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  • Editor’s Note
  • Christopher Keep

In the second chapter of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855–57), it is unclear which “plague” has prompted the medical authorities in Marseille to detain foreign travellers en route from “the East” (13). Dickens sets the story some thirty years before the novel’s original serialization, at which time Marseille was locked down owing to an outbreak of smallpox, one that would eventually claim 1,507 victims, or 1.2% of the city’s population (Barbieri and Drancourt S7). But Dickens’s association of the disease with the Orient, and the text’s emphasis on environmental rather than person-to-person transmission, suggests he may have had cholera, which swept through much of Europe in the early 1830s, in mind (Wright 261). The lack of an explicit identification of the contagious disease in question is, of course, pretty much the point: Dickens is less interested in scientific questions concerning the global spread of a virus than in the affective and psychological dimensions of what it means to live in quarantine. Feeling himself constantly watched by his ever-vigilant warders, Mr. Meagles appears to have internalized the panoptic gaze and convinced himself that he must, indeed, be one of the infected. “That’s my grievance,” he tells Arthur Clennam. “I have had the plague continually, ever since I have been here. I am like a sane man shut up in a madhouse; I can’t stand the suspicion of the thing. I came here as well as ever I was in my life; but to suspect me of the plague is to give me the plague. And I have had it—and I have got it” (13). When Clennam remarks that his compatriot in isolation seems, nonetheless, “to bear it very well” (13), Meagles vehemently denies the claim until his wife encourages him to take consolation in the presence of and good cheer afforded by their daughter, Pet. Meagles concedes the point and Clennam, too, remarks that such company “has had the result of making even quarantine enjoyable” (13).

Dickens’s depiction of life in quarantine, where listlessness and boredom strangely mix with a sense of deep foreboding and doom, and the fear for one’s own health seems to be as contagious as the virus that necessitated the establishment of the cordon sanitaire in the first place, will seem very familiar to many readers who come to these pages in the midst of the pandemic occasioned by the coronavirus. As I write these words, in April 2020, a third of the global population is under some form of lockdown while health-care workers struggle to tend to the overwhelming numbers of the afflicted and essential service providers strive to maintain basic needs. For many academics, this means being cut off not only from our daily contact with students and colleagues but from the libraries, archives, and other [End Page v] resources that are essential to our research. These are small sacrifices, to be sure, and many are making them, like Mrs. Meagles, cheerfully, knowing that they will be temporary and are in the name of the greater public good. Moreover, many organizations and institutions have responded to the present crisis with both ingenuity and generosity. Working with individuals, libraries, and universities across the world, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Internet Archive, for example, has established what it calls a “National Emergency Library.” This service makes available more than 1.4 million digital copies of books and other materials for the duration of the current health crisis—the references above to Little Dorrit come from just this source, as my dog-eared copy languishes behind the locked doors of my departmental office. Moreover, Johns Hopkins University Press is making all the journals for which it is responsible, typically accessible only by scholars and researchers through their universities and colleges, available to the general public through the Project Muse digital platform. This means that the entire run of Victorian Review, from its first issue in 1972 to the one you are reading now, can now be read by anyone in the world with access to the Internet, at least for the duration of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. v-vii
Launched on MUSE
2020-06-18
Open Access
No
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