s Victorians Beyond the Academy” blog – if the title sounds familiar, it’s a re-write of a post I wrote here a while back, updated to include some further reflections after re-reading Nicola Watson’s The Literary Tourist and some more thoughts about the politics of national culture that emerge around the bicentenary celebrations… Do go and have a read!

And if you haven’t seen it already, take a look around Victorians Beyond the Academy- it’s a really interesting initiative by the journal to encourage Victorians to discuss “the presence and treatment of the Victorian in our contemporary world”.