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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