Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century (2/4)

On Secrets

Secrecy represents the pathological other to communication. If public life is based upon social intercourse, then secrecy is an impediment to the exchange of information. Yet public life is not solely about untrammelled communication, whether for liberal Victorians who understood themselves in terms of their difference from foreign despots, or over-sharing millennials on Facebook. Privacy has always been a necessary counterpart to publicity, all the more fiercely defended when new ways of connecting people seem to enable publicity to encroach too far. Neither publicity nor privacy exists in isolation and the borders between the two shift at particular periods. Equally, both are multilayered and experienced variously according to who one is. Yet, intertwined though they are, the relationship between publicity and privacy is not equal. As publicity means accountability, privacy, while recognized as necessary, is only permitted under sufferance. The private, a space to nurture the self, is always a contested space, carved out in the shadows of oppressive openness and incessant exchange. Privacy’s necessary concealments are justified by trust; however, whereas privacy is a legitimate secreting away, secrecy implies that this might be abused. The secret, then, offers an affront to publicity because it troubles the boundaries of acceptable privacy. The problem, of course, is how to distinguish between the discrete nondisclosures that safeguard privacy from surreptitious activity carried out in secret.

For the Victorians, both publicity and privacy were venerated as cornerstones of national life. Publicity was celebrated as public square, the ideal market where strangers could meet on equal terms and do business; or, as Alexander Welsh, in particular, has argued, the light of public opinion, guide for both sovereign Parliament and, in the case of those whose stories found their way into the papers, the judge of private behaviour. With its roots in utilitarianism, publicity was not just heralded as a good thing, but as the basis for goodness itself. But publicity’s expansion, depersonalized and bureaucratized, undermined the basis of publicity by threatening the individual selves that, in liberal ideology, constituted the public. The private was the public’s necessary supplement, a space in which the self could develop that moral sense that was then mobilized by publicity. Private space, epitomized by the middle-class home, was celebrated as both hallmark of national character – the Englishman’s home and all that – and safeguard of a class-bound and gendered subjectivity that was generalized for all. Of course, access to privacy was limited to those with means; like the franchise, those without the resources to create private spaces of their own were considered unworthy of trust. It was no coincidence that the urban working classes were subject to surveillance by the regimes of law, public health, and Mrs Pardiggles. Without the means, the only way to assert the right to escape publicity was by tolerating it.

Secrecy was universally despised. In public life, secrecy was suspiciously foreign, the refuge of continental despots; in private life, it represented the failure of character, the inability to live as one should without promptings from others. As David Vincent has shown, this explains the outrage that followed the 1844 Post Office scandal, as well as the late development of the secret service.1 These high ideological stakes meant that the uncertain border where privacy edged over into secrecy was a point of particular obsession. The home, for instance, provided rich material for novelists, particularly the sensation novelists of the 1860s. It was also the source of the impossible standards expected of Victorian women, whose behaviour was expected to be exemplary in order to sustain the sanctity of the domestic and justify the right to dwell within it. Victorian middle-class masculinity, gentlemanliness itself, was predicated on discretion but this could conceal hidden ambitions, mask a secret life or a concealed past. Not only was the border between private and public contested and uncertain, then, but so too was that between the private and the secret. And the only way to ensure that privacy was not being abused was to subject it to publicity, to invade private space and root out its secrets.

Keeping secrets places one in the hinterland beyond privacy and so attracts suspicion. Private space, for the Victorians and for us, was understood as necessary to create independent citizens, able to account for themselves in public. However, it is secrecy that creates the individual, the set of differences that make us distinct from one another. Rather than understand secrecy as pathological, then, beyond the legitimate contest between privacy and publicity, perhaps we should understand it as their precondition. The private self privileged in the liberal tradition is, after all, already the result of repression, as the ego establishes itself against its unknown other. If privacy provides the means through which we become socialized as individuals, then the private self is already founded on a secret.

Rather than jeopardize society, secrecy is the barely repressed basis of social life. Not only is the liberal self carved out from the repressed unconscious, but telling secrets provides the means of forging intimacy. The knowledge that someone has a secret generates conflicting feelings: on the one hand, the secret awakens a desire to know; on the other, we want to know why we have not yet been told. Although circumstance vary, not knowing a secret places one at a disadvantage: we know that the truth is other than what it appears, but we depend upon someone else to find out what it is. Telling secrets is both a sacrifice of individuality, as the secret keeper gives up something that makes them different, and a way of creating bonds, as both secret keeper and the person to whom it is told now share something that nobody else knows. Telling secrets breaks down difference while, at the same time, reasserting it as a line is redrawn between those in the know and those that aren’t.

We cannot but keep secrets – to do so would eradicate difference and make us the same – but we build social bonds through partial disclosures, whether these are the whispered intimacies of courting lovers or the putative openness of democratic government. When secrets are shared it creates a connection that, in turn, excludes others. Intimacy is not built on knowing the other – how can it, when we barely know ourselves – but rather on what we choose to share.

1David Vincent, The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998 (Oxford University Press, 1998), chapters one, two and three. [back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century (1/4)

[This is a paper I gave at BAVS in September 2015. I’m in the process of redrafting it for a chapter of my next book, provisionally entitled Whispers of Print. It’s in four parts.]

Tremble. What does one do when one trembles? What is it that makes you tremble?

A secret always makes you tremble. Not simply quiver or shiver, which also happens sometimes, but tremble.1

Why does a secret always make you tremble? For Derrida, secrets make us tremble because they remind us of former trauma. As the secret has not yet been revealed, we do not tremble because of its content – we don’t yet know what it is going to be – but rather because it reminds us of something. ‘We are afraid of the fear’, Derrida writes, ‘we anguish over the anguish, and we tremble’ (55). We know to fear the fear, to anguish over the anguish, because we have experienced such revelations before. The tremble, for Derrida, comes because of something that has already taken place: it is a sign of repetition, of violence breaking out once again. My argument in this series of posts is that what we fear about secrets is the power they have to rewrite the past. The revelation of what was previously concealed means that what I thought was true was actually false. Secrets, no matter how banal, make real life into fiction.

Once a secret is told the world is not the same. The revelation, if accepted, rewrites the past and marks it off as separate from the newly revealed present. Telling secrets, then, is a way of drawing a line between past and present and so moving on, each secret revealed getting closer to the truth. Yet this implies that it is possible to know everything; or, to put it another way, that everything is already there, concealed and waiting to be found out. Such a world is already written, plotted but concealed, with an ending yet to come. But the world is not narrated and absolute disclosure is impossible. Secrets might make us tremble because they make life into fiction, but they also make us tremble for what they tell us about the world. Every secret reveals what is really going on but, at the same time, cannot but remind us that this new world is itself subject to rewritings yet to come.

In the next post, I think a little about the cultural life of secrets. Whereas secrecy might appear to be something aberrant, I will argue that it performs a vital social function, creating bonds between some people and so differences between others. The third post turns to narrative. As structured revelation, narrative depends on secrecy, on letting the other know that you know something and, crucially, you are willing to tell. Narrative, according to Peter Brooks’s reading of Walter Benjamin, is a way of experiencing an ending, a moment in which one can look back and comprehend the story as a whole.2 The book, I will argue, is a privileged cultural object, both in the nineteenth century and today, because it maps narrative onto its material form. The everydayness of books means it is easy to overlook their role as both repositories of secrets and engines of structured revelation, but if narrative allows us to enjoy what Brooks calls the ‘anticipation of retrospection’ (22), then the book’s numbered pages make explicit when it is to come.

1 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Gift of Death’, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, translated by David Wills (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 54.[back]
2 Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (1984; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 22.[back]

Debating the Book

[On Thursday 8 October I’m taking part in a public debate on the Future of the Book at the University of Leeds, part of the White Rose Consortium’s Debating the Book festival. My fellow debaters (debatees?) are the University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton, Stella Butler; Professor Brian Cummings (York); the CEO of Waterstones, James Daunt; the novelist, Linda Grant; Dr Bridgette Wessels (Sheffield), and we will be chaired by Melvyn Bragg. Further details about the debate are here and about the festival here. We’ve been asked to give short opening statements. Mine’s below.]

One of the remarkable things about the book is how readily ‘book’ now describes something without paper and ink. We had books before the invention of printing, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that we now have digital books. There is lots to say about the differences between print and digital books: about the way the form of one has been incorporated into the other, for instance; or the way digital properties make us look again at print. But what interests me is what they have in common. When we’re no longer talking about paper and ink, what is a book?

For me, this is about wholes. The book describes something bounded, something complete, and this has a peculiar appeal in a digital world where everything is connected.

The book establishes wholeness in two different ways. Firstly, the page sets out edges, marking off where the text stops and the rest of the world begins. More importantly, the sequence of pages, one after the other, establishes temporal boundaries – a start and an end – as well as a sense of direction. It is this sequence of pages that makes a book a book. You just have to look at how wary ebooks have been to leave behind the linearity of the codex and embrace multi-dimensional hypertextuality. Although in practice not all books are read cover-to-cover, what we tend to think of as a book starts on page one and ends when there is no more to read.

This, I think, is important, as it means that the form of the book, whether paper and ink or bits and bytes, is well-suited to structuring narrative. Narrative, the telling of stories, is fundamental to the way in which we understand ourselves and the world we live in. I don’t mean that we make the world up, but that narratives are how we put things in order, establish chains of cause and effect, and, crucially know where to start and to end. Narratives break the chaos of the world into chunks that have some sort of integrity and can be retold again and again.

The thing is, narratives can be tricky. Where does a story really start? And how do we know it’s finished? I don’t know how well you remember Alice in Wonderland, but there is a bit where the Red King, sitting in judgement over the Knave of Hearts, asks the White Rabbit to read a poem in evidence against him:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

The book incarnates narrative. It gives it a body. Not only does it make clear beginnings and endings, you also always know much there is to go. And, because you turn the pages, you are the engine that drives the story on. Good books – in print or digital – move us. But we, crucially, also move through them.

Living with technology: the printing press

[As part of a new discovery module at the University of Leeds, I was asked to be filmed taking about the printing press as technology. I was going to extemporize (there’s so much to say, and they only wanted 3-4 minutes), but as I’ve never used an autocue before, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try it out. Here’s the script.]

It is hard to overstate the importance of the printing press. For about 500 years, printed material has shaped both the way we communicate, whether mediating between those living alongside us, or allowing us to read material from the past or bequeath our own to the future. In many ways, print’s very ubiquity has blinded us to its contours, to the way it shapes the material to which it gives shape. But now, in what’s sometimes called the late age of print, when electronic communication offers an alternative medium for reading and writing, we are beginning to see print and its legacy anew.

Print is a technology of copying. After some experimentation, its technical basis was more or less stable from 1500 until the introduction of steam in early nineteenth century. As with all technological shifts, older methods persisted alongside new ways of printing, but steam provided a new motive force that vastly increased the rate of reproduction. It was steam, along with innovations in paper-making, that created the conditions for a mass readership, where large groups of people were reading the same things at the same times. Even so, the everydayness of books was a fairly late development. The printed book has long been venerated, but it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it became a common object found in most households. We have had books for a long time, but for much of this people’s encounter with print would have been in other forms: newspapers and chapbooks; posters and broadsides.

Print is a medium, a way of making text reproducible. As such, it intervenes between the hand that writes and the eye that reads. While we might usefully think of handwriting as a type of technology, too, print makes texts mechanical, the work of a machine. It is curious that few people even notice the shapes of letters or the format of printed texts, instead experiencing reading as a kind of contact with the mind of the author. On the one hand, print masks human agency, making all texts seem like species of the same; on the other, print, a collaboration between a human and a machine, sets text free.

As a technology of reproduction, it is easy to see printing as secondary. Authors do the important creative stuff; printers just turn it into reproducible form. But this is to underestimate the power of copying. For almost half a millennium, print has allowed people to get to know those they have never met; it has served as the basis of a public sphere; and it has archived the world’s knowledge. Now, as we come to terms with a new technology of copying, we are beginning to learn the extent to which we have depended on print, the ways in which this technology has set the conditions for textuality itself.

Conservative attitudes to old-established organs: Oliver Lodge and Philosophical Magazine

[I’ve recently had an article published in Notes and Records on Oliver Lodge and the Philosophical Magazine. It was co-written with the brilliant Imogen Clarke and is available ahead of print publication via the Notes and Records website here (£). I’ll put a link to the postprint version (OA) once the embargo has passed. The abstract is below]

In 1921 Oliver Lodge defended Philosophical Magazine against charges of mismanagement from the National Union of Scientific Workers. They alleged that its editors performed little editorial work, the bulk being done by the publishers, Taylor & Francis. Lodge reassured Nature’s readers that the journal did consult its editors, and suggested ‘a conservative attitude towards old-established organs is wise; and that it is possible to over-organise things into lifelessness.’ The paper explores Lodge’s response by considering the editorial arrangements at Philosophical Magazine. Founded in 1798, it remained remarkably unchanged and so appeared old-fashioned when compared with its closest rivals, Proceedings of the Royal Society and Proceedings of the Physical Society. We argue that for Lodge the management of Philosophical Magazine gave it the flexibility and independence required to sustain the kind of physics, also open to accusations of obsolescence, in which he believed.

Abstract: Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century

[this is my proposal for this year’s BAVS conference. I’m on a special Northern Nineteenth-Century Network panel ‘Victorian Secrets’. The conference website is here.]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century

The telling of secrets punctuates time. The revelation of whatever has been concealed creates a before and after, in which things are never quite the same. New information, should it be accepted as true, rewrites the ‘before’ as fiction and leaves the ‘after’ as truth. But such truths are only provisional and one never knows what other secrets there are to tell.

Secrets make the concealed past present. In a kind of gothic move, things that should have been left behind are resurrected, demanding attention. Such returns are the staples of countless literary plots in the period; they also underpin the many scandals that filled the pages of newspapers. Whereas literary plots can exploit the moments leading up to revelation, as tension increases, newspaper scandals break suddenly, creating a moment that calls for something to be done.

In my paper I sketch out some of the links between secrecy and temporality in the nineteenth century. In its first sections, it explores the ways in which secrecy depends upon time, focusing particularly on the way that telling secrets reorders past and present. I then go on to look more closely at such revelations in literary and nonliterary narratives. The paper concludes by looking closely at the way that telling secrets creates a moment in which past and present appear provisional. My argument will be that while secrets rewrite the past, they do so at the cost of the present.

Abstract: Telling Tales about Secret Remedies: the Case of Chlorodyne

[This is the abstract of a paper I gave at Working with Nineteenth-Century Medical and Health Periodicals, St Anne’s, Oxford, 30 May 2015. The conference website is here and the tweets have been storified here. I’m planning on posting my paper here soon]

Telling Tales about Secret Remedies: the Case of Chlorodyne

In February 1892 two undercover police officers entered John Thistlewood Davenport’s pharmacy and bought a dozen bottles of chlorodyne. Two months later, Davenport was prosecuted at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court for selling poison. Davenport claimed that chlorodyne was exempted from the Pharmacy Act as, for the purposes of the Act, proprietary medicines were considered patent medicines. The Magistrate, however, disagreed, insisting that a patent medicine must be patented and fined Davenport a symbolic five pounds and five guineas costs.

The prosecution was arranged by Ernest Hart, editor of the British Medical Journal, and was the culmination of a long campaign to close the loophole under which controlled substances, particularly opium, were freely sold despite the strictures of the Pharmacy Act. Patent medicines, which declared their constitution in the process of gaining legal protection as intellectual property, had been exempted when the Act was passed. Proprietary medicines, however, kept their ingredients secret thus avoiding the disclosure demanded under patent law. For Hart and his colleagues, it was this secrecy that made proprietary medicines so dangerous.

This paper tells the tale of chlorodyne. A vital part of the economy that supported the vibrant market for periodicals, advertisements for proprietary medicines like chlorodyne were the public face of secretive entities. By prosecuting its manufacturers, Hart and the BMJ asserted their right to tell chlorodyne’s secret, subjecting it to legal control.

‘In Chancery’. Again

I wrote a post as part of the Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project underway at Birkbeck. They’re reading Our Mutual Friend in its monthly parts to mark the 150 years since it was published. I’m really interested in these kinds of projects, as I spend a lot of time arguing that seriality matters. It is very hard to describe things like the significance of waiting or repetition that underpin the experience of serial reading. The difference is experiential and it’s only really by joining projects like this that we get a flavour of what this way of encountering texts was like. I’ve tried similar things in class before: on a course at Birmingham called ‘Victoria’s Secrets’ we read The Moonstone in parts; I also taught She in weekly parts on a survey course called ‘Writing and the World’, also at Birmingham. Both novels were serialised in weekly parts, which made them good candidates for this kind of task, but because of the length of the semester we still had to squeeze them in. It would be very difficult to do something similar with a work published in twenty monthly parts like Our Mutual Friend.

Below I’ve reproduced my opening paragraph, but you can read the whole post on the project site.


February 1865’s number brings an end to both Book Two and the first volume of Our Mutual Friend. It is one of those curious points in a serial where the monographical is made present in virtual form. The words ‘the end of the second book and the end of the first volume’ make clear where we are: even though we are reading in parts, we cannot escape the sense that we have reached a point in a whole. This serial mode of reading is a process in which we fill out an empty form, the parts read accumulating behind us as the end gets closer. We know that there is a wholeness here, that the novel will reach a conclusion eventually, that there will be a moment when there is no more to come, when we can close the book and look back. In Part Ten this virtual wholeness is made strikingly present in the volume titlepage and contents that appear in the wrapper. Not only are we reminded where we are in the novel, we are also enjoined to enact this putative wholeness by turning parts into a book. Or rather, half a book.

Moving Things: Repetition and Circulation in Victorian Print Culture (5/5)

[This is the final part of this serial on print culture and Mugby Junction. I’ve given versions of this on a couple of occasions now, the next being in Oxford in May. I’m hoping then to write it up as a journal article]

For Steven Connor, Dickens’s characters, trapped as so many are in the frequentative mode, stand for Dickens himself: a haunted man, who nonetheless haunted his various texts and the firesides into which they circulated. Connor suggests that this haunting differs according to specific media culture: what Friedrich Kittler would call a discourse network:

Dickens’s energetic desire to inhabit all space, to be everywhere, to do everything, to be all of his characters all at once, could never succeed because it worked in mechanical or thermodynamic terms. But the churning mills and wheels of the thermodynamic age have been virtualised into the immaterial and “immediatised” informatics of the age of media and communication. The merely local knottings and convulsions of space and time which Dickens evokes so often in his work have become generalised in this era, in which Dickens keeps on carrying on where he never left off.1

There is something seductive about this comparison, linking as it does the churning mills and wheels with the repetitive, frequentative mode. Yet it relies on an informatics that has somehow broken free of the material world. Early fantasies of cyberspace presented it as a disembodied virtual realm, distinct from the metal and meatspace represented by the industrial era. However, we can hear the hard disk spin, and computers remain counting machines.

Just as the Dead-Letter Office stood to remind information of its body, so we are frequently reminded of the materialities put into play by digital media. In February last year, the Huffington Post announced ‘Google Fingers Revealed In New Ebook’, but sightings of these spectral digits has been going on for some time. In 2006, shortly after the appearance of Google Books, Dan Cohen wrote a post about them; and since 2011 the lovely Art of Google Books tumblr has published many such images. As Natalia Cecire has noted in a recent post, these fingers are stark reminders of both the work that goes into the production of digital resources and the way that this work is elided through the presentation of apparently unmediated content. The hand, as Cecire notes, is synecdoche for the worker, but these hands also represent something else. The image of the hand, Cecire writes, is ‘a photograph of its own scene of production, complete with visual evidence of the hand that wrought it.’2 These images of ghostly hands, then, also conjure up something of the Freudian primal scene: that originary moment of writing, the signature, that links writer and reader. Yet, the hands that are glimpsed here also remind us, uncomfortably, of mediation, of the fact that these digital objects are not, really, what they claim to be.

This is not to say that such digital resources are deficient or deceptive, misrepresenting the print culture of the past. Rather, they demonstrate, by making it strange, how much more there is to know. We are trained to look for the singular and the exceptional, rather than the repetitive and generic. Still enmeshed in a naturalised print culture, we readily overlook its materiality until it is transformed. The digital revolution has, I think, exacerbated the tendency to reify surviving print objects as ‘originals’, objects that allow the creation of stable points of origin for content that reaches us in a remediated, digital form. Rather than understand digitisation as a kind of loss, as the new digital object fails to capture all the aspects of print, I would rather think of it as an opportunity. Once alienated and transformed, we can more easily recognize the properties of print culture and ask different questions of its remains. We need to recognize the many hands that touch print objects from the past as they come down to us in the present, be they those of the author, printer or bookseller; or archivist, programmer or technician. We need, in other words, to open ourselves up to be haunted, in order to move more things from the past.

1Steven Connor, ‘Dickens, The Haunting Man’, Literature Compass, 1 (2003), 10. [back]
2Natalia Cecire, ‘The Visible Hand’, Works Cited [accessed 24 October 2014]
[back]

Moving Things: Repetition and Circulation in Victorian Print Culture (4/5)

Part Three: Being Moved

As they sustain relationships, objects become enmeshed in the emotional lives of those they bring together. For Marx, commodity fetsishism meant that objects mediated social relations, taking on a fantastical form that then became naturalised. According to Thomas Richards, this is the reason that descriptions of commodity culture tend to produce accounts ‘of a fantastic realm in which things think, act, speak, rise, fall, fly, evolve.’1 All objects, in this view, can become social actors, but it is those that directly address us, that have been inscribed in some way and are perceived to pass on some sort of message, that interest me here. Mediating objects, according to Derrida, create the sender and receiver, the you and the me, as they move between people. The telepathic connections they activate promise a touch across time and space. Touching always involves touching back: as these media interpellate, they demand a response of some kind, creating the conditions for reciprocity. These things move because they are moving things.

In the first issue of Household Words, Dickens and his subeditor William Henry Wills provide an account of a visit to the General Post-Office at St Martin’s-le-Grand. ‘Valentine’s Day at the Post Office is supposed to be one of Household Word’s romances of the everyday, where the souls of the ‘mightier inventions of the age’ are revealed to the reader.2 The General Post-Office is the ‘mighty heart of the postal system of this country’ (12), distributing letters around London, the rest of the country, and across the empire. While the article celebrates the achievements of the postal service, with a heavy dose of human interest, it returns obsessively to the issue of theft. The Post-Office, it transpires, blames the public for using the post to send money, especially coins. ‘The temptation’, they write, ‘it throws in the way of sorters, carriers, and other humble employés is greater than they ought to be subjected to’ (10). At the end of the article, Dickens and Wills return to this theme, noting the dimmed glass window installed, panopticon-like, through which the sorters might be watched. They remark that it ‘is a deplorable thing that such a place of observation should be necessary; but it is hardly less deplorable […] that the public, now possessed of such conveniences for remitting money […] should lightly throw temptation in the way of these clerks, by enclosing actual coin’ (12). By 1850 the post office was understood as a closed communications system: the invention of the penny post, the use of envelopes, and the Post Office Scandal of 1844 buttressed the understanding of the postal system as a set of private channels between sender and receiver. The insistence on the senders’ guilt for tempting the clerks, responds to uncertainty about the conditions of this privacy. Coins are particularly troublesome, as they can be felt through the envelopes, rendering them transparent. There is an uneasiness here about the hands through which letters must pass: hands that fondle and caress the bodies of the moving things that convey content from one place to another.

These mentions of theft come either side of the description of the Dead-Letter Office. The place where undeliverable letters are sent, the Dead-Letter office fascinates Dickens and Wills as a place where wealth accumulates. For Derrida, destinerrance means that all letters can become dead letters, as all letters can activate any number of multiple connections and so summon up all sorts of people. Yet, as John Durham Peters notes, the letters in the Dead-Letter Office are dead precisely because they have no chance of interception. These are bodies that have been interred (the word repository also means a tomb) and so have stopped moving. The Dead-Letter Office is a necessary corollary to the emergent role of the postal system in the broader information economy, serving as a material supplement to the disembodied content moved from place to place. As Durham Peters argues, the ‘need for it to exist at all is an everlasting monument to the fact that communication cannot escape embodiment and there is no such thing as a pure sign on the model of angels.’3 As Durham Peters puts it, this is not a problem of the rupture of minds, but of bodies. It is a problem of erotics.

The table of contents from Dickens's Mugby Junction, published in All the Year Round, 1866.

Detail from front page of Mugby Junction, All the Year Round, 16 (1866), 1. From Dickens Journals Online (DJO) (2012-) http://www.djo.org.uk/.

Mugby Junction is set around the related system of the railway, rather than the post, but it too deals with dead letters. The conceit of Mugby Junction is that ‘Young Jackson’, now known as Barbox Brothers, the name of the firm he works for, is in a kind of stasis, depersonalised and unable to find a place in the world. He is haunted by memories from his past: his mother; his schoolmaster; the former head of Barbox Borthers, and most bitterly the betrayal of his lover and his friend; come back and trap him in a perpetual present. Steven Connor claims Dickens’s characters have, and I quote, ‘a particularly intense relationship to the frequentative, to the condition of simply living on.’4 Unable to continue his journey, Barbox Brothers haunts Mugby Junction, a railway station in the Midlands. His haunting eventually takes in the home of the railwayman known as Lamps and his disabled daughter, Phoebe. Each of the seven Lines seen through Phoebe’s window represents a possible departure, but to help him decide which to take, he offers Phoebe (and sometimes Lamps) a tale from each. In the telling the Lines become lines, designed to fill the space and so put off Barbox’s intended departure.

The analogy with the serial form of Household Words and All the Year Round is clear. Dickens, as Steven Connor has argued, also set out to haunt the homes of his readers, not least by circulating his words into their households. As a Christmas number, Mugby Junction is both part of the weekly series of All the Year Round and also distinct. Its distinctness – it is twice as large (and expensive) and has its own pagination sequence – allows it to better suit Christmas and also serves to situate it in the annual series of Christmas numbers. Mugby Junction, then, haunts the fireside at Christmas, filling the holiday period; but it also, as a supplement, haunts the weekly series, reminding readers that there are other rhythms in play – and, of course, that these, too, have their own print forms.

What is odd about Mugby Junction is that the narrative of Barbox Brother’s decision is the second in the series, not the last. ‘Barbox Brothers and Co.’ tells of Barbox Brothers’s trip to the ‘great ingenious town,’ Birmingham, where he stumbles across a lost girl called Polly (10). This turns out to be an elaborate sting operation by his ex-lover, who wants Barbox Brother’s forgiveness. Dickens uses the two girls to rejuvenate Barbox Brothers and open him up to the influence of others (this is Dickens after all). After Barbox Brothers forgives his ex-lover and her husband, he becomes Barbox Borthers and Co, taking, and I quote ‘thousands of partners into the solitary firm’ (16). Barbox’s Brothers’s Birmingham experience reconciles him to his past, transforming him from the ‘Gentleman for Nowhere’, as he is known at Mugby Junction, into the ‘Gentleman for Somewhere’. He decides not to move on and instead takes a house in Mugby. No longer haunted, Barbox is no longer compelled to haunt and so makes his haunt his home.

Detail from ‘Main Line. The Boy at Mugby'.

Detail from ‘Main Line. The Boy at Mugby.’, Mugby Junction, All the Year Round, 16 (1866), p. 17. From Dickens Journals Online (DJO) (2012-) .

This exorcism produces a temporal change that is enacted spatially: Barbox Brothers moves on by staying put. The reader, too, does likewise: now Barbox has made his choice, the rest of the narratives – the ‘Main Line’ and the five ‘Branch Lines’ – are, in effect, dead letters, sitting alongside the two Barbox Brothers tales instead of moving the frame narrative onwards towards its end. In a kind of switch of genre from novel to periodical, from author to editor, the remaining Lines move the reader through the issue, creating striking cross references as they mediate across the issue and beyond. For Barbox Brothers, repetition is stasis, a kind of living death as he haunts Mugby Junction. Recapitulating his origins in narrative gives his life direction and allows him to reach an ending. He settles down and the narrative ends: a quiet death that allows the reader to pass on too.

Open-ended serials like newspapers and periodicals also negotiate these two potential ends. As frequentative media, there is always the potential that they become too stuck, like Barbox Brothers, in repetition; but, in constantly chasing novelty, there is also the danger that they will break free from the structure set out in advance and, so, like Barbox Brothers at the conclusion of his story, become something else. Like the Freudian death drive and pleasure principle, eros and thanatos, each of these possible ends has its own motive force. The skillful editor carefully balances these two drives, creating a kind of perpetual present, issue after issue. In narrative, it is only at the end that the beginning and the middle can be conceived as a whole, but then you have to start again with another. Newspapers and periodicals also employ this constant changing of the subject to drive readers on from article to article, issue to issue, volume to volume. However, an editor is not, really, a narrator, and all they can offer is a precarious middle from which the reader can survey the past (represented by the neat sequence of back issues) and the future, tantalizingly out of reach but reassuringly expected to be much the same. This middle, a present teetering between the past and future it produces, is itself intended to pass. As print genres predicated on not finishing, newspapers and periodicals enable repetition while ensuring progression, ordering both past and future by allocating each a period and numbering it accordingly. Moving on by staying put, the next issue displaces the previous, a temporal change enacted spatially. Barbox Brothers might reach his happy end, but the stories keep coming nonetheless.

1Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 11. [back]
2Anonymous [Charles Dickens and William Henry Wills], ‘Valentine’s Day at the Post Office’, Household Words, 1 (1850), 6-12. [back]
3John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 169. [back]
4Steven Connor, ‘Dickens, The Haunting Man (On L-iterature)’, conference paper given at A Man for all Media: The Popularity of Dickens 1902-2002, Institute for English Studies, 25-7 July 2002. Available here. [back]