Walls of Words

Nicole Lobdell

Nicole Lobdell is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English in 19th-century British literature at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN.



Dickens's Desk and Luke Fildes's The Empty Chair

A close-up of Dickens's desk as captured Luke Fildes's _The Empty Chair_.  One of the dueling frogs is obvious on the far left, and then moving from left to right, you can see a letter sorter, a vase, a candlestick holder, a box, and then a mysterious figure in pointed hat.  What is this figurine?  Is this the dog thief/salesman?  It's back is to us (which I find fits with the secretive nature of hoarding).  Read on below for more info on the identity of this figurine and why it matters so much.

Dickens's Desk

A few people have asked about how I came up with the idea for the dissertation on hoarders.  I would be fibbing if I said that the television shows had nothing to do with it, but in all seriousness, it was primarily from reading Dickens.  All that stuff.  How can one not think about hoarding when we read about Krook's warehouse in Bleak House?  As part of a seminar on Dickens, I read Michael Slater's 2009 biography (jump over to On My Bookshelf for more on my love for biographies) and in it he cites a short piece from John Forster's biography on his friend Charles Dickens, specifically a section about Dickens's desk on the day he died.  Dickens's penchant for compulsive organization is well documented in stories and anecdotes of his home at Gad's Hill, his letters to wife Catherine telling her not to move anything until he returned, and his fastidious daily calendar.  This extended of course to his writing desk.  On the day Dickens died on his desk were "'certain quaint little bronze figures' that he always like[d] to have on his writing-desk, including a pair of dueling frogs and a dog/thief/salesman with 'lots of little dogs in his pockets and under his arms'" (256).  I love this description of Dickens's desk.  Slater (by way of Forster) is quoting from Dickens’s son-in-law, Charles Collins's (Wilkie Collins’s younger brother) description of Dickens's writing desk, which he wrote to accompany Luke Fildes’s sketch titled The Empty Chair. Charles Collins writes:

Ranged in front of, and round about him, were always a variety of objects for his eye to rest on in the intervals of actual writing, and any one of which he would have instantly missed had it been removed.  There was a French bronze group representing a duel with swords, fought by a couple of very fat toads . . . . There was another bronze figure which always stood near the toads, also of French manufacture . . . It was a statuette of a dog-fancier, such a one as you used to see on the bridges or quays of Paris, with a profusion of little dogs stuck under his arms and into his pockets, and everywhere where little dogs could possibly be insinuated, all for sale (Collins qtd in Forster).

Scholars have pointed to the dueling frogs as tokens of Dickens's humor, but I'm drawn to that dog thief/salesman, whose collection of little dogs threatens to overwhelm him.  In it, I see revelation of Dickens's fascination for the hoarder--the individual whose nature most defies his own.  Critics and biographers have pointed to the good housekeepers, like Esther Summerson, who compulsively tidy up, as evidence for his compulsion for orderliness.  Yet, for ever good housekeeper in a Dickens novel, there is a hoarder--a character like Miss Flite, Krook, or Mrs. Clennam--who compulsively accumulates.  As a Victorian author, Dickens struggled with what things to save and what things to discard.  But this is the burden of the Victorian novel, is it not?  To navigate and narrate the urban collage faithfully without succumbing to hoarding.  How does the novelist, like Dickens, decide what warrants inclusion and what doesn't? 

From these basic questions and curiosities, my research has expanded outward.  I'm finding Austen a fascinating anti-hoarder.  In her letters, it's obvious she dislikes clutter and waste (going so far as to burn a 5 year old nephew's drawings, which he leaves behind, but choosing to plant the chestnuts he leaves), but Fanny Price and Harriet Smith have obvious hoarding tendencies (but I'm arguing Harriet Smith is not a real hoarder--Harriet never hoards anything in relation to Robert Martin, and she only begins hoarding after Emma encourages her!).  I'm about to move on to the Tennyson discussion which is much more conceptual than the Dickens and Austen, but I'm looking forward to it.

Hoarding: The Dissertation, the Authors, the Research

Scroll down for photos of what I like to think of as anthropological-type fieldwork into 19th-century hoarding.  I would post photos of the Dickens archives I worked with at the V&A in London, but sadly they do not allow the public dissemination of amateur photos of their artifacts. 

My dissertation, "The Pathology of Things," examines hoarding in 19th-century literature.  Some 19th-century authors, like Dickens, seem obvious choices.  But what about Austen, whose Mansfield Park and Emma, feature characters with hoarding tendencies?  Or Tennyson, who in In Memoriam, describes memory as the "hoarding sense"?  How, or why, do they hoard?

One thing to know upfront: we call them hoarders, but the 19th century called them "lumberers," and their odds-and-ends of things was "lumber."  It took roughly a month of research to uncover this gem, but it opened up a whole world of previously unknown hoarders.  Anyone who has read Bleak House knows that Krook is a hoarder.  But this line always gave me pause: Miss Flite describes Krook's house as full of “strange lumber which her landlord had bought piecemeal, and had no wish to sell."  For years, I had this image of Krook dragging 2x4s back to his home, and this image seemed mismatched in some way.  Now, it is much clearer what Krook is accumulating in his home.  Another frequent term in the Victorian novel  is "lumber room."  I think I understood from context that a lumber room was a catch-all room, but now its linguistic relationships are more clear.

As academics, we hoard papers, pens, books, and, sometimes, even students.  Dickens's novels train readers to hoard characters, details, and plot twists.  When we read a Dickens novel, we never know which little detail or innocuous character is going to reappear at the conclusion and hold the key to unraveling everything.  So in our own way, we begin accumulating these things in our minds (or on elaborate index cards), and in the process of reading Dickens, we too become hoarders.

I like Ms. Bates in Austen's Emma; she's a kind of detail hoarder, and her fragmented speech and recitations have this feel of a hoarder rattling off the contents of her hoard.  Even Knightley keeps things that have no value--specifically he keeps a list Emma draws up as a child, a list of improving books she intends to read but never does.  But it's Emma herself who sort of sums it up.  Early in the novel, Mr. Woodhouse claims he cannot understand the pleasure his grandchildren feel from being tossed into the air by their uncle.  Emma responds, “That is the case with us all, papa.  One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other."  Sucha provocative line in a novel with "a heroine whom," Austen claimed, "no one but myself will much like."  

In Mansfield Park Austen's hoarding has an organic quality to it.  Fanny Price is described as bird collecting the cast-off materials from her cousins in order to build her own nest.  I love this image, and it's one Austen uses later in life in her letters to describe how she crafts her own novel.  But where Austen looks to the hoarders of nature, Dickens's looks to urban collage as emblematic of his hoarding.  My research on Parry's paintings and the idea of an urban collage influence how I read Dickens's Bleak House.  These pictures are included below.      

Royal Academy of Music, June 2012. "Dickens and Music"

Below are some photos from my trip to the Royal Academy of Music in June 2012.  Their exhibit "Dickens and Music" included the privately owned and rarely displayed painting by John Orlando Parry A London Street Scene (1837).  I was surprised by the second painting Old Houses in the City (1844).  I had never heard of this painting, and the exhibit displayed only a black and white photo reproduction.  No information on the original painting or where it might currently be.  Both paintings, however, seem to have been highly influential for Dickens's essay "Bill-Sticking" published in March 1851 in Household Words and, I assert in the dissertation, for Dickens's writing of Bleak House

Hoarders or Collectors?  The British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Visiting the British Museum, I was surprised to see these gold and silver hoards.  It made me think about the strong Saxon root of hoard.  Then the famous Pitt Rivers Museum: it really pushes the boundary between hoard and collection.  I love the collections of paddles and keys.  It's most famous exhibit is the "Treatment of Dead Enemies" and its collection of shrunken heads. 

Barbican Museum in June 2012.  


"A life told in stuff."  An exhibit by Song Dong called "Waste Not," a collection of over 10,000 objects hoarded by Dong's mother in China between 1950-2002.  Located in a part of the museum called The Curve--a space that literally curves as you walk through it--a brilliant idea as it gives you the illusion that it keeps going and going and going.

Hoarding Links