Flights of Madness: Self-Knowledge and Topography in the Cities of Burney and Dickens
<1> A continual surprise to first-time readers of Dickens's Dombey and Son is that after chapter 16, the 'Son' of the firm's (and book's) title, refers to a gaping absence rather than a vibrant presence. As the son of Dombey and Son dies, an independent woman (Miss Tox) proclaims that the business of Dombey and Son has become represented by a daughter rather than a male heir: "'Dear me, dear me! To think,' said Miss Tox, bursting out afresh that night, as if her heart were broken, 'that Dombey and Son should be a Daughter after all!'" As a result, Dombey and Son has receieved a great deal of interest from late-twentiteth century critics as a vexed example of Dickens's "feminism." Linda Zwinger's essay,'The Fear of the Father: Dombey and Daughter,' therefore claims we are to read Dickensian 'daughters' as a threatening, unprofitable representation of 'impotence' within a capitalist and patriarchal London. Deborah Epstein Nord‘s argument of Walking the Victorian Streets relates to Dombey’ s daughter, Florence, since in Paul’s absence she becomes a 'female observer' who tries to 'escape the status of spectacle and become a spectator.' What these critiques highlight is Dickens’s problem with gender; indeed, even Dickens seems to have had problems understanding Miss Tox’s exclamation; this final sentence disappeared from editions published after 1858. These critiques are intriguing, but I am more interested today in understanding how Dickens’s intense, spotlight on 'a Daughter' refers more to Dickens’s own relationship to a British tradition of novel writing -- and this tradition’s strategies for relating people to an increasingly alienated urban environment. In particular, I argue that Florence Dombey’s two, traumatic flights through the streets of London have less to do with designing gender categories and more with Dickens's attempt to design urban community by tapping into eighteenth-century strategies for acquiring self-knowledge in London. That is, genre -- and the conventions of eighteenth-century urban novels -- underwrite little Paul Dombey’s death.
<2> I argue that we need to contextualize Dickens’s conception of gender in Dombey and Son in terms of the historical role a female heroine, or guide, plays in showing readers how to know and relate to London. In particular, Florence Dombey’s two flights through the streets of London do not emphasize Victorian notions of domesticity but instead are examples of a strategy popularized by eighteenth-century women novelists to help their urban readers know their inner selves. By casting Florence as our street-level guide through the disparate administrative boundaries of London, Dickens employs an eighteenth-century convention of British female novel-writing. From this perspective, Dickens’s novel resembles those produced by the eighteenth-century 'daughters' of Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Dickens’s anxiety over Miss Tox’s proclamation of Paul’s death, therefore, emphasizes not only to the loss of male inheritance, but also the fact that Dickens’s strategies for conveying urban knowledge and identity to his readers were originally only accessible only to women. To clarify my point, I draw particular attention to how Frances Burney’s urban novel Cecilia establishes a tradition of writing about Londoners that Dickens found attractive for helping readers relate to an increasingly complex urban environment made up of disparate liberties, parishes, and cities.
<3> To clarify Dickens’s adaptation of Burney’s Cecilia, I’d like to suggest an interpretation of Paul’s absence that highlights exactly how Miss Tox draws our attention to Paul’s death; in particular, she pronounces the death of Paul by using an extended metaphor. Miss Tox states 'that Dombey and Son should be a Daughter after all!' (not 'be like' or 'become'). This metaphor distills two entities (Mr. Dombey and the corpse of little Paul Dombey) into one daughter. There is not 'Dombey and Daughter'; there is only Daughter. The real surprise (and this is why I believe Miss Tox’s statement was problematic for Dickens) is that the novel Dombey and Son, anticipates a future that turns back to -- and relies upon -- an older daughter. In terms of the narrative, the novel falls back upon Paul’s older sister, Florence; in terms of Dickens’s own position in a tradition of British novel-writing, he falls back upon Frances Burney’s strategy of trying to organize the chaos of London through the eyes of an orphaned, traumatized female heroine. Dickens launches Florence onto the streets when she faces an identity crisis in episodes where she must determine her true, inner identity without a male conductor. In the same way, Burney launches Cecilia onto the streets when Cecilia tries to define herself without a proper, male guide or husband.
<4> Whether Dickens knew it or not, Florence Dombey’s flight through London’s streets grounds itself firmly within British literary tradition -- in a gendered privilege of eighteenth-century writers to acquire power after the Glorious Revolution. After an almost seamless absolutism is ripped apart in 1688, the question of where authority in London resided began to have many answers--and writers desperately tried to make themselves part of these answers. For example, Henry Fielding’s Bow Street prose, James Boswell’s self-corrective London Journal, and Frances Burney’s novels in which unmarried women 'find themselves' in London, imagine writers as inheritors of this disenfranchised urban authority. In fact, an industry of urban knowledge production flourished during the initial decades of the eighteenth century, designed to make the writer a necessary tool for the Londoner. Works from this period include handbooks (John Gay’s 1714 Trivia); journals (Ned Ward’s The London Spy); periodicals dictating urban conduct (Richard Steele and Joseph Addison’s Tatler and Spectator papers); and the first detailed street-map (John Roque’s 1746 map). One of the reasons men dominated these new genres of urban knowledge production involves the rise of conduct literature. Here we encounter that infamous problem familiar to anyone writing about eighteenth-century London: the problem of referring to a unified 'London' -- a London that was in the eighteenth century not only two cities (Westminster, the location of the Court, and the City of London) but also a morass of antiquated administrative boundaries and entities such as liberties and parishes. We would love to view London as a binary of Westminster and the City, but even this is too simple a model. Publishing houses, theaters, writers’ residences, and even Fielding’s Bow Street occupied a third-term located between Whitehall and St. Paul’s: the liberties of the Strand. Eighteenth-century urban literature feeds upon an audience’s desire to develop communities among these administrative boundaries. Enter conduct literature. Steele, Addison, Gay, and even Fielding (Fielding conducts you through Tom Jones as he tells you how to read the novel) reimagine themselves as indispensable conductors who help readers read, reflect upon, and build notions of community atop London’s disparate spaces. Women, so the social convention dictated, figure into this narrative only in their absence as street-level conductors. It was, of course, considered improper for women to walk London’s streets without a male conductor or guide. Frances Burney, however, unapologetically forces her heroine Cecilia onto London’s streets to test the limits of this propriety.
<5> Burney’s Cecilia (1782) follows an orphaned young woman into London and highlights the specific problems facing eightenth-century women who lack male guardians. Cecilia tests her independence by taking to the streets in a chapter near the end of the novel entitled, 'A Pursuit.' The chapter title is important. In this chapter Cecilia 'pursues' the male character whom she will eventually marry (Delvile) since she believes she has led him to misinterpret her character. Interpreting a letter written by Delvile, Cecilia assumes that Delvile will jealously 'indulge a private and criminal inclination' against a competing suitor, Belfield:
To redeem herself -- that is, to reveal her true self -- Cecilia leaps from the woman’s private refuge from public space (the chaise) and exhibits an agency on Portland-street usually denied to women: she becomes a peripatetic. She does the pursuing. We should note that the immediate occasion for Cecilia’s pursuit is to reveal truth--to advertise self-knowledge.
<6> In many ways, Burney uses Cecilia’s street-flight to test the limits of imagined feminine agency. Cecilia confronts a coachman:
It is interesting that Burney’s test of a woman’s street-level independence ends in madness. Cecilia’s pursuit turns dysfunctional because she does not reflect upon or critique her inner motivations; therefore, she transforms from the pursuer to the pursued as her confessional outburst on the streets of London attracts a mob, a sign-post of improper conduct. Eventually locked away in a pawnborker's upstairs bedroom, Cecilia experiences a complete lack of agency and self-conduct which ends in madness. We are reminded of Cecilia's madness via a clipping from the Daily Advertiser:
The assumption is that readers of the Daily Advertiser, especially wealthy male guardians, are to claim this lost property and conduct this mad "crazy young lady" back to reason and sanity.
<7> Lacking a Freudian vocabulary for talking about the interior, Burney places Cecilia on the streets alone (that is, Burney makes Cecilia exhibit improper conduct) to express Cecilia’s interior breakdown. Burney’s attempt at representing interior struggle by mapping it onto London’s geography was groundbreaking because it allowed her to narrate her heroine’s reaction to completely improper situations. Cecilia uses London’s geography and the gendered archives of conduct associated with traversing it to find a way to express madness. If Cecilia’s final dependence upon a male conductor (she marries Delvile) curtails her imagined agency, this does not mean that Cecilia is a failed experiment; Cecilia experimented with her independence on London’s streets. I propose that we think of Cecilia as Dickens’s palimpsest for acquiring self-knowledge in an unknown, alien London.
<8> By 1846, Dickens was aware of the ways London could easily alienate both women and men. We can trace the origin of Dickens's uni-sexed perspective to the history of eighteenth-century assumptions about genre. In particular, Dickens’s career straddles the gendered boundaries of eighteenth-century genre. Like Addison and Steele, Dickens produces periodical papers that critique urban community and conduct (Sketches by Boz). After the episodic, almost epistolary, Pickwick Papers (1836-37), Dickens injects this critical voice into novels in a style that recalls Burney’s experimental London novels. In Dombey and Son, Florence’s two flights are Victorian adaptations of Cecilia’s late eighteenth-century pursuit.
<9> Florence's first flight marks her passage from infantile unconsciousness to adolescene; it is a terrifying maturation mapped onto Camden's streets. Frightened by the 'thundering alarm' of a 'Mad Bull!' loose among the marketplace of Stagg’s Gardens, Florence loses her male conductor (Mr. Toodles) in a scene whose pace -- and the style used to create the effect of pace -- echoes Burney’s novel:
This indescribable 'terror' represents Florence’s trauma and stems from her being 'quite alone.' The street-woman, Good Mrs. Brown, forces Florence’s psychological change through abuse. Brown forces Florence to physically alter herself and mirror the mental changes this abduction is producing in her: Brown cuts Florence’s hair and changes Florence’s clothes for fouled rags and a rabbit-skin in order to profit from Florence’ wealthy exterior. Brown then releases Florence, irretrievably affected both mentally and physically, onto the streets and pushes her in the direction of the City:
Dickens now describes Florence’s episode of loss as a 'pursuit;' she 'steadily pursued' a stable identity amidst this environmental abuse provided by her traversing Camden, the outskirts of Westminster, and finally, the City -- her supposed 'Home.'
<10> Florence’s second flight marks her passage from adolescence to adulthood. Physically beaten by her father, Florence flees the House of Dombey and onto the City’s streets, directionless, and in such a hurry that Dickens cannot even complete his own sentences. We almost can hear Florence’s mind crack: 'Ran out of his house, a moment, and her hand was on the lock, the cry was on her lips, his face was there, made paler by the yellow candles hastily put down and guttering away . . . Another moment . . . and Florence, with her head bent down to hide her agony of tears, was in the streets' (Dombey, pp.757-58). Burney’s (and Austen’s) heroines blush to signal humiliating moments of self-knowledge, and Dickens’s heroines are similar in this way. Finding herself beyond the City, in a now-familiar, suspended state of comprehension in which she desires 'the necessity of greater composure' (Dombey, p.758) that is a stable, adult identity, Florence changes direction:
The natural metaphor of a 'deep sea' signals Florence’s interrogation of her psychological depths during this 'necessary' moment on the City’s streets. Florence is supposedly saved by Captain Cuttle’s discovery of her and, her 'new character' (Dombey, p.760). Like Good Mrs. Brown, Cuttle stresses her physical alteration to emphasize her mental alteration: 'It’s the sweet creetur grow’d a woman!' (Dombey, p.760). Florence’s temporary insanity, her 'confusion' and 'terror,' have led to her not only to involuntarily 'finding her' (Dombey, p.760) on the streets, but also finding her true self.
<11> I don’t want to discount the symmetry Dickens establishes here: both flights end with Florence knowing something more about who she really is; both flights resolve the psychological conflict that initiates her street-level escape, and, in turn, Florence acquires self-knowledge. The logic that underwrites these flights is the logic that underwrites Cecilia’s pursuit: the novelist launches orphaned daughters onto London’s streets in the midst of psychological crisis, as to suggest that by traversing London’s disparate topography, they will come to know unknown mental terrain. Street-level experience unravels complex psychological chaos. Dickens’s chapter-titles for each flight also stress this psychological maturity: Florence’s first flight takes place in Chapter 6, 'Paul’s Second Deprivation,' while the second chapter takes place in Chapter 48 'The Flight of Florence.' Florence’s first flight is attached to little Paul’s identity; Paul is 'deprived' of Florence’s presence. Her second flight is all her own, and it spotlights the reason why Dickens launches his heroine onto the streets; it is her 'flight' from a former self and, with Burney’s Cecilia as a model, a 'pursuit' of her true self. But the difference between a 'pursuit' and a 'flight' is also the crucial difference between urban novel-writing in Burney and Dickens. While Cecilia and Florence come from the same novelistic convention for knowing oneself, we cannot ignore that Dickens does not label Florence’s street-level experience 'A Pursuit.' Florence’s flight is unconscious; Florence finds herself, zombie-like, 'in the streets' (Dombey, p.758). Her flight is an involuntary response that she cannot control, and it exemplifies twentieth-century theories of madness. Burney imagines that self-knowledge and truth are possible, but only after a 'mad' period of painful maturation, for which the darkened streets of Piccadilly aptly stand. By using the word 'pursuit,' Burney suggests that this maturation doesn’t have to be painful if women became their own conductors; Cecilia’s pursuit doesn’t have to end in madness. There are alternatives, Burney seems to say. By using the word 'flight,' however, Dickens cauterizes these alternatives. 'Flight' becomes a necessary stage during a Victorian Londoner’s search for self-identity. Dickens also uses 'flight' because the word sketches Dickens’s project of building a community of self-aware, psychologically healthy urbanites. Like Florence’s two examples, these street-level experiences may look like flights when we experience them, but upon reflection, they represent necessary breaks with a past that has silently governed, conducted, and guided our every thought.
<12> An individual’s street-level experience in Dickens also ends with the painful and traumatic realization that London is his or her creation. I stress 'his or her' since 'Dombey and Son should be a Daughter after all.' Dickens recognized that an eighteenth-century woman’s experience of making sense of London’s streets mirrored his idea of how every modern Londoner acquired self-knowledge, regardless of individual gender. And this unsexed community taps into a higher truth about Victorian urban identity. Dickens’s daughter is a metaphor for Truth -- a metaphor widely found in early modern commonplace books: veritas filia temporis est. It is no surprise that Dombey casts himself as Father Time in chapter one: 'Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to him. A.D. had no concern with anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei -- and Son' (Dombey, p.50). Dickens’s use of the metaphor of conduct casts Florence not only as our female guide through an urban and mental hinterland, but also as Truth, the daughter of 'Dombei' who is the 'D' in 'A.D.' The truth Dombey and Son finally reveals is that the archive of intense anxiety and fear attached to Cecilia’s eighteenth-century experience on London’s streets now represents a common episode in any Victorian Londoner’s acquisition of self-knowledge. By overlaying Florence atop an early modern commonplace and making her flight inherit details from Cecilia’s pursuit, Dickens retranslates an eighteenth-century 'female experience' of the streets for all Victorian readers. Writing almost sixty years after Burney, Dickens looks to Cecilia for her anxiety and fear---not for her 'feminine' characteristics. The real truth, Dickens anxiously reveals in Miss Tox’s censored metaphor, is not that the modern Londoner is a women, but that a crucial stage of the Victorian Londoner’s maturation is best represented by a type of madness previously only associated with women’s experiences on the streets of London. Dickens makes Cecilia’s moment of madness and her 'pursuit' of her true self a component of every reader’s experience of Dombey and Son and every reader’s experience of Dombey’s London. Episodes of knowing oneself, unlike Austenian humiliation, now freely take place in the city, and readers must be ready for one mad ride that will make them stronger if they succeed in 'finding themselves' after that flight.
<13> For Dickens, both women and men are subject to these painfully therapeutic moments on London’s streets. Dickens’s flight is not a gendered activity but rather a naturalized component of urban knowledge production. These flights allow writers to explore psychological chaos by mapping it atop geographical chaos.’ The fact that these flights have a gendered origin in Cecilia does not mean that psychological conflict and introspection is distinctly a 'feminine' trait, but rather that Burney’s strategies for building eighteenth-century community of urban readers appealed to Dickens’s idea of a Victorian community of London readers. I think Dickens was attracted to the unbridled fear Cecilia exhibits while on the streets since the streets, by definition, are not part of her female community. Thus, Dickens transposes this eighteenth-century fear onto the everyman-character of Dombey and Son -- 'a Daughter after all.'
<14> One of the definitive traits of modernity in Dombey and Son is pace; the Railways create the impression of frenetic pace with their creation of 10.33 departure times as opposed to the eighteenth-century deadlines of quarter-past or half-eleven. One of the most important ramifications of this increased pace is that the eighteenth-century peripatetic is obsolete and readily replaced by the 'flight.' The male peripatetic, rambler, or wanderer no longer exists and is quickly forced into running a street-level 'flight' -- a strategy of knowing oneself that was previously an experience associated with women in eighteenth-century London. This is not one of those clear-cut fault-lines that distinguishes the eighteenth century from the Victorian; in fact, one of my goals is to participate in an ongoing discussion of how novel-writing from the 'long eighteenth century' prefigures nineteenth-century traditions. The figure who enacts the 'flight' is female not only because, as Nancy Armstrong has convincingly argued, 'the discourse of sexuality is implicated in shaping the novel,' but also because Dickens feels that the eighteenth-century woman’s 'mad' episode of knowing and relating to London has become an apt way to describe every Londoner’ s pursuit for knowledge. A pursuit in which one is pursuing a relationship to the city as much as fleeing from its nightmarish ramifications for the future.
 Charles Dickens, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1970), p. 298. All subsequent references are to this edition. [^]
 See Lynda Zwinger, 'The Fear of the Father: Dombey and Daughter,' Nineteenth-Century Fiction 39:4, p.429. [^]
 See Deborah Epstein Nord, Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), p.12. [^]
 This tension over gender in Dombey and Son extends to twentieth-century visualizations of the novel’s meaning. The cover of the Oxford paperback edition continues to picture father and son while the Penguin edition pairs William Maw Egley’ s painting, 'Florence Dombey in Captain Cuttle’s Parlour' with the novel’s masculine title. My point isn’t that one edition is correct, but that the principle of selection for Dombey and Son’s cover-art expresses our deeper conflict over what, exactly, is the lasting impression readers are to take away from a Dickens-novel that kills-off, with a type of painful, slow-motion consumption, the 'Son' of the Dickens’s title. As the cover-art conflict suggests, twentieth-century critics have interpreted 'gender' as the novel’s most important identity category; however, by pitting Paul Dombey vs. Florence Dombey in a gladiatorial fight-to-the-death risks amplifying our own, twenty-first century anxieties about the weight that the labels 'male' and 'female' carry. Dickens had problems with Miss Tox’s proclamation, so I am not arguing that we should discard gender as a helpful aid for identifying Dickens’s techniques for knowing the self. [^]
 In this way, I agree with Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) when she states that 'the discourse of sexuality is implicated in shaping the novel, and . . . domestic fiction helped to produce a subject who understood herself in the psychological terms that had shaped fiction' (p.23). I differ from Armstrong’s argument in arguing that Dickens, as a Victorian novelist as apposed to an eighteenth-century one, didn’t see anything explicitly 'feminine' about Florence’s flight when he wrote these scenes into Dombey and Son. That is, gendered eighteenth-century strategies for producing self-knowledge take a back-seat to what Dickens saw as 'un-sexed,' Victorian generic strategies for producing knowledge urban identity. [^]
 Elsewhere, Dickens does make pains to separate Dombey from his Son: 'and innocent that any spot of earth contained a Dombey or a Son' (Dombey, p.148). [^]
 Frances Burney, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, ed. Peter Sabor and Margaret Anne Doody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.889. All subsequent references to this edition. [^]
 For more about London’s 'synechdoch[al]' qualities, see Patricia Meyer Spacks, ‘Women and the City,' in Johnson and His Age, ed. James Engell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp.485-507, especially p.488. [^]
 In this way, Florence’s flights resemble not only Cecilia’s street-level experience but also the long walks that Jane Austen’s heroines take between chapters to sort out their minds and, in the chapters’ interstices, give the reader the impression that Catherine Morland or Elizabeth Bennett are 'finding themselves' and ridding themselves of mental prejudice. This is also why Burney relates more to Dickens’s novelistic career than does Austen; Burney’s Cecilia does not walk -- she runs. Dickens’s Florence does not walk -- she flees. [^]
 These flights are extremely painful not only to Florence but also to us as we read her abuse; the flights are painful, but then again, so is psychoanalytic therapy, a twentieth-century narration of selfhood. [^]
 Cecilia’s eighteenth-century pursuit brings along with it a community of readers in pursuit of knowing how to define their 'true selves'; thus, a functional urban community--amid an urban environment that consistently asks this community to differentiate their identities according to the space they inhabit: are you a flâneur, a Cit, a buck, an alderman, a politician, a writer? Dickens’s adaptation of the female pursuit casts him as a retrospective novelist who is interested in transforming Cecilia’s initial pursuit into Florence’s flight. Most of these male writers acquire and convey knowledge to their readers using the classical vehicle of peripatetic rambles or Lyceum-like Socratic wanderings -- not the 'flights' of Burney’s and Dickens’s heroines. [^]
 Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction, p. 23. [^]
Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Burney, Frances. Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress. Ed. Peter Sabor and Margaret Anne Doody. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Dickens, Charles. Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1970.
Epstein Nord, Deborah. Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Meyer Spacks, Patricia, "Women and the City." Johnson and His Age. Ed. James Engell. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. 485-507.
Zwinger, Lynda, "The Fear of the Father: Dombey and Daughter." Nineteenth-Century Fiction (39:4): 420-440.