Essays on Victorian Fiction

Volume 49, No. 1 (2018)
Published by Penn State University Press



Chaucer on the Hearth
David Raybin, Eastern Illinois University

Close parallels of plot and language show that in the construction of his third Christmas book, The Cricket on the Hearth, Dickens  drew directly and heavily onChaucer’s Merchant’s Tale. The Merchant’s Tale comically displays the ill-fated marriage between old Januarie and young May. Cricket’s plot revolves around whether it is possible for young Mary Peerybingle to be happy in her marriage to the older John, even as her friend May prepares to wed the still older Tackleton. Perhaps one of the qualities that attracted Dickens to Chaucer was a shared aesthetic that mixes pathos, comedy, and social observation. Be that as it may, Dickens was sufficiently pleased by his artistic success in Cricket that he adapted the scenario of a young wife who loves her aging husband in the Dr. and Mrs. Strong subplot in David Copperfield.


"A great retiring wave": Stress, Release, and Subjectivity in Dickens's Prosodic Seas
William Kumbier, Missouri Southern State University

Dickens’s novels are marked by evocative passages that, even within the rich textures of Dickens’s polyphonic prose, stand out as heightened and stylistically worked. These passages channel the text toward prose poetry: they resemble arias, theatrically calling attention to themselves, springing from the novels’ discursive recitatives. This essay focuses on a cluster of such passages in the climactic “Tempest” chapter of David Copperfield, in three incarnations: the published text of the novel, Dickens’s adaptation of the text for one of his public Readings, and the re-creation of a brief portion of that reading in the 2012 film, The Invisible Woman. The essay identifies and analyzes the poetic devices, especially the rhythmic figurations, that Dickens deploys and shows how Dickens works those devices to conjure the sublime and its characteristic effects of dissolution and dispossession that, in this case, both deepen and threaten the coherence of David’s subjectivity. The prose poem passages of “Tempest” thus reach beyond the novel’s manifest subject into the subjectivities of character, narrator and reader, a dynamic incisively and vividly conveyed in Ralph Fiennes’s re-creation of Dickens reading.


Meeting "Me": Charles Dickens's Moments of Self-Encounter
Katherine G. Charles, Washington College

In short stories and novels ranging from A Christmas Carol (1843) to Great Expectations (1860–61), Charles Dickens again and again reiterated close encounters between his fictional characters’ adult and childhood selves. Turning to the journalistic context of The Uncommercial Traveller essays, this article identifies moments of self-encounter that are similar but staged between adult Dickens and avatars of his child or adolescent self. Drawing on research into media studies, temporality, and form, I argue that Dickens developed the new formal technology of the self-encounter in response to the pressure of his desire to connect personally with a mass audience, a cultural politics and marketing practice that Juliet John has termed “intimate publicity.” I propose a skeptical reading of Dickens’s moments of self-encounter that finds evidence of the author’s vexed approach to autobiographical form and a resulting pivot outward to his audience. Through a logical doublethink that sanctions the narrator’s recognition of the child as simultaneously me and not me, these self-with-self-encounters create both ironic detachment and sentimental irony, while leaving the task of calibrating their tonal balance to the reader. Attending to these artful moments of self-encounter carries insight into the creation of Dickens’s public persona and to the reception of his novels.


The Unexpected Kinship of Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights
Alan P. Barr, Indiana University Northwest

Surprisingly unnoticed are the significant reverberations of Wuthering Heights that appear scattered across Great Expectations. Central to Dickens’s art is his exuberant, capacious ability to absorb and refract his surroundings in his novels: the haunting locales, the evocative characters, taut situations, and poignant elements from his contemporary culture. Melded into the rich broth of Great Expectations is a string of parallels with Wuthering Heights. They include the looming presence of the houses, the alienated, orphaned protagonists, and numerous verbal echoes. There is no evidence that Dickens incorporated these parallels consciously, but they are there and they are effective. Buildings, terrains, figures, situations, and expressions in the later novel that recall elements in Brontë’s world can function quite differently relocated. The echoes embedded in Great Expectations are entirely unobtrusive; their effect is enriching, that of a highly original, imaginative novelist, adding texture and even irony to his art—perhaps less anxious about the influence than benefitting from it.


Redefining the Urban Philanthropy: Charity and Home in Our Mutual Friend
Lauren Wilwerding, Boston College

Scholarship has associated the London of Our Mutual Friend with filth and corruption, but these aspects of the novel coexist with a version of the city that emphasizes benevolence. Rereading the city for scenes of benevolence reveals that the solutions Dickens posits to urban corruption imagine a viable form of charity in the language of the city itself. By situating the domestically-based charitable practices of Our Mutual Friend alongside mid-nineteenth-century journalistic discourse on urban charity and examples of Dickens’s support of philanthropic projects, this essay shows how the novel redefines “home” to arrive at a model of charity that is both specifically urban and personal.


Regulating Alcohol Consumption and Structuring Life in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend
Darin Graber, University of Colorado at Boulder

In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens paints a complicated portrait of alcohol consumption
that resists following any one vein of contemporary sociological, medical, or religious writing about alcohol. Instead, he senses the roles of economy and geography in the circulation of alcohol through individuals and city alike and structures the narrative as an investigation of the possible outcomes of differing efforts to regulate that movement. Within this physical and economic landscape, Dickens creates two competing examples of working-class and abject poor drinking economies. In one, Miss Potterson maintains strict control over her tavern, The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, which she operates as a small-scale, moralized yet dictatorial economy that provides orderly community and relative healthfulness. In the second, metropolitan disciplinary administration oversees the citywide drinking economy, in
which Jenny Wren’s father drinks himself to death. Ultimately, Our Mutual Friend refrains from fully endorsing one model of alcohol regulation as a metropolitan or national solution, illuminating the failures of large-scale, sanitary-disciplinary efforts while also implying that Miss Potterson’s more effective, small-scale, moralized economy relies upon her autocratic control of an idiosyncratic space—and therefore could (or should) not apply to the whole city of London.


Demonic, Mesmeric, Parasitic: Dickens and Evelyn Waugh
John Bowen, University of York

It has long been recognized that there is a close relationship between the works of Charles Dickens and Evelyn Waugh, the most important English comic novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively. This essay argues that this relationship should be seen not as a matter of literary borrowings by Waugh, nor in terms of loose analogies between their works, nor as an essentially Oedipal conflict. Their writings, I argue, act as both parasite and host to each other. Waugh’s writing is parasitic on Dickens’s, burrowing into it for names, allusions, and narrative tropes. Through their incorporation into Waugh’s host texts, these in turn act as parasites that embed their own disturbing trajectories and associations within their new fictional homes. Waugh’s relationship to Dickens, a figure who is called in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold “the most daemonic of the masters,” is seen most powerfully in the forces of compulsive repetition, haunting and mesmerism that irrigate both that novel and A Handful of Dust. Such forces comprise, derange and invade many of
Waugh’s texts and their shaping aesthetic and affective stances, and are particularly seen in moments of death, madness, and wild laughter.


Cranford and the Gothic Everyday
Winter Jade Werner, Wheaton College

Though generally characterized as a work of gentle humor, Cranford has also been recognized by critics such as Franco Moretti, Hilary Schor, and Anna Koustinoudi as a novel about “panic,” “a place under siege, hardly alive,” one that “literally abounds in scenes/images of castration, mutilation, dismemberment and devouring.” This essay looks to account for this seeming disjunction between the genial tone of the novel and its dark undercurrents. Cranford, it argues, deploys a narrative strategy that I call the “Gothic everyday.” Here, the Gothic mode does not interrupt but rather is integrated into Mary Smith’s “proto-ethnographic” narration. The “Gothic everyday,” I suggest, constitutes Gaskell’s attempt to represent what she perceived to be a paradoxical state of affairs: although modern life was “haunted,” “unnatural,” oppressive, and morbid, these conditions had also been normalized and were perceived mostly as routine and unexceptional. In other words, she recognized that modernity had not intensified and literalized the kinds of instability traditionally associated with the Gothic so much as it had multiplied and diffused them. Thus, Cranford is an experiment in a sort of stylistic hybridity, representing an experience of everyday life in which Gothic tropes, conventions, and occurrences are less fantastical than simply business-as-usual.


Recent Dickens Studies: 2016
Lanya Lamouria, Missouri State University

This essay surveys the 2016 scholarship on Dickens, summarizing over 150 monographs,
collections, book chapters, and journal articles. The essay’s twelve sections emphasize major areas of scholarly interest: General Studies; The Environment; The Transnational; Religion and Morality; Bodies and Things; Gender and Sexuality; Genre and Form; Linguistics; Periodical Culture, Popular Culture, and Authorship; Adaptation; Pedagogy; and Biography. As this list demonstrates, recent Dickens studies encompass a variety of contemporary thematic preoccupations and methodologies. In 2016, research informed by environmental and transnational approaches
was especially vibrant.