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Household Words Narrative

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The Household Narrative of Current Events [was] a twopenny monthly retrospect of national, international news, and other information, published from April 1850 to December 1855 (including numbers for January - March 1850) […. It] aimed to extend the scope of the main journal in new directions, making the suite of publications a complete, cheap and widely available compendium to the life of the times.

An advertisement for the Narrative called it ‘a complete and carefully-digested ANNUAL REGISTER,’ indicating Dickens’s hope that in its bound volume form it would emulate Burke and Dodsley’s famous Annual Register … [of] History, Politicks, and Literature, which he himself found so useful as a reference work for his journalism and historical fiction.[i] Dickens’s front-page announcement of the new venture reminded readers of ‘the intimate connexion between the facts and realities of the time, and the means by which we aim, in Household Words, to soften what is hard in them, to exalt what is held in little consideration, and to show the latent hope there is in what may seem unpromising.’ The Narrative would thereby be another means ‘to bear the world’s rough cast events to the anvil of courageous duty, and there beat them into shape.’ If the Victorian reporter is often figured as Asmodeus, the strange compound metaphor here casts the Victorian editor as Vulcan.[ii]

The Narrative’s nine subdivisional headings – ‘Parliament and Politics,’ ‘Law and Crime,’ ‘Accident and Disaster,’ ‘Social, Sanitary and Municipal Progress,’ ‘Obituaries, Colonies and Dependencies,’ ‘Foreign Events,’ ‘Commercial Record,’ ‘Stocks and Shares,’ and ‘Emigration Figures’ – clearly signalled a continuation of the special interest shown by Household Words in all these topics, presented in a more regimented, heavily factual and statistical format. To the extent that it provided the kind of corroborative detail and data on which the parent magazine based its arguments and reform campaigns, the Narrative acted as a guarantor of the integrity of opinion in Household Words. However, parts of the Narrative unmistakably maintain the ideological slant of the magazine, in particular its opinion-driven leading articles on ‘Parliament and Politics,’ attributed to John Forster.[iii] Forster, indeed, for several years received an annual income of over £200 from his eighth share, for which it seems reasonable to assume that he was expected to do more than simply publicise the journal by excerpting its articles in The Examiner.[iv]  Only six Household Words articles by him are recorded in the Office Book between 1850 and 1853, and there is certainly a Forsterian gravitas about some of the Narrative’s pronouncements, which seem beyond the scope of the ‘good old simple-minded man’ (Dickens’s father-in-law, George Hogarth), whom Morley recalled had the routine job of ‘compound[ing] the news of the household narrative out of the papers.’ Wills also helped with the publication, taking what he called ‘the labouring oar,’ in its production, rather than ‘a higher berth.’[v] It was Dickens himself, however, who orchestrated the dual coverage of important events in the two publications. After the death and extravagant State Funeral of the Duke of Wellington, for example, he reserved space in the columns of Household Words for his own objections, and in those of the September and November Narratives for leaders on Wellington’s character, Chancellor Disraeli’s Parliamentary panegyric (the ‘bad taste’ of which was predictably contrasted with the ‘sincere and deep expression’ of sorrow shown in the streets by working people), and factual resumés of the career of ‘England’s greatest general.’[vi]

The Household Narrative became briefly significant for Dickens studies in the 1940s when a pioneering critic indicated how it could be mined as a source for ‘originals,’ incidents and other clues about the crafting of Dickens’s fiction, but it has remained in this and other respects, as another scholar agreed in 1961, ‘specially relevant and little explored.’[vii] The reason for the Narrative’s discontinuation after the December 1855 number is unclear, but apart from the obvious suggestion that it was not paying, may be connected with Forster’s retirement that Christmas as editor of the Examiner, and from full-time journalism. Two months later, he also relinquished his eighth share in Household Words, having continued to receive profits until 30 September of the previous year.[viii]  In letters to Dickens on his Italian bachelor jaunt of 1853, Forster had complained of W. H. Wills ‘as not consulting him enough’ in the management of the periodical during Dickens’s absence, and was ‘evidently very sore on that connexion.’ The marked coolness which developed between the two rival advisers and assistants may have strengthened his resolve to cut all ties with the journal. The relinquished share was made over to Dickens, who in turn gifted half of it –though the terms were never satisfactorily defined – to Wills.[ix]


Reproduced from chapter 7 of Dickens the Journalist by John M. L. Drew © 2003 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).

[i] Commenced/published by R. Dodsley from 1758 & ed. by Edmund Burke until 1790; different versions contd. until 1954; CD owned a set complete to 1860 (Stonehouse; Letters 5 169&n.) and used it regularly (see Letters 2 228, Letters 6 799&n., Letters 11 287 & 386&nn. and Our Mutual Friend Bk 3, chap. 5).

[ii] ‘The Forge’ was a rejected title for Household Words, and one CD and [Wilkie] Collins toyed with for its successor: ‘The Forge …/ “We beat out our ideas on this” / ONCE A-WEEK’ (P9 16&n.); note also the wording of CD’s offer to stand in for Collins during his illness: ‘I am … ready … to strike in and hammer the hot iron out’ (Letters 10 142).

[iii] The Narrative ‘was allotted to Forster, and he furnished a substantial portion’ (Fitzgerald, Memories 124); Morley affirmed that ‘Forster does its leading article’ (Solly 200).

[iv] Lorhli 275.

[v] Solly 200, Lehmann 165.

[vi] CD corresponds with Miss Coutts about his disposition of coverage in both publications, Letters 6, 804-5; his article for HW was called ‘Trading in Death,’ and while toasting Wellington’s ‘glorious memory’ it condemned the revival of costly State Funerals as ‘a pernicious instance and encouragement of the demoralizing practice of trading in Death’ (VI.241-5; repr. D3, 95-105); see Waters.

[vii] The most famous Narrative ‘original’ is of Jo (Bleak House No. 6 [June 1852] onwards), ‘discovered’ when House (32-3) reprinted the testimony of George Ruby from the Jan. 1850 Narrative; Collins, ‘Significance’ 64.

[viii] As early as Feb 1854 he had notified the other partners of his ‘inability henceforth to contribute literary articles to Household Words’ (Lehmann 196, citing unsigned Agreement from Wills’s papers).

[ix] Letters 7 205, Letters 8 Appendix B 730.

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