Telling Stories with Maps

But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue.  She was all that.

How then to map that? Mrs Dalloway’s words reflect the fact that in literary narratives the sense of where one is may seem to have little to do with physical geography. While Virginia Woolf herself argued against attempting to physically locate a place an author mentions in a novel, since she believed that ‘[a] writer’s country is a territory within his own brain’, our project is based on the idea that the act of mentioning real-world place-names is in itself significant.[1] Woolf’s own liberal use of real-world place-names, albeit used with license, undermines her claims and indicate the broader basis of literary tradition and places in the world that provide a graspable structure to the reader of a literary work. Indeed, at least in terms of the significance of places the passage in Mrs Dalloway concurs, for it continues:  ‘So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.’[2]

Hestia image

At the Hestia 2 Project symposium, Telling stories with maps, we found ourselves surrounded by scholars from diverse disciplines (including archaeology, history, political ecology, geography, philology, and international law) who were encountering similar theoretical and technological issues and questions concerning exactly what one is doing when one attempts to map qualitative narratives. Considerations of what is lost in translation from narrative to map or map to narrative form recurred throughout the day. Nonetheless, as Øyvind Eide stressed, such media differences can be productive, as long as the limits of the media are acknowledged.

There are also limits caused by availability of media platforms. Agnieszka Leszczynski and Sarah Elwood explored the ways in which hegemonic narratives of spaces and places are being contested through the wider accessibility of GIS media platforms; although in closing Leszczynski noted that nonetheless the majority of such platforms were still being created by tall, white, alpha males. Akiyoshi Suzuki explored the ways in which in Haruki Murakami’s works the dead, the lost and the forgotten are evoked as underlying human relations, for example, the circuitous walk taken by Naoko and Watanabe in Norwegian Wood follows the edges of where the land meets the water in ancient maps of Japan and passes through places relating to spirits of the dead.

Ian Gregory tackled the issue of the unmentioned places in works on the Lake District, by creating maps that make visible when places are mentioned only contingently in order to represent an otherwise indistinctly identified place or path, for example, by showing the likely path taken (from x to y) or place only indirectly mentioned (near x). Their use of the Edinburgh Geoparser to study place-name collocations is confirming the opposing nature of notions of the beautiful and the sublime in Romantic sentiment, since the places to which such epithets are applied do not tend to coincide in the text and, therefore, on the map.

This relates to the question asked of us after our presentation: whether we were not concerned that we would simply be reifying existing concepts of literary Edinburgh. In fact, as we explained, part of the aim of our project is that by uncovering thousands of works that have sunk into obscurity and by tracing the narratives told of place-names in Edinburgh across time we will be able to reflect on existing critical paradigms, such as the dual nature of Edinburgh and its literature, with its old and new town, its anglification and the demotic, and its enlightenment and the repression of the religious reformation. Uta Hinrichs on our visualisation team presented some of the ways in which we hope to bring the texts to life and provide multiple perspectives on the city and its literature (on which more to follow). For the aim of Palimpsest is to provide a new means to reflect on, excavate, and – indeed – celebrate the sedimentary processes which have given our city its literary shape.

– Miranda Anderson and James Loxley

Update: A version of this post can also be read at the Hestia project blog.

[1] Virginia Woolf. 1986. Literary geography. In The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. A. McNeillie. Vol. I. London: Hogarth Press, 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf. Mrs Dalloway, 129.