“Curiously brought together” or “travelling surely hither”? Journeying from Bleak House to Little Dorrit

I’m currently revising a chapter on European travel in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, and have been pondering for the last couple of days the way in which, as in Bleak House, Dickens’s narrator suggests to us something of a framework for reading the patterns of mobility and interconnections in the novel. In the early pages of Little Dorrit, Miss Wade’s “cold farewell” to her fellow quarentined travellers at Marseilles comprises of these lines:

“In our course through life we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us, from many strange places and by many strange roads, and what is set to us to do to them, and what is set to them to do to us, will all be done.”

She follows,

“you may be sure that there are men and women already on their road, who have their business to do with you, and who will do it. Of a certainty they will do it. They may be coming hundreds, thousands, of miles over the sea there; they may be close at hand now; they may be coming, for anything you know, or anything you can do to prevent it, from the vilest sweepings of this very town.”

And after this, we then get another iteration of this sentiment by the narrator on the next page:

“And thus ever, by day and night, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life.”

Coming from reading Bleak House, these lines immediately call to mind that novel’s central statement on the narrative interconnections that arise from mobility: “what connexion can there be […] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!” In both novels there’s a sense of “great gulfs” being crossed, of travel providing the means for endless possibilities of curious connections. Yet in Bleak House the statement rings as an open question that is never fully answered – what connection can there be?, we are constantly led to ask, the novel constantly entertaining that sense of curiousity such that the limitless possibilities of chance encounters remain an on-going possibility until the end.

But by Little Dorrit this seems to have shifted away from the openness of random interactions towards a greater sense of inevitability: while the narrator’s iteration entertains the more random sense of travellers going “to meet and to act and react on one another” (I have a mental image with that phrase of atoms bobbing about in a jar…), Miss Wade’s words emphasise the idea of individuals being drawn specifically to one another by a magnetic pull – “we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us” and “who have their business to do with you” both stressing the fated nature of encounters. Little Dorrit seems to recognise that the limitless possibilities afforded by travel is only a conceit; the freedom of the multiple open roads ahead is but an illusion, and all journeys have their appointed end.

On the one hand, this reads like the self-conciousness of a writer who knows that the apparent chance encounters of the novel are of course intricately plotted and pre-planned; the narrative of Little Dorrit does away with much of the illusion of randomness that Bleak House so relishes in, in part because the pared-down cast affords less opportunities for characters to “meet and act and react” on one another in unexpected ways, and because the narrative resolution inescapably rests upon tight plotting. Little Dorrit might be less complexly plotted, but it’s also more assured in not working to conceal the networks on which the narrative depends.

But there’s also a shift here in the possibilities of place afforded through movement. Some 100 or so pages later in Little Dorrit, Dickens returns again to a recapitulation of this phrase: as Affrey dreams one night, the narrator asks

“which of the vast multitude of travellers […] journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and re-act on one another, which of the host may, with no suspicion of the journey’s end, be travelling surely hither?”

That “hither” is a vital inclusion in this latter phrase: now we have not just the idea of fated interactions, but a specific locatedness that draws all possibilities of journeying towards a particular time and place. The openness that Bleak House entertains in its phrase “curiously brought together” has now completely gone: all is travelling towards a particular moment that can be located in place and time – heading towards a vanishing-point. This is of course the final resolution that the novel reaches: as Clennam reflects,

“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 […] beyond there was nothing but mere waste, and darkened sky”

Everything has its time, place and meaning, its moment that makes sense of everything. What’s perhaps most interesting about this plotted inevitability is that it underscores and further iterates the confinement throughout the novel, resisting the possibility to break free from the literal and figurative bonds that pervade Little Dorrit. But I’m still curious as to what this does to the sense of place and mobility in the novel: why this insistence on locatedness and on drawing everything into an end-point, and what does this tell us about the novel’s handling of movement and mobile cultures? Is Dickens suggesting the entrapment of a modernity that purports to provide limitless freedom? or something more to do with the changing sense of space that is emerging through new mobile networks? And what is the effect of this on how we read the novel’s enclosed spaces throughout the text?

Contact and Connection: Travel and Mobility Studies Symposium, 27th June

On Thursday 27th June 2013, the Travel and Mobility Studies Research Network is holding its first symposium on the theme of “Contact and Connections”. We are delighted that keynote presentations will be given by Dr Cathy Waters (University of Kent) and Professor Tim Youngs (Nottingham Trent University), and invite submissions for papers as per the cfp below.

Full details about the Network and symposium are on the website.


Submissions are invited for the first annual symposium of the University of Warwick Travel and Mobility Studies Research Network, on the theme of “Contact and Connections”.

The symposium aims to address the various connections and forms of contact produced through different forms and representations of travel practice. How does travel connect cultures? What new cultural formations are produced through the process of travel? What are the implications of connection across local, national and global mobile networks? How does travel connect people to the spaces around them and through which they move? What new theoretical connections are produced through the intersections of travel and mobility theory with other disciplines?

Proposals are welcome from researchers working across the arts, humanities and social sciences, including such subjects as travel literature (fiction and non-fiction), the visual arts, tourism studies, migration and migrants, commodity circulation, transnationality, philosophies of travel, and mobility theory in any historical period and within any global context.

Topics might include:

– Cultural connections forged through travel

– Contact zones in colonial contexts

– Intra-national and local networks of mobility

– Global networks and transnationality

– Connections within and between literature, visual arts, and other cultural modes

– Circulation of people, commodities, texts

– Connections between people and places

– Theoretical connections within travel studies

– Touristic connections with spaces of travel

– Meeting points and places of contact

Please send abstracts of 300 words for a 15-20 minute paper by 26th April 2013; acceptance will be confirmed by 3rd May.

Contact Charlotte Mathieson c.e.mathieson@warwick.ac.uk or Tara Puri T.Puri@warwick.ac.uk

Very much looking forward to joining in this project of reading Wilkie Collins’s No Name week by week – I’ve never read the novel (although it’s been on my bookshelf for several years), and am intrigued to see how the experience of reading for the first time in weekly installments plays out over the course of many months, especially since, as Pete points out, Collins is all about the fine details and plot twists. I’m also wondering how I’ll curb my impatience to skip ahead at crucial moments – if my experience of reading other Collins novels is anything to go by, then I’m sure the temptation to grab my copy off the bookshelf will be strong at times!

Collins No Name Reading Project

Following on from our successful A Tale of Two Cities reading and blogging project last year, join us to read Wilkie Collins’s No Name week-by-week, as the novel’s first readers did, in Charles Dickens’s weekly journal All the Year Round. We’ll follow this sensational tale of illegitimacy, deception, disguise and revenge through its regular short weekly instalments for 45 weeks. We start on Friday 15 March 2013 (to coincide with the 1862 publication date) and we’ll read our final instalment on the week of 17 January 2014. Participants can read the instalments in their magazine form via Dickens Journals Online and we’ll share our responses in an online reading group/blog.

You can find the weekly instalments on the Dickens Journals Online site by clicking here

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