- Dickens and Race by Laura Peters
There is a question that at some point all Dickens students, scholars and enthusiasts are forced to ask themselves: how do we reconcile Dickens, the champion of the London poor, the fighter for social justice, with the Dickens who advocated that the Oriental race should be “raze[d] off the face of the Earth” (110) and who published an article arguing that executing Indian mutineers by blowing them from the mouths of cannons was not painful enough? Do we simply put it down to Victorian hypocrisy? Was Dickens the emblematic man of his times in this regard, as in so many other ways, or were there more fundamental reasons for his apparently contradictory attitude towards race and class? During the 2012 bicentenary celebrations, many of which were organized by the British Council, this question loomed large but remained largely unarticulated. If Dickens were writing today, it was proclaimed more than once, he would not be writing of London but of Delhi or Mumbai, Lagos or Rio de Janeiro. But what would the man who stated that if he were Commander in Chief of India he would “do [his] utmost to exterminate the Race” have made of such a claim (109)? In her new book Dickens and Race, Laura Peters provides some tentative answers to these questions and some much needed contextualization.
As Peters points out, critics have tended to shy away from acknowledging the full measure of Dickens’s objectionable views on racial difference and the extent to which they influenced his work. There has been a widespread desire to read journalistic efforts like his 1853 article “The Noble Savage” and his reaction to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 as aberrant and exceptional. But, as Peters adeptly proves, this was not the case. Rather such reactions were part of a larger pattern of thinking about science, fancy and race. Starting in the 1840s with Dombey and Son and an early review piece for The Examiner, Peters traces the development of Dickens’s thinking about race in the 1840s through the controversial fifties and then onto the post-Darwin era. Emphasizing the influence of life-long interests in travel literature and the exotic on the one hand, and racial science on the other, Peters charts how contemporary debates on science, empire and social justice coalesced with the ideas of childhood, fancy and the exotic in Dickens’s mind. In Peters’s conception, race is a powerful signifier for Dickens, representing something both profoundly personal and politically significant.
The first two chapters map out the different trends in thinking about race in mid-nineteenth century Britain and Dickens’s relation to them. At the beginning of Peters’s period, Dickens’s racial thinking, as with most of his contemporaries, is based on ideas of civilization and class. Race is cultural [End Page 77] rather than biological. Dickens is a polygeist and views the different races as all fundamentally belonging to the same species. Differences were viewed as the result of differing levels of civilization. But, as Peters shows, with the publication of Robert Knox’s The Races of Men (1850) and the ascendency in contemporary scientific culture of the notion of race as biologically determined, the idea of a shared humanity gave way to one of a hierarchy of races. Race, in other words, was not simply a matter of difference, or of environment, but of innate biological difference that reflected a supposed deficiency in the non-white races. At mid-century, to be African or to be “Oriental” was to be less human.
The first two chapters of Dickens and Race provide invaluable background information; Peters is at her strongest, though, in her third and fourth chapters, which focus on “The Noble Savage” and the Indian Mutiny. Dickens’s journey from American Notes (1842), which describes the chief of the Choctaw tribe as a “stately and complete a gentleman of Nature’s making” (61), to “The Noble Savage” (1853), which calls the Native American “a howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage” (76), involves...