Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 46 (2015)

Whitewashing the Blacking Factory
Robert L. Patten

[This essay was developed from its author’s keynote address at the Dick­ens Universe in July 2012 at the University of California, Santa Cruz]

Michael Allen has recently recalculated the time the young Charles Dickens spent at Warren’s Blacking factory. He believes it began before John Dick­ens’s Marshalsea incarceration, and continued after John was released from prison. For most of that time Dickens continued to live with his mother and sib­lings; he was not boarded out and left alone. This essay attempts to put Allen’s timetable into conversation with several autobiographical narratives Dickens wrote in the later 1840s. It argues that the Blacking Warehouse trauma was one version of his past Dickens fashioned (the so-called “autobiographical fragment”) and wanted to promote, in this case posthumously in Forster’s au­thorized biography. Other autobiographies Dickens composed and published at that time, including prefaces to Cheap Editions of his early works and the early chapters of David Copperfield in which, according to Forster, Dickens inserted a version of his first job, reveal alternate stories of the origins of his career. The claim the paper makes is that the autobiographical fragment is only one account of Dickens’s past, to be read in conjunction with others he issued in the 1840s, all of them written at a particular time in his professional life when he was publicly shaping his authorial identity. It concludes with a “thought experiment”: if we understood the early trauma, not as a fixed and unchanging experience painfully remembered and re-experienced throughout his life, but rather as something Dickens reconsidered and refigured over the next decades, what might a late rendering of it, in his account of the “great In­ternational Walking Match” he supervised while giving readings in the United States in 1867–68, tell us about how he had then come to terms with his past and its shaping influence on his life and commitments?

Dickens’s Performances of Astonishment and Nicholas Nickleby 
Mark M. Hennelly, Jr. 

Dickens’s many performances of astonishment enjoy a rich tableau tradi­tion in pantomime and its offspring melodrama, though they also preview Victorian physiological psychology with its focus on borderline and uncanny states of (un)consciousness. His early one-act farce The Lamplighter stages astonishment’s concern with transformative revelations which coordinate several critical issues, particularly those involving the otherworld, agency, liminality, and vexed audience responses. Astonishment’s etymological link with thunder as an enigmatic, otherworldly message may help explain the as­tonishing storm scenes appearing throughout Dickens’s canon. Performanc­es of astonishment prove especially crucial in his most (meta-)melodramatic novel Nicholas Nickleby—from Nicholas’s double visions of Madeline Bray through the double final curtain calls contrasting Ralph’s failed performance before the Cheeryble twins with Nicholas’s successful performance before them. Along the way, Nickleby’s scenes of astonishment, with their wide-eyed, frozen, and voiceless body language, cogently dramatize agency dis­tinctions among doing, acting, and performing, besides the related matters of affected, satiric, comic, and ironic astonishment, liminal rites of initiation, and vexed reading responses, which often create performatized readers.

Travelling Narrator, Travelling Characters: Developments in Narration and Characterization in the Novels of Dickens
Alison Rutledge

Beginning with the initial narrative experiments in American Notes and con­tinuing through Pictures from Italy, Charles Dickens utilized his travelogues as the testing grounds for new methods of narration and characterization that challenged the centrality of the narrator. In this article, I examine how these experiments in form serve as a catalyst for the development of his meth­ods of narration and characterization in novels written after his trip to Italy. Beginning with Martin Chuzzlewit, the last novel written before his trip to Italy and continuing through Little Dorrit, his only novel that utilized Italy as an important setting, I chronicle how Dickens moves from the combination of an authoritarian narrator and weak protagonist in Martin Chuzzlewit to the weak narrator and dual protagonist structure of Little Dorrit. By track­ing the evolution in narrative forms and linking those changes to the formal experiments from Dickens’s travelogues, I argue that his travel writing of the 1840s merits a central place in the story of how Dickens changed and matured as a prose stylist.

Changes in Visual Interpretations of A Christmas Carol, 1843-1915: From Realization to Impressionism
Philip V. Allingham

Illustration in a nineteenth-century work of fiction complements the text, adding value, filling in interscenes, and even offering flashbacks and flash­forwards. Under Dickens’s tight management of the programs of illustra­tion for the five Christmas Books, 1843–48, the illustrators realized actual events in the narrative, fleshed out significant scenes and situations in the plot, and took their lead as to which subjects to treat from their “conduc­tor.” After Dickens’s death, the principles of illustration as applied to his works necessarily shifted, so that later Victorian illustrators felt empowered to highlight latent features in the text—as, for example, the implicit condem­nation of a heartless capitalistic system that enforced the notion of “surplus population” instead of “social capital.” One may see this dramatic shift from literal realization to artistic elaboration between the series of Carol illustrations by John Leech as opposed to those by Sol Eytinge, Jr. (1867), E. A. Abbey (1876), and Fred Barnard (1878). The greater leap—towards the insertion of scenes that are only merely suggested or implied in the im­agery of the text—is evident in the extensive lithographic series of Carol il­lustrations by Arthur Rackham (1915), who, unfettered by having no author to please and no reading public expecting mere realization, extemporized along such lines as “Scrooge’s dream” of welcoming grandchildren (sug­gested by his witnessing the return home of Belle’s husband). Looking at the original Carol illustration from 1843, we note the affinity between several of Leech’s Punch cartoons from earlier in 1843 and the anti-capitalist agenda in the best-selling novella about a miser’s redemption, a tale in which the young progressives Leech and Dickens, artists who shared a common per­ception of society’s ills and an acute perception of how an artist’s social conscience should inform his work, assailed the Malthusian notion of “Sur­plus Population” and governmental insensitivity to the wide-spread misery of the Hungry Forties.

Ethical Metafiction in Dickens’s Christmas Hauntings
Brian Sabey

Dickens was deeply interested in the ethics of fiction. In two Christmas piec­es, A Christmas Carol and A House to Let, he uses the texts’ central haunt­ings symbolically to treat the ethical dangers and benefits of the fictional imagination. While Dickens was no philosopher, the apparent theory of the ethics of fiction that emerges upon examination of these metafictional efforts is profound. On the one hand, A Christmas Carol evinces the Kantian notion that imagination is essential to perception of the real as well as the fictional, and suggests that fiction therefore ought to encourage ethically useful per­ceptions. But, on the other hand, both texts anticipate Levinas in asserting that the ethical relation transcends imagination and language—that ethical responsiveness is fundamental and unconstructed, and that the real there­fore ought to have priority over the fictional. Dickens affirms both the pos­sibility that fiction will be used to avoid the duty of responding appropriately to real others, and the ability of fiction to educate the imagination and foster generosity towards others. 

“This curious association of objects”: Dickens’s Treatment of Chair- Transported Characters in Dombey and Son and Bleak House 
Jennifer Janechek

This essay probes Dickens’s treatment of chair-transported characters in Dombey and Son and Bleak House. I argue that in these novels, Dickens demystifies the “thing” of the wheelchair and sheds light on the various subject-object relations that generate prejudices against its user. The two main chair-users in the novels, Mrs. Skewton and Grandfather Smallweed, are both understood as part of a network of associations, groupings that en­able readers to see the components (the bearers or pages, the technologies, the combination of the natural and the prosthetic) that assimilate to form the “thing” of a wheelchair or its direct ancestor, the sedan chair. By examin­ing the “gathering” of objects that forms the characters of Mrs. Skewton and Grandfather Smallweed, I will explore how the seemingly naturalized object of the carried or pushed chair is, in fact, a series of subject-object relations that have perpetuated prejudices against the technology’s user as an object, a component of that chair. What emerges is an understanding of how people with disabilities come to be reduced to their technology and treated as things. Furthermore, in his exploration of the wheelchair, Dickens anticipates the personal transportation technology of the railroad and the class issues inherent at its inception, making visible the lower-class muscle still “pushing” the chairs of those in questionable states of need.

Countering the “contract-bargain”: Credit, Debt, and the Moral Economy in David Copperfield
Gill Ballinger 

This essay argues that personal credit and debt relations play a vital role in David Copperfield. David’s circle of family and friends is economically interdependent; the way this group functions does not endorse the concept of the possessive individual, which is a central tenet of modern economic thought. Instead, personal relations inform the credit individuals give one another as part of a moral economy in the novel. In particular, Micawber’s “pecuniary liabilities” function within this system of exchange that relies on trust and mutual obligation. The interdependent unit that Micawber is part of can be linked usefully to older systems of exchange prioritizing gifting be­haviors and the obligations these incur. Conversely, the portrayals of Heep and Steerforth serve to expose self-interested economic behavior that denies the claims the moral economy makes.

Detective or Defective Vision, A Matter of Breathing or Dying in Bleak House
Emily V. Epstein Kobayashi 

This essay looks at Bleak House within the context of Charles Dickens’s journalism: his article “Red Tape” and several others on the London detec­tive police, all published in Household Words. It finds that Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion is at the center of the novel, both structurally and thematically, and that his spectacular death is used by Dickens to initiate readers in a way of seeing; detective vision, an interactive receptive read­ing of the environment, figured by the window, is the antidote for red tape. Krook, the human embodiment of the Court of Chancery’s red tape, high­lights the interrelated nature of defective vision, red tape, and repression of healthy interaction with one’s surroundings. Drawing on Alex Woloch’s character-system theory, the essay explores the network of characters that radiate from Krook in a web of metonymic association or metaphoric op­position.

Esther Summerson’s Narrative Relations: Re-inscribing Inheritance in Bleak House
Michelle L. Wilson 

Just as legal discourse is entirely evacuated of meaning in Bleak House through the “foggy” workings of Chancery, the novel suggests that tra­ditional patrilineal modes of legal inheritance are no longer satisfactory because, among other problems, they exclude female plots and possibili­ties. Bleak House instead emphasizes the mother as the source of inherited identity. By not only searching for the mother, but by telling the story of the search, Esther creates a counter-narrative: a vision of the familial that opposes the legal narrative of legitimacy, one that places the mother at the head of the family line, giving the mother—not the father—the right to place and name the bastard daughter. This article argues that the uncanny, mir­ror-like relationship between Honoria and Esther is one actually created by Esther through her narration. Reading Esther closely thus reveals her nar­rative power—a power that is in stark contrast to the humble powerlessness to which she often lays claim. Esther legitimates herself outside the law’s story, wielding a narrative power that threatens to subsume all other stories.

Pious Fraud and Secret Chamber: Our Mutual Friend and the Intertextual Marriage Plot
Sarah Gates 

The courtship and marriage of Bella Wilfer and John Harmon has certainly received its share of both disapproval and praise since the earliest reviews of Our Mutual Friend. This essay unpacks the resonances of several textual allusions that Dickens folds into that plot, including those to James Sheridan Knowles’s play The Hunchback, Charles Perrault’s tale “The Blue Beard” and some of its variants such as Dickens’s own “Captain Murderer,” The Thousand and One Nights, and Beeton’s Book of Household Management, in order to apprehend more fully the complex ambivalence in its handling of gender relations. Secrets and entertainments; disguise, curiosity, murder; housekeeping: an exploration of these intertextual layers reveals that Our Mutual Friend, one of the few Dickens novels that follows a courting cou­ple beyond their wedding, articulates a more knowing critique of Victorian courtship and marriage, including coverture, and a greater understanding of their costs to men and women, than the reading of Dickens’s marriage plots as “sentimental” or “patriarchal” allows.

Suspending Detection: Collins, Dickens, and the Will to Know
Elisha Cohn 

The suspenseful form of detective fiction often provokes the will to knowl­edge. Initiating active speculation and hypothesis testing, the detective plot cultivates habits of mind associated with the rise of empiricism and central to what Elaine Hadley has identified as English “liberal cognition.” Yet sev­eral of the earliest detective fictions center upon the loss of consciousness, particularly induced by opium, rather than the productive cultivation of the will to knowledge. This essay argues that The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood suspend the detective fiction’s efforts to know the mind as a comment on the physiology, aesthetics, and politics of the will to know. In these early detective fictions, the mind’s outer reaches remain mysterious: both texts limit the degree to which a novel can produce authoritative, em­pirical knowledge about mental processes. I examine how both novels com­plicate empiricism by exploring alternate epistemologies associated with opium and mesmerism. Collins and Dickens, by privileging these critiques of characterological and readerly agency, suspend detective fiction’s epistemic claims on behalf of scientific and national culture.

Beyond the Pale: Edwin Drood and the “Sanctity of Human Life”
Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud

This article dwells upon the significance of the impalement fantasy that opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This showy eruption of Eastern vio­lence, the essay argues, expresses Dickens’s ambivalence about liberalism’s putative solicitude for what his “philanthropic” character Honeythunder calls “the sanctity of human life.” The novel shows how an abstract attach­ment to humanity is forged out of the wishful disavowal and racialization of violence, a renunciation that, as the article demonstrates, represents a secular translation of sectarian animosity. At the same time, Dickens re­veals how the denial of British inhumanity serves to mystify the detective plot of his novel, allowing for the scapegoating of the false suspect identi­fied as “un-English.”

Hinduism, Spiritual Community, and Narrative Form in The Moonstone
Christiane Gannon  

This article argues that Collins’s fragmentation of narrative form in The Moonstone allows him to critique Victorian Christianity and reveal spir­itual community as something that cannot coexist with modes of Western individuality. Britons portrayed Hinduism and other Eastern religions as dangerously fragmentary because they regarded polytheism as inimical to national unity, and colonizers argued that a well-governed nation needed a single moral code. Yet Collins contemplates the possibility that this “single moral code” taught by Christianity and the novel is actually to blame for the decline of England’s national spiritual community. Collins uses the ruptured unity of narrative form in The Moonstone to portray England in a state of chronic spiritual division, a consequence of Christian imperialism and of a national literature that nurtured an idea of salvation achieved through the cultivation of internalized subjectivity. The Moonstone suggests that the price of annexing free nations is the loss of England’s own spiritual commu­nity, and the final scene of Hindu worship that concludes the novel suggests that the future of collective spirituality lies beyond Western nations.


Introduction by Rae Greiner

Mad Libs and Stupid Criticism
Jonathan Farina 

Dickens’s fiction includes many scenes of “Mad-Libbing” wherein charac­ters finish each other’s sentences with comically incorrect words that garble their interlocutors’ intentions. Victorian criticism reproduces this tendency in its metonymic methodology and in the popular reading practices that it records: it appreciates phrases out of context and without integrating them into the determinate, metaphorical interpretations privileged by posterity; and it fixates on how Dickens’s prose had become idiomatic, everyday “cur­rency.” These parallel practices are not “aphasic,” “hallucinatory,” “ani­mal,” shallow, or otherwise stupid, as countervailing critical assumptions have suggested, but expressions of an alternative intelligence that existed in a culture invested in associationist models of reality and psychology.

Let Them Be: Dickens’s Stupid Politics
Daniel Wright 

This essay argues that in Dickens’s Hard Times, politics is imagined pri­marily as an attitude toward the future that I describe as “stupid politics.” This mode of thinking rearranges the stubborn and apolitical insistence that “what will be, will be” in order to imagine different ways of orienting one­self toward a future that appears forbiddingly inalterable. Dickens’s ways of representing these attitudes about the future are then reflected in his narra­tor’s way of imagining a political imperative addressed across the barrier that separates the fictional from the real.

Stupidity and Stupefaction: Barnaby Rudge and the Mute Figure of Melodrama
Carolyn Williams 

The composite figure of Barnaby Rudge with his pet raven, Grip, should be read in relation to the mute figure of stage melodrama. Caught up in the Gordon Riots without understanding, Barnaby functions as a transparent vehicle or empty center through which the forces of history pass. Lukács is wrong: the novel does not place history in the background, but turns from a tale of Gothic recurrence into a historical novel at its midpoint, moving history into the foreground. The novel closes with a meditation on muteness and speech, through the figures of John Willet and Grip.

Rae Greiner
On Dickensian Stupidity: Response

Recent Dickens Studies: 2013
Natalie B. Cole

This essay surveys Dickens scholarship in 2013, summarizing and comment­ing on more than 130 critical books, book chapters, and journal essays. This year’s scholarship reflects an increasing emphasis on global studies, trans­atlanticism, performance and adaptation, print cultures, linguistics, and tex­tualities of style and speech. The scholarship surveyed is organized into the following categories: General Studies; Biographical Studies; Bodies; Mind and Memory; Childhood and Families; Gender and Sexuality; Cityscapes and Spaces; Influences and Intertextualities; Performance and Adaptation; Transatlanticism and National Identities; Race and Empire; Textualities, Language, Speech; Capitalism and Materiality; Victorian Print Cultures; Philosophy and Religion; and Global Dickens. It does not include web-based scholarship.