In this contribution to our series on The Best Book You’ve Never Read, Elizabeth Drialo introduces Charles Dickens’s little-known Mudfog Papers, which she claims as a fascinating example of Victorian steampunk.
Would you like to control the railway with a pocket watch? How about a new fire escape (mind you, its own inventor can’t tell the top from its bottom so there are no safety guarantees … and it works best when there isn’t a fire)? What if you could go to a walled off city where the pedestrians and police around you were automatons – and you were more than welcome, for the right price, to knock them down for fun?
If any of these new inventions seem to tickle your fancy, then you ought to pay your respects to a town called Mudfog and its ingenious Association for the Advance of Everything. Just mind your steps around the town beadle and anyone bearing the surname Tulrumble, though I’m sure a jolly man named Twigger would buy you a drink at the nearest pub!
By this point, you’re probably wondering what this is all about – and I don’t blame you! Casual readers, browsing in a bookshop for a classic Dickens read, wouldn’t come across this. In the early stages of my current research, I had no idea that I would be putting the name Charles Dickens in the same sentence as Steampunk – much less giving several talks on the subject and a work that, at the time, I knew nothing about. But, after having done a bit of shifting through Dickens’s early publications, I came across a collection of short pieces originally written in the latter end of the 1830s now printed together under the collective title: The Mudfog Papers, etc. After a bit more digging around I found that very little had been published on these texts – in fact, in one book I found them mentioned in only a footnote. Recent biographies of Dickens’s early life such as Becoming Dickens by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (2011) and Robert Patten’s Charles Dickens and “Boz”: The Birth of an Industrial-Age Author (2012) touch on these Mudfog works briefly, but you’re hard pressed to find much else which makes it both frustrating and, yet, fun to present on and write about. Who would think Dickens had such a strong link to Steampunk? The opportunities presented by this text are endless.
So the question is: what happened? Aren’t The Mudfog Papers any good? When the three main Mudfog stories were printed along with several other short Dickens works from Bentley’s Miscellany in the 1880s as a collection years after Dickens’s death, reactions were mixed from the reading public.1 Adding to this, there hasn’t been an official printing of the collection since that time, save when grouped together in much larger anthologies. What you find on Amazon is a print-on-demand version of the 1880 edition – nothing else. You can read the same edition for free online at Archive.org.
“Oliver Twist was originally born in Mudfog – a fact later omitted by Dickens”
The only answer to ‘what happened?’ seems to be found not in the content of Mudfog, but in Dickens’s other work that was printed at the same time as his Mudfog tales: Oliver Twist. Published as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany, Oliver Twist’s first outing followed the first Mudfog story titled “The Public Life of Mr. Tulrumble, Once Mayor of Mudfog.” Today, on the surface, we see very little connection between the two – unless, that is, if we look at the original printing of Oliver Twist and not the version Dickens went on to edit in later years which is the one most people read today. Rather than leave the name of Oliver’s birthplace unknown or not worth naming, Dickens had a different opening line in Oliver’s first introduction:
Among other public buildings in the town of Mudfog, it boasts of one which is common to most towns, great or small, to wit, a workhouse […].2
Yes, Oliver Twist was originally born in Mudfog – a fact later omitted by Dickens. And, had the two stayed connected and Oliver’s story not gained such attention, one could guess that the now famous novel of the little orphan boy would likely be a bit different.
For instance, perhaps Mr. Bumble would be a mechanical man or Nancy a scientist who frequented meetings of the Mudfog Association as they, welcome members of both sexes. Strange alternatives are possible in Dickens’s Mudfog. Once the story of Mr. Tulrumble’s failed appointment as mayor of Mudfog had finished, Dickens wrote for Bentley’s Miscellany two additional Mudfog pieces: ‘Full Report of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything’ and ‘Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything.’ With two narrators – one for each of these Reports – we get glimpses of the strange world of the Mudfog Association. The pocket railway, the city of automatons – they are all in the pages of the two Mudfog Association reports. While Dickens was clearly parodying the newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything reads like a sort of proto-Steampunk, something strange, indeed, to find written by a young Dickens.
Or perhaps it’s not so strange – and that’s what makes these Mudfog stories worth a read besides just the laughs and giggles from his strange new machines in compromising humorous situations. The late 1830s was a busy time for Dickens: he saw Sketches by Boz first printed as a collection, The Pickwick Papers were coming to a close, and he was soon to be wed to Catherine Hogarth. Life around him was just as eventful. Science and industry was changing, the human workforce began to see machines taking their place, and technological advancements were expanding the world’s knowledge. It was a changing and anxious time – and that can be seen in the two Mudfog Association Reports.
Beyond merely the advent of new machinery, a displaced workforce also appears in the Mudfog reports through the personification of animals: bears, dogs, fleas, and monkeys, all taking on some sort of menial task to survive on the streets. Bears will dance for amusement, street dogs will rob from poodles, and Bentham-esque plans are made to house the multitudes of fleas trying to find work. Those in this Association report their findings and present solutions to them with Dickens’s humour clearly shining through. This is Dickens’s Swift moment or – anachronistically – his Wells or Verne moment. These are the people, animals, and machines of Dickensian Steampunk.
In the end, what The Mudfog Papers, etc. gives us is an unexpected, playful Dickens expressing anxieties through his well constructed comedy. Not only that, but the presence of a flair for Steampunk is evident and makes this often overlooked work an absolute joy to read.
If the town of Mudfog has caught your interest, Elizabeth can also be heard speaking about this topic in this podcast, recorded as part of our Late Summer Lecture series.
1. The contents of the 1880 edition of The Mudfog Papers, etc. printed by Bentley and Son included the following texts: ‘Public Life of Mr. Tulrumble, Once Mayor of Mudfog,’ ‘Full Report on the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Science,’ ‘Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything,’ ‘The Pantomime of Life,’ ‘Some Particulars Concerning a Lion,’ and ‘Mr. Robert Bolton, the “Gentleman Connected with the Press.’ The final work – ‘Mr. Robert Bolton …’ – is not entirely attributed to Dickens.
2. Charles Dickens, ‘Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy’s Progress, By Boz’, Bentley’s Miscellany Vol. 1 (London: Richard Bentley, 1837), 105.