Is there a pastor in the House? Sanitary reform, professionalism, and philanthropy in Dickens's mid-century fiction

Lauren M.E. Goodlad

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CHARLES DICKENS'S INTERESTS in legal and administrative reform are as apparent to readers as the famous depictions of Chancery and the Circumlocution Office in, respectively, Bleak House (1852–53) and Little Dorrit (1855–57). Dickens's equally profound engagement with sanitary reform is less obvious. In this essay I argue that the modern social consciousness engendered by the public health movement – including Edwin Chadwick's groundbreaking Sanitary Idea – is important to understanding Bleak House as well as underlying and more general questions of “pastoral” agency in a self-consciously liberal society.The notion of “pastorship” as the means by which a society governs its citizens, both inside and out of formal state mechanisms, is developed in Foucault's late thinking on “governmentality,” especially in “Subject,” “Governmentality,” and “Space.” Although Foucault never completed a revised model as such, these essays clearly aim to provide alternatives to the panoptical paradigm of Discipline and Punish. In my forthcoming book, Victorian Literature and the Victorian State, I argue that governmentality describes Victorian Britain's self-consciously liberal society better than does the more influential panoptical model. Nevertheless, the present discussion does not profess to offer an orthodox Foucauldian reading of any kind. Explaining these convergences takes us to the very heart of the novel's frustrated desire for order, authority, and individual purpose while, at the same time, providing a useful vantage on contemporaneous social reforms. Dickens's 1851 preface to Oliver Twist elucidates the extent to which the author had been influenced by the sanitary movement's comprehensive environmentalist logic. Sanitary reform, he insists, must “precede all other Social Reforms,” preparing for “Education” and “even for Religion” (qtd. in Butt and Tillotson 190–91). Here sanitary reform is an unquestionable priority, crucial to the moral and physical wellbeing of the nation's social body. Seemingly impervious to entrenched divides between laissez faire and interventionist politics, Dickens appears to make a strong statement on behalf of state pastorship. But it would be a mistake to infer from such remarks that Dickens had become a staunch proponent of the state's duty not only (negatively) to prevent wrong, but also (positively) to intervene in the lives of individuals and communities.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)525-553
Number of pages29
JournalVictorian Literature and Culture
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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