Printer Friendly

Dickens, theater, and the making of a Victorian reading public.

Nineteenth-century English fiction has undergone a certain transformation at the hands of twentieth-century critics who have read Victorian novels in discrete critical editions and assumed them to be privatized narrative expressions of modern bourgeois subjectivity.(1) While it is true that something that might be called a "bourgeois subjectivity" evolved in the nineteenth century, it is less than certain that the privatized subjectivity that has been so frequently invoked by cultural theorists sufficiently describes the nineteenth-century imagination. Nor does D. A. Miller's totalizing claim that "the novel counts among the conditions for [its] consumption the consumer's leisured withdrawal to the private, domestic sphere, [and hence] every novel-reading subject is constituted--willy-nilly, and almost before he has read a word--within the categories of the individual, the inward, the domestic"(2) adequately describe either the nineteenth-century novel or its readers, both of which took their form, as it were, in a culture characterized equally by theatrical and public, as well as domestic and private, impulses.

This essay seeks to recover the nineteenth-century reading subject and to imagine novels as he or she read them, using as its touchstone Dickens' most explicitly theatrical novel, Nicholas Nickleby. Its intention, in other words, is to promote an "old" approach, a Victorian style of reading, among present readers of Victorian novels, particularly the novels of Dickens. The Victorian reading subject did not at all resemble the solitary, withdrawn figure Miller has imagined for us,' but performed his or her reading in a highly public "space," drawing upon a set of consensual popular assumptions, cultural stereotypes regularly published on the stage and generally accepted as representative of Victorian social reality. In other words, Victorian readings were mediated by the culture of theater--not merely because reading so often took the form of public declamation in the nineteenth century, although activities of this sort have been well-documented,(4) but because novelists like Dickens drew quite freely from the body of socio-dramatic possibilities established by the theater, using theatrical tropes with an evident confidence in their familiarity to readers. As Nina Auerbach suggests,

most Victorian writers would not have written the works we know

without the theater to inspire them. Leaving aside Dickens ... William

Thackeray, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Lewis Carroll, Robert Browning,

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Mary Braddon, Henry James, George

Eliot--to name only a canonical few-wrote for the theater, longed to

write for it, or, failing to achieve theatrical success, transplanted

theatrical values into the works that made them famous.(5)

One might imagine the Victorian novel as a kind of tableau vivant, to use a construction from the nineteenth-century stage--that is, a story locked in place (in this case contained within the printed word instead of the frozen human body) suddenly come to life as the reading act begins, vocalizing and posturing and gesturing with all its heart. People read these novels with an acute awareness of theatrical presence; they witnessed characters from the contemporary stage materializing, as it were, from the page.

This theatrical borrowing, on Dickens' part at least, has been discussed fairly extensively, but little or no attention has been paid to the role that theater played in the formation of a reading public in nineteenth-century England, and no significant piece of scholarship has adequately explored the generic questions raised by this commerce between novel and stage. Some critics, like Paul Schlicke,(6) locate Dickens' novels in their theatrical contexts but never question the authority of genre, ultimately privileging the novels' life outside of the theatrical, their literary autonomy, if you will, and merely noting their structural and thematic similarities to the popular entertainments that influenced them. This is a fairly typical take on Dickens' fiction, but it presumes disciplinary or generic divisions that, although in theory quintessentially Victorian, did not in fact exist with much integrity in the nineteenth century. Novels and theatrical entertainments, novels and journalistic prose, novels and poetry constantly slipped in and out of mutual embrace. Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor influenced scores of novels and plays, no less than other novels and plays had shaped Mayhew's imagination. Poems like Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh adopted novelistic gestures. And the contemporary stage provided material for novels, which themselves generously reciprocated, so that the lines between theater and prose fiction were fluid, and novel reading was performed in the rich and ambiguous area in between.

Dickens' may be the best novels to demonstrate this peculiarly Victorian phenomenon--novel reading as an "intergeneric" kind of process--because they are so often explicitly theatrical. Certainly Nicholas Nickleby, the novel I shall explore here, is heavily indebted to the theater in many ways. But, while Dickens borrowed from the theater, he also contributed to it: virtually all of his novels were adapted for the stage as quickly as he turned them out--sometimes, indeed, before the last installments were published. In this way many of his readers received several versions at once: the novel itself as it came out in monthly numbers, and the staged adaptations that reduced characters and plots to conventional types, but lent specific sounds and shapes to Dickens' written text.(7) This affected the way that Victorians read, not only Dickens, but generally speaking the fiction of their era, most of which drew in some way or other from the theater, and much of which found its way onto the stage during its period of active circulation.(8) Dickens in particular was a precious commodity, and canny playwrights could--and did--capitalize on his commercial success, adapting his novels while he, at the same time, drew liberally from the plots, characters and voices that graced the contemporary stage. This was a fairly complex symbiosis, complicated particularly by an obscurance of origin, an absence of fixedness in either of the genres that would allow us to cite, with absolute confidence, one of them as the primary genre. But one may, in spite of this originary ambiguity, presume a basic source for novels in the English theater that is not always or necessarily reciprocal, a position that may be justified by the fact that novelists like Dickens supplied the contemporary theater with specific material, but theatrical influence on English culture and narrative was already of long duration by the nineteenth century, and the theater's contributions to narrative were as often semiotic and structural as they were plot-related or ideological. Wherever one locates the original, the more or less explicit theatrical influence on the novel suggests that Victorian readers, at least those who also went to the theater, or were versed in the current theatrical culture, experienced novels differently than we do today; their reading was complicated by theatrical renditions that contracted and corrupted plots, and reduced characters to basic dramatic types. The actual reading experience was overdetermined, centered not so much in any one narrative or genre but in the theater of assumptions circulating in the public sphere. We cannot, perhaps, enter fully into that experience, but we can examine for ourselves the multiple "texts"--novels, plays, voices and gestures, reviews--that resounded in the Victorian reader's head, and hence imagine how Victorians read.

My conviction that many of Dickens' characters came to him from the theater--not just the broadly comic or grotesque, not merely those for whom scholars have found explicit sources, but serious and sentimental characters as well(9)--has encouraged me to listen for dramatic voices in his fiction, the same voices that were, in fact, current on the stage and resonant in the Victorian imagination, circulating as conventional verbal stereotypes among the London public. One cannot emphasize enough the importance of reading these texts aloud, to establish the vocal rhythms and cadences that Dickens placed in them. When we do this, they take on life, they become organic, spontaneously generating dramas, and we become active participants in a peculiar kind of creative process--a making of theater. Contemporary readers of Dickens recognized this. One Victorian critic described this agency of the reading subject in painterly terms, the student's or draftsman's coloring-in: "Mr Dickens' characters are sketched with a spirit and distinctness which rarely fail to convey immediately a clear impression of the person intended. They are, however, not complete and finished delineations, but rather outlines, very clearly and sharply traced, which the reader may fill up for himself."(10) The fact that the reader may fill up the outlines for himself in a way that enhances or finishes the author's "impression" suggests that the reading public shared a set of ideas about character, ideas that enabled them to complete the picture. This implication of the reading subject in performance is crucial to recovering the Victorian Dickens; so too is a willingness to broaden the very concept of performance to include that which happens in social interaction, to look outside of the act of reading and into the larger and looser act of living for traces of the performative. As Paul Campbell has written, "far from limiting dramatic discourse to literature, [one should] consider it as the dimension of language in which we create and recreate ourselves in relation to the `real' world around us and in which we use those imaginative or artistic events ... to become new beings or personae."(11) Dickens constantly "created and recreated" himself in relation to the outside world, experimenting with voices and personae in life as he did in narrative. He also, of course, read from his works in public, using them as vehicles for his own dramatic voice. He saw his novels as strains of dialogue, and of dialogic descriptive prose, to be spoken and heard, to be invented and reinvented at each reading.

It is through reading Dickens aloud, learning to hear his various voices, that one may develop the most authentic--that is, "Victorian"--relationship to his texts. This mode of reading is peculiarly appropriate to Dickens because he himself was committed to the exploration of human voices, to "doing `all the voices' of his characters in his public readings" and in his personal life;(12) because he lived in a world ordered on the basis of accents and idioms; and perhaps most importantly, because his genre was so intimate with the theater. His own social prejudices, and those of his peers, were largely based on a collective agreement about verbal gesture, about how various social groups speak, and what they have to say; this agreement was externalized on the stage. English society is built on voices, with volumes of social history inscribed in the accents, inflections, vocabularies of English speech. This was certainly true in the nineteenth century, when the language was changing along with political and economic structures. These changes did not democratize speech:. It mattered deeply to Dickens and his contemporaries that verbal differences existed, that the Arthur Clennams of the world spoke one way, and the Jeremiah Flintwinches another. All forms of Victorian popular entertainment--theater, fiction, music hall, journalism--presumed this clear delineation of social idioms: jokes and tragedies alike were based on the voices of poverty or eccentricity striking discordant against the voices of bourgeois prosperity.

Periodical journals of the period frequently underscored these verbal differences in their fiction and non-fiction prose pieces, contrasting the "neutral" bourgeois language of journalistic reporting with the accents and idioms of lower- and upper-class cultures. For example, a piece in All the Year Round, called "New View of Society" and ascribed to Wilkie Collins,(13) juxtaposes three different voices: the narrator's "neutral" (i.e. middle-class) voice; the "mob's" slangy voice; and the clipped, lazy locutions of the lower aristocracy. Furthermore, it stages its story, dividing characters into actors and audience and devising a proscenium arch to separate them from each other.

it was on one of the hottest days of this remarkably hot summer ... I was

sitting, a moist and melancholy man, with my eyes fixed upon my own

Dress Costume reposing on the bed, and my heart fainting within me at

the prospect of going out to Dinner ... How should I feel in an hour's

time, when I was shut into a dining-room with fifteen of my melting

fellow-creatures ... Common Sense ... suggested to me one of the most

graceful epistolary compositions, of a brief kind, in the English language.

It was addressed to my much-injured hostess; it contained the

words "sudden indisposition"... It was approaching nine o'clock, and

I was tasting the full luxury of my own cool seclusion, when the idea

struck me that there was only one thing wanting to complete my sense

of perfect happiness ... gloating over the sufferings of my polite

fellow-creatures in the dining-room, from the cool and secret

vantage-ground of the open street. Nine o'clock had struck before I got

to the house. A little crowd of street idlers ... vagabonds happily placed

out of the pale of Society--was assembled on the pavement, before the

dining-room windows. I joined them ... As I had foreseen, the

suffocating male guests had drawn up the blinds on the departure of the

ladies to the drawing-room ... reckless of all inquisitive observation on

the part of the lower orders on the street outside. I willingly identify

myself, on this occasion, with the mob ... We stood together sociably

on the pavement and stared in. My brethren of the mob surveyed the

magnificent epergne, the decanters, the fruit . . . on the table; while I, on

my side, occupied myself with the human interest of the scene. . . I

shudder in my convenient front place against the area railings, as I

survey my own full-dressed Fetch at the dinner table--I turn away my

face in horror, and look for comfort at my street companions ... One of

them catches my eye. "Ain't it beautiful?" says my brother of the mob,

pointing with a deeply curved thumb at the silver and glass at the table.

"And sich lots to drink!" Artless street-innocent! unsophisticated

coster-monger! he actually envies his suffering superiors inside!(14)

The entertainment continues. The Soiree is beginning, and our narrator recognizes Sir Aubrey Yollop, Lady Yollop, and the Misses Yollop among the first guests. "What time shall we order the carriage?" "Infernal nuisance coming at all this hot weather--get away as soon as we can--carriage wait" they drone, their clipped sentences in deep contrast with the narrator's rich and clever verbiage, and the "costermongers'" vulgar diction. The conflation of theatrical and social events in this piece raises some interesting questions about the languages the writer has chosen to represent in it. Are these idioms actual sociological specimens or theatrical tropes? I would argue that they are neither--or rather, a combination of both, the speech patterns of a culture steeped in its theater, a culture whose social and theatrical codes concurred. Whatever their "codes," these were languages, in "real life" experience, in books, on the stage, which marked class and geographic place, conventional tags used to identify, differentiate, and in some cases contain their speakers, and they were received as authentic social voices.

These circulating voices constituted a part of what one might describe as a "theater of popular assumptions."(15) Victorian novel-readers read in this very public "theater"; when they picked up any contemporary narrative they entered a sort of hybrid novelistic-theatrical genre, not plain written text but a living, dramatic dialogue between complex and stereotyped voices, between "realist" and transparently conventional stories. In other words, both they and their novels were born into an agreement about certain types of character and story, an agreement habitually dramatized--and thus in a practical sense formed--upon the English stage. Jurgen Habermas describes a similar phenomenon in early French and English bourgeois cultures, a private-public consciousness shaped by literary and artistic discourses. "In seventeenth-century France, le public meant the lecteurs, spectateurs, and auditeurs as the addressees and consumers, and the critics of art and literature."(16) This, of course, is a different public from the Victorian novel-reading and play-going public, but Habermas discerns in it the seeds of that modern consensual subjectivity that enables a diverse society to read and understand the same novels, to attend the same plays. It was the commodification of art that initially made this possible: the opening of public museums, concert halls, theaters. "[In 1747] La Font's famous reflections were published formulating for the first time the following principle: `A painting on exhibition is like a printed book seeing the day, a play performed on the stage--anyone has the right to judge it.' Like the concert and the theater, museums institutionalized the lay judgement on art: discussion became the medium through which people appropriated art" (Habermas, p. 40). By the nineteenth century, theatrical entertainment was itself a form of public discussion, a shared discourse, a song that everyone could hum, or could at least recognize if someone else hummed it. Henry Siddons explains, with specific reference to "rhetorical" or dramatic gesture, how this integration of ideas may occur:

You tell me, that everything which is executed by prescribed rules will

be formal, stiff, embarrassed and precise. You will please to observe

how I endeavor to answer this objection. While the rule is perpetually

present to the mind of the scholar, he will, perhaps, be awkward and

confused in all his gestures, and the fear of making constant mistakes

will render him more constrained and irresolute than if he were to give

way to his habitual actions. I will grant you thus much with great

willingness, but you will in return allow me one grand and general

position, viz. that use is a second nature ... should you state, in reply

to this, that the same argument will hold good in the mere exercise of the

profession of an actor, I answer, that though the general rule be allowed,

that habit becomes a kind of nature.(17)

For the first generation of readers consuming Dickens' novels, "habit" had long since become "nature"; they already acknowledged the popular styles, characters, images--that is, the "theater"--upon which he drew in writing as fact. When his novels appeared, the reading and theater public automatically received them in theatrical context, as novels with one foot, so to speak, on the boards.

Thus, the characters, stories, and voices of popular Victorian novels coexisted, in the popular imagination, with the characters, stories, and voices of the theater; indeed, these were to a certain extent interchangeable, as the types currently seen on the stage were used as types in novels as well, and one can well imagine readers conflating Flora Finching, say, or Felix Holt, with their theatrical kin, and with the actors and actresses whose names became affiliated with characters of their sort. One can also imagine how major theatrical themes were imported into novels, and how novel readers drew upon their theater experience in processing those themes. For instance, Nicholas Nickleby sets up from the beginning an opposition between two brothers, one good and one corrupt:

These two brothers had been brought up together in a school at Exeter,

and being accustomed to go home once a week, had often heard, from

their mother's lips, long accounts of their father's sufferings in his days

of poverty, and of their deceased uncle's importance in his days of

affluence, which recitals produced a very different impression on the

two: for while the younger, who was of a timid and retiring disposition,

gleaned from thence nothing but forewarnings to shun the great world

and attach himself to the quiet routine of a country life; Ralph, the elder,

deduced from the often-repeated tale the two great morals that riches are

the only true source of happiness and power, and that it is lawful and just

to compass their acquisition by all means short of felony.(18)

While this story is as old as the Old Testament, it is one that had been compelling to playwrights for centuries. One might have first read it in the Bible, but one's closest encounters with it, I am convinced, would have been in the playhouse. King Lear's Edgar and Edmund, The Tempest's Prospero and Antonio, the elder Hamlet and Claudius; Janus Jumble and Dick Cypher, from Isaac Pocock's 1810 hit, Hit or Miss--all of these, and many more similar pairs, were current on the Victorian stage, and they taught people how to visualize virtue and vice, specifically in brothers or male doubles. Hence, Ralph and the elder Nicholas Nickleby had theatrical antecedents: the set of collective visual, verbal, sartorial assumptions circulating about these characters had been disseminated on the stage.

We can learn something about these circulating assumptions by consulting acting manuals of the period. Henry Siddons' manual, Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gestures, asserts that "the gestures are the exterior and visible signs of our bodies, by which the interior modifications of the soul are manifested and made known" (p. 27). This belief was clearly shared by Dickens, who finds signifiers of their spiritual condition in his characters' features:

The face of the old man was stern, hard-featured and forbidding; that of

the young one, open, handsome, and ingenuous. The old man's eye was

keen with the twinklings of avarice and cunning; the young man's,

bright with the light of intelligence and spirit ... there was an emanation

from the warm young heart in his looks and bearing which kept the old

man down. (Nicholas Nickleby, pp. 83-84, my italics)

And Dickens is not alone among the novelists. Eliot's Felix Holt bears the "stamp of culture" on his face, while "the grandeur of his full yet firm mouth, and the calm clearness of his grey eyes," next to his rustic dress and "massive" head and neck,(19) denote a certain wholesome masculinity, identifying him for Victorian readers as the noble peasant-hero type, of which Adam Bede is another, and which turned up frequently in melodramas. Even the unlikely Charlotte Bronte, whose interest in interiors, in the anguish of psychological and emotional conflict, results in novels that are relative strangers to theatrical discourse, assumes that the very passions that consistently defy repression may be read, in novels and in life, as they are at the theater, upon the person--physical signifiers like Bertha's bloated, purple face and St. John Rivers' "nostril, his mouth, his brow, which . . . indicated elements within either restless, or hard, or eager."(20) As Michael Booth suggests, "The expression of the face was appropriate to the use of gesture; emotion had to be obviously visible in the countenance."(21) According to Booth, melodramatic acting included

extended gestures above the shoulders and head, notably in innumerable

appeals to heaven ... the frequent appeals to heaven are part of the

extreme emotionalism of melodrama, which could only be conveyed by

extravagant acting methods ... Dickens records the conventional forms

of forgiveness and blessing, "which consist of the old gentleman

looking anxiously up into the clouds, as if to see whether it rains, and

then spreading an imaginary tablecloth in the air over the young lady's

head." (Pp. 191-92)

Externalized in this way, moral character and even plot could be apprehended semiotically, read on the faces or in the gestures of the actors, or if one were reading, the characters, as well as in the spectacle of real life--in the "melodramatic mode" of "physical gestures, political actions, and visual cues"--as Elaine Hadley has convincingly argued.(22)

Certainly, Nicholas Nickleby relies on a system of exterior signs to convey its messages about moral character. By Siddons' authority, a figure like Ralph Nickleby would typically assume a specific set of attitudes, those believed to represent his reigning emotions--"anger "hauteur," and "painful recollection" are among the attitudes illustrated by Siddons that could, at various moments in the novel, be ascribed to Ralph. "Hauteur" is represented as a man with an arched spine, prominent chest and stomach, right arm cocked behind the back, right leg turned out and bearing his forward weight, and an erect head with a supercilious expression. "Painful recollection" shows a man facing right, curled slightly forward in a protective gesture, his right arm bent upwards toward his face, hand open-palmed, left arm thrown back behind his body, his feet wide apart and knees bent in a kind of stagger. Ralph's disdain for his country relatives would be registered as "the turning away from [them], or looking at [them] aside, darting a quick glance with a haughty air" (p. 169). Hablot Browne represented "Mr. Ralph Nickleby's `honest' composure," in a plate for the novel,(23) in a fashion that strongly resembles one of Siddons', or somewhat later in the century, Edmund Shaftesbury's dramatic postures;(24) in fact, the entire scene is as stylized and externalized as a tableau--Browne was as indebted to the theater as Dickens for his visual imagination--with Ralph stage left, legs slightly parted, arms crossed and one wrist tightly clasped as if to suppress some evil impulse, his face averted from the spectacle of Nicholas' honest anger and his eyes "darting a quick glance" into the wings in a highly sinister manner. And later in the novel, Dickens casts Ralph in much the same pose: "As he said this, Ralph clenched his right wrist tightly with his right hand, and inclining his head a little on one side, and dropping his chin upon his breast, looked at him whom he addressed with a frowning, sullen face: the picture of a man whom nothing could move or soften" (p. 662). Whether or not Browne was consciously referring to this description when he composed his sketch, the posture he--and Dickens--created for Ralph was a theatrical one; "picture" was another word for "tableau," and thus Ralph as picture carries a double meaning. Victorian readers were prepared for Ralph Nickleby, and all of the characters in Dickens' cast, by a theatrical industry that promoted (its legacy from Descartes)(25) a kind of semiotics of the passions, lending a visual integrity to the character traits that dominate the pages of Victorian novels.

Themes like the "good brother versus bad brother" represent only a portion of the theatrical legacy to the Victorian novel. The field of theatrical possibilities into which novels were born included standard plots and themes; strictly delineated verbal stereotypes, which were tied to class, geographic location, and genre (e.g., dialect, patter, aristocratic slurring or clipping, standard English); patterns of physical gesture; sartorial assumptions; even a politics of physical placement--that is, staging--which of course developed in the theater and presumed certain conditions, like a proscenium frame and frontal viewing audience. Readers of Oliver Twist, for example, could assume, indeed were obliged to assume, that Fagin was not an Englishman but some other specimen altogether, with his slightly strange locutions, his occasional but not regular grammatical lapses, and his compulsive repetition of "my dear" in almost every sentence; that the Artful Dodger was what might be described as "English" but a specimen of the lower sort, a speaker of street-English; and that Mr. Brownlow was a gentleman, a speaker of standard English. They could translate the Beadle's self importance into a largeness of gesture, a slowness of movement; in Fagin, as in David Copperfield's slightly less offensive Uriah Heep, they might expect an oiliness, a creeping and sliding movement, a voice not distinguished or resonant. In scenes that pit the lower sort of scoundrel--Uriah is a good example--against the hero, these readers brought up on theater could visualize the "picture" that so often concluded each act of a nineteenth-century play: hero center stage, scoundrel down stage, and off to one side (in a significantly lower place if the stage was raked), and frozen in the dramatic attitude appropriate to his moral and emotional state. This was how the Victorian public read books, watched plays, and even, perhaps, lived life.

What I am describing is a theatrical experience that enters intimately into other areas of social experience, a semiotics of theater-and-social-life. Theatrical signs are almost always intimately connected to what we experience as real-life social signs,

For signs are generated on stage in order to constitute meaning, signs to

which the audience in turn attributes meanings that are in part those

intended by the producers and in part different from these. The

respective underlying normative theatrical code guarantees that a

minimum of agreement exists, and a knowledge of this code must be

presumed among both the producers of the signs and the audience

attending a performance. Thus, the Peking Opera's normative theatrical

code ensures, for example, that a candle being blown out is attributed the

same meaning by actors and audience alike, namely, that the space

signified by the stage is plunged into complete darkness ... By contrast,

other meanings that can be constituted by means of the sign "blowing out a

candle" ... within this theatrical convention may differ widely,

depending on the actor, audience or specific members thereof ...

Theatrical signs are generated and interpreted simultaneously; the

constitution of meaning via the realization of signs and that via the

interpretation of signs are completely parallel processes. It follows that,

if communication is to be successful" at least the fundamental elements of

a code shared by producers and recipients must exist prior to the beginning

of the performance.(26)

The "normative code" in which Dickens conceived his novels, the pre-existing agreement, was shared between the Victorian "real world" and the stage. This sort of commerce clearly existed between the worlds of performance, fiction and the larger phenomenon of social experience, none of which sustained its own code without intrusions from the others, although each had certain structures of meaning or value peculiar to itself. For example, the codes governing fiction writing accommodated verbal and plot-related theatrical conventions, but included linguistic and narrative gestures incompatible with the stage. Likewise, the codes governing social behavior merged at times with theatrical/novelistic codes--the same rules of conduct, for example, were ideally applied to bourgeois characters and bourgeois citizens--but, as real life is generally more complicated than fiction would have it, certain specific social codes, like those governing the factory and work place, are often absent from fiction. Still, the points of contact outnumber the gaps: we can assume, in general, that the semiotic codes of theater and fiction drew liberally upon each other, and were firmly seated in the social world as well.

Nicholas Nickleby, often staged and itself highly theatrical, demonstrates the interchangeability of theatrical and literary codes: its irresistibility for playwrights and its own heavy reliance on the culture and signs of the stage are suggestive of the generic breakdown I have described as typical of the nineteenth century. Dickens published the novel serially, between April 1838 and October 1839; in 1838 Edward Stirling wrote a play based on it that was produced, along with several other adaptations, before the novel's completion.(27) (Martin Meisel has argued that Stirling's staged work "contributed pictorially to the memorable realization of the novel.(28)) Stirling's is a simplistic "good versus evil" drama, in which unequivocally bad characters work exclusively to undermine their honest counterparts. In this burletta, Ralph Nickleby is implicated in a plot against his son Smike's life ("That half-witted fool still lives, altho' we tried everything," Wackford Squeers informs him, and Ralph replies "As you value any friendship-never let me hear any news of the brat again--but--his--" "Death--ha! ha!"); Nicholas acts and speaks with saccharine sweetness; and in case we fail to understand exactly what they are up to, all of the dramatis personae periodically break into character-revealing songs. In a sort of ironic regression, Dickens' characters, borrowed from the melodrama and rendered magnificently larger and more complex than their sources, are deflated and returned to their origins. So that when Ralph contemplates the power of money, he does so in a grotesquely simple sung-soliloquy, not in the prosily pathological manner of Dickens' villain.

Money is your friend, is it not?

Money is your friend, is it not?

Is it not--is it not?

Pray tell to me.

Yes--money money money

Is your friend.

Although Ralph's song seems infantile and silly, it deserves some notice. Its grotesqueness derives in part from its strange and uncomfortable structure, its metrical and rhythmical uneasiness. This may indicate the playwright's incompetence, but it also raises some interesting questions about the song's contemporary reception. When we try to scan it, under the assumption that a song, and one almost compulsively, rhythmically repetitive, must scan, we find no metrical design at all, just a random sprinkling of stressed and weak syllables. Practically speaking, it must have been difficult to sing. And, without any hint of what the music sounded like (the score is not printed with the play and probably has not survived), I suspect that this song, at the level of rhythm and perhaps tonality, unsettled the audience, performed the mal-adjustment it describes. This probably demonstrates the affective powers of language and music more than it does a spark of insight on the playwright's part: on some basic level this melodrama played on the affections, as the genre was, of course, meant to do. But its strongest impressions were made at the level of broad gesture. Stirling employs a conventional theatrical stereotype with his Ralph Nickleby, who is foiled at the play's end and slinks off stage swearing revenge. He has adapted the novel according to the principles of melodrama, employing a set of verbal, physical, and incidental gestures completely familiar to Victorian audiences, a system of signs that they knew how to interpret.(29)

To a large extent Dickens, like most of his literary colleagues, was using these signs as well. The idealistic young hero, the physically threatened heroine, the wicked patriarchal authority figure, all part and parcel of the standard melodramatic plot, live and work in Nicholas Nickleby. Yet they transcend the structures of gross melodrama. This has something to do with Dickens' brilliant critical eye and comic sensibility, his exquisite narrative abilities, his profound understanding of pathos. It may also be explained generically. In spite of that generic fluidity characteristic of the nineteenth century, novels and plays did, of course, sustain certain generic integrities. For example, the practice of fiction-writing, unlike the practice of melodrama, allows a padding of even the commonest stock characters with real human flesh. Perhaps most importantly, the codes of the novel generally accommodate--in fact, in the nineteenth century, virtually mandated--the use of metaphor and simile. Conversely, nineteenth-century dramatic practice insisted on a kind of semiotic transparency, a direct relationship between gesture, for example, and the passion or personality trait it claimed to represent--in other words, a sort of anti-metaphoric metaphoring. In theater, then, one had merely the paradox of "truthfully" feigned situations, with little or no poetry, or irony, or fancy; heightened language was employed, but only as a grace-note on the text, a conventional marker of social or moral elevation); in fiction. One had theater with complications--with the richness and slipperiness, and in the case of Dickens the sheer beauty, of metaphoric language.

Despite these significant generic differences, Victorian readers evidently conflated fictional and theatrical codes. This surely happened when people read Nickleby. Those who had seen Stirling's adaptation, for example, saw his broadly villainous Ralph Nickleby played against Dickens' psychologically complicated character, a man with a past, a subject of stories, a father, one whose obsessions and anger may be ultimately understood if not forgiven.

If he had known his child to be alive, if no deceit had been ever practiced

and he had grown up beneath his eye, he might have been a careless,

indifferent, rough, harsh father--like enough--he felt that; but the thought

would come that he might have been otherwise, and that his son might

have been a comfort to him and they two happy together. He began to

think now, that [Smike's] supposed death and his wife's flight had had

some share in making him the morose, hard man he was. He seemed to

remember a time when he was not quite so rough and obdurate, and

almost thought that he had first hated Nicholas because he was young

and gallant, and perhaps like the stripling who had brought dishonour and

loss of fortune on his head. (P. 904)

The richness of Dickens' Ralph Nickleby is largely due to the narrative voice enveloping him. But narrative reflection of this or any sort is impossible--or at least extremely difficult to pull off--in melodrama, even if the playwright is interested in psychological realism. And of course the first dramatists, like Stirling, did not know how Smike came to the Yorkshire school, or what exactly was his father's relationship to him; those details had yet to be disclosed. But whatever the relative merits of these two texts, novel and play, the fact remains that they spoke to each other in compelling ways, with the play responding to Dickens' text and the novel responding in kind. Audiences and readers were drawn into the discussion, engaged in that space external to either text, in the theater of possibilities that enabled the very act of reading, of hearing and watching a story unfold.

The Victorian reader's "theater" was heavily overdetermined, layer upon layer of voice, image, phrase, rhythm. Its layers included novels and their specific adaptations, as well as the current theatrical and literary repertoires, works of social criticism, politics, journalism--all of the written and performance--based genres which played the same figures and voices--the same social stereotypes--against a backdrop of normalcy, of standard speech, dress, behavior. If we peel back the layers of Nicholas Nickleby we find more of the same beneath--more plays and more prose, a litany of Nicholases, Ralphs, and Mrs. Nicklebys. The core of Nickleby, which to us seems easily identified, the hard kernel of Dickens' novel, becomes elusive, provisional, when we place the text in its contemporary contexts. As I have suggested, the original readers of the novel, those consuming the monthly numbers in 1838-1839, received the text as part of a larger Nickleby experience, a novel plus adaptations. Because there were at least three Nickleby plays produced in 1838, Dickens' characters and episodes were circulating outside of his novel, a part of this meta-text, this popular discussion in which the public could participate regardless of whether or not they were reading the novel. Even those who recognized the inauthenticity of the adaptations and distinguished a proper "Dickensian" text from among the substantial body of related materials(30) generally read the novels on that plane of shared assumptions and social agreements created by the current field of popular entertainments; we can see this in their responses to Dickens, which accept, without comment, those elements of his fiction that came directly from the theater. A writer for the Edinburgh Review remarks,

We think him a very original writer-well entitled to his popularity--and

not likely to lose it--and the truest and most spirited delineator of English

life, amongst the middle and lower classes, since the days of Smollett and

Fielding ... We would compare him ... with the painter Hogarth. What

Hogarth was in painting, such very nearly is Mr. Dickens in prose fiction

... Like Hogarth he takes a keen and practical view of life--is an able

satirist--very successful in depicting the ludicrous side of human nature

... The reader is led through scenes of poverty and crime, and all the

characters are made to discourse in the appropriate language of their

respective classes ... His vicious characters are just what experience

shows the average to be ... we find no monsters ... no creatures blending

with their crimes the most incongruous and romantic virtues ... In short,

he has eschewed that vulgar and theatrical device for producing effect--the

representation of human beings as they are likely not to be."(31)

What is most interesting about this review (of Dickens' first four novels) is its assumptions about human nature. Dickens and Hogarth stand out as great artists of the human condition: their characters are true to class, with the appropriate lineaments, voices, and gestures. But we have begun to see that--in spite of this critic's assertion to the contrary--Dickens' characters are ultimately theatrical products, and we shall soon see that the languages the reviewer finds so realistic are somewhat more sophisticated versions of standard theatrical idioms. Like Dickens, Hogarth was indebted to the theater for many of his subjects and compositions, which would partly explain the conjunction of the two in this review. That he applauds Dickens and Hogarth for the truth of their representations may seem curious to twentieth-century readers. The engravings to which he refers are brilliant, detailed, satirical caricatures, pictures of human beings with grotesque features, engaged in grotesque behavior. The comparison itself is quite appropriate, although for different reasons than the Edinburgh critic imagines: both Hogarth and Dickens perceived their subjects in theatrical space, their creative pulse moving to theatrical rhythms, and they both exaggerated, using conventional types (elevated in their hands to unusual complexity) to convey a message. What looks to us like a serious oversight in the review suggests that its writer observed Hogarth, and read Dickens, from a completely different place than we do. He is not unsophisticated: he recognizes that Dickens transcends the "vulgar" oversimplifications of the theater, that his satire resembles Hogarth's in some ways. But his culture, generally speaking, had accepted as authentic the characters and actions that we can only receive as caricatures, or in Dickens' case, as exaggerated or sentimental; the popular culture had embraced and disseminated these types so thoroughly that they rang true.

Of course, not every reader found absolute truth in Dickens' characters. Harriet Martineau, with her rigorous logicality, wrote: "While he tells us a world of things that are natural and even true, his personages are generally, as I suppose is undeniable, profoundly unreal."(32) For that matter, Dickens himself disparaged broad caricature or conventionality in characterization--as it is practiced, for example by Nickleby's "old Bricks and Mortar" and his troupe. In response to a poor production of Bulwer Lytton's Not So Bad As We Seem, he wrote

A miserable thing of no note enacts Colonel Flint. Nothing is changed for

the better in the drunken scene of Tonson's part, which I am told is very

humorously done by Buckstone. If you had seen the dense

conventionality of some of them ... Mr. Stuart, who does the Duke,

actually steamed with conventionality. I saw it passing off from the

pores of his skin ... [all of the staging was done] according to theatrical


But his friend Macready, the actor, praises the "force and precision" of Dickens' characters--a concession, one would assume, to their verisimilitude. He then, somewhat unexpectedly, likens them to familiar portraits: "Nickleby is much superior to Pickwick ... in the force and precision of its characters--and already includes a gallery of faces familiar to us as our own."(34) The portrait metaphor strongly suggests that these are not faces we know from our strolls along the Strand, or from our clubs, but are rather the collective images of the popular culture. Curiously, Macready sees no conflict in insisting upon both their universal prior existence and their faithfulness to real life; a year after he published the review quoted above he wrote, "[Dickens] seizes the eager attention of his readers by the strong power of reality. He thoroughly individualizes what he takes in hand ... In everything of that kind that he presents to us, there is, in his manner of doing it ... the truth of life as it is ... Now by all the various readers of this tale of Nicholas Nickleby--and they separate themselves into classes most widely apart from each other--these various qualities can be in an almost equal degree appreciated and felt."(35) Macready was correct in his assessment of Dickens' equal appeal and relevance to people of every class; the sheer volume of novel sales indicates it. And his attribution of this popularity to the characters' realism is also correct. Clearly, Victorian "reality" at some level merged with the images of the popular culture, as post-industrial experience, including our own today, inevitably does: how else do we explain the fact that even those Dickensian characters who seem most exaggerated to us were routinely accepted as true to life?

Of course, not all of Dickens' characters strike us as exaggerations: a few of them achieve such a height of emotional and psychological complexity that they ought to convince the staunchest cynic. But this returns us to the difference between nineteenth- and twentieth-century reading. With so many theatrical sources and adaptations in circulation, even the Arthur Clennams of Dickens' world must have lost something of their sharpness and singularity to the swell of images and voices. Even limiting that swell to specific adaptations results in some compromise, some loosening of plot and character. Most of these adaptations are fairly homogeneous, the major differences existing in general plot details and in the scenarios actually dramatized. But they existed independently of the novel, whispering amongst themselves, jockeying for position on the boards. Stirling's Nickleby spoke to its fellow dramatizations, and they to it, as loudly as any of them spoke to the novel. For example, W. T. Moncrieff's Nicholas Nickleby (1838) pointedly dramatizes scenes that Stirling's omits, and while both end with Smike the heir to a large and unexpected fortune, Moncrieff devises an elaborate twist of circumstance (and in fact, rewrites the relationships between some major characters) to justify taking that leap. To some extent, of course, the plays are rivals, competing for audience and profits; hence the dramatizations of alternate scenes, and Moncrieff's outrageously complicated ending, an act of one-upmanship. At the same time, they rely on the same dramatic conventions, with characters who speak in standard stage-idioms and behave according to generic expectations. In Moncrieff's version, Ralph Nickleby is once again the melodramatic villain, actively and explicitly engaged in plots to injure Smike, Nicholas, and Kate. Nicholas, whose moral and dramatic opposition to his uncle is seated in his diction, speaks the language of sentimental heroism--not as Dickens represents it in the novel, although his Nicholas is certainly a "sentimental hero," but as it was currently represented on the stage. Waiting in his cold, dark room at Dotheboys Hall, he soliloquizes, "What am I to think of all this--what horrid place (sic)--what horrid people am I leagued with. Can my uncle have been aware--I would fain hope not--may he not consign poor Kate to equal misery--horrible thought--no, `tis I alone am the object of his hatred." These are cold and chaste words, unlike anything spoken by the "real" Nicholas. But in fact they reverberated in the public's ears, obscuring or at least complicating the very identity of the character whom we would call the "real" Nicholas Nickleby.

Variations on those words of Moncrieff's Nicholas could be heard on any Victorian stage. The hundreds of melodramas in repertoire over the course of the century each had their Nicholas--one could choose almost at random among them and find young men who looked and talked like the young hero. In Isaac Pocock's The Miller and his Men--which Schlicke claims the juvenile Dickens directed in a private theatrical(36)--his name is Lothair and he is a peasant, but he is obviously the standard type to which these Dickens dramatists matched their heroes: an idealized, brave, and for a peasant, surprisingly well-spoken youth. (For that matter, George Eliot used the type in Felix Holt, and a dialect version of it in Adam Bede.) The Miller and His Men was first produced at Covent Garden in 1813, where it played fifty-one times, and was periodically revived in nearly all of the legitimate theaters through the 1860's.(37) In June of 1837, while Dickens' novel was in progress, it was revived at Sadlers Wells Theatre. A domestic melodrama set in Bohemia, Miller centers on the trials of two poor lovers, Claudine, daughter of the bankrupt Kelmar, and Lothair. Claudine is pursued by Grindoff, a rich miller who is also a banditto in disguise; he and his men plan to abduct Claudine and murder a variety of people, including Lothair. The play ends happily, although not without some spectacular scenes of violence. Its plot bears no resemblance to Nickleby, but the languages spoken by its hero and villain reverberate in those later plays. Notice the similarities between Lothair's dialogue and that of Moncrieff's Nicholas:

LOTHAIR. A sudden exclamation burst from my lips, and arrested their

intent; they turned to seek me, and with dreadful imprecations vowed

death to the intruder. Stretched beneath a bush of holly, I lay concealed;

they passed within my reach. I scarcely breathed, while I observed them

to be ruffians, uncouth and savage--they were banditti.(38)

Here again is Moncrieff's Nicholas upon his arrival at Dotheboys Hall:

Nic. "What am I to think of all this--what horrid place (sic)--what horrid

people am I leagued with. Can my uncle have been aware--I would fain

hope not--may he not consign poor Kate to equal misery--horrible

thought--no, `tis I alone am the object of his hatred."

These passages resemble each other in several ways. Stilted and archaic, they do not reflect the authentic spoken language of any class. In fact, the language spoken by Lothair and Nicholas is in one sense classless--spoken indiscriminately, in a way that must have satisfied audiences, by the son of a country gentleman and a peasant! It represented an ideal rather than any verbal or social reality--a unanimously accepted signifier of young and honest masculinity. If the idiom and its particular speakers in some ways evaded class specificity, the ideal did not--he may have occasionally sported peasant clothes and worked out of doors, but he stood for middle-class values: hence his verbal fluency. Furthermore, the tendency of both characters to exaggerate their difference from a degraded other group--"horrid people," "ruffians, uncouth and savage"--suggests that both plays presume the same class politics, the same set of social codes. Melodrama always establishes clear boundaries between the good and the bad, its moral delineation often serving as a metaphor for class hierarchy. Even in Dickens, who devised substantially more complicated plots, and wrote more realistic and complex dialogue than may be found in the melodramas, the boundaries between good and bad adhere, and are dramatized in characters' voices.

Much of Dickens criticism has focused on text as written word, literary artifact, and has neglected the layers of extra-textual movement, the vocal and gestural inflection, for example, in his novels--layers that we must explore if we are to imagine how Victorians read their novels. But recently, biographer Peter Ackroyd has celebrated these complications in Dickens: "So strong was Dickens' imaginative hold upon his readers, in fact, that it is also entirely probable that people began to behave in a 'Dickensian' fashion when they were in his presence; in other words they unconsciously exaggerated their own mannerisms and behaviour in order to conform to the types which he had already created" (p. 260). Ackroyd's recognition of the slipping of generic boundaries that seems always to mark Dickens' work and life--his self-consciously theatrical self, his tendency to infuse other people, as well as any prose he set his hand to, with theatricality--results, rather disappointingly, in the conclusion that Dickens himself was the ultimate source of his fictional-theatrical types, that he single-handedly spawned a set of characters, voices, and gestures and then sent them forth into society. This is certainly not the case: brilliant as he was, he fed from a common cultural plate. What Ackroyd has grasped, however, is the way in which dramatic voices resounded in the Victorian imagination, and in Dickens' work.

In Dickens, voices speak in counterpoint, delivering lines with clear rhythms and tones, as well as general and specific theatrical referents. Take, for example, the Crummles episodes in Nickleby. (As Ackroyd suggests, "Nicholas Nickleby is written by someone whose understanding of appearance, of gesture, of speech and of character has been very strongly influenced by his experience of acting" [pp. 283-84].) Here the strains of dialogue (including that of the narrator) are carefully choreographed, much like the novel's mock sword fight on the road to Portsmouth--verbal thrusts and parries as different in character as the dueling Crummles brothers are in size. Each character owns a specific voice, and these voices strike and retreat in cadenced steps, generating meaning in the patterns and rhythms, not the words, of conversation. One might read the staged fight, described almost entirely in the voice of the narrator, as a sort of physical metaphor for the verbal politicking that takes place in the theater itself.

"There's a picture," said Mr. Crummles, motioning Nicholas not to

advance and spoil it. "The little `un has him; if the big `un doesn't knock

under in three seconds he's a dead man. Do that again, boys."

The two combatants went to work afresh, and chopped away until

the swords emitted a great shower of sparks, to the great satisfaction of

Mr. Crummles ... The engagement commenced with about two hundred

chops administered by the short sailor and the tall sailor alternately,

without producing any particular result until the short sailor was

chopped down on one knee, but this was nothing to him, for he worked

himself about on one knee with the assistance of his left hand, and fought

most desperately until the tall sailor chopped his sword out of his grasp.

Now the inference was, that the short sailor, reduced to this extremity,

would give in at once and cry quarter, but instead of that he all of a

sudden drew a large pistol from his belt and presented it at the face of

the tall sailor, who was so overcome at this (not expecting it) that he let

the short sailor pick up his sword and begin again. Then the chopping

recommenced. (P. 354)

This passage describes a dance, actors in pantomime combat, but the narrative, with its sympathetic diction, its reliance on quick, explosive words like "chop" and "legs" and "short," its repetitions and its bracing pace, dances as well. The narrator shifts back and forth between combatants, often in mid-sentence, signaling the contextual changes with tag words like "but" and "now." What I am describing is a kind of dialogism, to borrow Bakhtin's term, a plurality of voice within the ostensible monovocality of third-person narrative.(39) There is always this sort of vocal resonance in Dickens, and although here I have described it as dancing, it also exists as a kind of scored music, structured and resonant. Typical of Dickens is a sensitivity to the rhythms and syntax of human speech and thought, a willingness, on the part of the author, to hear, at a level deeper than that of semantics, the voices of his characters.

Let us try to complicate our experience of the Crummles episode--to "Victorianize" it--by introducing another version of it, an 1838 adaptation of Nickleby called The Infant Phenomenon; Or, A Rehearsal Rehearsed,(40) by playing one against the other and locating the third "text" that is generated in the process. This piece takes as its entire subject the scenes that occur in the Crummles' theater. The sword fight, which occupies a place of such descriptive importance in the novel, can only be performed here, and exists in the text as a stage direction ("a couple of boys, one tall, the other short, dressed as sailors, with pigtails and buckles complete, fighting a theatrical combat"). The locus of dramatic meaning has been shifted, from the elaborate, prosy, descriptive passages in which it primarily resides in Dickens' novel, to spoken dialogue. Apart from the necessary plot contractions, and the omission of that descriptive narrative that constitutes the real flesh of a Dickens novel, the playwright, H. Horncastle, has made some specific adjustments to the text. I use "adjustments" to suggest a conscious adaptation to his medium. Most of these changes lie in the diction of the two main characters, Nicholas and Mr. Crummles, and they serve the purpose of drawing both characters closer to the stock theatrical types that originally inspired them, an ironic artistic regression. Thus, Crummles uses a more vulgarly comic idiom than we see in Dickens, drawing heavily, in fact, upon current lower-class slang. An exchange which, in the novel, reads

"Excuse my saying so," said the manager, leaning over to Nicholas

and sinking his voice, "but--what a capital countenance your friend has


"Poor fellow!" said Nicholas, with a half smile, "I wish it were a

little more plump and less haggard."

"Plump!" exclaimed the manager, quite horrified, "you'd spoil it

forever." (P. 356)

is rewritten, in the play, to read as follows:

Crum. You will excuse me saying so, but what a capital mug your

friend has.

Nic. Poor fellow--I wish his face were a little more plump and less


Crum. Plump? Would you spoil it forever-if the young gentleman

was a plumper, you'd spoil him forever. (My italics)

Horncastle's Crummles often substitutes slang terms for the "legitimate" English of Dickens' character and his brand of comedy verges on the slapstick, as when he runs through a litany of homonyms each time he refers to Smike. "Stike, Dyke, Tyke or Mike, or what you please" is used repeatedly, a tag line for Crummles, as if audiences needed the cue, and the gag were too good to drop. To us he is obviously a caricature of the other Crummles, although Victorian audiences, steeped in his sort of comic gesture, brought up to expect characters of his cast to "really" talk like that, would not have seen him as such, but would, I am convinced, have seen something of him in Dickens' character, just as the Edinburgh Review critic saw the subjects of Hogarth's engravings walking the streets of London.

If Crummles' dialogue transforms him into the conventional low comedic figure of the day, Nicholas' idiom turns him into a standard theatrical hero. It is a language, like Moncrieff's, far more cold and stilted than the one Dickens had him speak. In the novel, Nicholas responds to the theater-manager's job offer ambivalently: he is not entirely adverse to trying his hand at the "genteel comedy" and "juvenile tragedy" so suited to his handsome face and figure.

"I don't know anything about it," rejoined Nicholas, whose breath

had been almost taken away by this sudden proposal. "I never acted a

part in my life, except at school."

"There's genteel comedy in your walk and manner, juvenile tragedy

in your eye, and touch-and-go farce in your laugh," said Mr. Vincent

Crummles. "You'll do as well as if you had thought of nothing else but

the lamps, from your birth downwards."

Nicholas thought of the small amount of change there would remain

in his pocket after paying the tavern bill: and he hesitated.

"You can be useful to us in a hundred ways," said Mr. Crummles.

"Think what capital bills a man of your education could write for the


"Well, I think I could manage that department," said Nicholas.

(P. 359)

Horncastle's Nicholas is less attracted to the offer, at first demurring for the sake of his friend Smike: "You flatter me, sir, I can only speak for myself, and to speak truthfully, I should not like to part from poor Smike." Dickens' Nicholas is flattered, tempted by what looks like an exciting way to earn some cash, and his speech--casual, hesitant--shows it. His theatrical double, however, shows more restraint; one can imagine him drawing himself up to accuse Crummles of flattery, and delivering his rather formal response from a place of moral, and possibly physical height, depending on the staging.

And there were other versions of the Crummles scene in circulation at the time, not only on the stage but in writing as well. One is even in Dickens' own hand, a slightly earlier sketch, called "Private Theatres," which anticipates the mock sword fight and sounds quite similar to it:

Then the love scene with Lady Ann, and the bustle of the fourth act can't

be dear at ten shillings more--that's only one pound ten, including the

"off with his head!"--which is sure to bring down the applause, and it is

very easy to do--"Orf with his ed" (very quick and loud;--then slow and

sneeringly)--"So much for Bu-u-u-uckingham!" Lay the emphasis on

the "uck;" get yourself gradually into a corner, and work with your right

hand, while you're saying it, as if you were feeling your way, and it's

sure to do. The tent scene is confessedly worth half a sovereign, and so

you have the fight in, gratis, and everybody knows what an effect may

be produced by a good combat. One-two-three-four-over; then

one-two-three-four-under; then thrust; then dodge and slide about; then

fall down on one knee; then fight upon it; then get up again and stagger.(41)

Ostensibly a satire of the "private theatre," an institution that encouraged anyone with a few spare pounds to buy himself a dramatic role (all roles were for sale), the sketch is itself an exercise in theatricality, in the skipping and starting and thrusting of dramatic action. The broken narrative shifts from one context to another with a sort of ventriloquistic movement, a sleight-of-hand that keeps one looking--or reading--back and forth, stage left to downstage center and back, as if following a cast of characters through an intricately choreographed scene. These choppy little segments of narrative, attentive to their own dramatic rhythms and pieced together into a frame, make the theater in this prose piece. It is choreographed like a dance, syncopated like music, and if we let ourselves be drawn into its movements we experience the private theater live, as real drama as opposed to prose description.

So far I have emphasized the physical gesture of staged combat, the piecing of text into dance-patterns, over the strains of voice in these Dickensian scenes. But voices make theater as well, darting, dashing, clashing, and in Nicholas Nickleby, often fighting to monopolize our ears. In fact, the scene of Nicholas' introduction into the Crummles' acting company echoes the sword fights above. Mrs. Crummles, a very large tragedian, greets Nicholas thus: "I am glad to see you, sir ... I am very glad to see you, and still more happy to hail you as a promising member of our corps" (p. 363). As if the explicit stage directions for Mrs. Crummles ("in a sepulchral voice," "crossing to Smike, as tragic actresses cross when they obey a stage direction") were not enough, Dickens provides a significant number of identifying markers in her speech. "Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life," to borrow once again from Bakhtin.(42) Mrs. Crummles' dialogue is a symbiotic gold mine, a rich field of social and theatrical signs. Her fairly regular trochaic meter, her fondness for broad vowels and words that linger in the mouth, her stately repetition, all conspire to suggest artificiality, obsolescence of method, even largeness of girth. She is powerful and innocuous; grand and silly. Even her dinner-table conversation quivers with dignity, each word an act in itself, clearly enunciated and wholly aware of its antecedents.

"We have but a shoulder of mutton with onion sauce," said Mrs.

Crummles, in the same charnel-house voice; "but such as our dinner

is, we beg you to partake of it."

"You are very good," replied Nicholas, "I shall do it ample justice."

"Vincent," said Mrs. Crummles, "what is the hour?"

"Five minutes past dinner-time," said Mr. Crummles.

Mrs. Crummles rang the bell. "Let the mutton and onion sauce appear."

(P. 372)

Mrs. Crummles is on the stage. Her formal diction and syntax, the ceremony of the dinner ritual--asking the hour, ringing the bell--gleam with paint and gaslight, theatrical tricks. Each step must proceed in order because it is. required by the script. Her coup de grace, "Let the mutton and onion sauce appear," evokes Roman games and conjuring, ancient and modern spectacles. She is, in fact, theater itself, large, real and unreal, self-referential.

Mrs. Crummles' dialogue sits in contrast with her husband's shorter, clipped, unresonant speech, which is suggestive of his whitey-brown paper snuff-bag, his distraction, and his sloppy exterior; and also of the current "low comic" idiom. Her voice seems always to challenge his to assume greater dimension, more tragic feeling, and between them they cultivate some extremely funny moments. For example, her broad, unbroken "They are going through the Indian Savage and the Maiden" is followed by his glottal, highly punctuated "Oh! the little ballet interlude. Very good, go on. A little this way, if you please, Mr. Johnson. That'll do. Now!" (p. 364). Thrust and parry, glide and chop: they alternate lines with the deftness of duelists.

And they are not the only ones to do so. Mr. Folair, the company's pantomimist, and Mr. Lenville, the first tragedian, pronounce their off-stage lines in character, so to speak, with Folair adopting an exaggerated verbal flourish, and his friend punctuating his sentences with phrases from the stock belonging to his type, such as "What ho! Within there!" (instead of "Are you at home, and may we come in?"), and "Gadzooks! You astonish me!" Each one supports the other with voice and body, as if, as pantomimist and first tragedian, they serve complementary roles, exist as parts rather than wholes and must share the stage, gracefully retreating in time when their lines have been uttered. The whole company operates in this way, emerging and retreating with perfect rhythmic integrity.

"Well, Tommy," said [the tragedian], making a thrust at his friend,

who parried it dexterously with his slipper, "what's the news?"

"A new appearance, that's all," replied Mr. Folair, looking at Nicholas.

"Do the honours, Tommy, do the honours," said the other gentleman,

tapping him reproachfully on the crown of the hat with his stick.

"This is Mr. Lenville, who does our first tragedy, Mr. Johnson,"

said the pantomimist.

"Except when old bricks and mortar takes it into his head to do it

himself, you should add, Tommy," remarked Mr. Lenville. "You know who

bricks and mortar is, I suppose, sir?"

"I do not, indeed," replied Nicholas.

"We call Crummles that, because his style of acting is rather in the

heavy and ponderous way." (P. 367)

But if they complement each other, these characters also compete with each other, for parts, applause, remuneration--the petty and important details that reduce all of us, actors and academics and entrepreneurs alike, to politicians--and they live almost continually in a kind of verbal sparring match, a pitting of style against style, voice against voice. It seems to me that this playing of the regularity and artifice of professional acting against the volatility of human emotions, breaks some of the barriers between staged theater and "real life," confuses the acts of performance and living by mixing them up in suggestive ways. If the tragedian never falls out of verbal character, he does occasionally act in ways unbefitting his role (though perfectly appropriate to a narrow-minded, unexceptional man) and in doing so muddles the self he has created with the self that he is. In some ways, this is precisely what we, as readers of Victorian novels--and particularly Dickens' novels--constantly do: we create, we perform, we hybridize our reading selves by becoming active participants--actors, stage managers, directors--in the theater.

I am proposing that we read these novels in this way, with an ear to verbal patterns and relationships, and with other voices and stories ringing in our ears, because I am convinced that they were read in this way, and are still meant to be read thus. While Victorian readers could identify characters with real London or provincial actors, we may also, with a little imagination, make the leap to performance, to theater, that our predecessors made. Under the proper conditions, reading is theater, a concert of verbal and physical dramatic gestures gathered up into the frame of text. Victorian England boasted the proper conditions: a strong, class-inclusive theater industry; a strong printing industry; a vital street-culture. If theatrical culture infused the streets and "infected" bourgeois homes, then it surely influenced the act of reading, with its tropes and myths the stuff of everyday life, evidenced in the mere act of strolling through Regent Street or the Seven Dials. And this is the condition I have tried to recover in this essay, which imagines theater as an actual and metaphorical influence on Victorian readings and writings.


(1) This is not to suggest that Victorianists have not recognized and analyzed the public sphere, or the shared assumptions of the culture. Some excellent books have recently explored publicity and the nineteenth-century popular imagination, including Elaine Hadley's Melodramatic Tactics (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995). Richard Altick's Writers, Readers and Occasions (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1989) and Linda Hughes and Michael Lund's The Victorian Serial (Charlottesville and London: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1991). I am referring specifically to the presumption, which governs so many works of scholarship, of a privatized Victorian subject, and a Victorian novel that is itself "privatized"--a discrete aesthetic unit, fixed and unresponsive to the conditions around it. And a large number of representative critical studies focus on such matters as identity, sexuality, domesticity, and death, as if private practices are the only legitimately Victorian ones.

(2) D.A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), p. 82.

(3) Miller, like many of the scholars whose work has contributed so richly to the field of nineteenth-century studies, embraces too uncritically Foucault's historical paradigm, assuming the nineteenth century to be an age of interiority. Even some major writings on the Victorian theater and theatricality have been shaped by Foucault's privatization of the nineteenth century. These include two very prominent books, Joseph Litvak's Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century Novel (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992) and Nina Auerbach's Private Theatricals (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), which is ultimately concerned, as its title suggests, with theatricality of a private rather than public sort: performances of self-actualization, surveillance, spirituality, and death.

(4) For example, by Philip Collins (Charles Dickens: The Public Readings [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975]); Paul Schlicke (Dickens and Popular Entertainment [London: Unwin Hyman, 1985]); Robert Garis (The Dickens Theatre [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19651); and Martin Meisel (Realizations [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983]). George Taylor (Players and Performances in the Victorian Theatre [Manchester and New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 1989]) suggests Frederick Robson's dramatic characters as sources for some of Dickens' creations, and several writers, starting with Macready, have found models in the "At Homes" of Charles Mathews. Indispensible is Philip Bolton's work on Dickensian adaptations, Dickens Dramatized (London: Mansell, 1987).

(5) Nina Auerbach, Private Theatricals (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), p. 13.

(6) In Dickens and Popular Entertainment (London: Unwin Hyman, 1985).

(7) While Linda Hughes and Michael Lund's interesting work on Victorian reading asserts that serial publication "required readers to stay with a story a long time and to postpone learning a story's outcome," the appearance of novels on the stage before the end of their serialization in fact compromised the deferral of gratification that Hughes and Lund cite as one of the cultural values driving serialization, even if the endings contrived by playwrights did not resemble the conclusions eventually written by the novelists. The Victorian Serial (Charlottesville and London: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1991), p. 4.

(8) Although I have focused almost exclusively on theatrical sources, I do not mean to dismiss the textual influences on Victorian novels; clearly writers like Dickens inherited literary forms and conventions from their predecessors. But the novels of the mid-nineteenth century also bear explicit marks of early and mid-nineteenth-century theater. One finds countless examples of this in the major novelists alone, most of whom relied on character types that had been popularized in the melodrama: the sentimental or gothic hero (e.g., Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Darnay, Felix Holt, Mr. Rochester, Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede); the comic loquacious woman (e.g., Flora Finching, Mrs. Nickleby, Mrs. Tulliver, Mrs. Holt, Miss Clack); the "villain" (e.g., Ralph Nickleby, Mr. Murdstone, Mr. Dombey, Count Fosco, Sir Pitt Crawley); the buffo (e.g., Mark Tapley, Mr. Pancks). All of these characters are drawn to type--they speak or act like characters currently walking the boards. And Dickens' novels were not the only ones to be adapted: popular gothic novels like East Lynne and Lady Audley's Secret practically begged to be dramatized, and even "serious" fiction, like Jane Eyre and Adam Bede, found its way onto the stage. Dramatists didn't stop at fiction, either: Henry Mayhew's muck-raking London Labour and the London Poor, an unlikely candidate for adaptation, turned up on the stage as Want and Vice, or, London Labour and the London Poor and How We Live in London.

(9) Several commentators, from John Forster (The Life of Charles Dickens [London: Chapman Hall, 1872-74]) to Earle Davis (The Flint and the Flame [Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1963]) and Robert Golding (Idiolects in Dickens [New York: St. Martin's, 1985]) have noted Dickens' debt to the early nineteenth-century comedian Charles Mathews.

(10) Edinburgh Review (vol. 68) Oct. 1838, p. 84.

(11) Paul N. Campbell, "Communication Aesthetics," Today's Speech 19 (1971): 9.

(12) Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992) p. 268.

(13) In Ella Ann Oppenlander, Dickens' All the Year Round Descriptive Index Contributor List (Troy: Whitston, 1984).

(14) "New View of Society," All the Year Round 1 (August 20, 1859): 396-99.

(15) One might also borrow Paul Davis' term "culture text" to describe this overdetermined literary-cultural experience, although the culture text, as Davis constructs it, is perhaps less shifty and permissive than what I have in mind here--a fluid, multi-faceted experience in which the fictive and the real are continually confused or conflated, and readings are performed through a filter of eclectic popular ideas with various etiologies and affiliations. See Paul Davis, The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990).

(16) Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 199 1), p. 31.

(17) Henry Siddons, Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gestures (London, 1822), pp. 2-3.

(18) Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 61.

(19) George Eliot, Felix Holt (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 398.

(20) Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre (New York: St. Martins, 1996), pp. 281, 339.

(21) Michael R. Booth, English Melodrama (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1965), p. 192.

(22) Elaine Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995), p. 4.

(23) On p. 323 of the Penguin edition.

(24) Edmund Shaftesbury, Lessons in the Art of Acting: A Practical and Thorough Work for All Persons Who Aim to Become Professional Actors (Washington, DC: Webster Edgerly, 1889).

(25) It was Descartes, of course, who published the definitive treatise on the affections and their physical manifestations, Les Passions de I'Ame. See The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985).

(26) Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Semiotics of Theater, trans. Jeremy Gaines and Doris Jones (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 137-38.

(27) Edward Stirling, Nicholas Nickleby, a Burletta in Two Acts. First performed November 15, 1838 (British Library Lord Chamberlain Collection, Add.Ms. 42949, ff. 636-672b). Other 1838 adaptations include ones by W.T. Moncrieff (Add.Ms. 42951, ff. 594-684) and H. Horncastle (Dicks' Standard Plays, no. 572).

(28) Martin Meisel, Realizations (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983), p. 258.

(29) Mary Poovey has shown how the principles of melodrama entered into real life as well as fiction in the nineteenth century; see her discussion of Caroline Norton and the Matrimonial Causes Act in Uneven Developments (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988).

(30) With The Pickwick Papers, for example, evolved a whole literary-consumer culture, prints and mugs, etc.

(31) "Dickens's Tales," The Edinburgh Review 68 (1838-39): 76-78.

(32) Harriet Martineau, Autobiography (Boston: J.R. Osgood & Co., 1877), 2:378-79.

(33) Letter to Richard Henry Horne, 2 March 1853. Printed in An Account of the Performance of Lytton's Comedy "Not So Bad As We Seem," with Other Matters of Interest by Charles Dickens (London, printed for private circulation by Richard Clay and Sons, 1919).

(34) Review in the Examiner, 23 September, 1838, p. 595.

(35) Examiner, 27 October, 1839, pp. 677-78.

(36) Dickens and Popular Entertainment, p. 3.

(37) English Plays of the Nineteenth Century, vol. 1, ed. Michael Booth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 34.

(38) Isaac Pocock, The Miller and His Men. In English Plays of the Nineteenth Century, vol. 1, ed. Michael Booth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 37-38.

(39) Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), p. 260.

(40) Bakhtin introduces this concept in The Dialogic Imagination, trans. and eds., Emerson and Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981).

(41) H. Horncastle, The Infant Phenomenon; Or, A Rehearsal Rehearsed. Originally produced on July 8, 1838, at the Strand Theatre. Printed in Dicks' Standard Plays, no. 572.

(42) First published 11 August, 1835, in The Evening Chronicle, and later collected in the Sketches, vol. 2, 1832. Quoted here from Sketches by Boz (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 119-20.

(43) The Dialogic Imagination, p. 293
COPYRIGHT 1997 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Charles Dickens
Author:Vlock, Deborah M.
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Previous Article:"Improper and dangerous distinctions": female relationships and erotic domination in 'Emma.' (Jane Austen)
Next Article:Picturing property: 'Waverley' and the common law.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters