Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 32 (2003)

Embracing the New Spirit of the Age: Dickens and the Evolution of The Old Curiosity Shop

As The Old Curiosity Shop evolved out of Master Humphrey’s Clock, Dickens engaged with a number of concerns in his life, his art, and his times. The image of an innocent child in threatening circumstances took powerful hold of his imagination. Quilp personifies that threat, but it is the pathological addiction of Nell’s grandfather to gambling which undoes her, and the countryside to which they flee offers no escape. In his development of Swiveller from a Regency gent into a responsible Victorian hero Dickens found a positive way to link the imaginative responsiveness of a city-dweller with moral responsibility.

Narrating History in Scott and Dickens

This essay sets out to compare how Scott and Dickens, writing as novelists, approach historic material that is an essential part of their narratives. A common ground for the comparison is provided by their descriptions of historic riots that involve the storming of prisons, that of the Tolbooth during the Porteuos Riots in The Heart of Midlothian, and of Newgate during the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge. The critical criterion for the comparison, following a dictum of Joseph Conrad, is the degree to which the novelists succeed in making us visualize the events they describe. The analysis suggests that Scott works much more like an historian than does Dickens. Scott sticks close to his sources and is careful not to deviate from them. Dickens vouches for the authenticity of his descriptions of the riots, but gives his imagination free rein in his evocation of them and the way he integrates this material in the narrative as whole. 

"They lost the whole": Telling Historical (Un)Truth in Barnaby Rudge

Critics have long struggled over the status of Barnaby Rudge, both in the Dickens canon and as historical fiction. The novel, however, defies easy categorization, partly because Barnaby Rudge is a comic expression of history’s essential unnarratability. In the novel Dickens rejects the possibility of either a complete apprehension of the historical field or a comprehensive knowledge of it. This rejection is expressed in the voice of Grip, who proves either unwilling or unable to narrate the “tale” of the Gordon Riots. Grip’s narrative demonstrates that prescriptive narratives, such as “history,” cannot transcend epistemological limitations on individual perceptions and understanding; instead, in order to teach us anything at all, it must be limited to a sympathetic exchange between individuals. Dickens imagines “truth telling” as a comic process of breaking down the illusory coherence of all historical narratives—particularly those of the novel’s master manipulators, who seek to commandeer history to serve their personal desires. In short, Grip’s tale teaches us to “lose the whole” in order to gain it, to avoid being co-opted and controlled by narratives that promise social and moral improvement, but deliver only recurrent private and public violence and oppression.

Of Jews and Ships and Mob Attacks, Of Catholics and Kings: The Curious Career of Lord George Gordon

Though it was the largest civil disturbance since Monmouth’s Rebellion, the Gordon Riots constitute a neglected chapter of English history, one most often invoked as background to Barnaby Rudge. This essay looks around Dickens’s novel and the tradition it helped establish to the riots themselves and the circumstances around Gordon’s conversion to Judaism. It then returns to the novel to suggest that the discrepancy between the political issues of Gordon’s time and those ascribed to him and the rioters in historical fiction adumbrates a radical political novel that Dickens had neither the will nor what Pierre Bourdieu calls the cultural “space possibilities” to write.

"What the Waves Were Always Saying" : Submerging Masculinity in Dombey in Son

It is surely fair to say that Dombey and Son’s almost constant references to water gradually “submerge” the masculine realm represented by the novel’s title character. Dickens’s construction and subsequent deconstruction of femininity, however, is far more problematic. While Florence’s female sentimentality is continually viewed as dangerous by her father, it is she who extends the life of her beloved brother, and she who is able to attain emotional fulfillment through the community of the Wooden Midshipman, and, ultimately, marriage to Walter Gay. Dombey’s second marriage to Edith Granger, a woman who is unable to express this sort of feminine feeling, brings him no such happiness, but the idealized domesticity of the Midshipman is portrayed in a decidedly uneven fashion, a microcosm of Dickens’s apparent inability to decide whether to praise or condemn the aquatic dissolution of the male. In the end, while Dickens provides the expected ending, there is no real resolution of these issues.

Inspector Bucket versus Tom-all-Alone’s: Bleak House, Literary Theory, and the Condition-of-England in the 1850s

It has recently seemed something of a litmus test for new schools of literary theory to demonstrate themselves through a close reading of Bleak House. Taking up the challenge to examine the novel through the lens of cultural studies, this essay seeks first to locate the novel in historical context. Written less than a decade after the appearance of a small unit of London detectives, the text reflects early anxieties about the efficiency and impartiality of these public servants, although Dickens’s own journalistic writings tended to exaggerate the abilities of officers like the real-life inspector Field. Where New Historicist criticism in particular has tended to take such claims at face value, early readers of Bleak Housewere confused by Inspector Bucket, and identified instead with the crossing sweeper, Jo. Reed in relation to the “condition-of-England” novels by Gaskell and others, and Dickens’s own interest in welfare and sanitary reform, Jo shows the weakness of contemporary projects of social amelioration, including those that operated through the agency of the new police. In that sense, Bucket’s insistence that Jo simply “move on” from place to place illustrates a larger political failure to develop reform strategies for the urban poor.

Editorial Interventions: Hard Times’s Industrial Imperative

Critics have often noted that Charles Dicken’s Hard Times fails to suggest specific solutions to the social problems it describes. This refusal, however, should be interpreted not as a failure, but rather as a reflection of the changes wrought by industrialism in the world of London publishing, and particular the new roles emerging for editors as a result of those changes. This essay locates Hard Times in the contexts of Stephan Blackpool’s resemblance to Thomas Carlyle’s “Editor” in Past and Present and of recent criticism on Dickens’s work as an editor and as an author in the other genres, claiming that the manufacturing world portrayed in Hard Times was modeled on the publishing world which produced that novel, and correspondingly that both Stephan and the novel itself pursue a figuratively “editorial” model of activism within those worlds. That is, their actions invoke a concept of reform in which the agents of social transformation pursue their ends as participants in a collaboratively- and institutionally-structured community, rather than as autonomously-inspired individuals. Focusing on the figure of the editor underlying Hard Times thus allows us to seek out in the literary field the same kinds of collaborative endeavors which critics have admired in reform movements in the industrial field, as well as to reexamine our expectations about how literature itself should participate in such reform movements. 
Little Dorrit and Providence 

Many commentators have observed that when Dickens began to write Little Dorrit, he intended to write a story in which no one was willing to accept responsibility for his or her actions. Although the original title for the book, Nobody’s Fault, was subsequently abandoned, the initial theme remained of central importance. As a result, the reader is encouraged to consider the issue of human responsibility in the course of a debate between free will and determinism, a debate which, as I argue, is located within a theological framework. The novel may include a variety of secular parallels and alternatives to this framework, but ultimately, it insists on exploring the issue of human responsibility via the theological concept of providence. The second half of the article examines three providential models that are present in Little Dorrit: determinism, deism, and agent causation. While the first two models are found wanting, the third, embodied in the character of Pancks, is shown to provide a successful conception of providence in which an agent, who is neither entirely determined not completely autonomous, is capable of asserting his individuality amid a world in which various determinants exert a powerful influence. 

Help Wanting: The Exhaustion of a Dickensian Ideal

Though he has come to personify the greatest ambitions of Victorian philanthropy, Dickens, at the height of his career, abandoned the very image of charity he had so fiercely advocated throughout his early works. Initially, elaborates an ideal of “personal charity” as one that can inspire extreme acts of social recognition and class conciliation. This ideal becomes most profound in the novels of his middle period, in which personal encounters between rich and poor expose prior histories of abuse and neglect, and, through such exposures, provide an avenue for restitution and recovery. Yet, beginning in Little Dorrit, a charity based on personal relation loses its power to reconcile; intimacy itself becomes a tool whereby the poor and disaffected are better manipulated. Through the dissolution of the Meagles household and the anti-philanthropic thrust of Amy Dorrit’s eventual ascendancy, Dickens dismantles the ideal of personal charity, insisting that even the exertions of the most earnest benefactors are finally performed in the interests of their own security.

Sucking the Empire Dry: Colonial Critique in The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Many critics have considered Charles Dickens's attitudes about imperialism to be unified throughout his career. Citing his fiction and letters, they find ethnocentrism and intolerance for colonial subjects. While this perspective on the colonies was indeed present, it may be qualified by investigating Dickens's later work, in particular The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens's unfinished novel moves away from his previous colonial position and instead criticizes colonialism by juxtaposing British domestic consumption with the effect of empire. By examining the character in the novel and their consumption of colonial commodities, including opium, I argue that Dickens's last novel subtly critiques such consumption. The critique suggests, then, that the appetites of the British themselves, rather than some taint or infection from the colonies, adulterates the colonial system and, in turn, England itself.

"Proud possession to the English nation": Victorian Philanthropy and Samuel Johnson's Goddaughter

From April 1855 to May 1856, Carlyle, Dickens, and Forster sponsored a benevolence on behalf of two Deptford spinsters, Ann Elizabeth and Frances Meliora Lucia Lowe, daughters to Mauritius Lowe, R.A., friend to Samuel Johnson. Knowledge of the Lowes Memorial remains scant, much of it veiled in hitherto unpublished letters. And the little that we can glean from the Dickens letters does not provide an altogether lucid picture. A more comprehensible portrait of this charitable venture will come with the release of volumes 29 to 31 of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle. Dickens's involvement is hardly surprising, considering his centrality to domestic charities and generosity to destitute individuals. The plan appealed to the Lord Palmerston, whose inability to deliver a Civil List Pension prompted a public appeal in The Times. Approximately £300 was raised, reflecting some curious observations on which Victorians gave and how much. The Memorial reveals a complex set of ideas about Victorian philanthropy, demonstrating, among other things, the way Victorians rallied to support an exclusive pair whose ties to Samuel Johnson demanded national attention, urgency, and munificence. Additionally, the Lowes Memorial expands our understanding of Victorian charities—their goals, scope, and politics; the identity of their sponsors and donors; the interaction between sponsors and beneficiaries; and the ways monies were raised and dispersed.

The Widowhood of Catherine Dickens

This essay examines the cultural and legal significance of widowhood for Victorian women as well as the particular experience of widowhood for Catherine Dickens. It considers the effects of Charles Dickens’s death on the wife from whom he separated in 1958, correcting the tendency of Dickens critics and biographers to engage in what Catherine Dickens's friend, the novelist Annie Thomas, termed "the suttee business." Despite the commonly held assumption that her life effectually ended with that of her husbands in 1870, if not with their separation twelve years before, Catherine Dickens played a variety of meaningful roles in the nine years between her husband's death and her own, a period in which she enjoyed her improved status as Dickens’s widow, strengthened her ties to a number of her children, and sought to move from the margins of her family to its center.

Impounding the Future: Some Uses of the Present Tense in Dickens and Collins

Both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins make interesting use of present-tense narration in their fiction. Collins imbeds a present-tense text within the main narrative of The Woman in White, and Dickens alternates between present- and past-tense narration in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Collins exploits the immediacy act of the present tense in the conventional mode of the diary, but Dickens more experimentally uses a nondiegetic present-and-past-tense narrator. Both writers seek to create anxiety about the future in their readers while still implying a providential design at work in human affairs. Both Collins and Dickens use present-tense narration for enhancing suspense and increasing narrative authority through the withholding of information about the future, but Dickens is more inventive, using a single narrator who moves between history and discourse and employing a shifting focalization that includes the narrator.

Wilkie Collins's Villainous Miss Gwilt, Criminality, and the Unspeakable Truth

The foreword to Wilkie Collins's novel Armadale warns that the book may offend some readers because it is a book "daring enough to speak the truth" Collins, however, does not mention specifically just how the book "oversteps, in more than on direction," the limits of what he labels the "Clap-trap morality" of the day. Critics who have focused only on the crimes of the novel's villain, the outrageous Miss Gwilt, have overlooked the book's undeniable emphasis on sexuality, specifically the homoerotic bond that exists between the novel’s two protagonists, Allan Armadale and Ozias Midwinter. Collins repeatedly hints at the irrepressible passion between the two, a passion they can acknowledge privately, but not publicly. Indeed, given the attitude towards sodomy that was present in nineteenth-century England (it was a capital crime until 1861), it is clear that the frequent hysterical fits of Midwinter reflect his own homosexual panic as he contemplates the criminality of the love that "dare not speak its name." Lydia Gwilt, who appears on the scene as this relationship is nearing a climax, represents an unspeakable pathology of male homosocial desire, the signification of the criminal. The Armadale/Gwilt/Midwinter triangle that ensues reveals the love shared by the men as she attempts to come between them and inherit a fortune by marrying Midwinter and murdering Armadale. Miss Gwilt finally decides to kill herself instead, because she understands that the love the two men share will continue unabated. At the novel's conclusion Armadale marries the asexual Neelie Milroy, but he also vows that he will never part from Midwinter, thus preserving homosexuality as an option which Collins depicts, but refuses to judge.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's Infatuation with the Weaker and More Aesthetic Sex Reexamined

Again and again, the Reverend C.L. Dogson, better known under his pen name of Lewis Carroll, is described in the media as a more or less active child lover, whose single lifelong source of pleasure would have been the company of prepubescent girls. If his most famous extant photographs indeed depict little girls in various attires, an objective examination of his unabridged diaries and published letters demonstrates that, far from deliberately dropping his young friends when they reached puberty, he was very intent on stretching his acquaintance with them as long and as far as they were willing, and as Mrs. Grundy would allow him. The actual ages of the recipients of his so-called letters to child-friends, and his repeated marks of satisfaction at being able to go around with older girls and women as he himself grew older, as well as massive evidence for his fascination with the adult naked female body, have all been overlooked by most of his biographers so far. In this day and age when pedophilia is widely condemned as an abominable crime, it is important the image of one of the greatest Victorian writers be cleared of such outrageous and ungrounded suspicions.

A Secret Garden of Repressed Desires Frances Hodgson Burnett’s That Lass O’Lowries

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s That Lass O’Lowries (1877), set in Lancashire’s mining district, extends traits associated with bourgeois femininity to “good” women of the lower and upper classes, concealing the depth of class conflicts. Burnett’s strapping, working-class heroine, Joan Lowrie, transforms into a domestic angel through her repressed affection for the bourgeois hero, Fergus Derrick. By the end of Lass, the values of the working class and the upper class have been abandoned to the enable Joan to promote the values of the middle class who served as Burnett’s primary audience. However, through characterizing Joan as possessing not only the virtues of the middle class femininity but physical strength as well, Burnett revises the standards of bourgeois femininity to some extent. Burnett’s revision has implications for class and race relations, because it indirectly supports eugenics. Whereas Burnett glorifies a superb female specimen through Joan, eugenicists would later foster persecution of the supposedly unfit.