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Curious Misprint in the Edinburgh Review

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Literature; Writing; Authorship; Reading; Books; Poetry; Storytelling; Letter Writing
Newspapers; Periodicals; Journalism
Details
Index
Other Details
Printed : 1/8/1857
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XVI
Magazine : No. 384
Office Book Notes
Memo-
Columns6.25
Payment-
Views : 1610

In the Edinburgh Review for July 1857 (Vol. 106, pp. 124-156) there appeared a long unsigned article written by James Fitzjames Stephen entitled 'The License of Modern Novelists'.


In it he fiercely attacked Dickens and Charles Reade for their irresponsibility in satirising, or (in Reade's case) straightforwardly denouncing in works of fiction the administrative, social and legal institutions of their country. Stephen particularly objected to Dickens's Circumlocution Office satire in Little Dorrit, influenced no doubt by the fact that his father had been a very distinguished high-ranking civil servant, and he had already attacked the novel in the Saturday Review (3 January and 4 July 1857). Stephen believed that novels like Dickens's and Reade's did harm, especially among the young, by tending 'to beget hasty generalisations and false conclusions' because 'they address themselves almost entirely to the imagination upon subjects which properly belong to the intellect', and wrote:

It is not a little curious to consider what qualifications a man ought to possess before he could, with any kind of propriety, hold the language Mr Dickens sometimes holds about the various departments of social life.

Accusing Dickens of a meretricious topicality of his fiction ('In every new novel he selects one or two of the popular cries of the day, to serve as seasoning to the dish which he sets before his readers'), Stephen makes the assertion about the collapse of Mrs Clennam's house in Dorrit ( Book II, Ch. 31) that so angers Dickens. (A sensation had been caused on 9 May 1857 by the sudden collapse of three houses in Tottenham Court Road resulting in the deaths of six people).

Stephen's somewhat astonishing invocation of Rowland Hill as a shining example of governmental encouragement of talent and enterprise gave Dickens a splendid chance to turn the table since the story of the humiliations, obstructions and prevaricating delays that Hill had to suffer in his efforts to reform the Post Office was a matter of public notoriety (see Colin Hey, Rowland Hill, Victorian Genius and Benefactor [1989], Ch. 5). Writing to Macready on 3 August, Dickens describes how he thought of his reply as he was on his way to give a public reading:

Instantly turned to, then and there, and wrote half the article. Flew out of bed early next morning and finished it by Noon. Went down to Gallery of Illustration (we acted there that night), did the day's business, corrected the proof in Polar costume in dressing room, broke up two numbers of Household Words to get it out directly, played in Frozen Deep and Uncle John [etc., etc.] [Pilgrim, Vol. VIII, p. 399ff.].

The reference to the Circumlocution Office journeying to India relates to the efforts being made to suppress the Indian Mutiny; the 'private reason' for his concern mentioned by Dickens being his second son Walter (born 1841), who had sailed for India as a cadet in the East India Company on 20 July.

Literary allusions

  • 'MR THACKERAY may write upon Snobs': Thackeray's Book of Snobs, originally serialised in Punch as 'The Snobs of England', appeared in 1848;
  • 'Mr Reade having to do ...  with a Scottish fishwoman ... must by no means connect himself with Prison Discipline': Reade's novel Christine Johnstone (1853) tells the love story of the eponymous heroine, a Scottish fisher-girl, while his It Is Never Too Late To Mend (1856) feature a horrific exposure of official brutality practised against prisoners in British gaols;
  • 'such a desperate Micawberism': allusion to the ever-optimistic Mr Micawber in David Copperfield.

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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