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.
Focusing on the question “what constitutes 19th century studies today?” this one-day conference at the University of Sheffield provided an interesting set of papers on the poetry, novels, photographs, spaces and journeys across the nineteenth century and into its cultural afterlives today. While the day demonstrated that nineteenth-century studies remains a lively and active field in its own right, there were also noticeable cross-overs with the themes and questions raised at the Neo-Victorian Cultures conference last month, suggesting that there are many useful cross-currents between the two fields.
On that note it was unfortunate that I missed Mark Llewellyn’s keynote paper, but in a later panel on Churches and Asylums, the resonances between 19th-century topics and the present day were at the fore of discussions of space and geography. Stef Eastoe explored the spatial design and geographical location of asylums to reveal new perspectives on the communities that formed within asylums, and on the relationship between asylums and the local area. Her work on the Caterham asylum revealed fascinating insights into the ways in which asylums were designed and suggested important ways in which asylums were integral to the local community, playing an active role in shaping the history and development of the local area. In the ensuing discussion, Stef also spoke about the contemporary conversion of asylums and workhouses (for example, into luxury apartments) which can seek to erase the history of the building’s former use. In contrast, Adam M. Klups‘s paper on converting disused nineteenth century churches for residential use discussed how these conversion projects have to retain key features of the original architecture; this can produce a kind of doubleness in the appearance of buildings that are as much products of the era of their conversion – and of their geographical location – as they are of their nineteenth-century context.
Another key area of focus was the Brontës, and I was pleased to join fellow Brontë scholars Erin Johnson and Jenny Pearce on a panel about the Brontës and governesses. Erin’s paper traced the trajectory of the Byronic hero throughout Charlotte Brontë’s work, from the early Angrian stories through to Jane Eyre; from this perspective, Brontë’s first novel becomes situated as an end-point in terms of its narrative of masculinity. This provided an interesting recognition of the significance of cross-period development in Brontë’s work, drawing attention to the way in which seminal texts of the Victorian era demonstrate continuity with the concerns and themes of earlier periods in the century. My paper (abstract here) took Villette as an example of how reading 19th century novels through their journey narratives provides new perspectives on familiar concerns around nation, and I looked at how the journey narrative rearticulates the way in which we understand the England-Belgium relationship throughout Villette. The theme of journeying was explored further in Jenny Pearce’s paper about travelling governesses. Looking at the narratives of two governesses that travelled with families to Egypt, Jenny’s analysis raised interesting issues about how the social position of the governess afforded her a different experience of, and approach to, travel; these governesses were experiencing places usually far beyond the realm of women (and men) in their social position, but being outside the typical model of the English traveller means that their perspectives on tourist sites represent some interesting divergences from the usual views expressed in travel writing.
Throughout the day, other papers covered some fascinating insights into nineteenth-century poetry and criticism, the role of photography in literature, and gothic and fantasy narratives. One of the key issues that the title “Rethinking the Nineteenth Century” provoked was that of the relationship between Victorian Studies and Nineteenth Century Studies, and how the two terms are applied and used by scholars; for those of us that bridge both categories, how, when and why do we position ourselves as Victorianists or Nineteenth-Centuryists? Following some interesting conversations on this subject at Neo-Victorian Cultures (which also brought to mind the question of neo-Victorian vs. neo-Nineteenth Century), I’m going to blog further about this in my next post for the Journal of Victorian Culture online which will be released in the next couple of weeks.
My visit to Liverpool this week for the Neo-Victorian Cultures conference signalled a bit of a change in direction from my usual research interests. Although I’ve long had an interest in neo-Victorian fiction and enjoy reading it in my spare time, my research has stood firmly in the Victorian period since the start of my PhD. Over the last year, however, I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways in which the Victorians are situated in contemporary culture and how these engagements with the Victorian past are put to cultural work. This stemmed, of course, from the Dickens bicentenary which I’ve written about frequently on this blog, and I’d also begun to explore the intersections of place, nation and mobility in some of the bicentenary celebrations that focused on “Dickens and London” in a couple of recent papers.
I felt, though, that it would be beneficial to put this research into a slightly different context and to consider the ways in which the issues around place and nation intersected with debates and trends in neo-Victorian culture more widely, and to think about what these cross-currents might offer both areas of the field. So my paper “Locating the Victorians: Mobility, place and the past in neo-Victorian culture” was something of an exploration in this line, testing the neo-Victorian waters to see how these conversations might take shape. While in previous work I’ve focused on the local-global iterations of Dickens and London in the 2012 context, in this paper I considered literary tourism as a negotiation between past and present, seeking to understand the ways in which it might fit within neo-Victorian frameworks of reinterpretation and rediscovery. The panel proved to be both interesting and helpful, and I was grateful to the very engaged audience who asked interesting questions about the bicentenary, different forms of exploration of Victorian places, and authenticity of experiences. I also very much enjoyed fellow panellist Ben Poore’s paper about three Victorian spaces that have been restored in recent years – and if you’re in London this week looking for something to do, consider going to the Dalston House art installation which looks like a lot of fun!
The rest of the conference was highly stimulating and enjoyable. Margaret Stetz’s keynote looked at laughter in neo-Victorian fiction, questioning when did we begin to laugh at the Victorians, and would that moment constitute the moment at which we can define “neo-Victorianism” coming into existence? Helen Davies’ keynote on sex and the neo-Victorian freak show looked at the way in which conjoined twins Chang and Eng were interpreted in their own day and retrospectively, focusing on how issues around sex and morality are handled both in Victorian discourses and in neo-Victorian reinterpretations of these.
The panel on rewriting Jane Eyre raised some interesting questions about the cultural afterlives of the Brontë’s: why always Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Brontë, as the focus of interest? Do we need to know the Brontës before we understand the fictions they inspire – how would Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea read without prior knowledge of Jane Eyre? A panel on Neo-Victorian Geographies explored the use of space in neo-Victorian fiction, film and TV, from the labyrinthine underground spaces of horror films such as Death Line and Creep (Paul Dobraszczyk), to the (overground) railways as spaces evocative of Victorian criminality (Joanne Knowles). Material culture was also well represented in a panel about authenticity and neo-Victorian fiction: Kym Brindle’s discussion of A.S. Byatt’s Possession looked at the novel’s fascination with material texts – bundles of letters, for example – as fetishized, desired objects that summon up ideas around the authenticity of the past. Joanne Ella Parsons explored the meanings of different foods in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, taking us through discussion of oysters, chocolate and watercress to consider why food remains such an evocative symbol in the neo-Victorian novel.
The final part of the conference (for me) was the roundtable on Global NeoVictorianism with Ann Heilmann, Kate Mitchell, Rosario Arias, Monika Pietrzak-Franger and Patricia Pulham. The papers set in train some indicative ideas around the global manifestations of neo-Victorian culture: what counts as neo-Victorian fiction, and how much validity does “neo-Victorianism” have in a global context’ – should we move to think about “neo-nineteenth-centuryism”? What engagement is demonstrated with British Victorianisms in other global contexts – such as Australian writing about nineteenth-century Australia? And how do we define Victorian, let alone neo-Victorian?
Sadly I had to leave at this point in the conference, but the roundtable took me full circle to my paper and the negotiations between past-present in a local-global context that I had started to tease out, so I left with a head full of ideas for future directions. I thought the conference was an excellent forum for debate, well attended with a lively and enthusiastic audience, and I’m sure much of this was thanks to the fabulously hard-working team behind the conference, so thank you for putting on such an enjoyable few days!
Yes, it really has been one year today since the start of the bicentenary of Charles Dickens – and no, I’m not about to suggest that we start another year of celebrations… I did want to take the opportunity to reflect, though, on some of the issues that have been raised over the last year, both in the content of the celebrations themselves and in the wider context of the year as a whole.
As has been clear in my previous Dickens 2012 posts, one element that has particularly interested me is the emphasis on Dickens and place, and especially Dickens and London, that has been present in many of the bicentenary activities: a whole host of different ways of connecting Dickens and London, from tours that root (/route) Dickens firmly in the material landscape of the city, to digital media forms that offer truly mobile yet completely dis/non-placed experiences of “Dickens’s London” across the globe. I’m really interested in thinking further about the what and why of these forms, particularly in terms of issues around nation that I’ve raised before, but also with regards to ideas of impact: why this emphasis on place and what does it tell us about the types of cultural activities that we value? What impact has this had on the public understanding of Dickens?
There are wider questions too about the impact of Dickens 2012 and how this has shaped the cultural imagination of Dickens. Was it too much and are we all just suffering from Dickens fatigue now? Is there the possibility that Dickens overkill has had a negative or detrimental effect? And at what cost the over-investment in Dickens 2012? Dickens didn’t need putting on the map, and a whole host of other writers have been dwarfed in his shadow this year, not least those whose bicentenaries also marked significant moments for Victorian studies.
But there is one thing that I think Dickens 2012 offers to scholars of other writers, and that’s a legacy of how we “do” bicentenaries. Dickens 2012 has been marked not just be quantity, but also by the quality and sheer variety of forms through which we’ve been able to engage with Dickens’s life and works: a whole host of innovative, engaging and insightful documentaries, podcasts, lectures, talks, digital media, mobile apps, maps, have really expanded the possibilities – and I think there’s something about the collective proliferation of the focus on Dickens that has been particularly interesting and indicative. It’s not just public engagement either, and within academia we’ve seen discussions of research take on exciting new forms, from the 4-day travelling conference that gestured towards the internationalism of Dickens’s works and Dickens scholarship, to the Dickens’s World online conference that went a step further in enabling a truly global discourse of Dickens to emerge. We can but take from this the potential and possibility for other writers too, and use Dickens 2012 as a model for future bicentenaries.
I think, too, Dickens 2012 has opened up the potential for new lines of inquiry between critical and cultural debate: the year has provided a wealth of material for thinking about “the idea of Dickens” as a collective form. As I’ve gestured towards in this and other blog posts, and am seeking to do in my new research, Dickens 2012 has shown how public engagement is not just useful for the communication of research but might also be taken as an indicative source of analysis – and not just at its most obvious level in terms of reading contemporary culture, but also by using this understanding of our own times to open up new ways of interrogating facets of the Victorian period.
A year ago I posed the question “so now what?” After Dickens 2012, what’s next; Bronte 2016? Dickens 2012 has continued to open up more questions than answers, but I think it is clear that the time is now to start reflecting on what the year has given us, what ideas it has produced and developed, as well as to seize new possibilities for the future celebrations of other authors. At 201 Dickens might feel like especially well-trodden ground, but the space remains for mapping new movements and forging new directions in our interactions with the Victorian past.
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 birthplace – as 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.
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.
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.
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!
My latest podcast with the Knowledge Centre has been published with an accompanying article this morning.
Titled “A Novel Idea: the Victorian Books that TV Forgot“, I discuss the limited range of nineteenth-century novels which are taken up by film and tv producers. However, the recent Wuthering Heights film is a good example of how new adaptations of familiar texts can add value to wider understanding and interpretations of novels; Andrea Arnold’s casting of a black Heathcliff opened up postcolonial critical perspectives that are now well established in literary criticism but, judging by the media response to the film, are not so familiar to wider audiences. As literary criticism continues to develop new perspectives, new possibilities continue to arise even for those texts that have already been frequently adapted. That said, I do have a few suggestions for other texts that would make for good tv – you’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out which ones!
“So, 4 years until Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary”
I was only half-joking as I made this my first tweet on the 8th February, the day after the Dickens bicentenary – as I mentioned in a post on Researcher Life, I’ve realised over the past couple of months that it really is worth looking ahead for any commemorative dates or other celebrations related to your research, and thinking about timing some relevant work accordingly. And thus it was that, fearing Dickens fever would soon die down (even I’m a little Dickens-fatigued), I found myself having a quick look to see which of authors are next up for the big 2-0-0: four years for Charlotte Brontë, a whole seven years until George Eliot, and Gaskell quietly came of bicentenary age in 2010. Which raises the question of whether Dickens 2012 will change the way we “do” bicentenaries; will Brontë or Eliot, arguably equally as “great” as Dickens, receive anywhere near the amount of fuss that Dickens’s birthday has created?
Dickens 2012 has, understandably, wearied a lot of Victorian scholars; whilst you could easily think that Dickens was the only man born in 1812, many have been quick to point out that Robert Browning, Edward Lear and the lesser-known Geraldine Jewsbury are also 200 this year. This has prompted some interesting reflections on the literary politics of bicentenaries and even wider questions about genre preferences in our contemporary ideas about the Victorian period: Alison Chapman raised an interesting discussion about poetry vs prose on the Victorian Poetry Network, reminding us that whilst poetry doesn’t hold such a strong place in our idea of the Victorian period today, there was an intrinsic relationship between poetry and prose in the period; she also points out that Dickens should be remembered not just as novelist, but also for his role in the evolving culture of Victorian poetry.
Whilst individual poets are, unfortunately, unlikely to ever get such sustained media attention as novelists (I’d suggest the potential of novels to be adapted for film and tv, and the particular adaptability of Dickens’s writing, goes a long way towards the general preference for novelists in general, and Dickens in particular, today), the upcoming bicentenary of another novelist raises the question of whether Dickens 2012 will prove to be a unique event in celebrating Victorian authors, or if this will instead set a precedence for future commemorations. Charlotte Brontë is especially pertinent to this discussion, as she remains one of the most popular nineteenth-century authors today: Jane Eyre is widely read and regarded as one of the Greats, and only last year yet another film adaptation was made, suggesting its enduring popularity.
But Jane Eyre is Brontë’s only really popular work, and her wonderful Villette and Shirley remain much less widely read despite containing much of what is loved about Jane Eyre: the psychological depths and mysteries of Villette are much darker, whilst Shirley‘s feminist heroines are problematic but the novel much more overtly and bravely probes into “the woman question”. As a result, I suspect that Brontë’s birthday will be a rather quieter affair, with a number of conferences and a small amount of media attention. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing: Dickens’s vast corpus of writing presents a rich opportunity for multiple reflections and responses, and the familiarity of many of his works has provided a springboard for opening up such wide interest in the bicentenary; the opportunity for “celebrating Dickens” is there itself in the sheer variety and volume of his works.
Charlotte Brontë presents us with a rather different legacy, and thus the need for a rather different response; what I hope is that her bicentenary will provide an opportunity to go beyond Jane Eyre and encourage wider recognition and enjoyment of her other works. Dickens 2012 has suggested the potential for not just for celebrating what we already know but discovering the new, forgotten, or neglected works; whilst the model of Dickens 2012 might not be appropriate for other celebrated authors, it has opened up a value in bicentenary (or similar) celebrations. It’ll be worth tracing the on-going impact of the projects and learning from this how other bicentenaries can best be used to encourage new forms of engagement with Victorian literature.
Now, will someone please write a screenplay of Villette…?!