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“A Visit to Newgate” by Charles Dickens Essay

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Updated: Oct 12th, 2021

A Visit to Newgate is a short story, a part of the Sketches by Boz collection. In this short story, Dickens portrays his life and his time, values of the society and its traditions. A Visit to Newgate suggests that where Dickens rejected earlier sketches it was not merely for lack of space; though it may of course have been thought advisable to attract readers by the inclusion of some unpublished material.

On the whole, it seems fair to regard work published by the beginning of November and omitted from the First Series of Sketches by Boz as deliberately rejected; though sketches published later might be left out simply for lack of space, since the new ones were by then already written. One published as late as 27 December 1835 was in fact included, but probably as an afterthought–‘Christmas Festivities’ (Fielding 44). There is no juxtaposition of sketches alike in subject matter; if there is any principle at work it is rather the emphasizing of variety. The second volume is slightly less miscellaneous in character, since ‘tales’ predominate (five old and two new), the other contents being two ‘Street Sketches’, four ‘Sketches of London’, and one ‘Scenes and Characters’.

A Visit to Newgate vividly portrays the social life and mores of people. A democratic tendency in education, politics, and economics resulted in a growing range of readers in the Victorian period. This growth, both in a number of readers and in a range of social, educational, and economic backgrounds they represented, propelled the variety of forms and prices for fiction as much as did develop technology and reforms in taxation on paper and print. The chapter begins as ‘THE force of habit’ is a trite phrase in everybody’s mouth” (Dickens 191).

Dickens portrays that with education reforms, increases in population, better and cheaper forms of printing, and economies of scale came to an increase in the amount of printed fiction that became available (the number of titles, the number of copies, and the range of literary quality) and in the variety of forms and prices that fiction took. Given the fraught condition of definition with which one is faced, it may equally be tempting to suggest that all novels are political, though all are not equally so. It might be said that some novels are born political, some become political, others have the political thrust upon them (Fielding 49).

An added footnote in ‘A Visit to Newgate’ explains that conditions have changed since the sketch was first published; on the other hand, another footnote complimenting Ainsworth on his portrayal of Dick Turpin in Rookwood, introduced since the first edition, is removed. The hinted prospect of further stories about Newgate’s goes out since the tally of Dickens’s early stories was now complete, and the collection would not be further enlarged.

This account of Dickens’s revisions is by no means exhaustive, and has been almost confined to points of substance; but it is enough to show that the suppression of the original versions in modern editions brings some loss of understanding, both of Dickens’s methods and of the very nature of the original sketches, which critics have followed Dickens rather than Forster in underrating (Newlin 132). The establishment of a critical text of the Sketches by Boz is surely a prerequisite for a true estimate of these ‘first sprightly runnings of his genius’. Dickens writes: The girl belonged to a class–unhappily but too extensive” (Dickens 195).

The mood of amusement in A Visit to Newgate is controlled by the principle that the fascination of everyday scenes has only to be recognized to be enjoyed. Pleasure is thus dependent on the disposition of the beholder; whether he be participant, spectator, or entertainer himself, a person’s enjoyment arises from his own readiness to respond to the abundance and variety of stimuli available. From this perspective, nothing is more ridiculous and self-defeating than willful taciturnity.

Conversely, the truest delight is to be gained by looking about in a spirit of cheerful speculation. Nowhere is this more evident than in ‘Meditations on Monmouth Street’, in which imagination magically transforms a somnolent scene, as Dickens conjures up a fanciful pantomime of living characters while staring at second-hand clothing hung up for sale (Fielding 65).

The source of interest was, he believed, inherent in the scenes themselves; as he said in the preface to the first series, A Visit to Newgate consisted of ‘little pictures of life and manners as they really are. Certainly, much of the appeal of the sketches resides in this evocation of reality; again and again, Dickens’s first readers praised his writing for the vividness and accuracy with which he animated familiar sights. As one early reviewer put it, ‘His excellence appears to lie in describing just what everybody sees every day. “Worn with watching and excitement, he sleeps, and the same unsettled state of mind pursues him in his dreams. (Dickens 204).

As a consequence of these attitudes, it follows that in ‘A Visit to Newgate’ entertainment is seen as an integral part of everyday life. It offers an extension of the fascination found in more mundane activity, differing only in that it caters specifically to amusement, whereas the pleasure derived elsewhere is generally incidental to the purported rationale of buying, selling, or getting from one place to another. Observing people going to the circus, theatre, or fair, and the people who do the entertaining in those places, Dickens finds bustle, noise, and absurdity, just as in more workaday situations. What he does not see to any significant extent is entertainment divorced from or in conflict with the social patterns he presents (Fielding 81).

So the nineteenth century was set off from earlier eras by the complex of social changes associated with the Industrial Revolution: the unprecedented urban development, the transformation of the English economy from a rural to an industrial base, and the breakdown of old relationships between employer and employee.. And, looking back over the cultural production of the nineteenth century, we can see that the dominant mode in which to engage in such explorations became the novel, primarily because of its capacity to integrate imaginative accounts of many diverse characters and events, to create an imagined community that spanned the dividing constructs of class in a manner relatively accessible to an ever-increasing literate audience. Dickens goes on to further establish the principle of connection that he has evoked to call for reform of social problems specific to urban society (Fielding 76).

Critics admit that one form of revision was simply mechanical: the removal of the original ‘series’ heading, and where necessary, as in the ‘Parish’ sketches, the provision of a new title. Almost equally formal was the re-paragraphing; the newspaper column was usually broken into only a few paragraphs. It is possible that this affected the original calculation of material to be included, and dictated some of the cuts (Newlin 132).

The material omitted from the sketches and tales would almost make a small volume on its own, and it is extraordinary that no attempt has been made to recover it for modern readers. It is not of course all of the equal interest; but no one who has read it would willingly lose the first half of the sketch of ‘The Prisoners’ Van’, a passage not only exceptionally racy and vivid but providing the best early example of Dickens’s trick of dealing with low life in a detached and whimsical style. Setting this besides other changes, one is tempted to wonder whether discretion sometimes dictated the omission of a closing paragraph (Fielding 71).

And lest his interest appears merely frivolous Dickens leavened the volume with a few sketches which examined scenes decidedly not entertaining. These were tales of degradation, abandonment, and death, and Dickens’s letters show that he set great store by them. Two, ‘A Visit to Newgate’ and ‘The Black Veil’, were composed specifically for the first collected edition, and a third, ‘The Drunkard’s Death’, was written with ‘great pains’ for the second series, to appear in the final position in the sequence (Fielding 46).

Although privately he wrote to Catherine Hogarth that visiting the prisons had supplied him with ‘lots of anecdotes…some of them rather amusing, in the essays themselves he was explicit in rejecting amusement as an appropriate response. They were evidently quite gratified at being thought worth the trouble of looking at; their idea appeared to be” (Dickens 207). Like the majority of the sketches, the dark essays were based on observation and inspired by ‘curiosity (199), but in disclaiming entertainment they stand in sharp contrast to the dominant mood of the book and serve thereby to discriminate the morally acceptable range of experience conducive to pleasure (Newlin 152).

The air of reality depends crucially, of course, on the quality of Dickens’s prose style and on his mediating presence as narrator in the sketches, genially guiding our attention to scenes of interest and pointing out colorful and amusing details.

Modern commentators have insisted upon the artifice with which this impression of reality is created. t ‘A Visit to Newgate’ is distinctive in the ‘rhetorical relationship’ which Dickens establishes with the reader in order to distill the ‘essence’ of a scene; The dynamic interrelation of spectator and spectacle means that the quality of the experience is to be found, as Wordsworth proclaimed in ‘Tintern Abbey’, in ‘what they half create,/And what perceive’ (Newlin 132).

In sum, Newgate shows readers what is missing from Saintsbury’s account of the novel, and from the “entire possible ground” of a normative, middle-class kind of novel: radical, demotic, disruptive, even pathological styles and energies of narration, surfacing in these new, unrespectable genres from urban popular culture. It is no reflection on the intrinsic quality of a genre or individual work, meanwhile, that it did not perpetuate itself in a tradition.

The didactic version of domestic fiction would remain a strong tradition well into the Victorian period, especially in association with the dissenting and radical journalism that flourished after the 1832 Reform Act. New periodicals, aimed at middle-class and even working-class readers, carried fiction in aid of social-reformist causes, and they proved especially hospitable to women writers, who were able to engage in public debate under the cloak of journalistic anonymity.

Works Cited

  1. Dickens, Ch. Sketches by Boz. Books, Inc., 1868.
  2. Fielding, K. J.; Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction. Green, 1958.
  3. Newlin, G. Every Thing in Dickens: Ideas and Subjects Discussed by Charles Dickens in His Complete Works. Greenwood Press, 1996.
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