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Mr Micawber, Letter-Writing Manuals, and Charles Dickens’s Literary Professionals

  • Laura Rotunno
Chapter
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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)

Abstract

Describing the class structure of mid-to-late nineteenth-century Britain, historian K. Theodore Hoppen asserts:

Just as the astronomer’s eyes are damaged by looking directly at the sun, so, by looking only at the strictly economic side of things (wages, salaries, property-ownership, and the like) it is easy to become persuaded by the nearer vision’s brightness into seeing only a continuous blur. A more contextual and tangential glance, however, can reveal distinctions as well as continuities, barriers as well as bridges, reveal, indeed, a world in which the recognition and maintenance of hierarchy were woven into the very fabric of daily life.1

Keywords

Literary World Social Injustice Liberal Ideal Literary Professional Class Division 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    George Gissing, Collected Works of George Gissing on Charles Dickens, ed. Simon J. James, vol. 2 (Grayswood, Surrey: Grayswood Press, 2004), 62.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, ed. Nina Burgis (1849–50, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 664.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    James Kincaid and J. B. Priestley assert that Micawber and his letters embody the comic, almost Edenic world to which David and those of the commercial world cannot return; see James R. Kincaid, Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 165Google Scholar
  4. J. B. Priestley, The English Comic Characters (New York: Dutton, 1966), 221–3Google Scholar
  5. J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (1958, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), 151.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Approaching the critique of letter-writing manuals from a different angle, Mary Favret and Barbara Maria Zaczek, historians of the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century British epistle, assert that letter-writers instituted something akin to sexual and political censorship. Favret accuses letter-writers of seeking ‘to “socialize” what was a potentially volatile form of expression’, privileging decorum over content; Mary A. Favret, Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 24. Zaczek more incisively describes the letter-writers’ authoritarian stance, stressing that these works caution that ‘a letter ... is a signed document, and as such may be prone to all sort of mishap. ... To avoid such risks, [the manual] suggests ... a number of “safe topics” whose disclosure would not cause any harm’ and delineates who qualifies as suitable correspondents; Barbara Maria Zaczek, Censored Sentiments: Letters and Censorship in Epistolary Novels and Conduct Materials (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997), 33.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Caroline Bowles Southey, ‘Thoughts on Letter-Writing’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 60.11 (March 1822): 301–4Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    William Roberts, History of Letter-Writing from the Earliest Period to the Fifth Century (London: William Pickering, 1843), viii–ix.Google Scholar
  9. 19.
    According to the inventory of Devonshire Terrace, Dickens had 19 volumes of Richardson’s works; see Kathleen Tillotson], ed., The Pilgrim Edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1844–1846, vol. 4 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977)Google Scholar
  10. J. H. Stonehouse, ed., Reprints of the Catalogues of the Libraries of Charles Dickens and W. M. Thackeray (London: Piccadilly Fountain Press, 1935), 97.Google Scholar
  11. Graham Storey and K. J. Fielding, eds, The Pilgrim Edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1847–1849, vol. 5 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 20.Google Scholar
  12. Christopher Keirstead, ‘Going Postal: Mail and Mass Culture in Bleak House’, Nineteenth-Century Studies 17 (2003): 91–106Google Scholar
  13. 24.
    Reverend George Brown, The English Letter-Writer; Or, The Whole Art of General Correspondence (London: Alexander Hogg, 1790), 60.Google Scholar
  14. 35.
    Jon Lawrence, ‘Paternalism, Class, and the British Path to Modernity’, in The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain, ed. Simon Gunn and James Vernon (Berkeley: global, Area, and International Archive, 2011), 147–64Google Scholar
  15. 41.
    Charles Dickens and Caroline Chisholm, ‘A Bundle of Emigrants’ Letters’, Household Words 1 (30 March 1850): 19–24Google Scholar
  16. 45.
    Jennifer Ruth also acknowledges the importance of the division between invention and copying. She explains that ‘David’s power of invention, the richness of his soil qualifies him for a higher professional sphere than might be attainable otherwise’, whereas copying is ‘a manual form of mental labor’, in Dickens’s novel; Jennifer Ruth, Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006), 67.Google Scholar
  17. Trey Philpotts, ‘Dickens, Invention, and Literary Property in the 1850s’, Dickens Quarterly 24.1 (2007): 18–26Google Scholar
  18. 49.
    Richard Salmon, ‘Professions of Labour: David Copperfield and the “Dignity of Literature”’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 29.1 (2007): 35–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 53.
    J. W. Kaye, ‘Pendennis — The Literary Profession’, North British Review 13 (August 1850): 335–72Google Scholar
  20. 55.
    Mary Poovey asserts that the lack of detail concerning David’s writing conveys ‘the twin impressions that some kinds of work are less “degrading” and less alienating than others and that some laborers are so selfless and skilled that to them work is simultaneously an expression of self and a gift to others’; Poovey, Uneven Developments, 101. Similarly, Alexander Welsh reads David’s silence concerning his novels as ‘confidence’ and ‘the confusion and redundancy of nearly every other producer of writing [in the novel]’ as characteristic of their inadequacies; Alexander Welsh, From Copyright to Copperfield: The Identity of Dickens (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Irène Simon, ‘David Copperfield: A Künstlerroman?’, Review of English Studies 43 (1992): 40–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 56.
    Matthew Titolo, ‘The Clerks’ Tale: Liberalism, Accountability, and Mimesis in David Copperfield’, ELH 70 (2003): 171–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 58.
    Sheldon Rothblatt, Tradition and Change in English Liberal Education: An Essay in History and Culture (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), 184–5.Google Scholar
  24. 59.
    Rachel Ablow’s provocative reading of David’s exaltation of Agnes argues that ‘Agnes’s upward-pointing finger indicates a narrative of endless progress and self-improvement’; Rachel Ablow, The Marriage of the Minds: Reading Sympathy in the Victorian Marriage Plot (Stanford University Press, 2007), 44. David’s and Dickens’s readers are cast as those who will follow Agnes’s and the novel’s example. I am convinced by Ablow’s reading of Agnes as an ideal that spurs David to self-improvement as a person, but I do not see this improvement as necessarily translating into an enhancement of his talents as a professional writer. I tend instead to follow Lynn Cain’s psychoanalytic approach that reads David’s emphasis on mortality here as stressing authorship’s capacity to transcend death; see Lynn Cain, Dickens, Family, Authorship: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Kinship and Creativity (Burlington: Ashgate, 2008), 117Google Scholar
  25. 61.
    Grant Allen, The Type-Writer Girl, ed. Clarissa J. Suranyi (1897, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2004), 37–8.Google Scholar
  26. 63.
    Alan P. Barr identifies similar hesitancy in David Copperfield’s presentation of middle-class ideals as a whole. His article’s conclusion focuses that argument through the lens of David’s authorial career: Dickens ‘is tentatively hopeful that from David’s artistic achievements and modest, orderly domicile progress may be made toward greater civility and emotional expansiveness. Granted, the balance is left tilted toward the side of skepticism’; Alan P. Barr, ‘Matters of Class and the Middle-Class Artist in David Copperfield’, Dickens Studies Annual 38 (2007): 55–67Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Laura Rotunno 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laura Rotunno
    • 1
  1. 1.Penn State AltoonaUSA

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