Bleak Dorrit

October 16, 2008 at 4:05 pm (Nineteenth-century novel) ()

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
Leaning together
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]


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19thc collections at the British Library – postgraduate introductory day

October 13, 2008 at 12:52 pm (Uncategorized)

Dear All,

I have just come across an interesting event at the British Library on the 20th Oct. One day of (free) talks to introduce new postgraduates to their 19th century collections. Probably more intended for PhD students, but I thought I’d draw it to your attention. I’ve posted the full information on the Victorian MA noticeboard.

Best wishes,


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October 10, 2008 at 7:34 am (Nineteenth-century novel) ()

People don’t seem, yet, to have gotten into the habit of commenting on this blog. It’s just a question of getting over your initial reticence. Now’s your chance; this is a post that specifically requests your comments. Don’t be shy!

So: yesterday’s Nineteenth-century novel class on David Copperfield and the ‘Autobiographical Fragment‘ (reprinted by Forster in his posthumous Life of Dickens) threw up some contentious readings of the novel. I’ll run through one of the areas of our discussion, and you–whether you’re taking this particular option or not–can click on ‘comments’ to contribute your ha’pennorth to the debate.

We talked about various things linking Dickens’s autobiographical fragment and his fictionalised version of the same material in David Copperfield, including food, externalisation, his mother and other stuff. But we also discussed the MOOR EEFFOC:

The coffee shops to which I most resorted were, one in Maiden Lane; one in a court (non-existent now) close to Hungerford Market; and one in St Martin’s Lane, of which I only recollect that it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an oval glass plate with ‘COFFEE ROOM’ painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood. [Forster, Life of Dickens, I:ii, ‘Hard Experiences in Boyhood 1822-4‘]

We talked about the ‘principle of inversion’ that Dickens often uses in converting life to art; the life of CD becoming the life of DC; pleasant helpful young Bob Fagin from the Blacking Factory becoming the evil elderly Fagin in Oliver Twist, the great number of children who are compelled to act as adults in Dickens’s novels, and the equally large number of adults who, in various ways, are nothing more than superannuated children. Then we talked about the way some women, like Betsey Trotwood, act as men, and the way some male characters–David himself, say–are feminised (Betsey acting out upon him her fantasy of having a girl child by renaming him, for instance). This is where the group became less minded to follow my suggested reading: which is to say, a queer reading of the novel as, in a buried, secret way, being the love story of David and Steerforth, or perhaps even more counter-intuitively the love of David and Uriah Heep: the weirdly unsettling and strangely (repulsively) sensual quality of Heep— that wriggle he has. We discussed the not-so-buried violence against women that sees the major female characters in the novel either killed-off or packed away to Australia. I tried to link this in with a reading of the notions of ‘secrecy’ and ‘shame’ in the novel, specifically the hyperbolic rather unaccountable shame that CD felt about the blacking factory incident and that prompted him to keep it secret throughout his life from everybody except Forster. Why was he so ashamed? Was it a (social, class-based) shame? Or was it a more complicated, buried or repressed guilt? If so, of what? What is it, precisely, that sends the ‘shock’ through the blood of the adult man? I then, tentatively, floated the idea that Moor-eeffoc, in addition to being a rebus of reversal and inversion, connects in CD’s punning method with a repressed homosexual yearning for ‘more he-fuck’. The group as a whole was, shall we say, unconvinced of this reading. Does it go too far? Is there a buried narrative in which eros and thanatos are intertwined running through the novel? Or does it import a post-Freudian, 21st-century perspective to read the novel in these terms? What do you think?  [AR]

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And talking of Queen Victoria visiting Manchester in 1857 …

October 4, 2008 at 10:49 am (Core Course) ()

…Sarah sends a link to this recent account of that very visit.  Interesting stuff (‘Blockbuster event’, no less).  Many thanks to her.

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The Glasgow Poisoning Case, July 1857

October 3, 2008 at 8:21 am (Core Course) ()

[A couple of people in Thursdays’s core-course seminar were curious as to what happened to the accused in the Glasgow Poisoning trial, reported in the 2nd July 1857 edition of the Illustrated London News we read in class.  Intrigued myself, I dug out the 11th July edition of the ILN.  I’ve photocopied the full account and stuck it to the PG noticeboard, along with some rather nice pictures of Her Majesty enjoying herself in Manchester; but below are some excerpts, and the all important verdicts.]

The trial of Miss Madeleine Smith, of Glasgow, for the murder of Pierre Emile L’Angelier, commenced before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh on Tuesday week.  Every day of the trial the court has been crowded, hundreds remaining outside unable to get admission.  The youth and sex of the accused–the nature of the charge against her, and of the motives which could alone have prompted her to the alleged murder–the extraordinary nerve with which she had borne up through the terrible ordeal,–all have roused to a high pitch the feelings not only theimmediate auditors of the trial, but of the vast audience which, through the press, has been from day to day present at the scene.

The indictment charged the administration of arsenic by the prisoner to L’Angelier on three separate occasions–namely on the 19th or 20th February last; on the 22nd or 23rd of the same month; and on teh 22nd or 23rd of March.  On the last-named date he died, having been ill soon after each supposed administration. … An account of the first three days of the trial appeared in this Journal last week–consisting of evidence of the violent illness and sudden death of L’Angelier; of the finding of arsenic in his body on a post-mortem examination, of the prisoner’s declaration in which she admitted having purchased arsenic but stated that she used it in washing, as a cosmetic; of the evidence of druggists to the fact of her having purchased arsenic for the alleged purpose of killing rats (which purchases however were made quite openly, the accused signing the register without hesitation); of the examination of Mr Minnoch–to the effect that he had made proposals of marriage to Miss Smith, which she accepted on the 12th if March; and that their marriage had been fixed for the 18th June last; and of other minor matters.

The remainder of this day [Saturday] was occupied in reading a number of letters, mostly from Miss Smith to L’Angelier–of the style and nature of which the brief epistle we gave last week is a fair specimen.  On March 13 she wrote to L’Angelier thus: “I am longing to see you, sweet love of my heart, my own sweet love–MINNIE.”  On the 16th of the same month she wrote to Mr Minnoch (to whom she was engaged to be married the following June) whom she addresses as “My dearest William,” says that his departure has made her dull and sad, and reminds him of the “sweet walk” they had had at Dunblane–“a walk that fixed the date of the day when we began our new and happy life.”  Four days later she wrote the over-fond note to L’Angelier which was found after his death in his vest pocket, and whch we gave last week.

On Monday … thirty-one witnesses were examined for the defence.  Several of these deposed to fits of violence on the part of the deceased.  He was easily depressed and as easily uplifted.  On one occasion he threatened to throw himself out of a window, and at another he spoke of jumping off the pier.  On hearing of the marriage of a lady he had been in love with he took up a large knife and threatened to stab himself.  He several times spoke of self-destruction by several means.  He stated that whilst in France he had given arsenic to horses, to give them wind for their journey; and that he had taken it himself to relieve pain.

[The paper goes on to give a detailed account of the summings up by prosecution, defence and the Lord Justice.  And the verdict? ]

The jury then retired to their room, and in a short time afterwards reappeared in court, when the foreman said, “We find the prisoner NOT GUILTY on the first count, and NOT PROVEN on the second and third counts.”

[Each of the alleged incidents of poisoning was treated by the court as a separate count.  ‘Not proven‘ is a verdict unique to Scottish courts, and unavailable to jurors in England and Wales: it is a verdict of acquittal existing between guilty and not guilty, and not as emphatic as the latter.]

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Launch Event for the London C19th Studies Seminar

October 1, 2008 at 1:48 pm (General Victoriana) (, )

University of London Institute of English Studies



London Nineteenth Century Studies Seminar


Autumn Term 2008


The Nineteenth Century on the Move:

 Mobility, Migration, Networks, Exchanges



Launch Event Saturday 4th October 11am -1pm

Room NG15 Senate House



‘Thinking Through Mobility’: a Roundtable



Prof. Tim Cresswell

Dr David Lambert

Prof. Josephine McDonagh



Our first meeting of the year brings together three eminent scholars from the disciplines of cultural and historical geography, cultural history and literature to discuss how they have worked with and conceptualised different forms of mobility in the nineteenth century.


Check the IES website for further material preparatory to this event.


Our subsequent meetings will feature research papers from a range of scholars working with the subject from different angles and will take place on the 8th and 29th November 11am -1pm. Separate publicity will be circulated prior to each event.





Strand Organisers, Autumn Term 2008:


Dr Mark Turner (Kings)

Dr Ruth Livesey (Royal Holloway)

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September 30, 2008 at 12:41 pm (Core Course)

Handsome Henry Mayhew

Handsome Henry Mayhew


As you know, we are using the Penguin Edition of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, which has selections from Mayhew’s huge tome edited by Victor Neuberg. Please focus especially on the following sections:

pp. 5-8 (‘Of the London Street Folk’); pp. 36-42 (‘Penny Gaffs’); pp. 42-51 (‘Costergirls’); pp. 107-122 (‘Of the Low Loding Houses of London’); pp. 161-189 (‘Of the Children Street-Sellers of London’); pp. 257-278 (‘Crossing Sweepers’); pp. 418-443 (‘Asylum for the Houseless Poor’); pp. 473-491 (‘Prostitution’, by Bracebridge Hemyng). 

Please also read Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, ‘The City, the Sewer, the Gaze and the Contaminating Touch’, which is chapter  three of their  The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 125-148. ADAM IS GOING TO HAND XEROX COPIES OF THIS OUT IN CLASS ON THURSDAY — DON’T LET HIM FORGET!

Other Secondary Reading

D. Englander, ‘Comparisons and Contrasts: Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth as Social Investigators’, in D. Englander and R. O’Day (eds), Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain, 1840-1914 (Cambridge: Scolar Press, 1995).

C. Gallagher, ‘The Body Versus the Social Body in the Works of Thomas Malthus and Henry Mayhew’, Representations 14 (1986), pp. 83-106.

C. Herbert, ‘Rat Worship and Taboo in Mayhew’s London’ Representations 23 (1988), pp. 1-24.

A. Humpherys, ‘Dickens and Mayhew on the London Poor’, Dickens Studies Annual 4 (1975), pp. 78-90.

R. Maxwell, ‘H. Mayhew and the Life of the Streets’, Journal of British Studies 17/2 (1978), pp. 87-104.

Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, ‘The City, the Sewer, the Gaze and the Contaminating Touch’, in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 125-148.

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EN5280 Aestheticism and Decadence

September 29, 2008 at 10:50 am (Aestheticism) (, )

Some possible critical reading for the class on Ruskin on Thursday:

John Dixon Hunt, ‘”Ut Pictura Poesis”‘ The Picturesque and John Ruskin’ MLN, Vol. 93, No. 5 Comparative Literature, pp.794-818. The essay is available on JSTOR, here.

Wendell V. Harris, ‘Ruskin’s Theoretic Practicality and the Royal Academy’s Aesthetic idealism’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol.52, No. 1 (June 1997), pp. 80-102. [JSTOR]

Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder (Harvard University Press, 1982) [Google books]

Kenneth Daley, The Rescue of Romanticism: Walter Pater and John Ruskin (Ohio University press, 2001) [Google books]

Robert Hewison, John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye (Princeton University Press, 1976)

Richard L. Stein, The Ritual of Interpretation: The Fine Arts as Literature in Ruskin, Rosetti and Pater (Harvard University press, 1975) [Google books]

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Illustrated London News, 1857

September 27, 2008 at 9:02 am (Uncategorized)

You should, by now, have picked up your copy of the ILN from Saturday, July 4th 1857. [

    If you haven’t, please collect one from the departmental office

] Please read this before the class on Thursday 4th October. In that class we are going to discuss it in terms both of word and image, and they way they interrelate; the semiology of the text.

The lead article, as you can see, is ‘The Mutiny in India’. We will discuss the historical context for this event, but it would be useful for you, if you don’t already know about it, to find out a little about this event. It’s been in the news recently … see this BBC report from last year:

A group of Britons seeking to pay tribute to those who died in an Indian revolt 150 years ago have spent the day holed up in their hotel. The retired soldiers and civilians were advised not to visit the historic Residency in the city of Lucknow because of anger over their visit. Protesters in India say the trip is an insult to Indian freedom fighters.

You might also want to take a look at the following resources:

  • The Wikipedia entry on The Indian Rebellion of 1857 is a useful overview. In general I am wary of sending students to Wikipedia, because the quality of its articles varies greatly and some are unreliable; but this is one of the better ones.
  • The Sepoy Blog is an interesting thing: day-by-day blogging from a hundred and fifty years ago.
  • These paintings give a Romanticised, English perspective on events.
  • These photographs, however, give a less illusioned perspective.
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September 25, 2008 at 9:36 am (Uncategorized) ()

Founders Building

This blog has been set up, principally, for all students on the Victorian MA at Royal Holloway University of London. If you’re one of those students … welcome! If you’re not, but are interested in the Victorian period, literature, art and culture, then feel free to stick around; you can contribute, if you like, although please remain courteous.

I’ll be posting Victorian-related posts, sometimes related to seminar topics and sometimes of general interest. If you’re a student on the MA and would like to post on the blog, please drop me a line. To begin with, though, check out the list of Victorian links on the sidebar.

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