Competing Cosmopolitanisms in Bleak House
“We are not among those who rejoice in the cosmopolitan liberality, which has of late years become a marked feature in the system of British philosophy,” declares an 1818 review of Lord Byron’s Beppo, A Venetian Story that appeared in The British Review and the London Critical Journal. It goes on:
If it arose from a Christian enlargement of sentiment, like that which animates our societies for carrying to foreign parts the blessings of God’s Holy Word, it would at least have commanded our respect; but as, to speak the truth, we impute it rather to a growing indifference of moral worth, than to any Christian expansion of benevolence, we cannot hold it in any high estimation.
The article sharply contrasts two understandings of cosmopolitanism: one signifying the strict Christian morality exported by mission societies which, as a sermon by one of the founding directors of the London Missionary Society shows, were determined to “illuminate the brutish mind of a Pagan besotted with ignorance and superstition in the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus”; and the other, marked by “growing indifference to the distinction of moral worth” and implicitly aligned with Byron’s well-known revolutionary sympathies (Sermons 174). For the reviewer, the two sentiments are opposed to one another: the former he treats with approbation for upholding British Christian morality, while the latter, he intimates, deserves nothing but censure for its moral laxness.
Yet, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House asks nearly thirty-five years later, are these two competing cosmopolitanisms really so distinct? In the characters of Mrs. Jellyby and Harold Skimpole, two of the most prominent objects of satire in Bleak House, the novel presents a woman involved wholly in her “Mission” to Africa and a childish man who claims to be, as he says, “truly cosmopolitan” (Bleak House 38, 227). Despite Skimpole’s assertion that he could not be further from possessing Mrs. Jellyby’s “strong will” and “immense power of business detail,” the novel insists again and again that the characters are quite similar (67). Showing repeatedly that their seemingly divergent “cosmopolitan sympathies” have much the same results—domestic impoverishment, the neglect of one’s children, and no good accomplished for anyone at all—Bleak House suggests, contrary to the reviewer of Beppo, that there are no separate understandings of cosmopolitanism. Since the cosmopolitan ideal insists upon taking the world at large to be just as much the object of one’s attachment and responsibility as the local, domestic and national, avowed cosmopolites run the risk of ignoring immediate, concrete problems in their fidelity to addressing more abstract, theoretical global issues. Bleak House, by insisting that no amount of professed “benevolence” alters this fundamental problem, denies that Christian “cosmopolitan liberality,” to quote the reviewer of Byron, is anymore praiseworthy than a “morally indifferent” cosmopolitanism. The result, I suggest, is the devaluation of the Christian cosmopolitanism that had been trumpeted by foreign mission societies in the early nineteenth century, and the association of “true” Christian sentiment with the good one does for immediate family, actual neighbors, and one’s own country, not for the generalized, “Brotherhood of Humanity.” (41).
As World Christianity historians like Brian Stanley and Penny Carson have shown, the intellectual framework of Britain’s modern missionary movement was characterized by the seemingly paradoxical union of Enlightenment and evangelical motifs. See, e.g., Brian Stanley’s Christian Missions and the Enlightenment (Cambridge: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing, 2001). In the first chapter of my dissertation, I demonstrate how without any sense of irony modern mission societies cast their projects in the militant rhetoric of a largely more secular cosmopolitanism and claimed their missionaries to be the “only true cosmopolites” (as the introduction to John Williams’ Narrative of Missionary Enterprises asserts) (xi). Indeed, these nondenominational (but strongly evangelical) societies continuously invoked “cosmopolitanism” as a means of describing the missionary project to a broader English public. An 1806 article printed in The Evangelical Magazine entitled “The Good Pastor”—which, true to its title, describes the life of a good pastor—states that such a pastor takes “the whole world” as the object of his preaching (13). Therefore, although he may only preach to a small congregation in a rural town, the “[pastor] is a cosmopolite” (13). Moreover, as revealed by a recommendation issued by the London Missionary Society, it was not enough for a pastor to hold this cosmopolitan view; he also had the responsibility to impart such a view to his congregation. William Whitehead, in his Letter to the Rev. Daniel Wilson (1818), describes this recommendation: “clerical members [are] to give occasional lectures from that celebrated text book, the Missionary Register, and thus to assist the favorite scheme of enlarging the at present confined affections and charity of the poor, to feelings and benevolences more cosmopolitan” (41). The sentiment is repeated again in a sermon published in an 1804 edition of Missionary Magazine:
Improve your humility and diligence with various dispensations of providence. Those which relate immediately to yourselves and to your families will naturally attract peculiar attention. But as every christian [sic] is a citizen of the world; and from the selfishness of depraved nature, his heart expands in universal benevolence; and from being arrested solely by the conduct of those around him, he extends his views to the acts of the great Ruler of the universe, you will likewise fix your eyes on the dispensations of God towards the community, of which you form a part, and also towards all the nations of the earth.
The idea of the “citizen of the world”—dating back to Diogenes’ famous response to the question of whence he came—is one closely tied to the cosmopolitan ideal. As the passage above demonstrates, this conception implicitly contends that it is the good Christian’s moral imperative to transcend the “selfishness” of only considering “the conduct of those around him,” and instead reach a view of “universal benevolence” that encompasses “all the nations of the earth.” In this way, mission societies invoked “cosmopolitanism” to describe the responsibilities of missionaries and missionary activity to a broader, and not necessarily evangelical, British public.
However, in doing so, mission societies also influenced how “cosmopolitanism” itself was understood. As the review of Beppo implies, many in England associated Enlightenment cosmopolitanism with morally dissolute, irreligious, and potentially Jacobinal sentiments thanks in large part to Edmund Burke’s suspicion of the cosmopolitan sentiments professed by supporters of the French Revolution. Burke’s strident, highly public opposition to the French Revolution, as Esther Wohlgemut notes in her study on Romantic instantiations of cosmopolitan feeling, proved primarily responsible for “sett[ing] up the oppositional relationship between cosmopolitanism and nationalism that was to inform mainstream British reception of cosmopolitanism” (25). His 1791 “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” for example, argues that the National Assembly, by exhorting Rousseauian “Benevolence to the whole species,” also breeds a “want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact” (35). Continuing with this scathing line of attack, he writes, “this hero of [French] vanity […] melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by the remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away […] his children to the hospital of foundlings” (35). For Burke, devotion to the whole species could only come at the expense of local attachment, which went against the “natural” and moral social order. It was precisely from these dangerously radical and morally dissolute associations that mission societies—certainly unintentionally, but effectively—wrested “cosmopolitanism,” reimagining the ideal as aligned not with French “new philosophy” (as Burke termed it), but with British Christian morality. By the time of the publication of Bleak House, therefore, two understandings of “cosmopolitanism” were prevalent in British society, and what is more, they were taken to be diametrically opposed in terms of their morality and praiseworthiness.
I propose then, we look at Mrs. Jellyby and Harold Skimpole as associated respectively with these two modes of cosmopolitanism: the one, strongly associated with the activity of the modern missionary movement, and the other, evocative of Mary Anne Burges’ “Mr. Cosmopolitan” from her 1800 anti-Jacobinal book, The Progress of the Pilgrim Good Intent, in Jacobinal Times, who refuses to “occup[y] himself with any business” and merrily claims, “I have friends in every street of the fair; and while I wander, without any illiberal preference, from one to the other, I am sure to find myself equally welcome to all” (163, 162). While Mrs. Jellyby’s domestic habits were modeled on those of philanthropist Caroline Chisholm, her “telescopic philanthropy”—aimed at settling families, educating the natives and promoting the cultivation of coffee in Borrioboola-Gha—is tied strongly to Exeter Hall, the center of evangelical missionary activity in London and the site where organizations like the London Missionary Society held their enormous annual meetings. As Norris Pope notes, the Borrioboola-Gha project almost certainly had “nothing to do with Mrs. Chisholm’s work in behalf of emigration, which Dickens admired” (127). Rather, Mrs. Jellyby’s mission work for Borrioboola-Gha, failing, as Esther recounts, “in consequence of the King of Borrioboola wanting to sell everybody—who survived the climate—for Rum” was modeled on a catastrophic expedition to the River Niger in 1841 that had the aims of stemming the slave trade and improving local agriculture (768). Dickens, reviewing the published account of this expedition in the Examiner, famously linked the Niger expedition to Exeter Hall, taking away from it the lesson, “It might be laid down as a very good general rule of social and political guidance, that whatever Exeter Hall champions, is the thing by no means to be done” (“The Niger Expedition” 60). Also linking Mrs. Jellyby’s project to Exeter Hall is Phiz’s cover to the original edition in monthly parts, drawn under the strict, detailed instructions of Dickens. In the illustration, Pope points out, “a philanthropic lady holding two black children [appears] immediately beside the figure representing Exeter Hall” (128). Though this exact philanthropic lady appears nowhere in the novel, the attention the woman appears to be giving to the children is reminiscent of Mrs. Jellyby, as the novel says, “sit[ting] calmly looking miles beyond her grandchild, as if her attention were absorbed a young Boorio-boolan on its native shores” (602). Therefore, despite the conspicuous absence of religion in Mrs. Jellyby’s life, her project remains strongly linked to overseas “Mission” activity. The association turned out to be an enduring one; as a ragged school spokesman observed twelve years after Bleak House’s publication, Borrioboola-Gha had become “the worldling’s nickname for foreign missions” (Qtd. in Pope 142-3).
In Mrs. Jellyby’s dedication to her “Mission” she exhibits the “cosmopolitan liberality” that was tied to foreign mission societies. Echoing Reverend David Bogue’s exhortation to reach a view of “universal benevolence,” she declares to Caddy that her sympathies lie not with any one individual person, but “with the destinies of the human race” (296). And, in fact, by justifying her Borrioboola-Gha project by basing it upon feeling for “the Brotherhood of Humanity,” she sounds surprisingly similar to the novel’s “cosmopolitan” Skimpole, who also does not hesitate to invoke humanity’s “brotherhood” to forward his own interests (41). When asked by a local baker to return a pair of borrowed arm-chairs, Skimpole reasons with the baker, “[W]e are all children of one great mother, Nature [and] on this blooming summer morning here you see me […] contemplating Nature. I entreat you, by our common brotherhood, not to interpose between me and a subject so sublime” (521). Putting such similar statements into the mouths of these two otherwise so dissimilar objects of satire suggests that Mrs. Jellyby and Skimpole, the ardent philanthropist and the idle bohemian, are satires not of entirely different objects after all, but of one and the same thing: the moral bankruptcy of cosmopolitanism, even if it has been Christianized.
Other details in the novel emphasize the similarities shared by Mrs. Jellyby and Skimpole. The result of Mrs. Jellyby’s obsession with Africa, for example, is “bills, dirt, waste, noise, tumbles down-stairs, confusion and wretchedness” (167). This description of Mrs. Jellyby’s house in many ways matches that of Skimpole’s, which is in a similar “state of dilapidation”: “Two or three of the area railings were gone; the water-butt was broken; the knocker was loose; the bell-handle had been pulled off a long time […]; and dirty footprints on the steps were the only signs of it being inhabited” (523). And, just as Mrs. Jellyby fortifies herself with piles of papers and letters concerned with the dealings of Africa, Esther, Ada and Jarndyce find Skimpole surrounded by “music, newspapers, and a few sketches and pictures” which, based on the songs he sings and the sketches he describes just a few pages later, are probably foreign (he sings “refrains of barcaroles and drinking songs” which Esther identifies as “Italian and German,” and he describes some sketches he had begun a year or two ago of “the ruined old Verulam wall”) (523, 529). It is difficult to miss the symbolism; attention to what is foreign comes at the expense of the domestic sphere.
Undoubtedly, however, Mrs. Jellyby and Skimpole’s most pronounced similarity is their shared neglect of their own families. Esther, at one point, reflects, “I always wondered […] whether [Skimpole] ever thought of Mrs. Skimpole and the children, and in what point of view they presented themselves to his cosmopolitan mind. So far as I could understand, they rarely presented themselves at all” (227). Esther may just as well have been describing Mrs. Jellyby, whose focus on Africa results in the neglect of her own spouse and children. Therefore, despite Jarndyce’s apparent belief that the two are “opposites,” the novel takes pains to show that Mrs. Jellyby’s missionary work resembles more it than departs from Skimpole’s culturally-dillentantish, alarmingly selfish brand of cosmopolitanism (183).
Yet, the point to be taken here is less that Mrs. Jellyby and Skimpole are one and the same, than that Bleak House refuses to see a distinction between mission societies’ Christian cosmopolitanism and that Jacobinic Rousseauistic cosmopolitanism that Burke claimed would encourage parents to cast away their own children—a distinction that mission societies had worked so hard and for so long to assert. Thus, while many critics have noted Dickens’ antipathy for missionaries—a group he once called “perfect nuisances [who] leave every place worse than they found it”—his attack on them is, I believe, even more caustic than what is implied by the image of Jo, the destitute crossing-sweep, juxtaposed against the building for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (Letters of Charles Dickens 282). Bleak House not only accuses mission societies of overlooking domestic problems, but also indicates that their attempts to Christianize cosmopolitanism—to make the ideal of universal brotherhood moral where it was immoral, compatible with rather than antithetical to mainstream British values—failed to change or recuperate the ideal at all. Even worse, “Christianized” cosmopolitanism, Bleak House suggests, may also make an inherently immoral sentiment palatable, welcome, and attractive to English tastes—after all, where there is only one Harold Skimpole in the novel, there is an army of mission-minded philanthropists.
I want to suggest, however, that the reason this “cosmopolitan liberality” is so strongly denounced in the novel is precisely because of Dickens’ awareness that a sound, Christian morality treads a fine line between taking care of one’s immediate friends and family and one’s responsibility to a larger circle of strangers and foreigners. Esther unintentionally reveals the ambiguity of this line when she says to Mrs. Pardiggle, trying to decline the invitation to join her on “visiting rounds,” “I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could, to those immediately about me; and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself” (96). Mrs. Pardiggle could claim that she already does exactly what Esther describes—she insists upon a strict, Christian morality first at home, before forcing it upon the poor she visits as part of her charity work. Though Esther means to differentiate her own "duty" from that of Mrs. Pardiggle's, the questions remain: how does a small circle of duty “naturally” expand itself? And, moreover, what are its limits? Alan Woodcourt, perhaps better than Mrs. Jellyby, reveals Dickens’ concerns about the British expansion of benevolence overseas. Woodcourt, just returned from a disastrous voyage, plans to give “a long trial to another country,” where his medical skills, we can infer, certainly will aid the local population (606). Yet, as Jarndyce worries, to allow Woodcourt to go abroad seems “like casting such a man away” (605). What Woodcourt offers to Bleak House is the recognition that expending one’s charity on a faraway object is not inherently useless, but poses a danger because benevolent energy seems to be a limited resource. Undoubtedly good, moral work can be accomplished overseas, but it requires the loss of Britain’s best, good and moral men working for domestic interests. To imagine benevolence being of limited quantity—part of a zero-sum game—cuts to the heart of mission societies’ view of benevolence as an unlimited resource. To mission societies, adopting a cosmopolitan view meant expanding or enlarging one’s benevolence or one’s heart, a very different idea than that which is offered by Dickens; for Esther, notably, does not engage in missionary rhetoric, saying that her heart and affections must be enlarged. Rather, she pointedly is made to say that it is her circle of duty that will “naturally expand itself.” What she will “try” to do is to “let” it alone—her endeavors, in other words, are concentrated on not acting, on remaining passive.
This returns me to Phiz’s original cover of Bleak House. Michael Steig observes that one vignette in it stands as the “most puzzling element in the Bleak House cover” (134). In it, Esther stands looking at a fox which represents Jarndyce (Steig 135). Directly in front of her is an impish man in a swamp, holding a light in one hand and balancing a globe on his head. This globe, posits Stieg, represents “worldliness” or is “a symbol of the material world,” while the lantern and swamp together “suggest the will-o’-wisp, a prominent emblem used in nineteenth-century graphic art to represent temptation” (135). Therefore, he claims, the image represents those “materialistic temptations” Esther faces in the novel (135). Yet, is it material goods that offer themselves to Esther or is there temptation of another kind offered to her? Throughout the novel, Esther again and again is asked to lend her support to various philanthropic causes. “Do you know Miss Summerson,” Mrs. Jellyby says in her first encounter with Esther, “I almost wonder that you never turned your thoughts to Africa” (38). Though Esther never does embrace missionary activity, Mrs. Jellyby’s admonition is not without its effect. After dinner, Esther recounts, “I felt that Ms. Jellyby looked down upon me […] for being so frivolous, and I was sorry for it” (42). The “it” Esther is sorry for goes oddly undefined. She may be sorry that Mrs. Jellyby looks down upon her when she has done nothing wrong; but then again, the ambivalence of the sentence also opens the possibility that Esther feels guilt for caring only about more immediate, potentially “frivolous,” problems. In light of this undefined "it," Phiz’s cover represents, perhaps, not materialism, but the world itself—the dangerous cosmopolitan impulse, that is, to abandon one’s immediate sphere of friends and family and to take on the whole world as the object of one’s benevolence. And, as the vignette implies, with the Jarndyce-fox supplicating Esther on the one hand and the impish man tempting her with the world on the other, to choose one for Dickens necessarily is to abandon the other.
Dickens’ engagement with cosmopolitanism has been drawing attention from scholars such as Amanda Anderson and, recently, Tanya Agathocleous. Yet, discussions of cosmopolitanism in Dickens’ novels have tended to ignore the conceptual history of cosmopolitanism itself, the fraught, usually contradictory ways in which groups that were sometimes ideologically at odds would employ the ideal. Simultaneously, some treatments of Dickens’ religion take for granted that despite his satirical attacks on organized religion, Dickens himself was a very good Christian—an assumption that ignores a point made by Karl Ashley Smith, that what constituted “good Christianity” in the mid-nineteenth century was by no means clear. To claim, as some critics have, that Dickens followed “Christian principles” without interrogating contemporaneous religious debates risks obscuring the enormous influence Dickens had in shaping how Christian principles would come to be defined in his age and country. By situating my reading of the cosmopolitanism of Bleak House in the context of Jacobinic and missionary definitions of the term, I try to identify a specific mechanism by which Dickens argues for “good” Christianity being a matter of local, immediate attachment—of “sentimental emotion” as the periodical Evangelical Christendom charges in their obituary of the novelist—rather than of a more abstracted sense of global responsibility.
Jade Werner is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Northwestern University. Her interests include missionary history, cosmopolitanism, British imperialism, and the novel. She is currently at work on a dissertation tentatively entitled “The Gospel and the Globe: Missionary Enterprises and the Cosmopolitan Imagination from 1795-1910.”
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