Dickens, Fraud, and Early Victorian Realism: Toward a Poetics of Humbug
Realism, the most important aesthetic legacy of nineteenth-century literature, is structured around an unresolvable contradiction. Rooted in an empiricist epistemology that insists we can best understand our world by observing its concrete particularities, realist novels were nevertheless also committed to the belief that the world is still more knowable when it is presented in a fictional form illuminated by the novelist's moral imagination: truth and fiction became inseparablyﾗif often uncomfortablyﾗintertwined. Building on the recent revival of scholarly interest in Victorian realism, my project charts its development in relation to historically specific cultural anxieties about another kind of public discourse that deliberately blurred fact and fancy: the fraud.
"On every side of us," reported one newspaper in 1843, "we see perpetually fraud, fraud, fraud." Many early Victorians expressed similar fears, worrying that in their rapidly industrializing and urbanizing society, they had cast off from the traditional moorings of social truth. Against the backdrop of widespread concerns about frauds, hoaxes, and (to use a popular synonym of the time) humbug, I will analyze the early fiction of Charles Dickens in order to demonstrate that the tension in his work between fact and fiction is not only a perennial formal problem of realism, but also a pressing concern of the early Victorian public sphere. To do so effectively, I must investigate the holdings of the two best archives of the ephemeral and journalistic writings in which the Victorians registered their distinctive fear of popular fraud, both of which are in London.