- Contested Liberalisms: Martineau, Dickens and the Victorian Press by Iain Crawford
Iain Crawford’s Contested Liberalisms: Martineau, Dickens and the Victorian Press investigates the professional links between Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens, two of the most lionized and, at times, notorious literary celebrities of the Victorian era. Both Martineau and Dickens were formidably strong-willed individuals, each making distinctive marks on the period’s literary and cultural landscapes. Inevitably, their paths crossed in various ways. They formed a compelling literary collaboration, and their falling out was intensely acrimonious. Three primary threads shape Crawford’s study: transatlantic socio-cultural exchanges, Anglo-American liberalism, and the growth of the nineteenth-century periodical press. While this study finds little alignment between Martineau and Dickens regarding the American Experiment, the evolution of Victorian periodicals and each author’s signature contributions to that development provide unifying ground. Contested Liberalisms is less about Dickens the novelist or Martineau the interdisciplinary intellectual than a comparative study of the two in the contexts of Victorian journalism and historical perspectives.
Given the differences separating Martineau and Dickens, a few key ideas provide a useful starting point. Martineau’s lifelong personal and professional relationship with American people and ideology is best seen through the lenses of her gender, her open-minded optimism about the American Experiment, her sociological concern with morals and manners as a measure of civilization, and her commitment to the abolition of slavery, [End Page 634] so vividly dramatized by her association with American abolitionists. Other considerations include the length of her stay—two years, divided between North and South—hosted by the transatlantic Unitarian network that welcomed her as a sister. Thus, Martineau had access to both public and domestic spaces, and her American experience marked a definitive turning point in her long career.
Charles Dickens, notably outspoken against educated, opinionated women, had a quite different experience, from a difficult ocean crossing and rough rooming-house accommodations to his disappointment in America and Americans, furthered by the negative reception of his American Notes (1842). During a sojourn of only six months in 1842, he did not travel farther south than the mid-Atlantic region of Richmond, Virginia, which accords with his comparative disengagement from the slavery question. Whereas for Martineau America represented a progressive ideology still in the making, Dickens could see only what it was not: English culture and European civilization. He was “disillusioned” by America, “scathing in his assessment of its prospects and deeply ambivalent about its newspapers” (95). His perspective “assumes America’s cultural subordination to England as a given . . . a subaltern relationship” (96). The very landscape is “in every possible stage of decay, decomposition, and neglect”; the Sandusky River is “sluggish,” the Mississippi “a slimy monster hideous to behold . . . an enormous ditch . . . running liquid mud” (104–5). For Dickens, far from a pristine New World, America represented a primitive heart of darkness.
This study begins and ends by revisiting Ken Fielding and Anne Smith’s influential 1999 study of the bitter feud over the Factory Controversy that severed Martineau and Dickens’s professional relationship. In between, Crawford provides in-depth analyses of the American journeys of each author, their resulting publications, and the impact of each author on the evolving phenomenon of mass media. Crawford examines Martineau’s 1832 analysis of Walter Scott, which signified her recognition of the ideological shifts wrought by industrialized, Reform-era society and the consequent need for a new literature appropriate to the concerns of the age. His reading of Martineau’s little-known “The Scholars of Arneside” (1834) as an anticipation of her subsequent thinking about universal literacy and its link with affordable mass media is also welcome.
Crawford’s treatment of Martineau’s American tour (1834–36) addresses her commentary on the press, Jacksonian politics, republican motherhood, and her conflicted relationship with Caroline Gilman, editor of the Southern Rose. The latter episode is especially relevant to a study of the transatlantic press and provides revealing insights into the roles of Southern white women in the social politics of...