Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 33 (2003)

A Rabelaisian View from Todgers's Backside, Or "Partly Spiritual, Partly Spiritous" in Martin Chuzzlewit


The troubling confrontation between old Martin and Sairey Gamp near the conclusion of Martin Chuzzlewit typifies the tensions between Lenten and carnivalesque extremes which significantly inform the entire novel and which archetypally appear in Gargantua and Pantagruel. in fact, understanding the crucial relationships between Dickens and Rabelais's bawdy epic helps readers better evaluate the miraculous but often melancholy comedy of Chuzzlewit. Specifically, it clarifies the text's confusing medley of carnivalesque motifs: cornucopian (and dialogic) plentitude, grotesque matter, prandial and Pantagruelian excesses, billingsgate rhetoric, and the paradox of "pregnant death. " Ultimately, it provides a novel and refreshing perspective on the textual "problems " of Chuzzlewit's preface, American chapters, and representation of Mrs. Gamp's boozy expertise in both "births and berryins. "

Lighthousekeeping: Bleak House and the Crystal Palace

Esther Summerson is the housekeeper at Bleak House and the partial narrator of Bleak House. Her duties are to order Jarmlyce's house and Dickens's novel. Like Mrs. Rouncewell at Chesney Wold, she also catalogues the contents of the house offiction she controls, and on occasion exhibits them by bringing us into the presence of the other narrative voice. Esther shepherds the reader as helshe confr-onts the evils of contemporary England presented by that other, unnamed reader: Chancery, Tom-All-Alone's, the disease-breeding graveyard. With Bleak House Dickens answers his own call, in Household Words, for "a great exhibition of England's sins and negligence" to set beside the Great Exhibition of industrial and material progress that was displayed in the Crystal Palace, and so reminds his readers of the need for comparable social and political progress.

Glass Windows: The View from Bleak House

Conceived and written in the immediate aftermath of the 1851 Great Exhibition, Bleak House has been mined by critics for allusions to that event and to the Crystal Palace that housed it. Although Paxton's "bundle of transparency" is never mentioned, another version of transparency abounds: the glass window. In Bleak House, Dickens uses windows as what Philip Hamon calls "character particles." Windows, in other words, not only serve as metaphors and plot devices, but also as characters, fostering misprision and understanding, exclusion and inclusion, stability and change, constraint and freedom, blindness and insight. Windows provide light, air, and vision, but also boundaries and limitations. Rather than the illusion of "utter transparency, " a modernist, utopian value inaugurated by Paxton's edifice, Dickens opts for the imperfect view from windows.

Conviction in Writing: Crime, Confession, and the Written Word in Great Expectations

Great Expectations interweaves the themes of literacy and crime to such an extent that writing itself becomes a mark of guilt. Although Dickens frequently blurs the distinctions between written and spoken words, characteristics commonly attributed to writing remain tainted with crime, while those associated with speech provide the hope of confession and forgiveness. These thematic links are rooted in nineteenth-century confession law, and Great Expectations provides an alternative to recent accounts of the status of testimony in Victorian legal practice and Victorian fiction. The confluence of writing, guilt, and confession helps explain both this novel's incorporation of George Barnwell, and the novel's rhetorical purpose. Like Lillo's play, Great Expectations is crafted to prod its audience's guilty consciences, encouraging them to confess and seek forgiveness.

Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) Illustrated: A Critical Reassessment of Hablot Knight Browne's Accompanying Plates

Although a number of critics have pilloried Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz")for his supposed ineptitude in the program, of illustration for A Tale of Two Cities, the fact that he so astutely realized and graphically elaborated so many significant elements of Dickens's letterpress is evidence that his pictorial series reflects an extremely careful reading of the printed text, and that these much-maligned plates that have stood the test of time in the book's publishing history are deserving of further serious scrutiny. The visual twinning of the monthly wrapper designed by Phiz reinforces the fact that the structure of A Tale of Two Cities, even as published in thirty-one weekly parts, was influenced by the crucial doubling that eventually resolves the plot. The obvious dualities of the Darnay/Carton likeness and the Paris/London setting not only reflect the binary structure of All the Year Round's weekly installments, but also, in the story's second iteration (as a monthly, illustrated serial), complement the monthly pairing of plates, which obliged readers simultaneously to decode pictorial accompaniments in terms of the letterpress and to visualize their reading of Dickens's text in terms of Phiz's plates. The visual accompaniment was not mere ornamentation, but an aide-memoire intended to facilitate the monthly reader's keeping track of a discontinuous narrative over a period of seven months.

"Boz has got the Town by the ear": Dickens and the Athenaeum Critics

The weekly Athenaeum, called by its editors "the mirror of Victorian culture, " published more than 10,000 reviews of fiction from its inception in 1828 until 1900. While Athenaeum reviewers recognized Dickens's ability from the earliest review of Sketches by Boz, they had reservations about his vulgarity. They also distinguished between the enthusiastic popular reception and the more sophisticated understanding of the critics. Impressed by Dickens's growing social criticism, however, they came to value both his moral influence and his art. These judgments are apparent not only in the reviews of Dickens himself, but also in the extensive comments on him found in reviews of other novelists.

Miltonic Orientalism: Jane Eyre and the Two Dalilas

This essay explores the intertextual relationship between Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and John Milton's Samson Agonistes. Rebutting the largely unchallenged claim of Gilbert and Gubar that Milton is a patriarchal "bogey" against whom women writers struggle to find their voices, the author suggests a far more problematic and complex relationship between the two. In fact, Bronte's position with regard to Milton's influence remains far more unsettled than many of the women writers before and after her, at times criticizing Milton's representations of women, at others incorporating them into her work. In particular, Bronte actually presents two versions of Milton's Dalila in Jane Eyre: Bertha, the dark, ruthless, dehumanized Dalila who represents betrayal and deceit and Jane, the servant Dalila, the one who nurses her "Sightless Samson" back to health. Although Samson rejects Dalila's overtures to minister to him, naturally doubting her sincerity, Milton at least voices the possibility of reconciliation, which Bronte allusively weaves into the plot of her novel. Curiously, however, the redemptive process that ultimately sees Rochester submit to Jane resonates strongly with the Orientalist representation of Dalila in Samson Agonistes. Indeed, throughout Jane Eyre, Jane resists Orientalizing, a process of "othering " that perpetuates her own status as an outsider. Even when she achieves financial independence, appears to break free of such exoticism, and reconciles her Samson to divine authority, the specter of Orientalism haunts the green spaces of Ferndean, threatening the peace and security she and Rochester desire.
Wilkie Collins, Mr. Vanstone, and the Case of Beethoven's "No-Name" Symphony

For Leo Treitler
Wilkie Collins poses a wonderful musical riddle at the beginning of No Name (1864). Having attended a concert with his daughters, Mr. Vanstone describes one of the pieces on the program: it lasted forty minutes, "stopped three times along the way," made him think of Jericho, and went "Crash-Bang" (we also learn that there was a female singer on the program). He then asks his daughters what they call such a piece, to which Magdalen replies that it was a Beethoven symphony, without, however, identifying just which one of Beethoven's nine symphonies it was. After reviewing Collins's antipathy to Beethoven's music in general, I use the clues in Mr. Vanstone's description to identify the symphony that he heard. It must have been Symphony No. 7, a conclusion further supported by that number's association with the biblical Mary Magdalen, with whom Magdalen Vanstone, the driving force of the novel, is obviously associated. The unfolding of the mystery is accompanied by incidental information about musical life in Victorian England.

A Survey of Bibliographical and Textual Studies of Dickens's Works

This survey of bibliographical and textual studies of Dickens's works is based on the introduction to my forthcoming General Studies of Charles Dickens and His Writings and Collected Editions of His Works: An Annotated Bibliography. Volume I: Bibliographies, Catalogues, and Bibliographical and Textual Studies. Offered as both a history of Dickensian bibliography and an evaluative guide to research, it examines bibliographies of Dickens's works; bibliographical studies; bibliographies and surveys of translations, readings, dramatic adaptations, plagiarisms and imitations, and illustrations; bibliographies of Dickens studies; library catalogues, catalogues of Dickens collections, and guides to collections; exhibition catalogues; auction and booksellers' catalogues; and studies of manuscripts and textual changes and Dickens at work. A great deal of important work has been done in the field of bibliographical and textual studies over the century and a third since Dickens's death, but much of it is inevitably outdated, and some of the basic bibliographical work needs to be done on Dickens's minor works. With the approach of the bicentennial of Dickens's birth in 2012, it is an appropriate time for younger scholars-and older ones, too-to reevaluate, revise, and update the bibliographical work that has been done and, in the field of textual studies, to continue to work with the number plans, memoranda, manuscripts, and printed texts to provide a better understanding of Dickens's genius for a new century.

Review Essay: Psychological Criticism on Dickens, 1982-2001

Perhaps psychoanalysis has become a modern equivalent of a contested site of contradiction and paradox, much like "poetry" in the Renaissance or the "novel" in the eighteenth century. Psychoanalysis is generally discussed in at least two ways: as a therapeutic method and as a system of inquiry. It is commonly understood that what brings psychoanalysis and literature together--indeed, what allows the one to serve the other--is that the structures of both the mind and literature are the same. As a methodology, this form of criticism has certainly had its detractors. Yet, and more importantly, it remains a very compelling and profitable mode of criticism, particularly when analyzing the vast body of work of Charles Dickens. This essay reports on some of these critical conversations that attempt to figure out why we never seem to tire of observing the uncanny in Bleak House or guilt in Great Expectations. I present here a selected review of the psychological critical literature on Dickens and his fiction as it has appeared in print since 1982. Ultimately, the results of such an attempt illuminate both Dickens scholarship and psychological criticism in general.

Recent Dickens Studies-2001

The following review essay deals with works on Dickens published primarily in the year 2001. It is organized into four sections, depending on the form of publication: Section A deals with books devoted entirely to Dickens and his work, both reference and monograph. Section B discusses books in which the main focus is not on Dickens per se, but which contain a chapter or chapters devoted to his work. Section C discusses collections of essays on Dickens, which have appeared in book form and have one editor but numerous contributors. Finally, Section D deals with a selection of journal articles that appeared in 2001.

I began my work on the 2001 annual review with a heavy heart, dreading the amount of reading that lay ahead. I have ended instead with a sense of gratitude-gratitude to the editors of Dickens Studies Annual for having asked me to undertake this review and to all the writers of articles, chapters, and monographs on Dickens and his work who have taught me so much in the course of all my reading. It is a sad but true fact of an academic's life that the amount of time one has to give over to reading anything outside one's immediate research or teaching concerns is limited, so I do not believe that under ordinary circumstances I would have had such an opportunity to survey the field as I have just had. If it has been a great deal of work, it has also been enormously educational and-more often than one might suppose-great fun. It is endlessly amazing to me that with so much having been written on Dickens in the past, there is still so much that is fresh and interesting remaining to be said. 

Our Mutual Friend: An Annotated Bibliography, Supplement 1-1984-2000

This annotated bibliography of Our Mutual Friend supplements an earlier volume, Our Mutual Friend: An Annotated Bibliography, by Joel J. Brattin and Bert G. Hornback, and includes entries from 1984 through 2000. As in the earlier volume, the entries are numerically listed and indexed. So that annotations may be easily cross-referenced with the 1984 bibliography, the numbered entries are consecutive from that volume, and thus the present work begins with #684. As in the 1984 volume, the bibliography is divided into three sections--Text, Studies, and Biography and Bibliography--and each of these sections is divided into subsections. As in the earlier bibliography, the following categories have been limited or omitted: condensations or editions of the novel that do not include a critical introduction, doctoral dissertations whose published abstracts do not call attention to the dissertation's treatment of Our Mutual Friend, translations of the novel, or criticisms written in foreign languages. Because single items are not generally listed in more than one section, users interested in subjects such as historical backgrounds or literary sources, parallels, and influence should consult the index for further references to those subjects in other subsections of the bibliography. With the exception of doctoral dissertations, for which the compiler has relied upon Dissertation Abstracts International, the editor has worked directly with the materials described.