‘In Chancery’. Again. (Month 10: February 1865)

This guest post was contributed by James Mussell, Associate Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds.  He is the author of Science, Time and Space in the Late Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press (2007) and The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age (2012). Since 2009 he has edited the Digital Forum in the Journal of Victorian Culture.

February 1865’s number brings an end to both Book Two and the first volume of Our Mutual Friend. It is one of those curious points in a serial where the monographical is made present in virtual form. The words ‘the end of the second book and the end of the first volume’ make clear where we are: even though we are reading in parts, we cannot escape the sense that we have reached a point in a whole. This serial mode of reading is a process in which we fill out an empty form, the parts read accumulating behind us as the end gets closer. We know that there is a wholeness here, that the novel will reach a conclusion eventually, that there will be a moment when there is no more to come, when we can close the book and look back. In Part Ten this virtual wholeness is made strikingly present in the volume titlepage and contents that appear in the wrapper. Not only are we reminded where we are in the novel, we are also enjoined to enact this putative wholeness by turning parts into a book. Or rather, half a book.

The part opens with Rokesmith, who has just spent a restless night after piling metaphorical earth upon John Harmon. As Joanna Robinson argued last month, Part Nine offered both Headstone and Rokesmith as models of repression, storing things up in their efforts to keep the past down. Rokesmith’s musings at the opening of Part Ten provides a useful summary of the plot so far, setting out the consequences of John Harmon’s resurrection for Rokesmith’s relations with Bella, the Boffins, and himself. Betty Higden’s departure at the end of Chapter Fourteen draws an end to events at the Boffins’ for the volume, leaving much to unfold in the volume to come. Chapter Fifteen follows Bradley Headstone and Charley as they make the promised second meeting with Lizzie. Headstone’s excrutiatingly tortured proposal leaves him incapable of saying anything other than ‘Eugene Wrayburn’, replacing Lizzie as the target of his libidinal energies. As for Lizzie, she deftly dismisses Headstone only to be rebuffed by her brother and then fought over by Riah and Wrayburn (who admits he has found himself in a gothic novel). The final chapter, an ‘Anniversary Occasion’, which ends both book and volume, places us in the same glittering company with which the novel (almost) began. As an anniversary, the chapter summons up this ghost from the past, when we first heard of the ‘man from somewhere’, while also marking how far we have come.

Surrounding these chapters are the advertisements. Advertisements are promiscuous texts: necessarily repetitive, they embody the logic of print, proliferating across different surfaces and so bringing more of the material world into print culture. The advertisements in the wrapper are paratexts in Genette’s sense. They exist outside of the ‘real’ text; nonetheless, this outsideness is what guarantees the integrity of the literary text they enclose, marking its difference. We often use advertisements to tell us something about the readers of a particular work, but the reverse is also true. Literary scholars might align themselves with the reader and conceive of advertisements as part of the material culture of literature, marking the system that enables the literary text to circulate; but for advertisers, Our Mutual Friend is the medium, one more delivery system amongst many.

For readers, a contract underpins seriality: you pay your money, you get more of the same. However, this same-but-different works differently for serial works like novels, which have a posited end, and more open-ended serials. In both cases, novelty is tempered with repetition but for novels the sense of progress, of moving towards an end, is palpable. In the advertising, the balance is tipped much more towards the repetitive. New adverts appear – for new products, or the same products in new ways – but there are many that stay stubbornly the same. Readers are not very good at sameness, at repetition, and tend to skip over what has been seen before. But I want to linger on one of these repetitive advertisements, the one entitled ‘Caution. – “In Chancery.” Chlorodyne’. This first appeared in the wrapper of Part One, entitled ‘Caution. – Chlorodyne. In Chancery’ and an advertisement for chlorodyne has been in the wrapper of every part so far.

Chlorodyne was what was erroneously known as a patent medicine in the period. Discovered by John Collis Browne in 1848, chlorodyne was a mixture of chloroform and opium (with cannabis resin and peppermint) that proved an effective treatment for fever. Browne went into business with the chemist John Thistlewood Davenport in 1856 and they had aggressively promoted chlorodyne ever since. Although known as a ‘patent medicine’, it certainly was not patented. The social contract that underpins the patent system demands that inventors share their inventions in exchange for the temporary monopoly the patent brings. As revealing the constitution of chlorodyne would allow it to be imitated by others, its ingredients were a closely-guarded secret. Patent medicines were more properly called propriety medicines or, even better, ‘secret remedies’: pre-packaged cures whose character was concealed. This secrecy was compensated by publicity, as much as could be bought, and so advertisements for patent medicines became part of all sorts of other texts. The invocation of ‘Chancery’ in these advertisements would remind readers of Bleak House, just over a decade previously. Yet chlorodyne had also had its moment in Chancery. Its success quickly attracted competitors, but it was one particular chlorodyne, marketed by a chemist called Richard Freeman, that really annoyed Browne and Davenport. In 1862 they attempted to get an injunction to stop Freeman using the name ‘chlorodyne’, but dropped the case after being advised that as long as Freeman called his preparation ‘Freeman’s chlorodyne’ it would probably be considered OK. In January 1864, Browne and Davenport once again took Freeman to court, this time to stop him calling his chlorodyne the ‘original chlorodyne.’ Freeman’s defense was that ‘chlorodyne’ described a class of drugs, rather than something specific whose origins lay with Browne, and that when he called it ‘Freeman’s Original Chlorodyne’ he was simply indicating its difference from Browne and Davneport’s. At the preliminary hearing in January, the judge, Sir W. Page Wood, while doubting Freeman’s sincerity, refused to find in Browne and Davenport’s favour and held the case over until a full hearing in July.

Both parties used the judgement, such as it was, in their advertisements. As those in the earlier parts of Our Mutual Friend show, Browne and Davenport claimed the case proved Browne ‘was the Discoverer of Chlorodyne’. Freeman, meanwhile, claimed that the finding meant that he was entitled to the sole use of the word ‘original’. When the case was heard in July, the same arguments were advanced: Browne thought he was the discoverer and should be protected; Freeman claimed that he had also invented something called chlorodyne, but it was not the same as Browne and Davenport’s (hence ‘original’). Wood, once again expressed his disapproval of Freeman, decided that Browne had invented chlorodyne but had forfeited any legal right in the name. The case was dismissed with costs.

The advertisements for chlorodyne are one side of an argument about identity and impersonation that is also made in Our Mutual Friend. The novel is deeply interested in subjectivity and self-fashioning, as characters recreate themselves, adopt new names and new identities, and become other people. Can Rokesmith keep Harmon down, or will he be resurrected, making Rokesmith himself a kind of ghost? Who is Rokesmith really: does he only know that he is Harmon because he has the luxury of being somebody else? As the rumours continue to swirl and people struggle to protect their reputations, identity is shown not to be a matter of origins, nor of divesting oneself of what one is not, but of weaving oneself together out of different parts.

At this point in the serial, when it reaches a kind of partial wholeness, we are prompted to consider the relation of parts to wholes. Paratextual material such as advertisements are inherently supplementary, both in addition to and part of the larger entity with which they circulate. Whereas the other Chancery suit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, reached an end with the end of Bleak House, Browne and Davenport’s time in Chancery reached no such conclusion. The finding in July 1864 simply prompted more texts, more parts and, when they went back to Chancery in 1872, the same thing happened again. Chlorodyne’s time in Chancery thus represents a different seriality: open-ended like a periodical rather than approaching a conclusion like a serial novel. If we learn about Victorian culture through the stories that are told about it, we will only ever get at it within these narrative wholes. Narratives are not just literary phenomena (or rather, we don’t just tell stories in stories), but a widespread organizing principle in which we designate beginnings, middles, and ends, putting things in their place. The ongoing saga of chlorodyne’s originality reminds us that closing a narrative is difficult. No matter how often they declared their authorship of chlorodyne, there were others who told different stories about the drug, propagating their own chlorodynes. Of course Dickens, with his own interest in intellectual property and his own concern for the fate of characters once they were in the world, knew very well that endings could be new beginnings. This part of Our Mutual Friend brings to an end Book Two and Volume One, but it inaugurates Book Three and Volume Two with another Chapter One.

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1 Comment

Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

One response to “‘In Chancery’. Again. (Month 10: February 1865)

  1. Pingback: ‘In Chancery’. Again | jimmussell.com

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