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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Great Britain—Social Life and Customs
National Characteristics; Nationalism
Social classes; Class distinctions; Aristocracy (Social Class); Aristocracy (Social Class)—Fiction; Middle Class; Working Class; Servants;
Other Details
Printed : 19/1/1856
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XIII
Magazine : No. 304
Office Book Notes
Views : 1178

Dickens visited the Paris 'Exposition Universelle' in November 1855 and wrote to Forster that he 'did not think that English art showed to advantage beside the French'.

A later part of the letter closely anticipates his comments in paragraph 7 below:

French nature is all wrong, said the English artists whom Dickens talked to; but surely not because it is French, was his reply. The English point of view is not the one to take men and women from. The French pictures are 'theatrical', was the rejoinder. But the French themselves are a demonstrative and gesticulating people, was Dickens's retort; and what is thus rendered by their artists is the truth through an immense part of the world. 'I never saw anything so strange. They seem to me to have got a fixed idea that there is no natural manner but the English manner ... and that unless a Frenchman—represented as going to the guillotine for example—is as calm as Clapham, or as respectable as Richmond Hill, he cannot be right' [Forster, Book 7, Ch. 5].

Another October 1855 letter echoed in 'Insularities' is the one Dickens wrote to his friend, the actor William Charles Macready, about his loss of faith in the possibility of a real democracy in England:

...what with having no such thing as a Middle Class (for, though we are perpetually bragging of it as our safety, it is nothing but a poor fringe on the mantle of the Upper)—what with flukeyism, toadyism, letting the most contemptible Lords come in for all manner of places...reading the Court Circular for the New Testament—and bearing such positively awful slaver as I saw the other day about a visit of Lord Palmerston to Woolwich arsenal—I do reluctantly believe that the English people are, habitually, consenting parties to the miserable imbecility into which we have fallen...[Pilgrim, Vol. VII, p. 715 ff.].

The 'small beer chronicled ... about the nobility' (p. 344) recalls the 'fashionable intelligence' that battens on the movements of Lady Dedlock (Bleak House, Ch. 2), and the mockery of the 'tendency to be firmly persuaded that what is not English is not natural' looks forward to that great satirical creation, the (close-shaven) Mr Podsnap of Our Mutual Friend. In his discussion of the English fad for shaving (p. 342) Dickens refers back to an article entitled 'Why Shave?' by Morley and Wills, published in HW on 13 August 1853. it was in 1853 that Dickens himself first grew a beard; he shaved it off in the same year on his Italian trip with Wilkie Collins and Augustus Egg as a comic protest against their attempts to grow moustaches (see Pilgrim, Vol. IV, p. 175), but an 1854 portrait by E. M. Ward shows Dickens with both beard and moustache. An 1855 daguerreotype shows him with a  luxuriant moustache only, but by the time Ary Scheffer painted him in 1856 he had once more grown a beard and remained bearded for the rest of his life.

Literary allusions

  • 'Madame Grundy': alludes to Thomas Morton's comedy Speed the Plough (1798), in which frequent reference is made to a 'Mrs Grundy', a character embodying extreme moral censoriousness;
  • 'small beer is chronicled': Shakespeare, Othello, Act 1, Sc. 2;
  • 'we had expected Orson': in the old French romance of the two royal brothers Valentine and Orson, the latter is carried off by a bear and reared as a wild man of the woods;
  • 'the King of Brentford and the Chief Tailor of Tooley Street': conflates reference to the absurd play-within-a-play featuring two Kings of Brentford in the Duke of Buckingham's The Rehearsal (1672) and to a comic Astley's equestrian entertainment 'The Tailor's Ride to Brentford', which had been developed into the theatre's Christmas pantomime for 1853, Billy Button's Journey to Brentford; or, Harlequin and the Ladies' Favourite (see G. Speaight, A History of the Circus [1980], p. 24, and P. Schlicke, Dickens and Popular Entertainment [1985], p. 161).

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851-1859, 1998.

DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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