Having been a member of the VPFA for the previous two years, and with a rather sparse entry in the Members’ Directory, I decided it was about time I made myself known to fellow members of the Association. So hello. I’m Dorothy Vinegrad, a part time PhD student at the University of Hull.
My background is in Victorian, Post-Colonial and American literature, and I am presently researching the novels of Charles Dickens, who has remained one of my favourite authors since my schooldays. His novels continue to be a popular area of study and so initially it was difficult to find a theme that had not already been thoroughly investigated. However, reading Victorian Things by the historian Asa Briggs gave me something to focus on.
Well-to-do Victorians loved to have clutter in their homes – it was a sign of their station in life, and a reaction to the stark interiors of the Regency period. Victorian gentlemen surrounded themselves with what would now, in a minimalist home, be considered clutter, merely designed to gather dust – objects such as photographs in silver frames, paintings, cloths covering the piano and mantlepiece, stuffed animals in glass cases, and collections of shells, birds’ eggs and dried flowers. It almost seems as though every surface had to be covered in stuff. Dickens, as a wealthy Victorian gentleman, would have had such objects in his home – some of which are now in the Dickens’ Museum – and they spill over into his novels. This proliferation of objects helped me to concentrate my mind and I decided to investigate the many small and commonplace objects that abound in his novels.
I began my research by immersing myself in Dickens’ novels, with the aim of identifying everyday objects suitable for investigation. The next task was to question how he uses these things in his writings. Do they have a surface meaning only, simply serving the purpose for which they were manufactured, or does Dickens use them to further the narrative? Does he continue to use this abundance of things throughout the course of his career, or does their use peter out during his writing career as he finds other ways to tell the story? My plan is for each of my thesis chapters to focus on one item and one novel, expanding the enquiry into other Dickens novels as the research for each chapter progresses. Of course, cross-comparisons with other Victorian novelists, such as Charlotte Brontë, Margaret Oliphant, H .G. Wells and Wilkie Collins have all been illuminating. I use these novelists to discover how and under what circumstances objects are used more broadly. I also use contemporary newspaper reports, archive material and paintings to expand the background material for my research, and I draw on illustrations in the novels from which I can obtain an impression of the illustrator’s version of Dickens’ ideas.
I also keep a close watch on current news items in Dickens’ studies that I can incorporate into my thesis. The discovery of a miniature watercolour painted on ivory – shown here – of Dickens as a young man was recently announced. Painted by the artist Margaret Gillies, it had not been seen since its inclusion in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1844, but recently emerged at a South African house-clearance sale and was bought in a job-lot for £27. It is now valued at £180,000. Having been lost for 175 years it has been cleaned and restored and is back on view, showing Dickens as a young man at the time he was writing A Christmas Carol. It could be one of the paintings he had on the wall of his home, and discarded as an insignificant object.
An article in the 22nd February 2019 edition of The Times Literary Supplement by John Bowen, entitled ‘Unmutual Friend,’ was enlarged by him in the Spring 2019 edition of The Dickensian. This version, entitled ‘Madness and the Dickens’ Marriage: A New Source’, concerns a store of recently discovered letters that give details of the break-up of the Dickens’ marriage. The letters tell Catherine’s side of the break-up and how Dickens tried to have her confined in a mental institution when he fell in love with Ellen Ternan. Dickens’ dishonourable behaviour is something, Bowen writes, Dickens’ scholars will have to come to terms with. Despite the wealth of research into his life, new objects continue to be discovered, throwing a new light on him. As with the portrait, he could have viewed his wife as an object of no value, to be discarded and forgotten.
After a close reading of his novels, I was able to identify several objects – keys, handkerchiefs, purses, scissors and buttons – worthy of further research. I began by examining each object in the role for which it was intended, before moving on to assess how and why Dickens inserts them into the text as a way of explaining the history of a character and the times in which they were living. My research, therefore, has given me the opportunity to explore many other areas of the Victorian period – the silk and cotton industries, servants, mourning customs, bare-knuckle boxing and crime.
Life beyond researching for my thesis is also going well. A fellow student and I are presently in the process of organising a conference entitled ‘Victorian Villains and Victims’. It is a one-day conference hosted by the University of Hull to be held on 17th July 2019. The history and literature of the Victorian period is brimming with villainous characters and victims, and novelists often took their inspiration from real-life events and objects. Dickens certainly did. The purpose of the conference is to investigate these events and draw attention to the intricate relationship between fact and fiction. Our CFP suggests, as a starting point, topics such as real-life and fictional criminals and victims – Jack the Ripper, Maria Manning and Emilia Dyer, and Bill Sykes, Daniel Quilp and Lucy Graham, and fictional policemen and detectives – Inspector Bucket and Sherlock Holmes. My conference paper will be on the topic of two public hangings attended by Dickens, his incorporation of the murderers into his novels and his campaign to end public hangings. We have had a good response to our CFP (downloadable here) and would nevertheless welcome more papers – the deadline is 10th May 2019. Kath and I can be contacted on D.Vinegrad@2016.hull.ac.uk and K.A.Beal@2016.hull.ac.uk if you would like further information on the conference.