Tag Archives: Urban space

New publication: Walking the City in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Journal of Victorian Culture

My article “‘A still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment’: Walking the city in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette” has been published online  in the Journal of Victorian Culture. In this piece, I suggest that Brontë’s writing of women’s city walking makes a significant contribution to the idea of the flâneuse. Through a reading of Brontë’s letters from Belgium and her 1853 novel Villette, I argue that Brontë writes herself and Lucy Snowe into a growing canon of strolling city women, and that she brings a new perspective to the construct of the flâneuse through an embodied articulation of urban city wandering.

I start by looking at the prevalence of travel in Brontë’s letters, locating her within a new wave of women on the move in the mid-nineteenth century. There is a competing tension between the desire for mobility – “such a strong wish for wings” – and the reality of containment within the home, that runs through her letters, and this goes on to shape her fictional writing.* I then turn to her letters from Belgium: the city afforded Brontë new opportunities for “threading the streets”, and she starts to develop an attentiveness to the relationship between body, mobility and space that is developed more substantially in Lucy Snowe’s city encounter in Villette. Here, the thrill of city walking – “a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment” – emerges as an acutely embodied experience, and I argue that through this Brontë carves out a new discursive space for her woman walker, shifting from the spectatorship of the flâneur to a more fully sensory experience of the urban environment. This becomes crucial to the strong sense of autonomy and agency that walking affords women; at the same time, Brontë recognises the difficulties of mobility for women, and in the final section I look at how she negotiates this tension through highly embodied accounts of Lucy’s wandering in later sections of Villette.

* I explore this trait in Jane Eyre in my book.

 

Advertisements

Living history: Downton and Talking Statues

The last week or so has seen several news stories on the theme of heritage and tourism in the news that I found intriguing from the work I’ve been doing on “locating the Victorians” recently.

The first was this story about the opportunity to “live like the Crawleys” by bidding for a Downton Abbey experience involving an overnight stay and dinner at Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed; alternatively, guests could enjoy some of the “downstairs” experience with lessons on table-laying from a butler. In light of a recent resurgence of tourism oriented around the idea of ‘re-living history’ the Downton experience is doubly interesting, both taking the idea of ‘re-living history’ one step further than the usual historical tours and trails, but also re-figuring what is ‘historical’ about the history that is being re-lived: Downton is of course a fictionalised history that both plays on and departs from the popularity for adaptation of Victorian and early 20th century, so the idea of “living like the Crawleys” takes on an interesting inference in its purporting to be a ‘historical’ experience in any sense – and, in turn, raising questions about what’s ‘real’ about ‘re-living history’ anyway.

Another story this week raised a different perspective on engaging with historical spaces. The Talking Statues project has given voice to a selection of statues in London and Manchester, allowing visitors to use their smartphones to access audio recordings of the statue figures talking. It’s an interesting development in digital heritage models which have used similar initiatives to bring heritage or historical sites “to life” through audio tours and trails, which until now have typically used mobile apps or websites (see my locating Dickens post for examples). These apps and podcasts have proved successful in opening up new perspectives on places and engaging people in looking more closely at the urban landscape, but they depend upon the intention of the user to find out about the tour, download the app or audio, and then visit the sight as a planned activity. What’s interesting and different about Talking Statues is that it takes the onus off the user to know in advance about a tour or trail and instead can capture the unintentional passer-by, thereby potentially creating whole new audiences for heritage tourism (even if only on a micro-scale) who may never have thought to engage in such activities before. As with the Downton experience, though, this also raises questions about the ‘history’ that is being accessed through the (fictionalised) first-person narratives written by contemporary writers.

On a quick final note, it was good to see this news of an industrial heritage trail linking five sites across South and West Yorkshire – it’s great to see the working sites of the industrial revolution gradually gain heritage prominence next to the Downton-style houses.

Dickens apps, maps and more

This week I’ve been finishing an essay on Dickens 2012 and ‘locating the Victorians in the bicentenary year’; although I’ve written and spoken about this work quite a few times now (including an essay in this forthcoming book), this piece has given me the opportunity to focus on more detailed analysis of content included in Dickens apps, maps, podcasts and films. It’s led me to discover some great resources on the theme of Dickens and London, so I thought I’d collect these together into a blog post with a brief review of each.

Apps and audio podcasts

  • The Guardian audio walks; this five-part series of walks around Dickens’s London, Rochester and Portsmouth by The Guardian are excellent: informative, engaging, and lively discussion, interspersed with readings from the text. In 2012 I tried out two of the walks – The Heart of the City and David Copperfield – and wrote about them for JVC Online.
  • Dickens in Southwark; I haven’t had the chance to do these walks myself, but I’ve been greatly impressed just using the app and listening to the audio of this walk. The core content is lively and informative, while there is extra audio on the map that was developed from a creative project involving Southwark residents. The app is easily navigable, has a well-functioning map, and with a total of 25 ‘stops’ there is lots of content to explore.
  • Dickens Trail, Charles Dickens Museum; this app uses Dickens’s characters as a guide to his London locations, with four themed walks following Magwitch, Lady Dedlock, the Artful Dodger, and Samuel Pickwick. The real shame of this app is that there is no audio content, only text on a map, which makes for a much less engaging experience.mzl_xswkqymm_320x480-75
  • Dickens Dark London; this was one of the first Dickens apps that I came across and reviewed, a little harshly perhaps. The idea of the content is nice, with illustrations accompanying a reading of extracts from Dickens’s works, themed around his night walks, but it’s a shame there is so little free content – only one serial installment is provided and the rest are priced at £1.49 each. The best thing about this app is its map feature, which combines an 1862 map with a map of contemporary London, and allows you to scroll between each or view a composite image of the two – great for easily viewing structural changes to the city.
  • Celebrating Dickens; the University of Warwick’s Dickens offering includes a wealth of material from researchers and students at the University of Warwick on many aspects of Dickens’s life and writing, and the app features a navigable map of Dickens locations not just in London but also in East Anglia, Kent and the Midlands. Highly recommended, of course!

Creative projects

  • The Houseless Shadow; directed by William Raban, this is a short version of the full film installation that was commissioned by the Museum of London for their Dickens and London exhibition. The piece uses a reading from Dickens’s essay “The Night Walks” with images of the contemporary city. Raban discusses the aims behind the piece in this conversation recorded at the BFI.
  • The Uncommercial Traveller; this project by the British Council created a series of theatrical audio guides to Penang, Melbourne, Singapore and Karachi. The audio aims at creating a really evocative experience of each city and makes for interesting listening even if you aren’t in the relevant city.
  • Sketches by Boz: Sketching the City; another British Council project that developed written and artistic creative responses to cities around the world through a Dickensian lens
  • Dickens and London film; the British Council produced a collection of teaching resources on Dickens 2012 and I particularly enjoyed this short piece on Dickens and London

 

“A fiery devil, thundering along”: HS2 and the Victorians

Over the last few months, debates over the High Speed 2 railway line have been mounting, with a succession of reports on the future of the line following the submission to Parliament of the HS2 bill back in November 2013. I’ve followed with interest the development of the planned line over the last few years, with a focus on two areas that will be affected if the HS2 line goes ahead: where I currently live in Warwickshire, the HS2 line will pass about a mile from the University of Warwick’s campus, cutting across the Kenilworth fields and passing  just north of Leamington Spa; and then further down the route passes a few miles from my hometown in South Bucks, where there remains a campaign to further protect the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), including ancient woodland, which the line traverses. HS2 Studying as I do the Victorian railways, it’s been interesting to see the resonances in response to the HS2 line in the context of arguments surrounding the “coming of the railway” in the 1840s. In particular, it’s been indicative to identify a reiteration of ideas around the railway as a symbol of modernity. For the Victorians, the railway was the most evocative symbol of a new, modern era, often depicted as a “fiery devil, thundering along” (Dombey and Son) that seemed to come from another age and was pernicious in its spread into the furthest corners of the country that had yet been (seemingly) untouched by modernity. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874 – but set earlier in the century), the “projected line was to run through Lowick parish where the cattle had hitherto grazed in a peace unbroken by astonishment” (chapter 56); in Bleak House (1852-53) Dickens depicts an era pivoting on the edge of the railway era, contrasting the rural quietude of a place that is thus far beyond the reach of modernity – “the post-chaise makes its way without a railroad on its mind” – with the anticipation of the coming railway line which will soon change this: “with a rattle and a glare the engine and train shall shoot like a meteor over the wide night-landscape, turning the moon paler” (chapter 55). Wherever it went, the railway decisively announced that modernity had arrived, and had irrevocably changed the landscape: Dombey and Son shows us a landscape literally torn apart by the new railway line, Staggs’ Gardens “rent to its centre” and in a mess of chaos and confusion as the building of the railway tears houses to dust and creates a chasm in the city landscape.  HS2 sign HS2 poses much the same problem: as in the Victorian period, the requisite of the railway track to follow as straight a line as possible necessitates that everything in the projected path is demolished, moved or transported in order to make way for the tracks. There are countless areas where housing will be knocked down: in Burton Green, the track will cut through “straight as a ruler” and “slice” the village in half; in the Chilterns, the line will “bisect” the AONB although this has been avoided in plans for the northern phase 2 of the route. In this recent episode of Countryfile, farmer Robert Brown is among those to speak of the impact that the line will have on farmland (from c.17 mins in): running through the existing field layout, the route will change the way in which the land is managed and accessed, severing an existing field in two. It’s the same problem faced by the farmers of Middlemarch, who are occupied by “the vivid conception of what it would be to cut the Big Pasture in two, and turn it into three-corned bits, which would be ‘nohow’” (553). Railways don’t just destroy spaces, they change the organisation of space and restructure how it can be moved around.

There are of course crucial differences with the Victorian period, but what is interesting is the perception, as in the Victorian period, that this represents the onset of modernity for rural regions. HS2 does, of course, entail hardhitting and forceful destruction; but at the same time, HS2 is just one component of contemporary modernity’s impact upon the land. Every day, rural (and urban spaces) are being reshaped by the demands of new (and often contested) structures and it can no longer be said (if it could even of the Victorian period) that there are areas “untouched” by modernity: the rural areas through which HS2 travels are no less “modern” than the cities where it originates; modernity is here, now, in the machines that work the land, in the fibre-optic broadband cables that run beneath it, and in the planes that fly overhead. But as in the Victorian era, there is something about the railway that generates a more resonant and deeply felt response: then as now, the railway seems to stand for something more than the sum of their parts, forming an evocative site around which these other ideas about space and modernity coalesce. Railways make visible the latent structures that already permeate and produce the landscapes of modernity: as in the instances above, railways have a tangible impact on the organisations of locales and regions; in the railway network, uneven development becomes visible as those “off the railway” lose out; and in some iterations, the railway even becomes placed as the Moloch-like god of capitalism, which we are asked to view as an “act of faith“.

How the HS2 plans play out in practice has yet to be seen, and there is still time in which some of these impacts can hopefully be reduced, if not averted altogether: the next round of petitioning starts in July, and with near-daily news reports on the case against HS2, it can but be hoped that the government will reassess the situation; meanwhile attention is beginning to turn to phase 2 which will continue the line from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester, and it will be interesting to see how the impact is perceived in these regions too.

Placing Dickens at 202: the Portsmouth statue

Today is the 202nd birthday of Charles Dickens, and has been marked by the unveiling of a statue of the author in Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square. The statue has attracted attention not just because of the on-going interest in Dickens since his bicentenary, but also because it’s marked by a degree of controversy over whether it should have gone ahead. Dickens’s will indicated his wish that no such public memorial be constructed of him:

“I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner…that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial … I conjure to my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatsoever. I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works.”

It’s a pretty clear statement of the author’s wish not to be remembered in this public way either immediately after his death, or at a future time. In an article on the BBC about “why was Dickens’s dying wish ignored?“, one relative suggests that his words above have been taken out of context, and it is implied that if he could have foreseen his popularity, he may have felt differently about memorialisation. However, Dickens’s statement in his will reflects similar feelings that he expressed upon the memorialisation of Shakespeare. In 1863-4, Dickens was involved with the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, one of the aims of which was to raise funds for a memorial to Shakespeare: Dickens was not in favour of building a statue, however, maintaining that “his best monument is his works”. It’s a sentiment that resonates throughout his reflections in his will, which similarly asks that his published works remain the focus of his legacy and remembrance.

Whether or not it should have gone ahead, the statue is fitting in the context of Dickens’s cultural legacy in the last couple of years. For a start, the statue seems to keep in mind the importance of his literary legacy, depicting Dickens sitting atop a pile of books* and holding one half-read: this is Dickens the reader not writer, situating him, like us today, as consumer of his works. And the work of locating Dickens in statue form draws together several strands of contemporary interest. As I’m currently writing about in a piece on neo-Victorian spaces, place has played a central role in the growing popularity of all things Victorian in recent years. The tangible presence of the Victorians in our urban spaces today – in buildings, streets, and public spaces dating to the Victorian era, and in the lasting legacy of the Victorians’ own place-making processes –  is often cited as one facet in the contemporary appeal of the Victorians over other historical periods. And in Dickens 2012 in particular, there was a repeated recourse to the places of his life and literature that shaped many of the bicentenary activities. It seems fitting then that Dickens’s memory is, literally, located as part of this neo-Victorian geography, the statue creating a tangible physical presence of Dickens’s place in a cultural landscape in which location so often features as a mode through which to make sense of the relationship between past and present, and the interactions between life and literature, that have been at the forefront of contemporary preoccupations. If nothing else, the statue is a fitting memorial to the forms of memorialisation that have been prominent since 2012, and a reflection of what Dickens 2012 meant as part of a longer trajectory of Dickensian celebrations and memorialisations.

*Are these his books? I can’t find out, or tell from the photos, if the books are inscribed with Dickens titles.

Bleak House – Cagliari lecture resources

For students at the University of Cagliari who attended my classes this week, here are some images and further reading that I referred to.

Bleak House

These two images are watercolours of the Great Exhibition by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, that I have written more about here:

39264-large (1)

39263-large (2)

You can read a contemporary response to the Great Exhibition here, and the full text of Dickens’s “The Last Words of the Old Year” (quoted on the handout) can be read online here. I have also written about the ideas of “people and things” at the Exhibition in the context of Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851 and Bleak House.

slum1

This image of the London slums is taken from this website on Victorian London where you can find some more contemporary writing about the slums and related issues.

SCpv-pl3

Dickens’s writing on the Niger expedition is discussed in the book by Tim Carens cited on the handout, plus a number of others including Grace Moore’s Dickens and Empire (2004).

Finally, this podcast that I recorded for the University of Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens project is of relevance to some of the issues raised, and on the Celebrating Dickens website you will find many other podcasts and videos of interest to Charles Dickens’s life and times.

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.