Having posted already about a new Charlotte Brontë publication at the start of July, the month finished with a second: a chapter in this new book, Charlotte Brontë: Legacies and Afterlives, edited by Amber K. Regis and Deborah Wynne and published by Manchester University Press. The book traces Charlotte Brontë’s legacies from the time she was writing to the present day and I’m delighted to have my work included among a fantastic set of contributors.
My chapter, titled “Brontë countries: nation, gender and place in the literary landscapes of Haworth and Brussels”, looks at how these two locations developed distinctly different Brontë afterlives in the 19th century and beyond. Haworth is familiar to many as a key Brontë location, and the Yorkshire landscape of “Brontë country” is central to the enduring cultural myth of the Brontës. Even before Charlotte Brontë’s death in 1855, intrigued readers had begun to visit the Parsonage, and the publication of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857 instigated a steady stream of visitors that has continued to the present day, generating a significant tourist industry at Haworth.
Brussels also holds an important place in Brontë’s work (as my last article explores, it afforded Brontë new opportunities for urban wandering that shape her novel Villette) and while on a much smaller scale, generations of readers have gone in search of another “Brontë country” to be traced in the city’s streets (as I have too – I blogged a photo-essay of Brontë’s Brussels here, and reflected on “Finding Brontë in Brussels” here).
In this essay for Charlotte Brontë: Legacies and Afterlives I explore the history of literary tourism in Brussels, focusing particularly on late-nineteenth century accounts. I look at how the unofficial and less scripted nature of Brussels literary tourism – tourists typically make their own way through the streets, a copy of Villette in hand serving as guidebook – allows instead for alternative narratives of Charlotte Brontë to plotted into the cityscape, narratives which especially emphasise connections between gender, identity and place. I suggest that at the moment of her bicentenary, these narratives offer an important complement and counterpart to the dominant cultural image of Brontë as she is associated with Haworth and the Yorkshire landscape, and offer new perspectives from which to consider her works and their afterlives.
I’m pleased to be hosting a “special topic panel” at this year’s Victorian Popular Fiction Association conference “Travel, Translation and Communication“, taking place in London on 19th-21st July. The theme of my panel is “Transport”, and the 2-hour session will allow for a longer in-depth discussion of the papers and their relationship to the field at present.
Full details of the CFP are on the VPFA website, and anyone interested in the special topic is also welcome to get in touch with me directly.
A new year brings a new project focus, although this one – on sunburn and tanning in Victorian medicine and culture – isn’t exactly new; it has been developing over the last few years, and has already generated a couple of publications, a number of talks, and some funding applications. The research process to date has been very piecemeal however, fitting around multiple jobs, cross-country moves and other publication priorities; but now that I am settled in a job and have wrapped up some other projects, this can take centre-stage as the next big project that I’ll be working on in coming years. It therefore felt about time that I (finally) write about the project here.
The project’s genesis was a footnote in my PhD thesis, where I noted that the suntanned traveller is a common trope in the Victorian novel, and that he typically appears as a positive figure: the benevolent imperialist (Peter Jennings in Gaskell’s Cranford), the doctor-saviour (Woodcourt in Dickens’s Bleak House), the marriageable sailor (Captain Kirke in Collins’s No Name). While these are often fleeting, incidental references, there seemed to be something interesting going on in the way in which suntanning was being used with these characters; suntanning was clearly being used to signify something, although it wasn’t immediately apparent exactly what. My attempts at interpretation were somewhat slippery, moving across and between different possible meanings; and these suntanned figures, almost all of them white British gentlemen travellers, seemed to push at the borders of so many expectations and concerns around Victorian bodily norms – race, masculinity, class, health.
I wrote this up into an article and then a section of my book on global journeys, and as I researched the subject I began to collect (and then, amass) a wealth of references to sunburn and tanning across the literary and cultural sphere. Suntanned figures are everywhere in Victorian writing, from dashing bronzed gentlemen travellers to lightly browned ladies in the Lakes, reddened jolly sailors to ruddy, hale farmers. Not only are they everywhere, but these references generate many, often conflicting, meanings, not just about suntanning but also more broadly about health, identity, status, and nationhood.
This project started then from trying to situate the suntanned traveller’s body and understand what he (and sometimes she) might mean. It has grown into a broader enquiry into understanding sunburn and tanning across the medical and cultural sphere, centring around the question: what did the Victorians think about when they thought about sunburn and tanning? What did suntanning mean to them, and why?
The commonly held assumption is that the Victorians thought about sunburn and tanning either negatively, or not at all; that sunburn was a marker of the labouring body – in the fields, at sea, or at war – and that it was only in the early twentieth century, with the advancement of scientific understanding about suntanning and health, that the tan became aesthetically appealing. My work moves existing research back by a period of 70 years or so to reveal a more nuanced picture about the history of suntanning in the Victorian period, one which has much to tell us about the Victorians’ attitudes to bodies and health, and about the ongoing cultural fascination with tanning today.
Looking at the period from around 1820 to 1890, I’m focusing on three areas of enquiry:
How was sunburn and tanning understood in Victorian science and medicine? Where did it fit in Victorian scientific enquiry – who was studying it, how and why?
How were sunburnt and tanned bodies ‘read’ in Victorian culture; what might this tell us both about what suntanning was coming to signify, and more broadly about Victorian ideas of the body?
How did knowledge move across the scientific and cultural spheres: how did advances in medical knowledge inform cultural perspectives on sunburn and tanning, and how was scientific enquiry into tanning shaped by cultural attitudes?
The range of literature the project encompasses is broad, to say the least. In science and medicine I am looking at literature in biomedicine and photomedicine which reveals early advances in understanding the constitution of the skin and the composition of UV light, and the field of tropical medicine which examines the impact of climate on health. My literary and cultural research includes the appearance of suntanned figures in fictional and non-fictional writing, from novels, poems and plays to rural and travel literature, examining these in relation to discourses of race, gender, class and health.
The fluidity across medical and cultural spheres takes shape in the (loosely termed) field of public health literature, from advice books and guides aimed at travellers and colonial settlers, to pamphlets and advertisements for new products to treat sunburnt skin – products like Rowland’s Kalydor, advertisements for which appear frequently in the pages of literary periodicals (this one is found in the adverts accompanying Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, for example):
As things currently stand I’ve done a lot of work in identifying sources for further research and in mapping out the conceptual framework of the project; the next stage is to undertake further archival research on the primary literature to build up a more detailed and nuanced understanding of these bigger questions. Thanks to a pump-priming funding award from Surrey’s Faculty of Arts I’m able to start on some library trips this month, in preparation for further grant applications this year. Once this is underway I’ll also start to work on the next publication outputs, revisit the monograph plans, and begin presenting on the research again – something which has generated a lot of useful feedback so far – as well as working on the opportunities for public engagement generated by this research, which speaks to some contemporary issues around cultural attitudes towards tanning today. Suggestions for further reading are very much welcome and I’d be grateful for any other leads that readers that might have.
I’m very pleased to be co-convening this new research seminar on Transport and Mobility History at the Institute of Historical Research, along with David Turner (York), Tamara Thornhill (Transport for London), Christopher Phillips (Leeds), Oliver Betts (National Railway Museum), and Mike Esbester (University of Portsmouth).
The seminar starts next term with the schedule as follows:
19/01/2017: Dr. David Turner (University of York) – Paddling with partners: British railways, resort authorities and the promotion leisure travel, 1909-1914
16/02/2017: Dr. Rudi Newman (Independent) – From Stephenson to Suburbia: the Socio-Economic Impacts of the Coming of the Railways to the Chilterns.
16/03/2017: Dr. Chris Philips (Leeds Trinity) – “Privileged Greatly to Serve his Nation in Days of Mortal Danger”: Sir Eric Geddes and transport management on the Western Front.
All events are at 5.30pm on Thursdays in the Pollard Room N301, 3rd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House. We can be contacted at IHRtransportseminar@gmail.com and details are also posted here.
A generous first review of the book is now up at the FWSA blog, describing it as providing “consistently excellent readings of the works in question” – thanks to Lena Wånggren for her detailed and thorough review. I will be blogging a bit more about the chapter contents soon.
“This is an ambitious volume which, throughout the nine essays, breaks new ground by undertaking exciting cross-disciplinary theorizing, summarising the state of the study of sea narratives thus far. A strong guiding editorial hand shapes and frames the chapters, which each offer the reader a glimpse of innovative original research.”
Britain and the Narration of Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Texts, Images, Objects, edited by Kate Hill and published by Ashgate, is out now. The book offers a rich exploration of British travel to Europe, Australia, China and Africa, and looks at encounters through travel writing as well as objects such as guest books, posters, and guidebooks. My essay “‘The formation of a surface’: European travel in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit” reads the European journey of the Dorrit family through its articulation of borders and boundaries: from the dissolving landscapes of the Alps to the “formation of a surface” by the socially-conscious British abroad.
A new collection on Transport in British Fiction: Technologies of Movement, 1840-1940 has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan. Edited by Adrienne E. Gavin and Andrew F. Humphries, the book explores how various travel technologies shaped British fiction across the period. My essay “‘A Perambulating Mass of Woollen Goods’: Bodies in Transit in the mid-nineteenth Century Railway Journey” looks at representations of railway travellers as “parcelled up” in layers of clothing and “enveloped in railway rugs”. I focus on Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1861-2) and the image of Robert Audley wrapped up like “a perambulating mass of woollen goods”, to explore the parcelled-up body as a site that articulates Victorian cultural anxieties about the position of the human subject in the new spaces of mobile modernity.