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Mapping the Victorian Novel

2012 November 12
by Charlotte Mathieson

This week in my research I came across Maps of the Classics, a website where a selection of novels – mostly English, European, and American nineteenth-century novels – have been plotted onto interactive maps. Texts featured include Mansfield Park, Bleak House, The Mill on the Floss, and Anna Karenina. On each map, locations are helpfully marked with short explanations of their appearance in the text, and fictional locations have been mapped onto the real locations on which they are thought to be based; some maps also feature relevant locations from the author’s own life.

London Locations in Bleak House

London locations in Dickens's Bleak House

The website was a useful discovery as I am currently writing about George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), focusing on the section where Hetty flees her home in the fictional Midlands county of Loamshire, travelling south to Windsor in search of Arthur Donnithorne and then returning northwards again to the Midlands. The map is useful in helping to give a more concrete sense of the distances and directions involved in the first stages of Hetty’s journey, as well as capturing the movement from fictional to real places as Hetty enters into the familiar ground of Leicester, Stratford-upon-Avon and Windsor.

The idea of mapping the novel is of course nothing new: Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel 1800 -1900 (1998) set the way for this kind of work, conducting a comparative analysis of European literature from the nineteenth century. Moretti provides numerous ways of mapping novels: intra-national patterns of individual authors reveal the limitations of Jane Austen’s Britain; continental movements show patterns such as the use of France as the place of origin for the majority of villains in the Victorian novel; and mapping the wider world demonstrates the use of particular colonial spaces as predominant locations for foreign wealth. These maps typically confirm noticeable trends in novels, but the process of visualising this often raises further questions, patterns, or challenges that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Moretti’s study shows that whilst a map of a novel might in itself provide only a very simple analytical tool, maps nonetheless offer fresh ways of perceiving texts that generate new possibilities for further interpretative work. With Adam Bede, for example, my interest in Hetty’s movement is primarily in the physical experience of the long, arduous journey she undertakes; a detailed map is therefore useful in getting sense of the scales and distances involved as Hetty makes her way on foot and by waggon across the country, and thus plotting the relative stages of physical weariness that she experiences. I’m also working to situate this journey within a wider question about how the novel maps out movement through English space, and a visual depiction of the journey helps to generate ideas about how this might be working.

The use of a map seems particularly pertinent for this text as the narrator calls on the reader to visualise a map of the country: Hetty takes a wrong route, travelling to Stratford-upon-Avon instead of Stony Stratford, and Eliot’s narrator reflects that this “seems but a slight journey as you look at the map, or remember your own pleasant travels … but how wearily long it was to Hetty” (Chapter 36). The idea of a map is there throughout this journey, and further reiterated in the repeated references to the places through which Hetty travels, as well as in the narrative’s attentiveness to Hetty’s developing awareness of the wider world; plotting the journey onto a map therefore opens up some interesting currents between the spatial imagination of the text and the physical spaces through which the text is working to construct these ideas.

There are many other possibilities for using maps as interpretative tools, both for individual texts and in comparative analysis. Further resonances emerge when you start to compare maps of different novels, particularly when discussing a set of works by the same author: I’ve found this useful for working on Dickens’s novels from the late 1840s to early 1850s. Another aspect to consider is the appearance of maps and globes within literary texts, either as part of the paratextual material or in instances where characters make reference to maps; it would be interesting to explore how the appearance of maps within texts corresponds to the plotting of locations throughout the novels as a whole. I’ve also used maps as teaching tools: on an 18th-20th century European Novel module I conducted a revision session where we plotted the movements of each text onto a single map, drawing out some indicative patterns between the spaces used by different national literatures, and opening up new ways to discuss issues of class, gender and historical engagement in the texts. I’m sure there are many other ways that maps can be used as interpretative tools and would be fascinated to hear how others use maps in their literary research, and of any other online or digital tools that assist in the process.

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