1Realism was one of the dominant aesthetics of the Victorian period. The actual word “realism” appeared in England in 1855. It was used by George Henry Lewes to measure the fidelity of an artistic representation to nature or to real life. From the 1850s onward, this new artistic convention, considered more in keeping with the spirit of the age than the conventions of romance, increasingly applied to Victorian three-deckers. As Nancy Armstrong has pointed out, during this period “everyone knew what realism was; authors wrote in relation to it, and readers read with a standard in mind based on the fidelity of language to visual evidence” (Fiction in the Age of Photography 10). John Romano has stressed the strong connection between Dickens’s novels and the rise of realism: “The progress of Dickens’s career as a novelist and the rise of realism in the fiction of the last century were almost exactly contemporary phenomena, and both were triumphant” (Dickens and Reality 2).
2Dickens’s novels are related more specifically to what Richard Stang calls “mid-Victorian realism”. In his Theory of the Novel, Stang distinguishes between mid-Victorian realism and later realism. According to him, “mid-Victorian realism defined itself against the excesses both stylistic and narrative of various kinds of romantic, exotic or sensational literatures”, and this kind of realism was different from the “programmatic realism of the late century with pseudo-scientific connections, its experimental novels, its assumption that the norm of human experience is the extreme” (5).
3Dickens obviously aspired to submit to the rules of mid-Victorian realism, as his public statements and prefaces testify, but his imagination seems to have been somewhat uneasy with these conventions which it constantly sought to get round without actually transgressing. The tensions between the novelist’s public statements and the nature of his imagination resulted in a number of paradoxes which partly derived fromDickens’s acute awareness of the shortcomings of mid-Victorian realism. This awareness and the tensions which it imposed upon his writing led him to give his own interpretation of realism.
4Dickens’s attitude towards mid-Victorian realism was ambiguous. He defended realist precepts in theory, but had trouble following them in practice. He thus supported the realist rejection of idealisation and invention in favour of a picture of real and ordinary people and events. An article entitled “Small Beer Chronicles” (1863), from the magazine Allthe Year Round illustrates this stance by criticising the blatant lack of realism of some of the stereotypical formulae of traditional three-deckers:
… [the virtuous family] always distinguished themselves by being ‘poor but scrupulously clean.’ (...) their frugal meal (...) spread upon a ‘board’ (...) covered with a cloth of ‘snowy whiteness.’ The covering of that same board with a cloth of snowy whiteness, means that this distressed family indulged in seven tablecloths (independent of accidents) per week. (311)
5Paradoxically, although Dickens apparently supported these humorous views in his journalism, many of his fictional characters, such as the Nubbles in The Old Curiosity Shop or the Peggottys in David Copperfield, fitted into these unrealistic stereotypes and had many of the qualities debunked by the article in All the Year Round. When David visits the Peggottys for the first time in David Copperfield, he describes their boat-house as “beautifully clean inside, and as tidy as possible”. The walls of his bedroom are “whitewashed as white as milk”, and the patchwork counterpane makes his eyes “ache with its brightness” (DC 3: 33).
6Similarly, Dickens reproached exhibitions of academic painting with offering pictures which were too perfect, too well proportioned and therefore unrelated to real life, and he reasserted these principles in some of the prefaces to his novels, for instance in the preface to Nicholas Nickleby, in which he claimed to have depicted a hero in keeping with nature. However, despite these assertions, Nicholas Nickleby often turns out to be more in keeping with the stereotypes Dickens claimed to have rejected than to nature.He frequently acts and speaks as a hero of romance. For instance, after having beaten up Mr. Wackford Squeers, he describes his action in distinctly heroic terms (NN 20: 247).
7Dickens was also ambivalent in his attitude towards the romanticism, idealisation or sensationalism of swashbuckling novels, Silver Fork and Newgate novels. In Oliver Twist, he prided himself on having recycled a topic drawn from Newgate novels but on dealing with it in a realist manner. In this novel, Dickens claimed to have managed to depict the criminal underworld in its true colours, without any idealisation:
- 1 For this quotation, see the Oxford Clarendon edition of Oliver Twist.
... to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really did exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid misery of their lives; to show them as they really were, for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great black ghastly gallows closing up their prospect, turn them where they might. (OT, Preface to the “ Charles Dickens ” Edition)1
8However, as Sylvère Monod has pointed out, and in spite of Dickens’s assertions, Oliver Twist still fitted into the Newgate school of Fiction (Dickens romancier 110). Indeed, even if he did not idealise the life of the criminals he portrayed in this novel, Dickens nevertheless resorted to sensationalist techniques very similar to those used by Newgate novelists. For instance, in the chapters in which Bill Sikes murders Nancy and then flees (OT 47-48), the highly melodramatic dialogue, the extremely violent action, and the stress on gruesome details, such as the hair remaining on the end of the club used by Sikes to commit the crime, are clearly sensational. The reason for this contradiction between what Dickens said and did was that he was eager to meet the demands of Victorian readers who were extremely fond of these sensationalist techniques. The problem is that, in using this sensationalism, Dickens moved away from the realism he advocated in many of his prefaces.
9The same paradox applied to the relations between Dickens’s novels and the conventions of swashbucklers. Indeed, Dickens strongly admired Walter Scott and dreamed of writing historical romances in the manner of his model. As a consequence, he did not entirely reject the conventions of swashbuckler novels in favour of realist conventions.
- 2 For further details about this competing aesthetic doctrine, see Stang 153-60.
10Moreover, far from rejecting idealism, which was the competing aesthetic of the mid-Victorian period, Dickens depicted many characters rather too perfect to be realistic, and consequently more in keeping with Bulwer Lytton’s theory that art was not aimed at imitating but at exalting nature,2 than with the canons of realism. The following description of Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist is fairly typical of Dickens’s tendency to idealise his heroines:
She was not past seventeen. Cast in so slight and exquisite a mould; so mild and gentle; so pure and beautiful; that earth seemed not her element, nor its rough creatures her fit companions. (OT 29: 212)
11On the other hand, Dickens clearly took part in the realist quest for authenticity, since his novels constantly referred to social problems, anecdotes and other events of their time or of slightly more recent periods. Furthermore, to guarantee the authenticity of his discourse, the novelist resorted to fieldwork, newspaper articles, and archives which are constantly mentioned in his prefaces.
- 3 Michael Hollington mentions a passage from a letter from Dickens to Forster where the novelist des (...)
12However, in spite of these efforts, the novelist often yielded to the temptation of accumulating improbable incidents which carried him far beyond the bounds of credibility. Thus even while using his novels to denounce real and scandalous abuses, he often departed from these references to reality and accumulated the wildest incidents. This was all the more paradoxical as he condemned such a propensity in other writers whom he accused of extravagance.3
- 4 In this respect, see “Balzac and his Writing” Westminster Review LX (July 1853): 199-214.
13Another paradox of Dickens’s fictional writing is that the accumulation of small details supposedly meant to convey a realist effect, frequently produces quite the opposite effect. This contradicts the novelist’s repeated statements about the realism of his novels. In this respect, an enlightening comparison has been drawn by Jean Gattégno between the description of a boarding house in Balzac’s novel Le Père Goriot, and the boarding house of Mrs. Todgers in Martin Chuzzlewit. This analysis is all the more interesting as the Victorians considered Balzac as the head of the French realist school.4 Gattégno’s analysis shows that in Balzac’s description, the numerous details provided by the narration enable the reader to get a precise idea of the Vauquer boarding house and its surroundings, whereas the multiple details provided by Dickens in the form of digressions tend to stimulate the reader’s fantasy and produce a sense of vagueness and mystery regarding Mrs. Todgers’s house and its location (Dickens 122). Moreover, as James R. Kincaid has shown in an article entitled “Viewing and Blurring in Dickens: the Misrepresentation of Representation”, Dickens very often accumulated comparisons which tended to blur his descriptions rather than make them easier to visualise, as in the following portrait of Doctor Strong in David Copperfield, where the novelist’s imagination seems to drift endlessly from one image to another:
Doctor Strong looked almost as rusty (…) as the tall iron rails and gates outside the house; and almost as stiff and heavy as the great stone urns that flanked them, and were set up, on the top of the red brick wall, at regular distances all around the court, like sublimated skittles, for Time to play at. He was in his library (…) with his shoes yawning like two caverns on the hearth-rug. Turning upon me a lustreless eye, that reminded me of a long-forgotten blind old horse (…) he said he was glad to see me. (DC 16: 196)
14Finally, the descriptive details provided by the novelist were frequently emblematic, which seemed to relate his novels more to symbolic forms of fiction such as romance or pantomime rather than to realism. Mr. Pickwick’s spectacles and gaiters are thus endowed with this emblematic function in the Pickwick Papers.
15All these paradoxes and contradictions make Dickens’s position with regard to mid-Victorian realism somewhat more complicated than he presented it in his public statements. However, they can be seen to some extent as Dickens’s reaction to the contradictions of realism itself.
16In spite of its claim to cover the whole of reality, mid-Victorian realism was in fact carefully circumscribed. It mainly mirrored the point of view of the respectable middle class. The world it represented was defined by a number of rules of decency which artists had to comply with in order to be considered acceptable by Victorian readership. As Andrew Blake has pointed out, novelists “who treated the ‘wrong’ aspects of middle-class life, or who wrote of the ‘wrong’ part of the middle-class were subjected to hostile criticism” (Reading Victorian Fiction 75). Dickens appears to have been influenced by these constraints, as the preface to Oliver Twist shows:
No less consulting my own taste, than the manners of the age, I endeavoured, while I painted it [the unattractive and repulsive truth] in all its fallen and degraded aspects, to banish from the lips of the lowest characters I introduced, any expression that could by possibility offend (...). In the case of the girl, in particular, I kept this intention constantly in view.(OT, Preface to the third edition, 1841)5
17By applying such restrictions, Dickens often gave his lower class characters a level of discourse which was totally at odds with their social background. Thus, although he is brought up in a workhouse and subsequently frequents Fagin’s gang of thieves, Oliver’s discourse never departs from the most proper forms of English.
18Nevertheless, although Dickens accepted many of these conventional restrictions, he also set about exploring their limits, sometimes poking fun at them as he did in Our Mutual Friend: “The question about everything was: would it bring a blush into the cheek of the young person” (OMF I, 11: 129). As John Romano put it:
Podsnap’s conception of what makes up the real world is restricted to the visible exterior of the mid-Victorian life of London as it was lived, it may be said without cant, by the purest strain of the bourgeoisie; and within these bounds is all the reality that art may imitate. What is ugly, what is offensive, what is unsuited on moral grounds for the ears of ‘the young person,’ is of course ruled out… (34)
19However, Dickens is constantly testing these limits in his novels. In the preface to The Old Curiosity Shop, he claimed to have surrounded his heroine Little Nell with “grotesque and wild but not impossible companions” (OCS, Preface to the First Cheap Edition, 1848)”. The oxymoron “grotesque and wild but not impossible” clearly states Dickens’s intention of remaining within the bounds of mid-Victorian realism while exploring its limits. In this novel, the incongruous, ancient and grotesque objects of the curiosity shop and Little Nell’s grotesque companions, who can be subdivided into “terrible grotesques” and “playful grotesques” according to Ruskin’s categories, all combine realistic and wildly improbable features which make them difficult to categorise, as the following description of Mr. Quilp, the dwarf, testifies. His double nature, fluctuating between realism and the grotesque, is revealed by a looking-glass:
Mr. Quilp now walked up to the front of a looking-glass, and was standing there, putting on his neckerchief, when Mrs. Jiniwin, happening to be behind him, could not resist the inclination to shake her fist at her tyrant son-in-law. It was the gesture of an instant, but (…) she met his eye in the mirror catching her in the very act. The same glance at the mirror conveyed to her the reflection of a horribly grotesque and distorted face with the tongue lolling out: and the next instant the dwarf, turning about, with a perfectly bland and placid look, inquired in a tone of great affection,
‘How are you now, my dear old darling?’
- 6 See Michael Hollington’s article on the “grotesque”, in the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens 2 (...)
20Such unsettling effects are often increased by what Michael Hollington calls “verbal grotesqueries”6 which explore the limits of acceptable language without actually transgressing them. Thus in the same novel, Dick Swiveller, a “playful grotesque”, issues the following nonsensical statement which reveals his state of drunkenness:
[he] observed that last week was a fine week for the ducks, and that this week was a fine week for the dust; he also observed that whilst standing by the post at the street corner, he had observed a pig with a straw in his mouth issuing out of the tobacco-shop, from which appearance he argued that another fine week for the ducks was approaching, and that rain would certainly ensue. (OCS 2: 17)
- 7 Analysed by Garrett Stewart in Dickens and the Trials of the Imagination 55. Stewart calls the new (...)
21In many of Dickens’s novels, linguistic improprieties are often both humourous and somewhat subversive, as Tony Weller’s malapropism which transforms the word “legatees” into “leg-at-ease” in the Pickwick Papers,7 or Mrs. Gamp’s substitution of “persecution” for “prosecution” in Martin Chuzzlewit (MC 40: 626).
22Besides verbal grotesqueries, Dickens also resorted to metaphorical language and other forms of symbolic transfer to by-pass the repression of forbidden subjects in mid-Victorian realist discourse. The sexual innuendos of the scene in which Quilp punishes his wife by having her stay up all night while he himself sits in his wharf until morning smoking cigars illustrate this narrative strategy:
‘Now, Mrs. Quilp,’ he said; ‘I feel in a smoking humour, and shall probably blaze away all night. But sit where you are, if you please, in case I want you.’
… the room became perfectly dark and the end of the cigar a deep fiery red, but still Mr. Quilp went on smoking and drinking in the same position, and staring listlessly out of the window with the dog-like smile always on his face, save when Mrs. Quilp made some involuntary movement of restlessness or fatigue; and then it expanded into a grin of delight. (OCS 4: 37)
23As a consequence, the remarks made by Walter Bagehot about Thackeray’s attitude towards realism apply to Dickens’s novels as well: “No-one can read Mr. Thackeray’s writings without feeling that he is perpetually treading as close to the border-line that separates the world which may be described in books from the world which it is prohibited so to describe”. (Blake 76) This urge to explore forbidden ground is expressed very clearly in the form of a wish in Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son where the narrator refers to the myth of Asmodeus:
Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes… (DS 47: 648)
24Dickens did not just balk at some of the contradictions of mid-Victorian realism whose limits he was constantly testing, he also used this questioning to offer his own interpretation of realism which he then applied to his novels.
- 8 I am indebted to Professor David Paroissien for mentioning this letter to me.
25Thus, although the Victorians often associated the new realist movement with the ideas of copy, transcript, photograph, and daguerreotype, Dickens did not adhere to the definition of realism as a mechanical reproduction of reality, although he did associate his writing with photography. Indeed, walking in the pit country in Durham during his first reading tour in 1858, he noted in a letter to a friend how, as he worked his way north, he made “a little fanciful photograph” in his mind of the area, thinking he could use it one day in his magazine Household Words. In this same letter he compared his mind to a “sort of capitally prepared and highly sensitive plate” which received impressions (Letters 8. 669).8 This may at first seem contradictory with Dickens’s rejection of novel writing as the mechanical reproduction of reality, but his use of the expression “fanciful photograph”, which implies a combination of reality and imagination, qualifies his equation of writing and photography. Moreover this photographic process is situated at an early stage of the writing process.
26However, Dickens’s definition of writing itself seems to be closer to realism in painting than to photography. This idea appears in an article entitled “Portraits” (1865) published in AlltheYear Round. The article distinguishes the mechanical and instantaneous reproduction of reality produced by photography and the gradual picture created by a painter after numerous sessions of work in which he manages to capture the poetry of his subject:
- 9 The italicised words were in the original article.
It is often said that a photograph must be a perfect likeness, for, according to the common expression, “it is you.” But it is not you. The instrument itself is incorrect, and exaggerates. It is forgotten that the true portrait painter does not take his sitter at one special moment, when the eyes are fixed on him in a hard staring gaze, with all the muscles rigid (...). But he draws, at it were, from memory, from an acquaintance of so many hours (...). Then enter into the composition the skilful touch, the bright bit of colour, the transparent delicacy of tone, the poetry of treatment, which are reflections of the skilful mind taking the picture. (91)9
27Interestingly, although it seems to reject photography, the article still uses photographic terminology (i.e. “The skilful mind taking the picture”) to praise the process of painting as a more realistic mode of representation. In fact, far from rejecting photography altogether, this detail seems to establish a link between realism and a particular kind of Victorian photography, that is to say pictorial or artistic photography defined as a means of expression and not simply as a mechanical reproduction of objects.
- 10 See his introduction to the French Pleiade edition to Little Dorrit.
28In Dickens’s fiction, this poetic treatment of reality mentioned in the article is transposed into what Pierre Leyris calls “the lyricism of memory”.10Indeed Dickens had a very idiosyncratic view of contemporary events. As many critics have pointed out, the novelist seemed to need to describe London more as he remembered it than as it actually was at the time when he was writing. This interesting approach enabled him to create his very specific and all the more vivid pictures of the metropolis. In Little Dorrit, Dickens was simultaneously referring to contemporary scandals and remembering the year when his father had been imprisoned at the Marshalsea and when he himself was sent to work in a blacking factory and would visit his family in prison:
whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving-stones of the extinct Marshalsea jail (...) will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years. (LD, Preface)
29This imaginative treatment advocated by Dickens was partly aimed at overcoming Victorian materialism. In this respect, two articles in the magazine Household Words entitled “Twenty Miles” (1854) and “Poetry on the Railway” (1855) celebrate the railway as a concrete technical prowess but also as a powerful stimulus to fancy and imagination. These ideas are applied in Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son, in the description of Mr. Carker being run over and killed by a train:
He heard a shout (…) felt the earth tremble—knew in a moment that the rush was come—uttered a shriek—looked round—saw the red eyes, bleared and dim, in the daylight, close upon him—was beaten down, caught up, and whirled away upon a jagged mill, that spun him round and round, and struck him from limb to limb, and licked his stream of life up with its fiery heat, and cast his mutilated fragments in the air. (DS 55: 779)
- 11 See “ A Preliminary Word. ” Household Words I (March 30, 1850). This idea is studied at length by (...)
30Similarly, the opening statement of the first issue of Household Words aspires “to show to all, that in familiar things, even in those which are repellent on the surface, there is Romance enough, if we will find it out (...). The mightier inventions of this age are not, to our thinking, all material, but have a kind of souls in their stupendous bodies...”11 The preface to Bleak House echoes this opening statement: “In Bleak House, I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things” (BH, Preface to the first Edition, 1853). When Dickens uses the word “romance” or mentions “the romantic side of familiar things”, as he does in the preface to Bleak House, he does not advocate idealising reality but encourages everyone to perceive it in a less prosaic and expected way.
31The underlying idea is that fantasy and imagination, even in their wildest forms are not necessarily opposed to reality but are often part and parcel of it, and that this unity is perceptible to any mind devoid of prejudices. This theory is developed in an article entitled “The Spirit of Fiction” (1867) published in Household Words:
Greater differences still exist between the common observer and the writer of genius. The former accuses the latter of intentional exaggeration, substitution, addition, and has never been able in society to see the startling phenomena which he condemns in the romance as melodramatic and unnatural. The reason is that such an individual has never developed the sense for the seeing such things. (120)
32The article goes even further and states that reality can sometimes prove stranger than fiction:
every now and then, even the common-place mind is thrown off its balance by some patent revelation which none can ignore, and then is compelled to acknowledge in a phrase which has itself become commonplace, that ‘Fact is stranger than fiction.’ (120)
33As a consequence, realism must include these strange facts and this means, for instance, using grotesque representations to transcribe as well as possible this kind of reality in fiction. Dickens calls this “fantastic fidelity” (Stang 156) and he uses it in some of his descriptions, as this picture of an industrial landscape drawn from the Old Curiosity Shop testifies:
On mounds of ashes by the wayside, sheltered only by a few rough boards, or rotten penthouse roofs, strange engines spun and writhed like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains, shrieking in their rapid whirl from time to time as though in torment unendurable, and making the ground tremble with their agonies. Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited. Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged in attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fire, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses. (OCS 45: 335)
34This description brings to mind the expression “grotesque and wild but not impossible” used by Dickens in the Preface of The Old Curiosity Shop, and it shows how the novelist prolonged his exploration of the limits of mid-Victorian realism into a reinterpretation of realism itself, which he successfully applied to his fiction.
35In describing reality, Dickens was in fact aiming at reaching the truth of the objects he was depicting and, in the name of this definition, he often countered accusations of improbability and exaggeration. He thus claimed in his preface to Oliver Twist that however incredible it may have seemed, Nancy’s character was true to life:
It has been observed of Nancy that her devotion to the brutal house-breaker does not seem natural (...) It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong. It is TRUE. (OT, Preface)
36Dickens defined realism as moral truth, and he considered characters like Mr. Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit or Mr. Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend as embodiments of hypocrisy and prudishness, and therefore as real moral types in spite of their seemingly exaggerated nature.
37The novelist also defined realism as historical truth. In Barnaby Rudge and in A Tale of Two Cities, he did not only aim at producing realism through the historical evidence he had collected, he also wished to produce an impression of life and truth by imagining a group of ordinary characters set in the turbulent circumstances of the Gordon Riots or the French Revolution, and by enlivening these historical scenes through epic style.
38Many of the paradoxes examined in the first part of this paper can therefore be explained by Dickens’s heteroglossic definition of realism which combines this mode of representation with seemingly antithetical genres such as epic, melodrama, the Gothic, sensationalism or symbolism. The opening of one of the chapters of Oliver Twist defends and illustrates this definition of realism based on the layering of apparently antithetical genres:
It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon…
39Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there, we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference. (OT, 27: 118)
40However satisfactory it may seem, this heteroglossic approach to realism does not do away with every one of the contradictions previously examined in Dickens’s writing, and those which remain stress the surviving tensions between the novelist’s imagination and realist requirements.
41As a result, this paper has shown that against the new horizon of expectation of mid-Victorian realism, Dickens developed some interesting concepts which enabled him to reconcile his imagination with the dominant literary requirements of his time, but that he also took part in the exploration, definition and redefinition of the features of Victorian realism whose inner contradictions he contributed to pointing out. However, this paper has also confirmed that, as George Levine has pointed out, “Dickens certainly was less easy with the limits of realism than most of his contemporaries…” (The Realistic Imagination 14).