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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: March 2014

4 - Reading Habits and Magic Lanterns: Dickens and Dr Pepper's Ghost


Reflecting on the mechanical diversions of Polytechnic Institutions in general Dickens observed, ‘we think of a people formed entirely in their hours of leisure’ by such places as ‘an uncomfortable community’. Minds forged by the repetitive movements of ‘cranks and cogwheels’ could never replace the habitual sympathies acquired from more imaginative childhood amusements. Indeed there is something fundamentally untrustworthy, Dickens suspects, in this transformation of minds into machines:

We would be more disposed to trust him if he had been brought into occasional contact with a ‘Maid and a Magpie’; if he had made one or two diversions into the ‘Forest of Bondy’; or had even gone the length of a Christmas Pantomime. There is a range of imagination in most of us, which no amount of steam-engines will satisfy; and which The-great-exhibition-of-the-works-of-industry-of-all-nations, itself, will probably leave unappeased. The lower we go, the more natural it is that the best-relished provision for this should be found in dramatic entertainments; as at once the most obvious, the least troublesome, and the most real, of all escapes out of the literal world. (13)

The risqué burlesque of The Maid and the Magpie, a play about thieving magpies, the orchestrated chaos of Christmas Pantomime, or trouble-free escapes into the ‘Forest of Bondy’ offered by the popular melodrama, Le Chien de Montargis, provide more comfortable collective experiences than the utilitarian functionalism of the Polytechnic's mechanical attractions. While equally ritualised and repetitive, formulaic theatrical amusements, Dickens argues, answer the ‘innate love’ that the ‘common People’ have for drama, which ‘nothing will ever root out’ (13).