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18 September 2014
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'Bleak House': The Novel as Source Material

By Professor Martin Daunton
Dreams of putrefaction

'Punch' cartoon showing violent street scene
'Punch' cartoon, 1894: Dickens' novels described slums rife with squalor, disease and violence  
The technique of personalisation that was used by Dickens in his novels was also used by sanitary reformers in their reports. Indeed, when Edwin Chadwick was writing his great report on the condition of towns - The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population - he consulted the novelist on the best way of presenting his evidence. Dickens' brother-in-law Henry Austin, also a sanitary reformer, was himself author of a report giving a nauseating account of burial grounds oozing with disgusting secretions.

After reading the report the novelist dreamed of putrefaction, and the images that this brought to his mind recur in his novels - images of blockages, decay, stickiness, which make the reader feel the texture of the city. Thus the reports and novels of the period used similar language to describe a particular and threatening physical feel of the city - also to point out its dangers, and to create a sense of crisis that would spur the government to action.

Here is the passage in Bleak House where Dickens introduces the reader to the slum, the home of Little Jo:

'Jo lives - that is to say, Jo has not yet died - in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone's. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings.
'Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so, these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coddle, and Sir Thomas Doddle, and the Duke of Foddle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoddle, shall set right in 500 years - though born expressly to do it.'

Published: 2004-11-04

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