Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 28 (1999)

The Black Hole of London: Rescuing Oliver Twist

An interesting conjunction of secrets and place in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. Like the world generally in Dickens, London--the "abiding city" of his fiction--becomes increasingly mystifying and difficult to compass. Despite this, Dickens proved an ardent, tireless explorer of the city, and his "discoveries" play an important role In his fiction and make a significant contribution to our understanding, on a mythical as well as a literal level, of the great modern metropolis. Oliver Twist flees to London to lose himself In its labyrinthine vastness only to be threatened with perdition of various kinds. The novel, indeed, can be read as a contest between two opposed societies--with Brownlow and the Maylies on one side and Fagin and Sikes on the other--for the body and soul of Oliver. Whereas Fagin and Monks, purveyors of secrets, attempt to corrupt Oliver and to keep his true identity secret, the "congenial" class tries to rescue Oliver so that he can claim his birthright and assume his proper station in life. London, the terra incognita through which Dickens guides us, serves not only as the backdrop to this struggle, but also as a formidable complicating factor for Oliver and those who rescue him.

Unnatural Agencies: Little Dorritt, Speculation, and Administrative Reform

We can notice convergence between Charles Dickens's participation in the mid-Victorian administrative reform movement and his novel Little Dorritt, produced during the same time period. While Dickens fully supported the efforts of the Adminisrative Reform Association, his novel goes further than the Association in diagnosing the cause of England's governmental, social, moral, and economic instability, placing the ultimate blame for these instabilities on the speculative economic relations at the basis of the capitalist commercial system. For Dickens, the only antidote to the instabilities of such speculative relations was to locate a solid moral or economic ground that could, in turn, stabilize the moral and economic relations that had been disrupted by England's speculative social and economic system. Deploying a modified version of the separate spheres ideology, Dickens locates this ground in the feminine figure and the influence of the childlike and virginal Little Dorrit. However, when this ground, too, is destabilized in the course of the novel, Dickens's feminine solution to the problem of moral responsibilities and value is sorely compromised.

Dickens, the Virgin, and the Dredgers Daughter

With Dickens. sexual and religious desires were never entirely distinct. His erotic and idealistic impulses merged naturally in his fascination with the feminine. With the catalyst of Mary Hogarth's death early in his career, he developed a highly spiritualized personal religion embodied in the heroines of his early novels, icons of feminine purity and innocence like Rose Maylie of Oliver Twist. The shining perfections of these paragons reflect a prim and sterile idealism, but over the years his feelings grew more complex, and the heroines of the later novels begin to betray a moral ambiguity reflecting increasingly ambiguous impulses in Dickens himself. Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend expresses this complexity most fully. As a daughter of the London Thames she emerges from an insistently muddy and carnal background--pollution decay, and drowning; but, though she partakes of the rivers darkness, her dark sensuality mysteriously informs and enriches her moral excellence. With Lizzie, Dickens's rarefied feminine ideal acquired a body and became a woman with both a pysical and moral nature.

News from the Dead: Archaeology and Detection in The Mystery of Edwin Drood

As Dickens's uncompleted, last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood responds not only to Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), but also to Austen Henry Layard's Discoveries at Nineveh (1854) and to Charles LyelI's Antiquity of Man (1863). The narrative rejects traditional antiquarianism through its denial of prehistory, for it offers a sustained meditation on the nature of historical knowledge; the problems posed by fragmentary and negative evidence; and the conditional status of all historical reconstructions, including those offered in detective novels. In the novel, Lyell's discussion of the Temple of Jupiter Serapis in his Principles of Geology (1830-33) is implicitly offered as the model for acts of reconstruction engaged in by historians, by fictional detectives, and by readers of mysteries. Appropriately, the fragmentary novel, and by implication every text, becomes an archaeological relic that demands interpretation even as it defies it.

Copy-Book Morals: The Woman in White and Publishing History 

The exchange of the two women in white in the narrative of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (l860) may be regarded as a covert representation of Collins's anxieties about the piracy of his works by mid-ninteenth-century American publishers. Collins appears to be lobbying against the lack of "copy-book morals"(here read literally as a lack of publishing morals) evident in the contemporary American custom of reprinting English books. One failing in D.A. Miller's famous analysis of Collins's "novel," "Cage aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Collins's The Woman in White," is the wish to read the exchange of narratorial control effected by Count Fosco's seizing, and inscribing himself into, Halcombe's diary as solely a figurative "raping" of her rather than as also what, on a literal level, it is--the theft of a text. In addition, the many instances of "closeting" evident in Collins's narrative might not only be thematizing those sensational closetings of gender/genre instabilities that interest Miller but they might also, on a more mundane level, be simply representing the closeting of texts.

Gaskell's Ruth and Hardy's Tess as Novels of Free Union

When first published, both Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (1853) and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) stirred controversies about how Victorians should deal with so-called "fallen women." Like Ruth and Tess, neglected nineteenth-century novels about free union--such as Amelia A. Opie's Adeline Mowbray (1805) and W. Francis Barry's The New Antigone (1887)--contain conflicting narratives of female rebellion and repentance. Whereas the heroine of the liberationist narrative proclaims her right to a free union, the reformed heroine of the penitential narrative endorses the conventional morality that regards her as "fallen." The ideological disparities between liberationist and penitential narratives cause unrealistic contortions in the plots of Opie's and Barry's novels of free union. Using the theories of Michel Foucault and M.M. Bahktin to examine such disjunctions between narratives creates an understanding of the plot ruptures that critics decry in Ruth and Tess, as well as an awareness of the underlying cultural conflict over female sexuality. Although much has been written about Ruth and especially Tess, their ties to novels of free union have not been discussed.

New Historicizing Dickens

This theoretically focused survey of Dickens criticism (principally book-length studies) pursues two goals. On one hand, it is a history of the critical application of the New Historicist theoretical approach to reading literary texts (specifically the novels of Dickens). Beginning with a pre-history of historicist forays into both Dickens criticism and Victorian cultural studies in the 1950s and 1960s, this survey maps the evolution of the New Historicist approach to reading Dickens's fiction (both individually, in terms of single novel readings, and collectively, in terms of Dickens's historical vision as it defined his relationship to his culture, his society, his epoch) over the decades of the 197Os, 1980s, and 1990s. On the other hand, this survey is also a history of the definition of New Historicist theory itself. Briefly examining the philosophical and theoretical models of New Historicist thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Mikhail Bakhtin, it goes on to examine the accomodation of those theories to the acts of critical reading and discourse by theorists such as Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra, the articulation of those theories and discourse strategies for applied literary criticism especially by Renaissance scholars such as Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Monrose, the codification of these applied criticism techniques by editors such as H. Aram Veeser, and finally the burgeoning applications of New Historicist theory and discourse strategies to the novels of Charles Dickens. Yet, while this survey is a history, it ends on a futurist note. It attempts to extrapolate the direction that New Historicist readings of Dickens's fiction might take in the future.

Recent Dickens Studies: 1997

A survey of writing about Dickens published in the United States in 1997 reveals a sobering reality: few major university presses are publishing scholarly books devoted to him--or to any other single author. Smaller presses have become the most important out!ets for monographs on nineteenth-century literature. The good news for Dickensians is that both general-interest and specialized academic journals continued to publish a diverse and original array of worthwhile articles. Also heartening was the appearance of several excellent new editions of Dickens's work. Writers about Dickens in 1997 took a variety of approaches: their work reflected the influence of feminist theory in all its forms, queer theory, new historicism, and innovations in cultural studies. Foucault was the most frequently cited theorist, but Bakhtin, Adorno, Barthes, Williams, and Lukacs were also influential. Historicist studies abounded, and there was strong interest in Dickens as both creator and purveyor of a mass-market narrative product.

Production and Vocation: Recent George Eliot Studies

Entering the field almost concurrently with the reclaiming of George Eliot herself, a burst of theoretical possibilities has opened Eliot studies to the variety of critical perspectives which have revolutionized the profession in recent years. Where Eliot scholarship was once dominated by those interested in the history of ideas, the position of women, or in Eliot as a field of study unto herself, now the study of George Eliot is also very popular among scholars focusing not on author or period, but on literary theory and the study of culture. Postcolonial studies, studies of race, the gender study that is referred to as "queer theory," and theoretical (as well as materialist) feminism now comprise major forms of Eliot scholarship, and the impact of this work will be controversial and long lasting. In addition to these new readings of Eliot, there are several contributions to the primary literature which, now accessible to a wide audience, will change the way in which future generations approach Eliot. These are, among others, Eliot's journals,which will be published in 1999, and the remarkable journal of Eliot's admirer Edith Simcox, A Monument to the Memory of George Eliot: The Autobiography of a Shirtmaker. In the 1990s Eliot scholarship was energized by the production of such material. Finally, George Eliot has also become a lively presence in popular culture. In the press, on the internet, and on television as well George Eliot has recently attracted a wide contemporary audience. This essay discusses first the new primary works, then the criticism, and, finally, the representation of Eliot in popular culture.

Recent Wilkie Collins Studies

This survey examines the scholarship devoted to Collins since 1983, reviews recent editions of his fiction as well as biographical studies, and identifies and discusses trends in Collins criticism. The essay is divided into five parts: "Collins and the Police," "Collins, the Gothic, and Sensation Fiction," "Collins and Gender," "Collins and Empire," and "Collins, Narrative Structure, and Narrative Strategies." The survey concludes with a Bibliography that lists well over 200 works, including edtions, biographical and critical studies, and dissertations. Among the subjects discussed are the canonization of Collins, and the ways in which his status as Victorian rebel has been questioned and his cultural significance and aims redefined. Other topics considered are the influence of Foucault on Collins scholarship, the growing interest in historical and cultural approaches to Collins's fiction, and the contributions of Collins scholarship to Victorian studies, particularly the examination of gender and class ideologies.

Review Essay: Fin de Siecle

New perspectives on the origins of the modern age may be found in five recent scholarly studies and editions, which set late-Victorian fiction writers in the context of changing notions of religious observance, biological science, English and Irish national identity, and authorship as a profession. The volumes under review are Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People, edited by Meri-Jane Rochelson; The Oscar Wilde Encclopedia ,by Karl Beckson; Wilde the Irishman, edited by Jerusha McCormack; The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siecle Culture of Decadence, by Susan J. Navarette; and British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880 -1914, by Peter D. McDonald. All five books embed figures such as Israel Zangwill, Oscar Wilde, and Joseph Conrad in a milieu not just of shifting ideas, but of shifting publication practices and audience expectations. Collectively, these works produce a picture of the literary fin de siecle as a uniquely forward-looking period, yet also as one that demonstrated a nostalgic and conservative impulse, especially through its admiration of Charles Dickens and his contemporaries as embodiments of the lost world of the Victorian men of letters..

David Copperfield :An Annotated Bibliography

This annotated bibliography for David Copperfield supplements David Copperfield: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1981) by continuing to describe and evaluate a reasonably complete collection of information about that novel. The first part concerns the text--the novel in progress, textual commentary, editions with new illustrations and/or commentary and criticism, and various adaptations. Chronological ordering of the first part's entries traces the process of the novel's different editions and adaptations. The second, and largest part of the bibliography, lists, alphabetically by author, studies of David Copperfield--criticism, literary influences and parallels, teaching and study materials, and biographical discussions. The starting point for most users should be the Supplement's index, although the text includes entry-number cross-references, indicated by parentheses (references to items in the 1981 volume are in brackets).