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Dickens and prisons

April 13, 2012

Turning to the question of prisons, I will set aside my Panoptic obsession, yet I still wish to discuss Dickens’ visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Obviously this prison is outside of the U.K., but it was (obviously, again) situated in the Victorian period.

Reading Dickens’ account of his visit, I was suprised to find that women were also “housed” at Eastern State. And it is in his description of two young women met there that most tugged at my heart strings (you’re making me all soft and saccharine sweet, Charlie ole pal). And tugging away, Dickens writes: “Their looks were very sad, and might have moved the stearnest visitor to tears” and that one of these young women, “not [even] twenty”, was visibily “penitent and very quiet” (251). At which point, nearly bawling, I yet managed to read on and thus find a parroted, catechismic exchange between Dickens’ “companion” and the young woman. The query directed towards her happiness, she responds that “She tried to be; she uttered no complaint; but it was natural that she should sometimes long to go out of that one cell: she could not help that” (251-252). What I find most disturbing here is the nearly brainwashed state of the girl (the cause of her third person usage?). Most moving: the slight defiance, the refusal to ignore the unnatural torture of isolation, that is rather modestly, demurely and naively displayed. Sometimes pathos and sentimentality can be agreeable bedmates.

Dickens, Charles. American Notes. Vol. I. London: Chapman and Hall, 1842.

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