Failed Colonies in Africa and England: Civilizing Despair in Bleak House

  • Timothy L. Carens


In Bleak House (1852–53), Dickens mocks England’s self-proclaimed reputation as the greatest and most civilized nation in the world. Like Carlyle, he questions the status of civilization in England by suggesting that a sector of the familiar nation has strangely lapsed into a dark and savage continent. While Carlyle figures working-class discontent as a “boundless” Africa within England, Dickens locates the metaphor in London, the imperial metropolis. As Alexander Welsh observes, the city as a “wilderness or desert” represents one of the “stock literary ideas” available to nineteenth-century writers who sought to satirize the city (13). In Bleak House, however, the stock idea acquires a high degree of historical specificity; the wilderness of London reflects mid-Victorian conceptions of the Niger river delta, the location that in the 1840s and 1850s represented African darkness in its most indomitable form. In 1841, the African Civilization Society had conducted a highly publicized expedition to the region, intending to establish a model farm that would function as an outpost of civilizing progress on the upper reaches of the river. In 1848, several widely read narratives of the expedition gave the public a day-by-day account of its catastrophic progress. Malarial fever struck and incapacitated most of the European crew members and killed many of them. The model farm had struggled on for just a year, but its fields then reverted to jungle.


Niger Delta Coffee Berry Slave Trade African Nature Model Farm 
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  1. 4.
    Temperley (1991) provides a thorough account of the 1841 Niger Expedition. In The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780–1850, Philip D. Curtin (1964) considers expedition in the context of a broader historical perspective (289–317). Also see Pope (99–108).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 8.
    In his interesting discussion of General Booth’s In Darkest England, Joseph McLaughlin (2000) admits that mid-century writers such as Dickens, Engels, and Mayhew “prefigure Booth’s figuration of the East End as an imperial space,” but argues that “none of them use an imperial metaphorics as a guiding trope” (80). In Bleak House, however, the civilizing mission to the Niger certainly functions as a “guiding trope,” predating Booth’s text by nearly 40 years.Google Scholar

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© Timothy L. Carens 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Timothy L. Carens
    • 1
  1. 1.English DepartmentCollege of CharlestonUSA

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