Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 44 (2013)

The Infrastructural Uncanny: Oliver Twist in the Suburbs and Slums
Justin Eichenlaub

Oliver Twist foregrounds the interconnections of the suburbs and the slums and places them into dramatic and formal tension through a version of the “architectural uncanny.” This essay explores the ties between the rise of the slums and the building of suburban housing with the movements of characters between these zones in the London of the novel. To read the novel with the suburb and slum plot in the foreground is to see the text critiquing a deeply flawed system of classed spaces and their ambiguous, mutable interrelations. This approach allows us to revisit the role of urban space in the novel in a new way, demonstrating Dickens’s early engagement and concern with suburban spaces, and the ways in which the interplay of urban and suburban zones function much like the “systems” that are considered hallmarks of his later novels.

“No Certain Roof but the Coffin Lid”: The Melodramatic Body and the Semiotics of Syphilis in Oliver Twist
Erin Wilson 

This essay centers on Oliver Twist’s Nancy, considering her development as a collaboration of the “melodramatic body,” as theorized by Martha Stoddard Holmes and others, and the medical body. It is my contention that Dickens composes Nancy in a manner that suggests, without stating outright, that she is suffering from late-stage syphilis and I further contend that this apparent affliction performs crucial political and formal work in the space of the novel. The essay traces the pervasive discourses surrounding venereal disease and the body of the prostitute in the nineteenth century, indicating that Dickens’s treatment of Nancy vividly deviates from those popular conceptions. The essay goes on to suggest that Dickens’s ability to manipulate the paradox of the melodramatic body, specifically the tension between hyper-visibility and invisibility, allows him to generate a realistic pathological narrative that intersects with and fundamentally alters the primary narrative. It is the final assertion of the essay that the novel’s resolution, often noted for its adherence to melodramatic tropes, is hosted in medical realism via the case study of Nancy’s symptomatolgy and her physical deterioration.

Making Piracy Pay: Fagin and Contested Authorship in Victorian Print Culture
Monica F. Cohen 

In light of Dickens’s professional struggle with literary piracy wherein the claims of exclusive ownership encountered the claims of democratic access, Fagin—one of his most notorious villains—emerges as a site through which Dickens imagines the criminalization of a practice common in the Victorian entertainment industry: unauthorized adaptation. From the crowd of characters vying to author Oliver Twist’s story, Fagin stands out for his successful manufacture of criminal identities through the control of public words, which culminates in his production of Nancy’s murder through the savvy publication of a fake story. This paper argues that through Fagin Dickens mounted an anti-piracy campaign whose primary objective was to win the hearts and minds of literary consumers hitherto unconcerned with brand loyalty.

Reversing Domestication in Dickens: Forging Masculine and Domestic Types through the Cross-Species
Kattie M. Basnett 

Located at the forefront of Dickens’s domestic imaginary, animals are integral to the formation of normative masculine and domestic types in his early novels. Although Dickens’s animals are often read as metaphorical figures for marginal human populations rather than as animals imbued with distinctly nonhuman forms of significance and agency, Dickens employs a domestic triad—composed of human male, human female, and animal—in his early work to insist that the agency of the animal as an animal is necessary for creating and sustaining domestic and masculine typologies. This cross-species triad facilitates Dickens’s reimagination of human-animal power dynamics so that animals are represented not merely as the passive objects of symbolic domestication, but as capable of reversing traditional power hierarchies and exercising reverse domestication on their primarily male interactants. Dickens’s method of rethinking domestic power as something wielded by humans and animals across species divides is significant for understanding the domestic politics and ethics of his early novels as he carves a path toward radically challenging Victorian assumptions about masculinity, domesticity, the cross-species, and the ethics of animal representation.

Not Too Cheery: Dickens’s Critique of Capital in Nicholas Nickleby
Timothy Gilmore 

As the power and avarice of those who seek to profit at the expense of society increases wildly with each passing year, it is important to look once more to Dickens, one of our most trenchant critics of the human cost of capitalist exploitation. Dickens’s early novel Nicholas Nickleby has been criticized repeatedly for being a melodramatic narrative without strong focus and purpose, but this article argues that such an assessment misses the deeper unity beneath the “muddle” of scenes that compose the novel. As a sustained critique of the capitalist mode of production and the reification intrinsic to the logic of commodification, the novel gains a structural integrity otherwise missing if we try to locate it in some other aspect of the narrative, such as its protagonist. The novel astutely investigates the ways that reification, by beguiling everything within a commodity calculus, affects the quality of social relations and restricts individuals’ life potential. This essay posits that the novel is best understood as a kind of allegory of capital detailing the deleterious effects of reification upon social and personal life. Close attention to the novel’s critique of capitalism reveals that there is no such thing as a good capitalist and usurious activity is the rule.

Drowning in the Fog: The Significance of Quilp’s Death in The Old Curiosity Shop
Christine L. Corton 

The Old Curiosity Shop is viewed by many critics as a text which was largely improvised and written with “less consciousness of design” according to John Forster than any other work by Charles Dickens. This article suggests that the novel is, in fact, much more tightly constructed and planned than has often been thought. John Bowen has recently argued this point, with reference to the figure of the garland. I examine other figures used in the novel: the inter­connected metaphors of smoke, mist, and fog. The death of Quilp, through the element of a natural fog, as opposed to the man-made “London particular” of Bleak House, is linked with themes that recur throughout the novel. Quilp is presented as a representation of industrialism punished by elements of the natural world. The juxtaposition of the natural with the industrial world throughout the novel indicates a high degree of planning and coherence in the novel’s composition.

The Wax Girl: Molding Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop
John B. Lamb 

This essay explores Dickens’s use of the waxwork figure and the waxwork tableau in The Old Curiosity Shop as visual tropes for melodrama’s engagement with the body. By portraying Little Nell as the wax girl, Dickens attempts to obscure Nell’s narrative history and with it forestall both her maturity and her mortality. In so doing, the author seeks to maintain Nell’s status as a melodramatic heroine, as a figure of unchanging virtue and purity—the “Good Angel of the race.” But this attempt and the melodramatic impulse that sustains it are undermined by the waxwork effigy’s origin in death and by the irresolvable tension in the novel between the ideal fixity of tableau and the relentless forward movement and temporality of narrative, a narrative that, in the case of The Old Curiosity Shop, ironically both begins and ends with Nell’s death.

Dora Spenlow, Female Communities, and Female Narrative in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield and George Eliot’s Middlemarch
Maria Ioannou 

The article argues that Dickens’s David Copperfield and Eliot’s Middlemarch pose the problem of a story which is non-narratable in female terms, while at the same time trying to articulate it within the main narrative, in what becomes a commentary on the central story. The two novels, though different in many respects, have one similarity: a certain characteristic of the way the narrator of each novel describes events, which makes it possible to register conflicting interpretations of experience. This is especially so concerning the voices of women characters, particularly women whose positions within the social structure seem problematic, women who have been judged as having failed in their wifely roles, or women who have been defined by one single attribute. These women exist in a space that forms a female narrative and enables the creation of female community. This way, a female-centered explanation of the questions pertaining to female belonging in Victorian society begins to emerge.

Vibrations in the Memory: Bleak House’s Response to Illustrations of Becky in Vanity Fair
Deborah A. Thomas 

As indicated by evidence in Bleak House, Dickens was more aware of Thack­eray’s Vanity Fair than has been commonly recognized. Dickens’s response to that widely acclaimed work by his contemporary and rival reflects an interest in the concept of the double and takes the form of splitting and rewriting Vanity Fair’s multifaceted Becky Sharp. In Bleak House, Esther, Lady Dedlock, and Hortense can each be seen as embodying a particular facet of Becky suggested in certain of Thackeray’s illustrations that appear to have triggered Dickens’s imagination. Although he may have misunderstood Vanity Fair, his reworking in Bleak House of aspects of Thackeray’s Becky displayed in these pictures illuminates important differences between these two great novels. Dickens’s response also reminds us that discussions of intertextuality should consider visual as well as verbal dimensions of texts.

When Fairy Godmothers Are Men: Dickens’s Gendered Use of Fairy Tales as a Form of Narrative Control in Bleak House
Melissa A. Smith 

This paper explores how Charles Dickens’s use of a female narrator in Bleak House (1853) fundamentally problematizes and undermines his use of the fairy tale’s cultural cachet, motifs, and characters to support and project his fantasies of the feminine ideal. More specifically, it examines the effects of the thematic presence of several tale types and stock fairy tale figures on Dickens’s ability to prescribe ideal feminine behaviors, such as lack of curiosity and selfless obedience, to both his characters and his female audience. Because Esther’s ability to write and her interest in either discovering or constructing her own identity establish her as competitor to the males who attempt to script her life, Dickens tries to control and circumscribe her ability to know and act through her own and other characters’ resemblance to traditional fairy tale character types, especially Bluebeard and Griselda. Esther’s narrative, however, betrays these unnatural delimitations in telltale interruptions and denials as Dickens attempts to circumvent the constraints he has placed on her voice. Esther’s narrative therefore resists but imperfectly overcomes the Victorian male author’s scripting of femininity.

An Old Dog Enters the Fray; or, Reading Hard Times as an Industrial Novel
Priti Joshi 

Although Dickens had wanted to write an industrial exposé as early as 1838, it was not until 1854 that he published what is widely read as his denunciation of industrial dehumanization, Hard Times. Had he included in Nicholas Nickleby a disquisition on industrial ills as he had considered, he would have been present at the birth of the subgenre; as it is, Hard Times appeared during the dying days of—to paraphrase Franco Moretti—the subgenre’s life cycle. This essay examines the tropes and conventions of the genre as established by three predecessors, Frances Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charlotte Brontë, and argues that Dickens’s rehearsal of the established tropes is tinged with fatigue and repetition rather than innovation. As an industrial novel, Hard Times marks the last gasp of a subgenre whose literary moment had passed.

Book-Snatcher / Body-Snatcher: Adaptation, Resurrection, and A Tale of Two Cities
Lauren Ellis Holm 

Dickens claimed an intimate relationship with his works by embodying his characters both in his public readings and while writing. This intimacy allowed him to set himself up as the perpetually besieged victim of literary and dramatic pirates. In the case of A Tale of Two Cities, however, his attempts to claim ownership of his characters were undermined by accusations of plagiarism that called the originality of his characters into question. This ambiguity threatens to collapse the distinction between Dickens and his appropriators that he was eager to maintain. Rather than condemn Dickens for his purported unoriginality, this essay views both Dickens and the pirate dramatists he fought against as sharing a similar desire to bring characters back to life to postpone their final end.

Bradley Headstone’s Bad Example of Self-Help: Dickens and the Problem with Ambition
Rebecca Richardson 

This essay explores Charles Dickens’s vexed relationship to self-help. Popular self-help texts, such as Samuel Smiles’s 1859 Self-Help, offered hundreds of examples of men who succeeded through their perseverance and hard work. Dickens was himself an example of successful self-help, and readers since his death have seized upon this image, as the compulsive critical attention to his childhood stint at the Warren’s Blacking factory demonstrates. In his novels, however, Dickens tends to condemn such ambitious characters. This essay argues that despite Dickens’s personal history and political support for the institutions of self-help, he understood that the ambition to improve one’s condition could also disrupt civil society. Some ambition is necessary if one is to succeed in industrial capitalism; Dickens reveals, however, that ambition and perseverance can become monstrous when developed in excess. Through close analysis of Dickens’s speeches and his use of Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, this essay shows how Dickens translated the problem of ambition into narrative: Bradley’s perseverance helps drive the plot, but it also leads him to monomania and suicide.

The Storm at the Lighthouse by Wilkie Collins, with an Introduction, Textual Notes, and Appendix
Robert C. Hanna 

Wilkie Collins composed his first surviving original play, The Storm at the Lighthouse, between September 1854 and May 1855. The original text of the play is published here for the first time. Sometime prior to June 1856, Collins shortened the play and retitled it The Lighthouse. This version was translated into French by Émile Forgues and is the only previously published edition. Textual notes compare these two versions, the only ones preserved entirely in Collins’s hand. Collins’s play is noteworthy in Dickens studies, as well. Charles Dickens was the first to recognize the play’s dramatic possibilities, producing, directing, and acting in its premiere at Tavistock House in June 1855. An introduction includes a summary of The Storm at the Lighthouse, an examination of its themes of guilt and forgiveness in writings of both Collins and Dickens, influences of the 1827 play Trente Ans on both Collins and Dickens, a summary of major differences between Collins’s 1853 short story “Gabriel’s Marriage” and his reworking of that story into The Storm at the Lighthouse, and an examination of the four surviving manuscripts, including locales mentioned therein. An appendix contains the play’s performance history during Collins’s lifetime.

Recent Dickens Studies: 2011
Elizabeth Bridgham 

This essay surveys Dickens scholarship in the year 2011, summarizing and commenting on nearly 150 critical articles and books. While the body of work produced in this year has been wide-ranging and diverse in its interests, some scholarly trends emerge. Particularly vibrant fields of study are life writing about Dickens, no doubt in anticipation of his bicentennial year; Dickens adaptations, particularly in performance; and Dickens’s relationship to economics. These common interests reflect our contemporary preoccupations, and the extent to which Dickens’s life and works are relevant to these current concerns. The scholarship surveyed is organized into the following categories: Life Writing; General Studies; Influences on Dickens, Dickens’s Influence: Intertextualities; Performance and Adaptation; Places and Spaces: Geography, Internationalism, and the Urban Imagination; Material Culture and Publication; Reading, Writing, Textuality; Inner Lives: Psychology, Philosophy, Religion; Social Institutions and Issues: Capitalism, Law, Politics; Science and Technology; and Gender and Sexuality, Family and Children.