Imaginary Tourism

Jessica Cook, University of South Florida

This spring I taught a course on the nineteenth-century novel at the University of South Florida. In the course description, I referred to the class as a “literary tour of the nineteenth-century British novel.” Though the novels we read were quite different, they all shared an interest in what it means to live in nineteenth-century England. However, this “tour” not only asked my students to take part in a kind of literary time travel to the unfamiliar nineteenth century, it also asked them to imagine a drastically different landscape from our own in Tampa, Florida. Unfortunately, any field trips to Charles Dickens’ London or Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire moors were out of the question. So what does literary tourism look like when one can’t actually visit the site itself?

To begin with, I kept a Google map that pinpointed significant places mentioned in each novel. We charted the characters’ journeys, helping us to better visualize, for example, the wide range of movement in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, from the Yorkshire coast to London to India. At the end of the course, we were able to zoom out and observe each novel’s geographic connections to the others. The students noticed that the earlier novels like Persuasion and Wuthering Heights tended to be more concentrated in one area, while the later novels like Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles were more spread out across various locations, mirroring the mobility of the characters in those novels. They also observed the map reflected thematic aspects of the novels, such as the way the locations in Wuthering Heights were so clustered together they almost appeared on top of one another, reproducing that novel’s suffocating psychological atmosphere.

The students were also assigned a digital research project that allowed them to explore in depth a single location from any novel we read. They presented their research in the digital platform of their choice, discussing how their findings influenced their understanding of the place’s role in the novel. Each student took his or her own imaginary tour through such places as the navy ships in Persuasion, real-life inspirations for Wuthering Heights, Pip’s home in the North Kent marshes in Great Expectations, the London streets in The Moonstone, and Stonehenge in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Toward the end of the course, I shared the Postcard Project with the students, and we talked more about why we have a desire to make these literary pilgrimages, whether real or, in our case, imagined. As the writers who have contributed to this site have noted, we often form an affection or attachment to these places through the act of reading, long before we ever visit them. Likewise, the critic Lawrence Buell notes, “But the fact that the imaginer hasn’t been there and maybe never will hardly lessens the intensity of such storied or imaged places to induce longing and loyalty.”[1] The act of reading is also an act of imaginary tourism, and perhaps one that can act on the reader just as powerfully as tourism in the more literal sense.

[1] Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), (p.73)

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2 thoughts on “Imaginary Tourism

  1. Pingback: Placing the Author and Teaching the Nineteenth Century | Jessica L. Cook

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