Welcome back to the Daily Dose, where humanities get medical and medicine waxes poetic! Today I am pleased to feature an admired colleague, Dr. Charlotte Mathieson. Her first monograph, Journeys in the Victorian Novel: Gendered Mobilities and the Place of the Nation, surprises and delights with its exploration of journeys (of bodies and space) in the mid-nineteenth century English novel (forthcoming Pickering and Chatto, March 2014). Thank you for joining us, Charlotte, and for sharing your thoughts on “traveling bodies”!
Dr Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study, where she researches and teaches 19th century literature. Her research focuses on journeys in the Victorian novel, with a particular interest in issues of nation, global space, and the traveling body in the works of authors including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë. She is also interested in ideas of mobility and rural geography, the relationship between literature, nation, and place, and contemporary practices of literary tourism. Her first monograph Journeys in the Victorian Novel: Gendered Mobilities and the Place of the Nation is currently in preparation, and she is editing a collection of essays on Gender and Space in Rural Britain, 1840-1920 (forthcoming). Charlotte blogs at http://charlottemathieson.wordpress.com/ and can be found on Twitter @cemathieson
Bodies that Travel, Bodies that Change
It’s a pleasure to join the Daily Dose today, especially as I must start with the confession that I’m not a medical humanities scholar. My work on nineteenth-century English novels sits at the intersection of literary studies, history, geography, and travel /mobility studies. But at the centre of my critical explorations into the spaces and places, movements and mobilities, representational modes and structures of the novel, lies a fundamental interest in the human body. The ways in which bodies move through space – how landscapes and bodies interact, each leaving its mark upon the other – is core to my reading of travel in the novel. In Journeys in the Victorian Novel: Gendered Mobilities and the Place of the Nation I argue that traveling bodies offer crucial insights into the handling of national and global travel in the nineteenth century novel, intersecting with wider concerns around nation, place, and global space. In this post I offer a few examples of how traveling bodies appear and what they might offer in the way of critical developments.
Traveling bodies are everywhere and nowhere in the Victorian novel: they are often only briefly glimpsed, but these glimpses are increasingly apparent once you start looking more closely. One of the key ideas that I work with is a move away from the concept of “travel” as a term that connotes movements of leisure and pleasure, towards an idea of “mobility” as a more varied and nuanced notion incorporating a whole range of scales and types of movement. This concept starts with the premise that it’s the interactions between the mobile body and its environs – its responses to and through different geographies – that are of central importance in defining what constitutes a “journey”. This implicitly becomes a much more democratic concept, incorporating journeys that might not typically be recognised as travel: from this perspective, movement within the grounds of an English country house or within a rural village can be as interesting and indicative as far-reaching travels across the globe. The focus on material bodies also ensures a reading that is attentive to the dimensions of class, gender, race, nationality and other factors that constitute individual bodies, maintaining these elements as a crucial component of reading different travel practices.
This opens up a diverse and intriguing range of journeys in the novel , with a multitude of ways in which bodies are changed by their movement: bodies become ill through travel, wearied and worn out through long, arduous travels on foot; sick bodies become restored to good health by travel to spa towns and seaside resorts; white bodies become sunburnt, scorched and blistered by the fierce heat of foreign suns; closer to home, they might be shaken up by a railway journey, nerves fraught and frayed; or they are wrapped up in protective layers of traveling clothes and blankets that safely preserve against the dangers of industrial travel spaces.
One example that I’ve found especially intriguing is that of the sunburnt body: it’s at once a simple, ordinary facet of foreign travel and yet striking in just how frequently it recurs. When British travelers return from journeys into Europe and spaces further afield, texts repeatedly draw attention to the fact that the character has been sunburnt: novelists variously describe how these travelers have been “bronzed”, “tanned and retanned”, “burnt dark by the sun”, “grilled and blistered by the Sun”, becoming such colours as a “deep brown”, “so extremely brown”, “a healthy bronze”, “a bronzed and coppery tint”, and a shade “between burnt sienna, Indian red, and Vandyke brown”.
Of course it isn’t unusual that a traveller would be sunburnt – these travelers are all white British subjects who have journeyed to the “solar heats of India” and the “high hothouse heat of the West Indies”. But I was struck by the frequent recurrence of this as a feature in otherwise brief mentions of journeys, and how typically it was the only identifying feature given. Contrary to what we might at first expect, these instances are not especially resonant with discourses that assert the racial inferiority of the dark foreign other, or the more generalised sense of foreigners as dark-haired, swarthy figures that recurs throughout 19th century novels. Only one example that I’ve found specifically uses the trope of sunburn to articulate a fear of becoming darker; instead, as the examples above show, it’s typically not darkness but a range of brown, bronze and red hues that are presented.
Instead, what is always noted in these instances is the way in which the skin is damaged, often described as grilled, blistered and burnt by the ferocity of the foreign sun. What I think is perhaps going on with this image is that it’s not so much an idea about skin colour, but perhaps more importantly an idea about bodily damage that is the core concern here. The physical borders of the body are revealed as susceptible and permeable to harm, eroded by foreign contact in such a way that gestures towards an inherent vulnerability and instability of bodily surfaces. This is important because those bodily surfaces are so often asserted as essential to demarcating the place of the British body as distinct from its surrounding environs, bordering off the subject from contact with the otherness of foreign space; here, that vital surface is revealed as fragile and insufficient.
This is just one example of how bodies might be changed by travel, and what I’m interested in doing is charting the geographies of how these bodies undergo multiple and changing formulations over the course of a novel, and thinking about what this tells us about some of the novels’ wider concerns around the implications of the new travel possibilities of the nineteenth century. I hope that this will open up different ways in which to read bodies in literature, moving beyond a dichotomy of illness/health into a multifaceted understanding of how travel impacts upon the body. I also hope that introducing frameworks from feminist and cultural geography offers a productive mode through which to expand the interpretative possibilities of bodies. Bodies are more than just bodies: as material sites they form part of a wider geography, and their interactions with other places and spaces offer crucial insights into the changing socio-cultural landscapes of the nineteenth century.