- Dickens’s Evocative Objects: A Tale of Two Lockets
“The first question which should be asked in connection with an artist is this: How does he regard objects?”Hippolyte Taine, “Dickens As A Novelist”
One only has to look at the odd assortment of diminutive objects that occupied a privileged and permanent position on Charles Dickens’s desk – a bronze figurine of two toads fighting a duel, a porcelain monkey, a small sculpture of a smoking Turk, among several others – to understand his personal attachment to things.1 In fact, in his last will and testament, Dickens bequeathed to his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, “his personal jewelry […] and all the little familiar objects from my writing-table” (Letters 12: 730). Such evocative objects are not only a testament to the ways in which particular artifacts can become imbued with specific meanings, associations and memories, but also to the ways in which objects can function as “companions in life experience.”2
The emergence and development of new materialisms and “thing theory” over the past decade have brought new attention to what objects – their myriad practical and symbolic functions – can tell us about the culture and society of the Victorians.3 In his seminal essay, “Thing Theory,” Bill Brown offered a new way of thinking about subject-object relations – “how inanimate objects constitute human subjects, how they move them, how they threaten them, how they facilitate or threaten their relation to other subjects.”4 Following Brown’s notion of the “thing” as an intermediary [End Page 38] between subject and object, this essay is an investigation (or rather, the beginnings of an investigation) into the entanglement of objects within Dickensian social relations. As readers have noted, the pages of Dickens’s novels overflow with stuff – curiosities, bric-à-brac, mementoes – and thus offer scholars interested in exploring the material culture of the nineteenth century a veritable treasure trove of things.5
Well before the advent of object studies, Dickens keenly understood the complex and dynamic interrelationships between people and things. As Hippolyte Taine observed in 1856, “An imagination so lucid and energetic cannot but animate inanimate objects without an effort. It provokes in the mind in which it works extraordinary emotions, and the author pours over the objects which he figures to himself, something of the ever-welling passion which overflows him” (340). Two years later, Walter Bagehot similarly noted Dickens’s omnivorous and intense “sensibility to external objects” (393).6 When Mr. Wemmick advises Pip in Great Expectations to “get hold of portable property” (201; ch. 24), we assume that the value he assigns to his collection of brooches and mourning rings is solely monetary. Indeed, these objects are “portable” because they can be easily exchanged for ready cash. What most readers are apt to miss, however, is that the various possessions and gifts of Wemmick’s departed clients are mementos and thus function as material surrogates for his clients’ unnarrated histories. Each object tells a story, but one that we are not necessarily privy to within the diegetic borders of the novel. At the same time, these “curiosities” emphasize Wemmick’s entangled social connections; indeed, he is described as being “quite laden with remembrances of departed friends” (171; ch. 22). These reliquaries are thus further invested with a value that derives from the enduring association of individual histories. As Bruno Latour notes, things “circulate in our hands and define our social bond by their very circulation” (89). [End Page 39]
While there is general agreement among critics that Oliver Twist is a novel of evocative power, there has been scant scholarly attention to the evocative object that is at its very center – the locket.7 Though lockets date back to the Renaissance,8 it was not until the mid-nineteenth century when the popularity of lockets for both men and women surged.9 Traditionally, a locket contained another object – a cherished keepsake such as a tiny picture or daguerreotype, a love note, fabric remnants, and, in the case of mourning lockets, a lock of hair or the ashes of a deceased person. Lockets were often inscribed with the owner’s name or initials and could be...