Dr. J Andrew Hubbell
April 30, 2007
London’s Burgeoning Professionalism
Throughout the nineteenth century, British writers viewed London in a myriad of ways that has allowed the meaning of the city to develop along with the century. Yet within each of the ideologies presented by nineteenth-century British writers, two consistencies appear. The first is the existence of both a lower class and an upper, professional class in society; the second is the way in which literature utilizes individual characters to portray these larger aspects of society. Analyzing the evolution of these views through writings of Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson allows for a thorough cross-century view of social classes. These three literary artists show a vision of a London tied to its inhabitants, more fascinating when lower-classes are in focus, and fading into a backdrop as professionals take over the social consciousness.
Originally published in 1822, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater depicts the author’s life as an opium addict, first in the slums on London and later in the English countryside. De Quincey consciously chooses London as the ideal place to fulfill his young dreams, leaving a promising academic career to enter the city on his own (19). Here began “the latter and fiercer stage of my long-sufferings; without using a disproportionate expression I might say, for my agony,” that is, living in the city without employment or property (19). This also places De Quincey in the lowest of social status by choice, as he “found that I had nothing to hope for, not even a compromise of the matter, from my guardian: unconditional submission was what he demanded: and I prepared myself, therefore, for other measures” (10). Denying his guardian, De Quincey removed himself from his semi-comfortable life and consciously chose the pain of lower class London life.
When describing his early intrigue in the city, De Quincey gives attention to entire groups of lower-class citizens, taking it upon himself to view the world “as a Catholic creature, and as standing in an equal relation to high and to low – to educated and uneducated, to the guilty and the innocent” (24). This occurs first with various women he accompanies on their wanderings, and later in his opium days when he wandered “without much regarding the direction or distance, to all the markets, and other parts of London, to which the poor resort on a Saturday night, for laying out their wages” (53).
Although De Quincey focuses only on lower-class citizens even in his larger view of society, he narrows that focus down to two individuals the most important to him, who also happen to inhabit the lowest run of London’s society. The first individual De Quincey dotes upon is the young girl he shares an abandoned room with, whom he describes as “neither pretty, nor quick in understanding, nor remarkably pleasing in manners” (23). His affection for the girl stemmed instead from “plain human nature, in its humble and most homely apparel, was enough for me: and I loved the child because she was my partner is wretchedness” (23).
The class distinctions De Quincey makes in his Confessions are extraordinarily clear. Through valuing every bit of their aide toward his health and happiness, De Quincey shows greatest concern for the lowest, unemployed citizens of London. He champions their masses as “far more philosophic than the rich – that they show a more ready and cheerful submission to what they consider as irremediable evils, or irreparable losses” (53).
He continues on the vein of evils and losses by explaining how the “stream of London charity flows in a channel which, though deep and mighty, is yet noiseless and underground; not obvious or readily accessible to poor houseless wanderers,” complaining that “the outside air and frame-work of London society is harsh, cruel, and repulsive” (25). The environment of London is of special concern to lower class citizens because they lack the luxury of homes and money to shelter them from the literal and figurative atmosphere.
In stark contrast, he seems to disdain the upper class, most notably the gentlemen placed in charge of his upbringing after his father’s death. Their uptight society with its strict rules of conduct does little for De Quincey’s sense of adventure. In absolving himself of their regulation as soon and as easily as he possibly can, De Quincey also denies himself any means of gaining employment once in London as he lacked the wealth and recommendations required to gain employment (28).
Furthering this break with the upper, professional classes, De Quincey makes a special note to readers of his somewhat low birth, describing his father’s station in life and the situation that left him with unwanted guardians (28). Thus De Quincey’s narrative almost wholly champions the lowest of the lower class, even though he differentiates himself from “them” both in terms of the unemployed and the professional classes he encounters (53).
However he may have portrayed varying social classes, De Quincey represents London to readers as a place of (perhaps stereotypical) opportunity. Only in London is De Quincey able to reinvent himself without worrying over who and what he must live up to. Once he has chosen freedom in the city, De Quincey depicts other characters that have done the same, leaving behind potentially comfortable lives for the thrill and uncertainty of the urban slums.
In this manner De Quincey’s London is a venue for meeting and networking with others; a veritable coming-together of humans and industry to produce an amalgamation of every aspect of society. Despite the novel’s focal point on opium, De Quincey does not portray the drug as a unifying factor in the city; people network without impetus other than human necessity. The lower classes that De Quincey focuses on in the majority of his narrative value human interaction over social norms, which is exactly what the author hopes to gain in distancing himself from his cold (though well-meaning) guardians from the professional class.
Indeed, when De Quincey desires solidarity in 1813 after several years of his opium addiction, he cannot stay in London and instead moves to “a cottage, standing in a valley, 18 miles away from any town” (65). The hustle and bustle of endless crowds described earlier in his narrative subsides to a cottage in the countryside. Only here can De Quincey be alone with his vision; London’s excitement proves too much for one who seeks more than the human experience.
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist comes to London much in the same manner as De Quincey; the boy escapes his master and travels on foot, finding London by fortunate coincidence. This however places Oliver in London both by choice and by chance, and does not afford him the freedom that De Quincey so easily finds. Oliver must also be recognized as a fictional character of Dickens’ contrivance, a stark contrast to De Quincey’s narrative, no matter how changed De Quincey’s tale may be from the original truth.
Oliver, as an orphan, belongs to the lowest class of citizens from birth works to gain various forms of wealth, first in the workhouse, then with the Sowerberrys and with Fagin’s gang. Even the “condition approach[ing] as nearly to the one of perfect happiness as can ever be known in this changing world” bestowed upon Oliver at the conclusion of the novel cannot erase the years of unemployed and working-class toil so easily as De Quincey casts off his middle-class family (357).
For Dickens, Oliver represents an entire aspect of London society that has fallen beyond public help and struggles for life on a regular basis. Here the author does not need to focus on large groups of people to portray his message because his characters are able to function as icons, allowing his readers to most keenly “characterize themselves as part of a particular social or political group, and therefore to define themselves against other groups” (Huett 67). Fagin the thief, Mr. Brownlow the genial old gentleman, and the penny-pinching Mr. Sowerberry all signify types of people that would be familiar to his wide readership.
While Oliver may stand as Dickens’ main character and the book’s namesake; he does not function as a prominent social figure in most of the plot. The Bumbles and the Sowerberrys represent a professional class above that of Oliver so that even the dubious practices of the undertaker seem legitimate and professional in contrast to the orphan. Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies depict yet another social class seen as legitimate and professional, although the source of their affluence is never shown. Dickens here stresses “the growing importance of the ‘Man-of-Letters Hero’—the professional, the intellectual” as helping not only their rung of class society but those below them as well (Titolo 175). However, the philanthropy of the intellectual classes skips the working professionals and instead dotes upon the helpless classes such as Oliver and his innocent friends.
With this wide range of social classes represented in his novel, Dickens is able to portray more about class distinctions than was De Quincey. The professionals of Oliver Twist possess an “authority [that] is fully commodified,” giving them almost complete reign over those without professions (Titolo 182). Through one such act of their authority, philanthropy, Dickens shows a pity for the lower classes whose legitimate income fails to support them. The charity in Oliver Twist also recognizes an inherent ‘good’ in the majority of Dickens’ characters, allowing them favorable conclusions with the end of his novel. However, the good turns that allow Oliver Twist a stereotypically happy ending also take advantage of the upper classes as providing everything that is needed for less fortunate citizens to prosper. Without Mr. Brownlow, Oliver’s life would have taken a decidedly different turn.
Yet lower class citizens such as Fagin and Skies are described in a harsh light and are each given the gruesome death of hanging (Sikes on 340 and Fagin on 357) because they have chosen to go against societal laws and norms in turning to crime. While this may not explicitly differ from De Quincey’s love for the middle class, his narrative concentrated on poorly employed and unemployed individuals, rather than those who turned to wronging others in order to advance themselves.
Here Dickens portrays the city to itself much in the same light as De Quincey, as an opportunity to find one’s self, and as a gathering place of vastly differing people. Oliver Twist offers a much broader spectrum of social classes, as it has the advantage of being a fictional account instead of an autobiography. Much of this is summarized in Oliver’s thoughts as he travels through the countryside, finding that:
“The stone by which he was seated, bore, in the largest characters, an intimation that it was just seventy miles from that spot to London. The name awakened a new train of ideas in the boy’s mind. London!—that great large place!—nobody—not even Mr. Bumble—could ever find him there! He had often heard the other men in the workhouse, too, say that no lad of spirit need want in London; and that there were ways of living in the vast city, which those who had been bred in the country parts had no idea of” (53).
Dickens then adds to the meaning of London by portraying what appears as commonplace crime in a negative light, punishing Fagin and Sikes with gruesome deaths but offering redemption for the boys too innocent to truly understand their situation.
In contrast to both Dickens and De Quincey, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde portrays London merely as a backdrop to fantastical human events. The characters Stevenson invents inhabit London solely by chance, and perhaps due to this fact, there are no lower-class characters in the plot and those that do appear enjoy few, if any, freedoms.
Stevenson’s story takes an extremely individualistic look at Londoners, focusing on a handful of men and their professions. Indeed the story begins with “Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance,” immediately plunging the reader into the specifics of a man, profession, and personality (8). Unlike Dickens’ use of one person to represent a large group, Stevenson’s men contribute to the same social state and each present a difference facet of one place in society. The working men in Jekyll and Hyde define themselves and each other by profession, though in a respectable manner. Stevenson describes how Jekyll’s written will “offended [Utterson] both as a lawyer and as a lover of the sane and customary sides of life,” meaningfully stating the professional objection before the personal one (13).
To gentlemen such as Utterson and Jekyll, profession constitutes a great part of their consciousness. The protagonist’s title of “Henry Jekyll, M.D., D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S., &c.” takes professionalism to the extreme, but is seen as admirable rather than silly or ostentatious (13). Stevenson takes this emphasis on professionalism so far as to demote London to a mere backdrop to his character’s working lives. While a working knowledge of the city is not imperative to understand Stevenson’s plot, information about London aids readers in decoding the story’s message. Mr. Hyde may seem an untrustworthy fellow, but when he produces for Mr. Utterson an address in Soho, the negative connotation attached to the character increases if audiences understand Soho’s position in a disreputable part of the city (16).
Class distinctions within Stevenson’s novella are therefore difficult to discern, as the lower classes may stand as unimportant, or as an unrepresented threat. Although Mr. Hyde certainly occupies a lower social standing than his acquaintances and appears odd in part due to his lack of profession, “his behavior goes beyond the disreputable to become terrifyingly alien or subhuman” (Maynard 370).
As the character Mr. Enfield observes: “a man does not, in real life, walk into a cellar door at four in the morning and come out of it with another man’s cheque for close upon a hundred pounds” (Stevenson10). Here Mr. Hyde does not occupy the realm of the struggling lower-class citizens seen earlier in De Quincey’s and Dickens’ work, though only because the wealth of his other, Dr. Jekyll, is at his disposal.
If emphasizing middle-, working-class men and their obsessive professions were not enough for Stevenson, he introduces an upper-class man, Sir Danvers Carew, but only after the man’s death. As a witness explains, Sir Carew “bowed and accosted [Mr. Hyde] with a very pretty manner of politeness … it sometimes appeared as if he were only inquiring his way (21). While Mr. Hyde is identified as the murderer, clubbing the other man to death in the streets, this incident only intensifies Stevenson’s message that neither extreme courtesy nor extreme violence belong in the London of professional men.
In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the meaning of London has not fundamentally changed from De Quincey and Dickens’ era earlier in the century. The city as a place for meeting others, reinventing oneself, and becoming a professional is thoroughly represented in his working. However, Stevenson moves these meanings to the background and instead highlights the human and scientific achievements within London as most important. Writing characters as “relatively autonomous beings who would rise in society through their native capabilities and through demonstrations of competence in fields that were often highly competitive,” Stevenson negates the need for a city beyond a place that provides a public domain for professionals’ demonstrations and competitions (Maynard 366).
Once men are able to meet each other geographically and find a commonality in social-class and world understanding, their achievements become more important than their location. Better than lower-class families gathering at markets are professionals meeting to discuss their professions, as it gives importance to the triumph of man in specializing himself within the relatively new environment of the city.
As the nineteenth-century wore on, we see how authors focused less on characters within their writings, at the same time shifting attention from lower, unemployed inhabitants of the city to working men confident in their professions. As this attention moved to professionals, authors also devoted more time to describing just what these professionals did and how they interacted with each other and the city, rather than the city’s conduciveness to such activities. Perhaps because the thrill of the great city of London declined, authors focused more on human evolution within the location instead of the location itself.
De Quincey, Thomas. Ed. Barry Milligan. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2003.
Dickens, Charles. Ed. Fred Kaplan. Oliver Twist. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
Huett, Lorna. “Among the Unknown Public: Household Words, All the Year Round and the Mass-Market Weekly Periodical in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Victorian Periodicals Review 38.1 (2005) 61-82. Accessed 14 April 2007.
Maynard, Katherine Kearney. “The Perils and Pleasures of Professionalism in Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and Other Fictions.” The European Legacy 5.3 2000 365-384.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Ed. Katherine Linehan. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Norton Critical Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Titolo, Matthew. “The Clerk’s Tale: Liberalism, Accountability, and Mimesis in David Copperfield.” ELH 70.1 (2003) 171-195. Accessed 13 Apr 2007