Charles Dickens, the City, and the Prison
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Charles Dickens’s inimitable depictions of Victorian London have given him a deserved reputation as a bard of the modern city. Probably no author has represented more skillfully the vibrancy and misery of the London streets or conveyed so poignantly the tumult, filth, hilarity, and pathos of their chaotic whirl. Often, despite the characteristically epic sweep of Dickens’s urban storytelling, that whirl centers upon and emanates from the confined space of the Victorian prison. Dickens’s earliest sketches of the London streets, collected and published as Sketches by Boz in 1836, include extended views of Newgate in “Scenes—The Criminal Courts” and “A Visit to Newgate,” and his essay “The Prisoners’ Van” describes juvenile offenders being hauled away from the Police Office in Bow Street. Thereafter, he wrote repeatedly of prisons and prisoners in his fiction: of the Fleet debtors’ prison in The Pickwick Papers, of Newgate again in Oliver Twist and Barnaby Rudge, of Philadelphia’s Eastern Penitentiary in American Notes, of the Model Prison at Pentonville in David Copperfield, of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Little Dorrit, of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities, and of prisons of several kinds in Great Expectations. He also wrote numerous essays about prisons and prison reform, for the Examiner in the 1840s and for his own editorial ventures Household Words and All the Year Round in the decade that followed. No other English novelist has written so insistently or obsessively about prisons, especially at this crucial moment when London was becoming modern and England was abandoning a penal code premised upon capital punishment and convict transportation in favor of one centered upon rehabilitative imprisonment. Nor has any other English novelist written more incisively or insightfully about the socioeconomic conditions and psychological compulsions that drive people to insolvency and crime or about the enduring physical and mental effects of confinement.
Dickens’s interest in and intimacy with the prison date to his childhood, when his father John Dickens was arrested for debt and held for 3 months at the Marshalsea. Some details from this period of Dickens’s life are uncertain, but Michael Allen’s indispensable research on the subject suggests the following course of events. Having gotten into debt while living at Chatham, John Dickens moved his family to London in 1822, when he discontinued 10-year-old Charles’s education amid the family’s deteriorating financial position. For several months, John kept his precocious son at home where he helped with the younger children and, when necessary, took household articles to pawn. But sometime late in 1823, Charles was sent to Warren’s Blacking, 30 Strand, under the supervision of a cousin named George Lamerte, who put the boy to work pasting labels on bottles of shoe-blacking at a salary of 6 or 7 shillings a week. On 20 February 1824, John Dickens was arrested, and within weeks his wife Elizabeth was forced to give up their Gower Street home. Dickens’s elder sister, Fanny, who had earlier won entry to the Royal Academy of Music as a boarding student, was left to continue her studies, and Elizabeth Dickens took the younger children to live at the Marshalsea with their father. But Charles was sent off to live in Camden Town with a family friend named Ellen Roylance, an older lady in reduced circumstances. For the next several months, according to the autobiographical fragment that Dickens wrote around the end of 1848, and that John Forster published in his Life of Charles Dickens in 1872, the miserable boy was left mostly to his own devices, working 6 days a week at Warren’s and paying for his cheerless meals from his scanty wages. On Sundays, when he did not work, he walked with Fanny to the Marshalsea to visit their parents and younger siblings (Forster 1928: 24–7; Allen 2011: 93–4; Allen 1988: 80–4).
Robert Patten argues convincingly that Dickens’s account of his childhood, though compelling, cannot be relied on, for Dickens told “different versions of what he remembered” at different times in his life: in the fragment, in David Copperfield, and in Great Expectations, among other places (2015: 2). But however Dickens may have manipulated or misremembered details, the grief and shame of this period stayed with him throughout his life. Sometime in March or April 1824, the miserable boy, after remonstrating with his father, was moved to a room in Lant Street, near the prison, and on 28 May 1824, a small inheritance from his mother allowed John Dickens to settle his debts and gain his release (Allen 2011: 93). By October 1824, at latest, Charles had been taken away from Warren’s and sent again to school. All told, this period of Dickens’s life cannot have lasted more than a year, but the picture of Dickens’s childhood that endures is of a lonely, sensitive boy walking London’s clamorous streets, hungrily eyeing the pudding shops and coffee rooms. Looking back in the fragment, he considers how easily he might have become, “for any care that was taken of [him], a little robber or a little vagabond” (Forster 1928: 28). He understood from an early age how easily the London streets could turn weary loneliness into dangerous confederacy, and poverty into crime.
No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship [at Warren’s] … and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me … My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams … that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life. (Forster 1928: 26)
It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people … [with] tumbling tenements [that] contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so, these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in…. (1996: 256–257)
These “vermin parasites,” Dickens knew, were the criminals-in-waiting, the very people whom he believed could be reclaimed from poverty and vice through education, compassion, and broad social reform. They could also be reclaimed by the prison itself, and Dickens’s ideological interest in prisons had much to do with the mechanisms by which they proposed to reform those convicted of crimes. Between 1820 and 1850, as Dickens emerged from his troubled childhood into a career as a journalist, editor, and novelist, England reinvented its approach to crime and punishment, discarding the “Bloody Code” that classed more than 200 crimes as capital offenses and adopting instead a model based upon periods of reformative imprisonment. Dickens was particularly well equipped to write about such matters, even apart from the experiences of his childhood. As a young Parliamentary reporter, he likely heard debates over the 1828 riot and consequent disciplinary adjustments at Millbank and also those over the creation of the Prison Inspectorate in 1835. During 1835 and 1836, he visited not just Newgate but also G.L. Chesterton’s Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell and Lieutenant Augustus Tracey’s Tothill Fields Prison in Westminster, both of which he returned to several times (Grass 2003: 51; Collins 1968: 52–67). According to Forster, Dickens was fond of discussing improvements in the London prisons around this time, and he toured nearly all of them during 1838–1839 (Forster 1928: 192–193, 132). Dickens befriended Chesterton and Tracey, in fact, and introduced both men to Alexander Maconochie, the reform-minded governor of the penal colony at Norfolk Island in Australia, after he returned to England in 1844. At Norfolk Island, Maconochie had implemented a merit-based “Marks system” to encourage good behavior among inmates, and Dickens so admired it that he persuaded his friend Elizabeth Burdett Coutts to adopt it in modified form when the two established Urania Cottage in 1847 as a home for fallen women. When he visited the United States in 1842, Dickens observed its prisons closely, too, and in American Notes he offered substantial remarks on the ones he had seen in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, and Kingston, Ontario, besides devoting an entire chapter to “Philadelphia, and Its Solitary Prison.” There, at the Eastern Penitentiary, Dickens saw first-hand the system of solitary confinement that English authorities had just adopted at Pentonville. In a scathing indictment of this “separate discipline,” Dickens wrote, “The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong” (1985a: 146).
Dickens’s engagement with prisons was both intensely personal and deliberately public, then, and they play multiple ideological and imaginative roles in his fiction. In part, they index the city by illuminating the dark places beneath the veneer of polite Victorian society. They are in this respect didactic, meant to teach middle-class readers about the sobering realities and seething class resentments that can erupt at any time into genteel life. Oliver Twist’s pickpockets and thieves might wind up eventually in the penal colonies or at the gallows, but its destitute children find greater kindness and camaraderie with Fagin and each other than Oliver does in the parish workhouse. David Copperfield eventually makes Uriah Heep a “Model Prisoner” at Pentonville, where he is thrust after rebelling against his lowly class position and the charity school lesson that he must always be “umble” and “know [his] place, and abase [him]self before [his] betters” (2004: 580). The Pickwick Papers makes the prison’s didactic function explicit by thrusting Mr. Pickwick into the Fleet as a culmination to his otherwise freewheeling adventures. There he learns for the first time about the world of misery and want that exists beyond middle-class comforts and pursuits, and he realizes that empathy sometimes matters more than high-minded principles. In other novels, Dickens uses the prison to draw extended analogies between the prison and modern urban life. Barnaby Rudge uses the 1780 Gordon Riots and their violent liberation of prisoners from Newgate as an analogy for the Chartist agitation of the late 1830s, and Little Dorrit parallels the shabby Marshalsea society headed by William Dorrit with the hollowed out London embodied in Mr. Merdle, the celebrated financier, who is finally discovered after his suicide to have been “the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows” (1985b: 777).
Though he visited it only intermittently, the prison was for Dickens the emotional center of his boyhood experience of London and a catalyst for his impulse to narrative invention. It was a physical place and a mental stimulus, a concrete memory and a fabulous idea, and a source equally of his secret shame and his tremendous success.
Whatever was comical in this scene, and whatever was pathetic, I sincerely believe I perceived in my corner … quite as well as I should perceive it now. I made out my own little character and story for every man who put his name to that sheet of paper. I might be able to do that now, more truly: not more earnestly, or with a closer interest. (Forster 1928: 33)
Dickens thus found “traces” of history as he “passed through Charing Cross: the Wyatt rebellion that took place there in 1554, or, a century later, the execution of the regicides” (McKee 2014: 1–2). His personal history pervades, and is pervaded by, things that happened at other times; these shape his sense of the city and of himself. Forged by his experience of the Marshalsea as a child, Dickens’s sense of the prison hovers between the intensely personal and the broadly social. His prison past was continually present. More, the prison was for Dickens inseparable from his sense of London: inseparable from its geography, its riotousness, its squalor, and its allure; and inseparable from his shame, his triumph, his past, and his creative work. It was a palimpsest and a concentricity, a constellation holding in dynamic tension the real, remembered, and imagined space of the world in which he moved.
He did not go in for ‘observation’, a priggish habit; he did not look at Charing Cross to improve his mind or count the lamp-posts in Holborn to practice his arithmetic. But unconsciously he made all these places the scenes of the monstrous drama in his miserable little soul. He walked in darkness under the lamps of Holborn, and was crucified at Charing Cross. So for him ever afterwards these places had the beauty that only belongs to battlefields. (Chesterton 2007: 24)
All of Dickens’s fictional portrayals of the prison treat it this way in some measure. But three late novels – A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations – illustrate with especial clarity how the prison anchors the geography of the city for Dickens and pervades his sense of its people. Written 17 years after Dickens visited the Eastern Penitentiary, A Tale of Two Cities returns to that episode in its representation of the Bastille and the trauma that it inflicts on Alexandre Manette and the others with whom he intersects. Prisons cast long shadows over both of the novel’s titular cities and also over the several characters who oscillate between them, so that the very idea of “shadow” becomes a key symbolic refrain. The early London scenes center on Charles Darnay’s trial for treason at the Old Bailey, next door to Newgate, and the possibility of a gruesome execution if he is convicted. Later, though he has been “recalled to life” by Jarvis Lorry after two decades of solitary confinement in the Bastille, Manette continues even in London to labor under the effects of his long imprisonment (1998: 10). These sometimes “draw a gloom over him, as incomprehensible to those unacquainted with his story as if they had seen the shadow of the actual Bastille thrown upon him by a summer sun” (1998: 92). In Paris, where the Bastille does cast its literal shadow over the city and the revolution, Lucie Manette feels that Madame Defarge is a “shadow” upon her hopes for her husband’s release, and Dickens calls Manette’s long hidden prison narrative “the substance of the shadow” when Madame Defarge unearths it from the Bastille and uses it to thwart Darnay’s acquittal (1998: 330, 394).
The chapter thus begins by asserting that Manette’s profound isolation at the Bastille only echoes the psychological condition of all people at all times, even (or perhaps especially) in a “great city” and surrounded by neighbors and loved ones. Dickens amplifies this idea by suggesting that the Paris that Darnay and Manette find when they return to France is a vast carceral city, strictly policed, surrounded by barricades, and ultimately immune to Manette’s celebrated status as the Doctor of Beauvais, which fails to win Darnay’s release or guarantee the safety of his daughter and grandchild in light of the broader ideological forces at work. He also amplifies it by making the Bastille both the provocation for and repository of Manette’s narrative, which brings the plot to its crisis by disclosing the reasons for his unjust imprisonment. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens maps the Bastille across two cities, two nations, and two decades while using it also to illustrate the indelible trauma inflicted by the prison, the social injustices that the prison enacts and reflects, and the narrative possibilities it provides.
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city at night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. (1998: 12)
Little Dorrit makes the Marshalsea of Dickens’s childhood the center of a narrative that sprawls from Marseilles to London to Venice and, as in A Tale of Two Cities, originates in and returns to the prison. The novel begins in a cell at Marseilles, where John Baptiste Cavalletto draws on the floor, from memory, a map of southern Europe and the route by which he has come to the prison. From the start, then, Little Dorrit suggests that if Europe contains prisons, the prison can also contain Europe. The scene thus becomes a symbolic harbinger of the carceral forms that pervade the novel: the quarantine of the travelers’ ship; Mrs. Merdle’s parrot in its cage; the imprisoning logic of the Circumlocution Office; Miss Wade’s self-imposed solitude and “History of a Self-Tormentor”; and Mrs. Clennam’s long confinement in her home, a victim of her ruthless Methodism and a debilitating illness (1985b: 725). These all figure the terrible force of the Marshalsea, which blights William Dorrit, his brother, and his elder children. Halfway through the novel, Mr. Pancks’s discovery of an unclaimed family inheritance leads to William’s release and makes him wealthy; thereafter, he spends the rest of the novel traveling through Europe with his family and trying desperately and fruitlessly, like Dickens, to forget his shameful past. They flit through France, through Switzerland, and over the Pass of the Great Saint Bernard; they visit Rome and eventually take up residence in Venice. William also hires Mrs. General as a companion for his daughters, so that she can assist them in “the formation of a surface” that can varnish over their Marshalsea past (1985b: 530). As Cavalletto’s map has predicted, though, no amount of travel or varnish can fully liberate the Dorrits from the prison.
This is what William gradually learns and what Amy – the Child of the Marshalsea – seems always to have known: their comings and goings, whether around London or across Europe, inevitably take the Marshalsea as their geographic and psychological center. The prison is the point to which all things in the novel correspond and refer. In the Chapter entitled “The Child of the Marshalsea”, Arthur Clennam tracks Amy through London to the Marshalsea so that he can learn her story, and near the novel’s end Mrs. Clennam makes her unsteady way there, overcoming by force of will the paralysis that has left her bedridden for 12 years. After he wins his release, William commands Amy to forget the prison and all such old associations, but she cannot. Instead, as she travels through Europe, “all she [sees] appear[s] unreal … The gorges of the Simplon, its enormous depths and thundering waterfalls … the descent into Italy, the opening of that beautiful land as the rugged mountain-chasm widened and let them out from a gloomy and dark imprisonment—all a dream—only the old mean Marshalsea a reality” (1985b: 517). Even the high society with which the Dorrits mingle in Venice seems to Amy to resemble nothing so much as “a superior sort of Marshalsea” (1985b: 565). The prison constantly bursts in upon Amy; it becomes a constellation, a figure for the past’s persistence into the present. For Arthur, the Marshalsea becomes the “vanishing-point” of his story – literally, when he is languishing in his cell and Amy brings to him, and asks him to burn, the papers that would disclose to him his secret history (1985b: 801). Nor can William, despite his dogged efforts, leave the Marshalsea entirely behind. At Mrs. Merdle’s dinner party, he collapses into his former character as the Father of the Marshalsea, later dying with an even “deeper shadow” upon his face “than the shadow of the Marshalsea Wall” (1985b: 712). Arthur and Amy marry at the end of the novel, of course, then step “quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed” (1985b: 895). But their happy ending cannot undo the vast carceral logic that makes all the world a prison and that makes the prison into the novel’s literal and imaginative center.
But of all Dickens’s novels, Great Expectations goes the farthest in making the prison at once a geographic center, a catalyst for the plot, and a provocation to narration. On the marshes and in London, prisons and their traces punctuate the landscape. They serve as the markers around which Pip moves. In the first chapter, Pip can make out two distinct objects along the line of the river: “the beacon by which the sailors steered,” and the beacon by which he steers, “a gibbet with chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate” (1999: 12). The gibbet haunts his dreams as he plans to steal from Mrs. Joe, and he spots it again from atop Joe’s shoulders when they join the pursuit of the escaped convicts. Later, on his first day in London, Pip wanders by chance to Newgate and follows its wall around the Old Bailey to the Debtors’ Door. Though he hurries from the place, his life in London comes to center upon Newgate, literally and geographically but also as a matter of his understanding of himself and his capacity to narrate. Pip first lives at Barnard’s Inn with Herbert, stops routinely at Jaggers’s office in Little Britain, and once meets Estella at the coach office in Cheapside. He and Herbert Pocket eventually move southwest to Temple Gardens, but their preparations for Magwitch’s flight find Pip rowing routinely from the Temple stairs past Blackfriars Bridge to the Old London Bridge. As Pip crosses and recrosses the city, he traverses Newgate, too, and long after he can afford to live elsewhere, he continues to make his home near the prison – so near, in fact, that when Pip says he wants to “break his mind” to Magwitch about refusing to take any more of his money, Herbert advises that he wait until they have gone over to the continent rather than do it “with Newgate in the next street” (1999; 257). As Pip’s experience of London widens, he does not so much move away from the prison as trace larger and larger circles around it.
This probably explains why Pip’s account of himself never strays far from the prison, either. In Chap. 32, having visited Newgate with Wemmick to occupy an hour as he waits for Estella, Pip wonders at the “taint of prison and crime” that seems always to encompass him (1999: 202). As Peter Brooks observes of Great Expectations, Pip’s is a narrative in search of a plot. Thus he spends most of the novel suspended among several overlapping plots: bildungsroman, fairy tale, romance, and Gothic, among others (1984: 130). Only later, when he finally learns the secret of Estella’s parentage, does he realize that he has been living a Newgate novel all along. The prison is essential to the novel’s plot and to Pip’s understanding of his narrative arc; it becomes a central figure for his sense of who he is and what he can say that his experiences have made him. In Chap. 2 when the “great guns” fire, Pip pursues a line of questioning with Mrs. Joe that ends with him asking innocently, “What’s a convict?” Attempting to mouth an answer, Joe gives such “a highly elaborate” reply that, Pip explains, “I could make out nothing of it but the single word ‘Pip’” (1999: 17). Pip’s visit to Newgate with Wemmick ends with not only his reflection on his prison “taint” but also his glimpse of Estella waving from the coach and his dawning recognition that he has seen such hands before. And it is finally the time that he spends at Newgate with the dying Magwitch that culminates his moral regeneration. Pip’s closing thought on Magwitch’s death, “O Lord, be merciful to him, a sinner!” makes that regeneration equivocal, for it suggests that even near the end of the novel, he remains blind to his own need for forgiveness (1999: 342). But there is something much more selfless in his painful confession to Magwitch that Estella survived, found powerful friends, and became a lady, and also that he loves her. That this final disclosure comes within Newgate’s walls shows how deeply the prison is embedded in the psychological growth that permits Pip finally to narrate. Estella may be, as he says, part of “the innermost life of [his] life” (1999: 182). But the prison drives the story.
Above all, the scene in which Pip confesses to the dying Magwitch highlights the prison’s generative function – the role it plays in enabling Pip to narrate because it allows him to come to grips with his past and imagine the plot of his life as a literal movement from the forge to a wider world and as a figurative one from innocence to meanness to regeneration and forgiveness. His life, and his story, must include the prison. He must learn to incorporate it into, not imagine it as standing apart from, “the innermost life of [his] life.” The plot of his life really is a prison plot, in the sense that Pip can imagine his arc principally in the context of guilt, punishment, and reform. When he returns to the village in Chap. 35 for his sister’s funeral, he finds himself thinking of her “with a gentle tone … that softened even the edge of Tickler” and considers that a time will come “when it would be well for [his] memory that others … should be softened” as they think of him (1999: 212). It is certainly possible to read the recurrent prisons of Pip’s narrative as indications of his inescapable guilt and shame. But it is possible to read them, too, as a device that allows him to produce the self-account that he believes he needs: one that softens down his offensive edges, that sends him to London and Egypt and brings him home again, and that will keep him from being – as he fears he will be when Orlick attacks him – “misremembered after death” (1999: 317). The prison is at the heart of such a self-account for Pip, just as it is at the heart of the city.
Had Dickens only lived to finish it, The Mystery of Edwin Drood might have brought Dickens’s long interest in the prison to a culmination of sorts. At first glance, Drood is not particularly concerned with the problems of poverty and crime that usually pervade Dickens’s accounts of the city. In fact, most of the novel’s action unfolds not in London but in the old cathedral town of Cloisterham. But the novel begins amid the squalor of a London opium den, where Cloisterham’s choirmaster John Jasper smokes with “a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman” – reminders of the racial otherness, poverty, and violence that menace the cathedral town from without (1972: 1). Moreover, the other chapters that Dickens survived to write amplify these intrusions of the city into other parts of English life. In the chapter entitled “Philanthropy in Minor Canon Corner”, the dark-skinned Landless twins arrive to Cloisterham and begin immediately to expose the racism of Luke Honeythunder’s aggressive philanthropy and especially of Mayor Sapsea’s arrogant John Bull-ism, which imagines itself cosmopolitan simply because goods from other countries pass through the auction house for sale. Little by little, London creeps into Cloisterham: in the form of opium and crime, racial others and the Princess Puffer, the apparent detective Dick Datchery, and – if Luke Fildes’s draft cover illustration is to be credited – police officers who appear to be hot on the trail of Edwin’s assailant. In this sense, the novel foregrounds the perils of the city; it indexes the city’s potential to disrupt even the quaintest English town. And, according to Forster, Dickens intended to conclude this account of the city’s pervasive influence by taking his readers one final time into a prison cell, perhaps at Newgate, where Jasper would have been coerced, or possibly compelled, to confess to having murdered his nephew, narrating all the while as if he were speaking of someone else (1928: 808). Like his earlier fiction, Drood would gradually have narrowed the scope of its storytelling to a single prison cell, and in a detective story that looks – as detective stories must – to the future to reveal the meanings of the present and the past. It would have made the prison once more into a constellation: not a site or a boyhood experience but a set of dynamic tensions written across the Victorian city and written, too, across the vast expanse of Dickens’s fiction.
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