Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 42 (2011)

Notes on Contributors

Terms of Art: Reading the Dickensian Gallery 

In this article, I re-contextualize Dickens’s reception as a commercial writer by setting it against the development of a heated commercial art market in the middle of the nineteenth century. In the worlds of both literary and visual arts, an ongoing democratization of patronage was accompanied by the evolution of new styles to meet new consumer appetites. I show how concern over the nature of Dickens’s innovative fictional technique was framed in the terms of art-world anxieties about a new prominence for contemporary art; how exhaustion at how much the novel now crammed in (and how many novelistic pieces the cramming necessitated) was diagnosed through allusions to galleries so full of wares that they could hardly be processed by the eye. The new art critics tried to create a language and metric to describe and direct the shifts of their world; Dickens’s first readers picked up this language as they tried to make sense of (and perhaps to make the career of) their own novel quarry.

Making Music with the Pickwickians: Form and Function in Musical Adaptations of The Pickwick Papers

The stage musical Pickwick (1963), which was produced in the wake of the Dickensian musical fad initiated by Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (1960), is the descendant of numerous musical treatments of Dickens’s very first novel, including W. T. Moncrieff’s infamous adaptation, Sam Weller (1837). The haphazard use of music in this Victorian stage show stands in sharp contrast to the meticulously organized musical score of Pickwick. Like virtually all of the Dickensian ‘‘musicals’’ produced in the nineteenth-century, Sam Weller is written in the British tradition of the eighteenth-century ballad opera, while Pickwick is written in the American tradition of the twentieth-century integrated musical. Though the later adaptation is clearly more organized and coherent from a musical point of view, the freewheeling and incoherent use of songs in the earlier adaptation is arguably more reminiscent of the overall tone and form of The Pickwick Papers as written by Dickens. In a way, the randomness of the songs compliments the randomness of Mr. Pickwick’s adventures, and likewise, fills a gap left by the omission of the interpolated tales. Furthermore, the traditional Englishness of the Dickensian source is more pronounced in the Moncrieff adaptation due to his use of canonical English songs and the ballad-opera format.

Boz versus Bos in Sweeney Todd: Dickens, Sondheim, and Victorianness

The 1979 Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeney Todd derives (through Christopher Bond’s 1973 melodrama) from the anonymously authored The String of Pearls (1846–47). The novel is often attributed to Thomas Peckett Prest, who so blatantly copied Dickens that he frequently wrote under the name ‘‘Bos.’’ Certainly The String of Pearls imitates some identifiable characteristics of Dickens’ s writing— outrageous characters, Pickwickian humor, and a sensational Newgate plot, like Oliver Twist’s. Yet Prest crucially leaves out Dickens’s powerful social critique. In contrast, Sondheim’s adaptation reinserts the kind of social criticism viewers associate with Dickens. It is from Dickens—and later adaptations of Dickens—rather than from the Victorian novel from which Sweeney Todd descends that Sondheim receives and assembles the traits that we interpret as Victorian. Sondheim intensifies the Victorianness of his play not by closely following the nineteenth-century source but by inserting details chiefly inherited from Dickens’s Oliver Twist and, perhaps more surprisingly, from the 1960 musical adaptation Oliver!. Examining Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (on stage and in the 2007 Tim Burton film) in relation to The String of Pearls and Oliver! provides a potent vehicle for considering how we have come to understand Victorianness through what we read as Dickensian.

Dickens’s Immaterial Culture of Hats and The Pickwick Papers 

Typified by Pickwick’s altercation over his nightcap in the Fleet, The Pickwick Papers provides a ‘‘diffusion of hats [and] bonnets’’ that perform proverbial, idiomatic and slang, class, gender, moral, psychological, and popular-culture roles. Dickens’s immersion in the worlds of melodrama and the carnivalesque gives some clarifying context to his many hat performances, as do examples from his other works, relevant articles from Household Words and All the Year Round, and Carlyle’s influence in Sartor Resartus. The result is not so much an expose´ of Dickens’s response to Victorian material culture as his exposure of the immaterial culture of hats. In fact, Dickens teaches readers how to do things with hats and even how hats themselves do things as his characters meaningfully obey, test, and violate Victorian hat codes and their cultural messages. Three sustained examples—Sam’s lost hat adventure and consequent kissing game with Mary, Pickwick’s exposing his nightcap to Miss Witherfield in the Great White Horse Inn, and, most prominently, Pickwick’s chasing his hat in a field near Chatham barracks—significantly demonstrate these issues.

The Discipline of Tears in The Old Curiosity Shop 

Little Nell’s death has been a central example of sentimentality since the publication of The Old Curiosity Shop. By dwelling exclusively on this moment, however, literary critics and philosophers dull the emotional distinctions on which Dickens insists. This essay argues that the novel depicts a carefully observed world of restrained and controlled emotion. It is only after developing this account of the dangers of public crying that the novel recuperates the positive power of observed tears. When Nell’s mourners finally allow themselves to grieve publicly, they are rejecting a world of disciplined tears in favor of a social community created by fiction.

Father Christmas and Thomas Malthus: Charity, Epistemology, and Political Economy in A Christmas Carol

This essay examines the interconnection between the epistemological issues raised by A Christmas Carol and the text’s often misunderstood charitable agenda. In the end, I conclude, Dickens uses his seemingly innocuous text to reestablish a sentimental link between his middleclass readers and the poor. When placed in a proper historical context, this gesture is shown to be not the conservative, socially normative one ascribed to Dickens by many modern critics, but a much more radical attempt to undermine the authority of political economics as the only available paradigm for charitable work. In short, Dickens rejects, and forces his readers to reject, the narrowly rational, scientific outlook that consigned the poor to workhouses and chooses instead a more emotional, and emotionally satisfying, personal relationship to charity. While this charitable message is quite simple on its surface, the techniques Dickens develops in A Christmas Carol provide the foundation for his subsequent, more highly regarded, works.

The Doppelganger Effect: Dickens, Heredity, and the Double in The Battle of Life

Most critical accounts of the double in literature emphasize the psychological dimensions of the concept—that the double sets up a relationship between the self and its projected image, or between the self and the other, that it addresses the inherent duality of human nature. This essay suggests that there is another way to account for Dickens’s obsessive depiction of the double in his fiction. Using the 1847 Christmas book, The Battle of Life as prooftext, I argue that Dickens’s use of the double is analogous to his fictional use of heredity, which he understood as a process of circularity and unending duplication from one generation to the next. For Dickens, doubling erases death in much the same way as the repetitions of biological heredity nullify the irreversible impact of extinction.

Copperfield’s Geographies 

Although David Copperfield is the novel most closely associated with Dickens’s childhood work at Warren’s Blacking, it contains very little of the London writing so central to Dickens’s vision. Other landscapes— Suffolk, Great Yarmouth, Canterbury, Highgate—are more prominent and persistently memorable in David’s narration. Each of them serves as a screen for the projection of certain aspects of David’s obscure psychic life, while Dickens makes implicit connections among traveling, remembering, and writing. The frightening childhood scenes in London seem to be forgotten when David returns to live in the city. But we may track Dickens as he surreptitiously draws David closer to the memorable sites of his own London childhood, and as he buries David’s memories in London writing typically associated with the disgrace of fallen women.  

Adapting the Seduction Plot: David Copperfield’s Magdalens on the Victorian Stage

This essay examines the very first dramatizations of David Copperfield and investigates their page-to-stage adaptation strategies. George Almar’s Born with a Caul (1850), J. Courtney’s David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (1850), and John Brougham’s David Copperfield (1850) all struggle to adapt faithfully Dickens’s bildungsroman plot, even as they amplify its melodramatic content. A dramatic shift occurs in the1860s, however, when playwrights abandon David’s story altogether to prioritize the novel’s sensational fallen woman plot. I illustrate how Francis Cowlery Burnand’s The Deal Boatman (1863) and Andrew Halliday’s Little Em’ly (1869)move beyond fidelity to Dickens’s source text and instead prioritize correction, originality, experimentation, and sensation as the guiding criteria for adaptation. My conclusion argues that the significant tension between the bildungsroman plot and the seduction plot is finally reconciled after Dickens’s death, when adapters begin a new cycle of corrective adaptation to commemorate the novelist’s life through dramatizations of his most beloved novel.

Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, and the Aesthetics of Dust

In this essay, I argue that dust functions as a central image in Dickens’s work, its content illuminating Victorian concerns about the fragmentations of body and mind produced by industrial urbanization (including the problems of epidemic disease and the disposal of waste matter), even as its structure offers a novel way to think about and express modernity. Borrowing from postcolonial readings of dust, which affirm psychological shattering as a basic principle of modern identity, I interpret Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend as novels that call on images of excess, miscellany, and material entropy to register epistemological fractures in narrative realism, a genre torn between its impulse, at once, to depict the chaotic energies of a world constantly subject to upheaval and change and to give that chaos order. In his fiction, I suggest, Dickens makes way for a modernist aesthetic that both acknowledges and validates narrative disjunctions between content and form as themselves representative of newly emerging perceptions of the postindustrial world.

Season of Light and Darkness: A Tale of Two Cities and the Daguerrean Imagination

Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities reveals a Daguerrean imagination, a photographic subtext like that of Bleak House or Little Dorrit, but one that facilitates a reconsideration of the relationship between photography and history, as well as experimentation in realism more generally. At its very inception, photographic technology destabilized categories of light and dark, past and present, and realism and representation. The image we see in a daguerreotype is, more explicitly than in any other photograph, an image created in both the past of its capture and the present of its viewing. The daguerreotype shares this dialectical negotiation between past and present with the nineteenth-century historical novel. In particular, the high-contrast illustrations and recurrent use and critique of Enlightenment imagery in A Tale of Two Cities reveal a simultaneous reworking of Enlightenment ‘‘truth’’ and Victorian realism. In its persistent focus on light, darkness, and the troubling and subjective distinction between the two, the novel sustains an explicit critique of Enlightenment discourse as well as an implicit engagement with a more experimental, more Daguerrean photographic technology.

Cryptic Texts: Coded Signs and Signals in A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities, a novel about the past, portrays language, and communication generally, in a very modern—at times postmodern— way. Although language is used as an unambiguous means to convey ideas and information, much of the communication that occurs in the novel is buried, encrypted, dislocated, and transmogrified; the secrecy and ‘‘secret signaling’’ that pervade the later Dickens extend, in A Tale of Two Cities, even to the linguistic and semiotic realms. While one of the obvious purposes of these cryptic texts is to keep incriminating or compromising communication secret, the purposes are not limited to this. Generally the text evinces a radical skepticism towards the necessary or ineluctable connection between the signifier and signified, between word and deed. Although A Tale of Two Cities may not offer a new or penetrating interpretation of the French Revolution, it does interrogate the very bases—language and identity—upon which we build our representations of our world and our selves

Clarriker, Pocket, and Pirrip: The Original Tale of Dickens’s Clerk

This essay offers another look at the original ending of Great Expectations. Rather than accept the false opposition between ‘‘unhappy’’ ‘‘happy’’ versions, I consider the evidence that exists about the novel’s origin, development, and composition. From the moment of its inception to the composition of its final words, Dickens planned, designed, and executed a story told by an older narrator who looked back on his life not with regret but with understanding. So sure of his intention, with two-thirds of the work completed and with the final third waiting to be ‘‘ground off,’’ Dickens outlined in a letter to John Forster his belief that the import of Pip’s story, in its working out and winding up, would be away from ‘‘all such things as they conventionally go.’’ These targets, I suggest, are two prevailing fictional conventions, the use of weddings to signal narrative closure, and the extended use of sensational elements to add pace to the telling. Had Dickens stuck to his original design, the novel that has come down to us would have been read in a different way. We would have paid attention to the fact that Pip is a much older narrator than readers generally concede, that he’s a man who has sought and obtained understanding about the events that shaped his life, and that, in the course of telling his story, he has achieved a degree of peace. In reacting to Bulwer’s ‘‘objections,’’ however, two consequences follow: (1) Dickens undercut his original design; and (2) he introduced a narrative flaw which relies on a chronological scheme incompatible with that design and with the actual telling. A close reading of various data—the events of the main thread of Pip’s story, the historical setting of those events, and the dating of the actual telling time, taken together, support the case that Dickens weakened his book and broke the integrity of an original and flawless narrative.

The Mudworm’s Bower and Other Metropastoral Spaces: Novelization and Clashing

Chronotopes in Our Mutual Friend Bakhtinian novelization transforms traditional pastoral space into citified enclaves where moral ‘‘fastening down’’ occurs in the form of strategic character testing, pedagogical lessons, and literal expulsion. Shepherd-teachers and faithful servants square off with rogues and imposters who attempt to subvert the ‘‘virtues of shelter’’ by using various forms of theatricality. Hexam’s windmill, Boffin’s Bower, The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, Riah’s rooftop garden, The Wren’s Nest, and the reclaimed Harmony Bower all function as ‘‘organizing centers’’ where idyllic and theatrical chronotopes vie for primacy.

Recent Dickens Studies and Adaptations: 2009

This study summarizes the extensive body of Dickens scholarship produced in 2009, including discussion of over one hundred articles and books. While attempting to be comprehensive, the survey calls attention to works of special merit that may have a lasting impact on Dickens studies. In addition, the survey addresses several recent Dickens-related adaptations in film, fiction, and the graphic novel (represented by a sampling of illustrations) and offers some speculations about the current surge in pop-culture appropriations of Dickens, particularly the fascination of contemporary novelists with the final years of Dickens’s life. The materials are organized under the following headings: Intertextual and Cross-Cultural Influences; Gender, Sexuality, Marriage, and Children; Science, Religion, and Philosophy; Law, Economics, and Politics; Victorian Media and Spectacle; Geographical Spaces; Studies of Adaptations in Fiction and Film; Studies of Individual Works; Biographies and Reference Works; and Recent Adaptations: Graphic Novels, Films, and Fiction.