Month 9 (January 1865): ‘Say something plain.’ Speech and Suppression in the January Number

This month’s post was contributed by Joanna Robinson, AHRC Collaborative PhD Candidate at King’s College London and the Museum of London.

The reader may be forgiven for imagining that Pleasant Riderhood would be a haughty and imperious woman, as her refusal to ‘be regarded in a certain light’ precedes her into the text, accompanied by Mr Venus’s mournful lamentations.[1]  Disembodied, her voice is amplified, as Venus’s despair grows more acute with every repetition.  Thus, it comes as a surprise in chapter twelve when she is repeatedly silenced by her father.

The honest man who gained his living by the sweat of his brow […] awoke to a clear perception that Poll Parroting was solely chargeable with what had passed.  Therefore, not to be remiss in his duty as a father, he threw a pair of sea-boots at Pleasant, (364)

Resilient, but pitiable, Pleasant’s emotional responses can only be articulated by her ‘sympathetic hair’, which quietly expresses what she is prevented from saying. (360)  So, although Rogue Riderhood blames ‘Poll Parroting’ for the events of chapter twelve, the January number of Our Mutual Friend in fact presents a series of instances in which speech is denied or resisted.  The chapters give the reader a privileged insight into the secret desires and fantasies of several characters, and John Harmon speaks as himself for the first time, yet problems of expression remain.  Even while Dickens chooses to begin the New Year with the significant disclosure of John Rokesmith’s true identity, the January chapters entwine themes of speech and censorship in complex ways.

The chapters progress through a sequence of unspoken or abandoned communications, beginning with Miss Peecher’s longing for Bradley Headstone, which is ‘commit to the confidential slate’ but cannot be told to Headstone himself. (338)  Peecher seems scarcely able to give private voice to the nature of her own feelings, and stops short of a full confession.  Although the reader is told openly ‘that she loved the unresponsive Bradley with all the primitive and homely stock of love that had never been examined or certificated out of her’, Peecher stands beside the reader as an observer of her romantic fantasy, rather than acting as a participant in it. (338)  Peecher repeatedly refuses to make a straightforward acknowledgement of her feelings, even while she details her dream.  Distant and disembodied within her own imagination Peecher adopts the role of witness, as she describes how ‘two figures might have been observed in the market-garden ground round the corner’. (338)  Moreover, she elides any admission of sexual desire as, like the end of a black-and-white movie, a crescendo of sound cascades over the scene of consummation, and we witnesses chastely avert our eyes when ‘the womanly form’s head repose[s] upon the manly form’s shoulder, and the nightingales [tune] up.’ (338)  Nevertheless, Peecher’s frustration is made evident by her jealous repetition of Lizzie’s address, and the comically suggestive imagery of Headstone spurting out of ‘Vesuvius and Ætna ahead of the lava’. (338)  Peecher’s attempts to disembody her desire ultimately undermine the consciously demure nature of her fantasy; instead of maintaining an impression of genteel femininity, her curtailed confession in fact questions gender identities.  Peecher is so anxious to distance herself from the disclosure of her sexual desire that she personifies her frustration and jealousy as a man: ‘the watchman reported to Miss Peecher his strong suspicions that the sister was at the bottom of it.’ (339)  Aside from building upon other queer moments in the text, identified by Emma Curry’s previous post on this site, Peecher’s evasiveness sets a pattern for the rest of the January chapters, as Dickens proceeds to explore other examples of self-censorship and interrupted speech.  For instance, Headstone’s compulsive repetition of Eugene Wrayburn’s name, as a euphemistic expression of his envy, is prefigured by Peecher’s reiteration of Lizzie’s address.

John Harmon’s extended revelatory monologue also fails to act as a full and true confession, even though he often pauses to cross-examine his statements.  ‘Now stop, and so far think it out John Harmon.  Is that so?  That is exactly so.’ (367)  In addition to Harmon’s death acting as a narrative spur within each of the novel’s plots, he has already appeared in the text under various guises (Julius Handford, John Rokesmith, the Captain).  So, he appears reduced when these numerous personalities, and his wider narrative significances, are confined to a single body.  However, multiplicity acts as an agent of both concealment and repression for Harmon, as his first opportunity to speak undisguised sees him frequently retreat into an alter-ego and, like Peecher, address his feelings in the third-person.  Harmon’s “Alfred David” attempts to organise the confusion and dream-like un-specificity of his near-death experience into a coherent, and chronological, story; conversely, his concern to be ‘literal and exact’ causes him to eschew the trauma of the experience. (369)   ‘As to this hour I cannot understand that side of the river where I recovered the shore, […] But this is not thinking it out; this is making a leap to the present time.’ (370)  Harmon’s tantalisingly strange phrase that he cannot ‘understand’ the scene, intimates an inability to enunciate the emotional affect of his experience.  Harmon’s emotional (rather than factual) self-revelation is thus abruptly cut short, and his voice is quickly buried again by ‘the Sexton Rokesmith’. (378)

Mrs Boffin’s observation in the December number that Rokesmith has ‘a kind of kept-down manner […] which is not like [his] age,’ echoes as a refrain throughout the January chapters as Dickens examines themes of censorship and voice. (332)  Not only does Rokesmith’s rejection of his true identity revise this phrase as a conclusion to the instalment (‘Cover him, crush him, keep him down!’ (378)), but it also connects Rokesmith’s self-suppression to Headstone’s inability to express his violent desires: ‘I am a man of strong feelings, […] I don’t show what I feel; some of us are obliged habitually to keep it down.’ (344)  Mrs Boffin’s intuitive understanding is thus revised and contrasted to the circuitous attempts that the characters make to express themselves in the January chapters.  Disastrous miscommunications are repeatedly infused with legal discourse.  Headstone unsettles Lizzie when he insists upon ‘the whole case being submitted to [her] in another interview.’ (346)  Subsequently Bella and Rokesmith quarrel when she ‘decline[s] to be cross-examined.’ (376)  Interactions between characters, as well as passages of self-reflection, are thus burdened by censorship, as legal terminology effects a circumlocution away from the expression of genuine feeling.  Depersonalising the characters’ voices, it prevents them from understanding each other.  John Kucich has argued in Repression in Victorian Fiction that Dickens’s later novels explore ‘a vastly complex system of representations, in which passion is not necessarily presocial, and repression not necessarily unpassionate.’[2]  Kucich suggests that repression in fact becomes central to the experience and expression of desire.  While repression certainly heightens Headstone and Peecher’s emotions by intensifying their suspense, the link between repression and desire is also demonstrated in Lizzie’s feelings for Wrayburn.  Lizzie’s self-effacing fantasy of a rich and beautiful ‘lady’ is perhaps intended to signal the purity of her love, yet this can only be articulated through her imagined absence. (349)   Indeed, Lizzie’s erasure is twofold: first through her refusal to figure in her own dream, and then by killing off her surrogate.  ‘She would joyfully die with him, or, better than that, die for him.’ (349)  Dickens gives various representations of desire in these chapters, yet it is consistently silenced, and these characters become complicit in their censorship.  Nevertheless, Dickens shows that their refusal to speak plainly ultimately complicates and intensifies their longing, and makes their passion even more difficult to express.

[1] Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, ed. by Michael Cotsell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 300.  Subsequent references are to this edition, page numbers are given in parentheses.

[2] John Kucich, Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1987), p. 203.

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Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

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