Monthly Archives: October 2014

Female Sexuality in Victorian Literature

Group 2

Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor’s “Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art” provides a pertinent overarching frame for interpreting the perception of female characters and figures in 19th century literature. According to the editors, literature [and art] tend to reflect the social problems and concerns of the time they were produced, and literary themes often reflected women’s lives and reinforced certain behaviors. They posit that social questions of women’s education, suffrage, legal rights, and “the specter of poverty and profligacy” all manifest in literature [and art]. To that end, we explored how women’s sexuality materializes in literature of the time from both the male and female author. We will present three separate perspectives on the female character in victorian literature. The first perspective shows the female character as written by the male author (Dickens), the next will give an account of female  character’s written by the female author and the final account will explain the critical reception of female characters.

The Male Author

David Holbrook’s Charles Dickens and the Image of Woman provides a great amount of insight into how women fit both into the works of Dickens and the society of which he was a part. Dickensian women fit into several archetypal molds that are rooted heavily in the concepts of sexuality and purity. The first of these is the angelic image of perfection: a chaste woman whose virtue is unassailable and whose innocence is the envy of all around her. This figure can be seen in OT’s Rose Maylie, Great Expectations’ Estella (though that one involves a lot of Pip’s own perception), and David Copperfield’s Agnes. These are the ideal women in Dickens’ worlds of the word, and are clear reflections of the Victorian ideology that women should be pure, spiritual, and not indulge their sexuality in any way (Holbrook 28). It is possible that this very set of ideals is what compelled Dickens to kill Nancy in Oliver Twist: Nancy was a good person, indistinguishable from Rose in most ways except that Nancy was a sexual creature, and for that Victorian society condemned her.

Another Character that can be seen throughout Dickens’ work is the unreliable mother. In Bleak House, both Lady Dedlock and Jenny assume this mantle: Dedlock has an illegitimate child for whom she provided no care (due in part to extenuating circumstances) and Jenny’s child just straight up died. Worth noting is that in Oliver Twist, Oliver only gains a measure of worth when it is discovered who his father was. His mother is mostly written off. Holbrook mentions that  “All we do know about his childhood relationship with his mother is that, when improved circumstances made it possible for him to leave the humiliating work work he endured pasting labels on blacking bottles, his mother insulted his soul by determining to keep him at the toil he loathed” (28). This relationship likely played a large role in the creation of the women about whom Dickens writes, and explains why women and mothers in particular are often cast in a poor light.

The Female Author

In his essay “Jane Eyre and the History of Self-Respect” Paul Schacht provides insight into the social conditions of female sexuality as represented in Charlottes Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Schacht explains that Jane’s sense of cleanliness (purity, celibacy) is that of a society, which oppressively regulates women’s sexual behavior and tends to be suspicious of sexual pleasure altogether. At Thornfield and Lowood, against the tyranny of gender (Brocklehurst etc.), Jane stages her revolt within, rather than against the external institutions that constrain her. Limited results, but internal struggle leads to self-actualization, and self-respect, which allows one to outwardly challenge these external institutions, as she does later in the novel. Schacht goes on to write, “Such domestic zeal was not unusual among Bronte’s feminist contemporaries, who often based their claims on natural rights, while remaining wedded to natural roles. The attitude of these early activists toward ‘womanly and domestic employment’ was that of Shirley’s Rose Yorke: ‘I will do that, and then I will do more.’” (Schacht 1991). That this “domestic zeal was not unusual among Bronte’s feminist contemporaries,” This excerpt identifies the notion of accepting certain domestic roles while maintaining a feminist sort of freedom. The fact that Schacht explains that this, “domestic zeal was not unusual among Bronte’s feminist contemporaries,” complicates the modern perception of feminism and forces the reader to view a Victorian perception of feminism that may reinforce feminine stereotypes even regarding sexuality.

Critical Reception

In her essay “Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-Assertion: M.E. Braddon and Ouida,” Natalie Schroeder makes the claim that feminism in women’s fiction was a major concern of contemporary critics. These critics viewed self-assertive, “masculine” behavior (read: unchastity), as a threat to Victorian society. Furthermore, critics like E.S. Dallas weighed in, saying that feminine aggression was unnatural. He reckoned that females in literature ought to be accompanied by “an evident access of refinement”, while he claimed that the opposite was occurring. He continues to say that women’s lives are not lives of action, so when they are put at the forefront of a plotline, they are therefore placed into a false position. In return, Schroeder points out that Victorian women resisted the roles that were conventionally assigned to them, rejecting “the prudish moral tone that characterized popular fiction of the 1850s.” They effectively began to rebel against the establishment. One can see from this criticism the gender-dominated society that fueled expectations of women in society, and also regulated the  image of female characters in Victorian literature.

Discussion Question: Understanding that Dickens and other Victorian writers would not explicitly express female sexuality, how do female characters in Bleak House fall into this Victorian view of sexuality?


David Holbrook’s Charles Dickens and the Image of Woman

Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor’s Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art

Elizabeth Lee’s Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality

Natalie Schroeder’s Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-Assertion: M.E. Braddon and Ouida

Paul Schacht’s Jane Eyre and the History of Self-Respect

Posted by: Kevin O’Connor

Group Members: Colin Peartree, Michael Stoianoff, Michael Adams, Hannah Glaser, and Kevin O’Connor

“The Novel of Purpose”: Informing and Reforming Victorian England

Group 1

What exactly is the genre of the novel and how did it begin, rising to such prominence at the start of the 19th century? In The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt claims that the defining characteristic of the novel is the mode of realism through which it operates and that this, as a result, sets the novel apart from that of other works both of its time and those of the past. The most general definition of the novel is that it is often fictitious in nature, in narrative form, about book length, and represents both the characters and the actions of the story with some degree of realism. If we compare Jane Austen, an author who was considered one of the first true novelists to, say, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, who often times gets mistakenly lumped into the same category as the former, we begin to see how and why the novel as a genre branched off into a territory of its own, so to speak. On page 14 Watt says:

“Nevertheless a broad and necessarily summary comparison between the novel and previous literary forms reveals an important difference: Defoe and Richardson are the first great writers in our literature who did not take their plots of mythology, history, legend or previous literature. In this they differ from Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton, for instance, who like the writers of Greece and Rome, habitually used traditional plots” (Watt, 14).

Here, we see that authors like Defoe, are essentially the forerunners of the novel as a genre, as, he was one of the first of his time to place significance and value on originality and individuality rather than the traditional or typical plots woven throughout the history of most of the early texts in the Western world. Novelists like Defoe used literature in such a way that “most fully reflect[ed] this individualist and innovating reorientation,” as, many previous literary forms were based solely on either past history, myths, and/or religious matters.

Northrop Frye also contributes to the conversation in trying to define what exactly makes a typical novel the “typical novel” and illustrates this through comparing Jane Austen and Wuthering Heights, in an effort to separate the novel from what he calls the “miscellaneous heap of prose works now covered by that term” (Frye, 6). Northrop Frye claims that the “essential difference between the novel and romance lies in the conception of characterization” and that “the romancer does not attempt to create ‘real people’ so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes” (Frye, 6). Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a prime example of the typical conventions of the romance genre as opposed to the novel. In contrast, he asserts that the novelist, “deals with personality, with characters wearing their personae or social masks” and that he (or she) “needs the framework of a stable society” (Frye, 6)– much like what we see through the eyes of Esther Summerson, the protagonist in Dickens’ novel, Bleak House. While the stories and characters within the novel may be fictional, most of Dickens’ works fit very well within the conceptual model of the novel as he often creates a fictional approach to history in his works. Unlike others of his time, Dickens invests what Frye refers to as a “chief interest in human character as it manifests itself in society” (Frye, 7) and this, as a result distinguishes literature being written and viewed through this lens and why it was perhaps so infectious in its appeal beginning in the 19th century to modern day.  It is also interesting to note that the word novel comes from the word “nuvel” meaning new in French, and that in its beginnings, the novel served as a platform to disseminate information and/or news.

The yearly output of fiction in English.

The yearly output of fiction in English.

This idea of the novel as “the novel of purpose”, one in which authors would use realism, to allow the audience to relate to the events of the story and apply them to their own lives, is prevalent in chapters 2 and 3 of Amanda Claybaugh’s book, The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. Claybaugh focuses on the idea that reformists writings of the 1800s influenced the way authors viewed the purpose of the novel. This book also posed an interesting view of Charles Dickens’ use of the novel. Claybaugh proposes that Dickens did not view/set out to write his work as reformist until the late 1840s. Under this time frame, Oliver Twist, our debut novel that started our journey into Dickens’ universe, wouldn’t have been written to reform: “It was only in the late 1840s, after he had already written five novels, that Dickens began to identify himself publicly as a reformer, and only sometime after that he began to write in a straightforwardly reformist mode himself” (Claybaugh 52). She provides evidence for the claim that “Dickens himself did not understand these scenes [workhouse, debtor’s prison, etc.] to be reformist at the time he wrote them” by citing his prefaces to his early works. Claybaugh states that Dickens’ preface to Oliver Twist merely “defends the propriety of writing about thieves” (52) and doesn’t mention the workhouses or the slums, which modern readers view as the central aspect of reform in the novel. Claybaugh then demonstrates Dickens’ view of himself as a reformist novelist by citing his prefaces to the Cheap Editions of his novels, wherein he urges his audiences to concede that socioeconomic reform is necessary. She claims that Dickens began to view himself as a reformist after he conceived that the publication of Nicholas Nickelby, a story about the terrible conditions in Yorkshire boarding schools, led to the closing of many of these schools. He also took a more definitive role of the reformist after his tour of American schools, prisons, and slums, noting the similarities between the American and English versions of these institutions and becoming determined to change his nation’s socioeconomic atmosphere (54.)

London's book market 1700, distribution of titles according to Term Catalogue data. The poetical and fictional production does not have a unified place yet.

London’s book market 1700, distribution of titles according to Term Catalogue data. The poetical and fictional production does not have a unified place yet.



rise of the novel –

Possible discussion questions:

#1. How does Bleak House fulfill its purpose as a novel according to Frye and/or Claybough?

#2. (If the class is alright with going back to Oliver Twist) How does Claybaugh’s theory of Dickens’ purpose for writing present itself in OT and Bleak House? Explain whether or not you believe there are differences in Dickens’ writing that convey Claybaugh’s idea of Dickens’ self-perceived transformation from informer to reformist.

Blog post written by: Elizabeth Messana and Audrey Buechel

Group Members: Jenna Cecchini, Elizabeth Messana, Alexis Donahue, and Audrey Buechel

Dickens’ “Bleak House”: The Bleak State of the Victorian Legal System

 Bleak House is a novel that contains a complicated web of subplots, major characters, and minor characters; however, one main theme carried throughout the novel is the Victorian legal system, specifically the corruption of it.  The court that Dickens references in his hefty novel is the Court of Chancery, one of the two main British courts of the time.  The Court of Chancery was a court of “…equity, or property issues, rather than law and used different principles to arrive at judgments” (“Bleak House: Essay Q&A”).  Originally, this judicial court was founded around the medieval period as a branch of the King’s Council.  The other law court of England called the Court of Common Law was, at this time, seen as insufficient at providing adequate justice for the people, so the king, also referred to as the “fountain of justice”, established this new court which was allegedly supposed to be founded on principles of “conscience, morals, fairness and equality”.  Unfortunately, by Charles Dickens’ times, the judiciary system was already knee-deep in corruption and it came under scrutiny “…because of outrageous delays, moribund and inflexible rules, corruption and excessive fees.  Hence, ironically, Chancery had become the perpetrator of the judicial abuses it had been established to remedy” (Fowler).

“Michaelmas Term” is mentioned in the first sentence of chapter one and refers to one of the four times a year that the Court of Chancery is in assembly.  This period lasts from November 2 through the 25th and also referred to the times when the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were in session (“The Victorian World of Bleak House”).  Presiding over the Court of Chancery is the Lord Chancellor who resolves cases without the aid of a jury and bases his decisions solely on written evidence given to him by lawyers (Dickens 990).  The court is also composed of twelve Masters in Chancery who are essentially clerks that aid and advise the Lord Chancellor. The head of the Masters of Chancery is the Master of Rolls, sometimes known as Vice-Chancellor, who records the proceedings of the court and who is aided by six other clerks (“Court of Chancery”). The particular place where the Court of Chancery meets in the novel Bleak House is called Lincoln’s Inn Hall which is one of the four inns of courts and is located in Holborn, a region in central London.

The case taking place throughout Bleak House is titled Jarndyce and Jarndyce and it is known as a “scarecrow of a suit” which “…has, in course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means.  The parties to it understand it the least…” (Dickens 16).  Although this case is fictitious, it is believed that Dickens likely based this lawsuit on real court cases.  One case called Jennens v Jennens lasted 117 years from 1798 to 1915, meaning that this case was in its fiftieth year when Dickens published his novel.  This case dealt with a man named William Jennens who was extremely wealthy, but, when he died, his estate and wealth became a complicated debate of “who gets what” in the Court of Chancery which lasted over a century.  In the end, Jennens estate and wealth were eventually lost and depleted due to the substantial amount of lawyers’ fees it has accumulated (“William Jennens”).

Another possible case that may have inspired Dickens was a writer named Charlotte Smith who was involved in a litigation concerning her father-in-law’s estate.  This case lasted a lengthy 36 years, and, because of Smith’s inability to receive her rightful inheritance in a timely manner, Smith had a difficult time raising her seven children.  The value of the estate also decreased as the years went on for, in 1776, the property was valued to be £36,000, but, in 1792, the value decreased drastically to £20,000 (Turvey).  These two cases, with the severe injustices done in each by the Court of Chancery, would have been perfect inspiration for Dickens’ own made-up litigation of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Although we had a very hard time finding negative criticisms about Dickens’ potential exaggeration of the Courts of Chancery in Bleak House, we did discover an interesting article regarding a legal historian and his opinion on the courts.  Sir William Seare Holdsworth was a professor of English Law at Oxford University and is often considered one of the greatest historians of English Law, known for his 17 volume history of the English legal system.  In 1928, Holdsworth published a book titled Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian in which he argued that Dickens’ depiction of the courts are incredibly important for two reasons: “In the first place, they give us information which we can get nowhere else. In the second place, these pictures were painted by a man with extraordinary powers of observation, who had first hand information” (Fowler).  Holdsworth and other legal historians have cited Dickens’ experience as a clerk in a legal office, and his actual enrollment in Middle Temple (one of the legal inns that Dickens writes about in Bleak House) as a law student in 1839 as evidence of Dickens’ firsthand information about the legal system (Parker).  Furthermore, Holdsworth argued that Dickens’ illustration of the court system in Bleak House was so incredibly accurate that historians should draw upon Bleak House as a primary source when analyzing English law and legal institutions of Victorian England.

Although the original purpose of the Court of Chancery was to be a court of fairness and equity, the actual proceedings of the court were quite different.  In actuality, the excessively lengthy duration of lawsuits and the substantial amount of money it cost made the British judicial system a near laughing matter which is illustrated by the description of the court case in Bleak House: “Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke.  That is the only good that has ever come of it” (Dickens 17).  Dickens is also quite straightforward with his dislike of the British judiciary throughout Bleak House, and, in the first chapter, he gives his readers the ominous warning to “Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!” (Dickens 15).

Works Cited:

“Bleak House: Essay Q&A.” Novelguide. Novelguide, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Fowler, Russell. “A History of Chancery and Its Equity.” Tennessee Bar Journal. 25 Jan. 2012. n. pag. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“The Victorian World of Bleak House.” PBS. PBS ONLINE®, n.d. Web 16 Oct. 2014.

“Court of Chancery.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 Sep. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“William Jennens.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Turvey, Jessica. “Slim Chances in the Court of Chancery: Law in Bleak House and “The Oldest Chancery Suit in the World”.” Dickens to Elliot. 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

David Parker, ‘Dickens, the Inns of Court, and the Inns of Chancery’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010).

Harper, Fowler V. “Book Review: Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian.” Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository. Yale Law School, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“William Seares Holdsworth.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853. England: Penguin Classics, 1996. Print.


Blog post written by Rachel Campbell

Group 6 members: Rachel Campbell, John Panus, Kelsey Teglash, Nikkel Gohel, and Peter Cala

New Interpretive Question:

  • How does Dickens use the literary technique of having two distinct narrators to criticize the judicial branch of 19th century England throughout his novel? How does the criticism offered by Dickens’ third person narrator compare to the views of his other characters and the situations they are placed in?

Negative Reviews and Criticism (Or Lack Thereof) on Dickens and A Christmas Carol

Through many a vigorous search, we have found that there are very limited reviews and criticisms that reflect a negative perspective on A Christmas Carol. It is a beloved classic that doesn’t seem to lose any magic or momentum as the years progress. However, a few were found that gave some slight criticism to the novel (although they usually followed or were followed by praise). Edgar Johnson, once a Dickens biographer, stated that Dickens, “leaves his surface so entirely clear and the behavior of his characters so plain that they do not puzzle us into groping for gnomic meanings…surely all the world knows that Dickens is never profound?” (Gold 153) This is a general statement on Dickens’ work overall, but can, therefore, be applied to A Christmas Carol. Johnson is claiming that Dickens’ characters are easy to interpret, without much complication. This makes them predictable and less meaningful.

In reference to other negative criticism, there are suggestions of what general populaces think as a whole. For example, in another writing by Edgar Johnson: “There have been readers who objected to Scrooge’s conversion as too radical to be psychologically convincing” (Johnson 488). People like this criticize Scrooge’s character development, declaring it unrealistic and unbelievable. We must take note that none of these readers seemed to ever write about their thoughts on the matter, but Johnson claims that they do exist. He then goes on to say that to state such things about Scrooge’s character, “is to mistake a semi-serious fantasy for a piece of prosaic realism” (Johnson 488). Through this statement, Johnson briefly expresses his belief that such people are wrong on the subject. Edward Wagenknecht, a twentieth-century literary critic, does something similar in his book Dickens and the Scandalmongers: Essays in Criticism: “Shall we ask what Scrooge would be like if we were to follow him beyond the frame of the story? Unquestionably he would relapse when the merriment was over…into moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion…if a critic finds the conversion of Scrooge unconvincing, let him say so” (Wagenknecht 116). Both Johnson and Wagenknecht leave the floor open for others to criticize, and even give possible examples of what they might say (even if they don’t necessarily agree with the statement themselves). They likely do this because of the lack of negative criticism out there on Dickens and A Christmas Carol. So many people praise him that Wagenknecht even says himself that, “Dickens, after all, has no real need of protection” (Wagenknecht 119).

Jonathan H. Grossman, an English professor at UCLA, claims that there is an “absent Jew” in a few of Dickens’ works, including A Christmas Carol: “he never constructs a Jewish character like his mimetic characters, who exist in the context of a home or a community. Unless, perhaps, ironically a Jew at home and in the community is suggested by the character Ebenezer Scrooge” (Grossman 50). Grossman goes on to express the possibility of Scrooge being Jewish and uses the first conversation between Scrooge and his nephew, Fred, as an example. Scrooge asks Fred why he got married, to which Grossman proclaims, “makes sense if Scrooge is Jewish: a Jewish uncle sees his (Jewish) nephew’s celebration of Christmas dinner as a direct result of his marriage to a Christian” (Grossman 50). Here, he states that Scrooge may be upset at Fred’s marriage because it involved a Christian and now a Christian holiday. This is, of course, only valid if Scrooge is accepted as an originally Jewish character. The revelation of Scrooge accepting Christmas and the ideals that come with it in the end might suggest that Dickens is portraying Christianity as the more perfect religion and value system; the only belief that can really “save” a person, making the moral value of the novel almost unavailable to other religions.

Is A Christmas Carol too narrow or allegorical in its portrayal of a true Christian Christmas? Do you think that Scrooge’s personality shift throughout the novel is meant to symbolize him being “saved” in a Christian sense?

Is Dickens suggesting that, for a society to be morally good, it needs to uphold Christian values?