[The following is an abstract of a presentation at the 26th Dickens Society Symposium (12-14 July 2021). Many thanks to Sean Grass, Professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology and President of the Dickens Society, for providing the list of speakers and sending along to them our invitation to add abstracts of their presentations to the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow.]

In The Old Curiosity Shop, Mrs. Jarley's waxworks features an image of Mary Queen of Scots, which "in a dark wig, white shirt-collar, and male attire, was such a complete image of Lord Byron" that young ladies scream when they see the figure, as if encountering a nineteenth-century rock star. Their chaperone rebukes them, reminding Mrs. Jarley "that His Lordship had held certain free opinions, quite incompatible with waxwork honours." For Victorians like Dickens, the Romantic poets were to be both lauded as heroes and deplored for their loose morals, and no figure caused more consternation than Byron.

Though critics going back to Edgar Johnson have labelled James Steerforth in David Copperfield as a "Byronic" character, most commentary on Dickens's relationship with the Romantics has focused on his reimagining of poets in Bleak House, with Hunt as Skimpole, Landor as Boythorn, and Keats as Carstone.

A more fruitful line of inquiry can be found in analyzing how Dickens reimagined Lord Byron as Steerforth. Both figures were spoiled by doting mothers, lashed out at servants as children, became infamous for womanizing, and ultimately left England in scandal to die in the prime of life. In spite of all this, David remained in the thrall of Steerforth, just as the British public retained a fierce admiration for Byron. The tragedy of Steerforth re-enacts the ambivalent and highly charged relationship the Victorians had with the most notorious hero-villain of the Romantic era. The ambiguous portrayal of Steerforth, constantly viewed through the worshipful eyes of David, reflects a broader coming to terms with the past that Victorian Britain sought to undertake in re-evaluating the heroic but problematic legacy of the Romantic era.

Last modified 23 September 2010