Mapping place, politics, literary locations: learning from Lancaster University

I’ve started the final draft section of my PhD thesis on how Rochdale is read, mapped, and written.  In this section I’m trying to pull together the literary survey and the maps sections in order to inform creative responses to the borough*.  This has, in part, been inspired by other work in this area (for example: Barry, 2000; Roberts,2012; Alexander & Cooper, 2013)  and by creative work that plays with place and cartography.  Thanks to a tweet by my supervisor I learned of the recent work of MA students at Lancaster University on the Nineteenth Century: Place – Space – Text module led by Dr Joanna Taylor.  As part of the students’ assessment, they were tasked to take a text from the nineteenth century and use a digital mapping tool to map an element of their chosen text.

From my own research, I’ve been thinking of the tropes of folk tales and how the geographical locations of these overlap.  These locations can be approximately “pinned” on a contemporary map and are influencing a piece I’m writing at the moment routeing clusters of folk tales.  I thought I’d share the Lancaster research as it has potential for teaching (visualising routes and locations), learning (thinking through the relationship of place and text), and creating (how we conceive a place in our imagination through the way in which it is presented/represented)**.

 

Pride and Prejudice and place

Lex Elliot’s exploration of gender in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice draws upon Yi-Fu Tuan’s notions of place and space in his chapter ‘Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective’.  Lex concentrates on social position, social mores, and the characters’ lived experience in physical space concluding that place is ‘gendered and impacted by class’.  The limitations of mapping are also highlighted: ‘the map doesn’t give the full picture’. This is something that I have found too following the work of the late Brian Harley (2001): while maps offer useful locational shorthand, they struggle in depicting a rounded picture of place and all its complications.

 

Shelley & the politics of place

Rebekah Musk looks at the physical and political geographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Lines Written among the Euganean Hills’.  Rebekah’s map offers a two layered reading: mapping the toponyms included in the poem and plotting the potential visability of these places.  By working out the locations and, with a bit of mathematical thinking around the curvature of the earth, the possible view afforded to the poet, she then considers the cultural impact that the Austro-Italian border of 1818 had on Shelley’s poem.  She notes the political tension of territories in Shelley’s poem and from the map arguing that further research ‘overlaying a historical map like this one onto a contemporary map would allow for a more detailed reading of the political implications of Shelley’s poem’.  (Indeed, the tension of these borders, and of identity, remains a contemporary issue.)  Finally, I love the notion of the world revolving around Shelley: ‘The cities remain fixed but time and people move within them, the sun makes its journey through the sky causing Shelley’s view to change according its location, birds travel in the sky above him.’

Both these projects open up further possibilities for pedagogical application as well as offering ongoing criticism on the limitations of basic mapping software in trying to garner a full sense of place and of the power play of, and within, a place.

~~~

After this morning’s reading, I’m back to thinking of the importance of Summit and Blackstone Edge on the map I’ve made.  The information attached to the “pin” that roughly sits in those hills represents how the physical location is storied through travel writing, poetry, folk tale, protest, contemporary myth-making, and in its “character assessments”***.

 

Further reading

If you’re interested in learning more about Lancaster’s Digital Humanities projects have a look at the website: here.

Alexander, N & Cooper, D (eds.)(2013) Poetry & Geography. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Barry, P. (2000) Contemporary British poetry and the city. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Harley, J. B. (2001) The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. Baltimore, Maryland:  The John Hopkins University Press.

Roberts, L. (ed.)(2012) Mapping Cultures: Place, Practice, Performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

**** Thought fragments ****

* I’m a little worried that I’m not handling the material, or ideas, in an elegant or eloquent way but that’s not unusual for my state of mind.  The more I learn in terms of research, writing, experiencing the more I realise that I know very little indeed.  I think that’s the nature of learning, really, and I think it’s healthy to continually question what we “know“, however, it can be disorienting at times; especially when one is proved wrong.  Quite good for challenging the ego!

** Blogging about this reminds me to come back to it later after I finish drafting the final section.

*** The Rochdale borough is split between two National Character Assessments: 54. Manchester Pennine Fringe and 36. Southern Pennine Fringe.

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