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Dickens, disgust and the mother: the 'autobiographical' novels

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posted on 2022-03-29, 00:42 authored by Shale Preston
This thesis offers new pathways into the novels of Charles Dickens which contain extended first-person narratives (David Copperfield, Bleak House and Great Expectations) with reference to the only piece of autobiographical writing that Dickens is known to have produced. This manuscript which covers the early years of Dickens's life has not survived and is something of a mystery. As John Bowen notes: "We do not know for certain when it was written, how long it was, or how much of Dickens's life it treated."₁ Nevertheless, it would appear that it was written around 1847 and regardless of its length and scope, it clearly expresses Dickens's anguish at having been put to work as a child in Warren's Blacking warehouse after his father was arrested for debt and taken to the Marshalsea Prison. Originally intended to form part of an autobiography, the piece (now known as the autobiographical fragment) was instead put to use in a transmuted form in Dickens's novel David Copperfield and much later after Dickens's death, was incorporated in John Forster's The Life of Charles Dickens. -- Dating from the publication of Edmund Wilson's seminal article "Dickens: The Two Scrooges"₂ in 1941, critics have turned to the autobiographical fragment to produce a range of psycho-biographical trauma thesis readings of Dickens's fiction but in more recent years some critics have actively questioned this line of approach and have sought instead to produce other less trauma focused readings of Dickens's work. Whilst appreciating the reasons behind such a critical shift, I cannot help but share Lawrence J Clipper's view (albeit expressed in 1981) that "the exegesis of Dickens's works from this biographical perspective has not gone far enough."₃ Indeed, what could arguably be described as one of the most important aspects of the autobiographical fragment - the rhetoric of implicit disgust which underlies the depiction of Dickens's mother, Elizabeth Dickens - has largely been overlooked. Accordingly, this thesis will seek to tease out this aspect of the autobiographical fragment and will suggest that the rhetoric of implicit disgust which underpins the portrait of Elizabeth Dickens is actually replicated in the portraits of the protagonists' mothers within Dickens's 'autobiographical' novels. The rhetorical link between the portraits is interrogated through close textual analysis which draws upon the aetiology of disgust. Whilst a range of writers within different fields have sought to understand the affect of disgust, this study will show that Mary Douglas's anthropological understanding of pollution and Julia Kristeva's psychoanalytic concept of abjection provide the most profitable exegetic tools to explore the anti-maternal rhetoric within Dickens's 'autobiographical' novels.


Table of Contents

1. The boy, the warehouse, the mother and the autobiographical fragment -- 2. The aetiology of disgust -- 3. Awful Agnes: the construction of the feminine sublime in David Copperfield -- 4. Punishing the perpetrators in effigy: the defacement of Esther Summerson in Bleak House -- 5. Weapons of male destruction: the case for the hero's disgust in Great expectations -- 6. Postscript: Dickens, death, limit experience and the pleasure of killing Nancy.


Bibliography: p. 300-314

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD), Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Dept. of English

Department, Centre or School

Dept. of English

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

John Stephens

Additional Supervisor 1

Virginia Blain


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Shale Preston 2010. Complete version suppressed for copyright reasons. However, on receipt of a Document Supply Request, placed with Macquarie University Library by another library, we will consider supplying a copy of this thesis. For more information on Macquarie University’s Document Supply, please contact




viii, 314 p

Former Identifiers

mq:10028 1420154