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“Can you show me the places?”: Dickens 2012 and literary tourism

2012 February 7

Dr Charlotte Mathieson, Associate Fellow 

Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick 

The bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth on 7th February 2012 has prompted a wide range of celebratory responses across the world, with some prominent themes emerging in the proceedings: unsurprisingly, an emphasis on film adaptations and a biographical focus on Dickens’s life and works feature highly; and in Britain, neither is it unexpected to find events around the notion of “Dickens’s London” recurring throughout the 2012 celebrations. The Museum of London’s “Dickens and London” exhibition promises to “recreate the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projection”; there are Dickens-themed walking tours such as The Guardian’s audio walks – podcasts to listen to whilst walking a specific route (one, for example, traces the places associated with the author’s life and David Copperfield – Dickens’s “most autobiographical” novel, as the website points out); and in a 21st century twist to the walking tour, there is even an app of “Dickens’s Dark London” which promises to “take users on a journey through the darker side of Charles Dickens’ London”. 

As Nicola Watson writes in The Literary Tourist, literary tourism is “so naturalised as a cultural phenomenon” nowadays that it hardly seems that noteworthy; [1] indeed, as she details, the trend originated in the 18th century and books setting out cycle and walking routes around “Dickens Land” emerged from the 1880s. But it’s a subject which continues to open up questions, not least because, as the examples above make clear, the forms that literary tourism take continue to evolve and adapt to new technologies. What is the purpose of this kind of literary tourism, and why is it still such a resonant form?   

Watson notes a palpable embarrassment among professional literary scholars at the idea of the literary tour and, whilst not embarrassed, I admit to an initial scepticism or resistance to the connections that literary tourism makes between place, text and author. Aside from the problems of reading a text as strictly biographical, this resides in a fundamental misjudgement about the relationship between real and represented places/spaces: a tour of a text’s locations draws together text and “real” space as though literary place is a neutral reflection of a location, and spaces are presented as offering some kind of authentic connection to, or reflection of, the text. 

Nonetheless, there’s clearly great cultural importance around the notion of Dickens and place, and an attraction in “experiencing” literary places. Watson suggests that “it is the text itself that invents and solicits tourism,”[2] to which I would add that an example from Dickens’s Bleak House also suggests how we might read literary tourism. 

In one of the central moments of the novel Jo, the poor street boy, leads Lady Dedlock to view the places associated with her long lost, and now deceased, lover: 

“Are you the boy I have read of in the papers?’ she asks behind her veil. […]  

‘Listen and be silent. Don’t talk to me, and stand farther from me! Can you shew me all those places that were spoken of in the account I read? The place he wrote for, the place he died at, the place where you were taken to, and the place where he was buried?’” [3] 

In the passage that follows, strong resonances with the urban tour, and more specifically with the literary biographical tour, emerge: Jo takes the role of paid guide as he leads Lady Dedlock through the streets to view the places associated with another’s life. A strong connection is forged here between place and knowledge: although this passage doesn’t offer any new information to characters or reader, the tour serves to affirm the connection between Lady Dedlock and the dead law-writer. For Lady Dedlock, the walk brings her back into a connection with the past and into understanding of a history from which she has been absent; this is a locational, place-bound knowledge which has to be experienced to be understood, and the act of walking the streets serves as an act which reiterates the process of coming into that understanding. 

Biographical literary tours perhaps offer a similar kind of knowledge-gaining process: reaffirming an idea we already have about the past (such as the notion of “Dickens’s London”) which becomes realised through the physical act of experiencing that place. There is here a perceived value in experiencing place, a sense that being in a place serves to reinforce abstract knowledge. In a recent post about a Dickens discovery, life-writing scholar Amber Regis reflected on the value of material objects in biographical readings, suggesting that objects offer “an insight into the life narratives that emerge from, and are constructed by, material objects — human interactions with objects, and the crafting and shaping of objects, become a form of storytelling.” Literary tours provide a similar process of crafting and constructing a narrative through human interaction with place; the city is experienced like a material object, giving the idea of Dickens and London a physical manifestation in the city streets. 

But Dickens’s use of mobility in Bleak House also points towards a wider meaning inherent in literary tourism: national identity. In Bleak House, acts of mobility serve to reinforce the meaning of national place, solidifying an abstract idea of the nation into a physical experience of the space of the nation. Literary tours of “Dickens’s London” work to similar effect: Dickens is second only to Shakespeare as an icon of British literary history, and the urban literary tour thus serves to emphasise the national connection, giving the idea of Dickens as national symbol a physical manifestation in national place. This is seemingly at odds with a focus elsewhere on Dickens 2012 as an international celebration; but while the broader discourses around Dickens 2012 are attentive to the wider contexts of “global Dickens”, the continuing popularity of literary tours is suggestive of a simultaneous impulse to reiterate Dickens’s (literal) place within British culture. 


[1] Nicola Watson, The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 5. 

[2] Ibid., p. 12. 

[3] Charles Dickens, Bleak House. (Ed. Nicola Bradbury; Penguin, 2003), p. 261.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. lmjones permalink
    February 9, 2012

    This was a really enjoyable entry. I especially liked the idea that walking around ‘Dickens’s Land’ is not new and instead emerged in the Late Victorian period. If you enjoyed this entry, why not check out Kathryn Hughes’s entry, ‘Dickens World and Dickens’s World’: http://myblogs.informa.com/jvc/2011/01/29/kathryn-hughes-dickens-world-and-dickenss-world/

    It would be great to hear from anyone who has done a Dicken’s tour of London (both physically and imaginative). Of course not everyone can experience ‘Dickens Land’ first hand so why not take a jaunt with the BBC’s Women’s Hour Drama ‘Dickens in London’. Like the Guardian audio-tours, you can walk through London’s streets with Dickens and a varity of characters to see how Dickens understanding of the Great City changed during his writing career. You can currently catch up with the BBC’s iplayer if you live in the UK. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01bllx7/Womans_Hour_Drama_Dickens_in_London_Boz/

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