Essays on Victorian Fiction

Volume 51, No. 1 (2020)
Published by Pennsylvania State University Press



Disguise and Deception in Barnaby Rudge
Mizuki Tsutsui, Kobe University

Barnaby Rudge owes its unique status in Dickens's oeuvre to its elaborate handling of the theme of identity and disguise. Almost all characters in the novel are caught in inconsistencies between how one sees oneself and how one is seen by others: some deliberately conceal their true self by pretense or deception; others suffer false definition of their personalities imposed from outside by libel or malicious plot; there is also a group of people whose madness or blind vanity prevent them from seeing themselves as they really are. Even the main concern of the novel, the Gordon Riots, suffers from the same issue of identity discordance in the sense that its true nature is obfuscated by its outward religious pretext. From the opening murder mystery to the concluding paragraph about Grip, the problem of identity ambiguity and confusion pervades every corner of the novel, giving it both thematic and structural unification and combining plots and characters otherwise quite disconnected.

Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, identity, disguise


From Humbug to Humility: Learning How to Know with Ebenezer Scrooge
Joseph Clayton McReynolds, Baylor University

Many have found the dramatic transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge mysterious, and some have even taken issue with Dickens's reformation of his curmudgeon as wildly implausible. At the heart of the critical debate over Scrooge's change is not only the question of why he changed but also, and more fundamentally, what changed within him. This article argues that Scrooge's newfound magnanimity is made possible by a dramatic but progressive change in the ways he does and does not allow himself to know others. Through a series of close readings, it demonstrates that Scrooge is at first unable to sympathize with others because he restricts his knowledge only to that which he can know through himself and his own experience, and it then traces how his growth in sympathy stems from his burgeoning self-knowledge and subsequent willingness to know others. In the end, however, he must move beyond knowledge and sympathy altogether, embracing the other not in spite of but because of her mystery. Finally, this article briefly observes how Dickens leads his readers on a parallel journey, inviting them to know Scrooge by seeing the ways they are alike and to love Scrooge by accepting what they cannot know.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, epistemology, knowledge, sympathy


Disabling the Madman: Dickens and the Moral Management of Barnaby Rudge and David Copperfield
Emily M. Baldys, Millersville University

This article analyzes the novels Barnaby Rudge and David Copperfield as they engage with the contemporary psychiatric discourse of moral management, which significantly reconceptualized madness and its treatment in the early nineteenth century. It examines the novels—alongside Dickens's journalism and some medical texts—as works that trace the fluctuating boundaries separating sanity from insanity and ability from disability. Barnaby Rudge, written at the onset of popular enthusiasm for moral management, charts a conception of insanity in flux as traditional and Romantic models of the mind clashed with more clinical definitions and new modes of treatment. In its handling of Mr. Dick, David Copperfield works more actively to domesticate madness within a regime of moral management, reframing the insane as patients subject to rehabilitation. In light of recent scholarship in the field of disability studies, this article argues that Dickens's mid-century narratives thus contribute to a radically revised cultural construction of insanity as disability.

disability, insanity, madness, moral management, psychiatry


"Shall I bite it?": Sexuality and the Biting Male in Dickens
Colette Ramuz, Royal Holloway, University of London

It is a common claim that in Dickens's novels alimentary pleasures are substituted for sexual ones. This article argues, however, that oral pleasure is not a substitution but is meant to be read as an expression of material sexuality and as a primal negotiation between self and other. This article examines the erotic energy of Dickensian mouths through the phenomenon of biting as an expression of male sexual appetite. Biting is associated with the impulse to penetrate the desirable object; in Dickens's writing the semiotics of biting signify a fetishized sexual behavior but it is also one that progresses from the grotesque to a normalized stage of masculine psychosexual and social development. Examining the Dickensian men who bite or threaten to bite their objects of desire, this article focuses on how patterns of eroticized comic cannibalism in the early novels develop into a more mature expression of male sexuality in later works. Dickens not only explores psychosexual conflict, but also expresses it in the form of a taboo act, situated firmly in the middle-class home. This reading identifies the centrality of the mouth in Dickensian sexuality.

masculinity, sexuality, appetite, cannibalism, Dickens


Undiagnosing Esther: The Productive Ambiguity of Disease in Bleak House
Jennifer MacLure, Kent State University

Throughout the 165 years since the publication of Charles Dickens's Bleak House, readers and critics have attempted to diagnose the unnamed disease at the center of the novel. While smallpox is the most popular diagnosis, others have argued for typhus and erysipelas. Drawing on close analysis of the novel as well as medical history, this article contends that Dickens invites readers to think of two specific diseases—typhus and smallpox—while refusing to settle on either as the “answer” in order to hold open a narrative space for a theory of social pathology that encompasses the structural and individuated, the localized and the mobile, the macroscopic and microscopic at once. Recognizing that etiology is political, Dickens uses this diagnostic doubleness to produce a holistic indictment of a biopolitical liberal state that itself enacts power dualistically—that is, via strategic oscillation between disciplinary intervention, “making live,” and selective inaction, “letting die.” In doing so, Dickens also affirms the unique value of fiction to provide insight into our social world.

Bleak House, disease, etiology, liberalism, biopolitics


"What do you mean by that? You must have been drinking!": Victorian Femininity, Dickensian Cooking Disasters, and Nineteenth-Century Domestic Manuals
Christina Henderson Harner, Augusta University

Most Dickensian scholars have interpreted David Copperfield's Dora Spenlow and Our Mutual Friend's Bella Wilfer as domestic failures (in terms of the novels' logic) who must either be disciplined into learning the art of cooking and housekeeping (Bella) or killed off because they refuse to do so (Dora). In both cases, the women's reaction to a cookbook or domestic advice manual plays an important role in the way the stories construct their femininity. However, Bella's and Dora's interactions with these manuals have not been examined in depth. Focusing on two of the most popular domestic guides, this article argues that Modern Cookery by Eliza Acton and Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton present femininity as a series of roles that did not fit traditional gender and class boundaries but rather could be adopted, adapted, or set aside. This concept of flexible femininity troubles two dominant middle-class Victorian assumptions: first, that women were natural-born housekeepers and second, that the domestic labor they performed should be effortless. When more attention is paid to the way nineteenth-century cookery books and domestic advice manuals addressed female readers, Dickens's domestic scenes emerge as moments of resistance that challenge Victorian standards of femininity.

Dickens, Beeton, Acton, cooking, domesticity, Victorian novel


Recent Dickens Studies: 2018
Robert C. Hanna, Bethany Lutheran College

The Review of Dickens Studies for 2018 examines introductions, articles, partial book chapters, entire book chapters, books of literary criticism, biographical books, entries in reference books, and entire reference books on Charles Dickens. Acknowledging that so-called dominant fields of study in a given year are due, in part, to the vagaries of publishers' and editors' decisions, this article notes that publications in 2018 were dominated by adaptations, biographies, and studies of Bleak House and Great Expectations. Grouping the wealth of interest in two of the fifteen novels necessitated comparable groupings of publications focused on the other novels, and then on other individual works. After accounting for reference books, the remaining categories for consideration revealed themselves to belong to specialized interests and studies. The finalized sequence of headings are Reference Books, Adaptations, Biographies, Thematic Studies across the Novels, Studies of Individual Novels, Other Writings, and Specialized Interests and Studies, with the subtopics Allusions, Dark Tourism, Darwinian Studies, Dickens's Influence, Emigration, Gender and Sexuality, Global Dickens, Imagery, Language, Light, Literary Criticism—Nineteenth Century, Ruins, Sleep, and Urban History.

Dickens, literary criticism, Victorian, adaptation, biography