You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view


Ruins of Paper: Dickens and the Necropolitan Library

  • Andrew M. Stauffer

…plus d’informations

  • Andrew M. Stauffer
    Boston University

Corps de l’article


Charles Dickens begins “Down With the Tide,” an 1853 essay published in Household Words, with a description of the weather at once familiar and strange:

A very dark night it was, and bitter cold; the east wind blowing bleak, and bringing with it stinging particles from marsh, and moor, and fen – from the Great Desert and Old Egypt, may be. Some of the component parts of the sharp-edged vapour that came flying up the Thames at London might be mummy-dust, dry atoms from the Temple at Jerusalem, camels’ foot-prints, crocodiles’ hatching-places, loosened grains of expression from the visages of blunt-nosed sphynxes, waifs and strays from caravans of turbaned merchants, vegetation from Jungles, frozen snow from the Himalayas. O! It was very very dark upon the Thames, and it was bitter bitter cold.


Like the “dark and stormy night” from Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) which it resembles, this is emphatically London weather, and yet, in his speculations on the origins of those “stinging particles” in the wind, Dickens travels very much farther afield. [1] His visionary catalogue provides Eastern, and primarily Egyptian, sources for the wind’s sharp edges, a speculative accounting that leads us to ask the same question in a different key: where is this coming from? The short answer is Thomas De Quincey – Dickens’ great precursor as London streetwalker – whose jumbled Eastern nightmares in the Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822) set the stage for just such a fantasia. [2] Indeed, in an earlier article, Dickens had described an observer of an Egyptian panorama in Picadilly as wandering “among temples, palaces, colossal statues, crocodiles, tombs, obelisks, mummies, sand and ruin; he proceeded, like an opium-eater in a dream” (“Some Account” 208). However, I want to suggest that this moment – Dickens near the Thames in 1853, thinking about death (the essay deals with suicides) and being pelted by the granular dust of mummies – is over-determined by a number of cultural phenomena that turned Victorian London into an Egyptianized dreamscape. It’s not only that (thanks to early Egyptologists like Giovanni Belzoni, William Bankes, and Henry Salt), the relics of Pharaonic Egypt were now visible in British museums, travel books, theatres, panoramas and exhibitions in this period, and thus freshly available for circulation, which is true. [3] Nor does the Dickensian dust from “caravans of turbaned merchants” count only as a figuration of the anxieties of Empire, the return of an atomized colonial/Eastern repressed, although this too informs the vision: he says later of the wind, “the shrewd East rasped and notched us, as with jagged razors” (348), language evocative of the British military conflicts in Lebanon, India, Burma, and China of the 1840s and early 1850s. [4] To this nexus of associations – involving De Quincey, Egyptology, and imperialism – I want to adduce another that runs deeply through Dickens’ trope, and in some ways subsumes the rest: Victorian London as a writer’s necropolis, a failed library of disintegrating paper and dead letters. For Dickens, that mummy-dust stings with the threat of loss.

The moment evokes the same horror that dawns at the end of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” as the reader realizes that those “low and level sands” stretching “boundless and bare” away from the “colossal Wreck” of the Ramses statue not only testify to the passing of the pharaoh’s “Works”: they are those works, atomized to the traceless particulate matter of the desert (13-14). In time, the “trunkless legs of stone,” “shattered visage” (2; 4), and inscribed pedestal will also vanish into sand – not swallowed, as if by the ocean, but pulverized by the agency of the rasping, notching wind, carrying what Dickens imagines as “loosened grains of expression from the visages of blunt-nosed sphinxes.” The sand is both remnant and ruining instrument; no wonder that we might look on it and despair. As with Dickens’s mummy-dust, Shelley’s Egyptian sand signifies a combination of ubiquitous perceptibility (I see/feel it wherever I turn) and bare blankness (it’s just grit), of boundless quantity and illegible materiality. At another level, it is the enemy of signification itself. [5]

This nexus of associations forms the heart of a particular nineteenth-century anxiety regarding the material record, provoked by the changing roles of paper in British culture and shaped by the archaeological recoveries in the New East that began with Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. The Victorian era was a great age of paper, as technological developments transformed the industry and multiplied its productivity many times over, enabling the rise to ubiquity of bureaucratic paperwork, advertising posters and bills, paper money, stocks and shares, and home products like wallpaper and papier-maché ornaments, not to mention newspapers, periodicals, books, and printed ephemera of all kinds. Read in the context of these changes, and in relation to Egyptology (that other burgeoning industry of records and remains), the work of Dickens and his contemporaries reveals deep anxieties about the whelming flood of precariously fragile paper. For Dickens, these concerns find expression in variations on a gothic image: the necropolitan library.

Nineteenth-century fiction’s concern with paper has recently been theorized by Kevin McLaughlin, who is interested in the dissolve or withdrawal of paper as material support during the act of reading, and in the relationship of this phenomenon to the dissolution of the subject in an age of mass mediacy. [6] Grounded in Locke’s idea of a “corporeal Substance” that bears the particular sensible qualities of an object, this conception takes paper as an equivalent to the glass plates in collodion photography: that is, the surface used to fix an image. Such an approach envisions writing or print as lying on top of the white page, as having (at least conceptually) an independent existence. Literature becomes a linguistic event, one for which paper can be invoked as a “material support”—just as we now make a hard copy of a digital text or a print of a photographic negative. From another perspective, however, nineteenth-century literature is essentially made out of paper: particularly in a historical perspective, it is always extant in the paper-based physical forms that enabled its survival. Daniel Hack’s recent work on “the material interests” of Victorian fiction, with its emphasis on the historical corporeality of texts and textual exchange, takes a view of the matter closer to my own. As Jerome McGann articulates this perspective,

Human beings are not angels. Part of what it means to be human is to have a body, to occupy physical space, and to move in real time. In the same way, the products of literature, which are in all cases human products, are not disembodied processes….[They are] concrete forms.”

Beauty 95-6

Rather than a material support, then, paper is the inalienable center, the literal flesh and bone of nineteenth-century literature. For Dickens, the only virtual text was one not yet written.

To write, then, and for the future, was to commit oneself to paper, and the Victorians found themselves measuring the odds of this commitment against the records of Egypt and Assyria of which they were newly possessed. For the Victorian author, the imaginative slippage between London and the ancient Near East reveals a set of concerns focused on paper and libraries: the material remains they live amidst and hope to leave behind. More specifically, Egyptian mummies swathed with linen rags and bearing papyrus scrolls fuse with Victorian rag paper in the imaginative representations of the necropolitan city, at once both cemetery and library, where books and bodies decay to choking dust. In Victorian Afterlives, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst quotes Dickens’ remark that, walking in London in 1854, he felt himself surrounded by “motes of new books in the dirty air,” suggesting that Dickens may have been struck by “some of the ideas which dust carries around with it, of loss and endurance, what passes away and what remains” and their relation to “his own processes of composition” (169). With an eye towards Egypt, I want to ground this insight specifically in paper – the physical material (what I’ve called the “flesh and bone”) of those processes – and the concerns about durability and legibility that surround it.

Like the sand in “Ozymandias,” paper was newly visible everywhere, and its very ubiquity threatened its signifying power. Not only were Victorian writers confronted with countless examples of paper decaying to waste in the streets, but they also recognized that the many unread and illegible pages of daily life in London were like dust or sand, haunted by meaning and yet effectively blank, reduced to general matter in the same way that the snowflakes at the end of Joyce’s “The Dead” become snow that is “general all over Ireland” (223). [7] It is a world familiar to readers of Dickens’ Bleak House, in which, as J. Hillis Miller observes, everything is turning to “mere undifferentiated dust,” “thousands of distinct particles” where “each particle is, in the end, no more than another example of the general pulverization” (“World” 951). Indeed, it has long been recognized that dust, one of the great Dickensian motifs, governs the vision of both Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend as a symbol of entropy and waste. In connecting the dust in Dickens--and particularly in these two novels--to papermaking and archaeology in the nineteenth-century, I mean to show how Dickens imagines his own works on paper as inevitably, even tragically involved with disintegration and loss.


In an All the Year Round essay, “City of London Churches” (1860), Dickens again raises dust as an inescapable assailant, as he describes sitting in a church and

taking a strong kind of invisible snuff, up my nose, into my eyes, and down my throat. I wink, sneeze, and cough....The snuff seems to be made of the decay of matting, wood, cloth, stone, iron, earth, and something else. Is the something else, the decay of dead citizens in the vaults below? As sure as Death it is! Not only in the cold damp February day, do we cough and sneeze dead citizens, all through the service, but dead citizens have got into the very bellows of the organ, and half choked the same. We stamp our feet, to warm them, and dead citizens arise in heavy clouds. Dead citizens stick upon the walls, and lie pulverised on the sounding-board over the clergyman’s head, and, when a gust of air comes, tumble down upon him.

110 [8]

Like the mummy-dust of “Down With the Tide,” these pulverized bodies are an irritant in the London atmosphere, a troubling memento mori stuck in the throat; parishioners and organ are both “half choked” with the dead. [9] Dickens would use the same language in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), as Rosa Bud describes her feelings about Egypt:

Tiresome old burying-grounds! Isises, and Ibises, and Cheopses, and Pharoahses; who cares about them? And then there was Belzoni, or somebody, dragged out by the legs, half-choked with bats and dust. All the girls say: Serve him right, and hope it hurt him, and wish he had been quite choked.


“Choking” seems to be a common reaction; the coquettish Rosa is here remembering, a little unsteadily, a passage from Belzoni’s Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries in Egypt and Nubia (1820), in which the strongman-turned-archaeologist describes his experiences in the tombs at Qurna:

many persons could not withstand the suffocating air, which often causes fainting. A vast quantity of dust arises, so fine that it enters into the throat and nostrils, and chokes the nose and mouth to such a degree, that it requires great power of lungs to resist it and the strong effluvia of mummies....In such a situation I found myself several times, and often returned exhausted and fainting, till at last I became inured to it, and indifferent to what I suffered, except from the dust, which never failed to choke my throat and nose; and though, fortunately, I am destitute of the sense of smelling, I could taste that the mummies were rather unpleasant to swallow....nearly overcome, I sought a resting-place, found one, and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed it like a band-box....I sunk altogether among the broken mummies, with a crash of bones, rags, and wooden cases, which raised such a dust as kept me motionless for a quarter of an hour, waiting till it subsided again. I could not remove from the place, however, without increasing it, and every step I took I crushed a mummy in some part or other. Once I was conducted from such a place to another resembling it, through a wider than a body could be forced through. It was choked with mummies, and I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian.

168-9; my emphasis [10]

One might say that all of these ‘passages’ are indeed “choked with mummies”; they involve having one’s face rubbed in the dead, presenting undesired encounters with mortal remains that seem to be everywhere at once, filling every space. [11] In this context, one also recalls De Quincey’s Confessions, as he describes his Egyptian nightmares:

I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.


As in Belzoni’s narrative (published the year before De Quincey’s), the source of horror involves enclosure with and immersion in dead Egyptian things; Belzoni “sunk altogether among the broken mummies,” and De Quincey is “laid, confounded with...slimy things” in the mud of the Nile. Moreover, this crocodile’s “cancerous kisses” recall Belzoni’s “face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian” at every turn (169). [12] Like the “mummy-dust” that stings Dickens’ face in “Down With the Tide,” these Egyptian relics constitute a kind of confrontational, visionary plague: fear in a mouthful of dust. [13]

Belzoni’s narrative plainly haunted Dickens, as a weird mirror of his own experiences in London; and the connection between metropolis and necropolis is strengthened by a remark Dickens makes at the end of the essay on those dusty churches that are also burial grounds: “I have sat, in that singular silence which belongs to resting-places usually astir, in scores of buildings at the heart of the world’s metropolis, unknown to far greater numbers of people speaking the English language, than the ancient edifices of the Eternal City, or the Pyramids of Egypt” (“City of London Churches” 116). These desert places in the midst of the bustling city have a fascination for Dickens, and, in his writings about London, he is continually stumbling onto them. In fact, he had used a similar trope in Little Dorrit (1855-7) to describe a London church, observing “the illuminated windows of a Congregationless Church that seemed to be waiting for some adventurous Belzoni to dig it out and discover its history” (43). [14] For Dickens, London and ancient Egypt fuse into a kind of palimpsest, and he imagines himself as an archaeological explorer of his necropolitan city and its dead: its churches become pyramids, its dust becomes mummy-dust, the streets become labyrinthine catacombs to be explored. [15]

As David Seed writes, the word ‘necropolis’ came into English usage in the early nineteenth-century, and “was used increasingly from the 1820s onwards to designate the newly landscaped cemeteries of London” (95). Following the archaeological excavations of networked ‘cities’ of tombs by Belzoni and others, it was also a key term for understanding the ancient Egyptian culture of death and burial, in which “the community of the dead a counterpart to the society of the living” (Redford 511-12). Victorian Londoners were indeed feeling crowded by the city’s dead – choked by their dust, as Dickens tells us. Alexander Welsh writes that “the problem of where bodies went in London became acute” in Victorian London, and thus the first half of the century saw the development of extramural cemeteries like Kensal Green and Highgate, designed precisely as sites of the dead, counterparts to London and to the monumental tombs of Egypt (62). [16] In the case of Highgate, one could be buried in faux-Egyptian catacombs, complete with hieroglyphics and Pharaonic ornamentation; as one contemporary describes this section of the cemetery,

The whole of this circle of catacombs is constructed in the Egyptian style; and though probably different from the pure models of Memphis and Heliopolis, the doorways and entablatures display many of these ancient characteristics of Egyptian architecture....The inner, or convex circle, surrounds a solid and circular mass of earth, the centre of which grows a high and wide-spreading cedar of Lebanon, which gives its name to this city of sepulchres.

Dolby 6-7

That is, Highgate offered Englishmen a tangible, literal simulacrum of the Egyptian necropolis that had begun to overlay London in their imaginations. Welsh writes that “the controversy over intramural interments ultimately established that the city was already a kind of necropolis” (63), and, as Chris Brooks points out, this effect of Highgate was heightened by the long views of London that were popular with visitors to the cemetery:

At Highgate, the broad terrace...looked over and beyond the cemetery’s class enclave to the whole of London spread below. Here, as contemporary commentators recommended, was the place for the thoughtful to reflect and meditate...upon ‘the modern Babylon’....The view from the terrace at Highgate, contemplating the modern Babylon, meant that the relationship between cemetery and city, necropolis and metropolis was redefined.


On the one hand, nothing could be more commonplace than equating London with Babylon, as the Biblical analogue presented itself; in the words of James Thomson, “what was said of Babylon must be said of London, of Paris, of New York, of every supreme city: ‘Babylon hath been a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunken of her wine; therefore the nations are mad’” (Essays and Phantasies 266). [17] But on the other hand, the conflation of Victorian London and Near Eastern seats of empire (Babylon, Nineveh, Cairo) certainly drew energy from the archaeological discoveries of the period (represented here by Highgate’s Egyptian furniture), and marked a deeper set of historically-conditioned anxieties – about empire, mortality, and legacy – than a Biblical horizon of interpretation reveals.

Informed by Near Eastern archaeology, the Victorian idea of the records and remains of the dead was inextricably involved with the changing forms and functions of paper in the lives of the Victorians. That is, the centrality of paper to the knot of associations I’ve been weaving has specific historical determinants, not least the simple quantitative increase of printed material. In The Mysteries of Paris and London, Richard Maxwell places emphasis on “the role of paper and paperwork” in the nineteenth-century novel, and particularly in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) (91). For Maxwell, fears of the proliferation of paper drive Bleak House; “endless piles” threaten to submerge “public eloquence” – not only in the realms of law, but throughout the city of London (171). We see this worry expressed in an 1857 Household Words satire on paper currency, stocks, and credit, written by Dickens’ colleague James Hollingshead, in which London is depicted as containing – and perhaps becoming – a “city of unlimited paper”:

Within a certain circle, of which the Royal Exchange is the centre, lie the ruins of a great paper city. Its rulers—solid and substantial as they appear to the eye—are made of paper. They ride in paper carriages; they marry paper wives, and unto them are born paper children; their food is paper, their thoughts are paper, and all they touch is transformed to paper...the stately-looking palaces in which they live and trade are built of paper...which fall with a single breath. That breath has overtaken them, and they lie in the dust.


Hollingshead goes on to name this dusty, papered ruin “New Babylonia,” finding it now “silent and awful as a city of the dead” (4). To be sure, the financial burdens of paper during the nineteenth century provoke a different configuration of concerns; but the congruence of the metaphors – paper in vast quantities, dust, the ruins of the Near East, the necropolis – suggests an imaginative convergence. Whether in authorial, legal, or financial circles, paper’s increase brought fears of devaluation and disintegration.

In The French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle had called the late-eighteenth century “The Age of Paper,” pointing to the rise of “Bank-paper” and “Book-paper...made from the rags of things that did once exist” as indices of the hopeful, promissory spirit surrounding the French Revolution (1.29). By the Victorian period, this attitude towards paper had given way to one characterized primarily by mourning. After equating “paper” with “hope,” Carlyle concludes in a statement that looks forward to the coming decades, “Thus is our Era still to be named of Hope, though in the saddest sense,—when there is nothing left but Hope” (1.59). In other words, the nineteenth century would become an age of paper in which that material, in its very excess, has become a dead thing. Patrick Brantlinger has explored the anxiety over mass literacy and the increasing production of printed texts (particularly novels) in the nineteenth century, quoting Bulwer-Lytton’s 1833 lament that “Excellent inventions...have at length fallen the prey of their own numbers, and buried themselves amongst the corpses of the native quartos which they so successfully invaded” (quoted in The Reading Lesson 23; my emphasis). Brantlinger also quotes Gissing’s New Grub Street from the other end of the century (1891), in which the heroine, finding herself in the Reading-room of the British Library, laments, “all those people about her, what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet newer books might in turn be made out of theirs? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to becomea trackless desert of print – how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit!” (quoted in The Reading Lesson 89; my emphasis). Like the Ozymandian landscape, the library conveys nothing so much as an appalling erasure, paradoxically accomplished by an excess of material.

Indeed, such fears of the curse of paper were grounded in observable trends: for example, between 1805 and 1835, the annual output of machine-made paper in England increased from about 550 tons to almost 25,000 tons; and by century’s end, paper machines were cranking out approximately 650,000 tons per year (Hunter 526-7). [18] As D.C. Coleman calculates, “Between 1800 and 1860 output [of paper] multiplied about seven-fold in the United Kingdom as a whole” (201), and Spicer puts the total amount of paper used annually at the beginning of the twentieth century (including foreign imports) at over a million tons. These numbers suggest paper’s upward arc towards ubiquity in nineteenth-century English culture; as Thomas Richards puts it, “The new Leviathan didn’t swallow information but spewed it out in a steady stream of small bits of paper, brief coded messages, timetables, telegraph codes, and red tape” (74). [19]

The glut of printed paper is registered by Dickens in Household Words articles such as “A Paper Mill” (1850) and “Bill-Sticking” (1851), in the latter of which he presents a memorable image of a derelict building entirely covered with posters, which becomes a kind of riddling mirror or paper sphinx:

The forlorn dregs of old posters so encumbered this wreck, that there was no hold for new posters, and the stickers had abandoned the place in despair, except one enterprising man who had hoisted the last masquerade to a clear spot near the level of the stack of chimneys where it waved and drooped like a shattered flag. Below the rusty cellar-grating, crumpled remnants of old bills torn down rotted away in wasting heaps of fallen leaves. Here and there, some of the thick rind of the house had peeled off in strips, and fluttered heavily down, littering the street; but, still, below these rents and gashes, layers of decomposing posters showed themselves, as if they were interminable.

341 [20]

Dregs, remnants, wasting heaps, interminable layers of decomposing sheets: the language is that of a crammed, chaotic charnel house, applied to the writer’s vehicle. Flesh may be grass, or dust; paper here is turning back into the rags and scraps of its origins. Like Belzoni’s Egyptian “passage...choked with mummies”(Narrative, 169), this “old warehouse” in London, “thickly encrusted with fragments of bills” (340-41) confounds the explorer with an over-much-ness of mortal remains. Indeed, the “one enterprising man” can be seen as a figure for Dickens himself (or for the Victorian author generally), a sort of comic, doomed hero, trying to clear a spot, to wave his own work like a paper flag above this illegible and rotting temple that print culture, in its exponential flourishing, has produced – and to which he is ironically contributing with each effort. [21] That Dickens’ name was likely to be printed on some of these posters – advertising his theatrical and/or literary productions – gives the scene an added twist of recognition. [22] Indeed, Dickens informs us that recognition was the theme of his meditations as he stared at the warehouse, confronted as he was by his own intimate knowledge of the “posters that were yet legible”: thanks to their “ubiquity” on the London streets, he has known them all already, known them all (“Bill Sticking,” 341).

Compare Thackeray in Egypt in 1844, on assignment for Punch magazine, when he climbed up and “pasted the great placard of Punch on the pyramid of Cheops”:

I drew out the poster – how it fluttered in the breeze! – With a trembling hand I popped the brush into the paste-pot, and smeared the back of the placard; then I pasted up the standard of our glorious leader....There was Punch – familiar old Punch – his back to the desert, his beaming face turned towards the Nile....we gave three immense cheers... which astonished the undiscovered mummies that lie darkling in tomb-chambers, and must have disturbed the Sphinx who has been couched for thousands of years in the desert hard by.

75 [23]

In this truly bizarre (yet knowing) instance of imperialism by poster, Thackeray jokingly calls the advertisement a “victorious banner,” citing Napoleon as Mr. Punch’s precursor (61) [24] Egypt and its relics are imagined as being disturbed by the event, even covered over by what he calls the new “sacred hieroglyphic”: printed paper (the Punch image) suggesting the purchase of more printed paper (Punch). The joke depends on the ephemerality of posters and magazines in the face of the Pyramid’s “forty centuries” and the Sphinx’s “thousands of years”; and yet it suggests that paper is the new monument, the modern vehicle of immortality – a use for rags of linen replacing that of the ancient Egyptian embalmers – the efficacy of which will rely on circulation[25] The poster depicts “familiar old Punch,” an image well-known thanks to the same culture of printed paper that produced the recognizable advertisements of Dickens’ “Bill-Sticking.” Mummies may be best preserved “darkling in tomb chambers,” but print thrives on duplication: the individual magazine or book disintegrates, but the issue or edition continues as long as copies remain to be read. And they must be read: if they cease to circulate, if they are buried in the interminable flood of printed material and lose their readers, their pages (again, like the sands in “Ozymandias”) go blank. Mark McDayter writes in an essay on libraries and Swift, “A book that remains ‘bound’ upon the shelf, unread, is a book that has, in a sense, already been slaughtered; a library unused is a kind of graveyard of ancient wisdom” (3). [26] As librarians will attest, circulation and preservation are at fundamentally cross purposes, yet each requires the other. The challenge that Thackeray’s poster makes to the Egyptian mummies figures the competition between the public, circulated text and the private, preserved relic. From our current vantage, surveying Western culture from the Reformation to the digital age, this seems more and more like one of a few perennial, determining struggles of modernity.

The library, then, needs to be figured onto the London landscape, as a synthetic figure for the layered necropolis that we have been exploring. Often, in the Victorian imagination, the city is a cemetery is a library, marked by the hieroglyphic of ancient Egyptian origins; those “stinging particles” that assail Dickens in the London of “Down With the Tide” are both “mummy-dust” and the dust of books. In fact, Dickens may have imagined the two as literally identical: he likely knew of the legend of Victorian-era paper made from the rag-wrapping of Egyptian mummies. Dickens owned a copy of Thomas J. Pettigrew’s History of Egyptian Mummies (London, 1834), which relates an ancient version of the practice; and he read Punch, which published a satirical poem, “Musings on Mummy-Paper,” (in which Pettigrew is mentioned) in 1847. [27] If mummies could be turned into books, then the library would become the ultimate necropolis, organized, like Highgate cemetery, by section and by name.

The idea haunts Victorian literature. In “A Lady of Sorrow” (1862-4), a work indebted to De Quincey’s Suspira De Profundis, James Thomson offers a memorable passage of being led by his sorrowful shadow-muse through just such a place, a mazy version of the city of dreadful night:

She leads me just beneath the surface of the earth, through sepulchral vaults, catacombs, cemeteries, graveyards, through the confusion of cities buried by time and sea and earthquake and volcanic bombardment, through all mortuary relics from the primaeval fossil to the corpse inhumed yesterday. And ever as we wander she murmurs to me; and I have long since discovered that much of the dust wherewith she is cloudily enveloped, and which tempers to my spiritual vision the intensity of her innate gloom, has been gathered from mouldered and mouldering libraries. Solemn and even appalling is her low thin voice in the utter obscurity and silence, in the untravelled labyrinthic vastitude of these ‘camps and cities of the ancient dead.’

Essays and Phantasies 25; my emphasis [28]

What is Thomson’s shadowy Lady of Sorrow but a mournful archivist, a librarian of decaying collections, the dust of which surrounds her? Thomson presents this underworld as a necropolitan library, filled with “mortuary relics,” “primaeval fossils,” and “inhumed corpses,” but empty of readers: its spaces are untravelled labyrinths. Of the realm they visit together, Thomson tells us, “the vast Metropolis...was become as a vast Necropolis” (Essays and Phantasies 17), and describes “the interminable streets of this great and terrible city” in which “lofty churches uplift themselves, blank, soulless, sepulchral, the pyramids of this mournful desert, each conserving the Mummy of a Great King in its heart” (Essays and Phantasies 18). Again, the Egyptian analogue comes readily to hand; like Dickens’ “Congregationless Church...waiting for some adventurous Belzoni to dig it out,” Thomson’s churches privately conserve mummy-like remains while remaining empty of purpose – like a library whose books stay unread. In this way, those “Interminable streets” recall the “interminable” layers of “decomposing posters” in “Bill-Sticking,” as well as Belzoni’s “passage...choked with mummies.” Thomson’s visionary exploration of the library-as-necropolis is predicated upon a sense of the confounding endlessness and fragility of printed remains.

In an important essay on the labyrinth and the library in Martin Chuzzlewit, Gerhard Joseph has argued that Dickens provisionally offers the library as an ordered counterpoint to the chaotic urban landscape visible from the roof of Todgers’s boarding house. [29] Tom Pinch arranges “piles of books...tied in bales...wrapped in paper...scattered singly or in heaps” into an organized and catalogued system, suggesting that libraries might offer refuges from (rather than haunting echoes of) the necropolitan passages of the papered city (577). Yet Joseph goes on to show how the “categorizing system” represented by Tom’s library “is constantly being undermined by the labyrinthine impulse within the novel” (17). As we have seen, that impulse is affiliated with the crowds of dead letters and bodies in Victorian London, choking passages with their dust. Libraries may be temples of order for the conservation of literary remains; but they too are vulnerable. Brantlinger cites an interesting corollary scene from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine (1895), in which the narrator comes across a ruined library filled

with the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them...Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified.”

Quoted in The Reading Lesson 204

In the Victorian imagination, the library provides the perfect setting for nightmares of excess and entropy, of overproduction and decay.


The anxieties intensified by the Victorian flood of paper thus face in two directions. One the one hand, omnipresent instances of the decay of paper into rags, waste, and dust remind authors of the mortality of their literary remains; on the other, the sheer amount of printed material, promiscuously produced and reproduced, threatens to submerge any single piece of writing. As we have seen, Dickens in 1851 raised this twin specter in the image of the rotting, bill-covered warehouse in “Bill-Sticking”; he would pursue it in two of his most ambitious novels, Bleak House (1852-3) and Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), both of which are set largely in necropolitan London, a place of dust, paper, and relics of the dead. Indeed, the library-spaces described in these novels – particularly Krook’s “Rag and Bottle Warehouse” and Gaffer Hexam’s “low circular room” papered with handbills of the drowned – demonstrate the ways that Dickens’ conception of his own acts of writing is determined by anxieties surrounding the curse of paper in the Victorian city (21). And although the Egyptian imagery is more finely subdued in these novels than elsewhere in Dickens, there are still traces of mummy in the wind.

Richard Altick has asserted the importance of paper to both novels, and has summed up the differences in that regard:

In Bleak House the paper which has the most significant function, as both symbol and accessory detail, is what might be called “institutional” or “private” paper, the mass of dusty detritus—parchment as well as paper properly speaking—generated by Chancery and ending up either in the despondent archives of the litigants or in Krook’s junk shop. In Our Mutual Friend, by contrast, the paper that is thematically and dramatically important is both printed and public: newspapers, public notices, election bills, rather than pleas and judgments. It circulates not in the limited sphere of Chancery, its victims and its parasites, but in the wide ambiance of a metropolis, open to everyone’s gaze.


Altick suggests that the contrast lies in whether paper is imagined as preserved or circulated, stashed away or publicized. That is, Bleak House is more concerned with paper as an unread “mass of dusty detritus,” whereas Our Mutual Friend centers on the dangers of paper as misread or mistaken by the public eye. [30] This is certainly true, and yet Our Mutual Friend is also obsessed with detritus; Dickens almost called the novel, “Dust,” given its focus on the Harmon dust-heaps, and the fortunes of paper therein are closely related to those of waste. [31] Both novels suggest that the Victorian anxieties regarding paper – its fragility and ubiquity – were twin-born and intertwined.

In Bleak House, Krook is the librarian-Lord Chancellor of misrule, commanding a jumbled empire of waste paper and rags destined for the paper mill. Michael Ragussis quotes Dickens’ anti-pastoral comment about Chancery’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields as a place where “the sheep are all made into parchment” as “a brilliant suggestion that takes us to the heart of the novel’s dark understanding of how places and people alike are reduced to words” (254). However, beneath the linguistic order is parchment itself, the material limit haunting Bleak House. “I have so many old parchmentses and papers in my stock,” Krook tells Richard Carstone, who later sees “the old man storing a quantity of packets of waste paper, in a kind of well in the floor” (63, 68). Hanging in his window is “a picture of a red paper mill, at which a cart was unloading a quantity of sacks of old rags. In another, was the inscription, Bones Bought” (61). Krook’s shop functions as a repository for dead letters and mortal remains, “heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls, and discoloured and dog’s-eared law-papers”(62) next to human bones. One can see his papers, having already turned to waste, now disintegrating and being buried – even as the many rags supply a reminder of more paper to be made. For writers, with their intimate, constitutive relationship to paper, it approaches a primal scene. McGann contrasts Dickens’ nightmarish vision of the “rag and bottle shop” with Yeats’ “foul rag and bone shop,” which is a “romantic figure of a lost world” (Black Riders 3-7). In this reading, a change in paper-making technologies separates the two authors, so that, by Yeats’ era, rags (rather than cheaper wood pulp, introduced in the 1860s and 70s) were only used for making fine paper and ornamental books, and thus signified aesthetic opportunity. On the prior side of that divide, Dickens emphasizes the grotesquerie, even the horror, of the overflowing and decaying material that is Krook’s – and his own – stock-in-trade.

In Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Dickens found an important source for Krook, as Richard Dunn has shown. Of particular interest is a section on “The Street-Buyers of Waste (Paper),” a trade that Mayhew calls “Beyond all others...the most curious,” precisely because of the quantity and variety of paper materials thus recycled (2.113). After a lengthy listing of the many kinds of books and papers that he has bought for waste (“books on every subject...on which a book can be written”), Mayhew’s tradesman ends by saying, “An old man dies, you see, and his papers are sold off, letters and all; that’s the way; get rid of all the old rubbish, as soon as the old boy’s pointing his toes to the sky. What’s old letters worth, when the writers are dead and buried? Why, perhaps 1½d. a pound...”(2.114). The corpse and the “old rubbish” are equated in a way that suggests the oversupply of both articles, which must be got “rid of.” [32] Yet, for the Victorian author as such, the troubling question of the worth of “old letters...when the writers are dead and buried” lingers beyond the tradesman’s reduction to price by weight. Recall the death-room of “Nemo” (Captain Hawdon) in Bleak House: Snagsby and Tulkinghorn take stock of the dead man’s possessions, and all that they can come up with (other than his clothing) are papers: “a bundle of pawnbroker’s duplicates,” “a crumpled paper, smelling of opium, on which are scrawled rough memoranda” and “a few dirty scraps of newspapers….there is nothing else” (129). Along with the “worthless articles of clothing” and the “dirty patchwork, lean-ribbed ticking, and coarse sacking” of the bed, these scraps seem likely destined to descend the stairs to Krook’s stores. That Mrs. Snagsby calls Nemo “Nimrod” (after the Assyrian king) and that the Scottish doctor’s diagnosis evokes an Egyptian comparative (“He’s just as dead as Phairy [Pharaoh]!”) both suggest Dickens’ mindfulness of the mock-archaeological resonances of this investigation (126-8). The papers they find do contain text, but it is unreadable: that is, it is irrelevant to the investigation and to the novel we are reading, and thus gives way. Yet Hawdon has left other paper-based remains, and the plot turns on them: most notably, the copied law pages that Lady Dedlock recognizes as being in his hand, but also the bundle of love letters to Hawdon that Smallweed discovers, and Hawdon’s “letter of instructions” (429) sent to George Rouncewell. By structuring the narrative around the passionate attachment of value to Nemo’s “old letters,” Dickens at least provisionally resists the mere objectification of paper that Krook’s shop represents. Yet Krook haunts the novel as a kind of Ghost of Readerships Future, for whom paper legacies have become piles of unread or illegible material. [33] The much-looked-for discovery of a significant document – the Jarndyce will – in Krook’s piles amounts to a nervous fantasy that only underscores their residual inscrutability, especially given the will’s ultimate uselessness in the Chancery case. Indeed, Weevle associates the hope for meaning with a kind of madness, mocking Krook’s obsession with discovering valuable pages within his piles: “It’s a monomania with him, to think he is possessed of documents” (401). In the end, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce consumes itself and discharges more waste, “great bundles of paper...bundles in bags, bundles too large to be got into any bags, immense masses of papers of all shapes and no shapes” (899).

Taking the original monthly numbers of Bleak House in hand, one gets a fuller sense of how deeply its theme of excess paper could have resonated for Dickens’ Victorian readers. [34] For example, in the February 1853 number, amidst the typically-numerous advertisements appended to the text, a stationer’s firm with the Dickensian name of Partridge and Cozens (Nos. 127 and 128, Chancery Lane) offers a four-page listing of varieties of “Solicitor’s Office Papers,” priced per ream, as well as envelopes, parchments, mourning-papers, and “law forms of all kinds, at half the usual prices” (figure 1). Of their account books, ledgers and journals, the advertisement claims such a “multiplicity, it is impossible to enumerate intelligibly.” [35] Turning from this to Dickens’ portrayal, in the next number, of the Smallweeds in Krook’s shop, “seated...upon the brink of a well or grave of waste paper” and “snowed up in a heap of paper fragments, print and manuscript” (586), one perceives the permeability of fictional and cultural space, marked in both the physical form and the content of the advertising leaves. These wrappers and inserts in the monthly numbers offer a visible, tangible experience of the paper-covered world the novel portrays: in the April 1853 number, for example, we find inserted in succession (amidst over 20 other pages of ads) a slip advertising Dickens’ Household Words, a small, four-page pamphlet describing “Ali Ahmed’s Treasures of the Desert...His Celebrated Pills and Plaister,” and (obscured by the other slips) Waterlow’s “Patent Improved Autographic Press,” “by means of which every person may become his own printer” (figure 2). The overlapping layers of the slips and pages recall the bill-covered warehouse as well as Krook’s jumbled shop, essentially incarnating the waste paper that Dickens dramatizes in his work. In the image presented here, the “flag” of Arabic calligraphy that rises above “Household Words” serendipitously captures the fusion of these papyrian concerns with Eastern anxieties, recalling the ubiquitous, choking mummy-dust of “Down with the Tide,” also published in 1853 in Household Words, advertised here. Waterlow’s “autographic press”—said to be “particularly valuable” in “the colonies”—would have reminded Dickens’ browsers once more of the new paper age in which Bleak House is set and was published; that is, the age of what Thomas Richards has called the imperial archive. In short, the advertisements give material form to one of the novel’s central themes: the curse of paper.

Figure 1

Partridge and Cozens. Advertisement. Bleak House XIV [February 1853]

Partridge and Cozens. Advertisement. Bleak House XIV [February 1853]

-> Voir la liste des figures

Figure 2

Household Words, et al. Advertisements. Bleak House XII [April 1853]

Household Words, et al. Advertisements. Bleak House XII [April 1853]

-> Voir la liste des figures

Our Mutual Friend is also deeply concerned with the plenitude of paper. Dickens seems to recall the stinging dust of “Down with the Tide” in the following passage from the novel describing an “easterly wind”:

The grating wind sawed rather than blew; and as it sawed, the sawdust whirled about the sawpit. Every street was a sawpit, and there were no top-sawyers; every passenger was an under-sawyer, with the sawdust blinding him and choking him....That mysterious paper currency which circulates in London when the wind blows, gyrated here and there and everywhere. Whence can it come, whither can it go? It hangs on every bush, flutters in every tree, is caught flying by the electric wires, haunts every enclosure, drinks at every pump, cowers at every grating, shudders on every plot of grass, seeks rest in vain behind the legions of iron rails.


Typically, Dickens animates his object, imagining that the waste paper of London has the agency to flutter, fly, drink, cower, and shudder; it becomes another unsponsored urban denizen, alternately pigeon, rat, and waif. Yet in momentarily ascribing subjectivity to paper, Dickens marks it resolutely as a thing, a substance or material object, rather than a vehicle for writing. This “mysterious paper currency” no longer circulates among readers as a bearer of meaning or communication, but merely “circulates in London when the wind blows,” along with the dust, in prevalent mockery of its former purposes. As Sicher writes of this passage, “The circulation of paper currency is worthless in terms of moral productivity, so much sawdust flying about in this ‘hopeless city’” (354). [36] Everywhere seen and nowhere read, the deracinated paper of London haunts Dickens with questions of mortality, of origins and ends: “whence can it come, whither can it go?” In the face of the newly-abundant current of print and paper in the Victorian era, no real answer is imaginable.

The blankness of this confrontation with paper casts wide ripples in Our Mutual Friend, manifested as a concern with illegibility, and a suggested correlation between paper and dead bodies. In “Some Recollections of Mortality” (1861), Dickens describes a visit to a Paris morgue, which he compares to a “Museum,” where a crowd of people gazes at a fresh corpse. Working to describe the looks on their faces, Dickens writes of a “general, purposeless, vacant staring at it – like looking at waxwork, without a catalogue, and not knowing what to make of it,” and he stresses the “one underlying expression of looking at something that could not return a look” (222-3). [37] The man has become an object, evoking the vague and useless looks of an audience, in the same way that the paper in the streets of the city can only be looked at, but cannot repay that look with communication of its origins or purposes. As John Carey puts it, “The blank stare, not baleful but utterly impersonal, is the optic counterpart of dislocated language. It achieves no human communication” (103). In Dickens’ imagination of the corpse on display, the catalogue for the morgue-museum is missing: the crowd is unable to read a description of what is in front of them, and the corpse cannot speak for itself. Moreover, the body cannot even “return a look,” thereby registering its agency and consciousness; in an analogous way, the printed characters have effectively disappeared from the “mysterious paper currency” in the streets. Prefiguring Our Mutual Friend, Dickens then remembers seeing men look at the body of a drowning victim in London with the same vacant stare.

Our Mutual Friend opens, and turns upon, the discovery of a dead man floating in the Thames, which prompts lawyers Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn to visit two related, nightmarish London libraries. One is the morgue at the Police Station; Dickens compares the calm Night-Inspector to a monk “in a monastery...illuminating a missal” before the two lawyers are led to view the body: “So back to the whitewashed library of the monastery,” where “they looked at the silent sight they came to see” (24). Like the Paris morgue-“Museum,” this “library” is comprised of corpses, silent, sightless things that can only be looked upon and which offer no explanations. Indeed, this body belongs to the criminal George Radfoot, but it is misread as that of John Harmon, the novel’s hero. Moreover, when the discovery of the corpse is first announced by the young Charley Hexam, he suggests that it has been greatly disfigured by its long submersion in the river. “Pharoah’s multitude, that were drowned in the Red Sea, ain’t more beyond restoring to life” (19), says Charley, right after “he glanced at the backs of the books [in the Veneering’s library], with an awakened curiosity that went below the binding. No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot” (18). Dickens’ juxtaposition of these two moments contrasts readerly curiosity towards unopened books (which promise communication and legibility) with the stares of vacancy destined for the dead body (which defies both reading and exchange). The way “one who cannot” read looks at a book resembles the way Dickens’ characters look at bodies in morgues. Furthermore, in searching for the most unreadable and dead thing he can think of, Charley turns to Egypt and “Pharoah’s multitude.” [38] Like the mummies choking the passage in Belzoni’s narrative, this multitude of drowned ancient Egyptians arrives to signify a hopeless omnipresence of the illegible dead.

The other dark library visited that night by Lightwood and Wrayburn is that of Charley’s father, Gaffer Hexam, who found the body in question – and many others. The walls of his home are papered with handbills announcing the discovery of corpses in the river, each equated with the person represented thereon. Gaffer leads an impromptu tour:

Taking up the bottle with the lamp in it, he held it near a paper on the wall, with the police heading, Body Found. The two friends read the handbill as it stuck against the wall, and Gaffer read them as he held the light.... “Now here,” moving the light to another similar placard, “his pockets was found empty, and turned inside out. And here,” moving the light to another, “her pocket was found empty, and turned inside out. And so was this one’s. And so was that one’s. I can’t read, nor I don’t want to it, for I know ’em by their places on the wall....They pretty well papers the room, you see; but I know ’em all. I’m scholar enough!”


The pronouns refer to the people represented on the handbills, and yet by the half-light of Gaffer’s lamp, we see only the papers themselves. Recalling the art gallery of Browning’s Duke, this library is a sort of catalogue raisoneé of Gaffer’s work, and it amounts to a collection of the dead. Like the Night-Inspector, and like James Thomson’s Lady of Sorrow, Gaffer is a macabre librarian, an illiterate scholar whose archives equate books with drowned bodies, paper with moldering remains. [39]

J. Hillis Miller writes that “In Our Mutual Friend the dark water of the Thames is the moving, indifferent milieu in which people are lost” (Charles Dickens 322), a fact of which Gaffer’s handbill wallpaper functions as a haunting reminder. More of these death-bills appear in Little Dorrit: just after the narrator passes the “Congregationless Church that seemed to be waiting for some adventurous Belzoni to dig it out,” he encounters “here and there a narrow alley leading to the river, where a wretched little bill, Found Drowned, was weeping on the wet wall” (31). The proximity of the Egyptianized ruins of the Church with these duplicated and personified handbills (“here and there...weeping”) suggests a correlation between buried artifacts and drowned paper: the “wretched little bill” is “weeping” and “wet,” and seems to be the drowning victim, rather than to announce him or her. Read in this way, the image registers not that “people are lost,” but the lamentable loss of printed material in the general flood. These bills are “Found” to be “Drowned” in the Victorian wash of paper, which, in terms of submersive force, rivals the waters of the Red Sea or the sands of the Great Desert.


In sum, England’s developing knowledge of ancient Egypt (and to a lesser extent, ancient Assyria) involved new imaginations of relics and remains, particularly with regard to the changing role of paper in daily life. In the midst of archaeological recovery of fragments of the ancient Near East, authors were rethinking their own medium of memory – words on paper – and the losses to which it was particularly prone. As they walked the streets of London, visited Highgate cemetery, and found themselves in the British Museum and Library, they were negotiating simultaneous paths in an unsettled terrain of commemoration. As we have seen, Dickens’ work reveals a Victorian consciousness of paper as everywhere, and everywhere turning into blank, wasting forms, as well as the connection of this phenomenon to the material legacies of ancient Egypt, particularly the mummified dead. Furthermore, the rise of London cemeteries in the early part of the century provided mirrors of the labyrinthine city, necropolis resembling metropolis with the library at its heart. In “A Lady of Sorrow,” Thomson’s mournful guide schools her charge in the lessons of the necropolitan library they have explored, representing it as a synthesis of Egyptian funeral monuments and a great reef built up by “the coral insects” of the sea:

The ancient Egyptians have left a few tombs, columns, pyramids; these insects leave behind them hundreds of leagues of reef well-founded from the floors of the deep sea: which, Egyptians or insects, are more serviceable to the after-world? You have visited a great library, which is a species of human coral-reef; and you have beheld thousands upon thousands of volumes closely ranged around: these are the painfully elaborated sepulchral exuviae of once living human intellects; and each contributed in some infinitesimal manner to the growth of knowledge; but how few of all do even you insects of the same race now distinguish and examine, though many were accounted great and wonderful works in their time....they are but names, [and] the library is a myriad-coffined sepulchre of dead minds.

Essays and Phantasies 43

For the Victorians in their sorrowing aspect, then, the myriad volumes of the library amount to coffins in a city of the dead, a city impressive in its way but ultimately silent and all but deserted. As Thomson describes his visionary “City of Dreadful Night,” itself another version of this archival space, “Yet as in some necropolis you find/ Perchance one mourner to a thousand dead,/ So there; worn faces that look deaf and blind/ Like tragic masks of stone” (1.50-3). [40] One mourner, one reader – perhaps deaf and blind – and so many thousands of dead things that need attention, or are past the point of repaying it: the writers in this Graveyard School have cause to trade sweet melancholy for anxious despair, an exchange symptomatic of modernity. Indeed, Eliot’s Waste Land and Borges’ Library of Babel are modern avatars of the necropolitan archive that we have traced like a palimpsest covering Dickens’ London, a place swept with the rags and dust of mummies, a crumbling excess of paper and the dead. For Dickens and his fellow Victorian authors, writing in this upended Eastern hourglass meant that concerns with one’s material legacy continually arose, like the “shattered flag” of the enterprising bill-sticker, heralding the advent of a mournful and gothic second Age of Paper.

Parties annexes