Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Emotions, Ethics and Sociality in Dickens's Sketches of Young Couples

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Emotions, Ethics and Sociality in Dickens's Sketches of Young Couples

Article excerpt

The diffusion of Dickens's interests when he published Sketches of Young Couples in early 1840, (1) together with the slight nature of this collection, suggest that these sketches were far from an artistic priority for the author. Appearing anonymously due to contractual obligations with Richard Bentley, the volume received relatively little critical attention and was dismissed as "humorous," "agreeable" and "a pleasant chatty book" (Chittick 144). Even Dickens himself referred to the publication as "a poor thing of little worth" (Tillotson 43). Despite Dickens's self-deprecation, however, I want to suggest that Sketches of Young Couples warrants further critical attention because, and not in spite, of its apparent ephemerality. (2)

Scheduled for publication to coincide with the marriage of Victoria and Albert on February 10, 1840, Sketches of Young Couples appeared at a transitional moment in the history of Victorian sexuality and domesticity. In the cultural reception of the royal marriage, there was often an emphasis on Victoria's personal happiness which suggested the emergence of a new value on the primacy of feelings over politics: even a sovereign's marriage was the domain of private emotions--albeit subject to a very public scrutiny. (3) It is possible, then, to view Sketches of Young Couples as one instance within a broader cultural exploration of companionate marriage, emerging as the dominant form of marriage in an increasingly bourgeois society. Sketches of Young Couples explores the paradox of the married couple as comprised of two individuals: as a relation between two people, the couple is simultaneously a form of sociality and a retreat to a zone of intimacy. In his description of different types of couples, Dickens posits the married couple as, on the one hand, an ethical entity that interacts with a wider social world and, on the other, an ethical relation within itself. Depicting the couple's treatment of each other and their relationships with a range of others (children, relatives, servants, friends and acquaintances), Sketches of Young Couples maps the parameters of ethical or unethical forms of sociality.

Complicating this exploration of the ethical dimension of the couple is the fact that in these Sketches people are made of feelings: social identities are built on the performance and circulation of emotions, and social relations are shown to be a projection and negotiation of feelings and desires. In turn, the boundaries which separate individuals or unite intimate pairings are marked by emotional limits which may be self-imposed or socially-regulated. Feelings circulate in both private and public contexts, across lines of gender or class, and may bring people together in harmonious community or isolate them in solipsistic settings. In Sketches of Young Couples, the question of the relation between ethics and feelings recur: when is emotion ethical and when is it not? Can the marital dyad operate ethically and affectionately at the same time? Or does emotional intimacy necessarily preclude an ethical engagement with a wider social realm? Bound up with this issue of ethical intimacy is the recurring problem of the authenticity of emotions. (4) The inauthentic performance of marital feeling is roundly condemned by the narrator and is usually associated with an excessive expression of feeling. Too much emphasis on feeling may be as unethical as too little and achieving a balance between personal feeling and social behavior is further complicated by the narrator's "Dispassionate experience" (458), the source of his self-proclaimed authority to pronounce on the proper form and expression of conjugal feeling.

In examining the ways in which Dickens depicts the ethical potential of intimacy through the example of married couples, I am influenced by a Levinasian approach to ethics in which "the ethical relation actually structures subjectivity" (Bell, "On Ethics" 160; see also Critchley 62). …

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