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Strolling Through Space and Time in the Streets of London

Strolling Through Space and Time in the Streets of London February 16, 2010

Ripon College professor will weave past and present in “Literary London” course

Walk with Ripon College professor Kelly Stage in London for a few minutes and you’re likely to travel back in time a century or two, or more.

Is that the echo of your footsteps you hear? Perhaps, instead, you hear the voices of actors in a 17th-century London theatre rising up from the cobblestones, or Charles Dickens vividly describing the London of his day.

Turn a corner, and you might be right back in the present, looking up at a gleaming building sheathed in glass.

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral (above) and a detail from its facade (above left)

Photo above courtesy of Michelle Robson

A walk in London with Stage is a stroll through space and time, as she weaves together past and present to illuminate the unfolding history of this densely-packed metropolis that she so clearly loves.

“By virtue of the way it’s had to rebuild, London sticks divergent moments (in time) next to each other,” said Stage. “You see a building that has a half-timbered exterior that looks like it might be very old next to something that’s very new, and on a street plan that’s very, very old. And underneath it, you could probably find Roman ruins if you dug far enough. As current people in the city, we can see all of these things at once.”

“Those moments in our imagination can help us understand where we are socially as organisms and how we can nonetheless connect to people who are thousands of miles away and in a completely different period (of history),” she said.

Next spring, Stage will lead groups of students through the maze of London’s streets, connecting the city’s past and present, when she will be Visiting Faculty Director of the London & Florence: Arts in Context program.

Exploring how literature reflects and influences change

On the London & Florence Program, students spend eight weeks in each of those two remarkable cities, with a week in the middle of the semester for independent travel. They take two courses in London and three in Florence, including a conversational Italian course.

Kelly Stage in front of the British Library

Photo courtesy of Kelly Stage

Field trips and on-site classes take students to neighborhoods, museums and galleries, churches, and public buildings throughout the two cities and surrounding areas.

Stage’s course, “Literary London: London In and As Text and Performance,” will draw on a wide array of sources in literature, drama, poetry, essays, and non-fiction – Wordsworth to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Virginia Woolf – to explore how literature and performance have reflected and influenced change in London over the past four centuries.

London itself – the streets, buildings, public spaces – will be a major “textbook” for the course, and the students will be out and about in the city every day. Along with the readings, the students and Stage will attend plays and other performances and take field trips throughout the city. You can be sure they’ll do a lot of walking, which is one of Stage’s favorite ways to learn about London.

When she was a graduate student in English at New York University, Stage lived in London while pursuing her dissertation research and serving as Associate Director of NYU’s Summer in London Program.

Her area of specialty is Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in London during the decades just before and after the dawn of the 17th century, but her interests range broadly through English literature and history. She also is fascinated by the ways that people interact with, and within, their spatial environment.

Trafalgar Square

Photo courtesy of Kelly Stage

As part of her research, Stage said, she needed to gain an understanding of how London was laid out 400 years ago, and how Londoners in that period perceived their city. “The wonderful thing about London is that it hasn’t changed,” Stage noted. “It all burned down, but they kept the streets almost exactly where they were.” In a kind of literary scavenger hunt, Stage would try to trace the steps taken by characters in 17th century plays and literature, thus getting a sense of the city and its neighborhoods at the time the works were written.

“People have had this longstanding desire to try to understand London through writing about it, and this course is the opportunity to put together a diverse range of those (writers) discussing London” as it developed from a small city to a global capital, said Stage.

“We have (the poet William) Blake talking about what a mess the city is in the early 1800’s, and we have other people talking about what a mess the city is in the 1650’s, and then we have other people talking about what a mess the city is now,” she said. “How is it that cities keep having the same problems? How do we see different people talking about the same issues? Have they changed? Have the people have changed? What’s the style of discourse?”

A marvelous awakening

“I’m looking forward to (the program) immensely, and I’m really excited about teaching the class,” said Stage, with her characteristic enthusiasm. “I haven’t been to London since 2005, and I know it’s going to be hugely different, even in that short period of time.”

“It will be interesting to see this city that I study in its own process of evolution,” she continued. “How fast do we move in the postmodern age of information, and what adjustments does that require?”

View across the Thames

View of London across the Thames River

Photo courtesy of Emily Hoffman

Reflecting on her past experience with study abroad and introducing students to London, Stage said she’ll enjoy the opportunity to see the city through the eyes of the London & Florence program participants. She expects that many of the students will not be used to such an intensely urban environment.

“This will be a real ingénue experience for some of them to just appear on the scene of this massive European capital, being confronted with its modernity and its oldness at the same time,” said Stage. “There’s a feeling of London being old, even though it’s not that old compared to medieval Europe, and it’s something that students can’t get over a lot of the time.”

“I think in America we pull things down too frequently and build on top of them,” she said. “It’s a marvelous awakening, I think, for a lot of students to see that culture is longer than 50 years.”


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