Essays on Victorian Fiction

Volume 49, No. 2 (2018)
Published by Penn State University Press



"Drop the Curtain": Astonishment and the Anxieties of Authorship in Charles Dickens's Sketches of Boz
Christina Jen, Rutgers University

This essay critically examines Sketches by Boz as Charles Dickens’s self-conscious representation of the anxieties of authorship, especially in its early stages. At a time when the young, budding writer had launched his public career, hopeful of lasting celebrity and aware of the risks of the literary venture, Dickens’s projection of uncertainty in his own particular formation and practice of the sketch sets up the sketch’s dynamic relation to nineteenth-century theater and visual culture. “Astonishment,” the essay argues, emerges as a device Dickens borrows from the stage and adapts for the sketch. The many appearances of astonishment in his sketches, not limited to scenes of performance but also extended to depictions of the everyday, reveal his growing consciousness of unpredictability and impermanence in his work’s public reception and potential for generating social transformation. In three sections, the essay analyzes the influence of theatrical anxieties and styles on the form and content of Sketches, locates the theatrical affect of astonishment in everyday contexts, and explores astonishment’s capacity for activating social reform.

anxiety, astonishment, sketch, theater, authorship


"This Schoolroom is a Nation": Subverting the Catechistic Method in Dickens
Eric G. Lorentzen, University of Mary Washington

The catechistic method was a popular form of the rote memorization pedagogy which dominated Victorian schools, and sought to keep at-risk learners content with their marginalized social positions. In fact, this educational praxis became so popular that its tactics were embraced by many figures desiring social power beyond the schoolroom, a point upon which Dickens dwells at considerable length throughout his texts. This essay surveys a few varieties of catechistic primers that were designed for these disciplinary functions, and examines some of the more infamous ways catechism was utilized in early nineteenth-century British literature. Subsequently, the essay scrutinizes the almost overwhelming number of instances of the catechistic method in Dickens’s novels to demonstrate both his critique of this question and answer power dynamic, and the ways in which his characters deploy, evade, co-opt, and subvert the ideological directives of catechism, as they strive for their own liberation and agency. By recognizing the evolution of Dickens’s critique of catechistic method, both in and beyond the arena of the Victorian classroom, we can much better appreciate the extent of his cautionary tales about the ways in which education functioned as a normalizing force of social control.

Dickens and Education, Catechistic Method, Pedagogy, Victorian Schools, Rise of Mass Literacy


The Handmade Landscape: Manual Labor and the Construction of Eden in Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit
Caroline Wilkinson, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In his 1843 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens used the pastoral mode to deliver a strong message about labor. To communicate this message, he employed the mode’s many traits, including its retreat into and return from the rural landscape and its focus on the country worker, traditionally the shepherd. This essay follows the novel’s pastoral retreat into the United States, where young Martin comes to understand the realities of manual labor through his physical interactions with the American landscape. His companion, Mark Tapley, meanwhile, performs the emotional labor of the servant by initially shielding middle-class Martin from this painful knowledge. Both men, however, must confront manual labor on a massive scale upon reaching “Eden,” a hideous landscape that Dickens constructed referring to passages from his travelogue about his 1842 trip to the United States, American Notes. The landscape in Eden documents the decaying atmosphere of slavery as recorded in Dickens’s travelogue. It also recreates for Martin the physical experience that Dickens had as a child of entering a vast, foreign world of factory work. Ultimately, Dickens’s uses the pastoral to uncover a horror that usually lies beneath a beautiful surface: that the civilized landscape demands enslaved or nearly enslaved labor for its construction.

pastoral, emotional labor, servants, American slavery, cotton industry


Neither High-Church, Low-Church, nor No-Church: Religious Dissatisfaction and Dissent in Bleak House
Christian Dickinson, The Baptist College of Florida

In Bleak House, Dickens gives us a panoramic view of the corrupted English society of his day. Scholars have dissected the novel for decades, and often read it through the lens of these corrupted institutions. However, their attention focuses primarily on the Aristocracy or the Courts, forgetting one institution nearly as large and just as corrupt: the Church. On closer examination of the novel, it is clear that Dickens had this institution in mind as one which added to the nation’s decay. It is particularly interesting to note that Bleak House began its serial run in 1852, just one year after the religious census which showed how great a sectarian divide existed in the nation. By examining the novel through the division and corruption of the church in all its denominational leanings, we can come to a fuller understanding of the importance of the church itself in Victorian religious culture, and perhaps even get a glimpse into another matter of intense debate: Dickens’s own personal religious beliefs.

Anglican Church, Dissent, Evangelical, Poverty Class, Marriage and Domesticity


Entangled Paths and Ghostly Resonances: Bleak House and Oedipus Rex
Robert E. Lougy, The Pennsylvania State University

This essay begins with the question of why Prince Turveydrop and his infant daughter are both afflicted with disabilities toward the end of the novel. I argue that we can best answer this question by reading Dickens’s novel through the lens of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. Drawing upon Wai Chee Dimock’s concept of “deep time,” which views literature as “a crisscrossing set of pathways, open ended and ever multiplying, weaving in and out of other geographies, other language and cultures” (3), I look at the ways in which Oedipus Rex (429 BCE) is woven throughout Bleak House (1852–53). I look especially at the questions of infanticide, or, more generally, the death of children, and that of disability or lameness. Here I draw upon Jean Pierre Vernant’s reading of lameness in Sophocles’s play, in which he argues that for the Greeks, the life of each individual “must be articulated on the sequence of generations, must respect that sequence,” or else chaos will follow. To a degree that is not found in any of Dickens’s other novels, I argue, Bleak House portrays a shattering of temporal order and a world in which this sequence of generations is violated.

“deep time”, disability, temporality, generational sequence, Oedipal family


Getting Bored with Hard Times
Kailana Durnan, Rutgers University

This essay confronts an impasse in criticism of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) by working to take the novel’s principal weakness—its tediousness—seriously, not only as a matter of sociohistorical concern, but also as a strategy for literary representation. I situate the novel within a cultural history of boredom that originates in the eighteenth century, arguing that Hard Times represents an important moment in the synthetic development of a democratic conceptualization of this situated psychological condition. As such, the novel forges similarities across differences in class, professional, and gender identity, and models a form of collectivizing sympathetic attention that works against novelistic teleology to productively frustrate readerly pleasure. The essay works to challenge the factory/circus binary that so often dominates critical accounts of the novel, instead illuminating Dickens’s ambivalent interest in this unlikely (because anti-energetic) source of textual energy. In locating boredom as the novel’s guiding heuristic, I argue, we can better account for the affordances and limits of Hard Times’ antiutilitarian critique as well as its politics of reading.

Politics of reading, history of boredom, social problem, novel, psychology, utilitarianism


"'Tis the Mind That Sees Things": Flexible Epistemology as Social Reform in Charles Reade's It Is Never Too Late To Mend
Kristen A. Pond, Baylor University

Although Charles Reade was one of the most popular novelists of his day, he has gone the way of many other writers whose critical standing suffered because of their reliance on melodrama and sensationalism. His 1856 novel, It Is Never Too Late to Mend, which propelled Reade to fame, has received some limited attention, but critics tend to ignore the Australia plot in favor of the progressive social critique contained in the prison plot. This essay argues for the narrative power and significance of the Australia plot as the site of Reade’s critique of epistemological certainty. First, I look at how nineteenth-century epistemology was connected to empire and the bildungsroman. Second, I examine the contrasting epistemologies of Robinson and George and trace how Robinson’s flexible epistemology is connected to his transformation. Finally, I highlight a series of reversals at the novel’s conclusion that revise the basis for progress in the bildungsroman and challenge the inflexibility of English perception. This essay positions Reade’s novel as an important example of the complexity of Victorian epistemological perspectives. It also identifies Reade’s revisions to the bildungsroman as an important aesthetic component of his narrative style and key part of his social reform.

Charles Reade, epistemology, bildungsroman, Victorian novel, colonialism


"They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care": Lewis Carroll Studies, 2004-2017
Edward Guiliano, New York Institute of Technology

Recorded in this essay is the sweep of Lewis Carroll scholarship covering 2004–2017. New Primary Works; Critical, Annotated or Notable Editions; Reference Works; Biographies; Journals and Websites; Book-length Studies; Collections of Essays; and Selected Journal Essays and Book Chapters are covered. During the period discussed, diverse interest in Lewis Carroll and his works increased steadily and was extensive, more in evidence than for many if not most Victorian writers. The topics of interest related to this multitalented man—literature, photography, biography, mathematics and logic, Victorian cultural studies and more, and seen from many critical and thematic perspectives—have become increasingly broad and accepted as worthy of study of a major figure, and his Alice books established as major texts of world literature.

Lewis Carroll, literary criticism, Victorian culture, Popular culture, Alices