Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 40 (2009)

Notes on Contributors

In Pursuit of Pickwick's Hat: Dickens and the Epistemology of Utilitarianism

Hats often serve as a comic prop in Dickens’s novels, but they are mentioned with unusual frequency in Pickwick Papers. The reason has as much to do with the evolution of Dickens’s social philosophy as it does with the devices of his humor. As the quixotic leader of a club modeled partly on the utilitarian Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Pickwick is a mind seeking to know the world. The hat is both an object-in-the-world and a natural metonym for the perceiving mind. In Pickwick, it participates in a play of signifiers—including heads, feet, boots, and spectacles—through which Dickens discredits utilitarian assumptions about the relationship between mind and world. To this exposure of utilitarianism’s misguided epistemology, Oliver Twist would add a retort to its reductive psychology and Hard Times an assault on its impoverished moral calculus. Thus, to pursue the hats of Pickwick is to better understand the intellectual continuity that runs through these three novels. It is also to confront the contradictions that inhabit that continuity and bedevil Dickens’s politics.

The Erotics of Barnaby Rudge

The eroticism of Barnaby Rudge has been undervalued. In this novel, Dickens plays both with and against Victorian gender norms to heighten sexual tensions between Dolly and Hugh, Dolly and her father, and Emma and Haredale. Dickens further fuels the eroticism of these relationships by aligning it with the violence of the Gordon Riots and the tensions between numerous gendered polarities, such as the urban and the pastoral, parents and children, and past and present. Phiz’s suggestive illustrations extend Dickens’s erotic descriptions. Barnaby, however, seems devoid of erotic charge, which may explain why the eponymous novel failed to tickle the fancy of many readers.

Reading Laura Bridgman: Literacy and Disability in Dickens's American Notes

Laura Bridgman, billed as the first deaf and blind girl to learn to read and write, was one of the most popular tourist attractions in Boston in the 1840s. Dickens paid a visit to her in January of 1842, and subsequently wrote about and excerpted the widely reprinted annual reports about her in American Notes. I read this narrative as the story of Bridgman’s entrance into literacy, arguing that Dickens’s account of the staged spectacle of the young girl with diary in hand, surrounded by her schoolbooks, mobilizes sentiment in his audience by emphasizing both her proximity to able-bodied young white women and her distance from them. On the one hand, she is a paragon of the artless innocence of girlhood because her blindness and deafness supposedly preserve her from more dangerous forms of knowledge. On the other hand, the capacity to learn, especially English, is needed to prove her humanity. Bridgman thus crystallizes Dickens’s radical ambivalence about the value of knowledge: he sees learning to read as both a humanizing and a threatening endeavor. Situated among the Lowell factory girls, whose literary pursuits prove their gentility for Dickens, and debates on slave and working-class literacy, Bridgman’s story raises questions about literacy, consciousness and self-consciousness, and the boundaries of the human.

Dombey and Son and the "Parlour on Wheels"

Dombey and Son is a narrative concerned with the preservation and maintenance of domestic space, from the redecoration of the Dombey mansion and the subsequent estate sale on the premises, to the threatened dispersal of the items in the Wooden Midshipman and the ultimate securing of the shop as a refuge for Rob Toodle, Captain Cuttle, and Florence Dombey. I argue that the novel reflects a broader cultural concern with the ways that the nascent industry of interior decoration imperiled the cherished ideal of the home as a fixed and unchanging refuge. The expansion of the railway in the 1840s is an important context for understanding this effect, since the railway was a visible sign of the mobility of possessions and facilitated the distribution of domestic goods throughout the country. I suggest that the railway emblematizes an anxiety about the stability of the domestic interior. This essay concludes with a rereading of the well-known ‘‘take the housetops off’’ passage in chapter 47, proposing that the perspective is that of a passenger on the railway.

Dickens, Collins, and the Influence of the Arctic

This essay examines the links between the Victorian fascination with Arctic exploration and three Dickens and Collins texts that were inspired by it. Using their collaboration on The Frozen Deep as a lens through which to view their later novels, I trace the play’s roots to Dickens’s reliance on John Franklin’s Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in his 1854 series of Household Words articles, ‘‘The Lost Arctic Voyagers,’’ and follow the imagery that repeats from exploration narrative to periodical article to play. Then, moving forward, I examine The Frozen Deep’s Arctic-inspired themes and motifs in Dickens’s and Collins’s later solo works, A Tale of Two Cities and No Name, finding that while each author incorporated the Arctic aesthetic into his novel, it resonates in Dickens’s novel as an image of sublime sacrifice, and in Collins’s as sublime defeat. This contrast seems to reveal both the culture’s complicated response to Arctic exploration and the essential features of each writer’s novelistic modus operandi. 

Darkness, Light, and Various Shades of Gray: The Prison and the Outside World in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities

This essay deals with the psychological and narrative effects of the prison experience in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859). More specifically, by analyzing the imprisonment of Dr. Manette and Charles Darnay, I show that the Bastille and the prison of La Force serve as the novel’s most important focal points at which the reciprocal connections between the narrative’s binary oppositions are negotiated and restructured. The novel as a whole and its color symbolism in particular accentuate the dynamic relationship between dichotomies by merging the prisons’ darkness with the brightness of the free world. Dickens’s Tale thus demonstrates that, albeit to various different degrees, everyone in society oscillates between poles. And, surprisingly, sometimes prisoners can teach the free world something it has forgotten about, namely how to achieve a sense of decency, community, and respect for others.

The Illustrations for Great Expectations in Harper's Weekly (1860-61) and in the Illustrated Library Edition (1862) — "Reading by the Light of Illustration"

Although a number of critics have stated that Great Expectations was published in its initial form without illustration both serially in All the Year Round and in its initial volume edition (Chapman and Hall, 1861), the first American edition (which one may argue is the first edition by virtue of the publication date of the first installment) was illustrated by John McLenan, whose 40 plates were dropped into the letterpress of the Harper’s Weekly American serialization of the novel. Not until the 1862 Chapman and Hall Library Edition of the novel were British readers able to read this novel by what a Harper’s advertisement terms ‘‘the light of illustration,’’ and even then the program that Marcus Stone provided for the English volume was slight in comparison: eight full-page woodcuts. In these narrative-pictorial sequences, Stone interprets the novel as Pip’s ‘‘Pilgrim’s Progress’’ as, boy and then man, he appears in every illustration, while Magwitch does not appear at all. In contrast, in his 40 plates of varying dimensions McLenan provides salient background details, offers symbols for lack of self-insight and illumination in various scenes, and describes every significant character, including Pumblechook, Mrs. Pocket, and Trabb’s Boy, in a panoramic treatment. A comparison of a selection of Stone’s with McLenan’s plates demonstrates not merely these artists’ differences in style and approach, but also their very different (one may say, ‘‘transatlantic’’) readings of the novel itself.

Dolls and Imaginative Agency in Bradford, Pardoe, and Dickens

This essay argues that fiction written for both adults and children in the nineteenth century recognizes that dolls can perform work that is much more complicated—and sometimes more subversive—than imagined by Victorians who upheld the toys as training wheels for motherhood. Doll narratives written for children, in particular Clara Bradford’s Ethel’s Adventures in the Doll Country (1880) and Julia Pardoe’s Lady Arabella, or, The Adventures of a Doll (1856), as well as adult literature, in particular Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864–65), illustrate how authors use distortions of size and animation to subvert or sustain relationships between the poor and the privileged, the weak and the powerful, the small and the enormous. Such texts demonstrate not only that the doll and the agency it generates can be employed to interrogate and manipulate social hierarchies but also that fantasies of subversion registered through the miniature and the gigantic had imaginative currency powerful enough to cross the boundaries of genre.  

"Opium Is the True Hero of the Tale": De Quincey, Dickens, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Writing about Jasper’s opium dreams in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens turned for information about the nature of the opium experience to Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. There he found descriptions of De Quincey’s elaborate opium dreams, which underlie Jasper’s repeatedly induced dream about a journey among great heights and depths with a doomed fellow-traveler, presumably his way of imagining in anticipation the murder of Edwin Drood. In the Confessions Dickens also found opium associated with the Orient and with violent death, a juxtaposition he employs in the unfinished novel. In portraying Jasper rehearsing and savoring his dream of murdering Drood, and later threatening to destroy Neville Landless by proving him to be Drood’s murderer, Dickens also draws on De Quincey’s essay ‘‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,’’ which invokes a theory of the aesthetic murder that applies to Jasper, a musician and would-be artist in crime.

Intoxication, Provocation, and Derangement: Interrogating the Nature of Criminal Responsibility in The Mystery of Edwin Drood 

This article argues that Dickens’s unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870),contains phantom trajectories of an unborn commentary on the triangulation of the Victorians’ developing understanding of the unconscious mind, the law, and the medical/legal turf war then being fought over criminal responsibility. Contrary to legal critics’ claims that Dickens’s novels are backward glances at near-extinct issues of law, I argue that studying the Drood case alongside real-life court cases reveals Dickens’s engagement with a current, emerging medico-legal discourse that he foresaw would change the structure of future criminal defenses. This article moots the cases a prosecutor might bring against the two most likely suspects, Neville Landless and John Jasper, and centers both their defenses on the exculpatory potential of both characters’ having episodes of altered consciousness. Ultimately, I argue that Dickens is exploring the way in which a legal acknowledgement of altered states and dual personalities might produce the moral vacuum of crimes without a criminally responsible perpetrator.

Before Boz: The Juvenalia and Early Writings of Charles Dickens, 1820-1833

Works that constitute Dickens’s juvenilia and early writings include poems (‘‘Acrostic,’’ ‘‘The Devil’s Walk,’’ ‘‘The Churchyard,’’ ‘‘Lodgings to Let,’’ and ‘‘The Bill of Fare’’), plays (possibly The Stratagems of Rozanza and definitely O’Thello), and nonfiction (‘‘Private Theatricals Regulations’’). Yet these works neither constitute all of Dickens’s earliest surviving written output nor represent all the types of writing he undertook before the publication of his first sketch, later identified as written by Boz, in December 1833. Dickens also wrote letters, recorded accounting entries with their descriptions in Ellis and Blackmore’s Cash Account Book, and transcribed his own shorthand notes of the court cases Jarman vs. Bagster, and Jarman vs. Wise. ‘‘Before Boz’’ collects and annotates Dickens’s first two known letters, some sample entries from the Cash Account Book, and the full texts of what has survived among the balance of the writings identified above. Dickens’s other letters through November 1833 are, of course, found in the Pilgrim Edition. ‘‘Before Boz’’ also includes six appendices of related texts from Tobias Smollett, Walter Dexter, Oliver Goldsmith, Euge`ne Scribe, Germain Delavigne, William Mickle, Thomas Moore, anonymous ballads, and Charles Dickens himself. Finally, a seventh appendix provides the texts of works falsely attributed to young Dickens by John Payne Collier.   

Recent Dickens Studies, 2007

The following is a review of articles, book chapters, and books of literary criticism on Charles Dickens published in 2007. It shows that Dickens scholarship continues to thrive, that most if not all of it makes worthwhile contributions to the field, and that new historicism continues to predominate as a critical approach. I’ve organized the review around the following headings: (1) Influences on Dickens/Dickens’s Influence; (2) Science, Medicine, and Technology; (3) Gender Studies; (4) Post-Colonial Studies; (5) Other Interdisciplinary Approaches: Performances/ TV/Film, Art, Social Science, Philosophy/Theology, Cultural Studies, Journalism; (6) Travel Writing; (7) Language, Style, Structure, and Genre; (8) Studies of Individual Works; and (9) Bibliographic, Biographic and General Reference Works. The review ends with a few summary comments about the quality of the year’s publications on Dickens. While I tried to be as comprehensive as possible, I apologize in advance to anyone whose work I inadvertently left out.