Essays on Victorian Fiction

Volume 48 (2017)
Published by Penn State University Press



From Xenophobia to Xenophilia: Dickens's Continental Drift
Sean Grass

In the decades between Charles Dickens's portrayal of Count Smorltork in The Pickwick Papers and his account of the foreign visitor who smashes Mr. Podsnap's chauvinism to atoms in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens's attitude toward Continental foreigners seems to have undergone a radical renovation. This essay argues that one key to understanding Dickens's “drift” from xenophobia to xenophilia is to trace its imaginative origins in the essay “Travelling Abroad” (1860), which centers upon an English traveler on the Continent who is dogged by nightmarish visions of cannibalism and corpses—who is riddled through, that is, with the powerful compulsion to consume what he sees. “Travelling Abroad” thus foreshadows and bridges the sophisticated economic critiques of Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, and it does so in the act of indicting Englishness, not foreignness, for the barbarity implicit in its narrator's imagined acts. In this sense, I suggest, Dickens's apparently softened view of foreigners in Our Mutual Friend has much to do with his hardened attitude toward England, and particularly his hardened view of the psychological and cultural effects of its maturing capitalism.


Stenography and Orality in Dickens: Rethinking the Phonographic Myth
Hugo Bowles

Drawing on Steven Marcus's claim that by learning and practicing stenography in the law courts Dickens had essentially become a “written recording device for the human voice,” Ivan Kreilkamp has argued that Dickens brought the “phonographic innovations in voice writing” to the writing of the novel. The difficulty with this argument is that Dickens learned shorthand from a hybrid system—Thomas Gurney's Brachygraphy—that was radically different from the classic phonography of Isaac Pitman's Stenographic Shorthand. Unlike the Pitman system, which linked shorthand symbols directly to sound, the Gurney system mediated the link through letters—the learner had to memorize symbols which stood for letters rather than for sounds. This essay will argue that Brachygraphy's extra level of alphabetical mediation meant that Gurney shorthand was essentially, and unusually, a creative stenographic system. The nature of the creative language processing implicit in the learning of Gurney shorthand will be described and its implications for Dickens's writing processes will be discussed, drawing on examples which suggest that Gurney stenographic processes were themselves represented in Dickens's fiction and involved in episodes from his life. The overall influence of Gurney shorthand on Dickens's language processing suggests that theories regarding his legacy in relation to “orality,” particularly his position and role in “phonographic” interpretations of nineteenth-century culture, may have to be reconsidered. At the same time, we should recognize the importance of the Gurney method in influencing Dickens's creative use of language.


Dickens's Wild Child: Nurture and Discipline after Peter the Wild Boy
Rae X. Yan

This essay argues that Charles Dickens models Oliver Twist after popular wild child figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Peter the Wild Boy and Victor of Aveyron. My analysis of the scientific accounts of wild children written by physicians John Arbuthnot and Jean Marc Gaspard Itard illuminates the significance of wild children within Victorian popular culture. Nineteenth-century accounts about wild children were laden with anxieties surrounding the effectiveness of disciplinary systems. Wild child caretakers felt the need to civilize and train their charges, but the public records of their work suggest that their positivistic notions of such discipline were fraught with self-doubt. Exploring Dickens's portrayal of the “wild child” articulates his own ambivalence toward the development of his “wild child”-like protagonists.


Dickens, Hogarth, and Artistic Perception: The Case of Nicholas Nickleby
Andrew Mangham

This essay considers the interest shared by William Hogarth and Charles Dickens in the idea of instrumentality in the art of realism. Taking his cue from eighteenth-century epistemological philosophy, Hogarth developed an idea of beauty and realism as insisting upon the need for human subjectivity or perspective. Naïve realism was a style that troubled both Hogarth and Dickens, and both men developed forms in which caricature, melodrama, and exaggeration are crucial to the development of verisimilitude. Considering the progress pieces and the writings of Hogarth as a preface to the style of Dickens, I argue that Nicholas Nickleby developed an extraordinary self-reflexivity. Both Nicholas and his uncle Ralph form part of a narrative study of the implications of filtering perception through the distorting lens of the individual.


The Art of Absence and Return in Martin Chuzzlewit
Wayne Batten

Martin Chuzzlewit represents a departure, prior to Dombey and Son, from the episodic form, interpolated tales, and backstories of Dickens's earlier works, as his preface implies. A key element would be careful attention to the implicit existence of characters when they are suspended: either off scene or not the object of direct narration. Seven distinct manifestations appear in the course of the narrative. The resurrection of a presumed-dead character is the most obvious and least common. A second category of suspension is deliberately and teasingly unexplained. For the third category, suspended characters are assumed to be doing their jobs or following known interests. In the fourth category are those characters whose return to scene requires explanation. The fifth category of suspension, the informational, allows characters to discover or withhold information. In the sixth category, suspension is deployed by a character in order to manipulate others. Unique in the last category, Mrs. Gamp's absent friend, Mrs. Harris, exists only in suspension. While some instances may seem contrived or strained, they attest to the virtuosity of Dickens's response to the possibilities of developing characters and plot by means of suspension.


Gathering and Scattering: Figuring Interest in Martin Chuzzlewit
James Buzard

Disinterestedness is a mystery in Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens's novel about selfishness almost completely lacks the means for representing the process by which people may, by reflection, achieve a measure of detachment from a self-interested perspective. Characters such as Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit, who doggedly pursue their interests without hesitation, are counterbalanced by others—chiefly Tom Pinch—for whom disinterestedness is less an accomplishment than a kind of grace that places them almost completely outside the field of relentless competition that the novel depicts. The former characters aggressively “lean in” to attain their goals; the latter exhibit a similar posture, but they do so in pursuit of solidarity rather than gain. Interestedness so rules the world of Martin Chuzzlewit as to become the fundamental organizing principle of perception and action, with the result that disinterested characters almost cease to be characters at all. Like Tom and the “sketchy gentleman,” they hover between being there and not, between one and zero.


Finding Form in David Copperfield: the Architectural Installment
Daniel Siegel

Almost every formal study of the serial installments of Victorian novels has emphasized their textual condition, linking the installment's formal aspects to the circumstances of its publication and the experience of its readers. This essay takes a different approach, arguing that many Victorian novels use their serial structure to express and shape their meanings in an architectural sense, irrespective of the experience of reading or the mediations of print culture. Considering the example of David Copperfield, the essay shows that the shape of the numbers has a significant bearing on issues central to the novel, including the failures of patriarchy, David's erotic development, the politics of homelessness, and the equivocal character of Daniel Peggotty's rescue efforts. Indeed, the numbers of Copperfield stage intricate formal operations that are not revealed, and are in some way obscured, by a focus on the book's number plans, its publication history, or the temporalities of serial reading. The essay therefore proposes that we approach the serial installment with the same double-vision we train on other narrative forms, viewing the numbers as both registering their textual condition and expressing a self-contained narrative logic.


Recognizing Status in Charles Dickens's Hard Times
Albert D. Pionke

Although most often read for its fictional—and, for many reviewers and critics, vaguely unsatisfying—response to the condition of England question, Hard Times also analyzes the historical peculiarities of Victorian middle-class status with sufficient sophistication to test the limits of later sociological and cultural theory from Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu. Attentive to several of the warrants that might legitimize the exercise of domination in Victorian society and reliant upon the use of type concepts at the level of character, Dickens identifies each possible warrant for public domination with one or more representative characters, whose respective loss of status before the end of the narrative then undermines his or her associated warrant. Their systematic repudiation results in a figure “of wonderful no-meaning,” middle-class status, which is provocatively constructed by Dickens on the basis of a series of categorical negations, and which therefore can be confirmed only through its recognition from those—whether circus performers or periodical readers—in a position to be dominated. In rendering status a highly figurative and uncertain affair, Hard Times suggests that ultimately novelists may be the best sociologists when it comes to representing the epistemologically unstable society of the Victorian middle classes.


"Nothing Truer Than Physiognomy": Body Semiotics and Agency in Charles Dickens's "Hunted Down" (1859)
Eike Kronshage

The narrator of Dickens's short story “Hunted Down” claims that “There is nothing truer than physiognomy” and thus puts great emphasis on the reading of faces as a means of understanding a person's character. In a crime story like “Hunted Down” this seems to be a very promising way to detect criminals, and the short story has consequently been read by many critics as evidence that Dickens actually believed in physiognomics. Yet not even once in this story does the narrator actually analyze a single physiognomic feature, a circumstance that is at odds both with his own claim about the power of physiognomics, and with the critical assessment of “Hunted Down” as proof of Dickens's belief in the pseudoscience. Therefore, this article analyzes the narrator as a dubious reader of physiognomy, who does not put into practice what he says. This circumstance also casts doubt on the idea of Dickens as a believer in physiognomics. I argue that (at least in his late career) Dickens was highly skeptical as to the potential of physiognomic interpretation and that “Hunted Down” is to be understood as an expression of his reservations, which are closely related to his reservations about literary realism.


What Estella Knew: Questions of Secrecy and Knowing in Great Expectations
Toru Sasaki

Great Expectations is filled with secrets. They are sometimes accompanied by the characters' puzzling behavior. For example, near the end of the novel, quite improbably, Estella is presented as if she knew about Pip's predicament: his discovery of the identity of the benefactor. There are other instances of similarly improbable “knowings” in the text. I submit that they may have derived from the novelist's real-life situation; his secret affair with Ellen Ternan and the consequent fear and anxiety (What if they know? They must know). These feelings led Dickens to put various “knowings” in the text, with the result that he was not aware they were too many to sort out. Also, I wish to demonstrate that this anxiety manifests itself most interestingly in “the play within the novel”; the melodramas in which Wopsle performs.


Performance Anxiety in Our Mutual Friend
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

The theatricality of Our Mutual Friend seems most apparent in its many schemers' extravagant role-playing and pious frauds. But in Betty Higden's death scene, Dickens stages a new form of narrative intimacy based not on interiority but on the dramatic acoustics of very close exteriority. This article also considers Dickens's own strategies as a writer and public reader to achieve intimacy through performance across a range of theatrical scales. This is the slightly modified script of a paper delivered at the 2014 Dickens Universe at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This piece offers an account of Dickens's relationship with his audiences through performance—on the page and in person—and since the lecture itself attempts to enact some of Dickens's performance techniques, various markers of its oral delivery have been preserved here.


The Challenge of Female Homoeroticism in Our Mutual Friend
Michael D. Lewis

Queer studies of the Victorian period have debated female homoeroticism's relationship to heterosexuality. Critics debate whether female dyads contest or support courtship and marriage. For Martha Vicinus, the Victorians saw women's friendships as an “unnamable threat to social norms,” while Sharon Marcus contends that they celebrated such relations and that same-sex “relationships worked in tandem with heterosexual exchange.” In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens belongs to both camps, showing women's connections as pervasive and disruptive. He celebrates women's erotic friendships precisely because they threaten heterosexual exchange: Abbey Potterson and Jenny Wren seek to protect Lizzie Hexam from her family and suitors; Sophronia Lammle gives Georgiana Podsnap a space away from her father to articulate her own feelings. These relationships that shelter women from heterosexual predation disappear in the novel's second volume. I argue, however, that we shouldn't read this disappearance as the unqualified triumph of normative relations. Mutual attraction continues to flicker—between Jenny and Abbey, Lizzie and Bella Wilfer—and the novel's heroines only accept marriage proposals once suitors cast off predatory designs and demonstrate an affection that resembles that of the female friends who have sustained them throughout the novel.


Anticipated Ends, Atonement, and the Serialization of Gaskell's North and South
Elizabeth Coggin Womack

Scholars addressing the conflict between Elizabeth Gaskell and her editor Charles Dickens during the serialization of North and South tend to focus on her resistance to his heavy editorial hand or his chagrin at her less suspenseful style. This essay turns instead to their shared tendency to refer to fictional works-in-progress as alive yet mortal—a guiding metaphor that shapes the novel's morbid concluding themes. Dickens, as editor, understood what he called the “vitality” of Gaskell's fiction in terms of sustained readership, while Gaskell sensed that “Margaret”—both her protagonist and her eponymously named manuscript—lived in some way, and could therefore die should the novel fail artistically. These themes color the novel's conclusion, where we find not only the flaws that prompted Gaskell's fears of failure, but also a series of morbid meditations as the protagonist anticipates deathbed retrospection and regret. This study of Dickens and Gaskell's joint investment in the “life” and “death” of fiction, together with Margaret's morbid meditations and desire for atonement, allows us to read in North and South a collaborative yet contested meditation on the anticipated ends of serial fiction.


Paradise Returned: Hardy's The Return of the Native
Clay Daniel

Paradise Lost is a primary intertext for The Return of the Native. Though the novel is often faulted for its obtrusive allusions to classics, ancient and modern, Hardy's deft use of Milton stabilizes a notoriously elusive narrative that lacks a clear protagonist and includes comfortable narrative “Aftercourses” that the author repudiated many years later. Specifically, Hardy fuses Miltonic oppositions into a monolithic, “modernist” landscape, from which not only God but also Satan has disappeared. To this Victorian wasteland, all natives who attempt to leave must return because there are no exits, except perhaps suicide. Yet the Miltonic text is so subtly rewritten, that it tends to mask too well the novel's subversive messages, especially in its transformation of the apparently selfish, lazy, and mischievous Eustacia Vye into one of the first modernist heroines.


"Making Literature Ridiculous": Jerome K. Jerome and the New Humour
Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton

The New Humour of the 1890s was often depicted as a mania or disease attacking unreflecting or susceptible readers. However, like the figure of the New Woman (which it often attacked), New Humour both incurred and resisted simplistic definitions. As the most successful of the New Humourists, Jerome K. Jerome was uniquely placed to exploit the ambivalent status of fin de siècle comic fiction. His weekly journal To-day adroitly responds to press attacks, notably through provocative suggestions that he and his contributors are writing in the tradition of Dickens. Inviting readers to see themselves as loyal members of a club, Jerome surely had Household Words in mind when he said of To-day, “there can be few journals that have established so close and intimate a relationship with their readers.” In Jerome's account it is not the quality of modern fiction, but the snobbery of the critics themselves that is “making literature ridiculous.” Nonetheless, his writing from these years shows him asking serious questions about the relationship of a writer to his published work, while conflicted feelings about his own literary status haunt his fin de siècle writing.


Recent Dickens Studies–2015
Sarah Gates

This article surveys Dickens scholarship in 2015, with attention to more than 170 monographs, collections, book chapters, and journal essays. The scholarship exhibits an increasing interest in intermediality studies (including intertextuality), “things” and “bodies,” ethical and moral analyses, and an intensifying revival of formal and textual-aesthetic interests, including treatments of style, mode, voice, characterization, form, and “beauty.” The scholarship surveyed is organized into the following categories: General Studies; Bibliographical Studies; Biographical Studies; Ethics; Aesthetics; Modes of Reading; Intermediality; Bodies; Childhood, Adulthood, Family; Environments; Empire; and Neo-Victorianism. It does not include web-based scholarship except for the cluster of articles published in the online journal 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century.