—> "Discussion Questions for Kathleen Tillotson's 'Novels of the Eighteen-Forties' (1955)"

These questions were originally created for English 394: The Victorian Novel from Dickens to Hardy, at the University of British Columbia, Summer Session Two, 1989. They have been augmented with pertinent excerpts from Tillotson's seminal criticism of the early Victorian novel for English 3412 (Victorian Fiction), Lakehead University, January through May 2004. For additional questions click on the "Contexts" icon at the foot of the screen.

Question 11. Part Eleven: Introductory (pp. 48-50)

Above: Various artists' interpretations of Scrooge's encounter with the Third Spirit at his own grave in Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Stave IV, by John Leech (1843), Sol Eytinge, Jr. (1867), Harry Furniss (1910), and George Cattermole's The Spirit's Flight — The soul of Little Nell ascending, 6 February 1841. [Click on the images to enlarge it.]

Oh my dear Dickens! what a No. 5 you have given us! I have so cried and sobbed over it last night, and gain this morning; and felt my heart purified by those tears . . . . Since that divine Nelly [Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop] . . . there has been nothing like it. Every trait so true and so touching . . . and yet lightened by that fearless innocence . . . .

Right: George Cattermole's version of the most famous death in Victorian literature, the 30 January 1841 tailpiece for Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop in Master Humphrey's Clock, Part 42, At Rest (Nell dead), page 210. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The writer is Lord Jeffrey, the same who had scarified Wordsworth's Excursion in The Edinburgh Review. Something may discounted for his nationality, and something for his years — he as now seventy-five — but on the whole, this is the response typical of Dickens's first readers. 2 And it is certainly not the response of a modern [i. e., 20th century] reader. The question suggests itself, How far are we, or how far is Dickens at fault — and not only Dickens but his first public? Our response is not of course peculiar to our own century: among the Victorians there were a few dry-eyed resisters.

Left: Phiz's light-hearted scene between Paul's sister Florence and his dog, Diogenes, in Chapter XVIII contrasts the dolorous scene of Paul's untimely death in Dickens's Dombey and Son (March 1847). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

. . . . Fitzjames Stephen complained that Dickens 'gloats . . . touches, tastes, smells, and handles as if [the death of Little Nell] were some savoury dainty'. 1 Walter Bagehot in 1858 criticized Dickens's "fawning fondness" for "dismal scenes"; 2 Ruskin in 1880 accused him of killing Little Nell as a butcher kills a lamb, for the market. 3 by the late nineteenth century the resistance seems to have been pretty general, judging from Gissing's cautious defence of Little Nell'd death-bed in 1900. . . . We have also to bear in mind our other modern inhibitions, especially our inarticulateness on the subject of death (represented in 'No flowers. No letters'). The absence of a context for death in modern life, the lack of a setting of common belief — all this must impoverish its treatment in literature and tghe social impact of any treatment it receives. All that our own fiction can put beside the death of little Paul is the long-drawn clinical horror of death of little Phil from tubercular meningitis in Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point. [pp. 48-50]

Notes (p. 48)

1 Lord Cockburn, The Life of Lord Jeffrey (1852), ii. 406-7.

2 'We envy not the man who can read for the first time the account of the death of little Paul Dombey with a heart unmoved and an eye tearless' The Sun, 13 April 1848); and see p. 52, n. 3 below.

Notes (p. 49)

1 "The Relations of Novels to Life," Cambridge Essay . . . 1855, p. 175.

2 Literary Studies, ii, 188-9 ('Charles Dickens', 1858).

Question Eleven: Victorian Readers' Reactions to Death in a Novel

How was the typical Victorian reader's response to death in a work of fiction (a short story, novella, or novel) different from that of reader in our own day? What might account for such a different response in our century?


Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. Oxford: Clarendon, 1955, rpt. 1983.

Created 25 December 2004

Last modified 21 January 2024