Statistical Subjects:
The Individual, the City, and the Literary Text

Rowena Fowler Department of English, University of Bristol

My paper explores some of the ways in which the Victorians’ understanding of numbers framed their sense of themselves as city-dwellers and citizens.  I argue that the literary text both contributed to and was reconstituted by developments in statistical analysis and the mathematical calculus of probability. Conversely, I suggest that we can interpret the presence within official documents of narrative, fictionalised characters and personal life-stories as evidence of individual resistance to the potentially abstracting and totalising project of Victorian statistics.

London was at the centre of Victorian concerns about countability and accountability.    Unlike the more uniform cities of the early industrial revolution, London presented, in Raymond Williams’ words, “a contradiction, a paradox; the coexistence of variation and apparent randomness with . . .  a determining system: the visible individual facts but beyond them, often hidden, the common conditions and destiny.” 1 London, the locus of randomness, anonymity, epidemics and faceless crowds, also offered the chance encounters, contingent relationships and structures of social interrelatedness that are at the heart of the Victorian novel.  My first two examples, from Poe [see Appendix: Supporting Quotations: Quotation 1] and Conan Doyle [Quotation 2], offer us a London readable in terms of either “aggregate relations” or individual variety.  The observer controls the switch of viewpoint from the collective to the individual: in Poe to single out a unique figure in the crowd to stalk and so attempt to explain; in Conan Doyle to solve a crime by following up generalised likelihoods—the statistician as detective. 

As the Victorians experienced the breaking down of the "social body" into quantifiable units 2 they found themselves simultaneously counted in (as data) and counted out (as unique, thinking subjects).   Aggregates (e.g. 110,973 men) which in theory still represent real people, could dwarf individuals into insignificance); while averages, medians and percentages, which might be numerically easier to grasp, nevertheless reduced them to obvious abstractions (e.g. 2.6 children). The work of Mary Poovey and Catherine Gallagher has demonstrated the importance for the forms of Victorian fiction of the new methods of anatomising the mass population of a modern state. 3   The explosion of numbers in censuses, registrars’ returns, sanitary reports and tables of mortality, raised the spectre of a blind determinism at work in areas of life (such as marriage, crime, suicide) previously thought to be subject to choice and conditional on individual morality.  Other facts of life, outside human control but believed to be in God’s hands the life span, the balance of the sexes), also threatened to be reducible to mathematical laws.  As Christopher Kent has shown in his work on the average Victorian4 , and as David Trotter points out in his recent study of Victorian mess and contingency, advances in the collection of data and the measurement of uncertainty rendered the individual less certain of his or her autonomy, privacy and personal destiny.  Statistical analysis aimed to make life less chancy; to establish norms, and enable rational decision-making, but, as Trotter puts it: “probability does not exclude randomness. Indeed, it draws attention to randomness”. 5 The 1860s saw something of a panic as the popularisation of statistical “laws” encouraged fatalistic and necessitarian ways of thinking.6 How could the novelist particularise, moralise or psychologise, if suicide, crime and even marriage are fixed quantities?  Deaths from disease, along with traffic accidents and other misadventures, and even exceptional good fortune, no longer prompted the response “How did this happen?” or “What does it mean?” but “Why this particular person?” or even “Could it have been me”?

The implications of probability theory for the shape and status of literary texts have concentrated on the nineteenth-century novel in Britain and France.  They have been concerned not so much with chance as thematised in fiction (as in Conrad’s Chance) 7   but with its role in the construction of texts: with notions of causality and agency and their relationship to fictional coincidences or chance encounters. 8 For a fictional character to be “ probable” seemed to depend on particularity and freedom; it could be unsettled by mass tendencies and the laws of large numbers, for the modern state both pins down and erases the individual.  The fictional plot suspended its characters between the openness of possibility and the forces of demographic or actuarial likelihood.   It is widely recognised that the Victorian novel tells two stories: one inhabiting a deterministic universe and the other depending on chance events that may at any moment redefine the individual’s place within the apparently ordered sequences of cause and effect. My next three examples, from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and from Henry Thomas Buckle’s widely-debated History of Civilization illustrate this strange co-existence.  In Quotation 3   Deronda visits a Mechanics Institute where the members are discussing the idea of numbers as determined and determining qualities; it reads almost like a direct quotation from Buckle [Quotation 4]. In Quotation 5, from the section of the novel appropriately called “meeting streams”, Deronda experiences the actuality of the suicide statistics at first hand: so many people each year will tend to throw themselves into the Thames— this one just happens to be the novel’s heroine and, Deronda, musing by the river, is at hand to rescue her.   The coming together of hero and heroine is, simultaneously, determined and miraculous.

We might assume that novelists would try to avoid or resist quantitative methods; the example of Hard Times is pervasive and still powerful.  I admit here three examples [Quotations 6-8] of anti-statistical writing: the resistance is, variously, social, political and moral/aesthetic.  Trollope in The Eustace Diamonds [Quotation 6] ironically exempts the middle class from statistical generalisation—(only the lower classes behave statistically); Hardy attacks what he sees as the callous lack of accountability inherent in the very term “tendency” [Quotation 7], and Dickens, in his early parody of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, dissolves Utilitarianism into make-believe and play [Quotation 8].  (I thought this satire was rather broad until I found practically identical passages in contemporary compilations such as J. R. McCulloch’s Statistical Account of the British Empire).

But fiction did, in fact, attempt to engage sympathetically and imaginatively with the discourse of means and aggregates.   As John Schad has shown in his study of Dickens and mathematics, the individual writer can absorb and transform the encroachments of an increasingly quantitative universe by restoring numbers to the realm of the imagination.9 Quotation 9 is Charles Kingsley’s appeal in Alton Locke to the reader, the consumer of both the text and the clothing made by the tailor in the book, “to listen to a few occasional statistics, which, though they may seem to the wealthy mere lists of dull figures, are to the workman symbols of terrible physical realities—of hunger, degradation and despair.” 

The fictional text both parallels and unravels the project of the statistician.  As the mass of people were ever more accurately enumerated with each decadal census or more minutely recorded in the annual, quarterly and weekly returns of the Registrar-General, they could also be offered the possibility of a story which is both typical and singular. In quotation 10, which prepares the reader for the pauper’s death of Betty Higdon in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’ text reclaims Betty from the Registrar’s figures by having her overhear the figures read from the newspaper.  The rhetorical power of this passage depends on the baleful trope of the Registrar as diabolical Recording Angel, but I have been equally moved by the Registrar’s own texts.   Quotations 11-14, from the parts of the Registrar-General’s Annual Reports written by his abstractor, William Farr 10,   illustrate the terse eloquence of individual examples among the mass of abstracts and tables and statistical nosologies.  In Quotation 11, the cumulative effect of the phrase “for want of the common necessaries of life” is to release a sense of indignation only just beneath the printed surface.  Farr was concerned that the Annual Reports might seem to anonymise and generalise real suffering, and it is possible to discern an imaginative tact in the way he invents “real” NAMEs for the pro formas he designs, while at the same time carefully removing the NAMEs of the dead from any examples he quotes of individual lives in coroners’ inquests or cases of particular illnesses or accidents.  Quotations 12 and 13 are sample death certificates, with authentic-sounding but made-up people (elsewhere in the Reports, talking about accuracy in registering NAMEs he notes that “John Jones is a perpetual incognito in Wales, and being proclaimed at the cross of a market town would indicate no one in particular”).

[Outside the scope of this conference there remains some interesting work to be done on invented and hypothetical people— on the difference, for instance, between the legal formulary John Doe (a fictionalised NAME for a real individual), Farr’s exemplary John Jones and the generic or average Joe Bloggs, John Q. Public, &co.  Conversely, we could look at the ways an actual person may be essentialised to stand for all, as in the selection of the unknown soldier, where a blindfolded officer chose at random one body from six.] 

In his novels (not in his projects as editor and social reformer) Dickens seems ambivalent about registration and enumeration; wanting to re-inscribe individuals within systems but also aiding and abetting them to escape.  His characters disappear into unmappable rookeries, into Tom-all-Alone’s in Bleak House where “a crowd of foul existence... crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep,in maggot numbers”(ch. 16). Quotation 14, from the 1841 questionnaire returned by all metropolitan registrars, offers an official but particularised glimpse of such housing.  The 1861 census was the first to instruct enumerators how to deal with the homeless (“persons not in houses”) and the 1871 census was still struggling with the problem of unnumbered or irrationally numbered “courts”.  From the 1841 census onwards, people were NAMEd as well as counted, and we find, as if in reaction, a proliferation of aliases.  Fiction becomes doubly fictional, peopled with anonymous and pseudonymous characters, Nemo, No NAME and Nobody.  I conclude with Quotation 15,the case of Dickens’ Winks in Edwin Drood; self-invention and self-naming is one ploy for outwitting the Registrar, but it didn’t stop Winks from being written into a book.


Quotation 1.

This latter is one of the principal thoroughfares of the city, and had been very much crowded during the whole day. But, as the darkness came on the throng momently increased; and, by the time the lamps were well lighted, two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door. At this particular period of the evening I had never before been in a similar situation, and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, therefore, with a delicious novelty of emotion. I gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in contemplation of the scene without.

At first my observations took an abstract and generalizing turn. I looked at the passengers in masses, and thought of them in their aggregate relations. Soon, however, I descended to details, and regarded wit minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance.   
(Poe, “The Man of the Crowd”)

Quotation 2.

“We must stay where we are. See how the folk swarm over yonder in the gaslight.”
“They are coming from work in the yard.”
“Dirty-looking rascals, but I suppose every one has some little immortal spark concealed about him. You would not think it, to look at them. There is no a priori probability about it. A strange enigma is man!”
“Someone calls him a soul concealed in an animal,” I suggested.
“Winwood Reade is good upon the subject,” said Holmes. “He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician. But do I see a handkerchief? Surely there is a white flutter over yonder.”(Doyle, The Sign of Four, ch. 10)

Quotation 3.

He chose a spot in the bend of the river just opposite Kew Gardens, where he had a great breadth of water before him reflecting the glory of the sky, while he himself was in shadow [ . . . ] when the sense of something moving on the bank opposite him where it was bordered by a line of willow-bushes, made him turn his glance thitherward.  In the first moment he had a darting presentiment about the moving figure; (Eliot, Daniel Deronda, ch. 17)

Quotation 4.

[. . . ] suicide is merely the product of the general condition of society, and that the individual felon only carries into effect what is a necessary consequence of preceding circumstances.   In a given state of society, a certain number of persons must put an end to their own life.  This is the general law; (Buckle, History of Civilization in England, ch. 1)

Quotation 5.

[ . . . ] to-night our friend Pash, there, brought up the law of progress, and we got on statistics; then Lilly, there, saying we knew well enough before counting that in the same state of society the same sort of things would happen, and it was no more wonder that quantities should remain the same than that qualities should remain the same, for in relation to society numbers are qualities – the number of drunkards is a quality in society – the numbers are an index to the qualities, and give us no instruction, only setting us to consider the causes of difference between different social states – Lilly saying this, we went off on the causes of social change. (Eliot, Daniel Deronda, ch. 42)

Quotation 6.

“Women can’t marry without men to marry them.”
Frank Greystock filled his pipe as he went on with his lecture. “That idea as to the greater number of women is all nonsense. Of course we are speaking of our own kind of men and women, and the disproportion of the numbers in so small a division of the population amounts to nothing. We have no statistics to tell us whether there be any such disproportion in classes where men do not die early from overwork.”
“More females are born than males.”
“That’s more than I know. As one of the legislators of the country I am prepared to state that statistics are always false. What we have to do is to induce men to marry. We can’t do it by statute.” (Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds, ch. 24)

Quotation 7.

Cottagers who were not directly employed on the land were looked upon with disfavour, and the banishment of some starved the trade of the others, who were thus obliged to follow.  These families, who had formed the backbone of the village life in the past, who were the depositaries of the village traditions, had to seek refuge in the large centres; the process, humorously designated by statisticians as “the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns”, being really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced by machinery. (Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, ch. 51)

Quotation 8.

“Mr Slug then stated some curious calculations respecting the dogs” -meat barrows of London. He found that the total number of small carts and barrows engaged in dispensing provision to the cats and dogs of the metropolis was one thousand seven hundred and forty-three. The average number of skewers delivered daily with the provender, by each dogs’-meat cart or barrow, was thirty-six. Now, multiplying the number of skewers so delivered by the number of barrows, a total of sixty-two thousand seven hundred and forty-eight skewers daily would be obtained
[. . .]   which, if collected and warehoused,would in ten years’ time afford a mass of timber more than sufficient for the construction of a first-rate vessel of war for the use of her Majesty’s navy, to be called “The Royal Skewer”, and to become under that NAME the terror of all the enemies of this island. (Dickens, Full Report of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything)

Quotation 9.

Those who read my story only for amusement, I advise to skip this chapter.  Those, on the other hand, who really wish to ascertain what working men actually do suffer— to see whether their political discontent has not its roots, not merely in fanciful ambition, but in misery and slavery most real and agonizing—those in whose eyes the accounts of a system, or rather barbaric absence of all system, which involves starvation, nakedness, prostitution, and long imprisonment in dungeons worse than the cells of the Inquisition, will be invested with something at least of tragic interest, may, I hope, think it worth their while to learn how the clothes which they wear are made, and listen to a few occasional statistics, which though they may seem to the wealthy mere lists of dull figures, are to the workmen symbols of terrible physical realities—of hunger, degradation, and despair. (Kingsley, Alton Locke, ch. 10)

Quotation 10.

Now, she would light upon the shameful spectacle of some desolate creature-or some wretched ragged groups of either sex, or of both sexes, with children among them, huddled together like the smaller vermin, for a little warmth-lingering and lingering on a doorstep, while the appointed evader of the public trust did his dirty office of trying to weary them out and so get rid of them. Now, she would light upon some poor decent person, like herself, going afoot on a pilgrimage of many weary miles to see some worn-out relative or friend who had been charitably clutched off to a great blank barren Union House, as far from old home as the County Jail (the remoteness of which is always its worst punishment for small rural offenders), and in its dietary, and in its lodging, and in its tending of the sick, a much more penal establishment.  Sometimes she would hear a newspaper read out, and would learn how the Registrar-General cast up the units that had within the last week died of want and of exposure to the weather: for which that Recording Angel seemed to have a regular fixed place in his sum, as if they were its halfpence. (Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, bk. 3, ch. 8)

Quotation 11.

1. Died in consequence of the inclement state of the weather and from want of the common necessaries of life; female; age, about 50;  profession not stated; inquest; died at 9, Lincoln-court, Drury Lane; February 15.
4. Admitted in a destitute and dying condition;  male;  65; pauper; informant, master of St. George’s Workhouse; died in St. George’s Workhouse; February 15th.
7. Natural death, accelerated by destitution; male; 17; pauper; mendicant; inquest; died in the Holborn Union; February 20th.
8. The effects of starvation and cold; female; 60; pauper; informant, master of workhouse; died in St. Luke’s Workhouse; January 28th.
10. From exhaustion, induced by the extreme severity of the weather, acting on a body thinly clad, fatigued, and in want of nutritious food; female; 61; inquest; died at Clapham; February 15th.
(Second Annual Report of the Registrar-General )

Quotation 12.

Edward Davies, aged 11, died of Typhus, terminating in pneumonia, after 15 days’ illness.*
* The primary and secondary diseases should be specified in the Registers. (First Annual Report of the Registrar-General)

Quotation 13.

To the Registrar of the Sub-district in which the Death took place. I hereby certify that I attended John Jones, Carpenter, aged 21 years last Birthday; that I last saw him on January 11th, 1847, that he died on January 12, 1847, at 7, King Street, Mary-le-bone, and that the cause of his death was . . . (Sixteenth Annual Report of the Registrar-General)

Quotation 14.

NAME any particular Streets, Courts, or Houses which, from the number of Deaths occurring therein, and the nature of the diseases, appear to you to be unhealthy.
I should therefore say that the most unhealthy streets, &c., in my district are Oxford-buildings, Brown-street, Toms-court, Thomas-street, Grosvenor-market, Grosvenor-mews, George-street, and Hart-street; and to these, perhaps, may be added North-row, and Dolphin-court, and Providence-court; also the north end of Davies-street, adjoining Oxford-street. (Fifth Annual Report of the Registrar-General)

Quotation 15.

“But I say,” he remonstrates, “don’t yer go a making my NAME public.  I never means to plead to no NAME, mind yer.  When they says to me in the Lock-up, a going to put me down in the book, ‘What’s your NAME?’ I says to them, ‘Find out.’   Likeways when they says, ‘What’s your religion?’ I says,‘Find out.’”
Which, it may be observed in passing, it would be immensely difficult for the State, however statistical, to do.
“Asides which,” adds the boy, “there ain’t no family of Winkses.”
“I think there must be.”
“Yer lie, there ain’t.  The travellers give me the NAME on account of my getting no settled sleep and being knocked up all night; whereby I gets one eye roused open afore I’ve shut the other. That’s what Winks means. (Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, ch. 23)


1  Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), pp. 190-1.

2  For the development of statistics in the nineteenth century see Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990); Theodore M. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking 1820-1900  (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986); Stephen M. Stigler, The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty before 1900 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1986); Donald A. MacKenzie, Statistics in Britain 1865-1930: The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1981); Michael J. Cullen, The Statistical Movement in Early Victorian Britain: The Foundations of Empirical Social Research (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1975); Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorraine Daston, John Beatty, Lorenz Krüger, The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989); Alain Desrosières, trans. Camille Naish, The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1998).

3  Mary Poovey, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation 1830-1864  (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995); Catharine Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), ch. 1.

4   “The Average Victorian: Constructing and Contesting Reality,” Browning Institute Studies, 17 (1989): 41-52.

5   David Trotter, Cooking with Mud: The Idea of Mess in Nineteenth-Century Art and Fiction (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), p. 138.

6   History of Civilization in England, 2 vols. (London, 1858-61), 1.25-26; Buckle was drawing on Quetelet’s data.   For an account of this panic, see John Venn, The Logic of Chance: An Essay on the Foundations and Province of the Theory of Probability, with especial reference to its logical bearings and its application to Moral and Social Science, and to Statistics (London, 1866), p. 237.

7   Leland Monk, Standard Deviations: Chance and the Modern British Novel (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1993); Christopher Kent, “Probability, Reality and Sensation in the Novels of Wilkie Collins,” Dickens Studies Annual 20 (1991): 259-280.

8   Thomas M. Kavanagh, Introduction to Kavanagh, ed., Chance, Culture and the Literary Text, Michigan Romance Studies vol. 14 (Ann Arbor: Department of Romance Languages of the Univ. of Michigan, 1994).

9   John Schad, “‘this eccentric sum’: The Reader, Language and Mathematics,” ch. 3 of The Reader in the Dickensian Mirrors: Some New Language (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992).

10   See Victor L. Hilts, “William Farr (1807-1883) and the ‘Human Unit’,” Victorian Studies 14 (December 1970): 143-150; Cullen, Statistical Movement, ch. 2.

Green R
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