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  • Bleak House and Little Dorrit: The Radical Heritage
  • Sambudha Sen

In 1864 The Westminster Review published an article entitled “Modern Novelists: Charles Dickens” where it looked back with distaste to the milieu that had enabled Dickens to pervert “the novel from a work of art to a platform for argument and discussion.”

The stir of the reform movement was at its height. Everywhere questions were being asked, changes advocated, abuses swept away. Even the novel-reading public caught the enthusiasm, for they saw the opening to a new kind of excitement. The diffusion of common knowledge had brought social questions within the ken of a large class who fifteen years before were perfectly content to be ignorant of them. 1

The Westminster Review’s remarks about the popular novel and the new culture of political discussions, together with the reviewer’s rather derisive tone represent a set of developments and responses that I want to explore further in this essay. To begin with, I hope to delineate the development of the “language of radicalism” that energized what The Westminster Review vaguely described as “the highly popular treatment of politics” from its first articulation in the works of Thomas Paine, William Hone, William Cobbett, and others, and after the fragmentation of the radical journalistic tradition during the thirties, through its continuing (if displaced) development in novels like Bleak House and Little Dorrit. I will then try to show that the “reactivation” of radical expressive resources within the Dickensian novel generated representations of the elite and of its political processes which were alien and even antagonistic to the projections of what the Westminster Review normatively called “the novel as a work of art.” 2 Finally, I will argue that if radical modes led only a reified existence in Dickens’s fiction—as, at best, one, among many, ideological strands insinuating themselves into what was essentially the leisure time of a very large and socially diverse reading public—their continuing development within the expressive economy of Dickens’s fiction also implied, as the quarterly press often remarked, that novels like Bleak House or Little Dorrit could deliver to a very large number of people critical and allegedly inaccurate ideas about England’s great national institutions. This would suggest that if the integration of radical ideas within the entertainment-oriented [End Page 945] Dickensian text indicated their uprooting from actual political struggles, they also opened up for novels like Bleak House and Little Dorrit a new public realm, and gave to them a potential to form public opinion serious enough to worry the quarterly press.


At the most obvious level, men like Hone and Cobbet made the popular treatment of politics an integral aspect of the sort of literary market in which Dickens’s genius was to flourish and, at the same time, pioneered the expressive techniques which would go into Dickens’s delineation of national institutions such as the Circumlocution Office or the court of Chancery. From this perspective, the striking feature about the radical tradition in writing, and one that probably accounts for its enormous popular appeal, was the sheer exuberance with which it went about forging its language of subversion; as E. P. Thompson puts it, “not” its “solemnity but the delight with which Hone, Cruickshank, Carlile, Davison, and others baited authority.” 3 A good example of a mobilizing text that might at the same time be seen as a landmark in literary entertainment was William Hone’s The Political House That Jack Built (1820). 4 Cast as a parodic political squib, a form “long established among news vendors and patterers, and practiced in more sophisticated form by men of all political parties from Wilkes to the writers of Anti-Jacobin,” The Political House combined colloquialisms, parodic re-accentuation and the casual rhythms of everyday oral forms to achieve a tone which, in its irreverence to the processes of power, continued to resonate many years later, and under very different political circumstances, through novels like Little Dorrit. 5 Moreover, by roping in Cruickshank as a collaborator, Hone managed to exploit to a hitherto unimaginable degree the popular appeal of the illustrated political pamphlet.

The tradition of graphic satire, of which...

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