The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: April, 2012

A Reflection on Hero-Worship

Thomas Carlyle, such a pervasive influence on mid-19th century thought, was a great believer in the power of exceptional individuals to shape collective human destiny: “The History of the world”, he once wrote, “is but the Biography of great men” (On Heroes 34). And what must we do when we recognize one of these great men in our midst? Why, we must worship him, of course. Carlyle was also a great believer in the importance of worship. What one worships, it could almost be said, is a matter of secondary importance, primary importance being given to the fact that one does, at least, worship something: “[W]hoso cannot obey cannot be free […] [O]nly in reverently bowing down before the Higher does [man] feel himself exalted”, insists the Carlylean avatar Professor Teufelsdrockh (Sartor Resartus 189-190).

Thomas Carlyle, engraving from a photo taken in 1874, when Carlyle would have been about 78 (Wikimedia Commons).

How one recognizes the fit object of worship is something Carlyle wasn’t altogether clear on, though often his stance seems reducible to the formula “might is right” (i.e. he who has managed to secure physical power is he who has proved himself worthy of obedience), and, indeed, in analysis Carlyle’s philosophy often has been reduced to this formula.

But whatever one may think of Carlyle’s social and political philosophies, he was surely on the button when he asserted the apparent psychological importance of worship for the “omnivorous biped” that is man (Sartor Resartus 51). Though we no longer tend to engage in the open power worship of a Carlyle, we yet have a need to make heroes. If one was to make a massive generalization, the Victorian era was the time of power worship and the late 20th/ early 21st century is that of victim worship. The wittiest and most succinct illustration of this I can recall, and one that often reoccurs to me when I witness the phenomenon, is from an early episode of The Simpsons:

Homer: That Timmy is a real hero!

Lisa:  How do you mean, Dad?

Homer: Well, he fell down a well, and… he can’t get out.

Lisa:  How does that make him a hero?

Homer: Well, that’s more than you did!

(Season 3, Ep. 13, “Radio Bart”)

It’s perhaps funnier seen in context than read, but nevertheless… it illustrates in nuce the current state of hero-worship in western culture. We no longer draw our heroes from among the powerful; indeed, they tend to becomes scapegoats and objects of opprobrium in times of trouble – we now tend to believe implicitly the dictum that “power corrupts” A corollary of this for 21st-century man and woman is that powerlessness sanctifies, or at least prevents corruption. Homer encounters a victim, Timmy, and sees a hero. Ironically, it is the über-woke Lisa who rejects the ascription of heroism to Timmy. I think this places this episode of The Simpsons firmly in the 90s: 21st-century Lisa would not denigrate the claims to heroism of a true victim.

I have written on this thorny topic elsewhere, in an essay on the BBC Oliver Twist (2007):

Fagin’s demeanour at his trial in the face of the obscene and sadistic injunctions of the symbolic authority (Fang) demonstrates par excellence “the gaze of a perplexed victim” that Slavoj Žižek sees as being the central image of contemporary ideology. The representation of such a gaze neutralizes the threat of the other, but at the same time deprives him/her of the possibility of agency. Such an ascription of victimhood functions to render the other tolerable. Following Žižek’s analysis, we can see the contemporary quest for tolerance as the source of the emphasis on the victim-figure, and its imposition on pre-existing characters bearing a relevant identity, whether it be ethnic, religious or other. [“Adaptation, Transtemporality, and Ideology: The BBC Series Oliver Twist (2007)”, in (Re)Writing Without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts, Ed. By Le Juez, Shiel and Wallace, Common Ground Research Networks, 2018]

Fagin, the ostracised criminal, is not a force of evil as in Dickens. Rather, in his ultimate downfall and the shades of racism that haunt it, the makings of a 21st-century victim-hero are found.

On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (Chapman and Hall, 1869).

Sartor Resartus, ed. Kerry McSweeney  and Peter Sabor (OUP, 1999).

Oliver Twist – The Storm Opening

In his 1990 study of A Christmas Carol, Paul Davis referred to that work as both a text and a “culture-text”. The text is what Dickens wrote, and the culture-text is what we collectively remember. The culture-text is in a constant state of rewriting, “changing as the reasons for retelling it change”. The term culture-text is useful not just for A Christmas Carol, but for any other work that has “inverted the usual fok process” – being not retold until it eventually found a stable form in print, but beginning from the apparent stability of the print form and being retold in endless permutations.

Another obvious example from Dickens’s canon is Oliver Twist. What is the culture-text of Oliver Twist? This seems rather a complex question, and the degree to which it is based on certain adaptations of the novel rather than the novel itself is hard to ascertain exactly. In her essay on Oliver Twist’s screen history, Juliet John suggests David Lean’s 1948 film has somewhat taken over the status of “original text” for subsequent adapters. Having watched quite a few Twists at this point, it is clear to me that Lean’s retelling echoes through its successors in many ways. Perhaps the most obvious demonstration of this is in the opening to Lean’s film.

Lean includes a storm scene at the beginning, one that is not described or even suggested by Dickens. It has no real narrative role: it’s just a storm; then it ends, and the fact of there having been a storm is of no consequence to anything that happens subsequently. It is, however, undoubtedly cinematically effective. The howling wind and the rumbling thunder, the flashing lightning, the innovative camera tilts that coincide with the spasms of pain Agnes (that’s Oliver’s mother’s name) is undergoing as she struggles through the storm, the close-up of the briars, again used in conjunction with shots of Agnes’s face contorted in pain and violin stabs on the soundtrack. And all done without a word of dialogue, or any detail to be gleaned about this character beyond that she is a young woman, heavily pregnant, walking through a storm.

Tilted shot of Agnes (Josephine Stuart), momentarily illuminated by a flash of lightning and in the throes of labour pains.

And this scene has found its way into the culture-text of Oliver Twist, having been used as an opening scene by most subsequent adaptations. The next major adaptation, the 1968 musical Oliver!, is the exception here, and does not use it, even though Oliver! is certainly influenced by Lean’s film in other ways – and Oliver‘s! director Carol Reed employed Lean’s camera operator Oswald Morris as director of photography.

The next adaptation, though, the 1982 made-for-TV Cliver Donner effort, returns to the storm. He also reproduces  Lean’s use of the lightning to illustrate Agnes’s pain, adding to the scene his own touch of a carriage riding by towards which she pleads for help, but is ignored. This prefigures a particular emphasis on the corruption of officialdom and high society in Donner’s film. The presence of the carriage also, perhaps, differentiates the scene from Lean just enough to allow Donner a measure of what Bloom would call artistic priority.

Clive Donner’s Oliver Twist features a shot of lightning followed by a shot of Agnes (Lysette Anthony) reeling from a sudden labour pain, as the rain beats down.

Thenceforth the storm opening has been almost ubiquitous in Oliver Twist adaptations. The 1985 BBC serial, the 1997 Disney film, the 1999 ITV serial, the 2007 BBC serial – all have it in varying forms. Have they all been deliberately paying homage to Lean, or has that scene entered the “culture-text” and become what we think of when we think of Oliver Twist? Do they know they’re not adapting Dickens here, but David Lean? (Or not just David Lean. It should be pointed out that the scene was initially sketched out by Kay Walsh, who played Nancy in the film, and was in a relationship with Lean at the time. Stuck for an opening, Lean canvassed for suggestions, and Walsh wrote hers down in a copybook and handed it to him. The rest is cinematic history.)

The 1999 Alan Bleasdale-penned, Renny Rye-directed Twist had a spectacular setting for its opening scene; not a fully-fledged storm here: very heavy rain, slight thunder and no lightning.

The opening shot from the 2007 BBC Oliver Twist, directed by Coky Giedroyc, replicates a shot from Lean’s opening scene.

The most high profile of recent adaptations, Roman Polanski’s 2005 film, does not use this scene, because his film does not, in fact, depict Oliver’s birth and his mother’s death at all; nor does it bother with the whole Dickensian plot machinery of Oliver’s past, and his genetic inheritance that in Dickens is inextricable from the notion of purity retained amidst such black circumstances.

Finally, it is far beyond the scope of this blog post to attempt to explain or theorize the storm scene and its apparent acceptance into the culture-text of Oliver Twist; it is an interesting phenomenon, though, and one, no doubt, only waiting to have its secrets laid bare by the eagle eye of some scholar of adaptation.

Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean: A Biography. London: Faber, 1997.

Davis, Paul. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. Yale University Press, 1990.

John, Juliet. “Oliver Twist on Screen”. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford University Press, 2010.

The Victorian Bachelor in Adaptation

Victorian novels, especially Dickens’s, tend to feature a benevolent / philanthropic bachelor-type character, who enters for the purpose of providing protection, prospects of social advancement and, often, large amounts of money to the protagonist. Someone like Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist or the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby. They may be an uncle or other relation to the protagonist, or be motivated to help simply by their overflowing niceness, and they ask nothing in return. They are singularly uncomplicated individuals, ones who tend to have no intimate personal relationships but to operate in the capacity of fairy godfathers to any deserving person who happens to come into their path. Recent adaptations suggest this character creates quite a headache, as such disinterested benevolence cannot be accepted as credible.

Andrew Davies was certainly conscious of this when he came to script Bleak House (BBC 2005). Bleak House has John Jarndyce as a central character, and Jarndyce is in the tradition of the benevolent bachelor, though with a complicating factor: he wants to get married to Esther, and traditionally this character is entirely happy with his bachelor state, and never countenances any other possibility. Dickens doesn’t really deal with Jarndyce’s reasons for marrying Esther, or the element of sexual desire that is, presumably, involved in his proposal. Rather, he has Esther (and also Ada) refer to Jarndyce as being “like a father” and other such terms. He also constantly stresses Jarndyce’s moral uprightness, and the respect all the other characters have for him, a sleight of hand obscuring Jarndyce’s real intention, as Davies sees them:

Dickens raises it, in a way, but shies away from it, as usual. Why did Jarndyce not get married before? Why does he settle on a child? Of course, she’s grown up by the time he actually pops the question, but by then she’s so obliged to him, isn’t she? […] Dickens is writing about a man who, for some reason, can’t deal with grown-up women, so what he’d like to do is groom this girl (Cartmell and Whelehan, 240).

Now whether Davies successfully redrafts Jarndyce’s character to get this across is another story. I don’t think he does. Though there are a few telling details added, they’re buried beneath the weight of Jarndyce’s overall niceness and at the serial’s pivotal points, it tends to follow the Dickens approach to Jarndyce. I don’t think anyone comes away from Davies’s Bleak House thinking of Jarndyce having groomed Esther. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting point, and this ambivalence about benevolent bachelor characters recurs in other period dramas of recent vintage.

In North and South (BBC 2004), we have Mr Bell making an implicit offer of marriage to Margaret Hale. Mr Bell is Margaret’s godfather, and her father has entrusted her to him, little suspecting (one presumes) that by “looking after” Margaret, Mr Bell has matrimony in mind. And, of course, in Gaskell’s novel he doesn’t have that in mind. Gaskell’s Mr Bell is presented without any sexual colouring at all; he’s an Oxford don, he’s never been married and the idea of it never seems to have occurred to him. Again, though, for scriptwriter Sandy Welch, this attitude on Bell’s part is unthinkable, and the need is felt to uncover the sexuality lurking under his mild and disinterested exterior.

Mr Bell's proposal

Oliver Twist (BBC 2007) – written by Sarah Phelps, who also scripted the 2011 BBC Great Expectations – is one of the more radical classic serials of recent times: a black Nancy, a Fagin who is victim rather than villain (not without precedent in recent adaptations, but the anti-semitism is explicitly tackled here), and who is also of a rotund figure, thus breaking with the conventional vision of Fagin from Hogarth’s illustrations through Alec Guinness in Lean’s Oliver Twist, Ron Moody in Carol Reed’s Oliver! and beyond. It also rejects the Dickensian portrayal of Brownlow by painting him as a paranoid and somewhat controlling individual. In this version he lives with Rose Maylie – no, he doesn’t want to marry her, but he is a morose and taciturn individual and very over-protective of Rose, being generally opposed to letting her out of the house, because she is the last link with the woman he once loved (who was Rose’s sister and Oliver’s mother– i.e. Rose is O.’s aunt in this version). So this Brownlow, as well as lacking the good temper of Dickens’s character, is also given a romantic past, and perhaps a romantic present, if we see him as having transferred his love for Rose’s older sister onto Rose herself. Actually, it’s Monks, here Brownlow’s nephew (confused yet?) who bears a predatory lust for Rose, but given the close filial relationship between Brownlow and Monks for most of the serial (until Monks’s dastardly Rose-entrapping schemes are revealed), one might well see Monks as a manifestation of Mr B.’s dark urges. It’s all very confusing, but for the purposes of this post all that’s relevant is that Brownlow is not the happy bachelor of Dickens’s novel.

Of course, the greatest of all Victorian bachelors was Sherlock Holmes, albeit much later in the Victorian era. I haven’t seen the serial Sherlock yet (!), so I don’t know if they do try to explore the title character’s sexuality. In Doyle’s stories, Holmes is depicted, I would say, as being “above” sexuality, a concept the Victorians wouldn’t have had a problem with, but that, in the context of recent adaptations, may not now be seen to be credible. Certainly not if the vid below is any indication.

*Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, “A practical understanding of literature on screen: two conversations with Andrew Davies”, in Cartmell and Whelehan, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 240.


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