Tag Archives: Material culture

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

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

On Wednesday I spent an excellent day at the York Transport Historians workshop “Making the Connections: Transport and its Place in History“. It was a very fruitful day of interesting papers and discussion on everything from canals to Concorde, and every mode of transport in between. I was pleased to get the opportunity to present on some research that I’ve been carrying out on a transport history of the Great Exhibition.

This work emerged from an older paper on Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys. The paper is on the mobility of material culture, something that Mayhew’s novel quite wonderfully depicts in a succession of comic (often absurdly so) instances. I was writing a footnote, when I found myself needing to cite a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition – something that told me the what, when and where of exactly how 6 million people and 100,000 objects moved across Britain and the world to the doors of the Crystal Palace. As I researched it, I realised that the work I needed to cite was one that needed to be written, and so this paper was born.

It would, of course, be remiss to state that no work on Exhibition transport exists. The symbiotic relationship between the Great Exhibition and the transport revolution has long been acknowledged: to Victorian commentators the Exhibition was the “natural result” of steam technology, a spontaneous outburst of the age of steam:

“The German journals are quite captivated by the idea of the great exhibition […] They regard it as a great step in the progress of different countries towards cosmopolitanism, and treat it as a natural result of the development of railways, steam communication, the electric telegraph…”

(The Times, 31st October 1849, p. 6)

This has become something of a critical commonplace; but little dedicated attention has been given to detailing a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition. Of course the notable exception is railway passenger travel, studies of which have abounded and become a familiar part of the broader narrative of railway history. But the railways have been studied largely in isolation from the many other modes of transport that were fundamental to passenger travel – steamboats, sail ships, carriages, omnibuses, cabs and pedestrianism. Consideration of the movement of objects to the Crystal Palace has also been a theme in discussions of the emergence of commodity culture, global commodity flows, and the international politics of the Exhibition. Less has been studied, though, of the practical logistics of how things actually travelled from, say, a mine in upstate New Jersey to the doors of the Crystal Palace.

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

This work started, then, as an enquiry that seeks to create an account that is detailed and nuanced in its understanding of Exhibition mobilities, while working towards an expansive grasp of the range of these journeys. In doing so, I want to both account for the (often fascinating) practicalities of Exhibition transport, and better understand the relationship between the Great Exhibition and the mobile culture of mid-Victorian Britain. By the end of the Exhibition, The Times posed a retrospective question:

“one of the most wonderful facts of the Exhibition is the mode in which its visitors came to it. How did they all get there?”

(The Times, 20th October 1851, p. 4)

It is this question that I seek to answer, as well as to reflect upon the interests, motivations, and cultural contexts that lay behind it.

In the paper I presented yesterday, I traced a brief overview of this work: from the planning and preparation discussions in which transport was a crucial factor in decisions about the location and scope of the Exhibition, through to reflections on the Exhibition’s outcomes in which bold statements about a new mobile culture could be made – “a new phase in the history of the world”, as one piece in The Times put it (Wednesday, June 11th, 1851, pg. 4). I followed the movements of objects as they travelled over land, sea, and across London to reach the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, and then explored the many and varied ways in which people journeyed to the Exhibition by ship, horse-drawn transport, and even on foot.

My sources thus far have been a  variety of cultural documents: novels such as Henry Mayhew’s 1851, as well as poems, plays, diaries, and religious tracts. My focus in yesterday’s paper was the research that has occupied me recently, a survey of 1209 newspaper reports published in The Times from 1st January 1849 to 31st December 1851. The Times survey – while making no claims to comprehensive breadth – has provided a useful lens through which to construct a ground-narrative of Exhibition history as it unfolded across the period. In foregrounding chronology, it has allowed me to perceive the nuanced ebbs and flows in attitudes towards different forms of mobility across the period: to realise, for example, that attention to (and celebration of) the railways comes relatively late in the Exhibition period, and that attention to shipping forms a vast and, to my knowledge, largely unexplored history of the period.

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

As this starts to make clear, the focus and tone of newspapers reportage also helps us to think about how the Victorians produced and consumed knowledge about transport technologies. What has become most apparent to me through this is the extent to which, I argue, the Exhibition represents the moment when modern mobility became acutely visible to the Victorians for the first time: while the networks that it relied upon had been growing for years, the Exhibition stimulated a rapidly emerging consciousness, accompanied by a great sense of excitement, at what it meant to be living in a newly mobile age. While this is easily equated with  “Exhibition fever” as a whole, there is a particular narrative of mobility within this that was important in Britain’s thinking about itself as a nation on the move, and as interested in understanding and, crucially, in charting its own transport history as it was unfolding in the present moment.

In a series of blog posts to follow I will post some of the initial thoughts and findings from this research.

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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’s the use of books?

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Leah Price’s How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain for Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature review site. Price’s work is a rich and evocative study of the many uses to which books were put in Victorian novel, and I’d strongly recommend it to any Victorianist – it’s one of those books full to the brim of fascinating information you never knew you wanted to know, whilst producing some important overarching arguments about Victorian culture more widely and gesturing towards new directions for the intersection of literary studies and material culture. It’s also highly pertinent to the theme of this week’s BAVS conference, Victorian Values, raising questions about the value of books in the Victorian age and the meaning of books today as we shift towards digital media.

You can find my review here, and I’d also highly recommend checking out the rest of the September issue of OLM – a review of John Bew’s Castlereagh: A Life and a piece on “Therapeutic Wordsworth” by Stephen Akey are particular highlights.

‘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.

Victorian Things Revisited @ Keele University, 29th June 2012

This meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar focused on the theme of “Victorian Things Revisited”, seeking to explore where the “material turn” has taken us in Victorian Studies and what new possibilities for research still remain. Throughout the day, each of the 6 presenters approached the theme of material culture from a different angle, demonstrating the rich diversity of approaches to material culture and opening up many new possibilities for new directions in this research.

The day started with a panel comprising of myself and Mary Addyman, a first-year PhD student also based in the Department of English here at Warwick. I gave a paper titled “‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place c. 1851“, which I’ll write about in a separate post as the panel generated a lot of ideas that I want to follow up in more detail (update: blogged about here). Mary’s paper explored new research into the collection of Richard and Henry Cuming, a father and son who collected a vast array of objects from the 1780s to 1900, including geological and archaelogical artefacts, art, textiles, ceramics, Egyptian objects, and objects representative of British social history – including everyday packaging. The disorganisation and variety of the Cuming collection goes against our usual understanding of the Victorians as systematic collectors imposing order in a disordered world, but Mary sought to find a more nuanced reading of the way in which this disorganised mode of collecting might be read, thinking about the collector recording his place in the world and the sense of responsibility to future generations involved in this accumulation and preservation of the present. Mary ended by considering the temporality of collecting, drawing out some fascinating links between collecting and geology.

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Image from Southwark Collections

In the second panel, two papers centred around objects that sit at the intersection between bodies and things and trouble the binaries between living and dead, natural and artificial. Julia Courtney (Open University) raised the question of “Living Things?” in her paper on Victorian taxidermy. This focused first on taxidemied animals and birds that are posed in scenes that recreate their “natural” environments, and then on animals that are anthropomorphised in artificial scenes, such as a scene of mice sat at a table playing cards. This raised interesting questions about the relationship between bodies and things, the point at which a body becomes a “thing”, and by what means the status of “thing” is ascribed. Courtney also thought about the differences in cultural appreciation for taxidermied animals, comparing the Victorian fashion for and fascination with taxidermy as something that evokes a pleasurable response, versus the rather more reluctant way in which taxidermy is viewed – with humour? disgust?- today.

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Walter Potter’s Red Squirrels Playing Cards, c.1871

Courtney was followed by Michael Lee (Leeds Met) whose body-object discussions took a literary turn in a paper on “Eating Things in Lewis Carroll”. Lee began with a theoretical exploration of the different conceptualisations of things and objects, raising the question “what kind of a thing is food?” His subsequent discussion of Alice in Wonderland suggested that through Carroll’s use of food the borders between different types of things are blurred: food is a social thing which moves within a network of circulation that supercedes the human. Food also troubles the boundaries of body/thing and life/death: the body itself has the potential to be a thing that can be consumed, moving from subject to object status. In networks of consumption, Lee suggested, everything is edible and everything is social.

In the final panel of the day we moved towards science and industry. Stella Pratt-Smith‘s paper “Material, Manufactured, Modern: the Science of Victorian ‘Thing’ Culture” posited a more thorough understanding of the relationship between science and material culture: science was not just one aspect of Victorian material culture but central to allowing that material culture to come about. Her paper demonstrated how putting Victorian things into the contexts of their production, exploring and understanding how things were made, is not only illuminating for our understanding of particular Victorian objects but also for interpreting the significance of the Victorians’ fascination with things. Pratt-Smith’s discussion of the science of various objects, such as the development of purple dyes that held a particular allure and new glass technologies, provided a fascinating insight into the scientific developments fuelling material culture. This was particularly interesting in light of the recent Transforming Objects conference: Stella referred to Jim Mussell’s discussion of chlorodyne (and I must thank Stella for her generous mention of this blog in her talk and handout!), and I was also reminded of Eugenia Gonzalez’s talk on narratives of doll production.

Stephen Etheridge (Huddersfield) finished the day with a paper on “Brass Instruments, Bandsmen and Working-Class Identity: Brass Bands in the Southern Pennines and the creation of working-class identity, 1840-1900”. Etheridge began by noting the overly romanticised notion of brass bands as symbolic of northern working-class culture, but moved in to offer a more nuanced understanding of the role of brass bands in the Southern Pennine region and the various ways in which bands featured as a centre-point of masculine working-class identity. Etheridge noted the strong community element of this identity: bandsmen forged a strong group identity within their band and were well known within the local community, and this was strengthened by the competitiveness between bands from different towns. But there was also a particularly strong individual identity forged through relation to one’s own instrument: after the death of a player the instrument would feature as a strong reminder of the individual, often proudly displayed in his memory – we were also shown the image of a gravestone decorated with a trombone engraving. Here again the intersections between people and object, life and death, and the permanence of objects in comparison with the mortality of people – taking us full circle to the ideas raised about collections in Mary’s paper.

There were many interconnections arising throughout these papers, more than I could hope to cover here, and I was struck by how such a diverse range of perspectives on material culture could simultaneously raise so many points of interaction. This was interdisciplinarity at its best – balancing breadth and depth, generating new ideas without losing particularity or focus, and enabling stimulating and lively discussion in each of the question sessions. The day revealed material culture to be a thriving area of study with many possibilities for new directions and approaches, suggesting that this is an area which we can keep visiting and revisiting for some time to come.

Transforming Objects @ Northumbria University, 28–29th May

Transforming ObjectsThis two-day conference at the University of Northumbria brought new perspectives to the study of material culture by focusing on ideas around objects and transformation, both in terms of the movements of objects, and the processes of change that objects themselves might effect. Papers from a wide range of disciplines, covering the 18th-20th centuries, looked at a fascinating array of objects: shawls, tea, glass, medicines, art, feathers, paper, dolls, rags, post and clocks, were just a few of the things discussed.

The first panel on “Transforming Objects in Gaskell” opened up a rich discussion of material culture in Elizabeth Gaskell’s works, initiating wider contexts of domesticity, industrialisation and imperialism that recurred throughout the following two days. Alison Lundie’s paper on clothing and needlework in Gaskell looked at how character and identity can be interpreted through objects of domestic arts in Gaskell’s works, and focused in particular on shawls which are especially desired garments; Lundie illustrated this with beautiful images of Gaskell’s own shawls. Her discussion included Miss Matty’s Indian shawl in Cranford, and the factory workers’ shawls in Mary Barton; this intersected nicely with the next presenter Tara Puri, whose paper on “unstable objects” in North and South included Indian shawls as part of a wider discussion about symbols of middle-class domesticity which also included tea and calico. The relationship of these objects to the representation of Margaret Hale brought out ideas around bodily presence and sexuality, and the role of imperial objects in the constructiong of middle-class English femininity. Both papers hinted towards physical borders of the self, touch, and embodiment that, to me, resonated with Kate Smith’s paper at the Spaces of Work conference I attended recently. With this paper in mind, I was particularly interested in two points Lundie had made in her discussion of shawls and Mary Barton – about how factory workers are referred to as “hands”, and the references to literal hands in the text. I wondered afterwards (in a not entirely coherent comment!) about how ideas around hands might interplay, literally and metaphorically, with the use of shawls and other textiles.

An afternoon panel on “altering states” looked at the power of objects to transform from one state to another. James Mussell’s paper on chlorodyne raised wider questions about framing of discussions of material culture and the secret lives of things: we come to know and understand the material world through the narratives we create about it, and uncovering material history is thus a process of “telling tales about the tales that were told” about objects. His narrative of chlorodyne was a fascinating exploration of the ways in which legal and medical discourses intersect with the physical experience of the body, highlighting that medicine’s powerful transformative effects on the body is situated within a wider context of authoritative discourses that speak for the body. Mark Blacklock followed with a paper on “Hinton’s cubes” and late-19th century theories of 4-dimensional space, which discussed the role of objects in altering conceptual thought and opened up ideas about the relationship between things and thought.

The next morning, I chaired a panel on “Transforming objects and the creation of nation” in which themes of travel and networks of circulation were central throughout. Ruth Scobie began with a paper on Elizabeth Montagu’s feathered objects, featured in William Cowper’s poem “On Mrs Montagu’s Feather Hangings.” As in the first panel, the intersection of femininity, domesticity and imperialism came to the surface here, but Scobie looked at how the feathers – as items obtained specifically through acts of violence – made particularly visible the tensions between exotic desirability and destructive violence inherent in colonial encounters. Emalee Beddoes’ paper also looked at an imperial commodity within English national space, discussing tea advertisements as an emblem of Britishness in the 19th century. Advertising played a crucial role in normalising tea from exotic artefact to everyday domestic object. Middle-class femininity featured strongly in this, with adverts typically using women; if men featured in adverts, it was typically only in the context of the international, public sphere.

The next two papers turned from objects to travellers: Maria Grazia Messore discussed Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, a piece of travel writing which seeks to construct an idea of English national identity through the process of travelling the nation, and particularly emphasises the importance of trade and the figure of the merchant in this identity. I was interested in the importance of the circuit in this delineation of national space: each route begins in and returns to London, thus insisting on the importance of London as the centre-point of the nation – but also, with London being the centre-point of an international network of trade, thus emphasising the signficance of the global in the idea of the nation. The final paper of this panel, by Fariha Shaikh, drew on emigrants’ narratives to consider travellers’ objects and the ways in which travelling objects construct ideas of space for the traveller. Shaikh noted that in emigrants’ accounts, much attention is given to the physical positioning of objects and everything being in its right place, and she considered how this suggests a reconceptualisation of the journey space as not so much an invisible backdrop to the journey, but as a space to be worked through, experienced and reshaped by the traveller.

The final panel I attended gave a fascinating account of paper in its many and various forms. Claire Friend discussed the process of making paper in 18th century Edinburgh, from collecting the rags and scraps that were used as the basic material, to the finished product – of which there were over 300 types being made in Edinburgh alone. Eugenia Gonzalez then looked at objects made from paper: dolls, which often had faces made from papier-mâché. Gonzalez’s paper explored narratives of doll production, i.e. books which informed their young readers of how dolls were made, again raising interesting questions about the intersection between objects and narrative processes, as well as the desire to know the secret histories of things and how they came to be. Katie McGettigan brought together several strands of discussion in a paper that considered the material form and circulation of the book, demonstrating Melville’s engagement with the literary marketplace and the idea of book as object through a series of metaphoric connections between books and whales in the text.

Two keynote papers also provided stimulating ideas and perspectives on the conference theme. John Holmes spoke about the pre-Raphaelites and science, which proved to be a fascinating exploration (and demonstration) of interdisciplinarity in arguing that the pre-Raphaelites transformed what art could achieve through an engagement with science, which in turn transformed how science represented itself. Sarah Haggarty’s paper returned to ideas of national circulation, space and time; I particularly enjoyed her comments on the postal service and its role in transforming the experience of time, in which individual sense of temporality depends upon a regulated, national system of circulation.

As well as the academic discussions that ensued from these excellent papers, a particular highlight for me was participating in the Roundtable discussion on blogging. The theme of our discussion was single- or multi-author blogging, but in the hour and a half we ranged over issues of academic identity, narrative voice, the importance of “impact”, web presence, and the different forms that academic blogging might take. Lucinda Matthews-Jones, who chaired the roundtable, has done an excellent job of capturing the discussion in a blog post for JVC Online– which is itself a great example of a multi-author blog and well worth a read for Victorianists!

My thanks again to the conference organisers for inviting me to join the discussion, and for an extremely interesting two days of thinking about things! It’s proved very timely as the next event of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies seminar is on the theme of “Victorian Things”, and I’ll be giving a paper titled “What connection can there be?: People, Objects and Places, c. 1851”. The paper draws out some ideas around material culture, national/global networks, and the Great Exhibition, so the Transforming Objects conference has provided a useful stimulus for developing these thoughts.

“What connection can there be?”: the Great Exhibition of 1851

All the World Going to the Great Exhibition

I took a short research trip to the British Library last weekend, doing some work on the Great Exhibition of 1851 as context for current writing on Dickens’s Bleak House, and while I was there I took the time to look at the originals of these pictures which I’ve come across in a couple of articles on the subject. They’re illustrations from 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. I haven’t yet read 1851 (the title doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination, but I do know that the Sandboys never actually make it to the Exhibition…) but these images are wonderful depictions of the anxieties surrounding the Exhibition. The opening image, above, shows “All the World going to see the Great Exhibition of 1851”; with the Crystal Palace standing on top of the world as the triumphant, celebrated achievement of the modern era, people of all nations encroach in to see it. Cultures are identified through stereotypical tropes typical of the period, but whilst people are visibly different in the bottom half of the picture – there’s a clear sense of a scale of “civilization” operating across this globe – closer to the Palace the crowd becomes a homogenous, undistinguishable mass of people. This visibly depicts Prince Albert’s words that the Exhibition signalled “that great end, to which, indeed, all history points – the realisation of the unity of mankind”. It’s notable, too, that this is a boundariless and borderless world; people are different, but the space in which they move is one.

dispersion

The final image of the book, titled “The Dispersion of the Works of All Nations from the Great Exhibition of 1851”, is suggestive of the uncertainty of such unity: the objects of the Exhibition burst out from the Crystal Palace, dispersing into random confusion. Whilst the Exhibition attempted to impose neat systems of categorisation and re-asserted national borders by arranging objects by country, this image shows the complete disruption of organising systems; bringing all the world together does not result in a harmonious unity, but rather a descent into chaos that resists all containment. Notably, it’s only objects that are dispersing, not the people of the previous image; things overrun the globe, highlighting the move into global capitalism that the Exhibition space stands as representative of. The Palace itself is in the centre of the picture, obscured by flying objects, yet in tact and unharmed – I can’t decide, looking at it now, if it’s suggesting a spontaneous explosion of objects out of the building that can’t contain all this chaos, or rather an active expulsion of things away from British shores (as implied in the title “dispersion”). Both readings work, I think, and stand to assert the problems inherent in the Exhibition’s global project and the counter-response of national introspection that we find in a novel like Bleak House.

Finally, these two images bring to mind one of the central questions of Bleak House: “what connexion can there be […] What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!” (256). We might easily substitute “things” in place of “people” and read the Exhibition as an attempt to form the connections between the diverse places and cultures of the world but which, as Cruikshank’s second image suggests, simultaneously signalled the impossibility of such understanding. The question lingers through Dickens’s text as another element of the novel’s anti-Exhibition project, never giving us the totalizing view but rather revealing the impossibility of knowing the whole in a world in which everything is “moving on and moving on”.