Was it need, or cupidity, or a sense of duty, or sincere, if ill judged, artistic adventurousness that induced Dickens in his maturity to write "Tom Tiddler's Ground" and "A Holiday Romance"? (Collins, "Charles Dickens," Victorian Fiction, 109)

In the case of "Hunted Down," a first-person narrative in the manner of Wilkie Collins, the motivation was decidedly pecuniary. "Its subject has been taken from the life of a notorious criminal . . ., and its principal claim to notice was the price paid for it. For a story not longer than half of one of the numbers of Chuzzlewit or Copperfield , he had received a thousand pounds" (Forster 344). For John Forster, the installment of a novel was worth more aesthetically than a short story, representative of a genre that he seems to regard as an inferior. In fact, Dickens's biographers from Forster to Ackroyd have paid scant attention to "Hunted Down," aside from the large sum paid for it and the possible connection between the story's antagonist and such real-life models as the poisoners Thomas Wainewright. Another notorious criminal who may have sat for the story's villainous Slinkton, according to Philip Collins, is "[Dr.] Palmer of Rugeley — another wholesale murderer of persons.

According to Forster's Life (344), Dickens was offered £1000 for the short story by the New York Ledger , which ran it in three installments: 20 and 27 August and 3 September, 1859. A year later Dickens reprinted it in All the Year Round. Willoughby Matchett suggests that the poisoner was also the original for Rigaud Blandois in Little Dorrit : "Each [rascal] was vain of his hands, and took pains to display them to advantage" (335). But Julius Slinkton is Dickens's "most direct presentation . . . of Wainewright at the age of forty" (335). According to Malcolm Morley, Dickens had met Wainewright just before his arrest and trial, not for the poisoning of 21-year-old Helen Abercromby, one of his wife's stepsisters, but on charges of forgery made eleven years before. According to both Dickens's own letters and Philip Collins in Dickens and Crime , in company with Macready, Forster, and Ainsworth, Dickens saw Wainewright in Newgate on 27 June, 1837. Born in 1794, Wainewright would have been 43 when he stood trial at the Old Bailey on 5 July, 1837. While Slinkton avoids human justice in the manner of Jonas Chuzzlewit (indeed, as Philip Collins notes in Dickens and Crime , once again in Dickens suicide "cut[s] short" the life of the wicked), the real-life poisoner upon whom he seems to have been principally modeled cheated the gallows. Transported to Hobart Town, Van Dieman's Land, Wainewright died in hospital of his opium addiction in 1852. The character of Meltham is apparently derived from a secretary who had fallen in love with the murdered girl in the Wainewright case.

Dickens had also been fascinated by the strange and sensation case of Dr. William Palmer, "The Rugely Poisoner" as the press called him. and especially by the psychology of the killer. Not a common thug, Dr. Palmer was a respectable professional man and scientist who murdered his own family for the life-insurance money. In order to cover his Staffordshire racing debts, Palmer even began poisoning his associates of the turf. The London papers covered the trial in detail; "The Alleged Poisonings at Rugely" in The Times published each day's transcript. The prisoner's demeanor is described as being cool, controlled; he responds, according to accounts, in a clear, audible tone and with a clear countenance, "Not guilty." His seeming innocence masked a deep-seated savagery; his veneer of tranquility was calculated, determined, and consistent throughout the trial--his inner anxiety betrayed only by the agitation of his hands (a trait we see in another accused in Dickens: John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood ). When the jury delivered its verdict of "Guilty" after one hour and seventeen minutes, Dr. Palmer was interested but unmoved. It might have been another's trial and another's death sentence he had heard--but for his compulsively toying with his gloves. Dickens published an article on the trial in Household Words on 14 June, 1856. In the essay, it is Palmer's demeanor throughout the trial that fascinates Dickens, who notes the fact of the poisoner's "complete self-possession, of his constant coolness, of his profound composure, of his perfect equanimity." Remarks Peter Ackroyd in his biography of Dickens, "Curiously, this is also a description which Dickens liked to give of himself" (768).

And yet, for all its basis in fact and its importance in shaping such gentleman-villains as Compeyson in Great Expectations , Andrew Lang has described "Hunted Down" as "this improbable little anecdote" (iii), and Ackroyd has dismissed it as "not in itself a particularly memorable piece of fiction, except perhaps for its demonstration of Dickens's general fascination with the idea of murder and his particular interest in the case of Thomas Wainewright" (864-65). However, it is neither its improbability nor its caricature of the infamous poisoner, but rather its unreliable--even devious--narrator that strikes the modern reader as its salient feature. Whereas the narrators of Dickens's David Copperfield (1849-50) and Great Expectations (1860-61) exemplify the reliable first-person narrator, the narrator of "Hunted Down," written between these two pseudo-autobiographical novels, transcends the usual limitations of this narrative stance (bias and memory) in actively misleading and mystifying his reader/auditor. While the reader's natural tendency in dealing with first-person narrative is, as William Riggan suggests, "to grant our speaker the full credibility possible" (19), Dickens challenges his reader to construct meaning out of apparent unmeaning and to usurp the role of the narrator. In this, Dickens is both imitating Collins's "testamentary" narrative in The Moonstone (1868), and anticipating the distancing first-person narratives of Conrad. As with Collins's novels and Conrad's Marlow narratives, in "Hunted Down" the reader finds that "that which goes unsaid is frequently seen to be as significant as that which is said" (Riggan 182). The challenge of "Hunted Down" is to appreciate the narrator's tantalizing prevarication while simultaneously looking beyond what the narrator is prepared to divulge in order to anticipate hidden truths.

The title points to the story's chief movement, the inexorable hunting down of a heartless predator. Indeed, Dickens had characterized the story as "Devoted to the Destruction of a man, Revenge built up on love" (Forster 376). As we have seen, the unraveling of the mystery is closely associated with the stripping away of disguises. We learn that Slinkton's "dying" victim Beckwith is, in fact, Meltham; that Slinkton is a killer prepared to cheat human justice by using his poison on himself; and that the narrator throughout the story has been less than honest with both Slinkton and his auditor. The narrator tells the story from the Conradian stance of one who has "retired, and live[s] at ease" (1). Hence, his manner of telling a story illustrative of the truth behind physiognomy is rambling, disconnected, and erratic. The fourth paragraph, where the reminiscence proper begins, seems off topic: what could the study of physiognomy have to do with what the narrator paradoxically terms "one of these Romances of the real world" (1). His tale, then, flies in the face of expectation, not only because it is not the prosaic and businesslike anecdote one expects from a crusty capitalist, but also because one does not normally associate adventure ("romance"), the province of youth, with a senior man of commerce. In his discussion of Bleak House Peter Ackroyd notes a similar tension, a balance between fact and marvel, reality and grotesquerie, sense and romance — a balance which for some reason seems quintessentially of the mid-nineteenth century when all forms of scientific and historical enquiry were discovering the marvelous within the domain of the familiar. (645)

The narrator is ingenuous, asserting on the one hand that he has been taken in by the appearances of friends and acquaintances, and on the other hand that his "first impression of those people, founded on face and manner alone, was invariably true" (2). The narrator, then, seems to be counseling cool detachment rather than passionate engagement when he remarks that judgment based on physiognomy alone can be subverted by close acquaintance: "My mistake was in suffering them to come nearer to me and explain themselves away" (2). Alienated from feeling, affection, and sympathy as well as from direct contact with "strangers" by his office's "thick plate glass," the Life Assurance Manager maintains a physical isolation inconsistent with the implications of "romance" with which the story opened. The partition, he tells the reader, is his own particular contrivance for maintaining the necessary distance from which to judge would-be clients and to detect the "crafty and cruel of the human

Perhaps the narrative voice reflects the fact that Dickens, ever a Romantic, was himself 47 when he wrote this story, and the year before had broken off his marriage for an affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan. That Slinkton appropriates youth and severs his connection with a female relative to secure his own comfort must have rendered him a figure with whom Dickens unconsciously identified himself. One senses that the figure of Slinkton is "haunted by Dickens's troubled consciousness of ambiguities within himself" (Johnson 2; 1071). As yet, the narrator has held himself aloof from the reader, not committing his name until his dialogue with his clerk, Mr. Adams.

What Riggan terms the "seductive" and "perilous" nature of the reader's "sustained intimacy with the narrator" (34) is precisely Dickens's subtext in "Hunted Down." Since a first-person narrative "carries with it an inherent quality of realism and conviction based on a claim to firsthand experience and knowledge," it is conducive to "a substantial veracity" (Riggan 18) in the reader's consciousness. The reader tends to lose his objectivity as he becomes more intimate and familiar with the first-person narrative. Just as Collins in The Moonstone and Conrad in Lord Jim emphasize the limitations inherent in the first-person narrator's perceptions, interpretations, and memories, even when the narrator is as conscientious as Betteredge or Marlow, so in "Hunted Down" Dickens explores the unreliability of a superficially trustworthy persona. Even the most veracious tale-teller is subject to errors in perception and recall and the one who tells a tale to sustain reader interest is more than usually suspect. Dickens advises the reader to discard "conventional" (3) thinking in evaluating human nature: "Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance, any day of the week, if there is anything to be got by it" (3). A gentleman remarkably well-spoken and possessing insinuating manners and the prepossessing appearance of a clergyman nevertheless may be a ruthless savage underneath.

Slinkton's keen interest in the insurance profession's loss of "Poor Mr. Meltham" (6) seems odd when one considers that Slinkton insists that he knows the young agent by reputation alone. Slinkton knows that Sampson must be in a position to offer him information about his late niece's fiance, even though the narrator does not confide in the reader that he does indeed have a prior relationship with Meltham. Surely Slinkton's enquiry is founded on some suspicion that Meltham's withdrawal from society may somehow threaten his scheme to use the insurance money to procure the respectable status of a (Church of England rector). The narrator's reporting this conversation appears to be (but is not) a mere digression. It signals Slinkton's awareness that in the societal jungle he is a predator about to be hunted down. But Sampson lulls Slinkton's suspicions of Meltham as he deludes his auditor. The conversation, in fact, makes sense only after one has read the whole story. At that point the reader becomes reasonably sure that Slinkton's mentioning Meltham to Sampson was not mere coincidence but calculated espionage. Only after Meltham's true identity is revealed do the narrator's mentioning an early morning visitor entertained at his "bedside (10), the five-minute conversation with the elderly invalid on the beach, the narrator's peculiar interrogation of Miss Niner shortly afterward, "the figure of an active young man" (14) who helps her up the Scarborough cliffs, and the "defensive weapon" (15) he secretly clutches in his pocket as the fourth part closes make any sense.

Although Meltham remains a shadowy figure for most of the story, "Hunted Down" implicitly concerns the hunter as well as the hunted. Dickens "never outgrew his fondness for the amateur detectives, who can, of course enjoy the fictional advantage of being emotionally involved with the victim or the villain" ( Dickens and Crime 241). However, whereas his mystery-writer colleague Wilkie Collins often chooses to put the reader in a detective's shoes (as in The Woman in White and No Name), Dickens here chooses to keep his reader further in the dark; in "Hunted Down" the mystery lies in the telling rather than in the events told.

The duality of the outward, specious shape of the narrative and what is actually happening beneath that confusing surface is reflected in "the recurrence . . . of Dickens's formulae" of Slinkton's "gravel-walk": "Again, the man who seems a poor victim, and is really a mortal foe on the watch, is an habitual formula of Dickens's fancy" (Lang iii). The formulaic description of Slinkton also serves, of course, as a continual reminder that "nothing is but what is not," that things are not always what they seem, but paradoxically reinforces Dickens's notion about there being some element in the physiognomy that betrays the criminal type (that, in other words, some things are precisely what our intuitions tell us they are).

The chief preoccupation of Dickens in "Hunted Down," however, seems to the playing of what a reader in the latter part of the twentieth century would colloquially term "mind games" within the text (so that Slinkton, the predator, becomes the prey of Sampson and Meltham) as well as with the reader. Continually, Dickens has his narrator tantalize the reader with unexplained details, so that the reader feels a suspense generated not so much by the plot itself as by the vagaries of the narrative.

The story concludes with a twist reminiscent of the short stories of Wilkie Collins. Sadly, for all Dickens's innovative handling of the first person narrator, Slinkton fails to fascinate as Collins's villains do. For all his egocentricity, scorn of conventional morality (as suggested by his desire to take orders), and fastidiousness of dress, Dickens's villain remains very much a stereotype. Whereas his oft described hair-parting renders Slinkton a caricature, Collins's villains impress by their intelligence, cunning, sophistication, and quirky individuality.

At the time that Dickens wrote "Hunted Down," he was very well acquainted with the early fiction of Wilkie Collins. The two writers had first met in March, 1851, and since April, 1852, Dickens had published "A Terribly Strange Bed" in Household Words , he had appreciated the younger writer's style and plotting. By the time that Dickens received the lucrative offer from The New York Ledger , he had published Collins's A Rogue's Life (1-29 March, 1856) and The Dead Secret (3 January-13 June, 1857) in Household Words, and was about to launch The Woman in White in his new journal, All the Year Round (26 November, 1859, through 25 August, 1860). Although the pair had collaborated on the drama The Frozen Deep[ in 1856, Dickens had remained almost as conservative as ever in matters of psychological and feminine portraiture as Collins became more and more experimental in these areas. Miss Niner in "Hunted Down," for example, remains a pallid pawn beside the willful, intelligent heroines of Collins's fiction. She is essentially the powerless female in distress that Dickens had inherited from the late eighteenth-century Gothic Novel.

In the Dickens canon, "Hunted Down" falls between two of Dickens's shorter novels, the weekly serials A Tale of Two Cities (in All the Year Round, 30 April through 26 November, 1859) and the first-person confessional Great Expectations (1 December, 1860, through 3 August, 1861). Like both novels, "Hunted Down" explores the fact that, beneath the civilised veneer, always lurks the impulse towards violence; like those novels, the short story is permeated with a sense of mystery; and like those novels, it arrives at a sensational denouement through the operation of coincidence. These works, like Collins's, show us that the world of romance lies just outside our own front doors, people by characters we pass daily in the street.

Collins, on the other hand, created strong, resourceful heroines who were assailed as being "masculine" in temperament. In Slinkton we have a somewhat effeminate villain in the manner of Collins's villains; like them, Slinkton has a tendency to place his own comfort and convenience above humane consideration for the weak and defenseless: he is a graceful masher reminiscent of Count Fosco in The Woman in White. and Godfrey Ablewhite in The Moonstone. In its structure, "Hunted Down" reveals the same careful, complex back-plotting and attention to detail that are the hallmarks of Collins's style. "Hunted Down" is distinctive, however, in being an interesting experiment in undermining the confidence that readers habitually place in the authoritative voice of the first-person narrator who is also very much a participant in the action of the story.


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Collins, Philip Arthur William. "Charles Dickens." Victorian Fiction: A Second Guide to Research. Ed. George H. Ford. New York: MLA, 1978. 34-l 13.

_____. Dickens and Crime. Cambridge Studies in Criminology 17. London: Macmillan, 1962.

Dickens, Charles. "Hunted Down," in Pickwick Papers, Part 2; "Holiday Romance" and "Hunted Down." Ed. Andrew Lang. New York: Collier, 1912. Pp. 1-23

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman and Hall, 1892.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon, 1952.

Lang, Andrew. Introduction to "Hunted Down" in Dickens iii-iv.

Lynn, David H. The Hero's Tale: Narrators in the Early Modern Novel. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Matchett, Willoughby. "Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, A Notable Dickens Model." Dickensian 2 (1906): 33-36.

Morley, Malcolm. " All the Year Round Plays II." Dickensian 52 (1956); 177-80.

Riggan, William. Picaros, Madmen, Na&aiuml;fs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator . Norman, U of Oklahoma Press, 1981.

"Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths " The Dictionary of National Biography. 1937 ed.

Created 4 December 2004

Last modified 25 December 2023