Month 5 (September 1864): Reading the Papers: Dickens, Betty Higden, and the OMF Serial Community

This guest post was contributed by Professor Linda K. Hughes, Addie Levy Professor of Literature, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas.

The most famous line from Part V of Our Mutual Friend is Betty Higden’s enthusiastic commendation of Sloppy when he reads the newspaper aloud: ‘“He do the Police in different voices.”’ This is famous less on account of Dickens – or Sloppy – than T. S. Eliot, since Betty’s declaration was the original title of what became The Waste Land. Anyone searching online for the sentence will encounter a T. S. Eliot site ( before Our Mutual Friend comes up in the search results. (Betty’s promo of Sloppy is also the title of an album released last year by the techno band South London Ordnance.) The sentence, ironically, has gained more popularity from its role in an unpublished manuscript than from its place in Our Mutual Friend. For my purposes, Betty’s preceding sentence is more significant: ‘“And I do love a newspaper.”’ Clearly Dickens did too, judging from the number of times newspapers are mentioned in the first five parts. In Part 2, before Rogue Riderhood enters Abbey Potterson’s tavern, she has been reading the newspaper and pointedly returns to it after Riderhood attempts to enter (Chapter 6, ‘Cut Adrift’). Abbey’s direct access to newspapers contrasts the vicarious literacy of Boffin and Betty, who consume certain texts by means of a hired reader (anticipating today’s audiobooks). Abbey’s newspaper-reading acquires even greater visibility because Marcus Stone represents it in the novel’s third illustration, ‘At the Bar’.

Marcus Stone, 'At the Bar'. Image downloaded from

Marcus Stone, ‘At the Bar’. Image downloaded from

As Part 3 opens, we learn of the self-advertisement of Mortimer Lightwood ‘erewhile called in the newspapers eminent solicitor.’ And when Boffin calls on Lightwood, the ’eminent solicitor’ with no other clients contrasts Boffin’s huge inheritance with encumbered estates that often become ‘an extremely dear way of getting your name into the newspapers.’ Even Twemlow is recalled ‘sitting over his newspaper’ in Chapter 10. These recurring references enable Dickens to fashion a network of fictional characters across class boundaries held together by their shared involvement in the papers – a kind of proleptic enactment in 1864 of Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities (1983). Betty pointedly mentions newspapers again when she explains why she would rather be murdered than put in the Poor House:

‘“Do I never read in the newspapers […] God help me and the like of me! – how the worn-out people that do come down to that, get driven from post to pillar and pillar to post, a-purpose to tire them out! Do I never read how they are put off, put off, put off – how they are grudged, grudged, grudged, the shelter, or the doctor, or the drop of physic, or the bit of bread?”’

Betty’s citation of recurring newspaper coverage invites Dickens’s community of readers to look out from their paper-covered installments of Our Mutual Friend to what they had recently read or were currently reading in the papers, an act of recall that could intensify their sense of connection with Betty. Dickens himself, however, wrote these lines sometime in April 1864, almost five months before Part 5 appeared on bookstalls and at circulating libraries. What might Dickens have been reading to prompt him to Betty’s urgent protest? The London Review, a weekly newspaper overseen by Charles Mackay, ran an article entitled ‘The Proud Poor’ in its 20 February 1864 issue, which noted ‘Harrowing stories’ of workhouse indifference to suffering and instanced the recently deceased widow Lydia Taylor, who had ‘Literally […] died of cold and hunger’ yet had refused to apply for relief to the workhouse because ‘“She was too proud”’ (191). As the writer added, ‘Mrs. Taylor is not the only Englishwoman who, between the workhouse and death, has preferred the latter’ (192). It is impossible to know if Dickens read the London Review, but Mackay was a friend under whom Dickens had worked while a parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle, and in 1846 Dickens tried to hire Mackay for the Daily News (‘Mackay, Charles’, ODNB). On 12 March, shortly before Dickens began writing Part 5, the London Review reported another case of an ‘inflexible’ workhouse guardian who raised so many bureaucratic obstacles to a woman’s admission to an infirmary that she died unnecessarily (‘Death from Starvation’, 279). And at the very time Dickens was writing Part 5, on 16 April, the widely-circulating, penny weekly paper Leisure Hour published ‘Want and Woe in London’. If its account is reliable, Leisure Hour confirms the circulation of a common discourse out of which Dickens crafted Betty’s impassioned declaration:

‘The journals tell us from time to time of men or women dying in the streets, and of juries, on investigating the causes, returning verdicts of “death by starvation or famine;” and then we generally find that the deceased has applied for relief at the workhouse and been refused, and has wandered forth to perish of hunger amid the surroundings of wealth and luxury, and superfluity of all kinds. This hideous tale has, from its frequent repetition, become so common that it is ceasing to affect us as it once did, and as it ought to do […].’ (252).

By the time Part 5 appeared in September, any newspaper stories Dickens had seen during its composition would have been at best a distant memory for his own readers. But current events conspired to reprise Poor Law issues. As the Saturday Review reported on 25 June, a Poor Law report had just been published following a three-and-a-half-year investigation of reported malfeasance. As the paper noted, ‘The unwillingness of a large part of the poor to apply to the parish for relief comes out very strongly in the evidence. More than one witness, familiar with their feelings, says that the independent poor would rather die first’ (‘The Poor Law Report’, 772). Coverage in daily and weekly newspapers, then, would have sustained public awareness and fashioned Betty’s contention that she would rather die than enter the workhouse into a matter of common currency among Dickens’s serial readers. Ironically, the Our Mutual Friend Advertiser that enclosed Dickens’s text at the front and back, which this serial reading project is making available to today’s online reading community, suggests more sympathy with the Veneerings and Podsnaps than with the Higdens and Sloppys of the world. One ad is for Mr. Facey Romford’s Hounds illustrated by John Leech (also in its fifth number), Robert Smith Surtees’ sporting novel set in the gentrified world of fox hunting. Especially amusing is the advert for a male cosmetic on p. 10: ‘SPANISH FLY is the acting ingredient in Alex. Ross’s CANTHARIDES OIL, which speedily produces whiskers and thickens hair’. A readership far removed from Betty is again solicited at the number’s end, in the advert for the September number of London Society featuring ‘A Tale of a Chivalrous Life’, illustrated by John Millais, and articles on archery, Switzerland, and cadet life. Only the opening Advertiser ad for the Family Herald targets an audience that might occasionally afford a penny for a weekly paper but could also face some of hardships Betty does. It was by being newspaper readers, like Abbey Potterson, Sloppy, or Dickens himself, that the serial reading community could most fully experience the impact of Betty Higden’s outcry.


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Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

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