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Steel Bubbles: Death, Inexhaustibility, and Dickens’s Idea of the Book in Sketches by Boz, First Series (1836)

Des bulles d’acier: la mort, l’inépuisable, et le concept du livre selon Dickens dans la première série des Sketches by Boz (1836)
Jeffrey Jackson


Sketches by Boz est considéré comme le livre qui a permis à Charles Dickens d’appartenir à cette classe exceptionnelle des parangons dont on disait avec admiration, lors du déjeuner de Mrs Leo Hunter dans Les aventures de Monsieur Pickwick, qu’ils étaient « de vrais auteurs ayant écrit des livres entiers ». En tant que réédition d’essais et de nouvelles sous la forme d’un volume complet, Sketches fournit un locus classicus pour les études portant sur l’histoire du livre. Toutefois, les critiques ont montré peu d’intérêt pour le tout premier volume qui a marqué les débuts de Sketches en tant que « livre complet », l’édition de 1836 en deux volumes, connue sous le nom de Première Série, la plupart des chercheurs utilisant comme ouvrage de référence l’édition de 1839. Cet essai propose d’établir un rapport dialectique entre la Première Série et l’édition de 1839 afin d’examiner l’ambivalence dont faisait preuve Dickens par rapport à la notion d’auteur telle qu’elle apparaît dans le livre matériel. Là où la version de 1839 de Sketches utilise la mort comme emblème de fixité esthétique, la première Série en célèbre le caractère inépuisable. Plutôt que de suggérer une nouvelle rencontre pure et sans médiation avec l’œuvre de Dickens, je démontre que la matérialité textuelle est une variable qui a modelé la réception des deux éditions de Sketches et propose une lecture de la Première Série révélant comment, paradoxalement, elle s’appuie sur la matérialité du livre pour lutter contre le sentiment de clôture inhérent à tout livre.

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  • 1 Sketches’ first publisher, John Macrone, was by most accounts especially suited to effecting one’s (...)
  • 2 From the start, Sketches consisted of material written over a number of years, but, as Kathryn Chit (...)

1Sketches by Boz has long been regarded as the book that qualified Charles Dickens as one of those paragons celebrated at Mrs Leo Hunter’s déjeuner in The Pickwick Papers (1836–37): ‘real authors who had written whole books and printed them afterwards’ (182).1 An anthology of Dickens’s previously published journalism along with some original writings, Sketches by Boz seemingly marked the young Dickens’s graduation from the roles of periodical journalist and literary apprentice. Critics have shown relatively little interest, however, in the originary volume of Sketches and its debut as a ‘whole book’ in the form of the two-volume Sketches by ‘Boz’: Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People of February 1836, otherwise known as the First Series. Most scholarly treatments take for their copy-text the single-volume 1839 edition of Sketches, and, to date, there is no comprehensive study of Sketches’ first appearance in book form. Those who mention the First Series in passing conventionally refer to its artful disarray, its lack of any apparent plan, when compared to the single-volume 1839 Sketches.2 The implication is that, as a panorama of London life and its urban, demotic spectacles and entertainments, the First Series promised a miscellany of amusements like the theatrical diversions announced by the carnival barker of the sketch ‘Greenwich Fair’, where ‘three murders and a ghost’ are sandwiched among ‘a pantomime, a comic-song, [and] an overture’ (141). In his Life of Charles Dickens (1872–76), John Forster calls the First Series ‘a picture of every-day London at its best and worst, in its humours and enjoyments as well as its sufferings and sins’ (77), as if summing up its wide-ranging variety.

2As a republishing of journalistic essays, articles, and assorted short fiction in volume form, Sketches by Boz offers a locus classicus for studies in book history and the material text. A frequently revised collection of mainly published materials written over a period of roughly three years for no less than six separate periodicals, Sketches by Boz qua book invites something like Michel Foucault’s sceptical musings on ‘the material individualization of the book’:

At first sight, it would seem that one could not abandon [the book] without extreme artificiality . . . . And yet as soon as one looks at the matter a little more closely the difficulties begin. The material unity of the book? Is this the same in the case of an anthology of poems, a collection of posthumous fragments . . . ? In other words, is not the material unity of the volume a weak accessory unity . . . ? (23)

  • 3 For a discussion of the sketches in their original journalistic contexts, see Chittick, who traces (...)
  • 4 This has been a commonplace of Sketches by Boz commentary since John Forster’s claim in The Life of (...)

3Similarly, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari could have had something like Dickens’s Sketches in mind when defining a book as being ‘made of variously formed matters and very different dates and speeds’ (3). In pushing for an emphasis on Sketches’ debut as a material book, I am not suggesting a return to some pure, unmediated encounter with Dickens’s work.3 Instead, in this essay I read the First Series in dialectic with the 1839 edition. The latter Sketches is internally organized to use death as an emblem of aesthetic fixity and containment. My reading brings into relief how, for Dickens, death was fundamentally intertwined with volume publication, with becoming a ‘real author’ of ‘whole books’. This is a reading that suggests, for one, that Dickens’s early writing in general and Sketches by Boz in both of its main editions are valuable less as they represent an early, embryonic stage in Dickens’s artistic development4 than as they provide a record of Dickens’s ambivalence in the 1830s toward a particular idea of authorship and literary culture—an idea of literary celebrity enshrined by the Mrs Leo Hunters of the world and embodied in the material book.

4This essay suggests that, rather than a casually artful disarray, the First Series is arranged to produce a celebration of inexhaustibility, an endless fecundity that, as I see it, subverts the 1839 Sketches’ constructed arc toward literary—or, indeed, bookish—notions of literary closure troped as death. ‘What inexhaustible food for speculation do the streets of London afford!’ (80) Dickens famously writes in ‘Shops and Their Tenants’, from volume one of the First Series, and throughout the 1836 Sketches he finds a homology between the settings or subject matter of the individual sketches and a publication format best suited to capturing such inexhaustibility. In the sketch ‘Hackney-Coach Stands’, Dickens muses on how to write the inexhaustible, locating a metaphor for his own writing, one based on abundance, in the titular coaches themselves: ‘What an interesting book’, he writes, ‘a hackney-coach might produce, if it could carry as much in its head as it does in its body’ (109). As he declares in the First Series’ ‘Omnibuses’, ‘The passengers change so often in the course of one journey as the figures in a kaleidoscope’ (167). Recording such endless flux demands a certain kind of narrative (‘As to long stories, would any man venture to tell a long story in an omnibus?’ [167]), and it is indicative that the Dickens of this particular sketch prefers omnibuses to ‘that sombre caravan in which we must one day make our last earthly journey’ (167). The London of the First Series is protean: ‘You turn the corner, what a change! All is light and brilliancy’ (‘Gin-shops’, 217). It is a world where ‘[t]he substantials disappear’ (‘Public Dinners’, 197), where all that is solid melts into air: ‘Quiet dusty old shops in different parts of town were pulled down; spacious premises with stuccoed fronts and gold letters were created instead’ (‘Gin-shops’, 214). To write this world is to leave materiality behind altogether. The city’s protean versatility cannot be definitively captured in any material medium; ‘We have sketched this subject very slightly’, Dickens declares in ‘Gin-shops’ (220). The tomb-like solidity of the book can never keep up with the city’s undying inexhaustibility.

5In my discussion of the First Series of Sketches, however, I emphasize how textual materiality was always an inescapable variable shaping our reception of the often-intractable material that composes Sketches by Boz. Pierre Machérey, in language entirely apt for a discussion of Sketches, has described the contradiction by which ‘[t]he book’—as a material object—‘holds together only because it remains incomplete; thus the object shown appears inexhaustible (58; emphasis added). Thus, the neatly bound physical codex materially produces the bottomless, unbound inexhaustibility necessary for its illusion of solidity and aesthetic closure. It is with this paradox in mind that I examine the First Series. I begin by discussing the 1839 edition’s scrupulously developed arc toward death before briefly considering death within the structure of Oliver Twist (1837–39), a comparison that raises the possibility that for Dickens in the 1830s, volume publication represented a coffin-like confinement. From there, I further explore the First Series’ development of an inexhaustibility that resists death, closure, or containment—all with an eye to how the First Series, paradoxically, relies on the technology of the material book to resist a sense of ‘bookish’ closure. My last major section focuses on ‘A Visit to Newgate’ and ‘The Black Veil’, two previously unpublished pieces that Dickens wrote for the First Series. Written with volume publication in mind, in the context of the First Series these sketches point to Dickens’s complex attitudes toward the idea of the material book and are key to understanding how the 1836 Sketches ‘holds together’, in Machérey’s sense, by appearing inexhaustible.

Death as Closure, Book as Coffin

6Appearing after The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and more than half of the serial run of Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), and thus when Dickens was ‘an established author with a sense of his position and his relationship to his audience’ (Walder xi), the 1839 Sketches was divided into the now-familiar four sections in the following order: ‘Seven Sketches from Our Parish’, ‘Scenes’, ‘Characters’, and ‘Tales’. The internal structure of the 1839 Sketches has shaped its reception and our sense of its place in Dickens’s career. As J. Hillis Miller notes in ‘The Fiction of Realism: Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist, and Cruikshank’s Illustrations’, the 1839 edition is internally organized to chart a movement toward narrative. Miller argues that the ‘Scenes-Characters-Tales’ arc offers ‘first the scene, with its inanimate objects, then the people of whose lives these objects are the signs, and finally the continuous narrative of their lives’ (12). Placing ‘Tales’ specifically at the end implies that they were written later so as to ‘emerge as linear narrative out of the static poses of the earlier “Scenes” and “Characters”’ (19). The constructed evolutionary structure of the 1839 volume suggests the supposed arc of Dickens’s career—an evolution from writer of sketches to writer of fiction—and has long shaped the reception of Sketches by Boz.

7In the 1839 Sketches, I maintain, Dickens’s deliberately constructed evolution from sketch writer to ‘real author’ (in Mrs Leo Hunter’s sense) is complexly involuted with death. Death occupies a deliberate structural function; each of the four sections of the 1839 Sketches ends with a sketch structured around death. Thus, the section ‘Seven Sketches from Our Parish’ ends with ‘Our Next-Door Neighbour’ and its account of a teenage boy’s death; the sketch concludes with the words ‘The boy was dead’ (66). ‘Scenes’ ends with the justly celebrated ‘A Visit to Newgate’, which features a description of a condemned man’s last night in his cell and ends with the words ‘in two hours more he [the prisoner] is a corpse’ (248). In ‘The Prisoner’s Van’, the concluding sketch of the ‘Characters’ section, the spectacle of two female prisoners boarding the Bow-street police carriage leads the narrator into gloomy meditation. He envisions a death-driven criminal ‘progress’ narrative whereby a ‘career of vice’ leads to ‘friendless, forlorn, and unpitied’ death (317). Dickens’s final ‘Tale’, the sketch concluding the 1839 Sketches, is the relentlessly grim short story ‘The Drunkard’s Death’. This piece ends with the titular character’s suicide and the assertion that the deceased’s body was ‘borne to the grave; and there it has long since mouldered away’ (566).

8Death provides each of the four sections of 1839 with a telic end point, and this edition deploys death to achieve aesthetic permanence, a quality associated with volume publication. Death in the 1839 Sketches works by fixing end points and limits. As Amanpal Garcha writes in a study of the early Dickens, death ‘turns body into text . . . making ‘every line’ absolutely readable and unerasable’ (15). Thus, in the final sketch of the ‘Parish’ section, the young man’s death is figured by ‘a strange expression [that] stole upon his features; not of pain or suffering, but an indescribable fixing of every line and muscle’ (66; ‘Our Next-Door Neighbour’). Understood in these terms, death becomes a Yeatsian flight ‘out of nature’; it creates ‘monuments of unageing intellect’ (Yeats 4.1, 1.8). Death, as a trope, suggests Dickens’s transition from writer of ephemeral newspaper sketches to author of volumes. As Chittick notes, ‘The question of volumes or permanence is an important one in talking about Dickens’s work as Literature’ (178; emphasis added).

9In Dickens’s other concluding sections of 1839, death functions as a respite from the contingent and cyclical. For the sisters of ‘The Prisoner’s Van’, death is a flight from an unending tragic progress that ‘pass[es] before our eyes day after day’ (317), and for the main character in ‘The Drunkard’s Death’ it is something that is ultimately ‘prefer[red]’ to his ‘endless, weary, wandering to and fro’ (564). As an escape of sorts from necessity, chance, and daily strivings, death has interesting parallels to the sort of literary celebrity that attends the writer who becomes ‘a real author’ of ‘whole books’. One year before the 1839 Sketches appeared, a letter to the editor in the Morning Advertiser says of Dickens at the time, ‘He has gotten beyond his accidents (qtd. in Chittick 9)—a description also applicable to death. Certainly, to a young periodical contributor, successful authorship denoted a measure of domestic leisure and security—a rest beyond relentless daily toil. Chittick writes of the early Dickens that ‘he never had the leisure to write a . . . three-volume novel’ and was known to express ‘some jealousy of the institutionalized rewards associated’ with such authorship (7). Peter Brooks has argued that death is what allows writers to artfully render incident into permanent artistic form, to ‘rescue meaning from temporal flux’ (90). I contend that in the 1839 Sketches, death—in exerting a significant ‘structuring force’ (Brooks 93) on the arrangement of the sketches and in offering an escape from the time-bound, repetitive, and contingent—articulates ideas about volume publication and about the writer of journalistic sketches and serialized entertainment becoming an author of ‘whole books’.

  • 5 See Wheeler, who points out that, for Dickens, ‘extending the serial into a novel’ meant that he ‘s (...)

10For another perspective on Dickens’s association of death with volume publication, we might briefly consider the case of Oliver Twist. As Burton M. Wheeler has detailed, this work began as an open-ended serial for Bentley’s Miscellany only to be converted to a three-volume novel that would appear in complete form before ending its serial run (41). The publication history alone is suited to comparing periodical publication to volume publication, and Oliver Twist further raises the possibility that Dickens’s idea of the book in the 1830s was an ambivalent one. The serial structure of Oliver Twist regularly and conspicuously ends monthly parts with Oliver himself in a death-like state from which he is, happily, revived at the start of the next month’s instalment. Thus the first monthly number ends by foregrounding the possibility of Oliver’s death, as the white-waistcoat-clad member of the workhouse board declares, ‘I never was more convinced of anything in my life, than I am now that that boy will come to be hung’, and the narrator then leaves it open ‘whether the life of Oliver Twist will be a long or a short piece of biography’ (17). (The next month’s sequel extends Oliver’s life beyond such grim surmises.) The monthly number for June 1837 ends with Oliver in Fagin’s custody, succumbing to a deep, gin-induced sleep (66). Similarly, one month later, the serial instalment ends with Oliver fainting (86). The start, then, of each monthly number finds Oliver revived and the intimations of his death greatly exaggerated. The moral of Oliver Twist is that hope, in the world of serial fiction, springs eternal—provided the monthly sales are good. In perhaps the most striking death-like state, the instalment for March 1837 ends with Oliver going off to sleep ‘among the coffins’ at the Sowerberrys’ (33), an image that has long made me wonder if being fitted for a book is perhaps like being fitted for a coffin: this is a conceit reinforced later in the novel when Nancy (herself gruesomely fitted for death after Dickens knew that Oliver Twist was, itself, to be fitted for publication in three volumes)5 declares, ‘I was reading a book to-night to wile the time away, and . . . I’ll swear I saw “coffin” written in every page of the book in large black letters’ (384). Books are coffins, and the black (print) letter killeth.

  • 6 Wheeler writes, ‘Dickens decided to rescue Oliver from a representative “Parish Boy’s Progress”, th (...)

11With Oliver Twist, we find the young Dickens’s instincts as a social reformer aligned to the novel’s serial structure. In regularly resurrecting the illegitimate parish boy, Dickens gives the lie to the gallery of characters within the story who predict death for Oliver—who prematurely fit him for a coffin. This gallery includes, say, the parish-board member mentioned above but also Mr. Brownlow’s sceptical friend Grimwig—whose name is, perhaps, an allusion to the black cap donned by British judges passing a death sentence, a practice that makes the judicial wig a grim one (‘Black cap’). Born out of wedlock in a parish workhouse, Oliver, along with his mother, is immediately assigned a role within a larger cultural narrative involving unwed mothers, illegitimate children, and the wages of sin: ‘The surgeon leant over [the mother’s] body, and raised the left hand. “The old story”, he said, shaking his head: “no wedding-ring, I see”’ (5). ‘The old story’ is a deterministic, death-driven one, its possible endings those Noah Claypole surveys when taunting Oliver about his mother’s available fates: ‘hard labouring in Bridewell, or transported, or hung, which is more likely than either, isn’t it?’ (47). The serialized Oliver Twist in Bentley’s Miscellany manages to suggest that these lockstep, death-centric stories are the ones that books tell—and that Dickens’s task as an author of serialized entertainment may lie elsewhere. The monthly number for January 1838, recounting Oliver’s forced participation in the botched house robbery in Chertsey, concludes with his being shot, his fate unclear: ‘And then the noises grew confused in the distance, and a cold deadly feeling crept over the boy’s heart, and he saw or heard no more’ (183). Those words were followed, at the time, with ‘The End of the First Book’ (183). As Wheeler recounts, the first readers of Bentley’s had never, in fact, been told they were reading ‘Book the First’ (47), and coming after Oliver’s latest death-like state, the words ‘The End of the First Book’ are as absolute as the slamming-shut of a coffin. Were one to read ‘the First Book’ as a self-enclosed volume, one would find a grimly cautionary ‘[Illegitimate] Parish Boy’s Progress’, a book in which illegitimacy leads to low companions and guilt-by-association leads to death. The monthly numbers that follow ‘the First Book’ will exonerate the mother and resurrect Oliver;6 the implication is that the book killeth—but the monthly periodical giveth new life. Appearing between 1836’s First Series and the 1839 Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist sees Dickens deploying a binary between a life-giving, revitalizing inexhaustibility and a confining, entombed death; this binary is instantiated in the material differences between serial publication and publishing in volumes.

The First Series (1836): Death Is Not the End

12The First Series undermines the particular deployment of death that we see in the 1839 Sketches. As if referencing Sketches by Boz’s own convoluted publication history, the First Series casts doubt on the possibility of any definitive end points or limits, including death. As Machérey, famously sceptical of the boundaries and autonomy of the literary text, remarks, a fixed line is never ‘as simple as it seems; it retains something of the confusion which fashioned it’ (58). Throughout the First Series, death is not always the end. The 1836 sketch ‘Shabby-genteel People’ sees Dickens recording the day-to-day life of one member of the titular class; when his subject briefly disappears, Dickens surmises that he might have died, until he reappears—not dead, but merely having changed his clothes. In a like manner, the promise of renewal, reselection, and revision seems to hover about Sketches by Boz’s First Series, which saw Dickens’s journalism ‘reborn’, as it were, in the ‘new clothes’ of twin duodecimo volumes and structured around the trope of inexhaustibility.

13Like future iterations of Sketches, the First Series opens with the set of sketches known collectively as ‘Our Parish’. Here, though, the section lacks the seventh and concluding sketch of the 1839 edition, ‘Our Next-Door Neighbour’, where, as we have seen, death is the fixing of a line. Ending the First Series with ‘The Ladies’ Societies’ makes for a discernibly different volume; that sketch’s last line is ‘the child’s examination is going fast to decay’ (58)—foregrounding a gradual, ongoing process of erosion instead of the fixed line of death. The emphasis in the shorter parish section of 1836 is on the parish as a very byword for inexhaustibility: Dickens opens the First Series by declaring, ‘How much is conveyed in those two short words—‘The Parish!’ And with how many tales of distress and misery, of broken fortune and ruined hopes, too often of unrelieved wretchedness and successful knavery, are they associated’ (‘The Beadle-The Parish Engine-The Schoolmaster’, 17; emphasis added).

14Dickens’s parish of 1836 becomes a teeming multiplicity, one utterly resistant to fixity, closure, or containment: ‘Our parish is a very populous one, and, if any thing, contributes, we should be disposed to say, rather more than its due share to the aggregate amount of births in the metropolis and its environs’ (‘The Ladies’ Societies’, 55). It is amorphous and collectivist, its denizens mainly a hive-like mass—not demarcated by any fixed lines. Thus, the interchangeable Miss Willises of ‘The Four Sisters’ parish sketch ‘always sat, in the same places, doing precisely the same things at the same hour’ (30). ‘They were so completely identified, the one with the other’ that, when news of one of the sister’s engagement to a Mr Robinson is rumoured, local gossip is unable to determine which Miss Willis is the bride to be (31). The parish is a world of popular movements and, occasionally, mob rule. Local elections are overwhelmed by a ‘throng of anxious spectators’ (‘The Election for Beadle’, 38), and the number of a man’s offspring, in Dickens’s comic account, can determine his election to the office of beadle. In the contest between Bung and Spruggins, ‘each . . . rested his claims to public support, entirely on the number and extent of his family’ (37). The arrival of the parish’s young, handsome curate reveals the parish’s group mentality in the curate’s ‘infection’-like popularity among the women, a popularity that knows no fixity or end points: ‘One would have supposed that, by this time, the theme of universal admiration was lifted to the very pinnacle of popularity. No such thing’ (‘The Curate-The Old Lady-The Half-pay Captain’, 24–25). Indeed, when it is revealed that ‘the curate was consumptive’, the parish women’s ‘sympathy and solicitude now knew no bounds (25; emphasis added). Yet, the curate is soon forgotten after the arrival of another new clergyman: ‘Crowds of our female parishioners [now] flocked to hear him’ (25).

15Time, throughout the shorter parish section of the First Series, exists less as a fixed telic line ending in the terminus of death than as an eternal present. Thus, a ‘poor man’ of the parish, we are told, ‘just manages to live on from hand to mouth and to procure food from day to day; he has barely sufficient to satisfy the present cravings of his nature, and can take no heed of the future’ (‘The Beadle-The Parish Engine-The Schoolmaster’, 17). The master of the parish workhouse, meanwhile, is said to be ‘one of that class of men the better part of whose existence has passed away, and who drag out the remainder in some inferior situation, with just enough thought of the past, to feel degraded by, and discontented with, the present’ (21). Of an older woman, we are told her life ‘has rolled on in the same unvarying and benevolent course for many years now, and must at no distant period be brought to its final close. She looks forward to its final termination’ (28). Death here is less a fixed line than a hazy, deferred possibility. As for the hapless parish schoolmaster, he will endure in his present course ‘until infirmity renders him incapable, or death releases him’ (23). Our last image of him, however, is of an ‘old man [who] feebly paces up and down the sunny side of the little court-yard between school hours’ (23).

16In the parish section of 1836, death is not an aesthetic or bookish closure. It can be casually offhand, as when Dickens, discussing the schoolmaster, writes, ‘The young clerks below him, died off as if there were a plague among them’ (22). Elsewhere, death provides transitions into new, endless cycles: thus, the parish hires a new clergyman as successor to one who ‘died one fine morning without having given any notice whatever of his intention’ (25). When the parish beadle dies suddenly, ‘[t]he breath was scarcely out of the body of the deceased functionary, when the field was filled with competitors for the vacant office’ (‘The Election for Beadle’, 37).

17Opening volume one of the First Series with the shortened, six-part parish section of 1836 establishes that death is not an endpoint. A parallel effort is achieved by opening volume two of the First Series with the two-part short story ‘A Passage in the Life of Mr Watkins Tottle’. The story begins with a ‘Wellerist’ linking of death and marriage that both mocks and rejects traditional literary closure: ‘Matrimony is proverbially a serious undertaking . . . . It is no use telling a man who is timorous on these points that it is but one plunge, and all is over. They say the same thing at the Old Bailey, and the unfortunate victims derive about as much comfort from the assurance in the one case as in the other’ (494). Dickens’s black comedy recounts the failed marital ambitions of the titular character, a put-upon bachelor who, we are told, ‘was not satisfied until he heard a story to the very end’ (508) and deems marriage ‘that termination which I anxiously desire’ (534; emphasis added). His finances in ruins and his hopes of marrying Miss Lillerton cruelly dashed, Tottle commits suicide, as Dickens closes his story with a description of the drowned corpse:

[T]he body of a gentleman unknown, was found in the Regent’s canal. In the trousers-pockets were four shillings and threepence-halfpenny; a matrimonial advertisement from a lady, which appeared to have been cut out of a Sunday paper; a toothpick, and a card-case, which it is confidently believed would have led to the identification of the unfortunate gentleman, but for the circumstance of there being none but blank cards in it. (535)

18Far from being rendered, in death, ‘absolutely readable and unerasable’ (Garcha 15), Watkins is unidentifiable: stubbornly unreadable. Reduced to detritus—part objects and junk—Watkins, in death, is returned to the world of ‘temporal flux’ (Brooks 90), the world of ‘The Pawnbroker’s Shop’ or ‘Brokers’ and Marine-store Shops’ and their ‘heterogeneous mixture’ (211) of endlessly recycled, recirculating objects. It should be noted again, however, that, as the first selection of the second volume, ‘A Passage in the Life of Mr Watkins Tottle’ reveals how the First Series’ sense of inexhaustibility is, itself, produced by material means. As with the decision to open volume one with a shortened parish section lacking ‘Our Next-Door Neighbour’, a sense of resistance to the fixed limits of a physical book is, in fact, produced by such considerations as physical location within a volume.

19Indeed, we can appreciate how the First Series amounts to what Machérey would call a book that ‘holds together only because it remains incomplete’ by looking at how each volume of the First Series of Sketches ends. Volume one ends with the quintessentially Dickensian ‘A Christmas Dinner’. Dickens’s sketch takes pains to establish the titular event as an endlessly recurring celebration; this dinner ‘is not a mere assemblage of relations, got up at a week or two’s notice, originating this year, having no family precedent in the last, and not likely to be repeated in the next. It is an annual gathering’ (257). At times, he fairly wants the prevailing mood of the occasion to remain in a permanent present tense: ‘Dwell not upon the past . . . . Reflect upon your present blessings’ (256). Dickens closes ‘A Christmas Dinner’—and volume one of the First Series—with the hope that the festivity of the sketch will extend into the coming year (and beyond the time-bound fixity of the written word itself): ‘And thus the evening passes, in a strain of rational good-will and cheerfulness, doing more to awaken the sympathies of every member of the party in behalf of his neighbour, and to perpetuate their good feeling during the ensuing year, than all the homilies that have ever been written, by all the Divines that have ever lived’ (260–61). The second volume of the First Series concludes with the comic short story ‘Sentiment’, which itself ends in an eternal present tense: ‘Minerva House is in statu quo, and ‘The Misses Crumpton’ remain in the peaceable and undisturbed enjoyment of all the advantages resulting from their Finishing-School’ (386). The Metropolitan Magazine’s review of the First Series enthusiastically recommended it to Americans so as to ‘save them the trouble of reading some hundred dull-written tomes on England’ (qtd. in Collins 30). The quotation gets to the heart of the paradox: the First Series relies on the technology of the book to produce a book that is not bookish.

The First Series as ‘Whole Book’: ‘A Visit to Newgate’ and ‘The Black Veil’

  • 7 John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson have described Newgate’s centrality to Dickens’s early career, cal (...)

20The two original sketches that Dickens wrote expressly for publication in the First Series furnish an index to Dickens’s then still-evolving attitudes about volume publication versus periodical journalism. Each sketch reveals both Dickens’s heightened awareness of death’s possibilities for aesthetic closure and literary artistry as well as the First Series’ resistance to such impulses. ‘A Visit to Newgate’ evinces his keen and early interest in depicting the famous prison on the grounds that ‘it would tell extremely well’ (Letters 1: 83). Newgate, moreover, provided the germinal story for the novel that would eventually become Barnaby Rudge (1841) through the historical account of a locksmith’s refusal to open the portal of Newgate for Lord Gordon’s riotous followers.7 Considered along with ‘A Visit to Newgate’, the prison’s significance to the historical novel that was originally posited for three volumes and as successor to the First Series suggests that Newgate may be complexly yoked in Dickens’s mind with the issues raised by volume publication.

  • 8 Indeed, in a letter to Macrone, Dickens defends his emphasis on capital punishment at Newgate, as o (...)

21In ‘A Visit to Newgate’, the titular locale becomes a site for the tensions inherent in the whole Sketches project: the re-issuing of Dickens’s inexhaustible, ephemeral journalism in book form. ‘A Visit to Newgate’ posits death as a terminus even as the prison functions as an emblem of inexhaustibility. Dickens’s sketch consciously builds to an aesthetic climax detailing the last night alive of a condemned prisoner, ‘one whose miserable career will shortly terminate in . . . death’ (234). Dickens offers this focus as a corrective to the way that multitudes ‘pass and repass’ (234) the famous prison without considering those who, nearby, are within it:8

Contact with death even in its least terrible form is solemn and appalling. How much more awful is it to reflect on this near vicinity to the dying—to men in full health and vigour, in the flower of youth or the prime of life, with all their faculties and perceptions as acute and perfect as your own; but dying, nevertheless—dying as surely—with the hand of death imprinted upon them as indelibly—as if mortal disease had wasted their frames to shadows, and loathsome corruption had already begun! (234–35)

22Here, death is a fixed line in a sketch explicitly composed for volume publication.

23Yet for all its fixed-line solidity, the Newgate of Dickens’s sketch is an image of copiousness and inexhaustibility, a ‘depository of the guilt and misery in London’ (234). We are told that Newgate itself is a textual phenomenon, the subject of inexhaustible ‘statistical accounts’ (235) and other piecemeal, fragmentary texts. A ‘maze of confusion’ (236), it frustrates Dickens’s efforts to encapsulate it in writing: ‘Turning to the right, then, down the passage to which we just now adverted, omitting any mention of intervening gates—for if we noticed every gate that was unlocked for us to pass through, and locked again as soon as we had passed, we should require a gate at every comma’ (237). (Indeed, Dickens’s letters from the period attest to his difficulty in completing the sketch. Writing to Catherine Hogarth, he explained, ‘[J]ust one slip of the unfortunate sketch is done, and I am more unwilling to go on with it, than ever’ [Letters 1: 86]. Later, he remarked, ‘[The] subject is such a very difficult one to do justice to’ [1: 97].)

  • 9 In ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ (1846), Edgar Allan Poe, in fact, invokes Dickens as an example (...)

24Dickens’s death-driven short story ‘The Black Veil’, the other original contribution to the First Series, provides an idealized version of Dickens’s personal and professional or literary aspirations contemporary with the publication of Sketches by Boz: it depicts a vision of artistic concentration and domestic retirement that is positively death-like in its removal from daily striving. Scrupulously, self-consciously Gothic, ‘The Black Veil’ sees Dickens working strenuously toward the kind of ‘unity of impression’ that Edgar Allan Poe famously identified as requisite for writings ‘meant to be read at one sitting’ (15);9 here, such focus and concentration mark Dickens’s new dedication to artistry, his emerging sense of himself as ‘a real author’. Set ‘[o]ne winter’s evening towards the close of the year 1800’, the historical fiction of ‘The Black Veil’ rejects the journalistic contemporaneity exhibited throughout the Sketches (i.e., Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People). Dickens takes pains to locate the story in a different London from that seen in the majority of Sketches, one less inviting to exploration:

[T]he streets in the gayest parts of London were imperfectly lighted at that time, and such places as these were left entirely to the mercy of the moon and stars. The chances of detecting desperate characters, or of tracing them to their haunts, were thus rendered very few, and their offences naturally increased in boldness, as the consciousness of comparative security became the more impressed upon them by daily experience. (433)

  • 10 Indeed, a letter written during the composition of ‘The Black Veil’ finds Dickens cancelling a date (...)

25The temporal setting is of a piece with the authorial mode of the Dickens whose planned follow-up to the First Series was a historical novel in the mode of Sir Walter Scott. The tale’s protagonist is a ‘young medical practitioner’; like the Dickens of 1836, he is ‘recently established in business’ and newly engaged (426). The story’s opening finds him ‘comfortably reposing in his dressing-gown and slippers, more than half-asleep and less than half awake, revolving a thousand matters in his wandering imagination’ (426). It is an image of domestic contentment that the young Dickens would envy, the rewards and preconditions of successful, literary authorship. Successfully becoming a ‘real author’ both means and requires domestic retirement, a space for emotion recollected in tranquillity; it means losing the peripatetic world of the ‘speculative pedestrian’ (‘The Pawnbroker’s Shop’, 223) seen throughout the Sketches (‘walking through mud and water the whole day’) (426).10

26As a story in Sketches by Boz that doubles as Dickens’s meditation on becoming an author of ‘whole books’, ‘The Black Veil’ sees him posit death as aesthetic closure and narrative necessity. The scenario finds the protagonist summoned by a mysterious woman (masked in a black veil) to attend to a dying patient ‘tomorrow morning’ (430); her confusing instructions stipulate that though tomorrow will certainly be too late, tonight is impossible: ‘To-morrow morning he of whom I speak will be . . . beyond the reach of human aid; and yet, to-night, though he is in deadly peril, you must not see, and could not serve him’ (430). The next morning, the baffled doctor arrives at the address the woman provided to encounter the corpse of a criminal hanged that morning: the veiled woman was the man’s long-suffering mother who wanted to know that, in contacting a doctor, she had made at least one more attempt to save her son, however late or futile: ‘Men have been brought to life before when unskilful people have given them up for lost; and men have died who might have been restored, if proper means had been resorted to. Don’t let him lie here, sir, without one effort to save him’, she says (436). The son’s corpse (‘a human form, stiff and motionless’) (435) provides an artful, fixed-line resolution to the tale, even as it clears up the doctor’s confusion. Moreover, it functions as a logical conclusion to the ‘progress’-like account of the man’s life the doctor provides toward the story’s end:

The history was an every-day one. The mother was a widow without friends or money, and had denied herself necessaries to bestow them on her orphan boy. That boy, unmindful of her prayers, and forgetful of the sufferings she had endured for him . . . had plunged into a career of dissipation and crime. And this was the result: his own death by the hangman’s hands, and his mother’s shame, and incurable insanity. (437)

27‘The Black Veil’ is testimony to how death functions as what Brooks calls ‘the anticipated structuring force of the ending’ (93) within literary narrative and to the gravity-like pull exerted by the sense of an ending. Brooks’s overall arguments recall T. S. Eliot’s pronouncement that ‘to make an end is to make a beginning’ (5.2), and, indeed, this story’s explicitly stated logic requires that the doctor’s ministrations and the mother’s penance cannot begin until the man is hanged and his corpse is presented. When we first encounter the veiled woman, she is prematurely ‘dressed in deep mourning’ (427)—in anticipation of the story’s end. The story reminds us throughout how death—the ending—shapes and overdetermines the beginning and the middle. Thus, the veiled woman speaks of imminent death as a focusing force, a fixing of lines: ‘as life steals on towards its final close, the last short remnant, worthless as it may seem to all beside, is dearer to its possessor than all the years that have gone before’ (429). And yet, the black veil itself suggests an amorphousness that both spurs and frustrates the drive toward closure and aesthetic containment. The veiled woman herself may be a monument to the fixed line—’She stood perfectly erect . . . . [S]he stood perfectly motionless’ (427)—but the veil mocks such fixity: ‘The surgeon gazed for a moment on the black veil, as if to ascertain the expression of the features beneath it; its thickness, however, rendered such a result impossible’ (429).

28Moreover, the First Series follows ‘The Black Veil’ with two sketches that undercut its generic and aesthetic impulses. ‘Shabby-genteel People’ (originally published in the Morning Chronicle in 1834) is a sketch preoccupied with recycling and revival—with inexhaustibility. The narrator follows one example of the titular class only to have him vanish for weeks, presumed dead. The man miraculously returns, his clothing having been ‘revived’:

[H]is clothes were a fine, deep, glossy black, and yet they looked like the same suit; nay, there were the very darns with which old acquaintance had made us familiar. The hat, too—nobody could mistake the shape of that old hat, with its high crown gradually increasing in circumference towards the top. Long service had imparted to it a reddish brown tint, but now it was black as the coat. (306)

29This revival of the man’s clothing comes as a parody of the hoped-for revival in ‘The Black Veil’ (‘Men have been brought to life before’) and a riposte to that story’s emphasis on death as closure. Indeed, in the sequence of the First Series, ‘Shabby-genteel People’ works as a comedic recasting of ‘The Black Veil’. The sketch’s facetious narrator speaks in a mock-Gothic register of having been ‘once haunted by a shabby-genteel man’: ‘he was bodily present to our senses all day, and he was in our mind’s eye all night. The man of whom Sir Walter Scott speaks in his Demonology, did not suffer half the persecution from his imaginary gentleman-usher in black velvet, that we sustained from our friend in quondam black cloth’ (305). In addition to comically referring to Scott (whose historical orientation informs ‘The Black Veil’), this passage emerges as a parodic version of the protagonist’s imaginative haunting by the veiled woman in ‘The Black Veil’. (What Dickens here calls the ‘deceitful liquid’ of black reviver is a burlesque of that story’s titular emblem, resistant to closure or containment [306].)

30The short story succeeding ‘Shabby-genteel People’ in the First Series, ‘Horatio Sparkins’, shares its predecessor’s interest in recycling and reviving: a class-based satire, ‘Horatio Sparkins’ chronicles the social-climbing Maldertons’ fixation on the elegantly dressed, saturnine Sparkins as a potential match for their daughter Teresa until the family discovers with horror that he is actually a shop-keeper’s assistant. Sparkins’s contrived inky-cloaked solemnity functions within the sequencing of the First Series as another parody of the death-centred Gothic in ‘The Black Veil’. Holding court during dinner with the Maldertons, Sparkins, looking ‘as handsomely miserable as a Hamlet sliding upon a bit of orange-peel’ (415), declaims at length on the virtues of domestic retirement—the state celebrated sincerely in ‘The Black Veil’: ‘[H]ow delightful, how refreshing it is, to retire from the cloudy storms, the vicissitudes, and the troubles of life, even if it be but for a few short, fleeting moments; and to spend those moments, fading and evanescent though they be, in the delightful, the blessed society of one individual’ (415). Later, his banalities take up the subject of death: ‘I say, we know that we exist . . . but there we stop; there is an end to our knowledge; there is the summit of our attainments; there is the termination of our ends’ (415–16). Once the ‘mysterious, philosophical, romantic, metaphysical Sparkins’ is exposed, the narrator fittingly remarks, ‘‘‘We will draw a veil”, as novel writers say, over the scene that ensued’ (425). Within the sequence of the First Series, this passage comes as a comedic recasting of the signature imagery of ‘The Black Veil’ in a story that repeatedly twists the modish, literary values celebrated in the death-driven ‘The Black Veil’. It foregrounds the degree to which Dickens’s impulse in the 1830s was to parody the world celebrated by Mrs Leo Hunter, the whole enterprise of becoming a ‘real author’ of ‘whole books’.

Conclusion: Steel Bubbles

31As revealed within one of Dickens’s letters, publisher John Macrone, projecting various titles for the First Series, once suggested ‘Bubbles from the Bwain [sic] of Boz and the Graver of Cruikshank (Letters 1: 81). Dickens rejected the title on the grounds that, while he had heard of ‘bubbles from a spring impregnated with steel’, ‘metallic bubbles’, ‘bubbles coming direct from a steel instrument[, are] . . . a natural curiosity’ (1: 81; emphasis added). Here, Dickens misunderstands Macrone’s conceit, ‘being ignorant about [Cruikshank’s] etching techniques’ employed for his illustrations: as Robert L. Patten notes, ‘[B]ubbles do rise when the [etched] metal plate is immersed in acid’ (2: 12). Yet I cannot help but think that steel bubbles, an image that yokes together emblems of the permanent and the ephemeral, expresses the tensions embodied in the whole Sketches by Boz enterprise, tensions between the timeless and the fleeting, the journalistic and the literary. More to the point, the image of steel bubbles encapsulates the paradox that I see in the First Series in particular, whereby the fleeting and immaterial are inescapably involuted with—indeed, they need—the material. Throughout the First Series, an inexhaustibility that resists all physical containment has been materially produced. That such inexhaustibility was a carefully nurtured fiction can be further appreciated through, say, letters that find Dickens lamenting to Catherine Hogarth, ‘[T]he sheets are a weary length—I had no idea there was so much in them’ (Letters 1: 137)—proving that authors at the very least are not inexhaustible. Indeed, 1837’s Second Series of Sketches by Boz was slated for two volumes, but Dickens was ultimately able to generate only one volume’s worth of material: had the London streets’ ‘inexhaustible food for speculation’ dried up? In short, 1836’s trope of inexhaustibility was just as contingent and materially constructed as the death trope of the 1839 Sketches by Boz.

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1 Sketches’ first publisher, John Macrone, was by most accounts especially suited to effecting one’s transition to a ‘real author’. As John Sutherland notes, Macrone had come to specialize in ‘novels, the bulk of which were three-decker, quick-turnover library fodder’ (246). Contractually, Dickens and Macrone had planned to follow the First Series of Sketches with the historical novel Gabriel Vardon, the Locksmith of London in ‘Three Volumes of the usual size’ (Letters 1: 150), the work eventually serialized by Chapman and Hall as Barnaby Rudge (1841). The aborted Gabriel Vardon plan would have seen Dickens under Macrone ascending to a model of authorship defined by Sir Walter Scott, the nineteenth century’s paradigm of a ‘real author’ of ‘whole books’.

2 From the start, Sketches consisted of material written over a number of years, but, as Kathryn Chittick notes, volume publication ‘blurs’ any chronological difference ‘by mixing [the sketches] together’ (43).

3 For a discussion of the sketches in their original journalistic contexts, see Chittick, who traces Dickens’s developments in ‘choice and treatment of his subject matter’ in the sketches across ‘his financial circumstances and contemporary politics’ (43). See also Walter Dexter’s study of the reviews of Dickens’s sketches in their original magazine and newspaper appearances.

4 This has been a commonplace of Sketches by Boz commentary since John Forster’s claim in The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-76) that in Sketches ‘the first sprightly runnings of [Dickens’s] genius’ are apparent but his later work would give ‘so much more perfect form and fullness’ (76). Thus, Virgil Grillo calls the ‘single most valuable approach’ to Sketches ‘one in which they are studied as a record of Dickens’s evolution towards maturity’ (13, 7).

5 See Wheeler, who points out that, for Dickens, ‘extending the serial into a novel’ meant that he ‘settled upon Nancy as the character … replacing Oliver as the central focus of the work’ (41).

6 Wheeler writes, ‘Dickens decided to rescue Oliver from a representative “Parish Boy’s Progress”, that is, from workhouse to criminal associates to deportation or the gallows’ (41).

7 John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson have described Newgate’s centrality to Dickens’s early career, calling it a ‘direct inspiration’, ‘both as place and symbol’ (78), for Barnaby Rudge.

8 Indeed, in a letter to Macrone, Dickens defends his emphasis on capital punishment at Newgate, as opposed to the House of Corrections, on the grounds that ‘You cannot throw the interest over a years [sic] imprisonment, however severe, that you can cast around the punishment of death. The Tread-Mill will not take the hold on men’s feelings that the Gallows does’ (Letters 1: 102–03).

9 In ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ (1846), Edgar Allan Poe, in fact, invokes Dickens as an example of an author who works with ‘the dénouement constantly in view’, a quality very much in evidence in the death-driven ‘The Black Veil’ (13). Poe quotes a letter he received from Dickens in which the latter wrote, ‘By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his “Caleb Williams” backwards?’—that is, so that its end was its beginning (13).

10 Indeed, a letter written during the composition of ‘The Black Veil’ finds Dickens cancelling a date with his then-future wife Catherine Hogarth ‘because an extraordinary idea for a story of a very singular kind occurred to me this morning, and I am anxious to commit it to paper before the impression it made upon me is lost’ (1: 98). For the young Dickens, literary apprenticeship meant long hours and broken dates.

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Jeffrey Jackson, « Steel Bubbles: Death, Inexhaustibility, and Dickens’s Idea of the Book in Sketches by Boz, First Series (1836) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 84 Automne | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2016, consulté le 26 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Jeffrey Jackson

Jeffrey E. Jackson is assistant professor of nineteenth-century British literature at Monmouth University. His interests include book history, material cultures, and film adaptation. His publications include work on Elizabeth Gaskell and serialization, materiality in Idylls of the King, George Eliot’s critical reception, and book-history approaches to teaching film adaptation.
Jeffrey E. Jackson est maître de conférences en littérature britannique du xixe siècle à l’Université de Monmouth. Ses recherches portent sur l’histoire du livre, les cultures matérielles, et l’adaptation filmique. Il a publié sur Elizabeth Gaskell et la sérialisation, la matérialité dans Idylls of the King, la réception critique de George Eliot ainsi que sur l’enseignement de l’adaptation filmique à travers l’histoire du livre.

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