Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 37 (2006)

A Garland for the Old Curiosity Shop 

The Old Curiosity Shop is a more significant and sophisticated text than is often recognized, and one that has a peculiar significance for Dickens's autobiographical self-understanding. These two qualities are particularly evident in the sharing of certain figures and tropes between the novel and the extracts from Dickens's "Autobiographical Fragment" printed in John Forster's Life of Charles Dickens. This article traces some of the most significant of these — in particular the figure of the floral garland, which forms a particularly overdetermined framework into which is woven much of the affective force both of Dickens's autobiographical recollection and his staging of the relation of Truth and mourning in the novel. It argues that The Old Curiosity Shop is as anthological as it is allegorical and that the contrasting psychic and narrative investments — festive and mourning, united and dispersed, hollow and enclosed — that the garland permits are both fascinating and moving in themselves and offer the possibility of rethinking the ways in which we seek to bind together "criticial" and "biographical" accounts of Dickens's life and writing.

Blessings for the Worthy: Dickens's Little Dorrit and the Nature of Rants 

Little Dorrit can be read, I propose, as a smug, frightened work of banal protective pathology. In my view, this is a novel protecting a paternal incestuous fantasy, rooted in a vague metaphysics of "blessing," whereby the father-daughter combination is played off against all the rest of us, the poor most especially, about whom Dickens cares nothing. Amy Dorrit, the novel's central jailer, works as Dickens's surrogate (and object of sexual attention) to deny any possibility of change, to keep us all in the jail where we can bask in the thin pleasures available to those whose hearts belong to Daddy: more exactly, the Daddys who can freeze the little girls and collect their hearts.

Madame Defarge as Political Icon in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities 

Dickens's portrait of Madame Defarge alludes to both Furies and Eumenides, as well as Thomas Carlyle's depiction of political Maenadism in his history of the French Revolution. Further, Dickens revised history to assign undeserved culpability to Madame and her female followers because he imagined bloodthirsty armies of marauding women at the core of the Revolution. As soldier, terrorist, and orator, the goddess/witch of St. Antoine projects Dickens's horror of women in public and political life. As ersatz mother of the Revolution's children of violence, she is his most chilling perversion of maternity. Using French iconography of public and popular art as evidence of the evolving image of the citoyennes of the Revolution (Lady Liberty metamorphosed into a monstrous female Terror), this essay traces Madame Defarge's allegorical deterioration from patriot to monster.

Scenes of "Incredible Outrage": Dickens, Ireland, and A Tale of Two Cities 

Shortly after visiting Ireland during his first public reading tour in 1858, Dickens set to work to write A Tale of Two Cities. The novel's depiction of violent crowds, mass hysteria, and spiritual awakening can be related to the religious turmoil which characterized Ireland in 1858 and 1859, when revivialism spread throughout the Protestant community. Many contemporary reports of the revivals in the periodical press likened the public activities of the revivialists to the work of revolutionaries, and there were fears that revivialism would spread to mainland Britain. Indeed, readers of the original serial version of A Tale of Two Cities in Dickens's weekly magazine All the Year Round were presented with numerous articles emphasizing the links between the Irish revivials and previous examples of revolutionary and religious turmoil. There is evidence to suggest that Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, engaged with contemporary debates on the social and political situation of Ireland during the late 1850s. This view is strengthened by the fact that he supported the installments of his novel with features based on crowd psychology and the breakdown of social order.

Stage Presence: Performance and Theatricality in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend 

By 1864, Charles Dickens had for more than a generation written within a literary tradition that put staged performances, public readings, and private perusals of novels on equal footing. Dickens's critical awareness and careful deployment of theatrical tropes in Our Mutual Friend create a novel dependent on multiple layers of performance. The melodramatic romance of Bella Wilfer and John Harmon constitutes the novel's genre piece; set in a world of characteristically Dickensian verisimilitude, its characters are actors in a well-staged and familiar play. That play, however, is being observed by another set of characters within the novel. The Podsnaps, Veneerings, and Buffers are the real targets of Dickens's social commentary. The roles they play outside the context of novelistic melodrama reflect a culture of public performance in the real, living theater of Victorian London. This essay examines that complex interplay of theatricality and reality in contemporary English society.

Catherine Dickens and Her Colonial Sons

This essay examines the relationship between Catherine Dickens and her sons in the context of empire-building, emigration, and exile. Most of the Dickens boys were committed to imperial service in the years immediately preceding and following the separation of their parents. Their colonial engagements mark them as agents capable of leaving their motherland and recreating their father's authority in the colonies, while also allying them with their mother as exiled subjects of their father's will. Illuminating the complex needs of their family as well as those of the empire, their experiences complicate our sense of the opposition between colony and home.

The Moonstone, Narrative Failure, and the Pathology of the Stare 

Beginning with The Moonstone's seemingly comical concern for "detective-fever," this essay argues that the novel centers upon the possibility that detective work — and staring more generally — functions much like a disease in the novel, debilitating the investigation and the characters who undertake it instead of producing a definitive account of the crime. Structurally and thematically, the novel makes staring the basis of its claims to hermeneutic power, but staring fails repeatedly to produce knowledge of the Moonstone's theft. The real consequences of the novel's pervasive ocular practices are bigotry, cruelty, and crushing psychological repressions that mean to conceal criminal and sexual desire. In its epidemic proportions and deleterious effects, staring in the novel becomes every bit the disease that the complaint about "detective-fever" makes it, and The Moonstone comes to account for the complex failure of staring as a detective and narrative practice.

Dickens and China: Contextual Interchanges in Cultural Globalization 

A survey of Charles Dickens and China reveals that his works cross to China over contextual bridges in cultural globalization. Since Dickens did not write with either China or the Chinese in mind, the passage of Dickens to China is made possible because of contextual interchanges that enable the Chinese to discover specific, nearly targeted relevance, so that Dickens’s works fit the Chinese reading context in limited ways. Dickens is manipulated to justify certain cherished aims of the Chinese, and whenever he does not fit, he is criticized as limited, especially by virtue of his capitalist bourgeois background. However, rather than saying the Chinese critics have misread Dickens, we may observe that their readings are meaningful and relevant in the Chinese context. Dickens’s works are universal, and global readings of Dickens are possible, though even when readings by individual cultures and nations may differ.

Recent Dickens Studies: 2004 

This survey focuses on the year 2004’s essays and books on Dickens’s work. The texts reviewed are grouped into the following categories: postcolonial criticism; the post-Victorian; political and individual agency; social class analysis; gender studies; Dickensian linguistic style; public performances; Dickensian forays into secular and spiritual scripture; textual studies; influence studies; and, finally, bibliographic and resource materials. The boundaries among these categories are permeable, and articles and monographs can easily appear in several sections. When that is of particular significance, this review draws attention to cross-listed items. This survey considers the changing relationship of scholars to Dickens’s work, commenting upon a critical backlash towards certain theoretical fields, as well as the critical ennui scholars feel regarding theoretical trends that have lost their appeal due to overuse. It also considers a palpable nostalgia among some scholars, who wish to return critical attention to the ethical position of the author.

Trollope Studies: 1987– 2004 

This survey of Trollope criticism picks up where Nancy Metz left off in her overview of Trollope studies in Dickens Studies Annual published in 1992. All of the major full-length studies and a large number of shorter works (in English) are considered. The survey is divided into sections that seek to provide a useful map of the field of study: Trollope’s Lives; Bibliographic and Reference Works; Full-length Studies; Articles and Chapters in Books. The article-length studies are organized according to topic/area of research, to provide an immediate snapshot of the major critical concerns (gender; politics, commerce, and the middle classes; law; form and language; comparative studies).

Colonialism in Victorian Fiction: Recent Studies 

This essay examines a range of the numerous publications dealing with literature and imperialism in the Victorian period to have appeared over the last fifteen years, many of which have been influenced by the theoretical works of Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak. The piece begins with a survey of recent essays and monographs on Dickens and colonialism, before broadening its scope to discuss a sample of more general book-length studies. The essay is arranged thematically and consideration is given to areas of interest to Victorian scholars including emigration, the representation of India, and policing the empire.

Recent Studies in Nineteenth-Century Women Narrative Poets, 1995–2005 

Charles Dickens’s inclusion of narrative poems by Adelaide Procter in Household Words and All the Year Round was no aberration. The production of narrative poems by nineteenth-century women poets was steady, rich, and varied. Narrative poems, moreover, reveal women’s ethical and epistemological assumptions and register women’s repeated interventions in public debates. Yet very little work has been devoted to women’s narrative poetry as such despite a general outpouring of scholarship on women poets in the last decade. After considering why this is so, the present essay surveys finding aids for primary sources, foundational scholarship in the mid-1990s, and more recent scholarship devoted to narrative poetry and gender politics, the place of women’s poetic narratives in literary histories, international politics, religion, publishing history and commodity culture, and narratology. The essay concludes by outlining questions ripe for further investigation and urging that studies of narratives in fiction and poetry be integrated.

British Non-Canonical Women Novelists, 1850–1900: Recent Studies 

In this survey I review nine major works published since 2000 in the field of fin-de-siècle fiction. I argue that recovery work occurs under uniquely difficult conditions, producing problems that have haunted a good deal of feminist criticism: partisan advocacy and excessive summary. However, as the field matures, this fan club attitude has been slowly disappearing. What has replaced it is a carefully researched historical and cultural awareness, a willingness to tackle the most difficult subjects (the popular, the politically retrograde), and a strong awareness of the material conditions of the literary marketplace. Economically based criticism and cultural studies approaches are transforming the field, allowing us a much richer view of women writers (and of the late-Victorian era) than when we simply searched for feminist foremothers. I point out that recent critics are focusing on certain writers—Margaret Oliphant, Sarah Grand, Vernon Lee—because these writers embody a particular construction of the late-Victorian era that suits our current critical interests. Reviewing a range of monographs, collections, and biographies, I conclude that we are in a kind of golden age for feminist recovery work, and I forecast what the next decade might bring.

Recent Studies in Robert Louis Stevenson: Letters, Reference Works, Texts —1970–2005 

This essay surveys publications since 1970 on the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), excluding biography and literary criticism. It has three parts: Letters, Reference Works, and Texts. A fourth part, Biography, and a fifth part, Criticism, will appear in a future issue of Dickens Studies Annual. Both in my summaries and in my comments and corrections I have been as specific as possible, recognizing that access to inclusive research libraries is far from universal and that having the correct information now may be preferable to waiting until time allows a research visit. Almost all of the publications surveyed are in English, and much good work has been published in other languages. And, since there are valuable works in English that I have not been able to consider or may have overlooked, there is plenty of room for a sequel. Taken as a whole, the publications that I discuss show that serious study of Stevenson is not only possible, it has begun.