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III/ Widening Prospects

The Dickens Universe: Gazing at the Heavens



Les étoiles et autres références astronomiques occupent une place de choix dans les textes de Charles Dickens, ceux des années 1830 comme ceux de la fin de sa carrière. L’auteur ne s’intéressait pas seulement aux découvertes et théories récentes dans le domaine de l’astronomie, il s’est également servi des phénomènes cosmiques sur les modes symbolique et d’inspiration religieuse. Ce tissu de références, qui vont du portrait farcesque d’un astronome dans The Lamplighter et des références cosmiques de Mr. Pecksniff à sa propre gloire, à l’étoile bienveillante qui brille dans Hard Times et aux brèves observations sur les arguments pour et contre la vie extraterrestre, trouve son apogée dans Great Expectations, texte essentiel de Dickens pour ce qui est de la contemplation des étoiles, et dont le sens se trouve ainsi renforcé.

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  • 1 For further information about the role of stars in literature, see Piero Boitani, Il grande raccont (...)

1A recent monograph, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature, by Anna Henchman, argues for the influence of nineteenth-century astronomy on formal structures in Victorian literature, especially relations between individuals and groups, singularity and totality:1

much as individual characters have cosmological conceptions—views of the totality of things—so do works of fiction. Novelists such as Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens create fictional cosmoses, each of which behaves according to a logic of its own. This unstated logic makes an entire narrative space feel stable or unstable, coherent or incoherent, complete or partial. (196)

2Henchman argues that there are general differences between nineteenth-century and earlier cosmology that fundamentally changed parameters of seeing and describing the human, for all attentive writers, even when their texts did not ostensibly refer to anything celestial. But Henchman does not discuss many of the specific uses of stars and stargazing, in Dickens, that I shall mention in this paper, and I think that doing so can add a few useful points to our sense of what the Dickens universe consists of, and how it works.

3More significantly, there seem to be grounds for thinking about some of the most memorable and significant scenes of human crisis in Dickens—such as Stephen in the pit or Estella appearing overhead in the disused brewery in Great Expectations—in terms of a kind of emotional geometry that is influenced by oppositions and distances between real and symbolic cosmic entities—the Earth and the stars; mortal limitation and the heavenly infinite. These in turn owe something to engagements with astronomical science or pseudo-science, on Dickens’s part, which, while slight in terms of their direct manifestations on the page, were certainly enduring: running from The Lamplighter to Edwin Drood.

1. The Lamplighter (1838)

4I shall begin with one of Dickens’s least known early works: his farce, The Lamplighter, written in 1838, for William Macready, for performance at Covent Garden. In the wake of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, expectations would have been high, but Macready, like most subsequent critics, found the play a “[m]anifest disappointment” (qtd. in Johnson, Edgar 223), and Dickens withdrew it from production before eventually publishing an embellished non-theatrical version in The Pic-Nic Papers (1841). A central character in this slight piece is Mr. Stargazer, who is “versed in the great sciences of astronomy and astrology” (118). He does not draw a clear distinction between these two “sciences,” but, in practice, emphasises the second: he examines the heavens not for their own sake, but so as to predict future terrestrial events. His vaguely Jonsonian name (abandoned in the non-theatrical version, in which he is merely “the astronomer”) may point to a deeper connection with plays such as The Alchemist. Stargazer, unlike Jonson’s Subtle, is a sincere believer in his work; he does not deliberately impose upon others. But Dickens seems to relish the monumentality of his self-imposture. As Jeremy Tambling observes, in the major study to date of Jonson’s presence in Dickens, “[e]verything,” in both of these authors, “is built over a void” (24). This is arguably true of all literature, but Tambling is referring to a kind of preposterous self-fashioning, through language, that is central to the writers in question. Dickens would demonstrate this process in action far more powerfully, many times, in later works, but it is asserted, in principle, in Stargazer, who claims to be “acquainted with all the celestial bodies” and is “writing a work about them, which will consist of eighty-four volumes, imperial quarto; and an appendix, nearly twice as long” (118). These volumes will comprehensively predict the future of the world. Another loose prototype for the character may have been the astronomer in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, whose rational interest in the stars degenerates, for a while, into a hubristic belief that he can control the forces of nature (144–50).

5Stargazer is assisted by a bizarre sidekick, Mr. Mooney, whose abstruse meditations render him—to outside observers—an imbecile. At one point, he is so wrapped up in speculation, that he proffers his foot to be shaken instead of his hand: “So absent [...] in his gigantic meditations that very often he doesn’t know one from the other,” as his senior colleague admiringly observes (130). The two of them are also engaged in a second time-honoured but ludicrous privately-funded research project, without the benefit of peer review: the search for the philosopher’s stone and, with it, infinite wealth. This is all linked to the traditional farce material of amorous intrigue and misunderstanding, through Stargazer’s belief that he has received a sidereal message to the effect that the local lamplighter, Tom Grig (faintly Sam Weller-like here; more so in the re-write), is destined to marry his niece Fanny—who actually wants to marry her cousin, Stargazer’s son, Master Galileo Isaac Newton Flamstead Stargazer. According to the maid, Betsy Martin,

old Mr. Stargazer goes and picks [Tom Grig] out of the open street, and brings him in for Miss Fanny’s husband, because he pretends to have read something about it in the stars. Stuff and nonsense! I don’t believe he knows his letters in the stars, and that’s the truth; or if he’s got as far as words in one syllable, it’s quite as much as he has. (124)

6Stargazer’s plans unravel; Mooney’s crucible explodes, ending all hopes of turning base metal into gold within the foreseeable future; Fanny gets permission to marry Galileo; and various other plot developments take place in a chaotic last-minute cascade. Tom Grig ends up fleeing the scene (much to the consternation of the infatuated Betsy Martin), and gets back to his lamp-lighting duties, for which he is long overdue: local residents have begun to complain about the dark streets. In the last speech of the play, he carefully dissociates himself from the sub-culture of folly that he has briefly dipped into, apostrophising an audience that Dickens must have hoped would by this point be weak and aching with hilarity, to make clear that he is no humbug or crackpot, with his head in, or far above, the clouds: “I beg to assure the ratepayers present that in future I shall pay the strictest attention to my professional duties [...] and that I shall be found upon my beat” (138–39).

7So, we can see from this that Dickens, in the 1830s, had at least one way of looking at other people’s interest in the stars, and the information and opportunities that they might be thought to provide. It is a farcical model, in which the astronomer/astrologer knows nothing of any scientific substance or practical usefulness. As the maid says, he doesn’t know “his letters in the stars.” It is a model that goes back to Ben Jonson, and beyond—even to medieval depictions of the absurd and often sinister astrologer/alchemist. There are, however, traces in The Lamplighter of elements that will come to seem more characteristically Dickensian. For example, although the play does not make it explicit, there is an underlying ironic contrast between Tom Grig’s practical familiarity with small and useful sources of nocturnal illumination (the lamps that he lights), and Mr. Stargazer’s absurd pretensions to understanding vast, remote, apparently indifferent ones. This anticipates Dickens’s criticism, in Bleak House, of “telescopic philanthropy” (34)—insofar as it suggests that the near-at-hand should be seen to, instead of the remote (and alien); and it also shows an artistically productive willingness to think of different aspects of the same thing at once: stars and lamps, for example, both as real objects and as symbols of illumination or enlightenment.

2. “A Child’s Dream of a Star” (1850)

8Of course, Dickens will have come across textual representations of stars less in astronomical or astrological works, and more in religious ones, above all in the New Testament. An obvious example of a primarily Christian treatment of the night sky occurs in Dickens’s short narrative, “A Child’s Dream of a Star,” published in Household Words in 1850.

9The child, in this story, dreams of a star, but he has also seen a real one. When he was very young, he was in the habit of gazing at the heavens, with his sister:

There was one clear-shining star that used to come out in the sky before the rest, near the church spire, above the graves. It was larger and more beautiful, they thought, than all the others, and every night they watched for it, standing hand in hand at a window. Whoever saw it first, cried out, “I see the star!” And often they cried out both together, knowing so well when it would rise, and where. So they grew to be such friends with it, that, before lying down in their beds, they always looked out once again, to bid it good night; and when they were turning round to sleep, they used to say, “God bless the star!” (186)

10The sister dies while still very young, and her brother, the “Child” of the title, dreams that it is to the star that she has gone. The real, observed, celestial body becomes a supernatural destination and consolation. In due course, numerous other members of the child’s family make the same journey, while he grows old on Earth, always consoled by the thought that they are gathering up there, where he will eventually join them.

  • 2 Michael Slater’s note in Dickens, Journalism 2: 185; see also Dickens, Letters 6: 65.
  • 3 Slater’s note; Forster 2: 67; see also Slater, Dickens and Women 92.

11Dickens claimed to have come up with this idea while “looking at the stars during a journey on the railway.”2 John Forster links the piece to Dickens’s recollection of looking at the stars with his sister Fanny (who had died in 1848) in a churchyard at Chatham.3 It would be easy to connect this with several religiously-motivated graveyard scenes in Dickens’s novels of the 40s and early 50s: with Little Nell in the country, for example, or David Copperfield thinking of his father. The connection between stars and death is fundamental. The last sentence of “A Child’s Dream” is this: “And the star was shining; and it shines upon his grave” (188).

3. Hard Times (1854)

12A few years later, Dickens presented his readers with another character who awaits his own death directly and consciously under the eye (as he himself might see it) of a star. The title of Book 3, Chapter 6 of Hard Times—“The Starlight”—is initially mysterious: the first sentence of the chapter announces “a bright Sunday [...] early in the morning” (197). This brightness makes possible a panoramic description of the landscape, in which the town that hitherto has engrossed so much of our attention is still an ominous presence, but one whose limits, at last, are visible:

Though the green landscape was blotted here and there with heaps of coal, it was green elsewhere, and there were trees to see, [...] and all was overarched by a bright blue sky. In the distance one way, Coketown showed as a black mist; in another distance, hills began to rise; in a third, there was a faint change in the light of the horizon, where it shone upon the far-off sea. (197–98)

13The reader follows Sissy Jupe and Rachael on their progress through this landscape until their attention, and ours, is shockingly plunged below its surface: into the Old Hell Shaft, down which they realise that Stephen Blackpool has fallen. When he is winched up, a few pages later, we realise that this will just be a very brief return to the surface—he will soon need to be buried—but meanwhile he rallies himself to direct our attention upwards, beyond the thin crust of factories and circuses (Gradgrind’s fact and Sissy’s fancy), into space. Lying in the pit, he has been consoled by a star:

“It ha’ shined upon me,” he said reverently, “in my pain and trouble down below. It ha’ shined into my mind. [...] In my pain and trouble, lookin up yonder,—wi’ it shinin’ on me—I ha’ seen more clear, and ha’ made it my dyin prayer that aw th’ world may on’y coom toogether more, and get a better unnerstan’in o’ one another, than when I were in’t my own weak seln.” (203–204)

14Clearly, this is another star of scriptural pedigree. When Stephen dies, “The star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to his Redeemer’s rest” (204). It is a pious but also an astronomical scene: the distance between Stephen and the heavens, and the disparity between his tininess and celestial infinity, are mitigated for appropriate readers by faith and/or sentimentality, but there is also something interestingly formal and geometric about the way in which Stephen’s mind rises above the landscape exactly when his body has fallen beneath it. He advocates a mundane, human coming-together, but, by dropping into the Earth, he also gets in touch with the extra-terrestrial, and thus plays his part in a multi-layered perspective that runs throughout Dickens’s fiction.

4. Astronomy, myopia and vainglory

15Elsewhere in Hard Times, the heavens are sadly neglected, or radically misunderstood, in compliance with the Gradgrindian educational programme:

No little Gradgrind had ever seen a face in the moon; it was up in the moon [through lectures on astronomy] before it could speak distinctly. No little Gradgrind had ever learnt the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are! No little Gradgrind had ever known wonder on the subject, each little Gradgrind having at five years old dissected the Great Bear like a Professor Owen, and driven Charles’s Wain [the Plough] like a locomotive engine-driver. (11)

16Gradgrind’s own office is like “an astronomical observatory [...] made without any windows, [as if] the astronomer within should arrange the starry universe solely by pen, ink and paper” (75). Here, astronomy is used to allude to a fault that might seem the opposite of “telescopic philanthropy”: Gradgrind cannot see further than his own inadequate system. (This is perhaps where Dickens most resembles William Blake.) But the two faults are essentially linked: both involve being diverted, through one kind of intellectual vanity or another, as Dickens sees it, from the real state of things, or from the place where one’s responsibilities lie and one’s attention could have done the most good. In Gradgrind’s case, and perhaps also Mrs. Jellyby’s, the vanity of the enterprise is mitigated somewhat by a genuine (if misguided) wish to benefit others, but they are uncomfortably close—as astronomical references again make clear—to the purely mechanistic, acquisitive and selfish point of view that we find in an earlier novel: “The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. […] [S]tars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre” (2).

  • 4 Harold Skimpole would be another comparison here. He has his own astronomical moment when he descri (...)

17Somewhere between Mr. Dombey and Mr. Gradgrind, in terms of culpability, we find Mr. Pecksniff, whose hypocrisy seems sometimes conscious and calculating,4 and sometimes—redeemingly—not:

“Ah, my good friend!” he said: “not a-bed yet! Contemplating the stars, Mrs. Lupin?”
“It’s a beautiful starlight night, sir.”
“A beautiful starlight night,” said Mr. Pecksniff, looking up. “Behold the planets, how they shine! Behold the—those two persons who were here this morning, have left your house, I hope, Mrs. Lupin?”
“Yes, sir. They are gone.”
“I am glad to hear it,” said Mr. Pecksniff. “Behold the wonders of the firmament, Mrs. Lupin! How glorious is this scene! When I look up at those shining orbs, I think that each of them is winking to the other to take notice of the vanity of men’s pursuits. My fellow-men!” cried Mr. Pecksniff, shaking his head in pity; “you are much mistaken; my wormy relatives, you are much deceived! The stars are perfectly contented (I suppose so) in their several spheres. Why are not you? Oh! do not strive and struggle to enrich yourselves, or to get the better of each other, my deluded friends, but look up there, with me!”
Mrs. Lupin shook her head, and heaved a sigh. It was very affecting.
“Look up there, with me!” repeated Mr. Pecksniff, stretching out his hand; “with me, an humble individual who is also an Insect like yourselves. Can silver, gold, or precious stones, sparkle like those constellations? I think not. Then do not thirst for silver, gold, or precious stones; but look up there, with me!”
With these words, the good man patted Mrs. Lupin’s hand between his own, as if he would have added “think of this, my good woman!” and walked away in a sort of ecstasy or rapture, with his hat under his arm. (
Martin Chuzzlewit 681–82)

18Quite whether Pecksniff is aware of his own preposterousness, and is deliberately tyrannising and manipulating those around him, is not always clear, but the judgement certainly falls against him in the denouement, where his vainglorious bubble is popped—although the metaphor that Dickens chooses is much more exotic, and turns Pecksniff’s cosmology against him: “The star of [Tom Pinch’s] whole life from boyhood, had become, in a moment, putrid vapour” (491).

5. Whewell and Brewster (1854)

19Dickens worked at a time, and within an intellectual context, in which scientific knowledge about outer space was advancing fast, and becoming widely disseminated. In fact, he was instrumental in this process. “Both Household Words and All the Year Round,” as Andrew Sanders notes,

offered “commonplace” readers a considerable variety of “scientific” articles, articles which covered aspects of astronomy, physics, chemistry, and geology, as well as medicine and technology. Where Household Words picked up on public interest in, for example, comets, All the Year Round explored lunar and solar eclipses. What runs through both journals, however, is a strong sense that scientific innovation should not only be communicable but should also ideally have immediate and explicable social applications. (167)

20This emphasis on practicality might seem to conflict with Dickens’s priorities in his fiction. After all, he does not show any examples of astronomical knowledge, as such, bettering the human lot. But he advocates palpable, humanly effective applications of the symbolic, mythic and religious senses of the extra-terrestrial, where “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” amuses the young (or would, if given a chance) and Christian stars comfort the dying and the bereaved. Insofar as scraps of real astronomical knowledge or scientific theories about space lent themselves to these humanistic aims, and to vivid literary application, he was willing to take them on board, but with a light and fleeting touch, as in the allusion to the “nebular hypothesis,” for example, which lies behind “the death of the sun” in the first paragraph of Bleak House (5; Shatto 25).

21Dickens wanted science to serve humanistic ends, but he also (rather in the spirit of Stephen Blackpool’s “coom[ing] toogether”) wanted symbolic moral and spiritual systems to take the fruits of rational enquiry on board. Our Mutual Friend resembles Tennyson’s In Memoriam, as Michael Wheeler notes, insofar as both “reflect a longing for a broader Christianity that can accommodate the findings of science” (304); and Dickens is seen making a similar point, off the cuff and very succinctly, in an anecdote in Forster’s Life:

It will introduce the last and not least honoured name into my list of his acquaintance and friends, if I mention his amusing little interruption one day to Professor [Sir Richard] Owen’s description of a telescope of huge dimensions built by an enterprising clergyman who had taken to the study of the stars; and who was eager, said Owen, to see farther into heaven—he was going to say, than Lord Rosse; if Dickens had not drily interposed, “than his professional studies had enabled him to penetrate.” (2: 86)

22The main business of being a vicar, on this account, fails to encourage an understanding of the real nature of the heavens, and deserves light mockery accordingly, if not the satirical big guns rolled out against the moral pre-Copernicanism of a Dombey or the astral self-promotion of a Pecksniff.

23There is one recorded case of Dickens taking a more sustained interest in scientific astronomy, and more particularly in the question of extra-terrestrial life. We see this in his important letter to the Hon. Mrs. Richard Watson, 1 November 1854. I shall quote two paragraphs, in the first of which the connections with stars or space may not seem immediately obvious:

I am full of mixed feeling about the War [in the Crimea]—admiration of our valiant men—burning desires to cut the Emperor of Russia’s throat—and something like despair to see how the old canon-smoke and blood-mist obscure the wrongs and sufferings of the people at home. When I consider the Patriotic Fund [for the widows and orphans of servicemen] on the one hand, and on the other the poverty and wretchedness engendered by cholera, of which, in London alone, an infinitely larger number of English people than are likely to be slain in the whole Russian War, have miserably and needlessly died—I feel as if the world had been pushed back, five hundred years.

If you are reading new books just now, I think you will be interested with a controversy between [William] Whewell and [Sir David] Brewster, on the question of the shining orbs about us, being inhabited or no. Whewell’s book is called “On the plurality of Worlds”; Brewster’s, “More Worlds than One”. I shouldn’t wonder if you know all about them. They bring together a vast number of points of great interest in Natural Philosophy, and some very curious reasoning on both sides—and leave the matter pretty much where it was. (Letters 7: 454–55)

24And then he changes the subject, once again.

25These paragraphs, like so many in Dickens’s letters, have the virtue of showing not only what he was thinking about, but also how he thought, in the sense of how one idea led to another. Here, the perceived irrationality of political and humanitarian concern—“as if the world had been pushed back, five hundred years”—leads directly to the perceived futility of speculative science, which leaves “the matter pretty much where it was.” Indeed, Whewell’s On the Plurality of Worlds comes down against an “unphilosophical” belief in the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life (Anon. 289), while Brewster’s reaction, More Worlds than One, is on the other side of the argument. But Whewell describes a universe far beyond human comprehension, “shrouded in deep darkness” (192), the study of which will be of little service to religion, while Brewster proposes a divinely sanctioned future life for human beings on other planets, “spent, doubtless, in lofty inquiries—in social intercourse—in the renewal of domestic ties” (259), which, while charming, is extremely vague. It is possible that Dickens really absorbed both authors’ “vast number of points” (one might be reminded of Mr. Stargazer’s eighty-four volumes), but then decided that they cancelled one another out, or were simply incapable of proof, so that he was justified in reducing them, as he did quite a lot of other things, to one pithy, quotable judgement: they leave the matter pretty much where it was. Thus, he quotes himself three months later, in a letter to Leigh Hunt: “You have read Brewster and Whewell? (Don’t send them back—I will fetch them). I thought it curious, both being so learned and ingenious, that they should dismiss one, after all, pretty much as they found one” (31 January 1855; Letters 7: 518).

26Dickens is very good at recycling old material, like this, and making it sound as though it has just occurred to him. Note, however, that he did think it worthwhile to lend the books to Hunt—and that he wants to retrieve them (perhaps so that he can lend them to somebody else, and then say exactly the same thing about them, once again).

27So, Dickens seems to place Whewell and Brewster, like Crimean War humanitarians, in the category of the misguidedly telescopic: those whose efforts either leap over the problems that are most in need of attention, or which are simply of no obvious use to any one left, “as they found one,” on the surface of the Earth.

6. Great Expectations (1861)

28But we can see by now that Dickens was a stargazer, himself—both literally, as in the story about Charles and Fanny at Chatham, and in other ways. His greatest work of celestial contemplation is Great Expectations. Pip shows himself looking at the stars on the evening of Mr. Pumblechook’s visit, and thus on the eve of one of the most fateful days in his life, when he will meet Miss Havisham and Estella. Pip’s view of the heavens is an implicit recollection of his experiences, a year before, with the convicts on the marshes:

It was a dry cold night, and the wind blew keenly, and the frost was white and hard. A man would die to-night of lying out on the marshes, I thought. And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude. (43)

29(Just the opposite, that is, of Stephen Blackpool’s experience.) This is a crucial moment for Pip, insofar as it links his pity for Magwitch, whom he has no expectation of seeing again, with his own exposure, the following day, to the glittering and freezing Estella, who makes him into a new kind of helpless viewer of the heavens. Just as the real stars twinkling over the marshes are apparently devoid of the religious and consolatory character of the star-haven of “A Child’s Dream of a Star,” so the “star” of Pip’s life, Estella, fails to warm and comfort the protagonist—except, perhaps, in the last pages of the novel.

30Aside from the parallel of Pip-as-Magwitch, aside also from her name, Estella’s starriness shines through in the moments, on that first day at Satis House, when Pip sees her (and anticipates her significance in his life) most clearly: when she approaches through “the long dark passage,” with a candle, “like a star” (51), and in her sublime and eerie apparition in the disused brewery, where

she seemed to be everywhere. For, when I yielded to the temptation presented by the casks, and began to walk on them, I saw her walking on them at the end of the yard of casks. She had her back to me, and held her pretty brown hair spread out in her two hands, and never looked round, and passed out of my view directly. So, in the brewery itself—by which I mean the large paved lofty place in which they used to make the beer, and where the brewing utensils still were. When I first went into it, and, rather oppressed by its gloom, stood near the door looking about me, I saw her pass among the extinguished fires, and ascend some light iron stairs, and go out by a gallery high overhead, as if she were going out into the sky. (54)

31Here, Estella is star and ghost and angel. Or so she is, at least, for Pip, whose sense of being fatally linked to her grows directly out of the devotion-unto-death in “A Child’s Dream,” although here it exists in a far more complex and ambivalent context, both for the reader of this novel in particular, and as the culmination of a network of ideas and images in Dickens’s writing as a whole.

32A mark of the sophistication of this text, and of the way it builds upon Dickens’s previous work, is the way that Pip can be both gloriously and movingly astronomical and also subject, through his own coolly unforgiving narrative, to some of the criticism that had been meted out, through cosmic imagery, to the likes of Jellyby and Pecksniff. “It don’t signify to you with your brilliant look-out,” says Wemmick, “but as to myself, my guiding-star always is, ‘Get hold of portable property’” (157). Well, insofar as Pip’s “look-out” is just a matter of luck, or love, with Estella as his “guiding-star,” then we—and he, as autobiographical narrator—may feel well disposed towards him, within the system of kindness and cruelty, sincerity and hypocrisy that has been established since the beginning of the text. But insofar as his “expectations” corrupt him, inducing laziness and selfishness, he may be more sunk in the mundane and the material than Wemmick. “The very stars to which I then raised my eyes,” as a new-created gentleman, “I am afraid I took to be but poor and humble stars for glittering on the rustic objects among which I had passed my life” (113). And it is perhaps significant, towards the end of the narrative, that it is the condemned Magwitch who is lit up, and blessed, by the greatest star of all, as the sun picks him out in the courtroom, in “a broad shaft of light” ... a “way of light” (340).

7. Edwin Drood (1870)

33Finally, a passage from Dickens’s last novel, which takes us right back to some of the preoccupations, and even the very words of The Lamplighter, written more than thirty years before:

Mr Grewgious, his bedroom window-blind held aside with his hand, happened at that moment to have Neville’s chambers under his eye for the last time that night. Fortunately his eye was on the front of the house and not the back, or this remarkable appearance and disappearance [of Mr. Tartar] might have broken his rest as a phenomenon. But, Mr. Grewgious seeing nothing there, not even a light in the windows, his gaze wandered from the windows to the stars, as if he would have read in them something that was hidden from him. Many of us would, if we could; but none of us so much as know our letters in the stars yet—or seem likely to, in this state of existence—and few languages can be read until their alphabets are mastered. (160)

  • 5 This is the title of one of Dickens’s essays for Household Words (1853), discussed in Rainsford, “P (...)

34Note the direct echo of The Lamplighter: knowing “our letters in the stars.” On the basis of this passage, at least, we could be uncharitable and say that Dickens himself has apparently not learnt anything new about the stars in several decades, so that he is reduced to repeating the same phrase, just as he did in the letters mentioning Whewell and Brewster. But perhaps he has indeed learnt more, but even so remains in doubt as to whether additional factual knowledge, or even further human experience, really makes a fundamental difference. Dickens was always interested in the idea that personal development may stop at a certain point, “Where We Stopped Growing.”5


35Finally, most of these examples show a characteristic willingness, in Dickens, to flip back and forth between the real and the symbolic (including the religious) or the metaphorical. Dickens knows that we can think about the world in many different ways at once. The multiple character of his literary profile is relevant here: as novelist, journalist, and even as private correspondent. In all of these contexts, Dickens shows that he has, like Mr. Stargazer, some “acquaintance with the celestial bodies,” with the important addition that he is able to gaze at himself gazing, and ask: Is this a real star that I am imagining or talking about, or a symbolic star, or both? Can it tell us anything useful (as useful, say, as a streetlamp)? Or does it leave us where it found us, in the dark? Mr. Stargazer cannot step outside his astronomical/astrological/alchemical obsessions; Dickens, on the other hand, can flit from one way of seeing the world (literally) to another. Within his texts, he places realistic and imaginative meanings in tension with one another, with the effect that the emphasis always returns to the perceiving, would-be sense-making subject: the child at the window, the boy on the marshes, the man in the pit, the lover gazing at his beloved. Scraps of astronomical terminology appear in these scenes, but, more importantly, Dickens implicitly places them within a world in which he knows that people are scrutinizing the heavens in a range of fundamentally different, highly committed ways. Dickens’s way of viewing the heavens is not that of the scientific astronomer, nor for that matter of the straightforward Christian, but it derives its meanings from an overlapping of these and other possible perspectives.

36The least surprising and interesting point, perhaps, is that Dickens was inclined to write off at least some (probably most) kinds of astronomy as futile or unhelpful, given what he took to be our human limitations and what he saw as the immediate challenges that we face. In other words, the concept of “telescopic philanthropy” has a bit more to do with actual telescopes—astronomical ones, not just the nautical variety—than has usually been supposed.

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Anon. [William Whewell]. The Plurality of Worlds. 1853. Introd. Edward Hitchcock. Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1854. Google Book Search. Web. 11 June 2015.

Bonadei, Rossana. Paesaggio con figure: intorno all’Inghilterra di Charles Dickens. Milan: Jaca, 1996. Print.

Boitani, Piero. Il grande racconto delle stelle. Bologna: Il mulino, 2012. Print.

Brewster, David. More Worlds than One: The Creed of the Philosopher and the Hope of the Christian. 1854. Corr. London: Murray, 1854. Google Book Search. Web. 11 June 2015

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Ed. George Ford and Sylvère Monod. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.

---. “A Child’s Dream of a Star.” Dickens’ Journalism. The Amusements of the People and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews. 1834–51. Ed. Michael Slater. Vol 2. London: Dent, 1996. 185–88. Print.

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---. Hard Times. Ed. Fred Kaplan and Sylvère Monod. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

---. The Lamplighter. Complete Plays and Selected Poems of Charles Dickens. London: Vision, 1970. 113–39. Print.

---. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, et al. The Pilgrim Edition. 12 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965–2002. Print.

---. Martin Chuzzlewit. Ed. Margaret Cardwell. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982. Print.

---. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Ed. Margaret Cardwell. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972. Print.

---. Our Mutual Friend. Ed. Adrian Poole. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997. Print.

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Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. London: Gollancz, 1953. Print.

Johnson, Samuel. Rasselas and Other Tales. Ed. Glin G. Colb. Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. Vol. 16. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. Print. Lewis, Darcy. “Melancholia and Machinery: the Dystopian Landscape and Mindscape in Hard Times.” Dickens Quarterly 31 (2014): 17–31. Print.

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Rainsford, Dominic. “Out of Place: David Copperfield’s Irresolvable Geographies.” Essays and Studies. Ed. Juliet John. 2012. 193–208. Print.

---. “Posthumous and Prenatal Dickens.” Liminal Dickens: Rites of Passage in his Works. Ed Valerie Kennedy and Katerina Kiksi. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, forthcoming. Print.

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Wheeler, Michael. Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.

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1 For further information about the role of stars in literature, see Piero Boitani, Il grande racconto delle stelle (2012).

2 Michael Slater’s note in Dickens, Journalism 2: 185; see also Dickens, Letters 6: 65.

3 Slater’s note; Forster 2: 67; see also Slater, Dickens and Women 92.

4 Harold Skimpole would be another comparison here. He has his own astronomical moment when he describes Ada as “the child of the universe”—while thinking, as always, exclusively of himself (Bleak House 68).

5 This is the title of one of Dickens’s essays for Household Words (1853), discussed in Rainsford, “Posthumous and Prenatal.”

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Dominic RAINSFORD, « The Dickens Universe: Gazing at the Heavens », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4962

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Aarhus University
Dominic Rainsford is Professor of Literatures in English at Aarhus University, Denmark. His publications include Authorship, Ethics and the Reader (Palgrave, 1997), Literature, Identity and the English Channel (Palgrave, 2002), Studying Literature in English (Routledge, 2014) and many articles on Dickens. He is currently writing a book on literature, ethics and quantification.

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