The Individual, the City, and the Literary Text
Rowena Fowler Department of English,
University of Bristol
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.
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
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.
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 Victorian
4 , 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
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.
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
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.
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.]
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
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.
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”)
‘We must stay where we are. See how the folk swarm over yonder in
‘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
‘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)
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)
[. . . ] 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)
[ . . . ] 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)
‘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)
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)
‘SECTION C. – STATISTICS.
‘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
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,
(Kingsley, Alton Locke, ch. 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)
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;
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 )
Edward Davies, aged 11, died of
Typhus, terminating in pneumonia, after 15 days’ illness.*
* The primary and secondary diseases should be specified in the
(First Annual Report of the Registrar-General)
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)
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)
“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
(Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, ch. 23)
Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London:
Hogarth Press, 1985), pp. 190-1.
For the development of statistics in the nineteenth
century see Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.
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).
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.
“The Average Victorian: Constructing and Contesting
Reality,” Browning Institute Studies, 17 (1989): 41-52.
David Trotter, Cooking with Mud: The Idea of Mess in
Nineteenth-Century Art and Fiction (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000),
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.
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.
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,
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).
See Victor L. Hilts, “William Farr (1807-1883) and the ‘Human Unit’,”
Victorian Studies 14 (December 1970): 143-150; Cullen, Statistical Movement,