Shakespeare on the Global Stage: Performance and Festivity in the Olympic Year, edited by Paul Prescott and Erin Sullivan, has just been published by Bloomsbury’s Arden Shakespeare series. The collection takes a range of perspectives on Shakespearean performance in 2012, emerging from the Year of Shakespeare project on the World Shakespeare Festival. I am pleased to have contributed a co-written essay, with Dr Peter Kirwan (Uni. of Nottingham) on “A Tale of Two Londons: Locating Shakespeare and Dickens in 2012”, which parallels the Shakespeare Festival and the Dickens bicentenary to explore the cultural politics of locating authors within national literary landscapes, and how this plays out within an international cultural context.
This week I’ve been finishing an essay on Dickens 2012 and ‘locating the Victorians in the bicentenary year’; although I’ve written and spoken about this work quite a few times now (including an essay in this forthcoming book), this piece has given me the opportunity to focus on more detailed analysis of content included in Dickens apps, maps, podcasts and films. It’s led me to discover some great resources on the theme of Dickens and London, so I thought I’d collect these together into a blog post with a brief review of each.
Apps and audio podcasts
- The Guardian audio walks; this five-part series of walks around Dickens’s London, Rochester and Portsmouth by The Guardian are excellent: informative, engaging, and lively discussion, interspersed with readings from the text. In 2012 I tried out two of the walks – The Heart of the City and David Copperfield – and wrote about them for JVC Online.
- Dickens in Southwark; I haven’t had the chance to do these walks myself, but I’ve been greatly impressed just using the app and listening to the audio of this walk. The core content is lively and informative, while there is extra audio on the map that was developed from a creative project involving Southwark residents. The app is easily navigable, has a well-functioning map, and with a total of 25 ‘stops’ there is lots of content to explore.
- Dickens Trail, Charles Dickens Museum; this app uses Dickens’s characters as a guide to his London locations, with four themed walks following Magwitch, Lady Dedlock, the Artful Dodger, and Samuel Pickwick. The real shame of this app is that there is no audio content, only text on a map, which makes for a much less engaging experience.
- Dickens Dark London; this was one of the first Dickens apps that I came across and reviewed, a little harshly perhaps. The idea of the content is nice, with illustrations accompanying a reading of extracts from Dickens’s works, themed around his night walks, but it’s a shame there is so little free content – only one serial installment is provided and the rest are priced at £1.49 each. The best thing about this app is its map feature, which combines an 1862 map with a map of contemporary London, and allows you to scroll between each or view a composite image of the two – great for easily viewing structural changes to the city.
- Celebrating Dickens; the University of Warwick’s Dickens offering includes a wealth of material from researchers and students at the University of Warwick on many aspects of Dickens’s life and writing, and the app features a navigable map of Dickens locations not just in London but also in East Anglia, Kent and the Midlands. Highly recommended, of course!
- “The Houseless Shadow“; directed by William Raban, this is a short version of the full film installation that was commissioned by the Museum of London for their Dickens and London exhibition. The piece uses a reading from Dickens’s essay “The Night Walks” with images of the contemporary city. Raban discusses the aims behind the piece in this conversation recorded at the BFI.
- The Uncommercial Traveller; this project by the British Council created a series of theatrical audio guides to Penang, Melbourne, Singapore and Karachi. The audio aims at creating a really evocative experience of each city and makes for interesting listening even if you aren’t in the relevant city.
- Sketches by Boz: Sketching the City; another British Council project that developed written and artistic creative responses to cities around the world through a Dickensian lens
- Dickens and London film; the British Council produced a collection of teaching resources on Dickens 2012 and I particularly enjoyed this short piece on Dickens and London
I’ve reviewed the new film of The Invisible Woman for the Journal of Victorian Culture online; I consider some of the issues in turning biographical research into a film, look at how the film handles the mistress figure, and think about Nelly Ternan’s place in Dickens’s history post-bicentenary.
Today is the 202nd birthday of Charles Dickens, and has been marked by the unveiling of a statue of the author in Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square. The statue has attracted attention not just because of the on-going interest in Dickens since his bicentenary, but also because it’s marked by a degree of controversy over whether it should have gone ahead. Dickens’s will indicated his wish that no such public memorial be constructed of him:
“I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner…that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial … I conjure to my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatsoever. I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works.”
It’s a pretty clear statement of the author’s wish not to be remembered in this public way either immediately after his death, or at a future time. In an article on the BBC about “why was Dickens’s dying wish ignored?“, one relative suggests that his words above have been taken out of context, and it is implied that if he could have foreseen his popularity, he may have felt differently about memorialisation. However, Dickens’s statement in his will reflects similar feelings that he expressed upon the memorialisation of Shakespeare. In 1863-4, Dickens was involved with the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, one of the aims of which was to raise funds for a memorial to Shakespeare: Dickens was not in favour of building a statue, however, maintaining that “his best monument is his works”. It’s a sentiment that resonates throughout his reflections in his will, which similarly asks that his published works remain the focus of his legacy and remembrance.
Whether or not it should have gone ahead, the statue is fitting in the context of Dickens’s cultural legacy in the last couple of years. For a start, the statue seems to keep in mind the importance of his literary legacy, depicting Dickens sitting atop a pile of books* and holding one half-read: this is Dickens the reader not writer, situating him, like us today, as consumer of his works. And the work of locating Dickens in statue form draws together several strands of contemporary interest. As I’m currently writing about in a piece on neo-Victorian spaces, place has played a central role in the growing popularity of all things Victorian in recent years. The tangible presence of the Victorians in our urban spaces today – in buildings, streets, and public spaces dating to the Victorian era, and in the lasting legacy of the Victorians’ own place-making processes – is often cited as one facet in the contemporary appeal of the Victorians over other historical periods. And in Dickens 2012 in particular, there was a repeated recourse to the places of his life and literature that shaped many of the bicentenary activities. It seems fitting then that Dickens’s memory is, literally, located as part of this neo-Victorian geography, the statue creating a tangible physical presence of Dickens’s place in a cultural landscape in which location so often features as a mode through which to make sense of the relationship between past and present, and the interactions between life and literature, that have been at the forefront of contemporary preoccupations. If nothing else, the statue is a fitting memorial to the forms of memorialisation that have been prominent since 2012, and a reflection of what Dickens 2012 meant as part of a longer trajectory of Dickensian celebrations and memorialisations.
*Are these his books? I can’t find out, or tell from the photos, if the books are inscribed with Dickens titles.
This was my third Dickens Day and the first where I wasn’t presenting a paper, so it was good to sit back and enjoy what is always a stimulating day among the Dickens community. This year’s theme of Dickens and History elicited some interesting responses on a good range of Dickens’s novels, including some that tend to receive less attention – Michael Slater’s plenary paper on A Child’s History of England was one example of this, opening the day with illuminating discussion of how Dickens handles historical themes and subjects in this work. Ruth Livesey followed with a very interesting reading of place and the past in Martin Chuzzlewit, exploring how different spaces and sites are employed in the novel’s central handling of the pull between past and present.
Papers in the panel sessions opened up various lines of enquiry into how Dickens understood history and how we situate Dickens as historical figure today. Emily Bowles explored Dickens’s handling of personal history in the later journalism which demonstrates a complex and often peculiar narrative voice that can’t easily be categorised, her reading drawing out indicative perspectives on the pursuit of self-knowledge and Dickens’s sense of his own history in these writings. Hadas Elber-Aviram’s paper on the “alternative histories” of Little Dorrit and David Copperfield looked at how the narratives pose a series of undeveloped relationships that present an on-going sense of “what might have been” that becomes central to the idea of history and the present in these novels. The making of “Dickens and history” in the contemporary moment was the subject of Claire Wood’s paper about the archiving of Dickens 2012 activities; I was especially interested in how 2012 was positioned in relation to previous Dickens celebrations, which Claire defined as moving from “reverential” in 1912, “faithful recreation” in 1970, to “rediscovery” in 2012. It will certainly be indicative to see how the bicentenary continues to be discussed as it becomes part of recent history (I’m aware already from writing about it of the potential impulse to mythologise or over-emphasise certain aspects of that year), and the papers here on Dickens and History provided some thoughtful issues to consider in both the crafting and interpreting of histories of Dickens.
I spent Friday 11th October in Stratford-upon-Avon at the launch of Shakespeare on the Road, a project between the University of Warwick, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and Misfits, inc. to celebrate the 2014-16 anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death. In what sounds like a rather wonderful (and enviable!) summer, the team are travelling across the United States visiting around 17 Shakespeare Festivals to provide an account of the as-yet-undocumented ways in which Shakespeare is performed, experienced and interpreted in US Festival settings.
This symposium marked the launch of the project and was an opportunity to discuss some of the initial questions proposed by and arising from the project. Throughout the day we heard a fascinating range of papers about different aspects of Shakespeare and/in the USA: Nicola Watson spoke about Shakespeare Gardens in the US as sites of memorial and commemoration that cultivate a particularly “English”, and feminised, space; Andrew Dickson talked about Shakespeare’s presence in the history of the American West – place-names, accounts of reading on the road – a theme picked up on later in Tim Lockley‘s paper on the appropriation of Shakespeare in the colonial period as a legacy of “Englishness”.
There’s also the long history of American interest in the Birthplace, including the (perhaps mythical) story of the American showman P.T. Barnum who, so it is said, tried to purchase the Birthplace in 1847 with the intention of shipping it to the USA where it would become part of his travelling circus (more on that here) – a point I picked up on at the end of my paper on the interconnections between literature, nation and place to pose the question: what if Barnum had been successful and transported the Birthplace away from Stratford-upon-Avon – so that it became, in the words of Dickens’s Wemmick, ‘portable property’? What might this lead us to ask about the location of national culture – is it in the walls of the house, the ground on which it stands, the national audience that experiences it, all of those things together; can national culture be detached from national place and still have meaning, and what alternative perspectives might new national contexts have generated?
Ideas of place were central to Stuart Elden’s paper on Shakespeare’s territories which, following on from his new book The Birth of Territory, began to explore the ways in which territory is used and understood in Shakespeare’s plays. Steve Purcell also raised questions about the appropriation of space in festival contexts, where the carnivalisation of outdoor spaces often plays a central role in crafting ideas and expectations around Shakespeare Festivals and Ruth Leary spoke about festivals from a cultural policy perspective, and posed interesting ideas about the idea of creative economy and cultural entrepreneurship today and in Shakespeare’s own activity.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to participate in such an enjoyable day generating some stimulating research questions, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the project develops over the next couple of years.
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!