Reading Cure

John Sutherland

  • The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals. Vol. IV: 1824-1900 edited by Walter Houghton, Esther Rhoads Houghton and Jean Harris Slingerland
    Toronto/Routledge, 826 pp, £95.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 7102 1442 1
  • Circulation: Defoe, Dickens and the Economies of the Novel by David Trotter
    Macmillan, 148 pp, £27.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 333 40542 0
  • From Copyright to Copperfield by Alexander Welsh
    Harvard, 200 pp, £19.95, December 1987, ISBN 0 674 32342 4

The Wellesley Index originated in its founding editor Walter Houghton’s The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (1957), a manual which was influential among students of the Sixties. Houghton’s book took as its starting-point the fact of a collective Victorian mentality – a kind of public overmind. Although this Victorian mind might contain oppositions within itself (the so-called ‘Victorian debate’), it was nevertheless governed by structures of thought which, if not consensual, were in the largest sense rational and intellectual – a set of ideas articulated by a clerisy. Houghton’s book broke the Victorian mind down into its constituent parts, or ideas, under such headings as ‘Optimism’, ‘Anxiety’, ‘Hero Worship’, ‘Hypocrisy’. The dominant ideas were principally extracted from the pontifical utterances of ‘sages’, in John Holloway’s expression, like Carlyle, Mill, Ruskin, Bagehot, Froude, Huxley, Morley, Arnold.

The team-written Wellesley Index project went on from this quest to anatomise the élite Victorian mind at a lower archaeological level than that of the pre-eminent sage: its grand aim is to bring under bibliographic control the principal Victorian framers of opinion – namely, the periodicals. Higher journalism, particularly the slow-rhythmed quarterlies and monthlies, were taken by Houghton as the medium in which Victorian ideas were formed and circulated. What we see in them is the Victorian mind in the act of thinking. Houghton’s project is now completed, the Index having covered 43 ‘representative ... high-quality’ periodicals, listed their dates of issue, tables of contents and hundreds of contributors. All that now remains to be done is a fifth-volume index to the Index.

The Wellesley Index represents a massive effort of collective scholarship in a field – literary history – where scholars are much happier devoting themselves to ‘my research’ than to ‘our research’. The work has largely been done by self-effacing individuals who do not appear on the volumes’ title pages but get their obscure billing in the cluttered text of the preface. Nor was their work mere catalogue drudgery. Most of the journals carried unsigned articles, and the task of cracking the codes of Victorian anonymity required skill, and inwardness with the period’s intellectual milieu. An 87 per cent success rate is claimed. These attributions (any one of which would furnish a neat little article for Notes and Queries) add a new dimension of usefulness to such periodicals as the Edinburgh Review and that previously impenetrable thicket, Fraser’s Magazine. The Index’s 43 entries are headed by descriptive notes which, if collected, would in themselves comprise the most thorough survey ever written of British higher journalism. Above all, the Index has been put together to tighter standards of scholarly accuracy than any comparable guide. All reference works contain errors, but anyone who has worked with it will agree that the Wellesley Index has abnormally few. Moreover, with extraordinary scrupulousness, the Index has corrected itself as it went along. Thus Volume IV contains as its appendix a 60-page list of corrections and amendments to the first three volumes. (This exhausting commitment to refining earlier work is cited in the introduction as one of the reasons why the Index will not be continued beyond Volume V.)

The Wellesley Index stands as a worthy monument to its founder and general editor, Walter Houghton, who died suddenly in 1983, during the preparation of Volume IV. It is certainly ambitious. But any product which takes two decades will inevitably be finished in a condition of anachronism. What the earlier period thought was needed is not necessarily what the later period finds it actually needs. And one of the main differences between then (1966) and now (1988) is the sense we have of the significance of Victorian ‘ideas’. For Houghton, they represented a master-plan – the age’s articulate consciousness. Victorian thinkers stood in relationship to Victorian culture as architect to structure. A venture like the Wellesley Index would thus lay down the royal road to knowing Victorian civilisation.

To be blunt, Houghton probably overrated the Victorian intellectual élite as makers of Victorian civilisation. This is evident when one looks at the important journals left out of the Index’s account. Alexander Strahan’s Contemporary Review and Nineteenth Century naturally find central places as founts of Victorian Liberalism. But Strahan’s Good Words and its stable of offshoot publications are missing from the Index. As Patricia Srebrnik’s recent biography of Strahan argues, Good Words was as formative a Victorian periodical as any. What the ingenious Strahan did was to package ‘entertaining’ material – notably illustrated fiction – in such a way that it could decently be consumed by the Evangelical readership of the age. The result was a monthly which at its peak in 1864 was selling 160,000, or about twice what the Cornhill managed (Wellesley Index, Volume I), and with almost as distinguished a panel of contributors. With its crude Sabbatarian address to the lower-middle-brow and juvenile reader, Good Words was felt to be beneath the notice of the Index – which can nonetheless find space for such Oxford University fringe publications as the short-lived and minutely circulated Dark Blue (1871-73). A similar mandarin prejudice probably accounts for the absence of Strahan’s fiction-centred Argosy or any of the myriad popular publications, such as Belgravia and St James’s Magazine, spawned by John Maxwell, or the vulgar publisher William Tinsley’s Tinsley’s Magazine, in which Thomas Hardy had his first success with the serial of A Pair of Blue Eyes. (Houghton’s explanation for not indexing these three journals is revealing: ‘they consist primarily of fiction, and fiction seems sufficiently represented.’) At times, the Index’s predilection for the austerely intellectual verges on puritanism. The New Monthly Magazine, for instance, is covered only from 1821 to 1854. The periodical did not cease publication in 1854, however: it continued for another thirty years. (Or about fifteen times Dark Blue’s life-span.) What happened was that in 1854 the New Monthly went downmarket and ceased to be a ‘quality’ magazine. It was not, even so, a negligible journal after that date. Its editor W.H. Ainsworth, for example, published Ouida’s first stories in its pages.

One suspects that similar thinking led the planners of the Index to overlook the Monthly Packet. Charlotte Yonge’s adjunct to Sunday School tuition was immensely influential in Victorian middle-class homes: but because it lacks intellectual fibre, it is not a ‘Victorian Periodical’. Indeed, most magazines with a religious mission are excluded, giving the odd impression that Victorian England was as secular a culture as Soviet Russia. Only a few titles like the aridly intellectual Theological Review find a place in the Index. Missing among many others (some of which had been promised by Houghton) are the Eclectic Review, the Month, the Christian Remembrancer. Also missing are comic publications (such as Hood’s Magazine or the Idler); women’s magazines (the Victoria Magazine, Women’s World); children’s journals and semi-annuals; artisans’ self-improving magazines; and pornography.

Even in those periodicals it covers, the Index’s conception of magazines as nothing more than vehicles for prosaic ideas can be limiting. The first entry in Volume IV is on Bentley’s Miscellany: the magazine’s articles are scrupulously attributed and annotated (no easy task, since, as usual, the periodical was anonymous), but no attempt has been made to list the illustrators who constituted a main element in the Miscellany’s miscellaneous appeal to the 1837 reader. Thus for the Wellesley Index George Cruikshank played no part in the periodical’s early success – which is, of course, absurd. In its coverage of illustrated periodicals (Ainsworth’s, Cornhill, Bentley’s, St Pauls) the Wellesley Index is defective in a way that it need not have been. Poetry is similarly overlooked. This is reasonably enough explained by the ‘enormous number of worthless items ... and obscure authors’ it would involve: but it does seem perverse not to mention Tennyson’s or Christina Rossetti’s substantial verse contributions to the early numbers of Macmillan’s.

Its blindness to illustration and indifference to the physical characteristics of periodicals (retail price, page format, cover design) is one shortcoming in the Index’s tabulations. Another is the exclusive imposition of ‘Victorian’ as a chronological limiter. Chronological, but not logical: ‘Victorian’ is eccentrically defined as 1824-1900, 1824 being the date of the first issue of the Westminster Review. Since this was Houghton’s Victorian periodical par excellence, the period was stretched to fit it. But this one elasticity is outweighed by a dozen Procrustean cuts. It is irritating, for instance, that annotation of Longman’s Magazine (1882-1905) in the fourth volume stops dead with the December 1900 issue, leaving the serialisation of two novels hanging. Surely the terminal date could have been relaxed for the final half-decade (or for the final seven years in the case of Macmillan’s Magazine, which wound up in 1907)? It is positively infuriating that Blackwood’s (Volume 1), which started in 1817, should be covered only from 1824. The Index’s application of ‘Victorian’ becomes a conceptual strait-jacket producing eccentric start-ups and cut-offs. And it implies, misleadingly, that Victorianism as such was a neatly separable cultural thing without roots or after-life.

More damagingly for its full portrait of the age, the 1890s, as far as the Index is concerned, are a grey area in which intrinsically Victorian journals are lost because of their inconvenient overlap into the 20th century. Newnes’s Strand Magazine (begun in 1891) was the best-selling illustrated monthly of the century, and featured a galaxy of major Victorian fiction and non-fiction writers (and illustrators). By any standard, it is a major periodical, arguably the Victorian periodical. But the Strand is ignored by the Index. There is no entry on John Lane’s Yellow Book, or Smithers’s Savoy.

Two questions pose themselves with the conclusion of such a masssive team effort. First, will the resource be used? As early as 1973 (with two volumes completed), the MLA Guide to Research in Victorian Prose noted that ‘this essential work is obviously not being consulted.’ The Index’s basic contention that the Victorian age was principally to be understood through the voluminous commentaries of its own intelligentsia has become unfashionable. The 1970s and 1980s have generally chosen to understand the Victorians more economically, using the alien and anachronistic insights afforded by Freud, Bakhtin and Foucault. The huge accretion of contemporary materials which the Index has put in order for us remains, one suspects, largely undisturbed. It is certainly not the gateway through which every scholar enters the subject – which is what Houghton had in mind.

The second question is more in the nature of a puzzle or a conundrum. Every year, as the academic industry grinds on, we seem to know more about the Victorians and their age. Theses and monographs multiply. Works like the Wellesley Index come to fruition. The 19th-century section of the annual MLA Bibliography is ever fatter and is now available on disk. All of which suggests that the store of public-domain knowledge about the Victorians is enlarging. And if the scholars keep grinding away, at some millennial future point we shall know everything. Shan’t we?

Put another way, would you, given H.G. Wells’s time machine, go backwards to 1851 – the real ‘then’ – or forward to that distant point when the last, culminating thesis is successfully examined? The truth is, of course, that with every year that passes, we know less about the Victorians and become more and more like Craig Raine’s Martians in our interpretation of the period. Every cobble street that is taken up, every railway station that is modernised, every VR post-box that is ripped out removes us physically and our sense of Victorian England becomes fainter. Not to be Betjemanesque about it, I feel I know Victorian England because I can remember steam trains, horse-drawn commercial vehicles, the smells of pre-refrigerated grocers and blacksmiths’ forges. My grandmother would sup her tea from the saucer with the complacent observation that ‘Queen Victoria did it’ – ‘does it,’ she must once have said.

Our academic conquest of the Victorian age is probably a poor substitute for the fading physical contact which, until quite recently, England remarkably preserved. Increasingly, the country resembles its planned future rather than its historical past. There is exemplary and rather touching anecdote in Nancy Armstrong’s Foucauldian Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987):

On my way to the annual Brontë conference at the University of Leeds in 1981, I decided to test a hypothesis. The conference that year was concerned with the Brontës’ relationship to their historical context. In writing my own paper for the event, I had already grown dissatisfied with answers that posed the question of context and text in terms of the conventional model of base and superstructure. Ready to be convinced the Brontës were somehow part of the history of England rather than self-enclosed neurotics or socially-aware writers who addressed topical issues, I tried an experiment. I asked my cab driver what he considered to be the most important event of 1848. With an air of absolute certainty, he told me: ‘The death of Emily Brontë.’

It’s not an entirely plausible episode. One’s first thought is that some enterprising PhD student must have been moonlighting; or that ‘the knowledge’ must be an even more daunting exam in the West Riding than in London. (‘Right, give me the quickest rush hour route from the Marketplace to the Town Hall and the principal reasons for supposing that Branwell had no hand in the Gondal Saga.’) But assuming that the ‘cabbie’, as Armstrong insists on calling him, really knew about the Brontës from plying the twenty-odd miles between Leeds and Haworth, how does his historically and locally-rooted knowledge (which was presumably of Brontean places and things rather than texts) compare with that of the expert, the professor flying in for a few days from Wayne State University to confer and exchange ‘papers’ with other footloose professors? There seems to be an ‘only connect’ issue somewhere here.

David Trotter’s book begins with the word ‘perhaps’. It echoes in the mind for a while. He contends that in the fiction of Defoe and Dickens the metaphor of circulation of the blood, as proposed by William Harvey in 1616, marries with the metaphor of money circulation. The resulting physical-economic idea has for these two imaginative writers a force ‘equivalent to the great religious and political systems’. Circulation as the condition of health contrasts with stagnation as disease. Britain, as anatomised by Defoe, becomes a ‘formatted space’ (Trotter here draws his metaphor more topically from the computer). Within the format’s ‘grid’ (a Thirtyish electrification metaphor) are slums, swamps, agricultural wastes, ‘impenetrable zones’, gaps in the format, which obstruct the proper flow of trade.

Trotter gleans Defoe’s non-fiction writing for the keyword and establishes that the author was indeed obsessed with circulation as an intellectual concept. Dickens is slightly trickier. He didn’t much talk about circulation as such, and forging the link requires some diving into pathology and what used to be called imagery. Trotter’s own critical language becomes more coloured when he writes about Dickens. Dickens, he asserts, ‘thrilled to the idea of a tumour secreting from the nation’s commercial bloodstream. His banks and offices usually contain a decaying functionary or a clogged inner recess.’ He was engrossed by ‘semantic stoppage’, the occlusion of signs, ‘opacity’ and secrecy; ‘the metaphor of circulation which had catalysed his imagining of social process made unintelligibility (or mystery) an object of compelling horror.’ Dickens could never keep himself away from the arrests and obstructions he loathed.

The Defoe-Dickens yoking is unusual and stimulating, and all the more so in the stark binary form in which Trotter presents it. He has never been one to clutter up his criticism with context, background or merely connective literary history. The book ends almost as if the writer had been struck by lightning in mid-paragraph while writing about Our Mutual Friend. The idea of ‘medical police’, Trotter argues, which energised Dickens’s earlier (but not his earliest) fiction is exhausted with this penultimate text. Had the progress of history exhausted it, or was it no longer potent for this one author? What happens to the idea of circulation from the later 19th century onwards? Trotter leaves us to work that out for ourselves.

The term ‘medical police’ and the dominant play with ‘body’ indicate some influence from Foucault. Elsewhere (in the manner of Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton) Trotter honours his Cambridge origins by re-tracing Leavis’s Great Tradition, in terms of the puritan ‘technique of self’. But the value of Circulation is less its schemes than its many incidental illuminations of text and authorial mind. Typically, these complicate rather than simplify response. Trotter’s Robinson Crusoe is not the familiar homo economicus with the added circulation twist. He is a comically incompetent colonist. The ‘circuit of exchanges’ frames Crusoe’s life, but his impulses ‘defy economy’. If – as I think few do – we read beyond the famous early chapters of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures to the Farther Adventures, Crusoe emerges less as Watt’s exemplar of capitalist individualism than ‘a mad rambling boy’ in constant chase of his own character.

Trotter’s reading of Dickens strikes me as less oppositional. As with Defoe, he draws on the non-fiction to confirm Dickens’s relish for free trade (against the ‘stagnation’ of China), his approval of education as the diffusion of knowledge, his hatred of Sabbatarianism as social constipation and his fascination with the new currencies of the Penny Post and the Electric Telegraph. He gives a fresh spin to all this, but none of it has the force of revelation. What is strikingly new is the demonstration that underneath Dickens’s modernity of attitude is a wholly archaic idea of the social body. Dickens in 1850 writing in protest at a proposed closure of post offices is caught by Trotter sounding like Falstaff on sherris-sack: ‘the stoppage of Monday’s Post Delivery in London would stop, for many precious hours, the natural flow of blood from every vein and artery in the world, and its return from the heart through all tributary channels.’ One is led to wonder whether Dickens’s sensibility could have stood the strain of the electronic circulations of the fax machine, the computer net or the communications satellite.

Alexander Welsh’s latest book confidently begins with the declaration that ‘almost too much is known about Dickens.’ Nor will his study add to that almost too much: he ‘offers no facts about the novelist that are strictly speaking new’. Instead, using Freud as his winkling pin, Welsh extracts major significances from the smallest deeply-buried clues in Dickens’s life and works. His ingenious method is demonstrated in the second chapter, ‘Our English Tartuffe’. Welsh begins with typical indirectness by analysing not Dickens but a sly reference in Freud’s Introductory Lectures where the master seems by veiled allusion to Le Médécin malgré lui to indict himself as a quack. Welsh then moves to an examination of Martin Chuzzlewit as both a rewriting of Tartuffe and Dickens’s buried admission of his own hypocrisy. As Welsh candidly admits, the primary evidence for doing this is slim. Some twenty-five years after the novel was written, Forster labelled Pecksniff ‘our English Tartuffe’, and in an illustration to the last number of the serialised text, Phiz inserted, among the clutter of Pecksniff’s room (where he is being caned by old Martin), two volumes with just visible titles, Paradise Lost and Tartuffe.

On this somewhat sandy foundation (Tartuffe was probably Phiz’s unaided inspiration), Welsh goes on to decipher the ‘secret’ text of Chuzzlewit. Picking up another ‘open hint’ in Phiz’s frontispiece, he discerns a ‘special connection’ between Tom Pinch and the author. This is clinched by age references. Although in the printed text Pinch is said to be 35 years old, in the manuscript Dickens wrote and deleted ‘32’ – his own age! (For the Freudian critic, the suppression of this giveaway detail is particularly telling.) At the same time, and by similar tweezing, Welsh uncovers a ‘symbiosis’ between Pecksniff and Pinch. This means Dickens is also specially connected to Pecksniff, a connection which Welsh hammers home by an enlarged detail from Phiz reproduced on From Copyright to Copperfield’s, jacket and title-page. It shows Pecksniff admiring himself in a double mirror and standing on a volume entitled ‘Autobiography’. Lest we miss the point, the jacket editor inserts ‘the Identity of Dickens’ at that place in the mirror where Pecksniff is complacently gazing.

In between finding Dickens here, there and everywhere Welsh dabbles in some not altogether convincing critical play with Pecksniff and sniffing or pinching peckers which rather founders on the inconvenient etymological fact that ‘pecker’ meaning ‘prick’ is a modern American rather than a Victorian English usage. But this is an incidental skirmish. By the end of the second chapter, Welsh has assembled his main argument that Martin Chuzzlewit is secretly a text about hypocrisy, that Pinch is ‘a projection of the author’ and that Pinch is, otherwise, a projection of Pecksniff, who is also a projection of Dickens. With its unconscious transformed to conscious by the magic of the critic, the novel is thus unmasked as a confession of his own selfishness and his uneasiness about this trait.

This is symptomatic reading with a vengeance. And the Chuzzlewit chapter is the prelude to a larger analysis centring on Dickens’s trip to America in 1840. Welsh reads Dickens’s experiences there as primal. The baffled feeling of being universally loved in his person yet having his dearest property (in an artistic sense ‘himself’) stolen wholesale by default of international copyright protection constituted a psychic crisis as powerful as anything that occurred earlier in Warren’s blacking warehouse – which, incidentally, Welsh thinks critics have made far too much of. America, Welsh argues, is the epitome of Victorianism: a culture which ‘persistently reproves selfishness and rewards the selfish’. Understand the complex ‘selfishness’ (sense of self, avarice) America induced in Dickens and you have the key to all his later fiction.

In the body of his book, Welsh sets off on an extended detective chase, hunting down the elusive ‘real’ Dickens through the long expanses of his 1840s fiction, listening for every dog that doesn’t bark, probing the texts for every parapraxis, every overdetermination, resistance and psychic latency. Chapter Four discovers Paradise Lost embedded deep and paradoxically in Chuzzlewit (of course, that other Phiz allusion could not be let lie). There follows ‘Dickens as Dombey’ and its piggyback ‘Dombey as King Lear’. In the first, Welsh pursues the ‘egocentric’ line of argument by which Dickens is taken to project himself onto his main characters. The King Lear consciousness which permeates Dombey serves a double purpose: it defines that novel as a fable of the tragic fall, just as Paradise Lost defined Chuzzlewit as comic fall. But the Shakespearean allusion is more pronounced than the Miltonic, and proclaims Dickens’s own growing sense of his literary greatness. This self-confidence is consummated in Copperfield, a frankly autobiographical novel in which assimilation of author, hero and novelist is manifest, conscious, resolved and openly declared. All this is spelled out in a chapter entitled ‘Young Man Copperfield’. The allusion is to Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther.

Dickens’s maturity, which began with the copyright (or ‘selfishness’) crisis of 1842, ends with Copperfield, Dickens’s book of himself. The formative wounds were inflicted, not on the south bank of the Thames when the author was 12, but on the Eastern seaboard of America when he was 30. Psychic health (in the form of self-knowledge) and artistic mastery coincide in 1849. It was at this moment in his life, Welsh speculates, that Dickens ‘discovered or decided that his experience in the blacking house was traumatic.’ The resolution of a later life-crisis enabled him to understand the nature of an earlier. Art was one consequence; therapy another. And Dickens’s self-discoveries are therapeutic not merely for himself, but for us as well. In the last sentence of the book, Welsh makes the pairing which elevates Dickens from universal author to universal healer: ‘Some “altered knowledge” is what we all desire for ourselves but are usually forced to borrow from someone like Dickens or Freud.’ The novels, that is to say, offer a reading cure.