February 4, 2011 at 9:16 am (Nineteenth-century novel)

Next Thursday’s ‘Novel’ class (the final one, before reading week) is on Edwin Drood. As we all know, Dickens died before he was able to complete this novel, and I’d like the use the session to discuss this incompletion, and the larger questons of ‘endings’ and ‘closure’ in Dickens’s writing. (I’m sure I don’t need to add that ‘endings’ and ‘closure’ are not the same thing …)

The business of ‘finishing’ the story of Drood, in a narrative and a ‘whodunnit’ sense, has occupied people almost from as soon as Dickens died. Spirit mediums ‘completed’ the book aolmost immediately (The Mystery of Edwin Drood Complete. Part the Second, By the Spirit Pen of Charles Dickens, through a Medium 1870); and there have been various other ‘solutions’ and ‘full’ versions. Indeed, later this year, the BBC are going to broadcast a dramatisation with an ending supplied by Gwyneth Hughes. Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ friend and collaborator, was asked to finish the book in 1870 — as he wrote to an American newspaper, reacting to an article published by a certain Mr Barnes:

4th Dec. 1878.
My dear Sir,—I can only suppose that another false report of my having finished ‘Edwin Drood’ has been let afloat in America, I was asked to finish the story soon after Dickens’s death, and positively refused. Any assertion or newspaper report which associates me in any way with any attempted completion of the story is absolutely false. I shall be obliged if you will at once communicate this reply of mine to Mr. Barnes, with my authority to publicly contradict the rumour which has deceived him and which may deceive others. Very truly yours, WILKIE COLLINS.

For the session, I’d like you all to read Drood (obviously) and also have a read of Gerhard Joseph’s ‘Who Cares Who Killed Edwin Drood? or, on the Whole, I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia’, Nineteenth-Century Literature 51 (1996), 161-175. Are you a ‘Porfirian’ or an ‘Agathist’ with respect to the novel? Do you think Drood a psychological or a detective story, a whodunnit or an obviously-hedunnit?

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Term 1 Essays

February 3, 2011 at 12:20 pm (Uncategorized)

We’ve now marked your term 1 essays; they’re in the secretaries’ office for you to pick up.  For those one marked by me (ie with my initials at the end of the coversheet) I’ll be in my office [IN202]  if you want to come by and discuss the work at the following times:  next Tuesday [8th Feb] from 12-1 (my usual office hour, so it might be busy); Thursday 10th Feb, 11am-12noon, and 1-2pm.  You don’t have to come and see me about your essay if you don’t want to; but if you do want to, you can come then, or drop me a line and we’ll arrange another time.  Vicky will be making similar arrangements. [AR]

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Thursday’s Little Dorrit class

February 1, 2011 at 12:02 pm (Nineteenth-century novel)

This coming Thursday, I’d like to see how far contextualising Little Dorrit in its historical, social and cultural context helps us understand what is going on in the novel. In particular, I’d like to talk about:

1. The Crimean War. It would help if you familiarised yourself a little with the prosecution of this war (the reason why so many pubs across London are called The Alma and where the Balaclava got its name). Matthew Lalumia’s ‘Realism and Anti-Aristocratic Sentiment in Victorian Depictions of the Crimean War’ [Victorian Studies, Autumn 1983] is a good overview of the ways in which the war worked its way into Victorian visual culture; Dickens is mentioned in passing. Stefanie Markovits, ‘Rushing into Print: “Participatory Journalism” during the Crimean War’ Victorian Studies (2008) is a thorough account of the journalistic and newspaper accounts of the war. Some of Grace Dent’s chapter on Dorrit and the Crimean war, in Dickens and empire: discourses of class, race and colonialism in the works of Charles Dickens (Ashgate, 2006) is available on Googlebooks.

2. The Circumlocution Office. Dickens based his satirical portrait of governmental obfuscation and incompetence on HM Treasury, you know. It used to be thought that the Circumlocution Office reflected Dickens’s agreement with the Northcote-Trevelyan report [that's a PDF link to the actual 1853 report, there -- it makes interesting reading, but it is lengthy] advocating administrative reform of the Permanent Civil Service. But a recent article in the Dickens Studies Annual (DSA 22 (1993) 283–302, not online but in the library) by Trey Philpotts argues against this old belief. He suggests that ‘what galled Dickens in the Treasury Office-his model for the Circumlocution Office-was a class-based elitism that Northcote-Trevelyan tended to perpetuate’ Instead, says Philpotts, ‘Dickens directed his satire at concrete, administrative practices, shrewdly analyzed as to origins and outcome, rather than at some systemic failure too vast to understand or combat.’ It’s also worth noting that Dickens wrote numerous articles for Household Words on the evils of administrative red-tape: you might want to look up “That Other Public,” HW XI (February 3, 1855), 1-4; “Prince Bull. A Fairy Tale,” HW XI (February 17, 1855), 49-51; “The Thousand and One Humbugs,” HW XI (April 21 and 28, May 5, 1855), 265-67, 289-92, 312-16; “The Toady Tree,” HW XI (May 26, 1855), 385-87.

3. Napoleon III. This is more a personal crotchet for me, but important I think — it explains (I’d argue) why France has the large role in this novel it has. There’s a post on this very blog outlining what I consider the parallels between Rigaud and Louis Napoleon. Read it and see what you think. At any rate, some sense of the history of France from 1848 through the 1850s is a useful context for the novel.

We’ll talk about each in turn.

For a contrary view, read Nancy Aycock Metz’s article arguing that Dorrit (unlike, she says, Bleak House) has little to do with contemporary concerns, and is instead a portrait of a ruined, lost, past metropolis: Little Dorrit‘s London: Babylon Revisited’, Victorian Studies (Spring 1990)

One more thing: you may have seen this Daily Mail news story, ‘The real Little Dorrit: the inspiration for Dickens’ classic novel was a single mother-turned-prostitute‘ [25th October 2008]. It makes good copy, and there’s some interesting material in there on Urania Cottage, but I don’t think it’s right about the source for Little Dorrit herself. Dickensian scholars have known about Caroline Maynard for a long time; she lived with a well-off man as his common-law wife for nine years, had a kid and used his money to help her younger brother and sister; but then the man buggered off and she resorted to prostitution. Her brother wrote Dickens a begging letter, and Dickens (Michael Slater notes that he was ‘much affected’ by her ‘sisterly devotion’) arranged for them to emigrate and start a new life. Not much, there, in common with Little Dorrit’s own circumstance, really.

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Wilde’s Salome

January 29, 2011 at 10:20 pm (Aestheticism)

We’re marking your Term 1 essays at the moment, and hope to get them back to you sooner rather than later (the standard has been good too, by and large; which is encouraging). But it’s clear that several of you really liked Wilde’s Salome, at least enough to want to write on it. With that in mind, I thought I’d put up a link to another blog I run, on which I’ve posted a rather lovely set of illustrations to Wilde’s play by Frank Martin I came across. You might want to have a look; follow this link to see the whole run of them. [AR]

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Little Dorrit

January 27, 2011 at 10:40 am (Nineteenth-century novel)

Today’s novel class is on prisons in Dorrit (does the surname include an echo of ‘do-right’, ironically for a prisoner? Or does it conceal the act of having written in its second syllable there? Is the real prison in this novel … writing itself?)

There are, obviously, several actual prisons in the novel itself, and Dickens is also (again, I think obviously) suggesting that there are several varieties of imprisonment people can experience. To quote Alistair M. Duckworth ['Little Dorrit and the Question of Closure', Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1978), 110-11]:

In his notes for Little Dorrit, Number XVI, “Containing the history of a Self-Tormentor” (Bk. II, ch. 21), Dickens includes the entry: “Miss Wade’s Story. Unconsciously laying bare all her character.”‘ The chapter has a curious and somewhat awkward place in the novel. Dickens was persuaded by Forster to make Miss Wade’s autobiographical revelations a written narrative, and the result can be questioned. Arthur Clennam, for example, is rather unbelievably allowed no reaction to her story here or elsewhere in the novel. Yet the interpolated tale is thematically appropriate. It bears significantly on the master-slave opposition that runs through the novel, revealing that the victim who persists in his victimization may be the source of his own torment. Imprisonment, as the novel abundantly shows, can be unfairly imposed from without; it can also be, as Miss Wade’s story shows, perversely self-imposed.

I’d like to discuss the various ways people in this novel are ‘imprisoned’: by poverty, by riches — to cite the titles of the novel’s two parts — by class, by gender, by family, by religion, by nation and by love.

But I’d like to do something more, as well, and discuss the extent to which discourse itself –textuality, writing, Dickens’s own business — emprisons, and is demonstrated as emprisoning in this book.

The Duckworth article is worth a read, actually; it both lays out some of the key thematic structuring principles of the novel, and sets about deconstructing the assumptions behind the notion that novels are ‘structured’ or limited — imprisoned, we might think — in those sorts of ways. For instance, on the one hand we get:

Though the novel has other metaphoric complexes, these remain central, and Little Dorrit as a whole can be profitably read, in Jakobsonian terms, as the metonymic displacement, exten- sion and variation of a limited numiber of significant metaphors or paradigms. The actual Marseilles prison reappears as the actual Marshalsea prison and casts its “prison taint” on any number of houses in the novel: Mrs. Clennam’s, Casby’s, Miss Wade’s, even the Meagles’s, as well as on the Convent of the Great Saint Bernard and on society as a whole. Rigaud’s “intent to be a gentleman” (I, 1) is repeated by William Dorrit, whose raison d’etre, both in prison and out, is to be “always a gentleman” (II, 19), and by many other would-be aristocrats. And the master-servant relationship initiated by Rigaud and Cavalletto is repeated, qualified, “turned” in the re- lationships of Mr. Meagles and Tattycoram, Casby and Pancks, William Dorrit and Nandy, Mrs. Gowan and Mr. Meagles, Merdle and society, the Chief Butler and Merdle, and so on. Criticism has pretty fully explored the ramifications of such metaphoric nuclei, and with its help one can savor the special pleasures of “readerly” interpretation, which lie in the recognition of meanings emerging from melodic variations played upon basic harmonic chords.

And on the other:

Though such decipherments of the novel’s thematic unity might be conceded a critical role by Derrida, they would doubtless be characterized as mystified and ideological, since they fail to put into question certain metaphysical assumptions present in the text and in their method. Specifically, the argument might go, such criticism is “eschatological” (since it assumes … that the novel works towards an end that confers unity on the parts and permits the interpretation of a stable meaning) and “archeological” (in that it traces back the deciphered meaning to an “origin” in the author’s intuition). The effect of such criticism is to reify the structure of the text while concealing its structurality. … Nor will gestures towards Jakobsonian analysis help matters, for within the framework of metaphor and metonymy, which I have used to describe criticism seeking thematic unity in the novel, there is the assumption of a “kernel” metaphor, a fundamental ground, a fatal stoppage of substitutions and permutations once “prison” or “master-slave” has been identifled as a nuclear term permitting aesthetic play and its “doubling” commentary. Such a framework implies the notion of a “centered” structure, and for Derrida, “the concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay based on a fundamental ground, a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the free- play.”‘ What reassurance is there, a “deconstructive” critic would ask, of the stability of “prison” as signifier? Is it not precisely in regard to this kernel image that a major contradiction, an “undecidability” or “aporia,” resides? “Prison” can signify the miserable condition of the urban poor, as in the powerful description of London in “Home” (I, 3): it is there a historical condition that could be ameliorated through the action of a concerned government. But “prison” can also signify a given human condition beyond the power of a social agency to change, as when Dickens speaks of the “prison of this lower world” (II, 30). Can we be content with an either/or recognition here-rather as I was earlier content to see Miss Wade a self-imprisoned character as opposed to others like Doyce and Plornish, say, who are the prisoners of the social system? Or does this “surplus of signification” carry troubling implications with respect to the coherence of Dickens’s resolution of the problem of “imprisonment”?’

To complete the deliciously retro 70s/80s vibe here, I’d flag up a couple of relevant links.

One is Foucault’s Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison [1975; translated as Discipline and Punish in 1977]; a work we’ve come across before on this programme, of course.

More traditional is Philip Collins’ Dickens and Crime [some of which is available on Google Books here, and all of which is in the library here] which deals with crime, criminals and punishment. There are several good studies on the actual Victorian prison experience, not least Philip Priestley’s Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography 1830-1914 (1999). This latter doesn’t seem to be in the library, but I have a copy if anybody wants to borrow it.

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Gustave Doré

December 2, 2010 at 9:54 am (Core Course)

Tonight’s seminar is on Gustave Doré, and 1872′s London: a Pilgrimage in particular.

Quite a lot of Fantasy and faith: the art of Gustave Doré (ed. Eric Zafran, Robert Rosenblum and Lisa Small; Yale University Press, 2007) is available on Google Books. Only a few pages of this study (these) are devoted to the London book, although they are pretty interesting. But the whole volume has illuminating things to say.

This 1866 Contemporary Review comparison of Millais and Doré is interesting, too; although obviously it predates the London book.

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Nineteenth-Century Novel [EN5817]

November 25, 2010 at 9:35 am (Nineteenth-century novel)

The specifics for next term’s course EN5817, ‘The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Contexts, Theories, Readers’, will be up on Moodle soon. If you’re taking the course and are keen to do some advance reading, then the novels we’ll be looking at are:

1.David Copperfield (1849-50) I: Autobiographical Fictions
2.David Copperfield II: Fairy Tales
3.Little Dorrit (1855-7) I: Prisons
4.Little Dorrit II: Circumlocution
5. Edwin Drood (1870)
7. George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859); theories of realism.
8. Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848); historicism and the industrial novel.
9. George Eliot Middlemarch (1872) and Realism
10. George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872) and Darwinism
11. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (1876); memory; nation; cosmopolitanism

The Moodle site is here. [AR]

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Julian Barnes on Madame Bovary

November 17, 2010 at 10:24 am (General Victoriana)


I recommend Julian Barnes‘ recent LRB essay on Flaubert’s 1857 masterpiece, Madame Bovary.  You can read the whole thing for free on the LRB website: fascinating discussion of the difficulties and possibilities of translation, but also some interesting stuff on the novel and its mid-19th-century context. [AR]

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RHUL 19thC Reading Group

November 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm (Uncategorized)

Dear All,

The Reading Group meets this Thursday:
Thursday 18thNovember                   2pm-3pm          IN244

Text for discussion: ‘Introduction’ to Andrew Miller’s The Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008.

The text is attached to this post (the second .pdf is p.6 of the Introduction which is missing from the first scan.)

I look forward to discussing ethics with you!




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Lecture: Kate Flint on Early Photography

November 12, 2010 at 12:03 pm (General Victoriana)

Goldsmiths’ Department of English & Comparative Literature presents:

Kate Flint – “`Bottled lightning’: Flash Photography and the Language of Modernity” – as part of the Richard Hoggart Lecture Series.

Time: 6.30 p.m.

Date: Wednesday 17th November

Venue: Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre


To reserve a place e-mail m.macdonald@gold.ac.uk

Professor Kate Flint taught at the Universities of Bristol and Oxford before moving to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she is currently Chair of the English Department. Her lecture, ‘”Bottled lightning”: Flash Photography and the Language of Modernity’ is based on her work for a new book provisionally entitled “Flash! Photography, Writing, and Surprising Illumination.” Flint’s interdisciplinary and transatlantic research spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Previous books include The Victorians and The Visual Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and The Woman Reader, 1837-1914 (Oxford University Press, 1993). Her areas of specialization include Victorian and early twentieth-century cultural and literary history, visual culture, women’s writing, gender studies, and transatlantic studies. Her most recent book is The Transatlantic Indian 1776-1930 (Princeton University Press, 2008), which looks at the two-way relations between Native Americans and the British in the long 19th century, exploring questions of modernity, nationhood, performance, popular culture, and the impacts of travel.

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