24th January 2020 by

Good Neighbours, Good Friends? Navigating Neighbourhoods, Communities and Connection in Dickens

In this post, Dr Emily Bell (Loughborough University) explains how she has used CLiC to explore the theme of neighbourhoods in Dickens’s works. Emily is also an editor of the Dickens Letters Project and has recently been appointed as a fellow of the Software Sustainability Institute (SSI) – we look forward to learning more about her plans for this role!

Charles Dickens’s works show an ongoing interest in, but ambivalence about, familial and extra-familial relationships, local communities and neighbourhoods. In addition to the many unconventional family units and created communities in his novels, Dickens held sports days and cricket matches for the local community at his home in Kent. As a keen walker throughout his life, he visited and wrote about many different neighbourhoods, in London and elsewhere. A young Marcus Stone (an artist and illustrator for several cheap editions and library editions of Dickens’s works) was a neighbour of Dickens’s for nine years, and described himself as being like one of Dickens’s own children, coming and going freely (Ley 1921, p. 148). The nineteenth-century city facilitated this easier sense of community, where people could come and go more freely in a way that was less hierarchical than previously, because of the development of cheaper housing and the expanding urban population. “Our Next-Door Neighbour” from “Our Parish” in Sketches by Boz (1836) includes a mother and her son who have moved from the country, for example, and captures very well the sense of changing neighbourhoods as each tenant moves in and leaves, as well as the anxiety around who these people are and what effect they have on the existing neighbourhood. The idea of the “crowd” was also relatively new in the period, developing because of the rapid expansion of the city. As such, there were increased anxieties around proximity – rich and poor living close together because of industrialisation and increase in factory housing, public spaces becoming more occupied and unknowable, and so on. With all these factors coming into play, one can see why Dickens might have had complicated feelings about communities and neighbourhoods.

Shy Neighbourhoods

There were two separate starting points for me that converged in my thinking about this and my use of CLiC. The first was sparked by this passage from Dombey and Son (1848), chapter 6, in which Dickens describes the coming of the railway lines and their impact on Staggs’s Gardens:

The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. […] buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond […] carcasses of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding […] burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.

In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.

But as yet, the neighbourhood was shy to own the Railroad. (Dombey and Son, p. 65)

Obviously what is being discussed here is primarily the destruction of the neighbourhood and the coming of the railway, but I’m struck by the use of words relating to the body and the mind of the neighbourhood itself. The borders between the physical landscape and the people who live in it are collapsed, just as the neighbourhood itself is collapsing. There are also many words conveying negative sentiment (including “jumbled”, “unnatural”, “confused”, “rusted”, “ragged”, “mouldering”). This wonderfully evocative passage positions the railway, and therefore progress, as an earthquake: unstoppable, radically transforming, elemental. And, crucially, this amazing description is bookended by different ideas of “neighbourhood”. The description of the railway’s effect on the neighbourhood focuses on the physical environment and creates a hellish image of eruptions and sensory chaos – there is the sound of hissing and heaving as well as the visually powerful image. By the end, we have a neighbourhood that is “shy”; of course, we’re metonymically talking about the people who live in it, but the word “shy” has many connotations. It personifies the neighbourhood, having that dual meaning of the disordered buildings and chaos just alluded to as well as the people, but also refers to the poverty that the railway shed light on.

Dickens’s article “Shy Neighbourhoods”, published in 1860, explores London’s poorer neighbourhoods through the animals that live there. “Nothing in shy neighbourhoods perplexes my mind more,” Dickens writes, “than the bad company birds keep. Foreign birds often get into good society, but British birds are inseparable from low associates” (Dickens, 1860, p. 156). What he means here by “shy” are neighbourhoods with high poverty; there’s a joke in the word “shy”, invoking the poverty that industrialisation brings along with it. A bit later in the century, Charles Booth would try to formalise such neighbourhood categories. Booth began his work Labour and Life of the People of London in 1886, and his research culminated in the publication of seventeen volumes up to 1903. Booth undertook a street-by-street analysis of London in order to develop a sense of each neighbourhood, resulting in his famous poverty map. Booth’s work is particularly interesting because of its sensationalist tone; his work In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890) applies to London the language of Henry Morton Stanley’s In Darkest Africa (1890). He claims human beings are “dwarfed into pygmies and brutalised into cannibals” (Booth, 1890, p. 9), for example.

Detail showing Lillie Bridge from Charles Booth’s 1889 descriptive map of London poverty. Houses marked in red were “Middle-class. Well to do.” Those in gold were “Upper-middle and Upper classes. Wealthy.” These were the highest two of Booth’s seven classifications.
Detail showing Lillie Bridge from Charles Booth’s 1889 descriptive map of London poverty. Houses marked in red were “Middle-class. Well to do.” Those in gold were “Upper-middle and Upper classes. Wealthy.” These were the highest two of Booth’s seven classifications. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

In the nineteenth century, then, there is a wealth of coded language around neighbourhoods. In Dombey and Son it is not a real place, but for Booth it is specific areas of London. This coded language, using racist, animalistic terms, may not be surprising, but I want to take it in a slightly different direction now and think about the idea of sentiment and place.

Mapping the Neighbourhood

The second starting point for my study is The Emotions of London (Heuser, Moretti & Steiner, 2016). In their short pamphlet, Heuser et al. (2016) explore their attempt to map sentiment onto London’s physical space. This is an intriguing experiment into what you can do with big data. They ultimately conclude, having mapped positive, negative and neutral feelings, that named locations actually dampened the degree of emotionality as compared to passages that focus on private or interior spaces. They argue that for the period’s literature in general, though, public places are less emotionally charged than private spaces. Despite the pamphlet’s findings on fear and happiness, its authors suggest that literary references to specific places often lack emotion. As a result, they produced “less a map of the emotions of London than of their absence” (Heuser et al., 2016, p. 6, emphasis in original). This draws from the foundational idea of being ‘ortgebunden’, location-bound.

However, as the Staggs’s Gardens passage shows, there is deep sentiment about bounded locations, just not necessarily real ones. Staggs’s Gardens is a delineated space. I argue that Dickens is very interested in words that convey a sense of boundedness, sometimes quite claustrophobically, but that don’t necessarily, in turn, bind themselves to mappable places. And this is where CLiC has been so useful. There are many ways to think about communities, neighbourhoods and so on, encouraged by Dickens. All of these ideas around physical space, how plot binds characters together, emotion, anxiety about proximity and the influence of bad neighbourhoods, can help us generate ideas for searching CLiC.

So let’s start with a search for “neighbourhood” in Dickens’s novels (see Figure 1). It should be noted that if you search “shy neighbourhood” or “shy neighbourhoods”, you get no results, suggesting something slightly different is happening in the fiction to Dickens’s journalism. The words either side give us a lot to think about. Negative sentiment is indicated by collocates like “dirty”, “bad”, “contagion”, “ridiculous”, “ill-favoured” and “ill-savoured”.

Figure 1: Sample of concordance lines for neighbourhood in Dickens’s novels (13 out of 239 total instances)
Sample of concordance lines for neighbourhood in Dickens’s novels (17 out of 239 total instances)
Figure 2: Sample of concordance lines for neighbourhood in Dickens’s novels (17 out of 239 total instances)

There is a sense that these words are not applied to the neighbourhood itself, often, but demonstrate an anxiety about proximity. With a focus on Bleak House, we have the “dirty hanger-on” (line 2) which is Krook’s shop in the “legal neighbourhood”, looking like a poor relative and bringing the neighbourhood down. Boythorn’s contagious laugh is a positive thing spreading in the neighbourhood, but it is still a kind of disease. This speaks to Booth’s poverty map in demonstrating an anxiety about proximity. The dogs are barking (Figure 2, line 28) because Tulkinghorn has been murdered; as in Dickens’s article “Shy Neighbourhoods”, the animals reflect the aggression of the community, and the danger. From these first results, it is possible to narrow down the search, or tag categories separately, as explored in Ramuz’s guest post on The Pickwick Papers and The Old Curiosity Shop.

Sample of concordance lines for neighbourhood in the quotes subset of Dickens’s Novels
Figure 3: Sample of concordance lines for neighbourhood in the quotes subset of Dickens’s Novels (13 out of 71 total instances)

A lot of the results are direct quotations, which are shown as a subset in Figure 3. The instances in direct speech look quite different from the overall concordance; the sentiment element is not as obvious. Instead, there’s a central thread that is concerned with knowledge, from extending knowledge, a house which is new, passing opinions on the brickmaker, the baker, and so on.

Contagion and Detection

We might also think about prepositions and possessive pronouns, for example, taking the lead from Dickens’s interest in neighbourhoods in “Our Next-door Neighbour”, or explore articles and determiners – “this neighbourhood” or “that neighbourhood” as expressing a sense of ownership and exclusion. That’s part of the joke of “Our Next-door Neighbour”: the landlord keeps trying to find a more reliable, less troublesome tenant, and goes from a noisy bachelor to a thief, to having a boy die in his house. The landlord and neighbours believe themselves to be infected by this proximity. Dickens wants to draw attention to the ridiculousness of this fear, while also highlighting the extreme poverty of those unseen in urban environments. He is seeking to make the unknowable known. Dombey and Son contains a phenomenal passage that draws on this idea of contagion and neighbourhoods:

Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them, and in the eternal laws of our Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and a long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of mankind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure. (Dombey and Son, p. 619)

Bringing together the idea of knowledge and contagion from this quotation, we might turn to other nineteenth-century examples, to think about how typical Dickens might be. Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859-60), for example, uses “neighbourhood” seventy-eight times. As a sensation novel with a crime that needs to be solved, it is striking that “neighbourhood” is so often, in these examples, connected with knowledge and fear. It is often a question, as we can see from the direct speech examples (see Figure 4). Anne Catherick has Sir Percival Glyde’s secret. Her being in the neighbourhood heightens the tension and sense that it might be possible to save Laura.

Sample of neighbourhood in the quotes subset of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White (13 out of 23 instances)
Figure 4: Sample of concordance lines for neighbourhood in the quotes subset of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White  (13 out of 23 instances)

Magic Circles

Semantically connected words like “community” and “circle” are also interesting in Dickens’s works, but yield something less geographical and more to do with class.

Sample of concordance lines for circle in Dickens’s Novels (14 to 30 out of 133 instances)
Figure 5: Sample of concordance lines for circle in Dickens’s Novels (17 out of 133 instances)
Sample of concordance lines for community in Dickens’s Novels (13 out of 33 instances)
Figure 6: Sample of concordance lines for community in Dickens’s Novels (13 out of 33 instances)

Dickens referred to his mistress, Ellen Ternan, as a “magic circle” of “one member” (1999, 11.389), and this captures very well the sense that it is both elevated and restrictive at the same time: setting Ternan and her mother up in a house in the country, she was isolated as well as looked after. Lady Dedlock, whose name demonstrates her stasis, is constrained by the “brilliant and distinguished circle” of Chesney Wold but before we get to that powerful repetition in chapter 12, we have the circle of evil represented by Chancery, and Chancery as a deadened world not aware of other planets as it circles round the sun. These are isolated communities, not neighbourhoods of knowledge, and perhaps suggest that there is something about the “neighbourly” that is unique.

So, coming back to boundedness and sentiment, the fuzziness of the term “neighbourhood” in terms of physical space, collection of buildings, collection of people, and representation of local knowledge, is captured very well by Dickens and easily explored using CLiC. I suggest that the sentiments that Heuser et al. (2016) concluded were more connected to private spaces are actually reflected in these less clearly delineated boundaries – difficult to map geographically, but linguistically visible – and this gives us the possibility of thinking about Dickens differently. We often focus on Dickens’s London as a geographically-mappable space, and he has inspired many digital mapping projects (such as the Londonist map and the Charles Dickens Page map) and walking tours of Dickensian sites (see, for example, ‘the Charles Dickens free walk’ and the ‘Night Walks’ app). But tools like CLiC enable us to think about connections and communities linguistically in ways that complement and complicate those associations.

Please cite this post as follows: Bell, E.. (2020, January 24). Good Neighbours, Good Friends? Navigating Neighbourhoods, Communities and Connection in Dickens [Blog post]. University of Birmingham: CLiC Fiction Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.bham.ac.uk/clic-dickens/2020/01/24/good-neighbours-good-friends


Author: Emily Bell

Dr Emily Bell is a digital humanist, Dickens scholar and media historian. She is a Research Associate in Digital Humanities at Loughborough University, a fellow of the Software Sustainability Institute, and an editor on the Dickens Letters Project. Emily has published on Dickens, life writing and commemoration. She is currently editing Dickens’s later short fiction for the Oxford Dickens series with Michael Slater, and writing a new biography of Dickens for Reaktion Books.

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