Local/Global Dickens: seminar at “The Global and the Local” June 2013

Charlotte Mathieson, University of Warwick

As part of The Global and the Local, the NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA conference held in Venice from 3rd-6th June 2013, I took part in one of the seminars that provided the opportunity for participants to put forward a short position paper on a chosen topic. The seminar on “Dickens: Local and Global” was led by Eileen Gillooly (Columbia University) and featured the following papers:

  • Sharmaine Browne, “The Railroad as Architect in Dombey and Son”
  • Beth Drumm, “Consigned to the Sea: Children and the Ambivalent Recuperative Power of Ocean Travel and the Seaside ‘cure’ in Dombey and Son”
  • Paula Alexandra Ribeiro Guimarães, “Dickens’ Influence and Reception in Portugal”
  • Charlotte Mathieson, “From Local to Global and Back Again: Locating Dickens in the Bicentenary Year”
  • Kyle McAuley, “Reforming Dickens: A Global Bleak House
  • Mary L. Shannon, “Across the Street at his Local Theatre: Dickens and the Lyceum”
  • Adam Watkins, “‘The Influence of Locality’: Dickens, London, and Evolutionary Psychology”

The seminar provided a unique opportunity to bring together scholars whose work demonstrates a close focus on Dickens’s localities and those whose work opens up wider questions about global contexts, allowing us to think about how to construct a meaningful dialogue between the local and the global while keeping in sight the intricacies of the two. Throughout, it was the movement between local and global, and the use of one category to reflect on the other, that struck me as a particularly enriching facet of the discussion – and one which echoed the workings of local-global interactions in Dickens’s writing.

David Copperfield - Portuguese translation
Cover of a Portuguese translation of David Copperfield

As further reading for the seminar, we were provided with Regenia Gagnier’s “The Global Circulation of Charles Dickens’s Novels” (Literature Compass 10/1, 2013) which explores the global circulation of Dickens in the Bicentenary year. In this essay, Gagnier considers the term “Dickensian” and invites us to consider what are the “shared experiences” that resonate throughout, and allow for, the “constant processes of cultural translation both within evolving media in his own (British) culture and within transcultural contexts” (85). In a similar vein, Eileen Gillooly commenced the seminar discussion by posing the questions of “What might it mean to be ‘Dickensian’ in different global contexts? What do the local and global look like in Dickens, and in Dickens’s local reception?”

We began by thinking through the trope of “Dickensian” which is characterized by a duality in its application: either the twee, homely image encapsulated by the Dickensian Christmas, or the darker social consciousness that recalls images of urban poverty, decay and social injustice. It’s a duality that enables Dickens to become co-opted for a variety of political purposes, and to be culturally translated to a variety of (inter)national effects. Paula Guimarães, whose paper focused on the influence and reception of Dickens in Portugal, spoke about the way in which “Dickensian” is conflated with “Victorian” more broadly: as her paper discussed, Dickens is the most translated 19th century author in Portugal, and his works stand as representative of the period in the popular imagination.

The Dickens-Victorian conflation is also one which is specifically located in London: the idea of the Dickensian-Victorian is typically associated with or overlayed onto an idea of “Victorian London”. This led onto my paper, “From Local to Global and Back Again: Locating Dickens in the Bicentenary Year”, which discussed the recurrence of “local/London Dickens” throughout the 2012 celebrations. My paper raised the question as to whether, and in what ways, this locating of Dickens in London was in tension with the iterations of “global Dickens” that were equally resonant throughout the bicentenary year. In writing the paper, I was particularly concerned with thinking through where the category of the “national” fits between the local and global: in the context of Britain’s other 2012 celebrations (the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics), “local Dickens” was frequently iterated as “British Dickens”, yet I was also aware of  international instances that took the idea of “local Dickens” into new global contexts. It was interesting, then, to hear further about how Dickens 2012 had been celebrated in various countries: Paula Guimarães talked about the National Library of Portugal’s exhibition celebrating Dickens in 2012, while American participants spoke about the bicentenary in the USA ( Dickens walking tours were similarly popular in some places in the US).

Bridging from the global into the local was Kyle Macauly’s paper on “Reforming Dickens: A Global Bleak House” which argued for reading Bleak House as a “global” novel that works by constantly moving outwards from the local instance to its global effect, calling on us to recognize the relationship between the part and the whole. Interestingly for a paper that argued for the global perspective, discussion of the presence of the global in Bleak House – where it features, what it looks like – felt somewhat absent, but this was perhaps precisely the point of Macauly’s reading: to demonstrate that the global is accessed via a particular, detailed vision of locality that constantly brings us up against the possibilities of, and limitations of accessing, the global world beyond.

Local Dickens
Local Dickens

From here we moved into papers that took the local as their theme. Mary L Shannon’s “Across the Street at his Local Theatre: Dickens and the Lyceum” took as its focus the local connections of Dickens’s life, exploring the interactions between the world of print and the world of the theatre within the Lyceum locale to give a new perspective on Dickens’s relationship with the theatre. A strong emphasis on place emerged through this reading, demonstrating the importance of reading localities for the specific constellations of networks that come into interaction with one another at specific moments in time, emphasising the sense of the Lyceum locale as a hub within a wider network of people and places. Adam Edward Watkins’s “‘The Influence of Locality’; Dickens, London, and Evolutionary Psychology” similarly handled the theme of locality as environment, positing that in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens presents an idea of locality that draws on evolutionary psychology to explore the influence of local ecology on human psychology.

Two papers on Dombey and Son concluded the seminar. Elizabeth Drumm’s “Consigned to the Sea: Children and the Ambivalent Recuperative Power” considered the local-global interactions that are inherent in Dickens’s representations of the sea in Dombey and Son, using this to suggest a particular ambivalence to ideas of travel and global circulation that surround the novel’s central locations. In Sharmaine Browne’s “The Railroad as Architect in Dombey and Son” a focus on the railway provided a centre-point for understanding the interaction between local and global contexts, the railway forcefully iterating the influence of distant forces on local places. Both of these papers opened up indicative instances where local and global are simultaneously handled in Dickens’s writing, prompting questions about where the “local” ends and the “global” begins, and the sense of a possibility in which the simultaneous entertaining of the two is the only way in which either are meaningfully understood.

At the end of my paper, I suggested that Dickens 2012 has “taken us from local to global and back again to view afresh the concept of locality in Dickens’s writing” in ways that “call on us to further interrogate the ways in which Dickens is located in the spaces of contemporary culture.” In posing “local” and “global” as distinct categories we are sometimes at risk of becoming static in our thinking, of fixing on the either/or perspectives that these terms produce, and thus reiterating the binary choices, as well as the implicit core-periphery structures, that are often inherent in such terms. This seminar provided a useful way of reinvigorating the concepts of local and global categories as rich, varied and multifaceted terms and suggested a variety of nuances through which we can understand both terms and their multiple interrelations.

Thanks to all the participants for their interesting papers, and to Eileen Gillooly for chairing and organising the session.

Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study. Her research centres on travel and mobility in nineteenth-century literature, with a particular interest in Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte.

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