The latest meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar, at the University of Nottingham on 16th January, explored the theme of Victorian Masculinities. Holly Furneaux’s (University of Leicester) keynote on gender and care in the Crimean War started the day, seeking to overturn the narrow popular and academic focus on Florence Nightingale’s role in the Crimean War to look at the work of male solider orderlies on military wards. Through a range of diaries and accounts of the war, Furneaux presented a fascinating and complex picture of the gendering of solider orderlies: forging emotional connections with one another, performing physical acts of care, and undertaking typically feminine arts of embroidery and quilting, all contributed to a vital reassessment of military masculinity.
The programme for the next Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar is now available, taking place on Thursday 16th January at the University of Nottingham. The theme is Victorian Masculinities and I’m presenting a paper titled “‘A brown sunburnt gentleman’: the travelling male body in Victorian literature”. By happy coincidence, I’m presenting a (longer) variation of this paper the day before, Wednesday 15th January, at a research seminar at Nottingham Trent University. The research looks at the return of male travellers from hot climes, focusing here on Woodcourt’s return in Bleak House to examine the class, race and gender implications of his becoming ‘a brown sunburnt gentleman’. This is drawn from work in my current book which I’m starting to extend in a couple of new pieces that will develop these ideas further.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.