Completing the Circle: The Victorian Sanitary Movement, Our Mutual Friend, and Narrative Closure

Tina Young Choi

University of California, Berkeley

In 1842, Poor Law Commissioner Edwin Chadwick proposed a comprehensive plan for the removal of London's waste products; the economy he envisioned for the metropolis was one in which the excesses of urban waste might be made productive as agricultural manure. As he wrote in 1845, "we complete the circle, and realize the Egyptian type of eternity by bringing as it were the serpent's tail into the serpent's mouth" [1]. But in spite of strong public interest in the general problem of urban sanitation and the threat of contamination, Chadwick's plan, and the resultant Public Health Bill sponsored by Lord Morpeth in 1847, met with considerable opposition both within Parliament, and from local authorities all over England. One member of the House of Commons summarized the opposition when he objected to "the principle of centralisation which was inculcated so inexorably throughout the Bill" [2]. For Chadwick's vision was not only sanitary, but also governmental, economic, and ultimately, social. Turning sewage into manure, he imagined, would increase agricultural productivity, and thence better feed the working populace. In addition, as his 1842 Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain argues, good sanitary practice on a national level would help close the gap not only between consumption and production, but also between ideal and actual labour efficiency. Chadwick's Report meticulously demonstrates how many years of productive labour were lost annually to "premature" deaths among working men; for example, contributing author Mr. McCulloch writes that the value of labour lost by Dundee, through sickness and death, exceeded 25,000 pounds per annum [3]. But completing this economic circle, from waste to enhanced national productivity would require the completion of a governmental circle as well, with the establishment of a new governmental structure connecting locale to locale, and with all answerable to a central sanitary committee of inspectors and administrators, and also with nationally established regulations governing public health policy. Such a proposal, argued its opponents, challenged the very foundations of British liberal laissez-faire policy by, as another M.P. put it, "placing inordinate powers in the hands of the Government" [4].

Thus, while many were supportive of the general principle of sanitary reform, much of Parliament, local authorities throughout England, and the popular press were opposed to what threatened to be a sanitary tyranny. For Chadwick's plan was significant, not merely because it proposed changes in sanitation, but because it would necessitate a shift in a kind of popular epistemology; instead of conceiving of an English town as complete unto itself, self-authorizing, every town was not only connected to every other through a fearsome network of disease and waste, but also through possibly redemptive associations of economy and resources. In other words, Chadwick's primary focus may have been the necessity of sanitary reform, but this argument depended upon a perhaps even more radical claim about the inevitability of England's interconnectedness as a nation, unified by disease and filth, sanitation, and economy. Thus the "principle of centralisation" to which the first M.P. objected certainly referred to the more material governmental changes Chadwick and Morpeth proposed, but perhaps even more crucially, alluded to the "principle" by which England as a nation was perceived and represented by its inhabitants.

This novel sense of a "commonwealth," grounded in the biological, but simultaneously conceptual, succeeded more politically idealistic notions of nationhood; for by the 1840's, the democratic society envisioned by Thomas Paine and the political fervor of the early French Revolution had suffered the setbacks of the Terror, the Napoleonic Empire, and the limited effects of British Reform in 1832. But the threat of urban contamination suggested by Chadwick's report, and also by similar exposés offered by medical experts such as Thomas Southwood Smith, itself offered to undermine social claims to privilege. A Quarterly Review article of 1843 described London in these Chadwickean terms:

We reflect that the air ... is the fluid in which rich and poor are equally immersed -- that it is a commonwealth in which all are born, live, and die equal...a subject in which every member of the community is self-interested. [5]

The concept of nation emerges here through a discourse which combines the language of commonwealth and community with that of disease, filth, and death. Thus, unlike Benedict Anderson's theorization of emergent nationhood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which more optimistically situates the development of such community within the simultaneous emergence of print culture, allowing bourgeois readers to identify with each other across geographical distances [6], Chadwick and others concerned with the sanitary question found an "imagined community" located across both geographical and class boundaries, and which depended not so much upon a system of identifications, as upon a system of inescapable circulatory and contaminatory possibilities.

Dickens's massive novels about urban life, such as Great Expectations and Bleak House, elaborate upon a similar conception of nationhood, where both narrative and nation, in spite of seeming novelistic excess with respect to characters and pages, actually exemplify remarkable economy. But his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend, might provide the most fitting example of this emergent sense of nationhood, if only because here, Dickens overlays an almost Chadwickean vision of narrative and national closure with a pervading narrative thematic of sanitation, waste, and recovery.

The London imagined by Dickens in Our Mutual Friend is a closed space, in which nothing and no one can ever disappear; instead, nearly everything and everyone Dickens initially puts into circulation within the novelistic system returns to the narrative with the sureness of sewage in the Thames at high tide. To a large extent, of course, Dickens is describing the material condition of London life in mid-century; the dust-mounds and hopeful scavengers reflect the "thrift" exercised by much of England's poor, whose impoverished state meant that the waste and refuse of the rich might be of some value, through refuse or recovery. But this world existed not simply as a dependent or extraneous economy to the "primary" legitimate marketplace of the middle classes; instead, as Henry Mayhew demonstrates in his "Table Showing the Quantity of Refuse Bought, Collected, or Found, in the Streets of London," the economies of waste collection and of "legitimate" trade, by paper-makers, doctors, merchants, and others, were mutually dependent, so that the scraps scavenged by the poor might then be "recycled," used to manufacture goods the middle classes would buy [7]. This marketplace for waste, then, was the point of intersection and connection between classes , and the image Mayhew evokes of the London economy also recalls the words of the Quarterly Review article mentioned earlier; for while the latter confined its conception of "commonwealth" to the circulated air shared by English people, Mayhew extends the metaphor, suggesting that England's "common-wealth" could also describe its marketplace as characterized by the recirculation of discarded and reused items.

Dickens writes a similar economy into his Our Mutual Friend, one in which Jenny, the doll's dressmaker, buys scraps from the old-clothes seller, Riah, and through him, their seemingly petty economy is connected by a series of similar transactive relationships to the socially powerful Veneerings. And the novel's primary focus, of course, the elder John Harmon's great fortune, was itself won through a trade in dust. But goods and money are not the only items circulating within this economy, for human bodies circulate as well. Dead bodies literally circulate in the Thames as potentially profitable commodities to be scavenged by Riderhood or Hexam, but live bodies also circulate through the networks of London, like Mortimer Lightwood, who passes from the Veneerings' fashionable parties, to his more modest chambers at the Temple, to the police station, like the Lammles, who circulate in search of fortune, and like Lizzie Hexam, who travels first along the Thames with her father, and later upstream to escape her two suitors. Importantly for Dickens, as Mayhew's chart likewise suggests, these circulatory systems -- money, dust, the River -- connect all of London, or at least all of London that matters in Our Mutual Friend, the upper and lower classes, the institutional and the domestic, men and women, and even the living and the dead.

The river and other related circulatory systems, of course, also function as the main coherent moral system of the novel, where they seem to act almost as divine presences, distinguishing between good and bad, offering redemption and punishment. Headstone, Riderhood, and Wegg all meet their appropriate end in the scum, while Eugene Wrayburn's literal redemption from near-death in the river by Lizzie accompanies and enables his metaphorical redemption from his formerly purposeless and amoral life; afterwards, he is able to realize Lizzie's worth, and marries her in spite of their class difference. Likewise, Bella's morally dangerous brush with the dust fortune allows her finally both to redeem herself from accusations of a mercenary character, and also to redeem John Harmon from the drowned. Even the dust mounds themselves are finally put right, made moral, "sanitized" by the happy ending; as a satisfied Mrs. Boffin says, the old Harmon's "money had turned bright again, after a long long rust in the dark, and was at last a beginning to sparkle in the sunlight" [8].

But significantly, these systems of waste and recycling also work metaphorically as models for the narrative structure of Dickens's novel. For while his earlier novels seem to fall within genres of adventure (as in the case of The Old Curiosity Shop) or bildungsroman (as in the case of Nicholas Nickleby), characterized by journey or development, Our Mutual Friend does not seem to belong to either category. Indeed, its structure depends not upon linearity or progress, as these other examples do, so much as upon circularity and return. Its focus is not the individual character, but the possible connections between characters. Like the old clothes that Mayhew describes, which never disappear, only recirculate and reappear in different forms, narrative possibilities or alternatives within this novel do not generate themselves from new sets of resources, as it were, but instead, seem to circulate within a closed circle of endlessly recycled old ones. In other words, here, narrative possibilities do not exist as newness of experience, geography, or acquaintance, but instead as connections among ones already in narrative circulation. Some of these points of connection serve a particular character's intentions, of course, as when John Harmon, calling himself Rokesmith, offers himself as secretary to the Boffins, once his father's servants, and now inheritors of the Harmon fortune; in so doing, Harmon does not so much create a new domestic space for himself, as re-create a previously existing one. But other examples Dickens constructs as fortuitous connections between already circulating characters, like Headstone's chance meeting with Riderhood just outside Mortimer Lightwood's lodgings, where they discover that they share a hatred of Eugene Wrayburn. And yet other instances seem even more brazen in their defiance of statistical probability, as when Betty Higden "runs away" from the loyal Sloppy into all of the countryside surrounding London, and finds herself at last, not amongst new faces, but instead, in the arms of someone she first hallucinates to be Bella Wilfer, but is, of course, Lizzie Hexam, who has also come to escape London.

Hence the novel seems itself to practise a strange kind of centralized narrative economy or ecology, in which the limitations of resource, with respect to character, geography, and kind of experience with which the novel begins, are also those materials with which the narrative must make do over the course of nine-hundred pages, must recirculate in order to make something productive by its end. Narrative possibility thus describes not what elements might appear, but only how those elements already in existence might circulate and recirculate, and make connections with one another. As mentioned before, such a system seems to differ from those operative in other subgenres, for example, in bildungsromans, adventures, or even romances. Indeed, writing of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Stendahl, D.A. Miller observes that "what discontents the traditional novel is its own condition of possibility. For the production of narrative -- what we called the narratable -- is possible only within a logic of insufficiency, disequilibrium, and deferral"[9]. But in Our Mutual Friend that "condition of possibility" is only half there, is almost shown never to have existed in the first place; we realize that, like the contents of a trash heap, Dickens's novel can contain no more than what was put into it from the beginning. Thus, narrative "closure" might be said to precede even narrative.

OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, finally, generates a narrative "space" much like the urban space constructed by Chadwick or Mayhew. Both urban spaces, London and the novel's London, reflect limited resources, as well as limited repositories for waste, and yet both allow multiple possibilities for narrative, sanitary, and economic connection and recirculation within this closed system. The task of the urban novelist, like that of the sanitary reformer, then, is to "complete the circle" of urban narrative economy, and to render its resources profitable and productive.


This paper was first presented at the Dickens Project Winter Conference, 19-21 February 1999, in Davis, California. The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Dickens Project and the University of California, Davis in hosting this conference.

1. As quoted in S.E. Finer, The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1952), 222. 

2. G. Bankes, as quoted in Hansard's Parliamentary Debates 98 (May 1848), 719.

3. Edwin Chadwick, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965), 274, and more generally, Chapter V, "Pecuniary Burdens Created by Neglect."

4. D. Urquhart, as quoted in Hansard's Parliamentary Debates 98 (May 1848), 712.

5. "Article VII. [Review of Chadwick's] Report," Quarterly Review 71 (1843), 421.

6. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1992), 76-77.

7. Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1968),Vol. II, 462-463.

8. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 849.

9. D.A. Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents: Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 265.