This morning’s nineteenth-century novel class was on
Bleak House Little Dorrit, and we covered some interesting ground: prisons, fathers and daughters, financial speculation, France (or foreignness) and the different sorts of houses in the book. We picked up from Hannah’s sense of anticlimax about the ending to explore ways in which the book is precisely about anticlimax, disappointment and falling away.
One niggle of mine (we talked about this) is that I ended up in effect suggesting an anachronistic reading of the text, by talking about it as if it were actually a Modernist novel published, by a freak of timetravel, fifty years early. Certainly the passages we looked at in more detail (the final paragraphs, and ‘The Evening of a Long Day’ chapter in which Merdle selects the tortoiseshell penknife with which to kill himself) do have a wonderfully desolated, downbeat tone, and use a sort of expressively fractured aesthetic of blankness, repetition and a flattened affect, to achieve their effects. That’s not entirely characteristic of the mid-Victorian novel. Tom talked about how he thought of Kafka when he read the Circumlocution Office sections; I suggested that Merdle’s reply to Fanny’s banal questions, viz:
‘Oh! I am very well,’ replied Mr Merdle, after deliberating about it. ‘I am as well as I usually am. I am well enough. I am as well as I want to be.’ [Book II: chapter 24]
Put me in mind of Samuel Beckett; and the discussion of the deliberate hollowing out of interiority in the novels’ characterisation (the reification of external mannerisms and tics of speech into the whole sum of character in, for instance, Mr F.’s Aunt; the way Merdle doesn’t seem actually to exist inside his over-large coat), and in the larger sense Dickens’ critique of a society all facade and sham with nothing behind it, might make us think of this:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw.
(‘Between the desire and the spasm’ Eliot wrote ‘falls the shadow’: there’s lots of thematic play with light and with shadow in Little Dorrit …) There may of course be a danger of misrepresenting the novel by doing this; although I do think there’s a lot going on in Dorrit in terms precisely of trying to apprehend the alienation and objectification of subjectivity of modern urban life, something that also haunted a good deal of Modernism. On the other hand Dorrit is also pretty much hilarious pretty much all the way through, where ‘The Hollow Men’ isn’t.
A couple of suggestions for further reading. If you’re interested in the trope of the financial bubble and bankruptcy in the novel, a good study is Barabara Weiss’s The Hell of the English: Bankruptcy and the English Novel (1986), which usefully is available for a ‘limited’ but actually fairly full viewing here on google books. Good on ‘detachment’ is Chapter Two of Amanda Anderson’s The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment (2001): you can start reading that here. It’s hard, but rewarding.
Next week: Little House. That doesn’t sound so desolate, now, does it? [AR]