On Titles and titles in Chesterton’s Dickens

G. K. Chesterton was among the most astute and fair-minded of commentators writing in the early twentieth century upon the Victorian period. His work on Dickens is particularly rich and stimulating in its insights, connecting questions about stylistic and imaginative temperament with those about political and social identity, in ways that are often as surprising and provocative as they are entertaining. In the excerpt below, from Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911), he makes a case for Dickens’s last completed novel, published serially 150 years ago, suggesting that it represents a benign ‘Indian summer’ of vulgar farcicality, the ‘democratic’ mode with which the novelist began his writing career and which Chesterton sees as his greatest achievement. Interrogating the title of the book, he sees the inelegant awkwardness of its linguistic construction as a sign of the happy persistence of the uneducated within Dickens’s persona into the final years of his career. Whereas, according to Chesterton, amidst the ‘reaction’ and ‘decay’ of the 1850s, Dickens had become partially co-opted into the fashionable high society he initially railed against, in the very title of Our Mutual Friend he rebels against the ‘aristocratic sentimentalism’, which valued propriety and etiquette over justice and the good, into which he may have been slipping. In an ingenious spectral pun, Chesterton’s Dickens appears to be using his novel’s title to lay down his continued opposition to a corrupt social system that values the scholarly titles of universities and the landed titles of aristocracy above true merit.

Our Mutual Friend marks a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens’s life. One might call it a sort of Indian summer of his farce. Those who most truly love Dickens love the earlier Dickens; and any return to his farce must be welcomed, like a young man come back from the dead. In this book indeed he does not merely return to his farce; he returns in a manner to his vulgarity. It is the old democratic and even uneducated Dickens who is writing here. The very title is illiterate. Any priggish pupil teacher could tell Dickens that there is no such phrase in English as “our mutual friend.” Any one could tell Dickens that “our mutual friend” means “our reciprocal friend,” and that “our reciprocal friend” means nothing. If he had only had all the solemn advantages of academic learning (the absence of which in him was lamented by the Quarterly Review), he would have known better. He would have known that the correct phrase for a man known to two people is “our common friend.” But if one calls one’s friend a common friend, even that phrase is open to misunderstanding.


I dwell with a gloomy pleasure on this mistake in the very title of the book because I, for one, am not pleased to see Dickens gradually absorbed by modern culture and good manners. Dickens, by class and genius, belonged to the kind of people who do talk about a “mutual friend”; and for that class there is a very great deal to be said. These two things can at least be said—that this class does understand the meaning of the word “friend” and the meaning of the word “mutual.” I know that for some long time before he had been slowly and subtly sucked into the whirlpool of the fashionable views of later England. I know that in Bleak House he treats the aristocracy far more tenderly than he treats them in David Copperfield. I know that in A Tale of Two Cities, having come under the influence of Carlyle, he treats revolution as strange and weird, whereas under the influence of Cobbett he would have treated it as obvious and reasonable. I know that in The Mystery of Edwin Drood he not only praised the Minor Canon of Cloisterham at the expense of the dissenting demagogue, Honeythunder; I know that he even took the last and most disastrous step in the modern English reaction. While blaming the old Cloisterham monks (who were democratic), he praised the old-world peace that they had left behind them—an old-world peace which is simply one of the last amusements of aristocracy. The modern rich feel quite at home with the dead monks. They would have felt anything but comfortable with the live ones. I know, in short, how the simple democracy of Dickens was gradually dimmed by the decay and reaction of the middle of the nineteenth century. I know that he fell into some of the bad habits of aristocratic sentimentalism. I know that he used the word “gentleman” as meaning good man. But all this only adds to the unholy joy with which I realise that the very title of one of his best books was a vulgarism. It is pleasant to contemplate this last unconscious knock in the eye for the gentility with which Dickens was half impressed. Dickens is the old self-made man; you may take him or leave him. He has its disadvantages and its merits. No university man would have written the title; no university man could have written the book.

Incidentally, though I think Chesterton is onto something, his analysis doesn’t quite fix down what is going on with this complex title. He seems to forget, for one, that the construction ‘Our Mutual Friend’ is one that belongs to one of the characters of the book, the illiterate Mr Boffin, when he employs it to tiptoe around speaking to Mrs Wilfer about her mysterious new lodger Mr Rokesmith.

‘By-the-bye, ma’am,’ said Mr Boffin, turning back as he was going, ‘you have a lodger?’

‘A gentleman,’ Mrs Wilfer answered, qualifying the low expression, ‘undoubtedly occupies our first floor.’

‘I may call him Our Mutual Friend,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘What sort of a fellow IS Our Mutual Friend, now? Do you like him?’

‘Mr Rokesmith is very punctual, very quiet, a very eligible inmate.’

‘Because,’ Mr Boffin explained, ‘you must know that I’m not particularly well acquainted with Our Mutual Friend, for I have only seen him once. You give a good account of him. Is he at home?’

As is so often the case in Dickens, the democratic quality of his writing rests on its capacious polyvocality, its inclusion of all sorts of voices and idiolects, which are quite different from those we would associate with the writer’s own subject position. Chesterton may well be right that other university-educated novelists would have thought twice about placing such a ‘non-U’ phrase at the helm of their narratives, but this may well be because Dickens’s versatility in ventriloquism meant that he was confident enough to try out a whole repertoire of different voices without fearing any in particular might stick!


‘Phantom Railings’

London is a city that, though its fabric is constantly changing, preserves and redeploys much from its past. One of its surviving nineteenth-century features about which I’m slightly obsessed is those iron railings that mark out its squares and parks. Catalina Pollak is an Argentinian artist, living in London, who has channelled her fascination for these items of street furniture into an amazing public installation which commemorates the moment when, in the second world war, railings were removed from the metropolitan scene. In their absence, the ‘phantom railings’ make the sound of someone clanking a stick against them as passers-by walk along the pavement. In a powerful yet subtle political gesture, Pollak’s work makes us think about the ways in which access to urban space is overly restricted and hierarchized, one of the less laudable inheritances the Victorians bestowed upon us.



Making Hay While The Moon Shines

Ford Madox Brown ‘The Hayfield’, 1855–6

Ford Madox Brown painted ‘The Hayfield’ in 1855 and ’56. Although there is an idyllic pastoral quality here, the site represented is actually only just outside the metropolis: this is Hendon, Middlesex, then a village in the countryside but which has long since been engulfed within the sprawling mass of Greater London, a city whose unprecedented growth was at this midpoint of the nineteenth century particularly feverish. One of the many fascinating aspects of this artist’s oeuvre is his unusual interest in the space on or just beyond the edge of cities and in suburbia, as some of his other paintings such as An English Autumn Afternoon (1852-3) and, his most famous work, Work (1852-67) exemplify, through their depiction of Hampstead. This painting deserves to be read in the context of this spatial emphasis, the suburban being an innovation of subject matter that is sometimes wrongly credited to the Impressionists. Like Monet, Madox Brown too was devoted to painting from nature, en plein air – the summer he made this painting, he would often walk in the late afternoon the seven miles from Finchley, where he was living, to this field, in order to capture the particular effect of twilight on the working landscape. I love the resting figure of the artist himself, in the bottom left, in sandals, leaning against one of the bundles of hay, still clutching his easel, soaking up the warm evening, and appreciating the hard physical work of the farmhands, even as he takes a rest from his own less physically strenuous labours.

Braddon’s Trajectories

The passage below forms part of a letter from Mary Elizabeth Braddon to her literary mentor, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, dated November 3rd 1868. The address from which the letter was sent – the ‘here’ which forms something of its subject – is Lichfield House in Richmond, a leafy town-cum-suburb to the south west of central London.  Braddon had bought this large residence in mid 1866, and by the spring of 1867 had moved there with her family, from No. 26 Mecklenburgh Square, in east Bloomsbury. The new place, an earlier letter to Bulwer informs us, was ‘a big red house built by some Bishop of Lichfield & with a rare old fashioned garden.’[1] The ‘she’ whom Braddon is writing of is her mother, who had recently died.

I must tell you that it was a passage in yr Caxtoniana that decided me, after considerable wavering, on removing here from London, a place she always detested, a year & a half ago. I cannot now quote the passage but it is the remark of a man who tells his friend that immediately prosperity enabled him to do so he gratified his mother’s love of a flower garden by giving her the best he could provide.

             This turned the balance & decided a family Hegira from Mecklenburgh Square hither – & thank God that it was so, for here she found much happiness in the devotion of my stepdaughters, who came home from their convent-school to this house, & who have tended her with watchful and devoted attention ever since…[2]

This passage is intriguing for a number of reasons. Notable is Braddon’s insistence that a dimly remembered passage from Bulwer’s Caxtoniana proved determinative in her decision to make the move. Her claim locates literary writing at the centre of her ‘every day’ material dealings with real life (and real places). How might we read this curious literary emphasis? Braddon is paying no small flattery to her hero-of-letters by telling him that such a momentous life choice was catalysed by something she’d once read in a collection of his whimsical essays and sketches. There is probably an element of self-definition here too, a compliment to herself that she chooses to be informed by a writer she holds in very high esteem: she takes counsel upon matters great and small from the great and the good. Yet such possible motives of flattery and self-definition do not undermine the passage’s emotional veracity, conceived as it was in the shadow of her beloved mother’s death.

The letter is revealing more broadly about the complex significance of the move to her at the time, and of a sense of place in Braddon’s thinking life. She seems to need to work through and write about the move from Bloomsbury to Richmond – to a fellow writer – and to connect it with other kinds of journey she had undergone in the past few months and years. She vividly returns to the decision she made one and half years ago to invoke the moment while it was still in the ‘balance’, remembering her own ‘considerable wavering’ against how much her mother ‘detested’ living in West-Central London. Though the ‘thank God that it was so’ conveniently resolves this tension with a sigh of relief, such a long period of wavering on the one hand and detesting on the other might well have been a strain on the mother-daughter relationship. Braddon’s wavering had reason in it, for in a letter to Bulwer dated January 1865 she had written that living in central London suited her better than its south western suburbs: ‘while I work against time, & I am here close to the Brit. Mus. if ever I can get time to read.’[3] The benefits of being located in literarily-central Bloomsbury, indeed, were not only in terms of her reading, but extended also to her social life. In a letter from March 1866, for example, Braddon warmly mentions meeting Charles Reade, the famous novelist, ‘at a theatrical dinner party in Bloomsbury’[4]. Removing herself across the river to the genteel exile of Richmond would then perhaps have required something of a ‘push’ to counteract the ‘pull’ of Bloomsbury’s social and bookish attractions.

There was indeed a ‘push’, alluded to in that odd word ‘Hegira’, the Arabic for Mohammad’s flight to Mecca. Sticking out as an elaborate appropriation among the other words, ‘hegira’ reframes the move to include a sense of the unusual, and of danger, moreover. The analogy is only partly meant ironically, for leaving Bloomsbury for Richmond can be seen in the context of Braddon’s personal life at the time as something of a withdrawal out of harm’s way. Braddon had faced in recent years sustained and sometimes savage criticism of both her morals and writing, the thinly veiled motivation for such vitriol being the fact that she was living unmarried with the publisher John Maxwell and his children  – the devoted ‘step-daughters’ she mentions – in their house in 26 Mecklenburgh Square.[5] For Braddon, moving into a large detached place out of the immediate public eye of central London – and her critics – might well have felt like a welcome retreat. Though not mentioned explicitly in the letter, Braddon’s representation of the move nonetheless makes reference to these attacks and her desire to escape them, with recourse to exotic language that both highlights and makes light of its presence – a characteristically Braddonesque stylistic ploy.

The other related journey gently touched upon in the passage, perhaps most important of all, is that of Braddon’s recent and ongoing ascent to fame and fortune as a writer, her own ‘prosperity’ lying behind that of the notional man that once bought his mother a flower garden. The house in Richmond was purchased with the money Braddon had earned through royalties and other fees from her writing, and most of all, from the sales of her best-selling novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Her letters to Bulwer-Lytton and others indicate that she was proud of this new wealth, this new self-sufficiency. The move represents a significant step-up in her career, and a in her sense of self as a successful independent writer. This could indeed be an unconscious reason why she insists upon mentioning the passage from Caxtoniana to its hugely successful author, claiming a genealogy of thought from the material and real back to the literary and fictional. The world of literature, or, more specifically, the literary industry, did after all have a determinative role upon Braddon’s decision to move out of Mecklenburgh Square and take up residence in an old Bishop’s mansion in Richmond, but not necessarily in the way she says.

One of the intrinsic qualities of the letter genre is its locatedness. The letter as missive declares that it has come from somewhere and indeed discloses this place of origin, its specific cultural location in both time and space, its materiality, in the top right hand corner of the page. The letter is clearly tied up with the complex messiness of reality – its given-ness, juxtapositions, trippings up, overlayerings. So, as in Braddon’s letter to Bulwer-Lytton on her mother’s death, a literary insight is allowed to stumble in upon the practice of everyday life, amidst the reliable tensions of a complex and dynamic domestic scene, a daughter’s grief, a lover’s apprehension, an entrepreneur-writer’s pride. Letters might then be seen to possess a structural facility at presenting what seem like often tactful glimpses – as in the above – of what Merleau-Ponty understood to be the ‘placed-ness’ and ‘embodied-ness’ of the self.

[1] Letter dated Aug 9th 1866. Letters all presented by Robert Lee Wolff in Harvard Library Bulletin 22 (1974) (p5-35, 129-161).

[2] Letter dated Nov 3rd 1868.

[3] Letter, Jan 1865.

[4] Letter, Mar 1866.

[5] See Robert Lee Wolff’s Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1979) and Jennifer Carnell’s The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon: A Study of her Life and Works (Hastings: Sensation Press, 2000).

[6] The Examiner March 28th 1863

Dislocation in Thomas Hardy

In the nineteenth century, pressures on space because of extensive speculative building development meant that sites held sacrosanct to previous eras came to be regarded as only provisionally valued. The dead were under unprecedented threat of being ‘annexed’ by all-encroaching modernity. Hardy’s poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ (1882) imagines the spectral voices of souls reassembled after a churchyard is dug up, its graves ‘wrenched’ from and re-situated within a plot of consecrated ground that seemed to be terminally shrinking.  ‘Jumbled’ newly next to each other, the bodies of the dead are socially ‘levelled’ in a way they never were when living. In a very Hardyan mode of irony, they complain that the ‘verses’ that were inscribed to remember them have become mixed up, so that the ‘drunkard’ and the ‘Teetotal’ – who would have crossed the street to avoid each other when alive – here are carelessly juxtaposed.

In the 1860s, when in London learning the profession as an architect he soon forsook for the pen, Hardy was reputedly put in charge of managing the transfer of graves in Old St Pancras churchyard, in order to make way for the new railway. This job is commemorated both in the ‘Hardy Tree’, which can still be found there, crowded round as it is by relocated gravestones, and (perhaps) in the quiet nod in the poem’s second word to those commuters and cosmopolitans perpetually on the move whose restlessness trumps the desire of the dead for the finality of the last stanza’s  ‘Amen’:

“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!

“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’

“The wicked people have annexed
The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
Teetotal Tommy should!

“Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or p-ing place
Where we have never lain!

“There’s not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some local strumpet!

“From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane
Deliver us O Lord! Amen!”

Trollope and Residential Nostalgia

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the Victorians responded in their fiction to metropolitan residential mobility. As much feminist scholarship and work on domesticity has shown, the home was a place loaded in this period with ideological significance, and one’s place of residence, as a result, played a hugely important role in the formation of bourgeois identity. At the same time, cities like London were in practice spaces of residential flux, in which members of the middle classes moved around far more than they do today. Freeholds on properties were rare, and it was common to rent or take relatively short leases on accommodation throughout one’s life. Before marriage, young men would frequently occupy lodgings or live in boarding houses, in even more temporary arrangements, moving every few months or so. As a result, the list of residential addresses one might have accumulated by one’s middle age could be long indeed. As a result, over the course of a lifetime, one’s sense of identity, as expressed specifically in residency, would be markedly fragmented and dispersed. How did writers attend to this complex reality of everyday life?

Anthony Trollope, who was born in 1815 in Keppel Street, Bloomsbury, wrote about one reaction to residential mobility that was doubtless very common: nostalgia. In this passage from his novel Orley Farm (1862), he emphasises the way that, even if one had ascended socially through success in one’s professional career, it was normal to look backwards with affection for the modes of life belonging to one’s past, concretized as they would be in one’s memory by their association with particular residences one could still remember:

“I wonder whether you ever think of the old days when we used to be so happy in Keppel Street?” Ah me, how often in after life, in those successful days when the battle has been fought and won, when all seems outwardly to go well,—how often is this reference made to the happy days in Keppel Street! It is not the prize that can make us happy; it is not even the winning of the prize, though for the one short half-hour of triumph that is pleasant enough. The struggle, the long hot hour of the honest fight, the grinding work,—when the teeth are set, and the skin moist with sweat and rough with dust, when all is doubtful and sometimes desperate, when a man must trust to his own manhood knowing that those around him trust to it not at all,—that is the happy time of life. There is no human bliss equal to twelve hours of work with only six hours in which to do it. And when the expected pay for that work is worse than doubtful, the inner satisfaction is so much the greater. Oh, those happy days in Keppel Street, or it may be over in dirty lodgings in the Borough, or somewhere near the Marylebone workhouse;—anywhere for a moderate weekly stipend. Those were to us, and now are to others, and always will be to many, the happy days of life. How bright was love, and how full of poetry! Flashes of wit glanced here and there, and how they came home and warmed the cockles of the heart. And the unfrequent bottle! Methinks that wine has utterly lost its flavour since those days. There is nothing like it; long work, grinding weary work, work without pay, hopeless work; but work in which the worker trusts himself, believing it to be good. Let him, like Mahomet, have one other to believe in him, and surely nothing else is needed. “Ah me! I wonder whether you ever think of the old days when we used to be so happy in Keppel Street?”

As is often the case with Trollope, the cosy use of the collective pronoun should not lull us into a sense that the strange implications lurking beneath the narrator’s musings are in any way addressed. Drawing our attention to an apparent perversity of thought, in which the prize of hard work proves Pyrrhic, undone as it is by a nostalgic current that prefers the inaccessible past, however ‘dirty’ or ‘grinding’, to the alienated present, Trollope leaves us with an insight that nineteenth-century residential identity was more complicated and problematic than we might have at first imagined.

Le Victorian Quotidien

Hi – I’m Matthew Ingleby, an academic in literary and cultural studies based in London, the city in and on which I wrote my doctorate. I’ve been thinking for a while about setting up an online scrapbook for my evolving ideas and research on nineteenth-century culture, and here’s what I’ve come up with. I’m hoping to try to post something or other more or less every day (who knows whether or not this will work out? hmm!) – though the main impulse behind the title of the blog is less hubristic than this: my work explores the way that (mainly) Victorian and early twentieth-century literature attends to the everyday, the pervasive ordinary functions of human existence, and this blog aims to reflect that. In particular I’m interested in how writers reflect on and reprocess everyday matters of space, residency, mobility, and work, through the mode of fictional narrative. So a lot of what I’m intending to do is to bring to the light bits and pieces of texts I’m concentrating on at the moment, sometimes just to pass them on, but other times to offer some sort of analysis. Let’s hope it takes off and I don’t forget the password!