- Dickens's "Pious Fraud":The Popular Press and the Moral Suasion of Fictional Narrative
On 1 June 1850 Charles Dickens published in his weekly journal Household Words an essay examining the altered modes of reading made available by the proliferation of newspapers and cheap journals.1 The article, "The Appetite for News," calls newspapers "these acres of print" and characterizes the public's demand for news as a "constant craving" that is varied and undiscriminating. The news is packaged to "suit every appetite and every taste" and supplies an amorphous catalogue of miscellaneous events: "of battle, murder, and sudden death; of lightning and tempest; of plague, pestilence, and famine" ("Appetite" 239). The article concludes that "good and evil [are] as broadly defined or as inextricably missed in the newspapers as they are over the great globe itself" (239). In this article's description, the extensive range of news fails to provide an interpretive account of these events but replicates the randomness of their occurrence. The goal of news, then, is not to be discriminative but simply to produce enough to satiate the public's "constant craving" and to supply news "every morning with as much as would fill about twelve hundred pages of an ordinary novel" (239). Although written by sub-editor W. H. Wills, "The Appetite for News" is an unsigned article that maintains the central voice of Household Words and can be read as continuous with Dickens's overall project, insofar as he was famous for his micro-management as an editor. The article points to Dickens's concerns regarding the dangers of news information unmediated by narrative structure and opens up new questions about Dickens's relation to the growing periodical press.
Widely recognized for his popular appeal and his use of serial publication, Dickens has long been associated with journalistic form and the popular press. His contemporary Walter Bagehot considered Dickens the quintessential reporter and writer of urban life, in which "everything is [End Page 377] there, and everything is disconnected."2 Bagehot wrote, "His memory is full of instances of old buildings and curious people, and he does not care to piece them together," implicitly suggesting that Dickens's novels functioned in much the same way as newspapers. In his recent book, Dickens the Journalist, John M. L. Drew regards Bagehot's description as particularly resonant for Dickens's journalism, and he suggests that Dickens is in some ways a "special correspondent for modernity" in helping us to make sense of his milieu.3 However, Dickens's treatment of the periodical press in Household Words and his broader treatment of journalistic and novelistic forms suggest an alternative reading of his position in relation to these genres. "The Appetite for News," in particular, characterizes the quantity and variety of newspapers, periodicals, and other publications as modern discursive spaces that are difficult, even impossible, to control and that open up potential meanings available to the uneducated or undiscriminating reader. Generically distinct from the daily and weekly newspapers, as well as other weekly periodicals, Household Words reflects upon the journalistic form—or, rather, its miscellany of forms—both in its content and structure. I argue that Dickens structured Household Words so as to impose an overarching order on its contents and, importantly, to restrict the open meanings made available by the miscellaneous nature of journalistic form. This controlled heterogeneity instructs the reader to see the larger social narrative of Victorian society and to cultivate the capacity to be a discriminative reader in the face of a range of options, voices and stimuli.4 For Dickens, imaginative literature and fictional narrative provide a way both to regulate and contain the reader's engagement with texts and to restrain the potential unstable meanings readers could extract or, alternatively, have imposed upon them.5
Focusing on Household Words and Our Mutual Friend, I will address the ways in which Dickens offers fictional narrative as an answer to the uncontrollability of the growing nineteenth-century media and to Utilitarian ideas of useful reading as opposed to imaginative reading. Dickens provides an alternative journalistic form in Household Words, which uses fictional narrative and figurative language even in its non-fiction...