Learning by Heart in <i>Our Mutual Friend</i>

Sarah Winter

in The Pleasures of Memory

Published by Fordham University Press

Published in print June 2011 | ISBN: 9780823233526
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780823241132 | DOI:
Learning by Heart in Our Mutual Friend

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  • Literary Studies (19th Century)


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This chapter analyzes how Dickens's final completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, actively includes the poor in Victorian cultural life by emphasizing the creative aspects of everyday labor and the independent thinking expressed even by the illiterate. As the opposing force to the inventiveness spurred by necessity, the rote uses of memory in both Victorian schooling and attitudes associated with social class come under attack in the novel. Situating the novel in the context of debates over franchise reform and parliamentary funding of popular education in the 1860s, the chapter shows how the schoolmaster Bradley Headstone's psychopathology embodies the novel's critique of the mid-Victorian state's role in the provision of false incentives for working-class literacy. The flawed Victorian liberal view of education as a vehicle for controlling the extension of the franchise threatens to derail Dickens's democratic project for literature by constraining memory's powers of coherence and social connection within the uneven distributions of culture provided by the Victorian education system. Jenny Wren, the doll's dressmaker, and Venus, the “articulator” of anatomical specimens, model memory's productive uses in entrepreneurial and artistic invention, thus enacting the novel's exploration of Victorian popular culture's democratic potential to provide cultural values bridging the social divisions of class.

Keywords: rote learning; illiteracy; Victorian educational reform; democratic cultural politics; memory and invention; performative reading; cultural participation; political reform; Our Mutual Friend; novelistic pedagogy

Chapter.  19233 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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