Mia’s Project

Last summer, I complained about slogging through pages and pages of Charles Reade’s knowing generalizations about the fairer sex in order to find out whether I would end up writing about it. Well, it turns out that I’m planning on half of a diss chapter on it, and that’s what I’m working on right now. I’ve been making believe that the author is alive and reading some biographical stuff, and it so turns out that Reade kept tons of notebooks, many on the subject of “Woman” and “Foemina Vera.” Curiously enough, instead of the normal separate spheres stuff I was expecting, “more than half the entries in this Notebook are directly concerned with androgynism” (Wayne Burns, Charles Reade [1961]). Burns writes that Reade was particularly struck by the case of

Fred, a young married woman who, with her husband’s consent, posed as his son–and so successfully that, again with her husband’s consent, she courted and became engaged to a young girl, one Miss Smith. For undisclosed reasons Fred and her husband then took Miss Smith to Moulton, where the three of them posed as father, son, and daughter, until Miss Smith’s father arrived arrived on the scene and exposed Fred for the woman she was–much to his daughter’s surprise and dismay. (195-196)

Reade’s comments are almost charming (I especially like number 3):]

Queries suggested by the meagre account on this page.

1st Why did Miss Smith lend herself to the lie   a, and, if she did, why?

2. Was plunder intended or what by the husband?

3. Is it not possible that Miss Smith supplied a certain want to this childless woman’s heart. In short that she wanted something inferior to love and cherish, and look down on; to her husband she probably looked up as he is  a blackguard, and she a woman age of Fred 25 of Miss Smith 17    The ring   B    looks ugly

4. What are the sentiments of a woman who finds the man she is deep in love in is only a woman

c can the bare discovery cure in one moment a passion that has become a habit, or is the discovery like the death of a beloved object. (196)

I’m not sure what I make of it, but is the most interesting Victorian anecdote I’ve come across in a while.


Without further ado, the new intro to the Little Dorrit section of Chapter 3.

In fact, that’s why I started out telling the story: I think I meant it as a fairly simple story about scale. Just to say how the right scale of doll for my older sister was the wrong scale for me, how I needed something chunkier. I needed, or thought I did, something with decent-scale, plastic, resiliently articulated parts that I could manipulate freely and safely (safely for it as well as me): this seemed to be the condition for my loving or identifying with the creature, even just not abandoning it. (Sedgwick, “Melanie Klein” 627-628)

I first read Little Dorrit in Eve Sedgwick’s Fall 2007 seminar on “Reading Relations.” Given all the attention paid in recent years to her notion of reparative reading, and Eve’s own attention to this scene in class, Arthur’s words to his mother soon after his return from China have a particular buoyancy for me:

“Is it possible, mother,” her son leaned forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and laid his hand nervously upon her desk, “is it possible, mother, that he had unhappily wronged any one, and made no reparation?” (62, emphasis mine)

And, soon afterwards:

“In grasping at money and in driving hard bargains… some one may have been grievously deceived, injured, ruined. You were the moving power of all this machinery before my birth; your stronger spirit has been infused into all my father’s dealings, for more than two score years… If reparation can be made to any one, if restitution can be made to any one, let us know it and make it. Nay, mother, if within my means, let me make it. I have seen so little happiness come of money; it has brought within my knowledge so little peace to this house, or to any one belonging to it; that it is worth less to me than to another.” (63, first emphasis mine)

There has been no shortage of readings attuned to Arthur’s strange, vague sense of guilt, among them Wenying Xu’s argument with which I began this chapter, that his individual guilt is symptomatic of Britain’s national guilt concerning its participation in the Chinese opium trade. (We’ll need a big ole omnibus footnote here.) What if, though, we focus not on Arthur’s guilt, but on his desire to make reparation? What if, in other words, we consider Arthur not as a Foucauldian subject of power/knowledge, but a Sedgwickian reparative reader?

For Sedgwick, reparative practices originate from the Kleinian depressive position, the threshold of which is breached with “the simple, foundational, authentically very difficult understanding that good and bad tend to be inseparable at every level” (“Melanie” 637). Sedgwick’s reparative reader inhabits a world sometimes hostile, sometimes merely inhospitable, and, in recognition of the cloud firmly attached to every silver lining, undertakes a “movement toward what Foucault calls ‘care of the self,’ the often very fragile concern to provide the self with pleasure and nourishment in an environment that is perceived as not particularly offering them” (“Paranoid” 137). Noting the persistent gloom surrounding Sedgwick’s writing on reparative reading, Ellis Hanson quips in a recent article, “Just as paranoid reading can never be too paranoid, reparative reading can never be too depressed” (106).

Arthur certainly meets this criterion, having seen “so little happiness come of money,” imagining that others have not merely been wronged by his family’s business, but “grievously deceived, injured, ruined.” When he is coldly greeted by Flintwinch after his long absence, he says to himself, “How weak am I… that I could shed tears at this reception! I, who have never experienced anything else; who have never expected anything else” (48). Arthur, “lean[ing] forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and la[ying] his hand nervously upon her desk,” demonstrates the fragility associated with the reparative situation.

Little Dorrit, I propose, can be read as a novel with a “reparative plot”; that is to say, it starts out from a position of psychic damage, and derives its most powerfully affective moments when the novel depicts the attempts made, in Sedgwick’s Kleinian words, “to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole–though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole” (“Paranoid” 128, original emphasis). If the novel is most frequently thought of as an extensive treatment of the prison in its literal, social, and psychological manifestations, of characters hemmed in, constrained, rendered immobile, a reading attuned to the reparative plot is invested not so much in the moments of liberation experienced, or in the exposure of the truth of imprisonment underlying some condition of putative freedom, but in the novel’s construction of a large and varied world in which are assembled both good and bad objects, freedom and constraint.

But what has any of this to do with my dissertation’s larger concern, China?

I’ll admit, not much. However, this reparative plot also did not figure largely if at all in Dickens’ original conception of the novel.At this stage he had selected China as Arthur’s land of exile, and part of my argument is that because of this shift in the novel’s direction, the narrative places little emphasis on Arthur’s Chinese origins after the first few chapters.

What China does contribute to the world of Little Dorrit is a sense of scale. Like young Eve Kosofsky’s desire for a larger, chunkier doll, Arthur’s trajectory might also be thought of as a story about scale. In his case, though, the scale appropriate for him is the small-scale child-body of Amy Dorrit. Near the end of the novel, alone in his prison cell, after he finally discovers that Little Dorrit has been in love with him, he thinks to himself, “Looking back upon his own poor story, she was its vanishing point. Everything in its perspective led to her innocent figure. He had travelled thousands of miles towards it; previous hopes and doubts had worked themselves out before it; it was the centre of interest of his life” (766-767).

Scale extends in two directions here. On the one hand there is the narrowing of focus, the shrinking of dimensions that accompanies Clennam’s concentration of interest on Little Dorrit. One of the chief effects of contemplating objects on a miniature scale, Susan Stewart argues in On Longing, is the achievement of psychological interiority. The moments of affective intensity guiding the novel’s reparative plot depend upon the construction of multiple layers of interiority.

On the other hand, the “thousands of miles,” the many years of Clennam’s life spent in exile, function on a macrocosmic scale. China, with its immense population, may be metonymically linked to the bureaucratic workings of the Circumlocution Office, the genteel Society of Mrs. General, and the flows of capital associated with Merdle. These faceless, alienating, disorienting institutions dwarf the individual trapped within, in contrast to the highly individuated space of tiny interiors. However, this experience of spatial alienation accentuates the moments of containment and reorientation, increases the effect of psychological interiority. Britain’s expansion outward into what was in effect a globalized economy also led to an expansion inwards.

Not just space but time as well buttresses the affective structure of Little Dorrit. Throughout Dickens’ fiction, an aesthetics of arrested temporality marks some of Dickens’ most characteristically animated prose. Stopped time is also a feature of the miniature object–and, of course, of the Celestial Empire. I thus argue that China occupies an affectively ambivalent position in the novel: it would make sense to treat China with satirical contempt, on a par with the Circumlocution Office and haute bourgeois Society, but the target of that contempt, its refusal of growth and progress, its worship of small and constricted objects and female bodies, in fact play a key role in sustaining the novel’s reparative energies.

I feel like the time since my last post has been even longer than the not-yet-lapsed Catholic’s time since her last confession. Forgive me, reader, for I have begun to dissertate.

I wish (don’t we all wish) I could say that I’ve been working so hard on my dissertation that I just haven’t had enough time to spend on blogging. Depending on how you count, I’ve averaged maybe a third of a page a day in the summer (let’s not talk about the spring semester, okay?). So obviously there have been plenty of waking hours not spent dissertating, not even spent thinking about my dissertation, but whenever I think about it, I feel guilty, boot up the old word processor–and resume flipping through the browser tabs. So, I’ll try to kill two birds with one stone (or the cruelty-free equivalent) by blogging part of the chapter I’m working on.

The chapter is about Little Dorrit, Hard Cash, and some other mid-Victorian novels that have scant references to China. Right now I’m working on the Little Dorrit section, which should be easy, since I’ve presented twice on it and received good feedback. Instead, it’s been a real slog, and most of what I write feels belaboured and dull grad student-y. I started one draft of the section that I knew was a disorganized mess but knew that I should just grit my teeth and write a shitty first draft, but that’s never really been my MO. Usually, I make a few false starts at a first draft, finally cobble something together that’s between first draft and a second draft (but still shitty), and go from there. I’m going to present my third shot here.

Let me preface this by saying that the impetus of this new intro, as you’ll see in the epigraph, and for this blog post, was my rereading of Eve Sedgwick’s “Melanie Klein and the  Difference Affect Makes” (from 2007 in SAQ–stop what you’re doing now and read it if you haven’t already–you’ll thank me). I was particularly struck this time around by her comments on the difference affect makes to what we (assuming you’re an academic, and if you weren’t I’d assume you’d stopped reading by now) do: not the already humdrum distinction between paranoid reading and reparative reading, but writing, l’écriture:

Even Freud, after all, who, unlike Klein, invested so
much of his best thought in issues of representation, had to either interpret actual creative work in diagnostic terms or bundle it away under the flattening, strangely incurious rubric of sublimation. Paradoxically, though,
this is one of the areas of Klein’s greatest appeal: she makes it possible to be respectful of intellectual work without setting it essentially apart from other human projects. That our work is motivated—psychologically, affectively motivated—and perhaps most so when it is good work or when it is true: with Klein this is an extremely interesting fact, much more so than
an ignominious or discrediting one.

Anybody who’s had to teach comp has had to say that writers write much better when they’re interested in what they’re writing. That this passage is more than a repackaging of the old cliché comes that the fact is not a truism, but extremely interesting. It’s extremely interesting to think of writing not as the conveyance of information or ideas in which one might be very interested, or even as the expression of some recalcitrant psychological state, but as necessarily an epiphenomenon of some affective position. The focus–at least the way I’m reading it–becomes not so much find something you’re interested in so you can write something better, but be mindful of the complex affective dynamics involved in your intellectual work–especially when it is good work.

Well, that’s 600 words before I’m getting to what I really wanted to blog about, and it’s 1:30am, so I’m calling it a Part I and I’ll actually blog/write the dissertation excerpt tomorrow. I swear.

It’s been a few months since the folks at Google Labs unveiled their fancy n-grams toy. It’s fun to play with, but, as I’m sure all my hermeneutically suspicious readers know, there are plenty of objections to taking the findings seriously. The team of non-digital-humanist scientists behind it have since published an FAQ. Since the topic’s been handled much more ably by others, I won’t go through the list of problems here. However, I do think that it could be useful for me. In a previous post, I described my efforts to get a sense of when “Celestial Empire” became associated with China, and when it stopped. And now, I can give you a sexy graph:

As I predicted, there’s nothing in the eighteenth century, and it dwindles in the twentieth, with peaks around the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. A better use of n-grams, though, is to make comparisons. Here’s “Celestial Empire,” grouped with “Middle Kingdom” and “Chinaman”:

I think that despite the “noise” in the data, this is a fairly effective demonstration that, as a name for China, “Celestial Empire” was more popular than “Middle Kingdom” in the nineteenth century, and vice versa in the twentieth. Why did Victorians like the “Celestial Empire”? I’m hoping to answer that in my dissertation. What the above search suggests to me, though, is that there’s some historical shift going on around 1850, when all of the sudden “Chinaman” becomes way more popular than “Celestial Empire when it had been so closely correlated before that.

Despite all the shortcomings of the Google Books data and metadata, though, I’m really curious to see how these searches would look for a corpus with more reliable metadata–namely, the ProQuest and Gale databases of British periodicals.

My latest candidate for dissertation title is “The Twilight of the Celestial Empire.” I wanted to capture the sense that the nineteenth century marks a decided decline in Western opinions of China and the Chinese, in contrast to early modern fantasies of Chinese wealth (think Columbus) and the eighteenth-century chinoiserie craze. I also wanted to give some Victorian flavoring with their favourite nickname for China. This got me thinking, though, just when was “Celestial Empire” used to describe China?

In the good old days, you’d be able to go to the OED, and stop, with a proviso that the OED proves nothing. The earliest quotation given by the OED is 1824-1829, by Walter Savage Landor. The latest is Henry James, 1878. What this means, I guess, is that my diss could equally be described as “The Rise of the Celestial Empire,” given that when it was used corresponds quite neatly with the period I’m covering. Or I could compromise and call it “The Age of the Celestial Empire.”

But we being where we are (the blogosphere, the internets, you know) and me being who I am (a nerd, a procrastinator, an addict) I had to do some further research. *sigh* I used three text repositories: Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, and Google Books. (I’m actually kind of glad I don’t have access at the moment to British Periodicals or 19th Century UK Periodicals.) EEBO was the easiest, since there weren’t any hits. ECCO was slightly harder, since there were about thirty hits, but the keyword in context only displays as a popup which takes a while to load, and all of the hits seemed to refer to heaven (you know, the Christian one) or something of the sort.

And so, Google Books. I’d trade net neutrality for decent metadata any day. Well, maybe not any day, but definitely today. It’s easy to do a date filter, but so many of the publication dates are meaningless. Periodicals are frequently dated from the time the series first appeared. I got a whole bunch of hits from 1799, since the “Religious Tract Society” didn’t bother dating their publications, but only stated that it was “instituted in 1799.”

Finally, after far too much checking when things were *actually* published, it seemed like the earliest I could find was 1819 reports of an embassy to China. This is of course (“of course” meaning of course wikipedia knows what I’m talking about rather than of course you know what I’m talking about) Lord Amherst’s 1816 voyage, in which he refused to kowtow to the Emperor, which resulted in quite a hullaballoo, apparently. So, a little further digging, and I’m pretty sure that the phrase enters the British lexicon based on this event. (“Celestial Empire” is Robert Morrison’s translation of “Teën Chaou.”)

It’s far more difficult to ascertain when “Celestial Empire” stopped being used frequently, since it’s difficult to distinguish between frequent and infrequent usage, and of course because GB metadata sucks. But I could point at Bertrand Russell’s (!) The Problem of China (1922), where he uses CE to describe old China in distinction to modern China:

China has an ancient civilization which is now undergoing a very rapid process of change. The traditional civilization of China had developed in almost complete independence of Europe, and had merits and demerits quite different from those of the West. It would be futile to attempt to strike a balance; whether our present culture is better or worse, on the whole, than that which seventeenth-century missionaries found in the Celestial Empire is a question as to which no prudent person would venture to pronounce. But it is easy to point to certain respects in which we are better than old China, and to other respects in which we are worse.


I’m not sure when this contrast starts being made, but I’m guessing that the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 has something to do with it.

So there you have it: the “Celestial Empire” (1816-1911).

There’s nothing like reading dreary novels to see if you just might write on them. I’m thinking I need a chapter on sensation novels and China, but problem is, I haven’t read any of the sensation novels that have China in them. So I’m starting with Charles Reade’s Hard Cash, serialized as Very Hard Cash (1863ish), which Google Books informs me is partly set in China. The first 150 pages were pretty tough going. I think Reade wins some kind of asshat award. Here’s a random helpful footnote:

Perhaps even this faint attempt at self-analysis was due to the influence of Dr. Whately [author of a Logic book the character’s reading to help her Oxonian brother]. For, by nature, young ladies of this age seldom turn the eye inward.

And, while all the manly men are sailing their ships and fighting pirates, there’s of course an annoying lady on deck, and some amazing (ahem) prose:

[B]eneath a purple heaven shone, sparkled, and laughed a blue sea, in whose waves the tropical sun seemed to have fused his beams; and beneath that fair, sinless, peaceful sky, wafted by a balmy breeze over those smiling, transparent, golden waves, a bloodthirsty Pirate bore down on them with a crew of human tigers; and a lady babble babble babble babble babble babble babbled in their quivering ears.

Oh, the joys of being a Victorianist!

I think I need to feel my way through the intro chapter of the actual diss before doing the prospectus. Here are some more odds and ends:

  • The longue durée: How does the Victorian relationship between China and England fit into the history of Anglo-Chinese relations starting from, say 1500 to now? One of the large motivations of my project has been the work of the so-called California School of Andre Gunder Frank, Pomeranz, and Roy Bin Wong. These economic historians argue that modernity is not the story of a European center spreading modernity to the periphery (nor the center’s exploitation of the periphery) but that before 1800 China and Europe were on par in terms of economic development. Frank argues that if anything, pre-1800, China ought to be considered the center and Europe the periphery.
    This is reflected in European representations of China from largely positive pre-1800 to largely negative post-1800. So, the Victorian period is particularly interesting as the time when the image of the inferior Chinese is being constructed, replacing earlier more positive constructions.
    So is China then demonized in Victorian literature? Not really, I’ve found. In fact, it doesn’t show up all that often, especially during the mid-Victorian period. Consider:

    • None of the major Victorian writers paid much attention to China. Contrast this with the eighteenth century, when you’ve got Leibnitz writing Novissima Sinica (1697), Defoe setting the sequel to Crusoe partly in China (1719), Voltaire’s play l’Orphelin de la Chinebased on a translated Chinese drama (1755), and Oliver Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (1760), a series of fictional letters of a Chinese traveller in England. In the twentieth century, you’ve got Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, and the Tel Quel crew (Eric Hayot’s Chinese Dreams is about these). In the nineteenth century, you’ve got Charles Lamb’s “Old China,” but that’s earlier in the century, and that’s about it, at least as far as my research has gone so far.
    • From around 1810-1830, there was a spat of Chinese literature translated into English (when they were first able to translate Chinese). Then, not so much until the end of the century.
    • There’s lots going on in China in the middle of the nineteenth century: two Opium Wars, and the Taiping Rebellion, by far the largest war of the nineteenth century. And there’s the “Opening of China” after the first Opium War.
  • “From China to Peru,” from Dr. Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), it shows up quite a bit in Victorian lit. Interestingly, according to a quick Google Book Search digging, it only becomes a popular expression after 1820 or so, perhaps because the poem had been heavily anthologized. I assume that the good doctor chose China and Peru more or less arbitrarily, but in terms of global commerce, the Spanish galleon trade to China from Peru’s silver mine was immensely important. See what I mean about random bits of information that will work well in an intro chapter but not a prospectus? **sigh**
  • “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay”: from Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.” See, there’s totes poetry in my dissertation!

I wrote the previous about a week or two ago. I’m not thinking of any other odds and ends at the moment–perhaps it’s time to start the prospectus?

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