Repentance and Restoration in Rudge

In reading these final chapters of BR, I found it interesting to read of two separate pleas for repentance, one between the characters of Mrs. Rudge and her husband, the other between Varner and Chester. These calls to make right struck me as unusually “preachy” for Dickens, more so than usual. Dickens certainly paints scenarios of error and mending of ways –morality tales in a way — but for some reason, these two exchanges stand out to me. The salvation / reconciliation plea from Mrs. Rudge seemed especially earnest, and until this point I did not see Dickens as much of a God-fearing man. All of his earlier allusions to a saving God had occupied only minor places in the plot. But this one was more profound, or so it seemed to me.

And the Varden to Chester exchange…until this moment, hasn’t the role of Conscience been given to a woman in the other novels? Here we have a plea to a father to reconcile with the son he abandoned  before the boy is put to death, a plea to make things right. Is there another male character in the novels we have read thus far that makes such a noble, moral plea for reconciliation? Perhaps the end of semester fogginess keeps causing me to note connections that are more profound than they should be. Nevertheless, these seemed important and unique moments in the story.


Boz Sketches the Future

After reading three selections from Boz, I was struck by a sense of deja vu. But in reverse. Instead of deja vu making me recall a place or time already experienced in the past, I was actually reading Boz and experiencing Dickens in the future. Weird, huh? Makes my head hurt if I think about the existential ramifications of all that — you know, that time travel and  space-time continuum paradox of many a Star Trek episode that says if you go back in time, you change the future. (One of the best being the most recent iteration of the Star Trek movie history.)

Think about it. We’ve spent the semester going backwards in time with Dickens, so Boz, as early Dickens, should certainly give us a sense of where it all began. While reading “Thoughts About People,” I noticed that Dickens comments on friends, in the context of the way city life (specifically London) isolates a man. He observes a “class of people…who seem not to possess a single friend, and who nobody appears to care for.” I immediately thought of OMF and the Veneerings’ version of friendship — society / social climbers dependent on others for their own elevation (“old friends”)  but who are never humanly connected emotionally. While the Veneerings are certainly the least sympathetic, there’s the more sympathetic character of Twemlow, whom I thought I saw in the character described by Dickens in this episode of Boz as the man dining alone. Could this have been Twemlow’s great-great-grandfather in fiction?

Life in London — Dickens’ later works seem to suggest he doesn’t think much of it, painting it in such dark, deadly tones of poverty, grime, and human suffering. The stories we’ve read early in the semester include all of the grim, depressing elements of urban life. City life, it seems in Boz as elsewhere in Dickens pseudo-fictional world, devours a man who comes to it for economic survival. How odd a twist is that? Country residents, needing a means of eating, migrate to the city for work, only to be devoured in the process. Dickens’ portraits of city life seem to follow a strict circumscribed progress — much like the rhythm of city streets and structures. It’s as if the city “takes over,” like some sort of parasite:

This sense of deja vu continues when I read Chapter 23, “Pawnbroker’s Shop.” This “receptacle for misery” where “distinctions must be observed even in poverty” reminds me of Fledgeby’s moneylending business Pubsy & Co. This chapter in Boz clearly intimates that those who enter to pawn their worldly goods do so to survive, and enter with a sense of shame, looking around to be sure “no one watches him, hastily slink[ing] in.” Dickens’ long list of stuff found in this shop speaks of people’s daily lives, from the insignificant to the treasured. How striking that the pawn shop of Dickens’ world takes on such a different light when we look at our “reality” shows like Pawn Stars (oddly enough on the History Channel) or Hardcore Pawn. Unlike the modern glitter and glam of what our modern fiction offers us as the pawn store, Dickens’ version really reflects the underbelly of city life, what happens when the city digests its inhabitants. It’s a microcosm of misery: abused and abandoned wives, mothers, lovers, children. Men who’ve succumbed to drink or gambling, or simply the economic machinery of London. Reading about the women in Dickens’ shop made me think of Samantha’s presentation on prostitutes, how this pawn shop seemed to be the final stop before the descent into that next realm of city-spawned hell. It made me think of how limited are the choices of Victorian women in terms of their economic coinage. Truly, their lives are the coins — not just the belongings that they pawn, which seem by their descriptions to be extensions of their roles in society, trinkets of birth, children, beauty, marriage. What a revealing keyhole to peer through.

Then there’s Chapter 10: The River. I have to say, I was surprised by this Sketch. After my research on the Thames, this story of frolicking and joy on the Thames really caught me off guard. Gone were the images of death and mire, muck and smell of Tale of Two Cities, Edwin Drood, and Our Mutual Friend. They have been replaced (preceeded?) by  a vision much more rosy – poking fun of youth, those “amateurs of boating” enjoying rowing on the Thames as a Sunday water party. I couldn’t believe my eyes! What happened? Ah, deja vu again. This is Dickens before the city devoured him, broke him, darkened him. This is the Dickens’ eye when young and unjaundiced.

Yes, a timeline paradox. Deja vu.

Prisons: The Tip of the Iceburg

There is the obvious metaphorical response to this blog assignment — point to all the ways the characters in Dickens novels have been or are imprisoned in some form or fashion by any number of real or metaphysical enclosures or traps: love, money, pride, status, age, culture, etc. There are, in the Tale of Two Cities, any number of metaphorical connections to being imprisoned by some national cause or another (whether revolution or nationalism), as well as the very real prisons in which Mannette and Darney are confined. Boffin of OMF seems imprisoned by wealth (although he is relieved of same by others imprisoned by their greed and downright nastiness). There are any number of characters in Barnaby Rudge imprisoned by love (requited or not) or family. Joe’s relationship with his father is one many modern readers might sympathize with: his father’s definition of parenting places the son at a distance (psychologically and physically), yet the son still yearns for something more. How many father-son relationships — or even father-daughter — can you and I point to today that mirrors that? Joe’s actions to go or not go, stand up or sit down, pursue love or not become entrapped by his father’s will? Characters like Tappertitt and his secret club are constrained by their lust for social revolt, fueled by their sense that the social system is constrictive — a prison of sorts. The relationship between Edward (Ned) and Emma Haredale is restricted by a long-standing family feud – keeping them in isolation cells, apart from one another, estranged (certainly a byproduct of any real prison as well). So many metaphors to choose from, but all requiring an understanding of what the “real” prisons of Dickens’ culture looked like. We’ve seen the Marshalsea in Little Dorritt, a debtor’s prison, certainly an extension of Dickens’ own childhood. But what about the others?

Naturally, thinking about this topic’s potential led me to do a little searching on the web. Lo and behold, in Sketches by Boz (thank you David Perdue) there is an article entitled “A Visit To Newgate.” In this short piece published in 1936, Dickens provides a walk-through description of Newgate Prison. Dickens describes it as a “gloomy depository of the guilt and misery of London.” He then gives us a walking commentary on what he sees as he tours the prison, where men and women alike are housed (separately, of course). Dickens mentions scripture verses in sight, apparently used for schooling for the female population, as well as another “portion of the prison set apart for boys under fourteen years of age.” Dickens refers to these boys as “hopeless

Fagin in Newgate Prison

creatures of neglect” — a prison within a prison. Dickens’ character of Fagin in Oliver Twist was a tenant of Newgate. Perhaps Dickens scene in Boz suggests how prisons can extend their influence beyond the walls and bars.

Further searching led me to the National Archives web page and their section on Victorian Prisons. Designed as an educational site, there is a brief history of the penal system’s methods of internment and punishment. In the early 1800s, people convicted of a crime (including debt) were subjected to prisons of enclosure or exile – often shipped to other continents, sent to hard labor, or simply put to death. Cheap, easy peasy solutions. Out of sight, out of mind. Then, there was a surge in construction of prisons (90 “between 1842 and 1877”) to make room for those convicted of a variety of violations, people like Mary McDonald, a 40-year old single woman who had a rap sheet for theft. She is described in a way that suggests a rough life, including scars and a broken nose. Looking closely at her convictions, her crimes seem like crimes of necessity. She was homeless, poor (her profession is listed as laundress), and had stolen a pair of boots (3 months of hard labor), earlier convicted for pawning a shawl (3 months of hard labor, and stealing a jacket (6 months).

As for exile to places like Tasmania, offenses included “absconding for service” — i.e., running away from her place of employment as a servant — for which she received a sentence of a year in exile. Given what we now know about the working conditions for women, I have to wonder if her exile was less of a punishment that what she was running from. Another sentence of hard labor was given to one Morrice Howland, sentenced to 6 months for possessing tobacco, and not able to “account” for how he came to have it.

Prisons and prison life — we know that Dickens fought for social reform on many levels, and his incorporation of prisons and prison life into his work offers us a powerful glimpse of one of his battlegrounds.

Author Olympics: I’ll Take Thomas Hardy for 200, Alex

Thomas Hardy, born in 1840 and died in 1928, emerged into the literary world in the twilight of Dickens’ years.

Like Dickens, he published novels in a serialized format, appearing in such magazines as Harper’s Weekly (my favorite title: “The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid,” 1883) and Harper’s Monthly (one I remember from my undergrad years: Jude the Obscure, 1894-95).

Other works we may know well, & which ring a bell for me:

  • Return of the Native (1878)
  • Jude the Obscure (1894)
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) – disturbing look at the dangers of being a woman in Victorian England
  • Far From the Maddening Crowd (1874)

Interestingly enough, a connection is made on the Victorian Web between Harding and D. H. Lawrence, a writer I’d imagine would have almost nothing in common with Dickens in terms of social causes (Diniejko). Lawrence, known for his “sensual writing” (Diniejko) is said to have been inspired by Hardy’s “vivid descriptions of women and landscape.”

That, I think, is one connection to Dickens — the power of description to carry the reader deeply into his fiction. Hardy’s realism in his fiction certainly reminds me of Dickens’ — not just in his descriptive prowess but also in the way he used it as commentary on the human condition. Diniejko’s article quotes author John Patterson that ” Hardy sought, like Lawrence after him, to make the human character more wondrous and surprising than traditionally realistic novelists had dreamed of in their philosophies. [462]” — isn’t that how we feel about Dickens’ characterizations?

Further, Diniejko points out how Lawrence and hardy both dealt in “the dichotomy between nature and civilisation.”

The most pointed link between Dickens and Hardy, however, comes in an article by student Holly Morgan of Lakehead University, “The Narrators of Hard Times and The Mayor of Casterbridge as Wisdom Speakers.” In novels separated by 30 years (nearly a life span for some in Victorian England), the subject of the suffering connected by the Industrial Revolution becomes the focal point of character development. Dickens’ focus on the urban life of London contrasts with Hardy’s emphasis on the rural, but both authors create characters as foils upon which they hoist society’s  moral and cultural failures.

Hardy’s characters of note are frequently women, like Dickens, and their suffering at the hand of a society dominated by a male narrative of social status. Just as we sympathize with Dickens’ women, we sympathize with the Tess characters of Hardy — suggesting that women deserve better. In Allingham’s article “The Power of ‘No’ for Hardy’s Heroines,” we may be reminded of several of Dickens’ characters in “Hardy seems to have been fascinated by the one power ‘respectable’, middle-class women had in nineteenth-century Britain, the power to say “No” to a prospective suitor.” Hello Lizzie et al!

Violence and Weather – Hand in Hand

While I’m only into the early chapters of Rudge, I was struck by an image in chapter 2 that made me curious to know more about the prevailing social theories that make their way into Dickens’ works. We have talked at length in class about the ways Dickens uses weather imagery to create dramatic tension in his novels, using the fog, the water, the storms to serve as portents of evil afoot. We see this in movies and literature today too (“it was a dark and stormy night,” Jaws‘ background music of daaa-duh, etc.). But Dickens’ voice seems to really emerge in the passage of Chapter 2 when he writes,

There are times when, the elements being in unusual commotion, those who are bent on daring enterprises, or agitated by great thoughts of good or evil, feel a mysterious sympathy with the tumult of nature and are roused into corresponding violence.

~ Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, Chapter 2

So I wondered if there were publications available about the sociological or psychological influences at the time of Dickens writing this that I could explore to see how widespread this theory was. Of course, if we have spent any time at all listening to grandparents’ stories, or have read any ancient literature, we recognize this as a very, very old theme in the way humans understand themselves and their place in the natural world. In Dickens’ time, it seems the public’s interest in the Natural was at a zenith – what with Darwin’s publications and the ideological shift from a religion-based interpretation of the natural world towards the scientific. Lots of amateur botanists, astronomers, and herbologists made up the population of readers who no doubt enjoyed Dickens’ work, and saw evidence of all of these interests within the pages of his work.

Naturally (pun intended), I had to do a little background research to see what would turn up. It turns out that the theory of Scientific Naturalism is repeatedly connected to my research interests for my 2nd project (medical treatments and theories). Several fascinating books are available on the subject: Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism by John van Whye (2004) and A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought by Stephen Kern.

Kern writes

Environmental determinism was a staple of nineteenth-century positivism and materialism as well as of literary realism and naturalism, methods strongly influenced by the success of natural sciences. Early nineteenth-century psychiatry concentrated on the way the environment directly affected mental states and provided the ideological foundation for the emerging asylum movement of the time…. Victorian obsession with the causal role of the atmosphere is evinced by the widespread scientific theory that diseases such as cholera were caused by foul-smelling air or miasma.

(pp 266-268)

That this theory of causal relationship between the environment and human behavior was so widespread, as the public and scholarly attitudes toward nature and science evolved, really shed a new light on passages such as the aforementioned Barnaby Rudge. Even though I’ve been a big fan of New Historicism in literary analysis for all my college years, this one “aha” moment while reading Dickens’ work really emphasizes the importance of the work we’re doing here in the blogs, by drawing together the different scholarly threads we’ve all been tracing as we’ve been reading, from half-way houses for women, to prostitution, to pollution, to child labor, etc. It makes Dickens’ work really come alive for me, as a 21st century reader, to be able to temporarily drift off into these rabbit trails to better understand what Dickens’ readers already knew and lived through on a daily basis.

Dickens’ Images

In working on a research project, I happened to stumble upon a ink to an interactive App that can be downloaded from the Museum of London. It’s really quite amazing; called “Dickens’ Dark London.”  I just downloaded it to my iPad and the images are SO cool! It’s described by the site as “an interactive graphic novel…based on Sketches by Boz.” I’ll bring my iPad to class on Wednesday if anyone would like to see it.

The Lesser of Two Weevils & Other Strange Alliances

Scene from "Master and Commander"

Several analogies struck me as I was reading this week’s rather beefy segment of BH. The first was the Guppy and Joblin/Weevle combination, which had me laughing, despite the reason behind their alliance. In fact, it was a welcome comic respite after the explosive drama at Krook’s place. (Sorry, but really, that was such a fantastic scene. It deserved at least one pun.) And even though the analogy has absolutely no logical bearing at all on the topic, at one point I was reminded of a scene from “Master and Commander.” In the scene, the Captain (played by Russell Crowe) tells a joke, asking a fellow crewman to examine two insects on their plate of bread and choose between them. The joke is, “in the service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils.” Granted, it would be a serious stretch to connect the joke in any meaningful way here, but every time I read Weevle’s name, I hear Russell Crowe tell this joke.

The two conspirators strike me as two bumbling con men, out to make a quick score.

Snidely Whiplash, Dudley Do-Right's foe

Truth be told, however, Guppy reminds me more of the villain from the old silent films and the Dudley Do-right cartoons, looking for sneaky ways to grab the girl. A truly creepy stalker, but one who seems to do more to shoot himself in the proverbial foot than be a real threat to Esther.

There’s yet another character that reminds me of the villain, although one that promises to be far more sinister, I think. Vhole, Richard’s new alliance, seems to be another con-man in the deck, thanks to the machinations of Skimpole. Nothing good can come of that trio, I’m sure. And Dickens’ description (with the exception of the handlebar moustache) makes Vhole a dead ringer for the villainous stock character.

Then there’s the forecasting skills of Mrs. Flite, who warns Esther about the doom lurking at Richard’s doorstep…the J&J suit. Kind of reminded me of fortune tellers of so many B movies and pulp novels, but with better motives. All we needed was the soundtrack from one of those soap operas to make the foreshadowing complete. (However, isn’t it odd to read about foreshadowing in a novel that’s told in retrospect?) But the comparison Esther sees between the two — Flite and Richard — made me realize that Esther has come a long way since we first met her in the book. Her early thoughts on Skimpole seemed to find his childish behavior charming — now she sees him for what he really is. In the same light, she is beginning to realize the true import of this web in which they all seem trapped.

Boromir, The Lord of The Rings

And speaking of Richard, was anyone else reminded of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy in his meeting with Esther while she stayed at Mr. Boythorne’s? This infernal lawsuit of J&J seems to suck the life and will out of all who put their faith in it. It even transforms their appearance over time, and is proves to be the demise of many (Krook being the most recent soul lost to the power of the One Lawsuit). At one point, when Esther is trying to talk sense into Richard, I could have sworn I heard the voice of Boromir trying to persuade Frodo that the Ring would be made to do good, if only in the right hands. (And that would make Skimpole the malignant Wormtongue, who keeps King Theodin weak by continually whispering misguiding counsel into his ear. I can hardly wait to see that guy get his come-uppance.) The resemblance was uncanny, and while Esther is no Frodo in many ways, her desire to see the best in people and her alarm when that proves too easily given does echo that sort of heroic character.

Perhaps, after all, this is just another hero’s journey, but I don’t think Dickens will let us off the hook so easily. Esther is already dropping hints that misfortune awaits them around the corner.

“Cracking the Framework of Society” — the Chickens Come Home to Roost

The exchange between Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock, and Rouncewell in chapter 28  reeks delightfully of Dickens’ soapbox! Here in the midst of a complicated story line (more like the Snow map, I think), in the middle of reading books whose themes seem to always feature a caution against the evils of money and excess, we hear Dickens go revolutionary on us! In the voice of Rouncewell — defending the rights of his grandson to marry while lauding the value of his family as compared to theirs — the social order so snobbily kept by the Leicester types and their cousins upon cousins comes under fire with this out-of-the-blue man with backbone. After brilliantly mocking the family structure of the Leicesters and Dedlocks of this society, Dickens offers his readers a true example of a nobleman, one whose nobility of character shines through his defense of his sense of education’s value for women, and the importance of character within family connections. What a stark contrast Rouncewell’s narrative paints when set against the fluff of the Leicester coop of cousins! Rouncewell seems to be channeling Dickens’ thoughts on education, women, social class, and all-around snobbery. I felt like cheering on Rouncewell as he stood up to these intolerable snobs, causing Leicester’s “magnificance” to “explode” because Rouncewell represents the tremor of revolution, of an intelligent revolution, one long in coming.

I realize that this isn’t the first time Dickens has set the social classes at odds, but in these chapters of Bleak House, he seems especially determined to do more than simply mock the inequity by painting ridiculous characters to represent the snobbery of the rooted (rotted?) upper class. It seems that this mature Dickens is pushing for more than social awareness — he’s offering an overt voice of revolutionary resistance.

Attaboy, Rouncewell.


Just when you think you’ve pegged a character as one you’d love to hate…

So much was going on in this latest installment, I had trouble picking a focus for this post. Of course, there’s the row between Boffin and Rokesmith/Harmon, and Bella’s epiphany (it’s about time!) and return home. There’s the painful scene with Mr. Riah and that wretched Fledgeby (now him, I’m sure I won’t change my mind about him…Fledgeby is rotten to the core). There’s the plot against Boffin hatched by Wegg and Venus – and here’s Venus, warning Mr. Boffin about the scheming Wegg (or IS he?). I rather feel like I’m lost in Atlanta — getting all turned around on interchanges, reversing course, checking my map only to discover that that road / exit doesn’t exist on my GPS.

But I always seem to come back to the character of Jenny Wren. I have mixed feelings about Jenny Wren because of her treatment of her father. As I posted earlier, her characterization initially led me to see her as an alternative to the Angel of the House. Perhaps we could say that, like the world of SuperMan, there is a “bizarro world” version of every character. Lizzie is the Angel of the “normal” reality, while Jenny, due to her physical abnormalities and her reversal of roles with her father, could be the Angel of Dickens’ Bizarro World. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Bizarro world of comics, there’s a wiki page for that.) There’s Riah, an honest man, who seems to defy the stereotype of Jewish businessmen found so commonly in literature of the time (even Dickens resorted to that stereotype in other works), and there’s what seems to be his counter-character of a non-Jewish male involved in financing who IS the stereotype and much worse – Fledgeby.

But back to Jenny Wren. She’s certainly a sympathetic character, but I’d been troubled by her treatment of her father, emotionally abusing him in a way that we saw was more common among fathers towards children (Gaffer to his son, for example). Dickens gives us in Jenny a character who represents a social strata commonly marginalized — in multiple ways with Jenny because she’s (1) a woman, (2) a child, (3) she’s poor, and (4) she’s physically deformed. Yet she’s offered to us as a voice of wisdom and a companion to our Angel, one who actually SEES angels. Surely Dickens wants us to see her as entirely sympathetic, yes? But then she debases her father — okay, he’s a drunk and remiss in his fatherly duties. Indeed, that’s worth condemnation. But I just couldn’t seem to rectify how she deals with him as compared to the way Lizzie and Pleasant Riderhood — young women from a poorer socio-economic class, and so marginalized like Jenny — deal with their lush-fathers. I considered her behavior at first to be justifiably harsh, but if Dickens deals in comparisons in order to make his reader see the irony and the pathos of this in reality, how then should we measure Jenny? We could say, “Give him what he deserves,” but how does that balance with her other characteristics??? Bizarro World, indeed.

So I thought I’d settled in my mind that Jenny isn’t to be taken as an entirely sympathetic character. Until I read of his persistence in going down the wrong path — despite Jenny’s insistence that he stay put, as soon as she leaves, he’s gone again. Then I start to see that Jenny is more of a “real” angel of the house than is Lizzie, the type of reality Dickens’ readers probably dealt with as opposed to the idealized Angel of Lizzie. Perhaps in Jenny, Dickens is taking us not to Bizarro World after all, but into the everyday life of his readers. The Victorian Web has an interesting article on Jenny and the reality of life with an alcoholic father that seems to reinforce my thinking in this direction. Dickens — just when you think you know what he’s going to do…

Bleak House — Quite a Maze of Characters

Sadly, I seem to be constantly at a loss in Bleak House. I have no trouble keeping up with Esther’s group, but goodness knows, this past week of reading has been quite the roller coaster — Cecil B. DeMille’s cast of thousands! I see it starting to weave together, though. But I definitely need a score card to remember who is who, and why.

In the last two weeks’ of reading, I took note of a few medical references. The role of the medical practitioner pops up – first the young man (Woodcourt) who finds the opium overdose victim, then Richard, then his mentor Mr. Badger. As my research project touches on the subject  of medical practices at the time, I find it interesting that none of these fellows strikes me as the sort of physician I think of through my 21st century lens. A surgeon, it seems, had some status as a medical man. But according to some sources, there was a class hierarchy among medical practitioners:

Like other learned professions, medicine grew in size and regulation. In the early Victorian era it was dominated by the gentlemen physicians of the Royal College (founded 1518), with surgeons and apothecaries occupying lower positions. ~ Health & medicine in the 19th century

This surprised me, thinking that physicians and surgeons would be synonymous. Apparently, not so. Perhaps this explains the attitude that Richard et al. seem to express towards a profession in medicine as one to be treated relatively lightly. To be honest, more and more, Richard is beginning to remind me of a spoiled socialite…rather like Mr. Skimpole who, not so coincidentally I’m sure, was once “educated for the medical profession” (84). This fits with some of the sources I’ve been reading, that some classes of physicians were expected to serve the upper classes, leaving the lower class folks to rely on the homeopathic methods. Seems Richard may be morphing into a Skimpole?

Finally, as I readied this post, I stumbled upon a fascinating YouTube video on the subject, part of a History channel presentation (British, I believe). In this, there’s an early mention of Resurrection Men, with an eye toward explaining how medical students in the 19th century learned anatomy. Be forewarned, some of the details on surgery are fairly gruesome.