Crowding Between the Book Covers

In her new book, Emily Steinlight, Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English, focuses on overpopulation as a central theme of 19th-century British novels.

Friday, July 20, 2018

By Dan Hanson

Emily Steinlight, the Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English

"Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

     - Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol


Think of a Charles Dickens novel—pick almost any one. When you think about it, Dickens’ novels are packed with people, from myriad named characters to the nameless throngs navigating London streets and those overcrowding orphanages, prisons, factories, and workhouses. The population practically presses the margins of the pages and crowds the confines of each chapter.

In her book, Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life, Emily Steinlight examines, not the well-studied characters of Dickens novels, or those of other 19th-century British writers such as Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad, but the unidentified masses that pervade their literary works.

“Reading 19th-century novels, and especially the novels of Dickens, I became more and more interested in their sheer crowdedness—their human density,” says Steinlight, the Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English. “There’s a sense, I think, when you read a novel like Bleak House, not just of the number of named characters, who are nearly impossible to keep track of, but of crowding that almost exceeds the capacity to give names to people, or even to describe them in impressionistic ways.”

Dickens’ novels, and those of several of his contemporary British writers, could be seen to mirror the times. During the 19th century, the population of England and Wales more than tripled from about 8.9 million in 1801 to 32.5 million in 1901 as the country moved from a rural, agrarian economy to an urban, industry-centered economy.

In Populating the Novel, Steinlight contends that, rather than simply reflecting this demographic growth, such pervasive literary crowding contributed to a seismic shift in British political thought. She shows how the 19th-century novel claimed a new cultural role as it took on the task of narrating human aggregation at a moment when the specter of surplus population suddenly became a central premise of modern politics.

Whereas the individual character, or protagonist, seemed to serve as the center of meaning in novels before this period, population begins to emerge as the focus in 19th-century British novels, Steinlight says. This is the case not just in works where crowds are directly represented, as in Dickens’ city novels or Gaskell’s industrial novels, but also in much more sparsely populated stories set in the countryside. Hardy’s novels, for instance, make even their isolated protagonists view themselves as statistics, part of a vast set of devalued lives.

“In Hardy’s novels, it’s as though any individual character could simply be disposable, and therefore, being an individual, in the novelistic sense, no longer automatically sets you apart from masses of other people—even in your own life story—as it once seemed to do in other kinds of novels,” Steinlight says.

As the population of England boomed, social issues associated with it began to impact political thought. Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798, serves as a touchstone for population science and the emergence of biopolitics. That essay paints a grim picture of the future, one filled with poverty, violence, and epidemic as checks to human population if otherwise unchecked.

“Malthus gave a completely new political significance to human numbers and to biological life through his theory that the human species is, through constant geometric reproduction, always going to exceed its food supply,” says Steinlight.

Writers—poets, essayists, and novelists—of his day were some of the key voices debating his conclusions. Some of them argued against him that inequality, poverty, ecological scarcity and damage, a population exceeding the number of jobs, were the product of social rather than natural causes.

“Malthus saw this just as a given, an unfortunate fact of life to be reined in where possible to preserve social order as it stood, but other thinkers and writers in his wake actually made overcrowding into an enabling condition: on the one hand, a palpably real problem, but on the other, a starting point for telling different kinds of stories about society,” Steinlight explains. “That was the central challenge that a lot of 19th-century novels were trying to think their way through.

Steinlight, who won the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching by an Assistant Professor in 2015, says she often hears from colleagues that it is impossible to teach long novels now, because students’ attention spans have shortened significantly.

“I haven’t found that to be the case,” she says. “I mean, of course, attention spans have changed and keep changing for most of us, myself included, but I find that a lot of students connect in really powerful ways with 19th-century novels, partly because those novels themselves were actually produced for a world that was grappling with its own questions of how both information and narratives were being disseminated, and under what conditions. Many of the texts I teach were first published serially in short segments, and the serial novel was one of the mass media of that moment that shows us how literature adapted to the fact of distraction, of brief and interrupted time for reading.

“I also think that, over and above those practical questions of the rhythms of reading, students find something genuinely exciting about the narrative dynamism and scope of a lot of these novels; the sense that the future is an unfinished project in a lot of ways. It wouldn’t have surprised Victorian writers at all to hear that we’re looking at these novels partly as experiments in political imagination. In their own time, they were regularly getting cited in policy debates. I tend to present the novels that I teach as ways of posing problems, and I invite the students to engage in that work themselves as readers.”