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.
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.
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 next conference paper is in just under a month, at the annual Dickens Day at the Institute of English Studies in London on Saturday 13th October. This year’s theme is Dickens and popular culture, and I’ll be presenting a paper titled “’Something in the place’: Dickens 2012 and Literary Tourism” – abstract as follows:
The bicentenary of Dickens’s birth has prompted a wide range of celebratory responses across the world, and one prominent theme has been that of literary tourism: numerous talks and exhibitions have looked at the connections between Dickens’s literature, life and place; The Guardian’s “audio walks” series allows the listener to trace the places associated with the author’s life and works; and even a mobile App takes users “on a journey” of “Dickens’s London”. Why is literary tourism so popular? What are the implications for reading Dickens’s life and works? And how does the emphasis on Dickens and place fit within a wider context of “global Dickens”?
Nicola Watson’s The Literary Tourist (2006) and Juliet John’s recent discussion of “heritage Dickens” in Dickens and Mass Culture (2010) establish a framework for understanding Dickensian literary tourism, and I suggest that these discussions can be developed through a focus on the literary tour as a mobile experience of place. This paper focuses on two episodes from Dickens’s life and works that serve to illuminate, and open up further questions about, the popularity of Dickensian literary tourism. The first instance situates Dickens himself as a literary tourist, in his 1838 journey to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Accounts of the visit encapsulate a tension between resisting the “consecration” of literary authors within specific places whilst recognising the unnameable appeal of such sites– as Mrs Nickleby states, “there must be something in the place”. An episode in Bleak House goes further in exploring what this “something” might be: a passage in which the poor street boy Jo leads Lady Dedlock through the streets around Chancery is far from a typical example of tourism, but the passage carries strong resonances with the literary tour and offers an indicative exploration of the tour as a mobile experience of autobiographical place.
The Bleak House passage is further illustrative in opening up ideas around the connections between nation, place and identity, and I conclude by thinking about contemporary literary tourism in the context of national identity. Acts of literary tourism work to reiterate the idea of authors as national symbols into a physical experience of national place; but how does this emphasis on Dickens’s placein national culture fits within broader discourses of “global Dickens” in 2012?
The paper explores further some ideas that I’ve previously blogged about, including a piece on Dickens and literary tourism and reflections on the connections between Dickens and the Shakespeare birthplace (a few other pieces tagged literary tourism can be found here). The next stage of my research is a field trip of sorts: putting myself in the place of a literary tourist and doing a few of The Guardian’s Dickens audio walks. I’m intrigued to see how I find these walks and will certainly be blogging about the experience.
Update: the film on Shakespeare and Dickens can be viewed here.
I’ve been writing a lot about a certain birthday this year, but tomorrow (April 23rd) is the day we celebrate another important literary figure: William Shakespeare. Many who have read Dickens’s works will be familiar with the influence that Shakespeare had on Dickens’s writing, but Dickens also played an important role in the preservation of Shakespeare’s literary heritage. In a short film due to be released tomorrow, I talk to Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust about Dickens’s connections to the birthplace and particularly the events of 1847 when the house was put up for auction. The podcast was filmed on location and includes some fascinating materials from the Birthplace archives, including the visitor book signed by Dickens, playbills from productions Dickens put on, and some of Dickens’s letters. In this post, I wanted to think more about how we read Dickens’s initial response to the birthplace, and the issues around literary tradition, tourism and heritage that it raises.
Dickens first visited Shakespeare’s house on a trip to the region in 1838. In his letters, Dickens writes: “we went thence to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth”. It’s almost disappointingly brief in its pragmatic recounting of the visit and lacks the emotional investment we might want to find in the meeting-point of two such significant authors. The brevity is, I think, explained when we look at how Dickens treated the idea of Shakespeare and literary places in his fiction.
Dickens refers to the visit in his next work Nicholas Nickleby, humouring those who claim to feel such intense connection to Shakespeare: in the film, I read from a passage in which Mrs Wititterly claims that visiting the house “kindles quite a fire within one”, to which her husband retorts “There is nothing in the place, my dear – nothing, nothing”, and in turn Mrs Nickleby then replies, “I think there must be something in the place…”. The discussion is interesting in its choice of language and the polarities of thought around which the discussion centres: there is either “something” or “nothing” in the place (the use of “nothing” being of course resonant as a significant recurrent word in many of Shakespeare’s plays). In the dichotomy of something/nothing Dickens highlights the extremes of opinion to which people go when talking about Shakespeare, bounding from extreme reverance to complete irreverance (another episode in Nicklebysimilarly recounts such extremes, when Mrs Wititterly claims “I’m always ill after Shakespeare!”).
The debate over whether there is “something” or “nothing” in the place also highlights here the extent to which places themselves can be over- or under-invested with meaning. But it also opens up a space in which we become aware that, in going to extremes, the characters are missing the more important question: there is of course something in the place as a physical site, but what is that “something”? What is the meaning of a place and what is the appropriate meaning it holds? What kind of meaning do we, or should we, invest in places of significance?
I’ve talked about before about a passage in Bleak House in which Jo leads Lady Dedlock through the London streets, eventually arriving at the site where Nemo is buried: it is a burying-ground for the poor, prompting Lady Dedlock to ask “is this place of abomination consecrated ground?” to which Jo, with characteristic linguistic misunderstanding, replies “I don’t know nothink of consequential ground”. The question of what is “consequential ground” – i.e., of meaning, significance and value- becomes a key issue of the novel. That slippage between consecrated and consequentialground is, I think, the crux of the issue in the Nickleby discussion: how do we acknowledge “consequence” or significance without moving into the (un)holy consecration of a site as sacred, and thus invest it with a (false) meaning beyond its true value.
This was an era, of course, in which Bardolatry – an idolatrous investment of Shakespeare as the national poet – was on the rise. Dickens was resistant to the model of authorship this was founded on and the author-worship that this inspired: his use of Hamlet, for example, is typically only to achieve comic effect, whilst others saw Hamlet as epitomising the romantic figure of the author. Dickens’s hesitancy to investing the birthplace with “consecrated” meaning reads as a part of this response to Bardolatry: the brief mention of the visit – “we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth” – recognises the consequence of the visit, but acknowledges that a place can be of consequence without being consecrated, of importance without being over-invested with an excess of meaning.
That’s not to undermine the fact that Dickens does recognise that there is something in a place and that there is a value in preserving literary heritage as a site of significance for the nation. His role in the saving of the birthplace is further interesting in light of the fact that literary tourism would come to play such a central part of Dickens’s own literary heritage. The issue of national place, and what makes national place “consequential”, runs throughout Dickens’s work; in the Shakespeare birthplace, Dickens clearly found a site of national consequence and meaning, and his role in saving the house has preserved one of the most important sites of Britain’s literary heritage.
Today marks 200 years of Dickens’s birth.
There are plenty of celebratory websites and blogs reflecting on Dickens’s life and works, and I’ve already written my piece on why Dickens remains so popular and important today. So by way of a celebratory birthday post, I thought I’d take the opportunity to focus on some of Dickens’s local connections.
Dickens visited Leamington Spa several times, including one visit in 1838 which included Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Kenilworth. A letter from November 1st 1838 notes:
We found a roaring fire, an elegant dinner, a snug room, and capital beds all ready for us at Leamington, after a very agreeable (but very cold) ride. We started in a postchaise next morning for Kenilworth, with which we were both enraptured, and where I really think we MUST have lodgings next summer, please God that we are in good health and all goes well. You cannot conceive how delightful it is. To read among the ruins in fine weather would be perfect luxury. From here we went on to Warwick Castle, which is an ancient building, newly restored, and possessing no very great attraction beyond a fine view and some beautiful pictures; and thence to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth.
Ten years later in the novel Dombey and Son we see a similar visit undertaken by the main characters: in one of the novel’s most well-known passages Mr Dombey travels on the train (the London-Birmingham railway line, as Leamington wasn’t connected to London by railway until 1852) and then stays in the town at “the Royal Hotel”; Mrs Skewton and her daughter stay “in lodgings that were fashionable enough, but rather limited in point of space and conveniences” (323). They visit the Pump-room several times (in the image below, you can see a sign pointing “to the Pump Room”), and make an excursion to Warwick which takes the party over a landscape of “smooth undulations, wind-mills, corn-grass, bean fields, wild-flowers, farmyards, hayricks” (423) before visiting the Castle where “grim knights and warriors looked scowling on them”. Having exhausted the Castle, they ride “to several admired points of view in the neighbourhood” to sketch the views, and then take “a stroll among the haunted ruins of Kenilworth”.
In a later visit to Leamington in 1858, Dickens notes his travel on the railway line between Leamington and Wolverhampton, saying
We came through a part of the Black Country that you. know., and it looked at its blackest. All the furnaces seemed in full blast, and all the coal-pits to be working
Less well known, however, is that Dickens also visited Coventry in 1857 and 1858; on the first visit he gave a reading of A Christmas Carol in the city and on the second visit in December 1858, he was thanked by the city with the presentation of a gold watch. In his speech to mark the occassion he stated:
the memory of to-night, and of your picturesque and interesting city, will never be absent from my mind, and I can never more hear the lightest mention of the name of Coventry without having inspired in my breast sentiments of unusual emotion and unusual attachment.