Bodies, Boundaries and Queer Waters

Drowning and Prosopopæia in Later Dickens

in Critical Survey
Author:
Vybarr Cregan-Reid University of Sussex v.cregan-reid@kent.ac.uk

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The way in which the judgements of the landmark 1860 case Rylands v. Fletcher employed the English language to attempt some kind of clear notion of liability is representative of a much wider cultural anxiety over the status of water as a live, conscious and capriciously dangerous agent. I will suggest that the Victorians' emergent fear of wild and live water represents a kind of cultural imaginary that predetermines Dickens's use of prosopopoeic figurative language. The novels that I will draw upon, principally David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend, both take the trope of drowning as their focal rhetoric. Because the idea of water being embodied as a feral animal emerged around the 1850s, I will deploy some of Dickens's earlier work that uses the same trope of drowning, but in a more simplified way which envisioned water as the passive recipient of the drownee. As a result of the cultural idea of a live and conscious water, Dickens's later novels and journalism can be seen to be exploring an inherently queer notion of intersubjectivity; as the drownee meets their fate, their body's boundaries become permeable, they and the water which 'takes' them become intermingled. The water takes their life and it dissolves their identity. Dickens's later work and Rylands v. Fletcher both play their part in articulating this wider cultural anxiety and phenomenological presence of water as live monstrosity. Moreover, Dickens's use of water as embodied, raging and stampeding agent, raises some fascinating questions surrounding the taboo nature of gender, sexuality and subjectivity in Victorian culture.

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