An old question has been raised again in another group---could Charles Dickens have been a closet Janeite?
Here's what I wrote about Dickens allusions to Jane Austen in yet another
online venue over 5 years ago:
My acquaintance with Dickens is still relatively small, but I became
aware last year of a curious bit of textual evidence which I'd like to
invite comment on from you all who know Dickens very well. I wonder
whether Dickens had Austen's Mansfield Park very specifically in mind
when he wrote the following passage in Martin Chuzzlewit:
Ch. 17: "Another little trait came out, which impressed itself on Martin
forcibly. Mr. Bevan told them about Mark and the negro, and then it
appeared that all the Norrises were abolitionists. It was a great relief
to hear this, and Martin was so much encouraged on finding himself in
such company, that he expressed his sympathy with the oppressed and
wretched blacks. Now, one of the young ladies--the prettiest and most
delicate--was mightily amused at the earnestness with which he spoke;
and on his craving leave to ask her why, was quite unable for a time to
speak for laughing. As soon however as she could, she told him that the
negroes were such a funny people, so excessively ludicrous in their
manners and appearance, that it was wholly impossible for those who knew
them well, to associate any serious ideas with such a very absurd part
of the creation. Mr. Norris the father, and Mrs. Norris the mother, and
Miss Norris the sister, and Mr. Norris Junior the brother, and even Mrs.
Norris Senior the grandmother, were all of this opinion, and laid it
down as an absolute matter of fact. As if there were nothing in
suffering and slavery, grim enough to cast a solemn air on any human
animal; though it were as ridiculous, physically, as the most grotesque
of apes, or morally, as the mildest Nimrod among tuft-hunting republicans!"
Why I ask is because, for those familiar with the slavery subtext of
Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris is a kind of metaphorical overseer
tormenting Fanny Price the metaphorical house slave of the novel. So the
surname Norris and the institution of slavery is linked in both Martin
Chuzzlewit and in Mansfield Park. However, perhaps someone who does not
believe this is an allusion by Dickens to Austen will argue that
Dickens, like Austen, must have known about the very famous 18th century
real life slave ship captain turned abolitionist Robert Norris, and
therefore claim that Dickens was alluding only to Robert Norris, not to
Austen's Mrs. Norris, in the above passage, and that he had no idea
about Jane Austen's covert "spin" on the Norris surname. However, I say
that where's smoke, there may be fire, and I find some very thick
"smoke" in the following passage from 2 paragraphs later in Martin
Chuzzlewit, when Dickens wrote:
"In order that their talk might fall again into its former pleasant
channel, Martin dropped the subject, with a shrewd suspicion that it
would be a dangerous theme to revive under the best of circumstances".
So we have the narrator referring to an abrupt but tactful termination
of the unpleasant subject of slavery and racism. Which reminds me an
awful lot of the following passage from Mansfield Park: Edmund Bertram
says to Fanny Price: "Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in
every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. You are one
of those who are too silent in the evening circle."
And then Fanny replies as follows: "But I do talk to him more than I
used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade
And then Edmund says this: "I did-and was in hopes the question would
be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be
inquired of farther."
And then Fanny says this (and this is the "punchline" for my claim of a
Dickens allusion to Austen): "And I longed to do it-but there was such
a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a
word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like- I
thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their
expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he
must wish his own daughters to feel."
I think that such a passage in Mansfield Park would have appealed to
Dickens's anti-racist idealism, because he'd have realized from it that
Jane Austen was in fact very much concerned with slavery and racism, but
was extremely covert in her allusions, as opposed to his own forthright
allusions. END QUOTE
As I reread the above for the first time in a few years, I still stand
by what I wrote then.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
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