Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros13.21. Dickensian Prospects / Perspec...II/ Reframing Dickens“Walls of Words”: Paperscape in C...

1. Dickensian Prospects / Perspectives Dickensiennes
II/ Reframing Dickens

“Walls of Words”: Paperscape in Charles Dickens’s Novels

Céline PREST


Sur les murs de la ville dickensienne s’accumulent affiches, réclames, signes et inscriptions, si bien que la brique et la pierre disparaissent sous cette superposition de messages. De plus, les signes vont au-delà de l’espace qui leur est assigné pour ériger des écrans de mots dans l’espace public, modifiant l’architecture urbaine.
Dickens décrit ainsi l’émergence d’un nouveau paysage urbain qui résulte de l’abolition des taxes sur le papier ainsi que de l’évolution des techniques au dix-neuvième siècle. De ce changement naît une nouvelle expérience de la ville : les murs s’adressent désormais directement au promeneur urbain. Le lecteur suit David, Pip et Oliver dans les rues de Londres, comme eux sollicité par le lettrage public qui sert de guide, parfois unique, dans l’espace de la ville. Ces écritures transforment Londres en carte à l’échelle 1/1 sur lesquels les personnages évoluent, perpétuellement encouragés à se déplacer. Simultanément, les pages du roman reproduisent ce monde textuel, partie intégrante de l’expérience de lecture du texte dickensien. Il est alors demandé au lecteur d’adopter un mode de lecture non linéaire, non séquentiel, véritablement urbaine.
Sur ce paysage de papier plane la menace de l’illisibilité. Cette surabondance de mots et de papier signe elle-même sa propre perte : si les murs sont couverts de mots, les mots peuvent à leur tour acquérir l’opacité et la solidité de leurs supports. Le papier se révèle moins véhicule de signes que linceul du sens.
En nous inspirant du travail effectué par Asa Briggs dans son ouvrage Victorian Things, qui analyse le rôle de l’objet dans l’Angleterre Victorienne, nous nous efforcerons de montrer la profonde ambivalence à l’endroit de la matérialité du signe écrit qui habite le texte dickensien. Si le papier et ses avatars sont investis d’un pouvoir négatif voire funeste, ils constituent également le principe organisateur de la diégèse et du paysage urbain. Dans cette perspective, nous étudierons quatre romans ainsi que cinq essais : Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit et Our Mutual Friend d’une part, et “Bill-Sticking,” “Our Watering Place,” “Out of Town,” “Travelling Abroad” et “Some Recollections of Mortality” d’autre part. Ceci nous permettra de voir en quoi cet intérêt pour la question de la matérialité du signe et de ses supports recouvre l’ensemble de l’œuvre dickensienne, du début de la carrière de l’auteur jusqu’à sa fin.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1Nowadays, paper is a familiar sight to us: in urban areas, we are particularly accustomed to its presence with numerous bills, posters, tracts and abandoned newspapers invading the public space. This new landscape actually emerged in Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century with the lifting of taxes on paper and the technological progress of the Industrial Revolution, of which Charles Dickens was a direct witness.

2The Stamp Act of 1712 was abolished in 1855 during the Crimean War (Flanders 147): from then on, prices were allowed to decrease and printed material to proliferate, coinciding with improvements in paper manufacturing (with the invention of the Fourdrinier paper machine at the turn of the century) as well as progress in printing technologies (Flanders 148–49). Simultaneously, literacy improved with urbanisation and the philanthropic efforts of Evangelicalism to “improve” the people (Flanders 139).

3As a consequence, paper was no longer a rare and costly product reserved for an educated elite. Paper and signs were now presenting themselves to all and requiring to be read. This article examines the transformation of walls of bricks into walls of words in Dickens’s novels and the essays published in Household Words and All The Year Round, concentrating on Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend on the one hand, and “Bill-Sticking,” “Our Watering Place,” “Out of Town,” “Travelling Abroad” and “Some Recollections of Mortality” on the other hand. This selection aims at showing the way Dickens’s obsession for the materiality of the written sign and its media translates into his texts from the beginning until the end of his writing career (both as a novelist and a journalist). We will follow the lead of Asa Briggs whose groundbreaking book Victorian Things, published in 1988, initiated the explosion of interest for Victorian material culture. In this study, Asa Briggs analyses things and commodities, and the way they are placed in signifying systems. In this perspective, this article will analyse the way written words and their media shape the city, taking over the whole environment; we will see how and, most importantly, why Dickens chooses to inscribe this new landscape of paper within his own texts, merging the words of public inscriptions with his own. Eventually, we will examine the threat that looms over this paperscape and prevents the circulation of meaning.

1. Orientation, Interaction and Invitation: the Voice of the City

4The emergence of this landscape of words in the nineteenth century created a new urban experience: the walls now directly address the city dweller who is constantly asked to decipher different messages. Dickens presents a new reading experience in keeping with the changes in the urban environment: he shows that reading is not just a private activity that one practises in the secluded space of one’s home. Traditionally, reading is seen as an individual act; James A. Secord explains that:

The classic images of the reader show a solitary, abstracted figure; through withdrawal and isolation, reading becomes a way of defining who we are and what our relations to others might be. Thinking of reading in this way has a long history, growing out the emergence of silent reading in the twelfth century and its spread among the laity in the late Middle Ages. The Bible, the first book to be printed, became the principal means for defining what books were for, as reading was conceived within an intense spiritual engagement, pivoted on salvation. (299)

5On the contrary, most acts of reading in Dickens’s novels are public and inscribed in the physical act of walking in the streets. This new public act of reading is characterised by its discontinuous and fragmented quality: instead of following a linear text, the eye travels in all directions as it takes in the written information that is inscribed all around.

6In the novels, the experience of the city is influenced by this special kind of interaction with the written word which makes conversation superfluous: through public inscriptions, Dickens invites the voice of the city in his novels to articulate what is taking place behind opaque walls. These inscriptions are meant to make places immediately legible, like so many labels. As David, Pip and Oliver walk through the city space, they simultaneously read the writings on the wall, which are sometimes their only guide in the city. In David Copperfield (184950), when the young hero goes to London for the first time on his way to Salem House, his future teacher—Mr Mell—meets him and leads him to a place without telling him where they are going. Only an inscription informs David (and the reader) that they are headed to “[a] poor person's house, which was a part of some alms-houses, as I knew by their look, and by an inscription on a stone over the gate which said they were established for twenty-five poor women” (71). In this passage, the reader is given a precise account of David’s deduction process: in order to understand the yet unknown city, he needs to act as a detective and look around for written clues as supplement or confirmation to a non-textual reading of space, perceiving his environment as a system both of verbal and non-verbal signs. This passage also illustrates the gap between David and the other characters: as a future writer, David communicates with words and signs, relying on them rather than on people. The reading subject is therefore prejudiced and views the territory through a filter of signs: through them, he is constantly informed of where he is and where he is going.

7David’s London resembles Borges’s empire in the short story entitled “On Exactitude in Science” (1946), where the cartographers imagine a map on the same scale as the territory it is supposed to represent. The whole space of London seems to be encompassed by such a map, so that the character appears to grasp the city primarily through its representation. Unlike Umberto Eco in his essay “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1” (1988), let us imagine a map made of a malleable transparent material covering the city, bearing nothing but inscriptions signaling the space they are superimposed on. Coinciding with its own virtual map (or rather with a palimpsest of specifically oriented maps covering the variety of city life—businesses, topographical landmarks, institutions, private properties, offices), London is a finger pointed towards itself, both the medium and the object of its speech. As such, the territory not only signals but also suggests a multitude of potential paths. Sara Thornton explains that the city dweller is constantly called upon by public inscriptions. She comments on the “active nature” of this urban text stating that “in the mid-19th century, text was no longer something which had to be sought out and paid for dearly; it now sought out the subject, moved into the line of his gaze and asked to be read” (32).

8The eighth chapter of Oliver Twist (183739) epitomises this “sense of being chosen by the text” (Thornton 32); as the young hero escapes the undertaker’s shop where he is constantly ill-treated, his choice to go to London is influenced by a milestone:

He sat down to rest by the side of the milestone, and began to think, for the first time, where he had better go and try to live. The stone by which he was seated, bore, in large characters, an intimation that it was just seventy miles from that spot to London. The name awakened a new train of ideas in the boy’s mind. London!—that great place!—nobody—not even Mr. Bumble—could ever find him there! [...] As these things passed through his thoughts, he jumped upon his feet, and again walked forward. (5960)

  • 1 When Oliver Twist was serialised from 1837 to 1839, the railway was in its developing stage and was (...)

9This passage in free indirect speech first appears to give an account of Oliver’s “train of ideas,” but the ambiguous wording also suggests that a conversation is actually taking place between Oliver and the milestone which is presented as personified. The word “intimation,” used to describe the topographical inscription, shows that a certain authority is bestowed upon the milestone which does not merely give a factual information (as it is supposed to) but exercises its influence on the young boy. Furthermore, the subjective reasoning according to which London is “just” seventy miles away could be attributed to Oliver, but it could also be understood as an argument presented by the milestone in order to encourage the character to obey its “intimation.” And Oliver obeys this injunction indeed; as soon as he reads the inscription, he becomes driven: as he jumps on his feet and gets on his way, his mind metaphorically boards a “train of ideas”1 headed to London, moving along the mental railway lines symbolised by the multiple dashes in the passage. As surely as he cannot alter the course of a train (be it of steel or of ideas), Oliver is now bound for London.

  • 2 “[une] zone indécise entre le dedans et le dehors, [...] une zone non seulement de transition, mais (...)

10Public inscriptions are metaphorical thresholds that the reader is invited to cross: they could be given the same definition as Gerard Genette’s paratext since both constitute “a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public” (Genette 2).2 Urban inscriptions actually address the public, they are signs pointing towards another location. Sara Thornton precisely compares this hailing of the passer-by by the written word to the functioning of ideology as described by Louis Althusser who “imagines a policeman calling out to a passer-by: ‘Hey, you there!’ [...] This notion of recruiting helps us imagine the work of a text or image as it inveigles or embraces the reader, drawing him into a certain ideological net” (32).

11The authority of the milestone in the previous passage from Oliver Twist derives from its official character: as Althusser’s policeman, the milestone plays a role in directing, informing and controlling the users of the public space in a “top-bottom” form of interaction. Both are the tangibles representative of the higher, invisible official authority over the territory implemented by the state in order to organise public life. In Oliver Twist, the solidity, stability and permanence of such an authority is symbolised by the very medium bearing the inscription—stone.

  • 3 The world of leisure and the consumer society emerging with the Industrial Revolution will later be (...)
  • 4 See Flanders “The Greatest Shows on Earth” in Consuming Passions (25291).

12In the Dickensian public space, not all injunctions possess such a validity. In an essay entitled “Travelling Abroad” (1860) published in All The Year Round and belonging to the Uncommercial Traveller series of semi-autobiographical essays, the narrator talks about his Parisian flâneries and shows how he is lured into a public room by the means of a bill: “I was walking along the Rue St. Honoré, when I saw a bill at a public room there, announcing small-sword exercise, broad-sword exercise, wrestling, and other such feats. I went in, and some of the sword-play being very skilful, remained.” Dickens shows the way he is manipulated by the inscription: the text mentions no reflected decision on his part, only the rapid and almost automatic succession of actions—walking, catching sight of the bill, going into the room. The bill manages to divert the author from his course and to draw him in the “ideological net” of “the society of spectacle”3 and of entertainment developing widely in Victorian England.4 However, we may notice that the bill has less influence on the narrator than the milestone on Oliver Twist: it is no injunction but an invitation, “announcing” rather than “intimating.” The public voice is more fleeting and transient here, which is reflected by the medium: pasted paper. Its fragility indicates the impermanence of the inscription, lessening its authority and influence. The bill needs a non-verbal supplement in order to carry on its mission, that is to say the quality of the actual show: that being assured, the narrator “remain[s].”

13However, Dickens’s novels show that some of the inscriptions are misleading, for they often point toward a fantasised city, a dream London erected by its inhabitants. In David Copperfield (184950) and Our Mutual Friend (186465), both Mrs. Micawber and Mrs. Wilfer cherish the idea of managing a boarding house for young ladies and therefore gaining access to middle-class respectability, though this fantasy never comes true. In this respect, the two characters evoke Elizabeth Dickens’s own aborted attempts at founding a school:

She would run a school, on the principle that she was able to teach her own children and therefore might as well teach others. In the autumn of 1823 she took a lease on a large house in Gower Street North and put up a brass plate announcing: “Mrs Dickens’s Establishment.” (Tomalin 22)

14In both novels this aspiration is similarly materialised by a plate (DC 154; OMF 42) and gives the reader a glimpse of unfulfilled dreams lurking under the surface that it points to. Even though they do not correspond to an actual professional activity, these generic uncreative words, limited in space and in number, seem to be the only way for Dickens’s characters to express their aspirations. Dickensian walls are covered in layers of personal stories building so many castles in the air exploring spatial potential. While public inscriptions are supposed to create a transparent legible urban space, Dickens’s London eludes the control of the authorities: the two deceitful plates here appear as a poetic space of resistance to the ideological will of transparency and introduce disorder in urban space. However, even though the two characters attempt to capture the permanence and stability of the official public inscription by using engraved metal plates, their chosen medium can never acquire the validity of stone: both the plate and the words can be literally taken away from them, reattributed to another person, and manipulated to mean something else. Indeed, Mrs. Wilfer’s plate is removed: “The man came himself with a pair of pincers, and took it off, and took it away. He said that as he had no expectation of ever being paid for it, and as he had an order for another LADIES’ SCHOOL door-plate, it was better (burnished up) for the interests of all parties” (42).

15In David Copperfield, David verbally subjects Mrs. Micawber’s plate to the same fate, by denying the validity of the inscription and showing that it has no correspondence with the family’s actual life. After the plate is mentioned, the following words immediately comment on it: “I never found that any young lady had ever been to school there; or that any young lady ever came, or proposed to come; or that the least preparation was ever made to receive any young lady” (154). Even though metal first appears more reliable than paper, it cannot be firmly rooted in the public space as stone is. Plates are merely superimposed upon walls, and cannot leave any trace once they are removed: indeed, it seems that while paper leave shreds of pasted matter behind (as we will see later in this article), plates leave no indication of their existence once they are taken away. They can disappear and vanish as the dreams they used to embody. Following young Davy’s cue as he arrives in London for the first time, the public reader must look out for both textual and non-textual signs as he navigates across the paperscape.

16Dickens’s city is a montage of texts, constantly rewritten and reread, rebuilt and reorganised by its inhabitants. The Dickensian text incorporates such a tabular organisation within the body of the page itself: in the same way city walls become a medium for the inscription of the written word, the pages of the novel become city walls, allowing new structures of writing to emerge.

2. Constellations of Texts

17Dickensian characters, who are primarily readers, reflect our own experience of the fictional text. In this particular passage drawn from the beginning of Bleak House, which describes Krook’s rag and bottle shop window, public inscriptions take over the space of the novel and have a strong, even aggressive visual presence, threatening to overwhelm the poetic voice:

She had stopped at a shop over which was written KROOK, RAG AND BOTTLE WAREHOUSE. Also, in long thin letters, KROOK, DEALER IN MARINE STORES. In one part of the window was a picture of a red paper mill at which a cart was unloading a quantity of sacks of old rags. In another was the inscription BONES BOUGHT. In another, KITCHEN-STUFF BOUGHT. In another, OLD IRON BOUGHT. In another, WASTE-PAPER BOUGHT. In another, LADIES’ AND GENTLEMEN’S WARDROBES BOUGHT. (61)

18Annexed by public inscriptions, the page merges with Krook’s window and becomes part of the urban architecture. These inscriptions in capital letters are presented both as a foreign text and body: they are not simply mentioned or quoted but are materially present in the fictional text, as if the city were inviting itself momentarily into the novel and were taking hold of its paper space, inserting an urban mode of reading based on discontinuity and fragmentation. The capital letters impose themselves with their graphic aggressiveness on the page, catch the reader’s eye and interrupt the linearity of the fictional text; in this extract, the narrative voice seems to separate the different elements of the urban commercial text and to display the interstices between the posters visually. Moreover, the clause “in another” marking the rhythm in the text actively indicates another verbal space, inviting the reader to direct his gaze elsewhere, as if the role of the narrative voice were to point its finger towards another document.

19By turning the pages of his own novels into city walls, Dickens offers a new, visual, urban mode of reading: his originality is to insert this tabular writing and reading into his linear texts. By replicating in his texts the experience of reading a montage of messages in a public space, the author transforms the reader into a city dweller. The page both transcribes and embodies the world as the reader follows the character through the streets, and as his eye is caught by the same public inscriptions which are transcribed in the text. Therefore, the text presents a tension between the linearity of the text and the multidimensional digressions brought upon by public inscriptions, branching from the main narrative, diverting our attention and interrupting the expected fluidity of reading. In the following passage from Little Dorrit (185557), Arthur Clennam walks through London as he goes back to his childhood home after an absence of twenty years, and the text records what he perceives, inserting fragments of urban walls in its paper space:

Passing, now the mouldy hall of some obsolete Worshipful Company, now the illuminated windows of a Congregationless Church that seemed to be waiting for some adventurous Belzoni to dig it out and discover its history; passing silent warehouses and wharves, and here and there a narrow alley leading to the river, where a wretched little bill, FOUND DROWNED, was weeping on the wet wall; he came at last to the house he sought. (46)

20This extract, composed of a single sentence, imitates the flowing, winding rhythm of the walk while transcribing the multidirectional circulation of the eye taking hold of its environment: the narrative voice inserts the information provided by the bill in the linearity of the sentence without dwelling on it. In the passage, the urban text is the incarnation of the drowned body come back from the dead, haunting London and the fictional text with its tears. The repetition of the semi-vowel [w] is an echo to the water of the tear drops and of the river, while liquid sounds permeate the text. The reader is invited to undergo the same experience as the city dweller, taking note of the weeping bill, feeling its presence while dismissing it as we pass.

  • 5 Tellingly, Dickens was first employed as a label paster for Warren’s Blacking at the age of twelve. (...)

21The Dickensian novel is really a montage of documents—advertisements, labels,5 street signs, walls, notes, kites but also letters and wills—which dialogue and echo each other. The urban inscriptions in the novels can be read in two ways: we can either walk past them, or following Gaffer Hexam’s cue at the beginning of Our Mutual Friend as he scrutinises the river in search of drowned bodies, we can explore the depths, identifying the underlying intertextual links and networks of words that constitute Dickens’s novels. Dickens uses public inscriptions to enrich and contribute to the main body of words, within the same novel but also between different fictional texts. The author asserts power over public language, erecting a Dickensian paperscape where all words ultimately form the foundations of his art. In the essay “Our Watering Place” (Household Words, 1851) published one year after David Copperfield, the author presents the local library to the reader; in one paragraph, he expands on the romantic fantasies of a marginal character, Miss Julia Mills, displayed in the actual margins of a sentimental novel belonging to the library:

Miss Julia Mills has read the whole collection of these books. She has left marginal notes on the pages, as “Is not this truly touching? J. M.” “How thrilling! J. M.” “Entranced here by the Magician’s potent spell. J. M.” She has also italicised her favorite traits in the description of the hero, as “his hair, which was dark and wavy, clustered in rich profusion around a marble brow whose lofty paleness bespoke the intellect within.” It reminds her of another hero. She adds, “How like B. L.! Can this be mere coincidence? J. M.” (Dickens’ Journalism 13).

22Miss Julia Mills, the close friend of Dora in David Copperfield, is here given the public space of a library book to express her voice and deliver it openly to other readers. These marginal inscriptions can be seen as an open window into the inner life of this character who is developed in the novel only to serve David’s interests. The inscriptions further echo David Copperfield as we are presented with a character from David Copperfield fantasising on a novel which might well be (a sentimental or parodic version of?) David Copperfield. The hero seems to be a variation on Steerforth, whose hair is described by David in the same terms as those italicised by Julia Mills in the extract: David evokes “his rich profusion of brown hair” (321), while Julia Mills is drawn to the description of “his hair, which was dark and wavy, clustered in rich profusion.” In this intertextual interplay, “Our Watering Place” shows the way the Dickensian texts mutually nourish and transform one another.

23Textual fragments in Dickens’s novels also appear as the matrix—or the draft?—of fiction. In Our Mutual Friend, the chamber where Gaffer Hexam lives is covered with posters and placards advertising the recovered bodies of the drowned, which suggest a number of intriguing and sensational narratives that could belong to other Dickensian novels, waiting to be developed:

This one was a sailor, with two anchors and a flag and G. F. T. on his arm. [...] This one was the young woman in grey boots, and her linen marked with a cross. [...] This is him as had a nasty cut over the eye. This is them two young sisters what tied themselves together with a handkecher. This the drunken old chap, in a pair of list slippers and a nightcap, wot had offered—it afterwards come out—to make a hole in the water for a quartern of rum stood aforehand, and kept to his word for the first and last time in his life. (3132)

24Gaffer Hexam’s walls are a macabre library indeed and give us a glimpse of an obscure literary underworld. In the same way John Harmon is simultaneously the object of a poster, a drowned body and the hero of the novel, the characters exposed on Gaffer Hexam’s walls have a fictional potential. The signs marking the skin and the clothes of these characters made of words, transform them into documents, forming verbal grips for a story to be (re)constituted. And indeed, Gaffer Hexam gradually, develops the factual indications of the posters into stories: his third drowned body becomes the actual hero of a very short narrative and the storyteller adds indications which cannot be mentioned on the poster. This character calls to mind the way Virginia Woolf later described the street as a reservoir of stories in a diary entry from May 1928: “London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play and a story and a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets” (qtd. in Bowlby 209). Dickens’s novels resemble Woolf’s street as they offer a constellation of texts and stories.

25As public inscriptions are turned into literary objects, they allow a reflection on language. For instance, David is often seen comparing words and things. The first time David is seen deciphering a written word in the novel—an inscription on the shirt of a sailor he glimpses in the streets of Lowestoft—he misinterprets its meaning:

They left me, during this time, with a very nice man with a very large head of red hair and a very small shiny hat upon it, who had got a cross-barred shirt or waistcoat on, with “Skylark” in capital letters across the chest. I thought it was his name; and that as he lived on board ship and hadn’t a street door to put his name on, he put it there instead; but when I called him Mr. Skylark, he said it meant the vessel. (23)

26David identifies this inscription which presents itself to the public eye as a public urban plate. In this passage, he turns out to be a failed detective: despite his efforts at deduction that bear a certain logical reasoning, David creates two discrepant situations. The term “skylark” encapsulates the gap between words and things: this term indicates a bird, but its derived verb means “to trick, to cheat” (Oxford English Dictionary). In this passage, the signifier is a trick, an actual vessel indeed, containing several signifieds. While this reflection on semantic discrepancies might constitute a source of frustration for this herméneute in the making, it also submits the written signs to the critical eye of the writer that David will eventually become. Public inscriptions are made to serve the narrative, participating in the development of the writer in David, as he tests the value of the words surrounding him, to incorporate them later in his own writing, offering a panorama of modern life, modern writing and modern reading. Public inscriptions create a new modality for the transmission of meaning but conversely, it also constitutes a threat against itself: the Dickensian text often shows the way the medium works against the document.

3. An Architecture of Paper

27The Dickensian city is essentially a written space organised around a system of signs. However, this space is threatened by the materiality of paper which escapes any kind of control. By dint of overabundance, the medium regresses into matter and cannot be the vehicle for meaning anymore. Words invade the public space to such an extent that the walls of the city are enveloped in posters, advertisements and bills, resulting in the disappearance of those very walls behind the layers of messages. The Dickensian text conveys the sense of the overwhelming presence of public inscriptions and the experience of montage in the urban space in a way which is reminiscent of John Orlando Parry’s painting “A London Street Scene” (1835). According to Gerard Curtis, the painting is “not dissimilar to the later Cubists’ attempts to take the advertised graphic word and make it a token of fragmented modernity” (65). “We become aware,” Sara Thornton tells us, “that a similar aesthetic is being used by both Dickens and Parry, namely that text seems to invade and unbalance static integrity” (21). Buildings of brick and mortar actually become paper buildings, as shown in the following excerpt of an article entitled “Bill-Sticking,” published in Household Words in March 1851; it presents the negative influence of bill-sticking on the city of London, describing at length the deterioration of a warehouse:

All traces of the broken windows were billed out, the doors were billed across, the water-spout was billed over. The building was shored up to prevent its tumbling into the street; and the very beams erected against [the building] were less wood than paste and paper, they had been so continually posted and reposted. The forlorn dregs of old posters so encumbered this wreck, that there was no hold for new poster (Dickens’ Journalism 341).

28The repetition of “billed” and the polyptoton “posted/poster” are meant to illustrate the overwhelming presence of paper. These terms aurally contaminate the passage: the word “building” appears as yet another variation on “billed.” The whole building is covered with paper, including the windows, thus emphasising the corruption both of this transparent space and of the medium that paper is supposed to be: everything is rendered opaque and impenetrable. The sonorities of “paste and paper” echo “poster,” suggesting that the document has already decomposed into its original constituents. As a consequence, this unreadable space is characterised by decay, waste and ruins. When the flow of communication ceases, what is left is a dying body. In another essay entitled “Out of Town” (Household Words, September 1855), the narrator imagines a city wrapped in newspapers:

  • 6 This passage is reminiscent of John Hollingshead’s Household Words essay, “The City of Unlimited Pa (...)

I remember to have been in a City (my Royal parent’s dominions, I suppose), and apparently not long ago either, that was in the dreariest condition. The principal inhabitants had all been changed into old newspapers, and in that form were preserving their window-blinds from dust, and wrapping all their smaller household gods in curl-papers. I walked through gloomy streets where every house was shut up and newspapered, and where my solitary footsteps echoed on the deserted pavements (Dickens’ Journalism 325–26).6

  • 7 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dickens is the first to operate such a transformation o (...)

29This city covered with newspapers is a not-so metaphorical representation of London invaded by paper and written signs. There are very strong similarities between the city walls and the newspaper page: in both cases, these are vertical media carrying messages of urban life and addressing a reader used to orienting his eye in a tabular verbal space. Newspapers and city walls distribute information and messages in a collage of heterogenous texts. With the term “newspaper” used as a verb,7 Dickens shows the influence of the urban text which acts on the city, depicted as a passive entity. The newspaper is precisely a medium which is supposed to circulate and broadcast the most recent news, but in this essay it is used to block any kind of flow, be it of people, light or information: the newspaper in its abundance has become a shroud. As Andrew Stauffer puts it, “Dickens’ work reveals a Victorian consciousness of paper as everywhere, and everywhere turning into blank, wasting forms” (28).

30Paper and signs build up to such an extent that the space offered by existing urban walls appears insufficient, and instead several vertical extensions unfold like so many walls, exclusively dedicated to the inscription of signs. In Our Mutual Friend Silas Wegg, the one-legged ballad-seller, unfolds his screen of songs in the public space: “the unfolded clothes-horse displayed a choice collection of halfpenny ballads and became a screen” (52). The use of a hyphenated word enables the reader to imagine the folding and unfolding of the screen in the city space, the hyphen acting as a hinge. The verticality of the screen is then materialised in the text:

Errands gone
On with fi
Delity By
Ladies and Gentlemen
I remain
Your humble Servt:
Silas Wegg. (52)

31The Dickensian text not only reproduces the message of Wegg but also its spatial horizontal display, underlining its similarity with the city walls. This screen of words eventually forms an actual paper shelter in the urban space, which delights Boffin: “‘Lard!’ exclaimed Mr. Boffin, in a tone of great enjoyment, as he settled himself down, still nursing his stick like a baby, ‘it’s a pleasant place, this! And then to be shut in on each side, with these ballads, like so many book-leaf blinkers! Why, its delightful!’” (57). While these screens of words turn the urban street into a comfortable domestic space, the ballads are reduced to pure opaque matter and operate a regression towards their original components—trees and rags, as the mentions of the book-leaf blinkers and the clothes-horse seem to suggest. Here the text explores the dual implication of the word “screen,” as something which protects, but also something which blocks the view, and by extension, prevents meaning to reach those who choose its shelter. Paper has become the stuff the city is made of: it goes beyond the space it is assigned to and builds walls instead of enabling meaning to circulate.

32If the urban space of the street becomes a mock household, the reverse is also true: the walls of Gaffer Hexam’s chambers are covered with posters which are originally supposed to be pasted in the urban space. Here again, paper is diverted from its course and upsets the architecture of the city. An abnormal displacement is operated and threatens the role of paper as medium and conveyor of meaning. As Wegg’s ballads become screens, Gaffer Hexam’s posters become paper objects as they “pretty well papers the room” (32): walls and paper merge into wall-paper.

33Urban messages not only spread horizontally but form layers as well, invading the walls and acquiring their solidity, as shown in the essay “Bill-Sticking,” where “layers of decomposing posters [show] themselves, as if they were interminable” (Dickens’ Journalism 341). London becomes a saturated paper space made of a stratified architecture of words and paper: it almost seems possible to go back in time, to identify and uncover the traces of former cities buried under the new one, like so many Troys. However, this quest is threatened from the start because of the chemical process of decomposition which affects the bills, posters and placards that cover the walls of London, so that walls and paper merge and become indistinguishable. Words become opaque and do not convey an intelligible message. Dickens illustrates this collapse of meaning very literally in his essay “Bill-Posting,” where paper and signs are transformed into an illegible, undifferentiated matter: “I thought the building could never even be pulled down, but in one adhesive heap of rottenness and poster” (Dickens’ Journalism 341). Walls and paper regress to the state of pulp, so that paper, the product of the Industrial Revolution, undergoes an ominous regression instead of symbolising progress. The medium turns into matter and waste, leaving behind a crumbling architecture of walls and words, as shown by the rotting warehouse described at the opening of “Bill-Sticking.”

34In Bleak House, the space of the High Court of Chancery epitomises both the overabundance and fragility of paper. The layers of documents saturating the space of Chancery are compared to the layers of mud covering the London streets at the beginning of the novel, both invasive and illegible.

Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest. (11)

On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be—as here they are—mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities. (12)

35As the passers-by slip on the pavement and capitalise on the layers of mud, the members of Chancery are unable to move in that miry space which is the result of the decades-old accumulation of precedents. This corrupted environment is “the very heart of the fog” (12) that contaminates England as the documents spread across the country.

36However, the mud and the documents follow opposite paths: as Chancery documents become mud, the London mud transforms itself into a superposition of financial documents. Here, paper is not the sign of progress anymore, but operates a return to the origins of the world, where everything merged into undifferentiated matter.

37If documents are a metaphorical mud, they also become the walls of a maze of words, shaping a mysterious and opaque space. Richard Carstone, one of the wards of Chancery in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, describes this judicial universe as a labyrinth, the secrets of which he believes he possesses: “[Woodcourt] is only an outsider and is not in the mysteries. We have gone into them, and he has not. He can’t be expected to know much of such a labyrinth” (724). But the novel shows that insiders and outsiders alike get lost and can never find their way out again. In reality, they are very similar to Jo, the crossing sweeper, who feels alienated by his environment and its written signs, and considers himself closer to animals than to humans because of his illiteracy: “To see the horses, dogs, and cattle go by me and to know that in ignorance I belong to them and not to the superior beings in my shape, whose delicacy I offend!” (237). In this passage, Dickens becomes an ethnologist as he transcribes the thoughts of the child in his alterity, absolutely alienated from the world of words and therefore from the city life which is described here as a space of nightmare and darkness. Though the Chancery members are literate, they too are lost in a verbal maze, “running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words” (12). If Jo believes he belongs with animals, the text preserves his human identity by giving him a voice, while the Chancery members are directly referred to by the organic animal hair that compose their wigs.

38The end of the novel shows how a final layer of cement consolidates this wall of words formed by Chancery, after the collapse of the Jarndyce case:

“This is a great system, Mr. Jarndyce, and would you wish a great country to have a little system? Now, really, really!” [Kenge] said this at the stair-head, gently moving his right hand as if it were a silver trowel with which to spread the cement of his words on the structure of the system and consolidate it for a thousand ages. (878)

39Words are merged into an opaque, mineral and sterile matter which solidifies the walls elevated by judicial precedents, layer by layer. If Kenge is not the architect of such a structure, he is the overseer in charge of maintaining it and perpetuating the work of his predecessors: his words transubstantiate and become the stuff walls are made of. The walls of words erected by Chancery therefore raise a new city within the city, the architecture of which is devious. There can be no map, nor easy reading of this labyrinthine space, dedicated to documents but irreducibly illegible. This is announced even before the reader is allowed to penetrate this space, with the description of the sign which overhangs the threshold of the court of justice: “The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar” (12). The lead of the sign is comparable to the cement which judicial words and documents are merged in and become part of: in both cases, meaning is prevented from circulating by obstructing raw, dense and muddy matter. Even more, the lead marking the threshold of Chancery is reminiscent of the traditional lining of coffins: here, it indicates that the ability of the human mind to produce meaning is dead in Chancery—accounting for the “leaden-headed” quality of Temple Bar: as words become walls, as fog becomes dense, as water becomes mud, the mind transubstantiates into lead and cannot create sense anymore.

  • 8 For Wolfgang Iser, the blank space of the page (what he calls “Leerstellen”) is a space of imaginat (...)

40In Dickens’s novels, illegibility is vertiginous and associated with death; this threat looms over the reader of blank spaces, at odds with future theories8 on the whiteness of the page. In an essay entitled “Some Recollections of Mortality” (published in 1863 in All The Year Round as part of the Uncommercial Traveller series), the narrator gives an account of his visit to a Parisian morgue, and the text establishes a direct analogy between the feeling of loss before death and the absence of inscription: “There was a much more general, purposeless, vacant staring at it—like looking at waxwork, without a catalogue, and not knowing what to make of it” (Dickens’ Journalism 223). Here the dash seems to symbolise the void that the spectator is faced with. This short essay goes back a little later to the same comparison: “The policeman who had just got her out, and the passing costermonger who had helped him, were standing near the body; the latter with that stare at it which I have likened to being at a waxwork exhibition without a catalogue” (Dickens’ Journalism 224).

41Without any sign, the permanent activity of communicating is brought to a halt and spectators enter an uncharted territory, a terra incognita where they are confronted with the absolute absence of meaning. As in the passages from Bleak House above, opaque matter (in this case, wax) implies the impossibility of creating meaning: just as Kenge and his words of cement, just as the “leaden-headed old corporation,” the waxwork cannot produce any sense. This impossibility seems to contaminate the text, which repeats mechanically the exact metaphor. The blank stare therefore appears as the only answer to the impossibility of communicating. John Carey analyses it in the following manner: “The blank stare, not baleful but utterly impersonal, is the optic counterpart of dislocated language. It achieves no human communication” (103).

42In Our Mutual Friend, the macabre activities of Gaffer Hexam on the Thames are presented as an irreducible mystery, partly because no inscription identifies them: “He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a sitter, no paint, no inscription” (13). Gaffer Hexam’s boat is an illegible blank space in a world marked by inscriptions, where surfaces, walls and objects are in fact pages to be written on. As with David, the narrative voice acts as a detective in its search for clues, but it can only proceed by elimination, inexorably led to confront its dreadful intuition of what Hexam’s activity actually consists of. As a result, the text becomes gradually obsessed with the vertiginous absence of signs, be they verbal or material, for it can only point to the macabre presence of death. While the beginning of the sentence mentions one negative adjective (“no”) acting as common denominator for three different objects, the end of the sentence is pounded with the triple repetition of this adjective, as if to mark its irremediableness, the loss of meaning and the deadening of the mind faced with death. As in the excerpt from the previous essay, the text seems to have acquired a repetitive, mechanical quality at odds with the creation of sense, verbally imitating what is at stake in the extract.

43In Dickens’s novels, paper is bound to become such a fatal blank space. Andrew Stauffer describes “Victorian London as a writer’s necropolis, a failed library of disintegrating paper and dead letters” (1). Commenting on a passage from Our Mutual Friend, he shows the way the author is obsessed by the potential treason of paper: “Everywhere seen and nowhere read, the deracinated paper of London haunts Dickens with questions of mortality, of origins and ends: ‘whence can it come, whither can it go?’” (23). Andrew Stauffer depicts the author’s efforts to maintain his textual presence in such a wasteland of paper, comparing him to the one enterprising man [in the essay “Bill-Sticking”] who had hoisted the last masquerade to a clear spot near the level of the stack of chimneys where it waved and drooped like a shattered flag” (Dickens’ Journalism 341). For Andrew Stauffer, the

one enterprising man can be seen as a figure for Dickens himself (or for the Victorian author generally), a sort of comic, doomed hero, trying to clear a spot, to wave his own work like a paper flag above this illegible and rotting temple that print culture, in its exponential flourishing, has produced—and to which he is ironically contributing with each effort. (13)

44Indeed, with his novels, re-editions, magazines, letters, advertisements and bills, Dickens can be said to have participated in creating the very paperscape he dreaded so much, as if to find shelter from such a situation. As Sara Thornton shows, “Dickens offers us a solution to this problem of saturation: the only place of respite available to the modern urban dweller is in the eye of the storm” (47).

  • 9 I would like to warmly thank Andrew Stauffer for helpful discussions on this subject.

45However, Dickens might have found another way to escape the tyranny of paper: as Mr. Dick in David Copperfield, he did explore new ways to perpetuate his art by disseminating his collage of texts in the sky. The last years of Dickens’s life are notoriously marked by his public readings and his unrelenting efforts to spread his work through his voice and his breath.9 Dickens confides his novels to the air which appears perhaps as the most reliable medium for the preservation and transmission of his writing, following Charles Babbage’s theory exposed in The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise:

The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man’s changeful will. (112)

46Charles Dickens refers to this theory twice during his whole career, at the very beginning and at the very end. In Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker notes a particular passage from Dombey and Son where Dickens is shown rephrasing Babbage: Sir Barnet Skettles, a marginal character, is compared to “a sound in air, the vibration of which, according to the speculation of an ingenious modern philosopher, may go travelling for ever through the interminable fields of space” (qtd. in Picker 16). This treatise would influence Dickens until the end of his life in 1869, when he quotes it in a speech more than thirty years after its first publication:

It was suggested by Mr. Babbage, in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, that a mere spoken word—a mere syllable thrown into the air—may go on reverberating through illimitable space for ever and for ever, seeing that there is no rim against which it can strike: no boundary at which it can possibly arrive. (qtd. in Picker 16–17)

47The infinity and immateriality of air appears as a promise of eternity for the writer.

Haut de page


Babbage, Charles. The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a Fragment. London: Murray, 1838. Print.

Bowlby, Rachel. Feminist Destinations. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997. Print.

Briggs, Asa. Victorian Things. Stroud: Sutton, 2003. Print.

Carey, John. The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination. London: Faber, 1973. Print.

Curtis, Gerard. Visual Words: Art and the Material Book in Victorian England. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002. Print.

Dickens, Charles. “Bill-Sticking.” Dickens' Journalism. The Amusements of the People and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews: 1834–1851. Ed. Michael Slater. London: Dent, 1996. 339–50. Print.

---. Bleak House. 1852–53. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

---. David Copperfield. 1849–50. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

---. Little Dorrit. 1855–57. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

---. Oliver Twist. 1837–39. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.

---. Our Mutual Friend. 1864–65. London: Penguin, 1997. Print.

---. “Our Watering Place.” Dickens' Journalism. ‘Gone Astray’ and Other Papers from Household Words. 1851–59.Ed. Michael Slater. London: Dent, 1999. 9–18. Print.

---. “Out of Town.” Slater, Dickens' Journalism. ‘Gone Astray’. 324–30. Print.

---. “The Uncommercial Traveller: Some Recollections of Mortality.” Dickens' Journalism. The Uncommercial Traveller and Other Papers. 1859–70. Ed. Michael Slater and John Drew. London: Dent, 2000. 218–28. Print.

---. “The Uncommercial Traveller: Travelling Abroad.” Slater and Drew, Dickens' Journalism. “The Uncommercial Traveller.” 83–96. Print.

Flanders, Judith. Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain. London: Harper, 2006. Print.

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

Hollingshead, James. “The City of Unlimited Paper.” Household Words 19 December 1857: 1–4. Print.

Iser, Wolfgang. Der Akt Des Lesens: Theorie Ästhetischer Wirkung. Munich: Fink, 1976. Print.

Justice, George. The Manufacturers of Literature: Writing and the Literary Marketplace in Eighteenth-Century England. Newark, DE: U of Delaware P, 2002. Print.

Picker, John M. Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Sansom, Ian. Paper: an Elegy. London: 4th Estate, 2012. Print.

Secord, James A. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000. Print.

Stauffer, Andrew M. “Ruins of Paper—Dickens and the Necropolitan Library.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net 47 (2007). 20 Feb. 2016 <>.

Thornton, Sara. Advertising, Subjectivity and the Nineteenth-Century Novel: Dickens, Balzac and the Language of the Walls. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009. Print.

Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. London: Penguin, 2011. Print.

Haut de page


1 When Oliver Twist was serialised from 1837 to 1839, the railway was in its developing stage and was expanding tremendously, which could account for the young hero’s “train of ideas” even though he painfully walks his way to London. Judith Flanders shows that “in 1838, after the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway opened along its entire length, eleven times as many people travelled by train as had previously used the stagecoach route. Between 1836 and 1848, eight terminuses opened in London alone to handle rising demand” (Flanders 187).

2 “[une] zone indécise entre le dedans et le dehors, [...] une zone non seulement de transition, mais de transaction : lieu privilégié d’une pragmatique et d’une stratégie, d’une action sur le public.”

3 The world of leisure and the consumer society emerging with the Industrial Revolution will later be analysed by Guy Debord in his 1971 political essay “La société du spectacle.”

4 See Flanders “The Greatest Shows on Earth” in Consuming Passions (25291).

5 Tellingly, Dickens was first employed as a label paster for Warren’s Blacking at the age of twelve. This first experience with labels and advertising seems to have influenced his writing all the more since, as Ian Sansom notes in Paper, An Elegy, “Dickens’s first published work was some advertising copy, a poem for Warren’s Blacking, not to adorn the pot labels, but for a newspaper advertisement” (8384).

6 This passage is reminiscent of John Hollingshead’s Household Words essay, “The City of Unlimited Paper,” depicting the decay, decline and horror of a paper world:

Within a certain circle, of which the Royal Exchange is the centre, lie the ruins of a great paper city. Its rulers—solid and substantial as they appear to the eye—are made of paper. They ride in paper carriages; they marry paper wives, and unto them are born paper children; their food is paper, their thoughts are paper, and all they touch is transformed to paper. They buy paper and they sell paper; they borrow paper, and they lend paper, a paper that shrinks and withers in the grasp like the leaves of the sensitive plant; and the stately-looking palaces in which they live and trade are built of paper,—small oblong pieces of paper, which, like the cardboard houses of our childhood, fall with a single breath. That breath has overtaken them, and they lie in the dust.

7 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dickens is the first to operate such a transformation on this word.

8 For Wolfgang Iser, the blank space of the page (what he calls “Leerstellen”) is a space of imaginative freedom for the reader who is offered the possibility to interact with the text, to fill in what is left unsaid (284).

9 I would like to warmly thank Andrew Stauffer for helpful discussions on this subject.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Céline PREST, « “Walls of Words”: Paperscape in Charles Dickens’s Novels », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 26 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Céline PREST

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3
Céline Prest is a PhD candidate at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is currently working on paper, documents and inscriptions in Dickens’s novels, under the supervision of Professor Jean-Pierre Naugrette.

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search