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  • 2012 VanArsdel Prize Essay Dreaming across Oceans: Emigration and Nation in the Mid-Victorian Christmas Issue
  • Jude Piesse (bio)

As evening closes in, the house of each family of respectability opens its hospitable doors to the reception of friends; and the roast beef and the plum-pudding . . . attest the attachment of the English to old home-honoured usages. The glass goes round; good wishes are exchanged; many a thought is directed to friends and relatives at a distance, and the day closes much as it closes in England.1

Picturing a cosy Christmas night in 1850, this hearth-side scene from Household Words is typical of many featured in mid-Victorian periodicals towards the end of the year. Idealistically echoing the festive reading circles of the journal’s own predominantly middle-class English consumers, the episode is characteristically domestic and national in its reference points, just as it is also resolutely traditional and nostalgic. It is therefore initially surprising to realise that it takes place not in the vicinity of Cheddar or Canterbury, but Calcutta, where “fires are burnt in English grates” even as the “scorching rays of the sun eternally pierce the very marrow of man.”2 Furthermore, this text is representative of a whole genre of similar festive stories and articles which insistently feature emigration or first-generation colonial life from mid-century onwards. I have found literature of this kind across a range of popular middle-class periodicals, including the Illustrated London News, Graphic, Quiver, Household Words, All the Year Round, Eliza Cook’s Journal, Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, Leisure Hour, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and in both Christmas extra numbers or supplements and regular December and January issues. As Richard [End Page 37] Altick notes, such Christmas publications represented the “feverish peak” of the entire periodicals market and often achieved colossal readerships which dwarfed those of the better known Christmas book. For instance, the annual circulation figure of 15,000 for A Christmas Carol (1843), priced at five shillings, seems relatively small when compared to the peak readership of 250,000 for All the Year Round Christmas numbers, priced at four pence, in the early 1860s.3 Moreover, there is evidence that such stories circulated amongst the very settler communities they depicted, lending them a significantly twofold metropolitan and colonial readership which is important to their function and theme.4 As such, it is my contention that these texts played a key role in registering and imagining the historical experience of Victorian emigration, which was part of a wider migration explosion that saw an estimated twelve million people leave Britain between 1815 and 1930.5 I argue that this little-studied popular emigration literature is essentially cohesive and reassuring: utilising the medium of print to activate an affective English national imaginary which served to contain migration’s destabilising potentiality. As in the scene above, this is an imaginary consistently articulated through both temporal and spatial frameworks, linking emigrants abroad with distant friends at home as the Christmas moment “closes” in.

The first part of this essay develops a theoretically and historically informed conceptual framework which elucidates the relationship between emigration and nation as mediated by print and draws upon a range of Christmas texts across periodical titles. The second section applies these ideas more closely to the Dickensian frame story, an intriguingly composite festive form that perfectly realises the characteristic dynamics of the broader periodical Christmas emigration literature, as I demonstrate through a concluding reading of “The Wreck of the Golden Mary” (1856).

Nation, Migration, and Print

The idea that print culture might have a special role to play in forming concepts of nationality was first proposed by Benedict Anderson, and it is worth briefly reviewing his ideas as a means of framing subsequent arguments. In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Anderson argues that the nation operates as an “imagined community” that supersedes traditional “face-to-face” social relations.6 Such modern imaginings are specifically facilitated by advances in print culture, in particular by the rise of the novel and newspaper, which enact the very epistemological frameworks upon which national identity is founded. At the crux of this argument is...


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