Dickens and Boredom

‘… our life here is so retired. . . .  I do not suppose we shall ever have visitors again . . . well, well, I will get you some medicine to make you feel better.  Your head aches, does it not? . . . We will not have any Dickens today . . . but tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. Let us read Little Dorritt again. There are passages in that book I can never hear without the temptation to weep.’

Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (1934), Chapter Six

Charles Dickens reading 'The Chimes' to his friends in John Forster's chambers, Daniel Maclise pencil drawing, 1844. Doesn't Forster himself, far left, and Douglas Jerrold, second from left, look rather bored?

Charles Dickens reading ‘The Chimes’ to his friends in John Forster’s chambers, Daniel Maclise pencil drawing, 1844 (© Victoria and Albert Museum). Is it just me, or do a few of his listeners look just a little bit bored?

The end of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust sees his protagonist Tony Last (a twentieth-century ‘medieval man’) banished to a purgatory of, to misquote Philip Larkin, boredom and fear: stranded in the Brazilian rainforest, forced at gunpoint by his captor, Mr. Todd (‘Mr. Death’), to read the complete works of Charles Dickens, over and over and over again. Forever.

Funnily enough, I know a few people myself – medievalists too, most of them (you know who you are) – who would similarly consider such a course of reading to represent a fate worse than death. For such heretics there is clearly no hope. However, the purpose of this post is not to debate the question of whether or not Dickens is boring – but to show that he is a writer, rather surprisingly, with a keen interest in boredom itself.

Indeed, several critics on the subject (as well as Stephen Fry’s execrable television programme QI) have pointed to the earliest citation of the word given by the OED, which credits Chapter XXVIII of Bleak House, in which the novelist describes Lady Dedlock’s ‘chronic malady of boredom’. Fascinating: did Dickens then – the extraordinarily energetic man of business as well as literary phenomenon, the prolific author who ‘spoke from within a circle of stage fire’ (Ruskin) – really invent … boredom?

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. In 'the desolation of Boredom'?

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. In ‘the desolation of Boredom’?

Well: no, he didn’t. For a start, that OED entry has not been updated since the original edition was published by James Murray in 1887. What’s more, the example above isn’t the first instance of Dickens using the word in his writing. It’s not even the first occurrence of the word in Bleak House; that comes much earlier in Chapter XII, when Lady Dedlock, ‘bored to death’ with Paris and en route back to London, is described as being ‘in the desolation of Boredom and the clutch of the Giant Despair’. And yet this doesn’t have quite the same meaning. ‘Boredom’ here is a ‘desolation’; Lady Dedlock’s ‘chronic malady’ is imaginatively externalised as a sort of Bunyanesque, allegorised place (Dickens later writes of another character being ‘in the clutches of the dragon Boredom’). Dickens uses the word in a still different sense in a letter to his friend, the painter Daniel Maclise, from his Italian journey in 1844. He writes to Maclise from Albano describing the ‘silent, deep, profound effect’ of the intense blue of the Mediterranean sea on his mind as he gazes at it. He tells MacLise that nothing, no ‘picture, book, or verbal boredom’ ever had such ‘awful, solemn, impenetrable blue’ as ‘that same sea’.

‘Verbal boredom’. The meaning here takes a while to understand at first, but the connection between boredom and the ‘awful’ blue of the sea is illuminated by the phrase ‘blue devils’, a very common nickname in the first half of the nineteenth century for the state of boredom, weariness, or the ‘blues’ (‘blue devils’ occurs frequently in Dickens’s letters). However, ‘verbal’ boredom here again refers not to boredom as an inner experience, but as an external act or circumstance – something that is boring and monotonous. Another example from around the same period can be found in the now sadly out-of-print 1843 novel The Adventures of Ganderfield, The Bore-Hater, in which the first person narrator remarks of a dull and verbose acquaintance that ‘his boredom regarded me no longer’. Used in this way, the word has a distinctly odd ring to modern ears.

Edward Copeland's recent book on the Silver Fork genre (Cambridge University Press).

Edward Copeland’s recent book on the Silver Fork genre (Cambridge University Press).

This form of boredom (alternatively called ‘boreism’) is in fact the primary definition offered by the OED (‘the characteristic behaviour of bores; the act of being a bore’), and though it is now long obsolete it seems to have been the most common usage of the term until at least the mid-1850s, possibly later. The word in this form is first found in 1829 in a collection of stories, Romances of Real Life, by the ‘silver fork’ novelist Catherine Gore, and such novels dealing with the leisured lives of the British aristocracy (typical sufferers from ennui) provide the earliest records of the word, including, notably, Benjamin Disraeli’s 1831 effort The Young Duke. The future Prime Minister writes at one point of his titular character, the Duke of St. James, that ‘he had never been at so agreeable a party in his life: yet it was chiefly composed of the very beings whom he daily execrated for their powers of boredom’. It is in a similarly long-deceased work of fiction, Thomas Henry Lister’s Arlington from 1832, in which we find the earliest example of the word as we know it, ‘the state of being bored; tedium, ennui’. During a scene in which an aristocratic couple argue over the guest list for a dinner party, the wife, one Lady Berwick, attempts to veto ‘the Rochdales’ on the grounds that ‘they are such bores!’ Her husband Sir James counters that though they are indeed bores, they are ‘not active ones’: ‘Theirs is a state of passive boredom. They don’t inflict – they only suffer.’ Lister’s novel provides the earliest example of the modern definition, explicitly distinguishing passive from active boredom, the internal from the external connotation.

Around a decade earlier in 1823, Lord Byron published Canto XIII of his epic poem Don Juan, in which he mischievously quips that ‘Society is now one polish’d horde, / Form’d of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored’ (the verb and noun forms of ‘bore’ date from much earlier, to the 1760s at least). In the same section of the poem, he also muses on the then absence of an English term for what was widely recognised to be an almost peculiarly English complaint:

Richard Westall's portrait of Lord Byron: combining aristocratic ennui and Romantic melancholy. (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

Richard Westall’s portrait of Lord Byron: combining aristocratic ennui and Romantic melancholy. (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

For Ennui is a growth of English root,

Though nameless in our language; we retort

The fact for words and let the French translate,

That awful yawn which sleep cannot abate.

Byron in fact was only one of many writers since the early eighteenth century to comment on the lack of an English equivalent for ennui (such examples could be listed ad nauseam). And although the relationship between the French term and the English neologism is a complex one, this evidence from 1823 and the appearance of boredom in 1829 would suggest that we can be reasonably confident in dating the emergence of the word in print to this fairly specific period in time.

Several recent publications on the subject of boredom have made much (often too much) of the apparent coinage of the word in the 1850s, believing it to reflect the arrival of a new, ‘qualitatively different’ emotion entirely, one ‘peculiar to the experience of modernity’. In their book Essays on Boredom and Modernity (2011), the critics Barbara Dalle Pezze and Carlo Salzani claim that:

The invention of a new term evidently was needed to represent and express a new form of malaise, which older or foreign terms were unable to cover. A new social, economical [sic] and political reality engendered a new psychological situation which needed a new terminology and a new representation.

As attractive as this idea is, however, the linguistic evidence suggests that this is a drastically oversimplified view. Boredom did not spring into being to represent an entirely new form of human experience in cultural modernity; the emergence of the word in the sense we now use it was slow and gradual, with a considerable degree of overlap with older definitions and older terms, such as ennui. In any case, it appears that Adam Phillips’s observation on the subject – that ‘we should not speak of boredom, but boredoms’ – is indeed true for the nineteenth century.

But: – enough dawdling. Back to Dickens.

Even though he did not coin the word, Dickens was one of the earliest literary authors to make extended use of it, not only in his fiction but in his journalism too. Indeed, among the dummy books on the shelves of his study was one entitled The Pleasures of Boredom. But is boredom a pleasure in his books?

In Lady Dedlock’s case the answer would appear to be no. Her repeated complaints throughout the novel that she is ‘bored to death’ foreshadow her actual death near the end of the book, a result of the secret of her past she has been at pains to hide behind her outward manner of bored indifference. In the case of Lady Dedlock however Dickens’s understanding of boredom is more subtle and complex than what appears at face value. Her appearance of haughty weariness, of being impossible to please, are part of what put her at ‘the top of the fashionable tree’; her ‘exhausted composure, [her] worn-out placidity, [her] equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction’ are ‘the trophies of her victory’. Her boredom then is a badge of both rank and fashion.

There is more to it than this though, because as readers we of course know that Lady Dedlock is not as indifferent or superficial as her aristocratic hauteur suggest – she harbours a painful secret. Two scenes in the novel illuminate Lady Dedlock’s experience of boredom, both superficial and real. The first comes in Chapter II when the lawyer Tulkinghorn visits the Dedlock’s London townhouse to discuss the Chancery suit, a clear source of fatigue for Lady Dedlock. When she recognises the handwriting of her former lover Captain Hawdon on the legal documents however, she becomes animated, asking ‘impulsively’: ‘Who copied that?’ Tulkinghorn ‘stops short, surprised’ by (and also, we know, suspicious of) her ‘animation and her unusual tone’. Lady Dedlock quickly tries to assume her habitual ‘careless way’, and dismisses her enquiry with the excuse, ‘Anything to vary this detestable monotony. O, go on, do!’ The emotion is too much for her however, and she faints.

Hablot K. Browne ('Phiz'), 'The Young Man of the Name of Guppy'.

Hablot K. Browne (‘Phiz’), ‘The Young Man of the Name of Guppy’.

The second scene occurs later in the novel (Chapter XXIX), as Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock sit together in their London home, in the very same room as in the previous scene. Lady Dedlock ‘as on that day … sits before the fire with her screen in her hand.’ Sir Leicester complacently reads aloud an article he approves of from the newspaper, written by a man with a ‘well-balanced mind’:

The man’s mind is not so well balanced but that he bores my Lady, who, after a languid effort to listen, or rather a languid resignation of herself to a show of listening, becomes distraught, and falls into a contemplation of the fire as if it were her fire at Chesney Wold, and she had never left it.

In other words, in the earlier scene Lady Dedlock is intensely interested, but puts on a pretence of boredom in order to try and hide the meaning of her interest (the secret of her past). In the later scene, she is genuinely, intensely bored, but has to feign interest in the tedious article her husband is relating to her. With the language here of ‘distraught’, as in the repeated ‘bored to death’, Dickens acknowledges something deeper and more worrying in Lady Dedlock’s psychic malaise: the tension – or deadlock – between what she feels inside and what she is able to express. Immediately following this scene, the officious clerk Guppy brings news to Lady Dedlock that her love letters to Captain Hawdon have been discovered – an event that precipitates her demise.

Dickens then understands boredom as a genuine, often chronic and dispiriting experience, but he understands it too as a pose, even as a defence mechanism. His next book after Bleak House, the ‘Industrial Novel’ Hard Times, features another upper-class character, James Harthouse, who seems to exist in a state of constant boredom and what Carlyle called ‘Idle Dilettantism’:

[Harthouse] had tried life as a Cornet of Dragoons, and found it a bore; and had afterwards tried it in the train of an English minister abroad, and found it a bore; and had then strolled to Jerusalem, and got bored there; and had then gone yachting about the world, and got bored everywhere.

'Post Prandial Pessimists', an illustration from later in the century in Punch. The figure of the idle, bored young upper-class male was a cultural stereotype of the nineteenth century.

‘Post Prandial Pessimists’, an illustration from later in the century in Punch. The figure of the idle, bored young upper-class male was a cultural stereotype of the nineteenth century.

Finally he decides to ‘go in’ for Utilitarianism, and finds himself visiting Messrs Gradgrind and Bounderby in Industrial Coketown, where, of course, he experiences a ‘considerable accession of boredom’. There is no real reason to doubt that Harthouse is just as bored and indifferent as he constantly claims to be, especially after he seduces and almost runs off with Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa for no other apparent reason than that he can. When he begins to doubt the success of his seduction however and grows agitated (‘[h]e several times spoke with an emphasis, similar to the vulgar manner’), the narrator writes that, ‘[i]n a word, he was so horribly bored by existing circumstances, that he forgot to go in for boredom in the manner prescribed by the authorities’. Dickens skilfully plays on the discrepancy between Harthouse’s habitual, well-bred outward manner of boredom and the annoyance he feels when his emotions are finally, genuinely engaged. Later in the same chapter after Harthouse is humbled and shamed into leaving Coketown by the ‘earnest’ appeal of the working-class girl Sissy Jupe, Harthouse reverts to the language of boredom (he telegraphs to his brother: ‘Dear Jack. All up at Coketown. Bored out of the place’) in order to cover up his genuine feelings of shame and embarrassment:

A secret sense of having failed and been ridiculous – a dread of what other fellows who went in for similar sorts of things would say at his expense if they knew it – so oppressed him, that what was about the very best passage in his life was the one of all others he would not have owned to on any account, and the only one that made him ashamed of himself.

Hard Times is a significant novel too for understanding another important dimension of boredom in the Victorian period: the working-class experience of boredom. Quite simply for most of the nineteenth century the working classes were not thought to experience it at all; boredom and ennui were associated with excess leisure, with satiety, with idleness – the first two of which the working classes scarcely possessed, and the last of which was considered morally reprehensible. An article in Fraser’s Magazine of 1851 for instance argues that idleness ought ‘to expose the poor man to punishment’. Largely due to such attitudes, the exclusive association between boredom, leisure, and the upper classes remained for most of the century.

From the early 1830s however, a number of commentators in debates over factory reform and the Ten Hours Bill, such as the physician Sir James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth and the MP John Fielden, began to draw attention to the wearing and numbing mental effects of prolonged hours engaged in monotonous industrial labour. Engels too writes of factory labour as ‘not work, but tedium, the most deadening, wearing process imaginable … The operative is condemned to let his physical and mental powers decay in this utter monotony, it is his mission to be bored every day and all day long from his eighth year’. These writers began to associate a form of boredom arising from excessive, monotonous work and too little leisure, as opposed to too much leisure and lack of serious occupations.

Industrial Manchester in 1870. A scene of monotony and tedium?

Industrial Manchester in 1870. A scene of monotony and tedium?

Dickens was one among a number of writers sympathetic to this view of factory work, and while Hard Times does not explicitly use the words boredom or ennui in relation to working-class characters, his description of the monotonous appearance of Coketown operates as something of a pathetic fallacy for the spiritual poverty and mind-numbing tedium of life as a factory ‘hand’:

Coketown … was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets, all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

The emphasis, it is fair to say, is difficult to miss. Dickens argues in the novel for a larger amount of leisure time and activities in order to compensate for this grinding monotony of factory work: ‘I entertain a weak idea that the English people are as hard worked as any people upon whom the sun shines. I acknowledge to this ridiculous idiosyncrasy, as a reason why I would give them a little more play.’ Boredom then begins to become associated with overwork at meaningless tasks, and the desire for leisure, freedom, and enjoyment: ‘exactly in the ratio as they worked long and monotonously, the craving grew within them for some physical relief – some relaxation, encouraging good humour and good spirits, giving them a vent – some recognized holiday’. That Dickens sardonically describes such a view as a ‘ridiculous idiosyncrasy’ suggests the strength of opinion against such an idea of working-class well-being in the mid-nineteenth century.

Although Dickens did not coin the word boredom after all (I’m sure he can live without that particular honour anyway), his fiction appears to have done much to popularise the ‘modern’ form of the word as we know it today. It is also a major thematic, as well as linguistic, presence in much of his later fiction. Think for instance of Dickens’s later heroes, Sidney Carton and Eugene Wrayburn. From the late 1850s Dickens’s male protagonists take a distinctly melancholy turn, losing the earnestness and optimism of their earlier counterparts Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield, more typical heroes in the bildungsroman tradition. They become bored. Eugene in particular is almost Baudelairean in his indulgence in ennui and urban flanerie. As Bleak House and Hard Times show, Dickens was keenly attuned to the nuances of boredom, both as pose and as genuine emotion. And in his writing on the subject in the latter novel, boredom becomes a key part of his social criticism on the condition of the industrial working classes, an issue he was advanced in addressing.

Boredom then, for such an apparently mundane and quotidian experience, can actually tell us a great deal about Dickens’s work.

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