My article “‘A still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment’: Walking the city in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette” has beenpublished 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’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.
I reviewed the exhibition “Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy” at Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London, for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. I very much enjoyed the exhibition and it runs for a few more days, so do catch it if you can.
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.
On Wednesday I spent an excellent day at the York Transport Historians workshop “Making the Connections: Transport and its Place in History“. It was a very fruitful day of interesting papers and discussion on everything from canals to Concorde, and every mode of transport in between. I was pleased to get the opportunity to present on some research that I’ve been carrying out on a transport history of the Great Exhibition.
This work emerged from an older paper on Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys. The paper is on the mobility of material culture, something that Mayhew’s novel quite wonderfully depicts in a succession of comic (often absurdly so) instances. I was writing a footnote, when I found myself needing to cite a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition – something that told me the what, when and where of exactly how 6 million people and 100,000 objects moved across Britain and the world to the doors of the Crystal Palace. As I researched it, I realised that the work I needed to cite was one that needed to be written, and so this paper was born.
It would, of course, be remiss to state that no work on Exhibition transport exists. The symbiotic relationship between the Great Exhibition and the transport revolution has long been acknowledged: to Victorian commentators the Exhibition was the “natural result” of steam technology, a spontaneous outburst of the age of steam:
“The German journals are quite captivated by the idea of the great exhibition […] They regard it as a great step in the progress of different countries towards cosmopolitanism, and treat it as a natural resultof the development of railways, steam communication, the electric telegraph…”
(The Times, 31st October 1849, p. 6)
This has become something of a critical commonplace; but little dedicated attention has been given to detailing a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition. Of course the notable exception is railway passenger travel, studies of which have abounded and become a familiar part of the broader narrative of railway history. But the railways have been studied largely in isolation from the many other modes of transport that were fundamental to passenger travel – steamboats, sail ships, carriages, omnibuses, cabs and pedestrianism. Consideration of the movement of objects to the Crystal Palace has also been a theme in discussions of the emergence of commodity culture, global commodity flows, and the international politics of the Exhibition. Less has been studied, though, of the practical logistics of how things actually travelled from, say, a mine in upstate New Jersey to the doors of the Crystal Palace.
This work started, then, as an enquiry that seeks to create an account that is detailed and nuanced in its understanding of Exhibition mobilities, while working towards an expansive grasp of the range of these journeys. In doing so, I want to both account for the (often fascinating) practicalities of Exhibition transport, and better understand the relationship between the Great Exhibition and the mobile culture of mid-Victorian Britain. By the end of the Exhibition, The Times posed a retrospective question:
“one of the most wonderful facts of the Exhibition is the mode in which its visitors came to it. How did they all get there?”
(The Times, 20th October 1851, p. 4)
It is this question that I seek to answer, as well as to reflect upon the interests, motivations, and cultural contexts that lay behind it.
In the paper I presented yesterday, I traced a brief overview of this work: from the planning and preparation discussions in which transport was a crucial factor in decisions about the location and scope of the Exhibition, through to reflections on the Exhibition’s outcomes in which bold statements about a new mobile culture could be made – “a new phase in the history of the world”, as one piece in The Times put it (Wednesday, June 11th, 1851, pg. 4). I followed the movements of objects as they travelled over land, sea, and across London to reach the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, and then explored the many and varied ways in which people journeyed to the Exhibition by ship, horse-drawn transport, and even on foot.
My sources thus far have been a variety of cultural documents: novels such as Henry Mayhew’s 1851, as well as poems, plays, diaries, and religious tracts. My focus in yesterday’s paper was the research that has occupied me recently, a survey of 1209 newspaper reports published in The Times from 1st January 1849 to 31st December 1851. The Times survey – while making no claims to comprehensive breadth – has provided a useful lens through which to construct a ground-narrative of Exhibition history as it unfolded across the period. In foregrounding chronology, it has allowed me to perceive the nuanced ebbs and flows in attitudes towards different forms of mobility across the period: to realise, for example, that attention to (and celebration of) the railways comes relatively late in the Exhibition period, and that attention to shipping forms a vast and, to my knowledge, largely unexplored history of the period.
As this starts to make clear, the focus and tone of newspapers reportage also helps us to think about how the Victorians produced and consumed knowledge about transport technologies. What has become most apparent to me through this is the extent to which, I argue, the Exhibition represents the moment when modern mobility became acutely visible to the Victorians for the first time: while the networks that it relied upon had been growing for years, the Exhibition stimulated a rapidly emerging consciousness, accompanied by a great sense of excitement, at what it meant to be living in a newly mobile age. While this is easily equated with “Exhibition fever” as a whole, there is a particular narrative of mobility within this that was important in Britain’s thinking about itself as a nation on the move, and as interested in understanding and, crucially, in charting its own transport history as it was unfolding in the present moment.
In a series of blog posts to follow I will post some of the initial thoughts and findings from this research.
This one has been a bit quiet for a while as I’ve been busy with a couple of other publications since, but my first edited collection Gender and Space in Rural Britain, 1840-1940which I co-edited with Dr Gemma Goodman (Warwick), is now available in paperback for £34 from Routledge.
The collection was generously reviewed earlier this year by Josephine McDonagh in Victorian Studies 58.2 (pp. 383-385).
At a glance, the contents are as follows:
Introduction: Gender and Space in Rural Britain, 1840-1920, Gemma Goodman and Charlotte Mathieson
‘Women in the Field’, Roger Ebbatson
‘Between two civilizations”: George Sturt’s constructions of loss and change in village life’, Barry Sloan
‘At Work and at Play: Charles Lee’s Cynthia in the West’, Gemma Goodman
‘“Going out, Going Alone”: Modern Subjectivities in Rural Scotland, 1900-1921’, Samantha Walton
‘“Drowned Lands”: Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake and the Masculation of the English Fens’, Lynsey McCulloch
‘“Wandering like a wild thing”: Rurality, Women and Walking in George Eliot’s Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss’, Charlotte Mathieson
‘“I never liked long walks”: Gender, Nature, and Jane Eyre’s Rural Wandering’, Katherine F. Montgomery
‘Gertrude Jekyll: Cultivating the Gendered Space of the Victorian Garden for Professional Success’. Exploring the work of Gertude Jekyll (1843-1932)’ Christen Ericsson-Penfold
‘From England to Eden; Gardens, Gender and Knowledge in Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out’, Karina Jakubowicz
‘The Transnational Rural in Alicia Little’s My Diary in a Chinese Farm’, Eliza S. K. Leong
I will be speaking next weekend at the Literary Yorkshires workshop, taking place at the University of York on Saturday 21st May 2016. My talk ‘Brontë Countries: The Literary Landscapes of Haworth and Brussels in Charlotte Brontë’s Legacy’ will explore the different ideas that have collected around Haworth and Brussels in Brontë’s legacy, and how Brussels might offer a useful space for re-thinking some of the ideas about Brontë at Haworth.