Fiction and Non-Fiction in 19th Century England Example of the Grotesque Essay

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All without distinction were branded as fanatics and phantasts; not only those, whose wild and exorbitant imaginations had actually engendered only extravagant and grotesque phantasms, and whose productions were, for the most part, poor copies and gross caricatures of genuine inspiration; but the truly inspired likewise, the originals themselves. And this for no other reason, but because they were the unlearned, men of humble and obscure occupations. (Coleridge Biographia IX)

To a certain extent, Coleridge's polemical point here is consistent with his early radical politics, and his emergence from the lively intellectual community of London's "dissenting academies" at a time when religious non-conformists (like the Unitarian Coleridge) were not permitted to attend Oxford or Cambridge: he is correct that science and philosophy were more active among "humble and obscure" persons, like Joseph Priestley or Anna Letitia Barbauld, who had emerged from the dissenting academies because barred (by religion or gender) from admittance to Oxbridge intellectual respectability. However, what is crucial to note here is that Coleridge indicates that "grotesque" is the term of dismissal to be used among these lively and unfettered imaginations that Coleridge is otherwise at pains to valorize. Both Austen and Coleridge, in other words, understand that the imaginative excess associated with the grotesque is something that can be readily dismissed in 1817 by mockery: however Austen would like to harness the mockery to dismiss the vogue for Gothic fiction, whereas Coleridge would like to get beyond the mockery to show where, in philosophy and science, imagination is actually most vital, even if it is not quite socially respectable.

By mid-century, however, these forces in the use of grotesque in prose were fully integrated as a matter of style. We can contrast two convenient examples from mid-century England, in Dickens's 1850 novel David Copperfield, compared with Carlyle's notorious essay originally published in 1849 under the title "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question." Dickens is, of course, the great master of the grotesque in the Victorian novel. Most of Dickens' villains -- the villainous dwarf Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, the hunchback Flintwinch in Little Dorrit, the junkshop-proprietor Krook who perishes of spontaneous combustion in Bleak House -- have names and physical characteristics that signpost them as near-perfect examples of the grotesque. The notion that this grotesquerie is, in some way, related to the streak of social criticism in Dickens' fiction is somewhat attractive, because even the social problems in these novels are configured in ways that recall the grotesque, like the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, Boffin's mammoth dust-heap in Our Mutual Friend, or the philanthropist and negligent mother Mrs. Jellaby in Bleak House who proves Dickens' polemical point about charity beginning at home by being rather grotesquely eaten by the cannibals of Borrioboola-Gha. We can see Dickens' grotesque in a less outlandish form, but still recognizable as grotesque, in the introduction of the villainous Uriah Heep in Chapter 15 of David Copperfield:

When the pony-chaise stopped at the door, and my eyes were intent upon the house, I saw a cadaverous face appear at a small window on the ground floor (in a little round tower that formed one side of the house), and quickly disappear. The low arched door then opened, and the face came out. It was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person -- a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older -- whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention, as he stood at the pony's head, rubbing his chin with it, and looking up at us in the chaise. (Dickens, Chapter 15)

We may note the classic elements of[continue]

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