Month 13 (May 1865): ‘On Loops, Hunts and Pilgrimages’

This guest post was contributed by Dr. Matthew Ingleby, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at Queen Mary, University of London.

Over the last few decades, Our Mutual Friend has generated much scholarship about its spatial representation, not least Franco Moretti’s important intervention in Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (1997). One of the many methodological innovations attempted by Moretti involves the sequential mapping of the represented space of the novel over the course of its succession of monthly numbers in serial publication. Instalment by instalment, Dickens’s city expands and becomes increasingly interrelated as the narrative progresses, the socially and geographically disparate places it encompasses becoming connected in ever more complex ways.

Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (Verso, 1997): Fig 58h. Our Mutual Friend, December 1864.

Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (Verso, 1997): Fig 58h. Our Mutual Friend, December 1864.

To demonstrate graphically the multiply networked quality of the cityscape the novel produces, Moretti superimposes onto a pre-existing contemporaneous map of the metropolis thick circular dots to indicate geographical settings and arrow-like rays emanating from them to indicate ‘meetings’ between them. Of the particular nature of these relations, Moretti tells us nothing, and intentionally so. His method deliberately generalizes, enabling a form of ‘distant reading’ to surface, in which the subtle differences our discipline trains us to elevate become strategically downplayed so that we can look afresh at what we think we already know. The glory, by contrast, of a slow reading project such as this present one is that we can complement Moretti’s radical mapping with another equally unusual form of readerly attention, observing at a local scale the terrain of a particular narrative instalment, to flesh out and characterize the spatial relations his maps flatten for the sake of clarity. Those dots and rays his literary cartographies include reward close analysis. Moretti’s monthly mapping project stops at the December 1864 number, which is a shame for us, because it would have been interesting to make use of his cartographic version of our current slice of Our Mutual Friend, first published in May 1865. This textual instalment, which contains an important encounter between the two heroines and a near run-in between the rivals for Lizzie’s affection, is also notable for the way it assembles a number of different kinds of spatial practice within and between the novel’s geographical sites, the writing of all of which raises questions of agency and class identity.

Over the course of the three chapters of this thirteenth number we witness a sequence of remarkable walks. Firstly, Betty Higden’s terminal tramp westwards on a ‘pilgrimage’ to her own death; secondly, the tragicomic tableau of Mr Dolls trying and failing to negotiate London’s busy streets; and thirdly, the cat-and-mouse chase Eugene orchestrates for the benefit of his homosocial chum Lightwood by luring on the hapless schoolmaster, in and around Bethnal Green, in the deprived eastern quarter of the city.[1] In this piece I want briefly to look again at the juxtaposition of these idiosyncratic modes of pedestrian mobility in this discrete reading sample of three chapters, stressing that beyond the explicit contrast drawn, the echo-chamber of the single serial number can jolt the reader to notice unexpected ambiguities within these episodes and resonances between them, surprises which may prompt us to think more seriously about what ideological or cultural work is being done by the rhetoric of Dickens’s last competed novel.

To begin with, let’s focus on the proto-Beckettian sketch of Jenny Wren’s alcoholic wretch of a father trying and failing, repeatedly, to cross the road:

A more ridiculous and feeble spectacle than this tottering wretch making unsteady sallies into the roadway, and as often staggering back again, oppressed by terrors of vehicles that were a long way off or were nowhere, the streets could not have shown. Over and over again, when the course was perfectly clear, he set out, got half way, described a loop, turned, and went back again; when he might have crossed and re-crossed half a dozen times. Then, he would stand shivering on the edge of the pavement, looking up the street and looking down, while scores of people jostled him, and crossed, and went on. Stimulated in course of time by the sight of so many successes, he would make another sally, make another loop, would all but have his foot on the opposite pavement, would see or imagine something coming, and would stagger back again. There, he would stand making spasmodic preparations as if for a great leap, and at last would decide on a start at precisely the wrong moment, and would be roared at by drivers, and would shrink back once more, and stand in the old spot shivering, with the whole of the proceedings to go through again.

Walter Benjamin theorised the city pavement as one of the key theatres of urban modernity, the ever-present threat there of collision producing an unprecedented culture of seemingly miraculous spatial negotiation.

Moving through…traffic involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At dangerous intersections, nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery. Bauderlaire speaks of a man who plunges into a crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls the man a ‘kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness.’[2]

Hyper-charged nodes of traffic create a new kind of ‘electrified’ urban subject, but Mr Dolls (as Eugene calls him) is not ‘equipped with consciousness’ sufficient to the phenomenon and is instead paralysed at ‘dangerous intersections’. Unlike his daughter, who dodges the carriages and legs of the fashionable ladies she seeks out in order to gain inspiration, unbeknownst to them, for her dolls’ dresses, and unlike, too, Silas Wegg, who stubbornly endures the water-cart, which, ‘as if it were drunk or short-sighted, [comes] blundering and jolting’ around the stall he keeps by the house near Cavendish Square, Jenny’s father is incapacitated by the aleatoric rhythms of the city. Of course, part of Dickens’s purpose is to caricature the lamentable feebleness of this individual, drawing attention to one of the everyday ways in which this adult has farcically regressed to a stage of educational achievement of which streetwise teenagers would be ashamed. But Dickens also draws out a poignancy from this failure in urban subjectivity, and the passage stands in part as a document to the inequalities the urban thoroughfare presents to its differentially abled practitioners: ‘stimulated by the sight of so many successes’, the unsuccessful Mr Dolls suffers a kind of agoraphobic arrest, which reminds us of a much more overtly sympathetic character the novelist had constructed a quarter of a century ago: Barnaby Rudge.

One of the ‘grown-up children’ Malcolm Andrews has identified as a persistent feature of Dickens’s work, Mr Dolls mimics the shape of his own developmental regression through his spatial practice of ‘looping’ back on himself.[3] Time and again he ‘sallies’ forth, before returning to the pavement, ‘oppressed by terrors of vehicles that [are] a long way off or…nowhere’. The narrator thus equates the physical recurrence plotted out in that shape of the loop with the psychological sense of being tormented by one’s own imagination. This combination of geometry and psychology anticipates Eugene Wrayburn’s cruel caprices later on in the chapter, when the insouciant lawyer intentionally turns back on himself in order to take more fully the measure of the success of his endeavours to torment his rival. ‘Torturing himself’, Headstone passes Wrayburn ‘in the dark, like a haggard head suspended in the air’, which points, of course, to another kind of loop, i.e. the noose.

Inflecting Hegel’s master-slave dialectic with a spatial dimension, Dickens shows how the hunted one might be reconceived as master of the hunter. An uneasy class politics hovers beneath this appropriation of an aristocratic rural blood sport within an overcrowded impoverished part of London, and when Eugene remarks “There is a rather difficult country about Bethnal Green”, the reader both enjoys the pun on the place-name and is discomforted by the archness of the joke, which further emphasises the class imbalance between the two parties of this so-called hunt.[4] This manic chase around the ‘field’ of the East End is, after all, a means for Eugene to flaunt an upper-class flâneur’s sense of ownership of the city, an expansive, ludic take on the metropolis’s nooks and crannies the schoolmaster can (literally) ill afford. Whereas Mr Dolls is disabled by fear of the real or imagined vehicles clogging the street, for Headstone the cabs are dangerous not as obstacles in his pedestrian path but as drains upon his all-too-limited pocket.

In Eugene’s appropriation of the motif of the hunt, he plays not only the role of the lucky cunning foxes, evading capture, but also that of the privileged aristocrats in charge, blowing the bugles. The schoolmaster is revealed as the ‘poor dogging wretch’, by contrast, occupying only the ignominious position of the worn-out, hungry hounds. In its sustained deployment of hunting imagery, the chapter picks up on the rhetoric used to render the spatial practice that had opened this number of the serialized text: Betty Higden’s final ‘flight’ to her death. As the narrator has it, Betty creeps ‘into a copse, like a hunted animal, to hide and recover breath’. But who is hunting her? The spectre of political economy, I suggest. A testament to the nineteenth century’s taboo upon asking, like Oliver, for more, Betty has internalised contemporary anti-welfare discourse to such an extent that in her desperate evasion of the workhouse she fulfils, through her body’s self-exhaustion, the ungenerous rate-payers’ darkest Malthusian death fantasies.

Betty Higden

The illustration by Marcus Stone entitled ‘The Flight’ poses the hunter-hunted division between society and Betty as an actual one, delineating her anxious backwards-glancing figure hurrying onwards from a vigilante-like crowd a few metres behind her. But the narrator undermines this literalisation of the hunt metaphor by indicating that she hallucinates as much as she observes. Not only does Betty misrecognise at her death Lizzie as the ‘boofer lady’ (Johnny’s name for Bella), earlier she had been subject to the nightmarish vision of ‘furious horsemen’ riding at her and melting away when they drew near. Betty’s terminal walk, then, is represented as neither hermetically self-motivated nor provoked by an immediate social cause, being instead the result of her life-long internalisation of society’s attitudes to the houseless poor.

Those horsemen, recalling the four horsemen of the apocalypse, are some of the many instances of intertextual contact between this episode and scripture, and indeed, Betty’s perception of being hunted is surely meant to remind us, jarringly, of Matthew 8:20: ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath nowhere to lay his head.’ Through her imitation of Christ, the persecution and death of Betty Higden reaches us not only as a hunt for an innocent beast, but also as a kind of martyrdom. Betty is lifted up at the end of the chapter to the reader, as an exception, whose resistance to charity makes her a kind of Christ-like scapegoat for society’s disapprobation: ‘the best of the poor detest our mercies, hide their heads from us, and shame us by starving to death in the midst of us’.[5]

It is via this drift towards the hagiographic that we can account for the other structuring metaphor behind the representation of this spatial practice: pilgrimage. In addition to hunting, after all, the narrator repeatedly (three times) depicts Betty’s walk not only as a fear-compelled flight away from her oppressors but also simultaneously as a kind of holy progression towards the unknown place of her death. That shape of the loop we’ve traced elsewhere in this month’s number is thus enacted, once more: Betty is both running away from danger and proceeding towards her death. It’s an odd idea, to be a pilgrim upon one’s own Via Dolorosa, before the martyrdom has yet occurred.[6] But the word is intended to include us readers too: witnesses to the shameful end of a poor woman who sacrifices herself to the Malthusian logic of her age by walking unto death, we walk as pilgrims alongside her.

Having visited the martyr’s place of death, we are asked to think about how best to memorialise her. In relating the burial, the narrator raises the inequality of the dead:

The words were read above the ashes of Betty Higden, in a corner of a churchyard near the river; in a churchyard so obscure that there was nothing in it but grass-mounds, not so much as one single tombstone. It might not be to do an unreasonably great deal for the diggers and hewers, in a registering age, if we ticketed their graves at the common charge; so that a new generation might know which was which…

Intriguingly, Betty’s remains are placed not in the obscure churchyard, alongside the other unidentified pauper graves, but in the ‘sweet, fresh, empty store-room of the mill’, a paper factory likewise beyond the eyes of the public, but close nonetheless to the materials requisite for textual production. Writing is presented thus, implicitly, as a fitting mode for this martyr’s monumentalisation, in direct contrast to sculpture. At her burial, the good clergyman, Reverend Frank Milvey conjures the image of fine marble in order to reject it as an inappropriate material in which to rehouse this secular saint’s homely spirit:

‘Not a very poor grave,’ said the Reverend Frank Milvey, brushing his hand across his eyes, ‘when it has that homely figure on it. Richer, I think, than it could be made by most of the sculpture in Westminster Abbey!’

Looking back on the moment of Betty’s death, it seems to be haunted by the ghost of sculpture, for it could well be to some kind of pedestal that Lizzie lifts up the old woman’s dead body, a body that has been gradually de-animating throughout the walk, becoming cold and numb, as she wears it out. Sculpture has been much in the minds of Victorianists of late, due to the current Tate Britain exhibition, and so it seems a good thought upon which to conclude. An intrinsically politicisable form of art, sculpture was the theme of a memorable closing plenary given by Michael Hatt at the BAVS conference a couple of years ago at Royal Holloway, in which he explored the peculiar conditions governing the production of statues, wherein the effacement of labour by capital is performed grotesquely in extremis. In the exhibition catalogue for that show, we are reminded that in William Morris’s representation of a post-revolutionary society in News from Nowhere (1891), sculpture has been removed from Westminster Abbey in order to declutter and restore it to its former beauty.[7]

“What have we done with [Westminster Abbey]? …nothing much, save clean it.  But you know the whole outside was spoiled centuries ago: as to the inside, that remains in its beauty after the great clearance, which took place over a hundred years ago, of the beastly monuments to fools and knaves, which once blocked it up, as great-grandfather says.”

Reading closely the present month’s number of Our Mutual Friend, we realise that Morris may have owed this part of his vision to Reverend Milvey’s anti-sculptural stance. Dickens’s last novel is elsewhere more explicitly an intertext with News from Nowhere, as Morris includes a character with the name of Boffin; moreover, the importance of the river and scenes of rowing represent further strong evidence of intentional connections between the two books. As Patrick Parrinder has put it, ‘the world of Our Mutual Friend’ is that whose ‘negation Morris set[s] out to present in News from Nowhere’.[8] In Reverend Milvey’s rejection of sculpture, however, it appears that Our Mutual Friend offers not only the critical social realism against which Morris could mount his utopian thesis, but also some glimmerings of utopian hope for a world that is ‘richer’ than that afforded by the status quo to which it is confined.

—-

Endnotes:

[1] There are still other interesting walks in this number of the novel, not least the coupling of Bella and Rokesmith, who are forced to hang back from the rest of the party heading to the railway station from Betty Higden’s funeral, strolling together due to the narrowness of walkway: ‘Few rustic paths are wide enough for five, and Bella and the Secretary dropped behind.’

[2] Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Bauderlaire’ (1939).

[3] Malcolm Andrews, Charles Dickens and the Grown-up Child (Iowa, 1994).

[4] ‘Becoming a separate parish in 1743, [Bethnal Green’s] western end was packed by poor weavers, the Spitalfields overspill; the east part, still ‘green’, was settled by market gardeners and a sprinkling of comfortable suburbanites. It leapt from 15,000 inhabitants around 1750 to 85,000 in 1851, turning from attractive semi-rurality into London’s poorest parish.’ Roy Porter, London: A Social History (Penguin, 1994) p118.

[5] Notwithstanding the metonymic function of her case, standing in as she does for the many Dickens wanted to champion, the narrator also clearly singles out for praise this pauper with no ‘sublunary hope’ higher than the aspiration ‘patiently to earn a spare bare living, and quietly to die, untouched by workhouse hands’. In dying successfully having ‘escaped’ charity, Betty is a strange kind of martyr, her tragedy embodying not a remarkable resistance to the dominant ideologies of her time but a chilling accommodation with them.

[6] It is noteworthy that Dickens uses the idea of pilgrimage once elsewhere in the novel, to characterise Riah’s leading of Fledgby up the stairs to the roof, where Jenny Wren imagines herself blissfully dead. In this context, both uses of the term clearly participate in the novel’s discourse upon the city, each recognising in spaces beyond London’s clutches (the cleaner air above the din of the streets; the unsullied river before it has collected the ‘scum’ of urban pollution) as a site of spiritual recreation.

[7] Martina Droth, Jason Edwards, Michael Hatt, Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837-1901 (Yale, 2014).

[8] Patrick Parrinder, ‘News from Nowhere, The Time Machine and the Break-Up of Classical Realism’, Science Fiction Studies, 3 (1976), 265-74 (p. 268).

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