Tag Archives: Space

Rethinking the Nineteenth Century @ University of Sheffield, 24th August 2013

Focusing on the question “what constitutes 19th century studies today?” this one-day conference at the University of Sheffield provided an interesting set of papers on the poetry, novels, photographs, spaces and journeys across the nineteenth century and into its cultural afterlives today. While the day demonstrated that nineteenth-century studies remains a lively and active field in its own right, there were also noticeable cross-overs with the themes and questions raised at the Neo-Victorian Cultures conference last month, suggesting that there are many useful cross-currents between the two fields.

On that note it was unfortunate that I missed Mark Llewellyn’s keynote paper, but in a later panel on Churches and Asylums, the resonances between 19th-century topics and the present day were at the fore of discussions of space and geography. Stef Eastoe explored the spatial design and geographical location of asylums to reveal new perspectives on the communities that formed within asylums, and on the relationship between asylums and the local area. Her work on the Caterham asylum revealed fascinating insights into the ways in which asylums were designed and suggested important ways in which asylums were integral to the local community, playing an active role in shaping the history and development of the local area. In the ensuing discussion, Stef also spoke about the contemporary conversion of asylums and workhouses (for example, into luxury apartments) which can seek to erase the history of the building’s former use. In contrast, Adam M. Klups‘s paper on converting disused nineteenth century churches for residential use discussed how these conversion projects have to retain key features of the original architecture; this can produce a kind of doubleness in the appearance of buildings that are as much products of the era of their conversion – and of their geographical location – as they are of their nineteenth-century context.

Another key area of focus was the Brontës, and I was pleased to join fellow Brontë scholars Erin Johnson and Jenny Pearce on a panel about the Brontës and governesses. Erin’s paper traced the trajectory of the Byronic hero throughout Charlotte Brontë’s work, from the early Angrian stories through to Jane Eyre; from this perspective, Brontë’s first novel becomes situated as an end-point in terms of its narrative of masculinity. This provided an interesting recognition of the significance of cross-period development in Brontë’s work, drawing attention to the way in which seminal texts of the Victorian era demonstrate continuity with the concerns and themes of earlier periods in the century. My paper (abstract here) took Villette as an example of how reading 19th century novels through their journey narratives provides new perspectives on familiar concerns around nation, and I looked at how the journey narrative rearticulates the way in which we understand the England-Belgium relationship throughout Villette. The theme of journeying was explored further in Jenny Pearce’s paper about travelling governesses. Looking at the narratives of two governesses that travelled with families to Egypt, Jenny’s analysis raised interesting issues about how the social position of the governess afforded her a different experience of, and approach to, travel; these governesses were experiencing places usually far beyond the realm of women (and men) in their social position, but being outside the typical model of the English traveller means that their perspectives on tourist sites represent some interesting divergences from the usual views expressed in travel writing.

Throughout the day, other papers covered some fascinating insights into nineteenth-century poetry and criticism, the role of photography in literature, and gothic and fantasy narratives. One of the key issues that the title “Rethinking the Nineteenth Century” provoked was that of the relationship between Victorian Studies and Nineteenth Century Studies, and how the two terms are applied and used by scholars; for those of us that bridge both categories, how, when and why do we position ourselves as Victorianists or Nineteenth-Centuryists? Following some interesting conversations on this subject at Neo-Victorian Cultures (which also brought to mind the question of neo-Victorian vs. neo-Nineteenth Century), I’m going to blog further about this in my next post for the Journal of Victorian Culture online which will be released in the next couple of weeks.

Mapping the past, today: TV’s trend for treading the historical beaten track

I’ve been catching up on some TV this week, with two historical travel programmes that caught my eye. Firstly, there’s been a new series of BBC2’s Great British Railway Journeys, the show in which Michael Portillo set off on the train with a copy of Bradshaw’s Victorian railway guide under his arm, using the text as a lens through which to explore the railway route then and now and stopping at various sites of Victorian interest along the way. This series has been of particular interest to me as the starting point for this route was High Wycombe, a stop on from my hometown of Beaconsfield (where the station wasn’t built until 1906), and the first episode saw Portillo travel to Leamington Spa and then on to Stratford-upon-Avon, stopping along the way to visit the Leamington Pump Rooms, Tennis Court Club, and Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon (alas, no mention of one eminent Victorian’s visit to the area in 1838!).

There’s also a brand new series on BBC 2 called Map Man – in which as the website blurb says,

Modern explorer Nicholas Crane travels across eight maps that changed the face of Britain in a series of geographical challenges through some of today’s wildest landscapes, telling the story of British mapmaking from the time of Chaucer through to the current generation of cyber-mappers.

In episode 2, Nicholas Crane set off with John Ogilby’s 1675 road map, the first of its kind to trace a route as a linear journey (as it happens, I blogged about this map after seeing it at a V&A exhibition back in 2008).

Ogilby's 1675 road map
Ogilby’s 1675 road map

Crane’s journey of the trans-Pennine pass from York to Lancaster was fascinating in revealing many changes to the landscape that have occured in the intervening years: some of the route is now the course of the major A-road, but substantially diverged for much of the way; we saw how a river had been re-routed as a result of the coming of the railway in later years; and Crane searched for telling traces of the old roads that still remain alongside muddy paths and wooded undergrowth. I’m very much looking forward to subsquent episodes, and can’t wait to see which maps have been chosen.

Watching these programmes back-to-back led me to reflect on the use of maps or guides as a basis for a tv series, which seems to have become a bit of a trend in recent years: Julia Bradbury’s Canal Walks, Wainwright’s Walks, and Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys are a few other examples that come to mind, but I’m sure there have been others in a similar vein. Each of these takes a historical map or guide book and sets out to explore the route in its present form, using the map as a focal point through which to read and interpret the current landscape and open up discussion around points of similarity and change between then and now.

But why the fascination with the guide book? What is it about the old mapped route that is of such interest to us now?

Baedeker's Southern Italy, 1912 ed.
Baedeker’s Southern Italy,1912 ed.

On the surface, the appeal is easy to see: these routes give the perfect structure for a tv series, carving out linear yet episodic paths that develop nicely over a long series and work equally well as stand-alone episodes, bringing in multiple points of interest while maintaining a focused narrative. But there’s also something important here in having the map or guide as a locatable route which can be plotted onto the present landscape, and, vice versa, of using the guide as a means through which to read that landscape for its historical traces; there’s something in being able to directly plot past onto present, and experience space as a site of continuity with the past. And perhaps more importantly, there’s something in the process of following a mapped historical route as a mobile experience, of putting oneself into the shoes of a historical traveller in a way that seemingly validates or authenticates the journey and that seemingly brings one into closer contact with the historical site, following in the footsteps of those that have tread the same path – a point which interestingly resonates with the original use of guidebooks in the nineteenth century as a form of touristic authentification that gave security and satisfaction from the knowledge that you were following the same beaten track that every other tourist before you had trodden, seeing every important site through the interpretative lens of the guidebook.

It’s an act that resonates strongly with literary tourism, yet the guidebook/map offers a slightly different manifestation of this process, with a different set of interpretative possibilities and spatial/historical relations. There seems to be more to be said about how these journeys might allow us to re-read not just the sites described in the guidebooks for their historical resonances, but also of how the guidebooks might be re-read as texts through reference to the sites they depict. It’s a process about which I have more questions than answers at the moment, but fortuitously will have the opportunity to explore further – when I travel to Sardinia in April I’ll almost certainly be taking my 1912 Baedeker’s Southern Italy along to think more about how the guidebook-as-text might be repositioned within this set of spatial-historical-geographical relations that arise from the contemporary re-treading of its tourist tracks.

Publication: Mobility, Space and the Nation in Bleak House

My article “‘A moving and a moving on’: Mobility, Space and the Nation in Dickens’s Bleak House‘ has today been published in the journal English via Oxford Journals advance access. The article will appear in print in December 2012 as part of a special issue on Dickens and Travel, following on from last year’s Dickens Day; I’m very pleased to be included in this volume and looking forward to reading the rest of the articles.

The link above follows through to the pdf, but you can also view the abstract and full text here.

Dickens Day 2012: Dickens and Popular Culture

This year’s Dickens Day, held at the Institute of English Studies on Saturday 13th October, was the last in what has been a very full year of Dickens conferences, exhibitions and other celebrations, and it made for a wonderful end to a year of Dickens celebrations. Befitting the bicentenary year, the theme of Dickens Day 2012 was “Dickens and popular culture”, a topic which invited a diverse range of responses to Dickens’s popularity both then and now.

The day opened with a plenary panel that brought together Malcolm Andrews (University of Kent), Jenny Hartley (University of Roehampton), and Paul Schlicke (University of Aberdeen), to explore the resonances of Dickens in popular culture through the lenses of laughter and vulgarity (Andrews), public speaking (Hartley), and the circus (Schlicke) – I particularly enjoyed Schlicke’s discussion of circus performances of various Dickens novels, which saw characters like Pickwick and Sam Weller set on horseback performing in the circus ring.

In the following panel, “revolting bodies” were the theme. Helen Goodman (Royal Holloway, University of London), presented on ‘Dickens, Lunacy and Asylums in Early-Victorian Popular Culture’, looking at Dickens’s conflicted relationship with popular culture in the context of shifts in understandings of mental health in the early Victorian period, particularly around the notion of lunacy as spectacle, and exploring Dickens’s handling of mental illness in characters such as Mr Dick in David Copperfield. Joanne Ella Parsons (University of the West of England) took us from mental to physical health with her paper ‘Dickensian Appetites: The Influence of Dickens’s Monstrous Meals’, exploring how Dickens uses food to convey aspects of character and examining the ways in which this interacts wtih wider Victorian discourses of food. Parsons focused particularly on Miss Havisham’s non-consumed feast in Great Expectations – with some interesting discussion of the different types of wedding cake that evolved throughout the early 19th century – and the vulgarity of food in relation to Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. She also considered the centrality of food in one of Dickens’s most prominent afterlives, the idea of the Dickensian Christmas.

Sign for The Boot, Cromer Street, London W1; Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Two further papers on this panel drew mobility and space into their discussion of “revolting bodies”. In Emma Curry’s (Birkbeck College, University of London) paper, the embodied mobility of the revolting body was central to a discussion which focused on ‘Legends and Leg-Ends: History, Feet and Mass Movement in A Tale of Two Cities’. The idea of the revolting, revolutionary body is central to the text’s handling of the French Revolution, but Curry identified that within this the novel repeatedly draws attention to representations of feet and shoes, taking us down to the material motivations and consequences of the mob. Curry explored the dynamics of materiality and embodiment, the mobility of the mob, and notions of history and intellectual thought, suggesting ways in which representations of feet contribute to a reading of the novel’s handling of revolution and historical events. Matthew Ingleby’s (University College London) paper also (sort of!) took feet as its theme, looking at ‘Dickens’s Boot: Popular Violence, the Public House, and the City’s Limits’. Ingleby looked at the urban-rural interactions of Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, locating the pub “The Boot” – a real pub in London which becomes fictionalised as a rural pub in the novel – as central to the delineation of urbanization (or (pub)urbanization as Ingleby neatly coined it), marking as it does the rapid spread of London in the period between the novel’s late-18th century setting and Dickens’s time of writing. Further interesting was discussion of the afterlives of Barnaby Rudge, in which Ingleby noted that a new development in Birmingham, Alabama called “The Preserve” specifically draws on “Dickensian” tropes in its advertising material and has replicated a pub named “The Boot”, and yet in doing so somewhat confuses the urban/rural discourses that surround the pub in the novel.

Cover image of Down in the Hole: The Unwired World of H.B. Ogden, by Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson

In the afternoon, I spoke on a panel which looked at Dickens’s influence and afterlives. Karen Hornick’s (New York University) paper on ‘Popular Critical Discourse and “The Dickensian Aspect”’ looked at critical discourse around The Wire as “Dickensian”. Although it’s become something of a (misused) commonplace to refer to the series as “Dickensian”, often used in ways that overlook the complex dynamics of race, class, economics etc that the series explores, Hornick suggested more critical ways in which the term applies, identifying the totalizing social vision, absence of any solution, and lack of a final “installment” as key to both. Hornick also discussed the awareness of the writers themselves at their handling of this term, particularly in the focus on journalism in the final series (and the conscious play on “The Dickensian Aspect” in one of the later episodes). I was very interested to see that Down in the Hole: The Unwired World of H.B. Ogden, a faux-Victorian serial novel of The Wire, has been released in full form (following the initial mock-up article last year). I followed this with a paper on ‘“Something in the Place”: Dickens 2012 and Literary Tourism’, themes that will be quite familiar to readers of this blog and which I’ll follow up with a few more thoughts in another post. Finally, in an impressive technological move, Tom Ue (University College London) skyped in from the USA with his paper on ‘Dickens, Gissing, and the Life of Writing’, an indicative exploration of the relationship between the two authors.

The day ended with Juliet John’s (Royal Holloway, University of London) keynote presentation on ‘Things, Words and the Meanings of Art’. John was a highly fitting keynote for the conference theme given her recent Dickens and Mass Culture (2011) which informed many of the papers throughout the day, and her keynote opened up some indicative new directions in its exploration of things in Dickens’s writing. Her paper is available as a chapter in the very recently published collection Dickens and Modernity and I therefore won’t detail too much here – suffice to say that John suggested more attentiveness to the relationship between words and things not just as semiotic systems but within representational frames, and then took us through a fascinating discussion which ranged across commodity culture in Household Words, money as “thing”, Dickens and celebrity, statues (the celebrity author as thing), and the afterlives of Dickensian things.

Once again the organisers put together an excellent day that prompted some fruitful discussion, and I’m very grateful that I had the chance to be a part of another Dickens Day. Also worth noting is that papers from last year’s Day on Dickens and Travel are to be published in the next issue of English, and should very soon be available via advance access on the website.

Unplanned Wildernesses: Narrating the British Slum 1844–1951 @ Uni of Warwick, 19th May

“Unplanned Wildernesses: Narrative the British Slum 1844-1951” was a one-day conference, held at Warwick and organised by Gabrielle Mearns, which opened up a fascinating range of perspectives on British slums from the mid-19th to mid-20th century.

slumGabrielle’s opening remarks positioned the slum as a site of contestation in a range of debates over gender, class and race, and a space that challenges representation, and papers throughout the day explored the full extent of these remarks. Seth Koven’s keynote began by taking this idea of the power contest to the smallest-scale place within the slum: the body. In particular, he focused on a young woman from the slums, Nellie Dowell, and two competing accounts of her body: medical records that document her hospitalisation for chorea (rheumatic fever), and her letters to her friend Muriel. Koven began by questioning why, as a historian, reading the medical records felt a far more invasive act than the intensely personal letters, and the paper that followed offered various answers to this. In the first part he constructed a narrative of Nellie through her medical records, intensely (and invasively) detailed accounts of her bodily state; Koven positioned these within discourses of “technologies of interiority” and explored ideas around the individual body within the regimented instituition of the hospital. Nellie’s letters to Muriel provided a different narrative of her illness, one which opened up deep intimacy and forms of desire that were suggestive of something deeper than friendship; Koven raised the possibility (and difficulties) of reading unknown queer desire, but what was particularly interesting here was the way in which illness provided the means through which that desire operated, opening up the boundaries of the bodily self/ other and a language of exchange and connection. Returning to his initial question about the historian’s position to subject material, it was clear that this latter material felt less invasive because of its voluntary nature, rather than the involuntary nature of institutional documentation, and Koven drew on Spivak to leave us with questions about “(how) can the Cockney subaltern speak?”

The first panel saw a paper from Warwick’s Mick Carpenter and Alice Mah who are undertaking a project on Coventry’s slum history – an act of reclaiming an “outcast slum”, as the city’s pre-war urban history has received little attention. They charted the 19th century development of the city, which effectively skipped the normal processes of the Industrial revolution and underwent rapid urbanisation in the late-century period; as such, it is a “non-classical” slum, and their project is understanding this history through local accounts, collections and narratives. This was followed by Christopher Bischof’s paper on slum schools, looking at the role of teachers who chose to work at these schools and their relationship to the slums which they lived and worked on the edge of; this put them in an ambivalent relationship to the space of the slum, and raised questions around the borders of respectability in the slums, and urban environments more widely. Indeed a running theme of the morning was the idea of encounter between the personal and professional, the body and the institution, in urban locations.

Borders and boundaries was also a theme throughout the panel I chaired on “Slum Geographies”. Jessica Hindes’ paper looked at G.W.M. Reynolds’ Mysteries of London, beginning by raising questions around the representation of the space of the slum through different genres, particularly the Gothic – modes of representation more typically found in descriptions of European castles become transferred to the London streets. Jessica thought in particular about the spatial dynamics of above/below ground which opened up a different mode of spatial structure, and one which was appropriate to her final point that just as the Gothic taps into the deepest layers of the psyche, the slum holds the secrets of society itself. New forms of mapping the slum were also a theme of Eliza Cubitt’s paper on Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago. The slum on which this narrative is based is represented on an OS map of the city only as a blank space, unrepresentable and unmapped; Morrison’s account creates a fictional mapping of the space which, interestingly, is still bordered by the “real” streets surrounding the slum. Eliza’s paper explored the relationship between text and map, including a fascinating visual re-mapping of the text through a 3D simulation that recentred the importance of embodied experience in mapping. Nell Stevens’ paper also considered competing spatial discourses through looking at the Salvation Army’s practice of rewriting popular music-hall songs with Salvationist lyrics; this was a popular way of appealing to the urban poor, but Nell also suggested that it reflected the broader Salvation Army project of remapping London spatially, and considered the role that music played in this project.

In all of these papers I was really interested by intersecting themes of the competing modes of both spatial and textual representation taking place over the slums, the questions over the boundaries of the slum and its relationship to the surrounding urban space, suggesting perhaps that the way in which these narratives sought to spatially and textually contain the slum was underpinned by an anxiety about its potential uncontainability. As much as these discourses sought to articulate the problem of the slum it was obvious, too, that the slum made visible a whole host of problems of modernity: not just its problematic socio-economic changes, but also wider conceptual questions about the relationship between different places in a changing world-space. This is, of course, drawing more on my own research framework than that proposed by the papers themselves, but it felt like one useful way of positioning and contextualising the ideas around modernity, space and representation that the slum poses. All in all a useful and productive day, and great to hear such a range of perspectives on the British slum.

Travel and Mobility – research network


I am currently establishing a new interdisciplinary research network to explore the different contexts, concepts, and approaches to travel and mobility studies across the arts, humanities and social sciences. This will be co-organised with a colleague in the German Department (Brian Haman). We are currently seeking participants with research interests including:

*travel literature (fiction and non-fiction),

*travel and the visual arts,


*migration and migrants,

*mobility theory,

* broader notions of transnationality

*in any national/international context from the early modern period to the present.

The core of the network will be Warwick-based, but we have had expressions of interest from researchers at other UK and international universities with whom we hope to extend the collaboration in time.
Please feel free to contact me if you are interested or would like more information.

Spaces of Work, Britain 1770–1830 @ University of Warwick, 28th April 2012


This one-day conference held at the University of Warwick provided an excellent interdisciplinary analysis of the intersections between space and various forms of work in the Romantic period.

The discussions began with Karen Harvey’s paper “Thinking through Boundaries: The House, Gender and Work” which explored masculinity and domesticity in the eighteenth century. Harvey began by suggesting a conceptual shift from the use of the word “home” to the concept of “the house” in studies of domesticity, positing that “house” can be used to signal more than the physical shell but that it carries a set of meanings that are distinct from the idea of “home”. Harvey then turned to look at masculine identity and the house, exploring men’s role in the management of the house through a selection of notebooks of 18th century men. These displayed the active role of men in household management, and demonstrated the irrelevance of the division between discourses of home, work, business and so on. She ended by moving out to the position of the house in the wider space of national community, and how men’s domestic management helped to understand the porosity of the house to the wider world. The paper drew on her recently published book The Little Republic: Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain which I’m hoping to read at some point.

Of the papers on the two panels that followed, I was most interested in Kate Smith’s paper on “The Work of Shopping”. Smith argued for a reconceptualisation of shopping as “work”, by way of offering a renewed understanding of critiques of female shopping – which become repositioned as critiques of the public act of female work. Smith looked at how shopping could be understood as skilled work, involving embodied knowledge, active participation, and a keen eye for quality; this focused in particular on the importance of female hands, looking at the surrounding contexts of female hands as signifiers of identity and class status, and the problematic visibility of female hands on display when shopping. This opened up an interesting set of intersecting discourses between embodiment, space and work, drawing out new ways of understanding the typical discourses around female bodies in public spaces; I was also reminded of ideas around the meanings of skin as a physical boundary, and associated issues around encasing the female body.

Other spaces of work discussed throughout the day included the bookshop, rural spaces, wharfs and warehouses, and theatres – a rich and varied set of contexts that made for an interesting and engaging day.