Nineteenth-Century Prose

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Vol 46.1 (Spring 2019)

Special Issue on Dickens’ Nonfiction Prose


Laurence W. Mazzeno and Chris Louttit, “Introduction: Dickens’ Nonfiction Prose.” (1-6)

Until fairly recently, it was commonplace to view Dickens’ nonfictional prose as either youthful “apprentice” work or useful background for the more creative task of dealing with his fiction. However, this idea has begun to be questioned, especially over the last twenty or so years. Building on recent scholarship, essays in this special issue of Nineteenth-Century Prose examine a variety of nonfictional Dickensian texts, employing a variety of methodological and theoretical approaches from animal studies to the use of digital tools and computational literary studies while not neglecting close, scrupulous attention to the nonfictional text. Throughout the issue, essayists take the view that Dickens’ nonfiction is worthy of study in its own right because writing nonfiction was for Dickens not ancillary to his ‘major’ work as a novelist. Instead, he saw his writing as all of a piece: a continuing critique of the society that he loved dearly but that was in great need of reform.

John Drew, “‘Humming-tops’ and ‘Steampunk synergies’: Dickens’ Journalism and Nonfiction since the Turn of the Twenty-First Century” (7-34)

Dickens’ nonfiction is an important component of his creative oeuvre and deserves continuing scholarly attention. This essay offers an overview of critical commentary published during a twenty-year span from the closing years of the twentieth century through 2017. Summaries of major scholarly projects – such as the publication of the four-volume Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens’ Journalism, the launch of Dickens Journals Online, and the reception of these works – are followed by brief synopses of important reference publications, monographs devoted to Dickens’ nonfiction, essays assessing authorship of journal articles, and critical commentaries. The essay concludes with a discussion of the impact of Digital Humanities on the study of Dickens’ nonfiction, and it predicts increased future study based on the relative availability and low cost of online materials that scholars may require for their work.

Pete Orford, “‘Italy is not his ground’: Dickens on the Outside in Pictures from Italy” (35-58)

Dickens is so frequently associated with London that any foray into other territory necessitates a double-take. In 1846 his Pictures from Italy was slammed by The Times precisely because it was felt he was writing outside his area of expertise. Deeming Italy to be ‘not his ground,’ the reviewer consequently attacked Dickens’ book for having ‘no purpose.’ Dickens himself deliberately steers clear of hard facts in the text, in favor of romantic imaginings and literary allusions. Accordingly the book has been unfairly overlooked as an oddity in Dickens’ canon – too whimsical to be journalism. This article considers Dickens’ reasons for adopting such a fanciful approach: he desired not merely to avoid the political controversy that American Notes inspired, but deliberately tried to create a work distinct from previous travelogues of Italy, in that it envelops the landscape of Italy within the abstract realm of Dickens’ imagination. Dickens consistently challenges what it means to be a tourist abroad, contrasting the ideal seen by visitors with the reality experienced by its people. The result is not a failure, but a work that blends reality and fiction rather than simply reporting on what anyone might see in Italy. In so doing, he encapsulates Italy’s past as much as its present.

Jen Cadwallader, “The Material and the Spiritual in Dickens’ A Child’s History of England” (59-74)

This essay argues that Dickens’s treatment of spiritual matters in A Child’s History reflects religious turmoil particular to the years of its composition (1850-3). These years coincide with the so-called “papal aggression,” the passage of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act, and with the introduction of spiritualism to England. These years also coincide with the year of the Great Exhibition, a high note in the Victorian celebration of the material and technological. In A Child’s History, these spiritual and material matters come together in surprising ways. Because Dickens depicts both the druids and Catholics as charlatans who use advanced mechanical knowledge to deceive worshippers, his Child’s History provides a window into anxieties surrounding technology as it became more and more central to Victorians’ lives in the post-Industrial world. This confusion was a byproduct of rapidly developing technology, and Dickens’s portrayal of material and spiritual conflations highlights his concerns about the public’s understanding of technological advancement in his own era.

Ronald D. Morrison, “Dickens, London Zoo, and Household Words” (75-96)

Articles about and references to London Zoo – some written by Dickens and others written by the magazine’s regular contributors – abound in Household Words, especially in the early 1850s when popular interest in the institution peaked and the Great Exhibition opened in Hyde Park. This essay argues that a good many of the articles deliberately celebrate British imperial power and scientific advancements although the attitudes toward social class remain considerably more nuanced. Viewed as a whole, many of these articles from Household Words express a relatively uniform position on London Zoo that is packaged for a middle-class audience and expresses concerns about the changing function of the Zoo in Victorian culture. In particular, these articles articulate a general anxiety that a popular and sentimental view of animals threatens to eclipse the scientific achievements of the Zoo and the cultural authorities who support it.

Trey Philpotts, “Dickens, Haussmann, and the Transformation of Paris” (97-122)

This essay examines Charles Dickens’ evolving attitude toward Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of large parts of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s, particularly as it relates to the political rhetoric surrounding ideas of centralization and authorization. In Household Words and All the Year Round, Dickens and his writers felt themselves compelled to distinguish between centralization and despotism, between organized and wholesale urban planning in Paris and the repressive ruler who made it possible, Napoleon III. As is represented in Dickens’ two journals, Haussmann’s centralized “improvements” typically do not signify autocratic control and restriction or the fixing in place, but its opposite: the expansion of choice and liberation from a set itinerary, and the free-flowing circulation of people and goods. This idea of unimpeded flow and circulation reflects Dickens’ understanding of modernization and his ambivalence toward the abstraction that accompanies it. The essay ends by arguing that by 1860 Dickens’ early enthusiasm for Haussmann’s changes had begun to fade, particularly as their financial and social costs became more apparent, and in light of Napoleon III’s increasingly bellicose tactics in Europe.

Nathalie Vanfasse, “Writing Letters to Come to ‘Terms’ with Domestic Economy: Household Management in Dickens’ Early Correspondence” (123-148)

In Dickens’ letters, family business dovetails with the negotiation of publishing contracts, as well as with diverse other financial transactions. These business cum private matters partake of Dickens’ epistolary biography. This essay shows how a sample of Dickens’ early correspondence exemplifies this combination of domestic and financial issues. It focuses on the economic misfortune brought about repeatedly by Dickens’ father upon his family, as well as – from a more positive perspective – on Dickens’ prospective domestic economy with his future wife, Catherine Hogarth. This essay considers how, through the very form and content of these letters, Dickens endeavored to come to ‘terms’ literally and literarily with domestic economy. What unfolds before our eyes as we read through these letters is Dickens’ household management in progress, which in turn yields a kind of economic and business knowledge that deserves closer scrutiny. These new insights into Dickens’ letter-writing provide possible connections between literature and economics.

Diana C. Archibald, “Language in Place: A Computational Analysis of Dickens’ American Notes” (149-184)

Digital analyses of literary texts can reveal hidden elements that contribute to meaning in subtle ways. Text mining and computational methods of analysis applied to Charles Dickens’ travel book American Notes uncover initial results showing significant structural and stylistic elements that warrant further investigation. This essay is a preliminary study that examines the following research questions: What stylistic differences can computational analysis reveal 1) between the way different regions in American Notes are portrayed within the book, and 2) between American Notes and Dickens’ other nonfiction; and how do these differences illuminate Dickens’ attitudes toward America? This essay argues that corpus stylistics analysis is a beneficial approach for answering these questions and for generating new perspectives on literary texts. Methodology and initial findings are outlined in order to suggest directions for future corpus stylistics analyses of American Notes and Dickens’ other nonfiction.

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