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Using Fiction to Map the Emotional Geography of Victorian London

Mapping Emotions in Victorian London from the Stanford Literary Lab  (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)
Mapping Emotions in Victorian London, from the Stanford Literary Lab (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

The emotional meaning of a place from centuries ago can be difficult to resurrect. The Stanford Literary Lab has plotted quotes from over 700 19th-century authors who mentioned locations in London in order to compose concentrations of dread or happiness.

Mapping Emotions in Victorian London, created on the Historypin platform in collaboration with the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, is part of the Stanford Literary Lab’s ongoing data mining of literature; additional projects include studying the relationship between title and text in 18th-century fiction and how the poetic form has evolved over time. The recently launched Victorian “emotional geography” map might appear a bit random at first, with pins linking to out-of-context quotes from authors as varied as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and forgotten romance authors; however, it does have more subtlety than simply telling us that slums evoke horror and parks, happiness. As the Lab’s associate researcher director, Ryan Heuser, told the New York Times, fear was surprisingly more “associated with ancient markets and prisons” than poverty. This could relate to the authors themselves, as they likely weren’t in the almshouse if they were successfully publishing novels.

Overview of Mapping Emotions in Victorian London
Overview of Mapping Emotions in Victorian London
Landing page for "Dreadful London" on Mapping Emotions in Victorian London
Landing page for “Dreadful London” on Mapping Emotions in Victorian London

Organized by the themes of Dreadful LondonA Day in the Life of Old London, and London in the Light, the over 4,000 quotations are plotted on an 1893–96 survey map from National Library of Scotland, which the Historypin interface overlays on Google Maps. The emotion of each was categorized by an anonymous, crowd-sourced participant. Some seem obvious in their dreariness, such as this passage from the obscure “historical romance” The Pilgrims of Walsingham, for London Bridge: “He pointed, as he spoke, to the turret in the middle of London Bridge, which commanded a drawbridge, always raised and guarded in case of an attack on the city by water. On this turret was placed the ghastly head of the unfortunate Stanly. Dreadful times!” Others are more ambiguous, like this old burn on Belgrave Square from The Dowager: “Lady Medwyn was beginning to threaten him with forfeiture of caste if seen so often with the humdrum set in Belgrave Square.”

A little timeline that’s easy to overlook at the bottom of the screen tells you the exact year of each quotation. Don’t expect an exact geography, though, as all the pins for particular sites are clustered together, like each mention of Chelsea bunched on King’s Road. Mapping fiction is not a precise representation of a given time and place, but like the New York Public Library mapping its photography collections of Manhattan doorways and Brooklyn living rooms, it offers another way to interact with the past and adds another layer of human perspective.

Pins from "A Day in the Life of Old London" on Mapping Emotions in Victorian London
Pins from “A Day in the Life of Old London” on Mapping Emotions in Victorian London
Pinned quote on Mapping Emotions in Victorian London
Pinned quote on Mapping Emotions in Victorian London

Mapping Emotions in Victorian London is viewable on Historypin.

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