Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 41 (2010)

Notes on Contributors

Theatrical Dance in Dickens 

This essay examines Dickens’s presentation of social dance in various novels and sketches, and traces its comic heightening and stylization to Victorian ballet and pantomime. Dick Swiveller’s behavior on the dance floor at the Wackleses’ assembly, implausible as a social record, makes sense as a transcript of a coryphé’s solo in a danse génerale, while the equally implausible deftness and resilience in the performances of the market gardener in “Meditations in Monmouth Street” and Mr. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol can be explained by the way young dancers impersonate unathletic people on the stage. The essay also examines the comic application of balletic mime to everyday life in “The Last Cab Driver.”

Mad Bulls and Dead Meat: Smithfield Market as Reality and Symbol

This essay examines the richly symbolic space of Smithfield Market, and the related issue of the “mad bulls” that escaped from the drovers who were headed into and out of the market. Located at the very “heart” of London, Smithfield and its livestock represented a major obstruction in the way of arterial flow, the movement of traffic and goods through the streets, which signaled a healthy and well-functioning modern city. Its centrality—the fact that it was located very near the Bank of England and Lombard Street, as well as St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Newgate Prison, Christ’s Hospital, and much else—also literalized a different metaphor, one of infection. The market was thought to produce tainted air and unwholesome meat, which was believed to cause a number of diseases, including cholera. As used by Dickens, Smithfield Market functions as a liminal space, and signals a transition into unfamiliar territory. The cacophony and confusion of Smithfield—brought to visibility by the problem of the mad bulls—also underscored its irredeemably public nature, and remind us that this was very much an unrestrained and pre-modern world, a world of beasts and human brutes.

“What Might Have Been Is Not What Is”: Dickens’s Narrative Refusals

Looking at “narrative refusals” gives us a glimpse at a previously unrecognized facet of the complexities that form Dickens’s style, allowing us to see differently what is there by turning our attention to what is marked as explicitly not-there. This essay outlines the pervasive uses of unnarration (when a narrator says he or she will not tell something) and disnarration (when a narrator tells something that did not happen in place of telling what did) in such Dickens novels as Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and Dombey and Son, then turns to an earlier work, Nicholas Nickleby, where narrative refusals are already incipient, though more rare than in middle and later Dickens. When narrative refusal is present in Dickens, the figure takes one of at least three different forms: negation of action or situation (“it was not. . . not. . . not”), misattribution of characters’ feelings and agency to a fictitious “Nobody” (as in Little Dorrit), and subjunctive narration detailing what might have happened, but does not. I concentrate on negated and subjunctive disnarration of “what might have been” but “is not what is,” to quote what R. Wilfer says about the counterfactual in Our Mutual Friend.

Purloined Pleasures: Dickens, Currency, and Copyright

Stung by the hostile response to his comments on the issue of international copyright during his speaking tour of America in 1842, Charles Dickens fulminated in his letters about the losses he incurred due to the widespread piracy of his work in the United States. In these letters, and subsequently in American Notes for General Circulation, Dickens represents America as a land of counterfeits and confidence tricksters, and crafts an analogy between pirated texts and forged banknotes. I argue that Dickens’s distrust of American paper can be understood by way of Slavoj Žižek’s suggestion that nationalism rests on the resentment of the other’s enjoyment. For Dickens, the American reader of pirated texts was a thief in many senses. Piracy deprived authors of a livelihood, but its shadow economy also undermined efforts to nurture and sustain a national literature, both English and American. Dickens marshaled these arguments in public, but in his private letters he is consumed by the image of the American reader deriving excess, even perverse, pleasure in reading illegally reproduced material. This paper focuses on Dickens’s fascination with these purloined pleasures, and the way in which, for him, they compromised the wholesome enjoyment of those readers who purchased the work legitimately.

“[M]any jewels set in dirt”: Christology, Pictures from Italy, and Pre-Raphaelite Art

This essay examines Dickens’s growing interest in art beginning around 1844, an interest, it argues, that was informed largely by his Italian sojourn (July 1844 to June 1845). The trip provided Dickens the experience, insight, context, and critical eye by which to appraise art. Pictures from Italy, along with letters written during Dickens’s Italian journey, reveal expansive, insightful, and sustained reflections on art. It also offers an important window into Dickens’s anti-Roman Catholic bigotry, fetishized in his attitude to Italy. Using John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1850), Dickens’s review of it in Household Words (15 June 1850), and working backwards historically to Pictures from Italy(1846), this paper argues that Dickens’s early views of the Pre-Raphaelites manifest a hostility to their Christology, exacerbated if not formed altogether in Italy. In Millais, it is not the picture of labor, the entire family involved in work, which troubled Dickens. What bothered him was the disorder and chaos of the place, the ordinariness or plainness of the representation, and the physical deformity of the figures. That the Holy Family would be depicted as working class was also disquieting. The essay contextualizes the Millais painting with John Rogers Herbert’s The Youth of Our Lord (1847) and Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death (1870–73) to show that all three paintings represent not only a radical shift in the tradition in art (realism and naturalism) but a shift also in the Christology.

Charles “Carlo” Dickens In and Out of Italy in 1844: The Chimes 

Residing in the Villa Bagnerello at Albaro, near Genoa, in the summer of 1844, Dickens began the not-so-grand portion of his year-long Italian Grand Tour. Despite the losses involved in prosecuting Peter Parley’s Illuminated Library for pirating A Christmas Carol, the young Dickens had regularly been called upon by his relatives—especially his father—for financial assistance. Moreover, having ground out so many full-length novels over the past eight years, Dickens must have been both exhausted and in need of emotional and artistic renewal. What he experienced is in part reflected in the prose he wrote in Italy: the novella The Chimes and the letters he later used as a source for the travelogue Pictures from Italy. These writings reflect his yearning for home and his sense of London as his defining context as a writer. As he attempted to master a new language while isolated in his lofty studies in his leased villas, separated from the Genoese by nationality, language, class, and culture, Dickens, to an extent, was practicing unwittingly the “solitary system” of recently constructed Pentonville Prison. Although Dickens’s biographers from Forster to Ackroyd have considered the impact of that Italian sojourn upon the writer’s social vision and particularly upon his Liberal attitudes towards the Italian states’ national aspirations, little of a substantive nature has been offered in otherwise comprehensive analyses of the novella. The chimes that Dickens heard were Italian, but the train of thought this objective correlative set in motion was almost entirely English in terms of the plights of Meggy Veck, her fiancé Richard, the agricultural laborer Will Fern, and his niece Lilian, and the moral impostures of their heartless, self-important oppressors, Alderman Cute and Sir Joseph Bowley. Having moved from the sleepy suburb into a Renaissance palazzo in the heart of Genoa, Dickens saw more clearly the “Condition of England” question, the ever-increasing gulf between the indigent and the privileged. An informing context for The Chimes overlooked until now is the frescoes in the Villa Peschiere, particularly those in his study and bedroom, as inspiring both various elements of his novella and his letter to Forster describing the book’s inception. Frescoes by Luca Cambiaso and his colleague Giovanni Battista Castello in particular influenced Dickens’s vision and imagery.

PendennisCopperfield, and the Debate on the “Dignity of Literature”

The “Dignity of Literature” controversy occurred in January 1850, when, having satirized men of letters in the middle of Pendennis, William Makepeace Thackeray was excoriated by John Forster in the Examiner and defended himself in theMorning Chronicle. The exchange is usually read as a chastening defeat for Thackeray, who, having seen the harm he was doing his profession by depicting writers as not in earnest about their work, recanted in the second half of the novel. But the satire in Pendennis, like that in most of Thackeray’s work, is primarily about snobbery, not earnestness, and reading the exchange with this in mind will reveal that Forster’s actions in fact confirmed Thackeray’s opinion that his fellow writers were snobs, and led to his strengthening that assertion in Pendennis. It will also show that David Copperfield, a novel about a writer’s being cured of social pretensions, contains Dickens’s rebuttal to Thackeray, an appendix of sorts to the “Dignity of Literature” debate. And finally, a full appreciation of the terms of that debate can help us recognize how deeply issues of snobbery and class status underlay some of the central issues of mid-nineteenth-century fiction—everything from Dickens’s groundbreaking realism to Thackeray’s penchant for loose baggy monsters.

“She brings everything to a grindstone”: 
Sympathy and the Paid Female Companion’s Critical Work in David Copperfield 

In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens employs Rosa Dartle, Mrs. Steerforth’s paid female companion, as an agent of his narrative. The companion in Victorian literature is an ambiguous figure whose status as a genteel insider and outsider within the domestic circle makes her a unique vehicle for the disclosure of important information the narrative cannot otherwise convey. Companions in the nineteenth century were hired to provide company, amusement, and, most important, a sympathetic ear for their mistresses’ confidences. But, as Dickens and other Victorian writers show, this purchased sympathy-for-hire can be corrupted and distorted to serve the companion’s own selfish aims. In David Copperfield, Rosa manipulates the sympathy she is expected to provide her mistress in order to expose and critique the Steerforth family’s true history and dysfunction. However, ultimately, Rosa cannot help but to reveal her own dysfunction as well. A precursor of Henry James’s ficelle, Rosa’s critical work represents an alternative narrative that David must contend with and absorb as the companion provides a specific form of domestic knowledge he himself cannot access. Through Rosa Dartle, Dickens explores a darker side to sympathy as well as the diverse narrative functions the companion’s distinctive position allows her to perform.

Dickens’s Collaborative Genres 

Recent readings of Dickens’s collaborative relationships tend to focus on the struggle for literary control between Dickens and his less famous colleagues. But when the question of genre is brought to bear on his collaborative writing, it becomes apparent that Dickens created new literary forms which permit for more complex authorial negotiations than scholars have acknowledged. Despite Dickens’s dictatorial tendencies, the collaborative genres he developed over the course of his career often promote a model of authorship where power relationships are in flux, and this fluidity creates new opportunities for epistemological exploration and authorial self-definition. I explore two of Dickens’s collaborative genres that appeared in Household Words and All the Year Round. The first is the annual Christmas number; the second is the “excursion article,” which revolved around holiday outings taken by Dickens and his staff. An investigation of these collaborative genres reveals that they refuse to conform neatly to hierarchical patterns of dominance and subordination, thus enriching our understanding of the many and varied kinds of creative partnerships that emerged between male writers during the Victorian period.

Reading, Sympathy, and the Bodies of Bleak House

Within Bleak House Dickens suggests that reading is fundamentally based on the senses of hearing and seeing, and that to read accurately involves both the body and the mind, or, perception and apprehension. The novelist calls for a return to physicality—albeit a physicality mediated by language—to better see and hear others. More provocatively, Dickens proposes that novels can provide a corrective lens through which to view the world rather than that offered by the texts of more socially regulated institutions—religious, political, juridical—ostensibly concerned with the social good as well; Bleak House as primer reveals that empathy is rooted in our physical sensibility: if we learn to see, to listen, and to understand, then we become ideal readers, aware of our connections to others and the brevity of our lives. In this essay, I discuss several acts of misreading within Bleak House, followed by an analysis of a few traumatic moments within the text, and conclude with a look at the characters who serve as ideal readers and ethical role models. Novels can teach us to read—to understand, to see, to hear, and to feel—and thus to empathize, to act, and to live in the world.

“Pretend[ing] a little”: The Play of Musement in Dickens’s Little Dorrit

Putting Dickens’s Little Dorrit in conversation with nineteenth-century philosophical precepts about the aesthetic, this article suggests that Little Dorrit illuminates and expands ideas about aesthetic “play” featured in Friedrich Schiller’s publication of On the Aesthetic Education of Man, a work structured as a series of letters, that influenced Charles Sanders Peirce’s later work on play and the “generals.” If “The most important theory in the entire history” of thought regarding play is to be found in Friedrich Schiller’s On Aesthetic Education (Elias 1: 106)this essay argues that Little Dorrit’s brilliant representation of the aesthetics of play illustrates Dickens’s sophisticated views on the subject. Dickens’s substantive portrayals of “Altro,” Mrs. General, and Amy’s “musings” articulate what Schiller’s abstract analysis of play and Peirce’s conceptual work on the generals and musement can only theorize, that play is a superlative form of seriousness, leading to the highest levels of knowledge, love, and morality. The essay briefly summarizes Schiller’s and Peirce’s ideas as a prelude to analysis of Dickens’s articulation of play illustrated in Amy Dorrit’s Princess story and in contradistinction to Mrs. General’s dangerous disciplinary work.

“Let me see if Philip can/ Be a little gentleman”: Parenting and Class in Struwwelpeter and Great Expectations

This article suggests that “The Story of Fidgety Philip” in Heinrich Hoffmann’s best-selling children’s book Struwwelpeter (1845) should be considered one of the sources fueling Herbert Pocket’s objection to the name “Philip.” Its opening lines, “Let me see if Philip can / Be a little gentleman,” voice the novel’s central obsession and thus invite us to consider Struwwelpeter as a significant intertext in Great ExpectationsStruwwelpeter is an ambivalent text, for its desired result of civilizing children seems hollowed out by the negative portrait of parenting that emerges in it. Tracing the instabilities created by this ambivalence in Struwwelpeter reveals a corresponding ambivalence and perplexity in the novel’s treatment of its fundamental themes (becoming a gentleman, raising children, raising gentlemen)—issues Dickens faced himself as the son of disappointing parents and the father of disappointing children.

The Revolution Is Dead! Long Live Sensation!: The Political History of The Woman in White

This article examines the importance of Europe’s revolutionary history in Wilkie Collins’s creation of the sensation genre. During his literary apprenticeship in the 1850s, Collins wrote a number of stories set during the first French Revolution. By the end of that decade, however, the young novelist began to question the literary relevance of this history. I argue that in The Woman in White (1860), Collins undertakes the project of defining his relationship to the revolutionary past. On the one hand, Collins uses The Woman in White to announce that the era of political radicalism is dead, a victim of the failed European revolutions of 1848–49. On the other, he positions his new genre of domestic terror as a literary substitute for the now defunct politics of revolutionary terror. My argument depends on reading Collins’s novel in its original context, alongside Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, the book serialized immediately before Collins’s in All the Year Round.

Panoptical Delusions: British India in The Sign of Four

In The Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle responded to an imperial discourse that emerged in the writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay, Henry Maine, Alfred Lyall, John Seeley, and John Strachey, among others. In their books, Doyle encountered a characteristic argument and shared figures of speech indebted to Jeremy Bentham and to James Fitzjames Stephen: the Raj became, especially in Strachey’s India (1888) a machine for panoptical surveillance. In various tales featuring Sherlock Holmes, Doyle proceeded to turn the arguments and the tropes of the apologists for the Raj against them. In The Sign of Four, a fleeting allusion to Millbank Penitentiary evokes the Panopticon and Agra Fort during the Great Mutiny, as described by Mark Thornhill in his account of the Mutiny. The novella transforms Agra Fort into an imperial edifice, established on panoptical principles, whose foundations are eroded by the greed that informed the imperial project in India from the start.

Recent Dickens Studies: 2008

Scholarship in Dickens continued to flourish in 2008. This essay examines articles, book chapters, and books; the bibliography that follows the essay demonstrates the vitality and breadth of Dickens studies. After considering two essay collections, I organize the review into nine distinct but related areas of focus: (1) biography; (2) home; (3) elsewhere; (4) children; (5) women; (6) commodity culture; (7) reading; (8) modes of representation; and (9) echoes. The essay highlights work I found particularly compelling, and it poses questions that scholarship might pursue in the future.