Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 43 (2012)

Notes on Contributors

Dickens on Broadway: Future Dickens, Digital Dickens, Global Dickens – A Panel Discussion 

This event was part of Dickens on Broadway: A Pre-Bicentennial Celebration, sponsored by Dickens Studies Annual, AMS Press, The CUNY Graduate Center, and New York Institute of Technology, and held at the NYIT Auditorium on Broadway on April 15, 2011.

Knots in Glass: Dickens and Omniscience from Boz to Bucket

When Dickens’s characters use vitreous objects to observe, they evidence the author’s fluid conception of omniscience at the character level. Following the pedestrian reports of the physically limited Boz, Dickens increasingly endows select characters with extraordinary dexterities that make them powerful observers. These faculties Dickens first grants to his villains, whose methods of surveillance prove oppressive and dangerous. But in Mr. Bucket, the formally unique detective in Bleak House, Dickens demonstrates that omniscience at the character level can benefit both narrative and social progress. Bucket achieves this omniscience through his tricks of the trade: looking down through skylights, he mimics Lesage’s lame demon, Asmodeus, and navigating London’s dark underworld with bull’s-eye lanterns, he becomes a Virgil-figure. By exploiting glass objects to achieve narrator-like access to private spaces, Bucket negotiates and connects the novel’s many oppositions—geographic, temporal, and formal—thereby demonstrating that omniscience is not an ethereal authority reserved only for narrators, but rather can be a real prospect for both characters and perhaps the author himself.

The Pickwick Prefaces

Dickens wrote or rewrote prefaces for the first edition of The Pickwick Papers (1837), for the Cheap Edition (1847), for the Library Edition (1858), and for the Charles Dickens Edition (1867). In them the voice of the reformer is to be heard, the voice of the champion of those who found few champions. But at moments another voice displaces it—preening, prickly, and mendacious. Cavalier about facts, and adapting to circumstances as the years passed, it is a voice which insists that Dickens alone was responsible for making the book what it was, for realizing that the humble serial might be a suitable vehicle for durable fiction, for overcoming youthful limitations, for attracting publishers by remarkable early achievements, and for turning a sequestered country childhood to good account. Dismaying though it is to hear this voice, it leads us to the conclusion that Dickens could write about Mr. Pickwick because, in effect, he was Mr. Pickwick. Both were generous, chivalrous, and valiant when power was abused. Both looked for acclaim, resented their achievements being picked over, and bridled at the least slight. The prefaces are further proof of Dickens’s talent for making enduring literature out of his own imperfections.

Whispers and Shadows: Traumatic Echoes in Paul Dombey’s Life, Death, and Afterlife

Dombey and Son traces and retraces the influence of parent upon child with an almost obsessive compulsion; while other themes are undoubtedly present, they are consistently brought back within the confines of the familial narrative. The essay argues that trauma theory provides us with the necessary lens through which to examine Dombey and Son. Fanny Dombey’s death in the first chapter of the novel inscribes parental loss as a primal moment that is subsequently constituted through a series of differential repetitions, with Paul’s own death reinscribing the trauma. Paul himself, denied an identity of his own, becomes a talismanic narrative presence: a force through which other characters orientate themselves, both before and after his death. The “primal scene” represented by Fanny’s death retrospectively reveals the fundamental problematic explored by Dickens: the irresolvable conflict between mother and father in which the child is implicated. Dombey’s fantasies are an intrusive force, which, when coupled with the uncanny reemergence of the dead mother, propel Paul to a certain death. Paul Dombey is the direct point of intersection for the primal conflict between mother and father: Florence becoming the Echo who lives, potentially to tell and work through the trauma.

“Shall memory be the only thing to die?”: Fictions of Childhood in Dickens and Jerome K. Jerome 

This article focuses on Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849–50) and Jerome K. Jerome’s Paul Kelver (1902) in order to question how these autobiographical novels should be read against the manuscript or nonfiction accounts written by their respective authors on the same subject. The two works are connected by their concern with victimized children who become successful writers. Throughout their autobiographical writings, whether novels or professedly accurate accounts of their lives, Dickens and Jerome repeatedly use mythologizing practices to create a type of the ideal writer (although in Jerome’s case this ideal may never be attained by the protagonist either in fiction or in life). A similarly self-conscious anxiety about reader-response informs the narrative strategies of both novels, manifested through their embedding of, and coded gesturing towards, a personal history which paradoxically remains concealed. The dilemma faced by both authors is that their accounts gain conviction and the lives of their characters become important, only by being edited or fictionalized.

“ ‘Make Her Pay’ ”: Fanny Dorrit’s Disruption in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit

This essay considers the significance of the relationship between Fanny Dorrit and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Merdle. I argue that these women form a homosocial bond via Edmund Sparkler, Fanny’s husband and Mrs. Merdle’s son, that is much like the relationship formed between men via a woman in common, as examined by Eve Kosofky Sedgwick. Fanny sets a socioeconomic goal for herself, to best Mrs. Merdle, and enacts her own class warfare. Her rhetoric is specifically economic, and her goal forces Mrs. Merdle to pay first literally, with material bribes, and later figuratively, with wounded pride. Fanny achieves her goal in this relationship through her manipulation of performance. Dickens thus offers a portrait of how women arrange such relationships and work within cultural and narrative constraints to exert power, and does so using a conventionally male-empowering Sedgwickian triangle. Little Dorrit suggests a way to consider relationships among women that are not nurturing, but are a matter of business, as well as a way to read destabilizing forces within ostensibly conventional narratives.

Epitaphic Representation in Dickens’sOur Mutual Friend

Working with a novel that has dust mounds looming over its action, this essay addresses Charles Dickens’s preoccupation with the tombstone and pseudo-epitaph in Our Mutual Friend. Symbolic and absent tombstones can give us a particular lesson in reading death, resurrection, and inscription: the novel’s central themes. In exposing real and imagined gravesites, as well as various other forms of signifying death, we can assess the fetishized idea of the headstone and epitaph in terms of not only existential affirmation and epistemological insight, but as a dialogic construct for inscribing death and representation in the novel. This essay thereby unpacks various forms of epitaphic rhetoric as it sheds new light on the dialogue Our Mutual Friend has with the dead.

On Honor and Consequences: The Duel in Trollope’s The Small House at Allington

Anthony Trollope’s novels of the 1860s examine jiltings and rivalries that would have instigated duels only a generation earlier. As his characters agonize over what course of private justice remains in lieu of the notoriety of public legal recourse, Trollope adds to the mid-century debate over the “New Man.” The Small House at Allington brings these preoccupations together as it engages in an ironic deflation of the role of the hero, yet stages a series of pseudo-duels that exemplify the human need to know firsthand that wrongdoing has been addressed. Although dueling has a negligible effect upon the outcome of the romance plots in his fiction, Trollope shows that in cases of jilting the drive for retribution and closure is too overwhelming to abjure violence altogether.

Interpretation, Genre, Revaluation: The Conventions of Romance and the Romance of Religion in Benjamin Disraeli’sLothair

By offering a rereading and revaluation of Disraeli’s Lothair, this essay attempts to account for the unjustified neglect of Disraeli’s novels and proposes a way of reading them that will reveal their artistic merit. Lothair should be read not as a realist novel in the tradition of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope but as a romance in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley and Old Mortality. Drawing on Northrop Frye’s influential account of romance in The Secular Scripture, the article offers a generic perspective from which Lothair can be interpreted as Disraeli’s adaptation to contemporary society of Scott’s groundbreaking historical romances, which explored Scotland’s transformation into a modern society. Using similar narrative conventions and character types, Disraeli explores the contemporary struggle between the forces of tradition, represented by the Anglican and Catholic churches and their representatives, and the modern forces of revolutionary nationalism represented by Garibaldi’s struggle to unify Italy by wresting secular power from the Papacy. Lothair thus resembles a typical Scott hero, a “man in the middle” between the forces of tradition and change. 

A Kindred Writer: Dickens in Russia, 1840–1990

This essay examines the extraordinary popularity of Dickens in Russia. It covers translations, literary criticism, and theater productions from the 1840s to the end of the Soviet era. The major focus is on the interest in Dickens by Russia’s foremost writers: Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky, and Bulgakov. None of them was immune to Dickens, and their reading of his works manifested itself in such Russian classics as Dead Souls, Sportsman’s Sketches, The Insulted and Injured, The Idiot, The Resurrection, and The Lower Depths.

Dickens in Post-Soviet Russia

This essay considers the extent to which Dickens is still needed and still read in post-Soviet Russia—a country with a relatively new kind of government, a new ideology, and new literary standards. In fact, my survey opens with a question: what happens to Dickens now on the big stage of post-Soviet Russia? To answer it, I first briefly consider (1) several outstanding editions in translation of Dickens’s works, then examine (2) significant recent scholarly studies, and then review (3) a few doctoral dissertations, before describing (4) some noteworthy adaptations into film, audiobooks or CDs, and theater performances. The many different kinds of editions of Dickens’s works now available in Russia indicate a demand, at least in the book market. In addition, during the last two decades there have appeared important scholarly books, essays, and dissertations that explore new aspects of the world of Dickens. Finally, the large number of adaptations of his fiction into other media gives grounds for hope that he is just entering the post-Soviet scene and that the play, of which this inimitable writer is the author, editor, theater director, and principal actor, is only beginning.

Recent Dickens Studies: 2010

This review surveys over a hundred articles, book chapters, and books comprising the year’s scholarship on Dickens studies published in 2010. In addition, I consider two recent fictionalizations of the Dickens biography—a novel and a play. Where scholarly materials are concerned, I aimed to be comprehensive. I have not, however, attempted to examine the full range of Dickens adaptations and representations in popular culture. Throughout the review, my goal has been to serve readers engaged in their own scholarly projects by suggesting what could prove valuable to them in the methods, insights, and subjects of this impressive and wide-ranging—but dauntingly voluminous—body of research. The article is organized under the following headings: Biography, History, and Reference; Dickens the Writer/Dickens and His Readers; Sources, Influence, Intertextual Engagements; Language, Structure, Style, and Genre; Gender, Family, Children, Education; Social Class, Economics, Politics, and the Law; Urban and Cosmopolitan Contexts; Science, Technology, and the Arts; Ethical and Philosophical Approaches; Adaptation.

Recent Studies in Literary Darwinism: 1990–2010

This survey offers a brief summary and appraisal of recent developments in the broad-ranging field of Darwin-based literary criticism. Recent critical analyses based on poststructuralist theory are contrasted with nascent critical movements that depart radically from widely-accepted tenets of late-twentieth-century critics. The trend among literary scholars identifying themselves with “New Literary Darwinism” is toward consilience between traditional approaches to the humanities and empirically-based assessments of works of the literary imagination, an endeavor that seeks to incorporate into literary studies latter-day scientific discoveries in fields such as paleoanthropology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, animal ethology, sociobiology, and psycholinguistics. The sometimes unfamiliar landscape traversed in the process of reviewing the critical works surveyed resembled an unpaved road, replete with unexpected dips and jolts, as well as an occasional detour. The terrain can be rocky, at times. (Some of the appraisals of poststructuralist literary theory by science-oriented critics may jostle some passengers.) But the route taken is by no means dull. It is my hope that the reader will not sustain too many bruises, while enjoying the ride.