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.


Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel


rise of the novel – http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=PmwfH7X-IKAC&oi=fnd&pg=PA7&dq=%22rise+of+the+novel%22&ots=FVZlTnaNnn&sig=lFMlfizqhwkcxfAq8ihVbr6OGBU#v=onepage&q=%22rise%20of%20the%20novel%22&f=false

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. http://www.novelguide.com/bleak-house/essay-questions. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Fowler, Russell. “A History of Chancery and Its Equity.” Tennessee Bar Journal. 25 Jan. 2012. n. pag. http://www.tba.org/journal/a-history-of-chancery-and-its-equity. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“The Victorian World of Bleak House.” PBS. PBS ONLINE®, n.d. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/bleakhouse/dickens_victorian.html. Web 16 Oct. 2014.

“Court of Chancery.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 Sep. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court_of_Chancery. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“William Jennens.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Apr. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Jennens. 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. https://dickenstoeliot.wordpress.com/tag/charlotte-smith/. 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?

Malthusian Malpractice of the Socioeconomic Status of Poor People

Jerry Bowyer wrote the article “Malthus and Scrooge: How Charles Dickens Put A Holly Branch Through The Heart Of The Worst Economics Ever” which examined Malthusian economic theory of Victorian England as seen through the lens of A Christmas Carol. While everything Bowyer mentions is true, we feel it is also important to recognize the religious aspects of Malthus’ theory and how these coincide with his views on population control.

Malthus theorizes that God created poverty so that people will not succumb to greed and help each other out. He thought that starvation was God’s test to see if you were a good moral person: if you are strong enough you will survive, and if not, society should not interfere with God’s will. On the flip side of the coin, it was thought that the upper class’s personal wealth and luxuries reflected their strong religious and moral standing.

An obvious connection of Malthus’ theory is to Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest.” Darwin’s Origin of Species was heavily influenced by Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population. The irony of this lies in the Church’s later denunciation of Darwin’s work, despite the fact that its inspiration was drawn from the writings of a reverend.

Looking at his theory objectively, we feel that Malthus’ ideology was derived from the need of a religious explanation for the poor economic conditions of the time. This method not only provided an explanation for the aforementioned social issues, but also absolved the upper class of any responsibility for maintaining the health and safety of the lower classes. For this reason, the upper class was Malthus’ primary source of support. However it is worth noting that Malthus was heavily critical of the Poor Laws, claiming that they limited mobility of labor and provided lower classes with too much comfort. According to Malthus, workhouses were not harsh enough to galvanize the poor to rise above their situation.

Despite Malthus’ generally assoholic nature, he was willing to financially support children of the lower class by means of small allowances. In addition, he also showed great interest in what we now call the Industrial Revolution, however he feared that any technological advancements could not keep up with the increasing population.

Discussion Question: Malthusian economic theory is mentioned and criticized by Dickens in A Christmas Carol through Scrooge’s initial disregard for the fate of the “surplus population.” How does the religious aspect of Malthus’ views (that God created tough situations to test one’s morality) relate to and contrast with Dickens’ views on religion and its role during the Christmas season?

Discussion Question: In A Christmas Carol, Dickens creates a narrator who has a certain stance towards or outlook on the world, whose narration projects certain values and a certain disposition towards humanity. The narrator’s purpose in telling the story, one might say, is to promote that stance or outlook, those values, that disposition — and to discredit the very different outlook, values, disposition embodied in Scrooge. What words best characterize these opposing outlooks, values, and dispositions? How are the narrator’s outlook-values-disposition embodied in his narration? How are Scrooge’s embodied in his words and actions?

The Influence of A Christmas Carol on how Christmas Has Come to be Understood

Christmas is a holiday that people all around the world are familiar with, and take joy in celebrating each year. However, the Christmas that we know and love today was not always centered on the same ideas and principles that we are so well accustomed to. With the publication of Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, came the introduction of new customs and traditions. Dickens shifted the focus from one of community-based activities to being much more family-centered, and more specifically, child-friendly. As noted from our reading of Oliver Twist, as well as A Christmas Carol, it is evident that the welfare of children was an issue near and dear to Dickens’ heart. Along the same lines of child welfare, the welfare of the poor was also an equally important issue to Dickens. His concern with these issues can be seen most prominently in A Christmas Carol, in which he popularized the idea of the “spirit of Christmas” and the need for generosity throughout the year, rather than exclusively reserved for just one day of the holiday season; the association between Christmas and the spirit of giving is most obvious played out in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, whose transition from mean-spirited to generous is charted by the appearances of each of the ghosts.

With the arrival of A Christmas Carol in the literary world came a new definition and meaning to what Christmas should be. Dickens was a strong advocate for the poor and disadvantaged. Through his writings he let out his frustrations over the manner in which the impoverished were treated, and the conditions in which they worked and lived. The scenes in which he depicted this level of suffering inspired him to reconstruct the holiday of Christmas to focus primarily on those who dearly needed the generosity that came with the holiday season; the need to appreciate family, friends, and life, no matter how much, or how little people had. This reinterpretation of the true meaning of Christmas is evident in the scene that depicts the Cratchit’s Christmas as seen by Scrooge when he visits with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Dickens writes, “They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time…” (Dickens 108). Here, Dickens brings forth the idea that Christmas is a time to simply enjoy the presence of loved ones and forget one’s troubles – at least for that day. It is obvious to the readers that the Cratchits have very little, but by simply observing their actions one would not know this. Instead, they embody the spirit of Christmas that Dickens was such a proponent of. That is, one of joyfulness, good cheer and appreciation for those you love most.

However, Dickens is not referred to as “the father of Christmas” simply because of the ideas and concepts he revitalized with the holiday. Rather, it also has to do with the cultural aspects that he brought back into play, such as sending Christmas cards and caroling at people’s doors. Dickens also created the “scene” that one may call to mind when picturing the ideal Christmas. This scene may include, but is not limited to, large spreads of indulgent foods (replacing the often bony Christmas goose with a plump turkey), Christmas trees and the giving of gifts, normally only to children.

It is interesting to investigate just how much the publication of A Christmas Carol impacted Christmases to come all over the world. One must wonder just how many of these traditions and ideas would still be practiced had it not been for Dickens making his way onto the scene, both with his writing and his activism for the poor and disadvantaged. Perhaps naming him “Father Christmas” is more accurate than we think.

Blog post by: Alyssa Knott

Group Members: Maxwell Garnatt, McKenna Miller, Nivedita Rajan, Hannah Sugarman

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles, and Michael Patrick. Hearn. The Annotated Christmas Carol: A Christmas Carol. New York: C.N. Potter, 1976. Print.

“Dickens “the Man Who Invented Christmas.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. Ed. Phillip V. Allingham. N.p., 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Hudson, Alex. “Charles Dickens: Six Things He Gave the Modern World.” BBC News. BBC News Magazine, 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Perdue, David. “Dickens & Christmas.” David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Pold, Tom. “Fathering Christmas: Charles Dickens and the (Re)Birth of Christmas.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. N.p., 14 Dec. 2009 Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Discussion Question

What role do the children in the story, and the vision of childhood that the story incorporates, play in shaping the vision of Christmas that Dickens intends for us to have?






Questions to ask about Oliver Twist

In ENGL 458 this coming week, we’ll be working together on generating a good thesis for a first paper.

We’ll begin on Monday by looking at some draft thesis statements you’ll have produced and shared with your classmates in Google Drive.

As you draft a thesis statement, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Your statement should have a “They say/I say” structure.
  • “They say” should come before “I say.”
  • You should be able to identify whether the form of your thesis is “Disagree, with reasons,” “Agree, but with a difference,” or “Agree and disagree” (aka, “Okay, but…”).
  • You should be able to explain why a reader should care about your thesis.
  • You shouldn’t try to draft your thesis statement without consulting the templates in Graff and Birkenstein.
  • Your “they say” can be a position taken in a source we’ve discussed in class, a position taken by an individual or group in the class, a hypothetical position, or a position you yourself took before changing your mind.
  • If your “they say” is a hypothetical position, it should also be a plausible one, not a “straw man” (i.e., a position that no one would likely hold in reality).

In addition, here are some questions you might ask yourself about Oliver Twist. They’re intended merely to get you thinking. Don’t approach them as questions with right or wrong answers, and whatever you do, don’t frame your thesis as an answer to one of them! Instead, frame your thesis as an “I say” to a real or possible “They say.”

  • How would you characterize the moral “stance” or “outlook” of the implied author? What adjectives best describe the moral qualities he wants you to believe are his?
  • How would you characterize the implied reader of the novel? What adjectives best describe the kind of person that the narrator seems to want you to believe you are?
  • How does the narrator attempt to appeal to/persuade that reader? Is there more than one way? If so, how do they differ?
  • What role do the implied author and reader play in the novel’s strategy or strategies of persuasion?
  • What is the implied author’s view of particular questions that bear on moral judgment, such as the relationship between individual character and circumstance?
  • Is it possible to think of the implied author himself as “entering a conversation” that his readers will recognize as important? If so, what has the implied author said (directly or by implication) about why his readers should care about Oliver’s story? What is the “They say” to which the narrative of Oliver is an “I say”?
  • Are there any conflicts or inconsistencies in the implied author’s moral stance or his “I say”?
  • How would you characterize the implied genre of the work? (Examples might be comic novel, social satire, realistic novel, allegory.) Are there any conflicts or inconsistencies in the book’s self-presentation? If so, do these affect the consistency or inconsistency of the implied author’s moral stance or outlook? Do they affect how we understand and respond to Oliver’s story?

Finally, remember that Robert L. Patten’s discussion of Oliver Twist‘s historical context (especially its publication history) is full of interesting and important information that can jump start your thinking.

Dickens’ Contemporary Critics and the Social Discussion of the New Poor Law and Workhouses

The overwhelming popularity which greeted Dickens’ Oliver Twist in 1838 may elicit the belief that all readers reacted with similar admiration and enthusiasm; however, in light of the ongoing debate surrounding the New Poor Law, nothing could be farther from the truth. Dickens’ shocking representation of the unbearable conditions in the workhouses became both a means to advocate social reform, and a subject of derision to those who opposed the ascent of the lower class, making Oliver Twist an axis for controversy.

Those reviews which applaud Oliver Twist commend Dickens for his realism and honesty in the novel’s reflection of Victorian society, as well as for his incomparable ability to create consistently lifelike characters. John Forster insists, “…the absolute truth and precision of its delineation are not to be disputed. And truly, where the object of a writer is exact description, the characteristics of humanity…Indeed we wish that all history were written in the spirit of Oliver Twist’s history.” (Norton 399) Forster very decidedly uses the term history in discussing Oliver’s tale, even going so far as to claim, “In his writing we find reality,” to emphasize his belief in the absolute truth of Oliver’s experience. (Norton 400)

The Literary Gazette showers Dickens with praise for his morally motivated exposure of the workhouse conditions, “[Dickens] has dug deep into the human mind; and he has nobly directed his energies to the exposure of evils—the workhouse, the starving school, the factory system, and many other things, at which blessed nature shudder and recoiled.” Astonished and gratified by Dickens’ moral contributions, the Gazette goes on to declare, “As a moralist and reformer of cruel abuses…long may he live to increase our debt of gratitude!”(Norton, 402) Many readers, especially those most familiar with the workhouses and the lives of the poor, shared in this fervent sentiment.

But some are not so easily convinced of Dickens’ honesty, or choose not to be. Richard Ford, perhaps one of Dickens’ most vehement critics, adopts the staunch position that Dickens’ representation of the New Poor Law is grossly exaggerated and even dishonestly concocted in order to stir political action. Ford alleges, “The abuses which he ridicules are not only exaggerated, but in nineteen cases out of twenty do not at all exist.” (Norton 407) He asserts that the workhouses and their proprietors are being attacked by Dickens, “and in our opinion with much unfairness.” Ford uses the phrase “our opinion” because he identifies with the upper class, which is arguably responsible for the abuse of the poor, and therefore more than willing to sweep the issue under the rug entirely. Ford’s rebuttal should be interpreted with the knowledge that his position in society was one of considerable status, being the son of a parliament member and son-in-law to the Earl of Essex; his social position would have made it all too tempting to turn a blind eye towards that least appealing section of the social strata.

Dickens was not deterred in the slightest by adverse response; in fact, he chose to turn these reactions to his advantage, using them to validate the importance of the tale. In the preface of the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist, Dickens responds to his critics, “I am glad to have it doubted, for in that circumstance I find sufficient assurance that it needed to be told.” (Norton 7) Nearly a decade later, Dickens claimed another opportunity to address his opposition directly. In the preface of the 1850 publication, or “cheap edition” of Oliver Twist, he writes, “Eleven or twelve years have elapsed, since the description was first published. I was as convinced then, as I am now, that nothing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor in England, until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome.” (Preface) This edition was released at a lower cost than previous editions in order to reach a wider audience. Dickens clearly wanted Oliver Twist to be read as a testimony of fact, with the intention of encouraging improvements to the living situation of the poor. These responses show that Dickens had a continuing conversation with his audience, whether they be supporters or critics, and viewed any opportunity to address them as invaluable.

Original manuscript of 1850 edition of Oliver Twist showing Dickens’ handwritten preface

The conversation surrounding the rights of the poor expanded during and following the publishing of Oliver Twist as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany. The mass of loyal readers following Dickens’ writing from the mid 1830’s onward not only created financial security for the author; but also ensured that Dickens’ moral beliefs on the subject of poverty were well known and respected by many for an extended period of time. These same readers in the next few years made up the population which was driving a Victorian political action known as the Chartist Movement. Although it would be nearly impossible to prove a causal link between the publishing of Oliver Twist between 1837 and 1839 and the birth of Chartism in 1838, it is very reasonable to argue that the two are intertwined.

Dickens’ moral beliefs are reflected in the mantra of the Chartists, who in a national protest, fought for suffrage for the common man, as well as equal representation in the House of Commons. The movement began with the publication of “The People’s Charter” in 1838, and continued for roughly twenty years. The charter’s heading included six simple demands for the House of Commons: universal suffrage (for men of course), that no property qualifications would be required to vote, annually elected parliaments, equal representation according to population in each district, payment of the members of parliament (that working men may hold an office), and voting to be conducted by secret ballot in order to eliminate the coercion of voters. (People’s Charter) These goals were intended to give the working and lower classes a voice in the society which seemed so bent on their suppression, an ambition which Dickens no doubt supported.

Despite Dickens’ surging popularity, his commentary and criticism of the New Poor Law drew both praise and derision from his contemporaries, as seen in a number of prominent literary publications such as The Examiner and The Quarterly Review. While Oliver Twist may not have had a tangible, immediate effect on working class living conditions, it provided the impetus for discussion among prominent public figures. Dickens instigated a discussion which would continue for several decades, and eventually lead, however indirectly, to meaningful changes in the everyday lives of the English poor.

Blog Post By: Hannah Glaser

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

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles, Fred Kaplan, John Forster, and Richard Ford. Oliver Twist: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Early Reviews, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Print.

Dickens, Charles. “Preface to the ‘Cheap Edition’ of Oliver Twist.” Preface to the ‘Cheap Edition’ of Oliver Twist. British Library Board, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2014. http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/dickens/campaigning/manuscript/olivertwist.html

“The People’s Charter.” The People’s Charter. British Library Board, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2014. http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/struggle/chartists1/historicalsources/source4/peoplescharter.html

Discussion Question

What can we say about the moral stance in Oliver Twist based on how the moral situations, decisions, and statements that we see among the characters are presented to the reader?

Social class and the impact of the poor law

The novel Oliver Twist is a vivid illustration of the literary connections that can be drawn between Dickens’ writings and the surrounding sociopolitical issues of his time; more importantly what some might speculate to be the driving force behind the very works themselves. One law specifically, the New Poor Law of 1834, irrevocably marred the already grim atmosphere that engulfed a poverty-stricken England in the 19th century. The middle and upper classes denounced the system of relief that was in place for the poor at the time, as, they believed, they were merely creating or perpetuating the cycle of further stagnancy amongst the lower classes, encouraging them to continue to avoid work rather than seek it. Despite the fact that these were mere speculations from the upper class, once the New Poor Law was established due to the complaints in 1834, over 500 workhouses were built throughout the course of the next 50 years, wherein the conditions were so deliberately horrendous that only those desperate enough to leave their homes and voluntarily enter the workhouses to receive help would—but they were far and few between. Therefore, many of those that genuinely required assistance, opted out of the only option available to them via the workhouses, because they refused to subject themselves to an even harsher setting then the ones they were already well accustomed to. Dickens’, like many others at the time, was repulsed by the enactment of the New Poor Law and first published his monthly installments of Oliver Twist in an attempt to portray the new relief system’s treatment of a child innocent of fault born and raised in the workhouse system. Dickens’ essentially paints Oliver as a “child of the workhouse” with no consolation or nourishment available to him—much like the empty system in place that set out to operate efficiently and charitably, of which it did neither. In Chapter I, titled “Treats of the Place Where Oliver Twist Was Born; And of the Circumstances Attending His Birth”, he immediately adopts a both a satirical tone and stance towards the workhouse when he refers to being born in one as, “in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being,” (Norton, 17). Given the description of the circumstances surrounding Oliver’s birth, it seems anything but fortuitous or what anyone would consider worth “envying”. The doctor who helped Oliver’s (nameless) mother through labor just before she passes away “talk[s] of hope and comfort,” the narrator recounts, who, “had been strangers [for] too long,” (Norton, 18). In this opening scene, both Oliver and his mother are emblematic figures of those affected by the poor laws of 19th century England, as, they are strangers to a world where any hope or comfort resides, further underscoring Dickens’ emphasis toward the newly implemented law’s lack of efficiency and charity. Furthermore, with his mother now gone and no “female in the ‘house’ who was in a situation to impart to Oliver twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need” (Norton, 19), not only is hope and consolation inaccessible to him, but what was to be his sole source of nourishment, too. As a pale and thin child of the workhouse, “diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference” (Norton, 19), such a description illustrates the fact that this ‘system’ does not provide the appropriate climate through which anyone brought up in it can thrive and flourish—Oliver being a chief example of this, as both a literally and figuratively undernourished child of the English workhouse.

Online Post by: Audrey Buechel

Researchers: Lizzie Messana, Jenna Cecchini, Alexis Donahue, Amanda Trantel

Discussion Question:

How does Dickens say what he wants to say about the new poor law in such a way as to make it appeal to a wide audience (across social classes)?


Introducing Nineteenth-Century Studies at SUNY Geneseo

Nineteenth-Century Studies is a space for students and faculty to explore all aspects of the long nineteenth century in England, the United States, and the rest of the globe.

It’s part of the English @ SUNY Geneseo network of sites, all of which are designed to build communities of interest, and bridges among those communities, within the larger community that is SUNY Geneseo.

There are lots of ways to use this site: for example, to share links, images, and video that you find on the web related to the long nineteenth century; to share reading suggests or ruminate on what you’ve been reading; to engage in conversation about texts assigned in courses at SUNY Geneseo.

There are no special rules, but there are some guidelines. Before you get started, you should have a look at the About page.

Nineteenth-Century Studies can be a home to course pages as well as a blogging platform. For example, it’s currently the home of ENGL 458-02 Fall 2014, Major Authors: Dickens.

The more courses that come to live here, the more we can all begin to make connections among the nineteenth-century’s various writers, issues, and histories.