“What Connection can there be?”: Objects, People and Places, c.1851 (Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar, 29th June 2012)
From individual items to collections of the “spoils” of travel, foreign objects abound in the Victorian novel. These have typically been read in the context of the British Empire and imperial networks of commodities, but in this paper I reorient this discussion to consider how these representations operate within wider cultural discourses about changing conceptualisations of global space in a world being reshaped through networks of mobility.
The presence of foreign objects within Britain bring to the fore issues around the permeability of (national) borders, instability of spatial distance, and restructuring of national place as global space, but also open up new perspectives on these concerns. This is especially apparent in the context of the Great Exhibition, which symbolically produced a compressed global space reshaped through objects, and Henry Mayhew’s 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys… and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House offer interesting responses to the issues raised by the Exhibition. Both texts centre on the troubling question of “what connection can there be” between the influx of objects, the place of the nation and the people within it, enacting representational shifts between objects and people, and bringing the effects of foreign objects to bear upon the bodies of British subjects. This paper will explore these representations to consider the role of objects in discourses of global space and national place, and open up discussion of how repositioning objects in this context offers new perspectives on “Victorian things”.
"A Moving and a moving on": Mobility, Space and the Nation in Dickens's Bleak House (Dickens Day, London, October 2011)
“I’ve always been a moving and a moving on, ever since I was born. Where can I possible move to, sir, more nor I do move!” (Jo, Bleak House chapter 19)
In representations of journeys at home and abroad, Dickens’s novels frequently capture the fascination and excitement engendered by new modes of transport and the expanding possibilities of global travel in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet whilst often visibly engaging with facets of the transport revolution, the impact of travel culture also takes more subtle manifestations in Dickens’s writing. A conceptual shift from the idea of travel to a theory of mobility opens up a vast network of journeys operating across a range of spatial scales and social classes, revealing mobility as a fundamental structural principle in Dickensian novels of the mid-nineteenth century. Reading a text through these networks and spaces of mobility opens up new perspectives on its structural and thematic concerns, and reveals further ways in which texts are impacted by, and responding to, shifts in travel practice.
This paper explores the representational functions and patterns of mobility in Dickens’s Bleak House (1852), a novel constituted from a rich network of mobile interactions. Whilst critics have situated the novel as Dickens’s most nationally-focused work – James Buzard recently asserting (Sept. 2010) that the novel responds to the facile internationalism of the 1851 Great Exhibition by shoring up national identity within British borders – I suggest that, although almost exclusively national in its geography, reading the text through its mobile structures reveals an important nuance to this argument by complicating the construction of national space. Through reorienting a discussion of national identity to a reading of national space, and the mobile networks through which that space is produced, an important nuance to the novel’s project of nation-building is revealed, in whcih the novel doesn’t just question but completely undermines the possibility of national isolationism in the era of modern mobility.
“The formation of a surface”: Travelling Bodies in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit'" (Travel in the 19th Century, Lincoln, July 2011)
In a period of an expanding travel culture, accompanied by a vast corpus of travel writing, British fiction of the mid-nineteenth century demonstrates a remarkable reluctance to represent foreign journeys: although travel has a substantial presence in novels of this period, with many literary characters taking excursions into foreign spaces – most particularly, European destinations – only rarely does the course of the narrative depict in detail journeys beyond British borders. Both a historically complex relationship between Britain and Europe, and the wealth of travel writing on Europe, contribute to this textual absence.
But what happens when narratives do journey into European spaces? What do representations of the processes of travel – not just arrivals at destinations, but movements through foreign spaces – reveal about attitudes to Europe and continental travel, as well as the wider context of expanding travel cultures of the mid-nineteenth century? Analysing movement into and through continental spaces in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855-57), I identify ways in which literary narratives engage with a familiar ambivalence about continental travel, reiterating discourses that construct Europe as both culturally advantageous and perilously hostile to the British traveller.
Literary representations take a particular facet for representing these themes, situating bodies in transit as a central locus for expression. In Little Dorrit, from the bodies “dissolving into cloud” in the Alpine journey that commences Book II, to the “formation of a surface” demanded of tourists to Rome and Venice, a concern over borders and boundaries can be discerned as a prominent representational mode through which the problems of continental travel are played out. In exploring the embodied instabilities of mobile subjects, I argue that such representations not only (re)articulate British tensions with Europe but also open up wider concerns regarding the expanding travel culture of the period, articulating a fundamental anxiety with the fluidity of national borders, the openness of global space, and the ease with which it may be traversed.
"'Wandering out into the World': Women Walking in the mid-Victorian Novel" (BWWA Conference, Texas A&M University, April 2010)
In the mid-nineteenth century novel, walking is a commonplace mode of transport; yet this normative status has often rendered walking unremarkable to both novelists and critics alike. Although walking has featured in literary studies, critics typically bypass the actual specifics of walking as a process of movement: the movement of the body through space. To situate walking thus – as a spatial, material, and embodied process in which the body is situated within, and interacts with, different spaces and places that it encounters – is the focus of this paper.
Women’s writing of the mid-nineteenth century presents the opportunity for developing such a theorisation; although accounts of journeys, especially walking journeys, are rare in mid-Victorian fiction there are several narratives that detail the progression of journeys, doing so in such a way that they draw attention to the spatial, embodied processes of travel and movement. In the novels that provide the focus of this paper - Jane Eyre, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss – Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot’s depictions of women walking privilege the body of the traveller as the site through which the spatial environment is mediated and understood.
Given the typical gendering of the streets as a masculine space, female-authored accounts are particularly interesting for the study of journey spatiality; whilst male authors also (albeit less frequently) detail gendered body-space relationships, gendered codes are more prominent in female-authored narratives and have strong implications for the modes of embodied spatiality. The paper will begin by discussing the gendered associations of the streets as depicted in the novels in question, which repeatedly iterate the suggestion that women are unaccustomed, and indeed unwelcome, to traverse the spaces of travel. Yet Bronte and Eliot contend with this assumption by positioning women walking alone in the streets, and explore this spatial gendering through the embodied experience of travellers by demonstrating how gendered codes act to alter the ways in which bodies and spaces interact. The paper will consider the various ways in which these narratives construct travelling bodies, beginning with the implications of the gendering of space for the body: in particular, codes of femininity typically associated with interior spaces are reiterated within the context of the public space of the street, but in such a way that the street becomes a space of opportunity for the embodiment of the female traveller.
Furthermore, these narratives go beyond gendered codes to explore the process of travel as a material, embodied practice. These descriptions of women walking thus offer illuminating perspectives on the subject-space relationship that have implications for the critical understanding of literary geographies, and the paper will demonstrate how focusing on the movement of characters through space – particularly in the process of walking – enables the development of a more fluid, mobile theorisation of spatiality that is attentive to the transitory nature of the embodied subject-space relationship.
"Traversing the City: Embodied Transit Spaces in Charlotte Bronte's Villette" (Literary London, Queen Mary University of London, July 2009)
Whilst there has been much critical interest in the literary representation of urban spaces in recent years, the context of travel has seldom been taken into account in such studies; yet the experience of spatiality in the urban environment is one frequently predicated on movement through the city streets. This paper will consider how urban spatiality is experienced through movement, focusing specifically on embodied interactions between the travelling subject and the spaces through which it moves. The question of how the body spatially mediates the built environment as it moves through city spaces will be considered through analysis of Lucy Snowe’s London encounter in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette; although a relatively marginal account of the city, this passage foregrounds the body in motion as a privileged site through which to mediate and understand its spatiality. In particular, modes of embodied spatiality in Villette resonate with narratives of journeys through country spaces (e.g. Jane Eyre or Adam Bede) but a close comparative reading draws out crucial distinctions that locate mid-Victorian London as a site that presents the travelling body with a striking new experience of spatiality. This reveals illuminating perspectives for theorising the relationship between subject and space, and this reading will demonstrate how shifting the focus of literary analysis towards the movement of characters through urban spaces draws out new contexts in which to theorise urban space that enable the development of a more fluid, mobile theorisation of urban spatiality that is attentive to the transitory, ever-changing nature of the embodied subject-space relationship.
"Embodying the City in the Victorian Novel: 'the heart of city life' in Charlotte Bronte's Villette" (BAVS Conference, University of Leicester, September 2008)
“I got into the heart of city life. I saw and felt London at last […] To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure.” (Charlotte Brontë, Villette, Chapter VI).
The experience of spatiality and interpretations of the built environment were issues of growing significance throughout the Victorian period; whilst the development of railways effected a shift in conceptual experiences of space and time, as well as facilitating movement from the country to the city, the problems that resulted from growing levels of urban populations prompted widespread debate about city spaces, bringing spatial awareness to the forefront of public concern. Although the city is not an entirely new subject of the novel, it is frequently portrayed as a new phenomenon throughout the period: novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, or Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and Great Expectations, depict protagonists coming into the city of London for the first time. In the context of urban spatiality, Villette provides a particularly interesting depiction of the new spatial experience of the city; although Lucy Snowe’s stay in London is limited to only a few pages of the novel, the narration is unique in that the city encounter is described with a marked emphasis on the physical, sensory experience of the body. The paper examines this passage in greater detail, exploring how the urban spatiality is negotiated through the embodied travelling subject. This approach offers a development to feminist work on female urban spectatorship, moving away from the gaze and vision to focus on the possibility of embodied, sensory urban encounters that place the body as the locus of spatial understanding in the urban environment. Elizabeth Grosz’s “Bodies-Cities” provides the theoretical framework for analysis, yet analysis of the passage from Villette further develops these ideas into a more specific, located, and spatially embodied approach to theorisations of body-city interrelationships.
“‘Everything dissolving into cloud’: The Space of the Journey in Dickens’ Little Dorrit” (The Novel and its Borders, University of Aberdeen, July 2008)
Geographical theories of spatiality have typically centred on a dichotomy, a binary distinction between space and place; this has appeared in other areas of study, including feminist and literary criticism, as a public-private dichotomy that has frequently shaped spatial readings of novels. In recent years, challenges have been posed by spatial theorists such as Massey, Harvey and Smith. This paper aims to consider, and contribute to, these challenges in a literary context by positing the journey as a potential medium through which public/private or space/place divisions can be rethought. The Victorian era offers a relevant context for these questions as spatial concerns related to journeys and travel became particularly important throughout the period due to transport developments such as the building of railways.
This paper will explore the textual spaces of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, considering how textual spaces and places are constructed in the representation of London, before moving on to the journey undertaken by the Dorrit family to the Swiss Alps and Italy. The journey raises questions such as: is the journey a space or a place? Where do spaces, and textual representations of spaces, begin or end? How are boundaries constructed and how does travel transgress these borders? Addressing these questions will posit the journey as an in-between space/place which challenges binary concepts of spatiality and demonstrates the potential for a re-theorisation of these terms.
"The Re-mythologizing Body in Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve" (Debating the Difference, University of Dundee, September 2007)
“I’m in the demythologizing business.” (Angela Carter)
Angela Carter’s extensively-quoted words from “Notes from the Front Line” (1983) reverberate throughout numerous critical interpretations of her work, though frequently unsupported by adequate consideration of their meaning. This paper will analyse the inscription of gender in her 1977 novel The Passion of New Eve in which the construction of feminine, masculine, transsexual and transvestite bodies are explored in the context of rewriting mythology. The delineation of doubling strategies, such as structural doubling, motifs and images, and double characters, constitute a substantial part of the text’s construction of gender along binary terms. Yet within this doubling system, there is a gap – an ‘abyss’ or ‘void’ – and it is this space with which this paper is concerned; for it is within this ‘in-between’ space that the transgender bodies of the novel are positioned. Analysing the representation of the transgender bodies of Tristessa and Eve within the theoretical framework of Elizabeth Grosz and Judith Butler will suggest that Carter’s work embodies, and thus anticipates, many of the ideas posited by these theorists. This exploration of notions of hybridity and fluidity places the transgender body in a central, mediating position in the text, as opposed to the marginalised or transgressive position that such bodies have typically occupied. This integral status of the transgender body reveals, from within the double system, the possibility of a body that challenges binaries in a number of ways. I will conclude by considering the implications that this poses for a theorisation of mythology, positing that the hybrid space of the transgender body reveals the possibility of re-reading Carter’s ‘demythologizing business’ as a process of fluid remythologizing.