Barbara M. Benedict
“‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice” in Wonderland as she encounters the grinning Cheshire cat, the baby-turned-pig, human playing cards, and her own telescoping neck that wriggles, serpentlike, into the trees.1 These phenomena appear “curious” because they transgress nature by muddling categories: a cat that grins is both human and feline; a human baby turned porcine and a neck that becomes a snake are simultaneously two sorts of creature. At the same time, Alice is herself curious, repeatedly asking questions and investigating rabbit holes, hidden gardens, and strange foodstuffs. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland exemplifies the double nature of curiosity itself. As a subjective quality, it can denote inquiry, inquisitiveness, oddity, and strangeness: the scientist, the seeker, the detective, the peeper, and the pryer. It can be admirable or reprehensible: Pandora and Peeping Tom, Psyche and Sherlock Holmes, Faust and Frankenstein, Eve and Oedipus. As an aspect of strange things, it can signal rarity or revulsion. Curiosity is both the human passion for knowledge and the transgressive aspect of phenomena that provoke inquiry. Thus it has always provided rich fodder for writers and thinkers, and never more so than at the period when inquiry became a discipline all its own in the Age of Science and the Enlightenment: the mid-seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries.
This essay surveys literature and culture from the late Renaissance to the twentieth century to trace the development of both the idea and the objects of curiosity. Throughout more than three hundred years, curiosity retains the moral and phenomenological ambiguity that inheres in ideas, people, and objects that stand outside the norm. As it shifts from denoting a quality of things to a trait of people, it weaves between drawing derision for perversity and prompting praise for discovery. The etymology of the word helps to explain its double meaning. Originally, “curiosity” derived from “cura,” the Medieval Latin name for “care.” In the Middle Ages and into the seventeenth century, the term denoted skillfulness, careful workmanship, and elaborate artistry, exemplified by the stone and wooden sculptures artists carved for the church. These decorations possessed the same fastidious detail on the parts unseen by viewers as on the parts open to public view. Curiosity consequently came to mean objects that exhibited such nicety and that required attention both to execute and to observe.
However, later in the seventeenth century, two important events changed the meaning and the connotations of both word and idea. The first was the secular curiosity cabinet, or Wunderkammern. These could constitute display cabinets stacked with rarities of art or nature—carefully carved jewels, miniature paintings, or elaborate clocks and instruments—or they could be whole rooms festooned with exotic specimens from around the globe: crocodiles, unicorn horns, shells, branches, rocks, Chinese shoes, relics, and remains. These early museums were intended to induce both wonder—the awestruck marveling at strangeness—and curiosity: the empirical investigation of phenomena.2 Both natural and artful curiosities exhibited the kind of skillful artistry that the term “curiosity” originally denoted, be this the skill of the artisan himself or the skill of God in changing natural forms to make things appear to be what they were not.
Early churches had displays of curiosities and fine ritual items to stimulate reverence in the faithful. These displays were mediated by the church and only exhibited on rare occasions. In contrast, secular displays of objects appeared in the private abodes of princes and elite gentry to exhibit their wealth and taste, the power of the state or the individual, not the power of God or the church. These men practiced what was termed “the habit of curiosity”—that is, collecting—and did so for their own satisfaction. In this way both displays and collectors began to seem irreligious, transgressive, threatening. This is especially true because collecting shifted from being an elite activity to a highly popular, middle-class, even working-class, recreation. Small and huge accumulations of everything from pebbles to paintings began to appear everywhere in Britain, and societies of connoisseurs and virtuosi sprang up, flooding the land with commodities, collectibles, and material objects, and appropriating traditional relationships and social valuations.
Mini-museums also appeared in universities, theaters of anatomy, and the repositories of scientific societies, and therein lies both the second change and the reason that curiosity garnered a pejorative implication as prurient, foolish, and self-indulgent. This change was the birth of science. In 1660 the new king Charles II established Britain’s first scientific institution: the Royal Society for the Advancement of Learning. This society threw out earlier Aristotelian, inductive, simplifying systems of classification and threw itself into a new method of investigation of nature: empirical and repeated experimentation—that is, figuring out answers to age-old questions by touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound, and reflection upon them. A host of elite and middle-class gentleman dilettantes, clerics, explorers, travelers, and physicians rushed to join the new enterprise, all curious about questions that once the church alone had had the authority to answer: the nature of species; the formation of clouds; the processes of human reproduction; the components of earth, air, and fire; the movement of the planets—indeed, any of the mysteries that God had wisely hidden and that the Bible had warned man not to pry into. These men called themselves “natural philosophers,” dedicated to the establishment of a comprehensive empirical “philosophy” or systematic map of nature itself.
Their curious investigations ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, and contemporary writers had a hard time telling one from the other. The experiments that Robert Boyle performed, for example, included transfusing the blood of dogs, and while we recognize the enormous value of transfusion, to contemporary satirists it appeared pointless, cruel, and, worse, a violation of God’s natural order. One such satirist, the playwright Thomas Shadwell, depicted Boyle, thinly veiled as the character Sir Nicholas Gimcrack (i.e., Toy or Plaything), claiming he has transfused the blood of a sheep into a man and harvested his wool for profit. Sir Nicholas is, as it turns out, lying and made no profit because, he explains loftily, he is a speculative or theoretical scientist and so never does anything “of use: Knowledge is my ultimate end.”3 No one questioned Isaac Newton’s discoveries of gravity and in optics; indeed, he became president of the Royal Society in 1703. But when Robert Hooke, the first keeper of the Royal Society’s repository of specimens, fell in love with the fashionable new scientific instrument, the microscope, and enthusiastically compiled a huge volume of finely etched drawings of things he had looked at through the device, some contemporaries ridiculed him for choosing to honor worthless things: a pencil tip, his own urine, a fly’s eye, a flea. The satirist Samuel Butler, for example, mocked him in The Elephant in the Moon (c. 1676) by describing enthusiastic scientists looking excitedly at the moon through a telescope to see armies swarming on its surface and riding a huge elephant, only to discover that a mouse had been trapped in the telescopic tube, become bloated and putrid (hence the elephant), and so attracted gnats (hence the armies). Later in the century, the poet Peter Pindar depicted the then-president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, as ridiculously empirical. Having boiled a flea and discovered that it turned pink, he concluded that fleas are really a sort of miniscule lobster.
To contemporary writers, topics of curious inquiry—antiquities, physical nature, the occult, sex—could reflect investigators’ piety or skepticism, naïveté or impertinence. When the cleric and Royal Society member Joseph Glanville investigated, with strict, empirical methods, a vast volume of reports of witches, poltergeists, and ghosts, he determined that most were certainly true because he could hear knocking and booing and smell supernaturally unpleasant smells. While this proved his belief in the supernatural, it also prompted more satire of scientists’ credulity and obsessiveness, and of empiricism’s limitations. Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), for example, devotes a quarter of the book to satirizing the Royal Society, disguised transparently as the Floating Island of Laputa, hovering way above the heads of mere mortals below. These scientists have one eye cast up to view the heavens and another turned inward for fetid self-examination, and are so absorbed in speculations that they need servants to bat them with an empty bladder gently on the ears when they ought to listen and on the mouth when they should reply. They are both objectively and subjectively curious.
Moreover, although these early scientists may have seemed silly to contemporaries, they did all deliberately refuse to accept conventional explanations or biblical myths, and thus they presented an autodidactic challenge to ideas society had long accepted. Boyle, indeed, called himself “the Skeptical Chemist,” and despite Glanville’s attempts to sanitize his empiricism by arguing that his investigations of the supernatural proved the reality of God, accusations of atheism persisted. After all, why would you need to prove God’s existence unless you doubted it?
The result of this threat was that, throughout the century, curious men came to mean not men who inquired but rather men who were themselves fit subjects of inquiry: What made them tick? Why were they doing these foolish and irreligious things? What was wrong with them? The answer satirists came up with was that these curious men were, as Freud would say, compensating for a fundamental lack of masculinity. All their fiddling and peeping into sacred mysteries and their pointless accumulation of objects was a masturbatory diversion of sexual energies. They dabbled in natural philosophy because they could not perform naturally. Swift’s natural philosophers, for example, stare at the skies while their wives sneak down to the land below for lower matters: sexual gratification.
However, it wasn’t just men whose curiosity made them curiosities. In fact, women were even more often indicted for inappropriate prying, and since they were defined by their sex, their curiosity was represented as sexual. A series of “Curious Maid” poems in the 1720s portrayed women attempting to peer into their own genitals to discover what they possess that drives men mad with desire, and caricatures often show men peeping at naked women as curiosities—that is, phenomena stimulating inquiry. At the same time, women were upsetting gender norms by writing novels and periodicals, many of which interrogated unjust social mores, and thus entering the masculine cultural space. This was deemed at the time an impertinent stepping out of their God-given, subordinate roles. Hence, women’s Pandora-like curiosity became identified with cultural ambition. One common reaction in eighteenth-century literature was to represent women not as investigators but as subjects of investigation. Since they were aping masculine roles, they were depicted as curious deformed kinds of men, men-but-not-men. Again, curiosity as inquiry mutates into curiosity as monstrosity: seeking to know or do more than God has given you shows an unnatural appetite to transgress natural, social, and moral laws.
The ubiquity of, and ambivalence toward, curiosity and collecting in the eighteenth century as literary topic and method is exemplified by the works of the most renowned contemporary poet, Alexander Pope (1688–1744). Pope lived in an age of fashionable collectors, collecting, and commercialism, and collectibles and many of the scientific enterprises of his time, including antiquarianism, interested him.4 In his verse he refers to collectors like the antiquarian Thomas Hearne and the Keeper of Records Richard Topham; he addressed his fourth Epistle (1731/1735) to the distinguished collector Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington; and his early poem “To Mr. Addison, Occasioned by his Dialogues on Medals” (1713) meditates on his sometime friend Joseph Addison’s numismatic collection.5 His own villa contained dozens of prints and other collectibles, and late in his life, he succumbed to the lure of collecting naturalia, even receiving the gift of a stone from the preeminent collector Sir Hans Sloane, whose vast hoard became the British Museum.6 Early on, Marjorie Hope Nicholson, among other critics, noted the affinity of Pope’s grand enterprise to write a systematic philosophical treatise on ethics with the Royal Society’s project.
The ambiguities of empiricism and collecting also concerned contemporary philosophers. The experimental philosophy of the Royal Society was founded on the practices of observation as a conscious, systematic procedure rather than a will-less and involuntary observation that could produce no verifiable, general knowledge. In his chapter “Of Perception” in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1689, John Locke argues that perception “is the first simple idea of reflection,” for “in bare naked perception, the mind is, for the most part, only passive; and what it perceives, it cannot avoid perceiving.”7 However, “Perception is only when the mind receives the impression.”8 Unorganized or uncollected perception keeps the creature in an animalistic state, but discerning, comparing, and compounding lead to knowledge.9 Thus for Locke and the natural philosophers that followed him, knowledge constituted understanding the relationships between phenomena, and this knowledge could be achieved by systematic observation, sensation, and reason or reflection: by, in short, collecting information—by structuring curiosity—through sensual perception and organizing it by logic and memory.
Pope’s four Epistles to Several Persons (1731–35), or Moral Epistles, embody such an enterprise but also reveal its methodological instability.10 They constitute a collection of poems discussing wealth and character through portraits of contemporary types to illustrate a system of “practical Morality” that, as Pope asserts, spans “all the Circumstances, Orders, Professions, and Stations of human Life.”11 The poems present Pope’s theory of the “ruling passion,” a moral system mirroring the scientific enterprise to methodize nature. This attempt to reconcile the unique, individual “type” with the representative class itself reflects conflicting practices of collecting. Whereas Renaissance and seventeenth-century collectors were generally content to gather one, fine example of a natural phenomenon or species—a unicorn [narwhal] horn, a microscope, a rock imprinted with the shape of the crucified Christ, for example—and unique examples of high art, the virtuosi of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, like Sir Hans Sloane and Ralph Thoresby, were moving away from wonder at the unique and toward accumulation: more is better. At the same time, marvelous objects like relics and curiosities still littered their museums.12
The rival concepts of collecting reflect conflicting ideas of knowledge. Pope argues in Epistle I: To Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham (1730–33; published 1734), that every specimen is worth observing and collecting because each is unique:
There’s some Peculiar in each leaf and grain,
Some unmark’d fibre, or some varying vein;
Shall only Man be taken in the gross?
Grant but as many sorts of Mind as Moss.13
At the same time, Pope betrays the neoclassical fondness for types, classifications, categories, identifiable species of mankind. If every tuft of moss is unique, still it belongs with hundreds of others to the general class of moss. It is the poet’s privilege to spy out the unique but the scientist’s task to find the category. Pope’s character sketches attempt both: to find the particular in the general and the general in the particular.14 Indeed, his theory of the “Ruling Passions” maintains that the secret of reading a man’s character lies in discovering his primary motivating vice, the general truth of his character. Although the theory itself was not new, Pope’s treatment emphasizes the empirical procedures required to identify each man’s ruling passion. As F. W. Bateson observes, “the basis of Pope’s satire is fact.”15 The “Argument” in To Cobham recommends the empirical method of eyewitness observation, balanced by reading books or authorities, in order to gain “the Knowledge and Characters of Men.”16 In order to form “General maxims,” observers must note both the common and the unique qualities of individuals. This procedure for classification echoes naturalists’ endeavors to differentiate aberrations from species.
Pope persistently represents the reduction of people to commodities and curiosities. In Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1731–34, published 1735), he famously portrays the effeminate courtier Lord Hervey, who had joined Pope’s enemy Lady Mary Wortley Montague to attack him in print, as Sporus, a “Thing of silk,” “a Butterfly,” a “Bug with gilded wings, / This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings,” a “Spaniel,” “Puppet,” and “Toad.”17 Sporus is a curiosity, transgressing genders, species, and elements, a work both of art and nature, a mammal, amphibian, and insect, an object and a person: “Amphibious Thing!” and “vile Antithesis.”18 He,
Half Froth, half Venom, spits himself abroad,
In Puns, or Politicks, or Tales, or Lyes,
Or Spite, or Smut, or Rymes, or Blasphemies.19
The fragmentation of this litany of vicious emissions represents the multiple categories the ambiguous, amphibious Sporus spans: the rhetoric, like the description, employs conventions of naturalistic description to depict a creature made of categorical transgressions.
The ironic opposition of luxurious things to intellectual or spiritual values appears everywhere in Pope’s verse, but perhaps most notably in the mock-epic The Rape of the Lock (1714). Here the protagonist Belinda sits at a dressing table bearing the spoils of the world, which her maidservant “culls with curious toil”:20
This Casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box.
The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,
Transform’d to Combs, the speckled and the white.21
Belinda’s dressing table, beautiful as it (and she) is, becomes a curiosity cabinet of commodities devoted to her adornment. The jewels, perfumes, and exotic animals of the world are reduced to adornments and collectibles celebrating the superficial and the physical self. Collecting as method and subject thus enables Pope to explore the valorization of materiality over morality, consumption over contemplation, and accumulation over propriety as Britain moved into the modern age. In a curious coincidence, Pope was deformed from a childhood accident, small, thin, and hunch-backed, and a Catholic in a Protestant land. Hostile caricaturists often depicted him as an ape. Once again, the curious man became the curiosity.
Although Pope incorporates the inquiry, collecting, and objects in his poetry, the genre that exploits curiosity most thoroughly is the novel. As the name indicates, novels were from the start a genre dedicated to the new. Borrowing their format from early autobiographies, biographies, classical epics, travel tales, and picaresque fiction, eighteenth-century novels trot from episode to episode, accumulating a collection of adventures. Such genres exploit readers’ curiosity about far-off lands and illicit or strange experiences, ostensibly redeemed from the charge of being pure entertainment by the ubiquitous authorial insistence that readers will apply moral lessons from the texts—protagonists’ errors or achievements—to their own lives.
Novels typically exploit curiosity in two ways: they present oddities, or curiosities, to elicit surprise, humor, or horror, and also a problem or question that engages the reader’s curiosity, and which the plot will resolve. The reader’s curiosity thus remains key to the genre’s function and effectiveness by prompting rethinking. Analyzing Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, discussed below, Sarah Winter argues that “curiosity affords the impetus for the kind of questioning that readers . . . are taught to engage in as a means of overcoming habitual prejudices, including those they have acquired at school.”22 Just as a visitor to a curiosity cabinet must balance wondering at the uniqueness of each specimen and finding similarities or links between them, readers must hunt down plot clues, investigate characters’ motives, and speculate on plot twists and endings in order to engage in the fiction. Asking why readers read novels through, rather than skipping to the end, the literary theorist Peter Brooks argues that reading is a process of recognizing repetitions in plot, theme, and imagery; these draw readers to desire their resolution in an ending that pulls them together.23 Reading novels thus seems to work similarly to the thoughts created by brain networks (See Bassett, this volume): readers identify “facts,” or pieces of information—be these a character’s motivation, an event, or a description—that they seek to link with other pieces of information in the book. Readers thus forge networks of connections to explain the plot and further connect these to their own lives, “realizing” the fiction and bringing it to life.
Different subgenres of the novel portray and elicit curiosity differently. Early travel fiction, like Aphra Behn’s hybrid Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688), offers readers exotic scenes, romance, and satire, stimulating curiosity about foreignness, prohibited sexuality, and contemporary mores, all somewhat derogated subjects of inquiry in a turbulent society. Early eighteenth-century novels exploit readers’ curiosity about contemporary issues. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) asks how a man could survive entirely alone on an island, and portrays Robinson experimenting with natural resources to build his own little kingdom. Moll Flanders (1722), Defoe’s depiction of the underworld of London, supplies readers with a kind of how-to handbook to survive London’s thieves, prostitutes, and poverty, while A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) investigates the causes of and responses to the bubonic plague in Restoration London. Later so-called it-narratives recounting the adventures of objects, like an atom or a coin, fuse curious objects and objects’ curiosity to make humanoid things agents of social investigation. These and other eighteenth-century novels, like such early periodicals as The Athenian Mercury (1691–97), which was dedicated to answering readers’ questions, both evoke and profit from readers’ curiosity.
By the last decades of the eighteenth century, however, a postempirical wave of disillusion turned novelists away from the systematic investigation of the human species to a new thrill in the mysterious, irrational, and violent: areas derided by Enlightenment reason. Gothic novels—precursors of detective and mystery fiction—present the physical world as embedded in a supernatural world, where empiricism is transformed into the impalpable: inexplicable sounds, smells, sights, and touches, and formless feelings of dread besiege the heroine in a twilight world where nothing seems clear. Throughout, the heroine questions and investigates, opening doors to dark chambers and harrowing down ominous tunnels—but with frustratingly few and usually misleading results. The heroine of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), for example, must constantly test her reasoning against her sensory impressions. She thinks she sees and hears supernatural forces but she resists superstition. Her curiosity is dangerous, since it leads her into hazards; inadequate, because it does not provide answers; and yet redeeming, because it eventually leads her to the truth, an escape from tyranny and the recovery of her inheritance.
Romantic fictions, often ironically, characteristically depict the empirical urge for inquiry as a hazardous invasion of the natural, or the unnatural, social order. William Godwin illustrates the dangers of curiosity in Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1796), in which the eponymous protagonist, a servant, possessed by all-consuming curiosity, discovers his master is a murderer. While his investigations reveal the injustices in the institutions of law and punishment in a class-bound society, his curiosity leads to terrible suffering, his own madness, and his master’s death. By dramatizing the curious man’s adventures against a wide backdrop of British life, Godwin suggests that asking questions can lead to the exposure of corruption and to political reform (See also Zurn, this volume). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) notably casts Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s unnatural creation of a being from a collection of dead human parts as the arrogant result of a transgressive, scientific curiosity. This contrasts with the Creature’s original innocent investigation of nature in the process of learning, before humans’ rejection turns him murderous.
During the Victorian period, attitudes toward curiosity in literature tend to split sharply along the lines of gender. When curiosity appears as expansive inquiry, whether philosophical or geographical, it is practiced by men and generally wins praise and success—although, as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) shows, it could easily appear transgressive. Indeed, some texts appear aimed at critiquing the expansionist urge. In Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King (1888), for example, the two ambitious protagonists embark on adventurous travel purely for personal gain: the titular one ends up dead, and his loyal friend horribly crippled. When curiosity appears as social or personal inquiry, it appears in female characters and seems more proximate to passion than intellectual investigation. In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849–50), for example, Miss Rosa Dartle unnervingly keeps interrogating David by questioning his every statement and concludes with, “I only ask for information”;24 “I ask because I always want to be informed, when I am ignorant;”25 “I am not suspicious. I only ask a question. I don’t state any opinion.”26 Suspicion attaches to questions that seem not to have a clear social purpose: “I only ask because I want to know” hints at a hidden motivation (See also Lewis, this volume). In Dickens’s novel, the effect of this barrage of questions preceding the unconvincing denial of any ulterior motive other than “pure” curiosity is to make Miss Dartle’s curiosity seem a subtle campaign to make David appear a fool. Miss Dartle, notably, bears a deep scar on her lip: once again, the disfiguring trait of female questioning appears as physical deformity.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the disruptive effect of female curiosity appears in the first textual example in this essay, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the most prominent but not the first book to harness children’s natural curiosity. Historically, children’s curiosity was often unwelcome; even today, such figures as Harriet the Spy reflect adult distrust of prying children (See also Engel, this volume). Alice exhibits two kinds of curiosity, both suspect: an irrepressible appetite and a learned speculation. As Nina Auerbach explains, “The pun on ‘curious’ defines Alice’s fluctuating personality. Her eagerness to know and to be right, her compulsive recitation of her lessons . . . she is both the croquet game without rules and its violent arbiter.”27 Whereas Auerbach traces these impulses to the Victorian idea of girls as swinging between “extremes of original innocence and original sin,” they also echo earlier categorizations of and ambivalence toward curiosity.28 At the start of the book, Alice jumps down the rabbit hole after the white rabbit, “burning with curiosity.”29 Although the jump may seem ominous, perhaps a warning to overly curious children, Alice’s passion for finding things out enfranchises her, enabling her to escape the lies and mystifications of Victorian rule-bound society. Some of her questions in fact mimic those of early scientists and nineteenth-century explorers. She asks, “I wonder how many miles I have fallen by this time?” and, estimating she must be near the earth’s center, she attempts to calculate by navigational rule: “Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think. . . . But then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to? . . . Is this New Zealand or Australia?”30 In turn, by questioning the creatures—wondering why the Mouse’s tale is sad, demanding the Caterpillar’s identity, and so forth—she shakes the pieties of the self-important creatures around her. Likewise, by dismissively—or pretentiously—mouthing the questions legitimized by her schooling, she undermines the authority of masculinized inquiry.
Wonderland appears to Alice mad because its codes differ from those of Victorian England. In this way it resembles the exotic lands England had colonized, with unfamiliar times, with or without tea, games, words, and social codes. Carroll peoples Wonderland itself with curious creatures who unwittingly parody English types, suggesting colonialist satire of natives’ imitation of Europeans, like Joseph Conrad’s “improved specimen”: the fireman trained to care for the ship’s boiler, who resembles “a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs” in Heart of Darkness.31 The rabbit with a watch, white gloves, and a waistcoat; the child-turned-pig; the mock-turtle; the cat with a grin, and the grin that hangs alone in the air; talking animals; cards behaving like people (as in Pope’s Rape of the Lock); and more are ontological transgressions, creatures and things that behave outside their categories. Auerbach interprets all these creatures, even “Fury” personified as a dog, as aspects of Alice’s own personality; indeed, as the Cheshire Cat remarks, she is as mad as all of them.32 Often Alice’s “curiosity seems to lead her nowhere,” so that “Alice’s curiosity is . . . an act of insanity.”33 Alice and, indeed, the whole book, thus dramatize the chaotic potential of curiosity to question and denaturalize custom, mores, and nature itself. Importantly, this aspect pertains to the most aggressive deployment of curiosity of the period: imperial expansion. Daniel Bivona reads Alice as a prototype of the imperialist colonial, who attempts to compel Wonderland’s creatures to obey the rules she knows.34
In contrast to Carroll’s children’s literature, Anthony Trollope’s novel Can You Forgive Her? (1864–65) exploits the audience’s curiosity by its suggestion that the sins of the titular “her,” which are probably sexual, given the specificity of gender, lie within. This plot yokes the reader’s curiosity to the aberrant, “curious” behavior of the protagonist, who jilts an ideal suitor for a ne’er-do-well, but is forgiven and finally weds the “right” man. Readers are invited to query their own moral standards by forgiving the heroine, or not. Trollope’s novel alludes to a tradition of plays, both comic and tragic, which center on the question of how to judge the moral conduct of the heroine. By shrinking curiosity to specific questions about social mores, Trollope preserves the Victorian ethic of sexual repression and the domestic control of women. This comes to mark the melodramatic fiction of the late Victorian period, in which women’s sexual appetite again appears as a transgressive curiosity that destroys them.
Other Victorian novels use the meaning of curiosity as collecting to anatomize the contemporary confusion of things and people, none more so than Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41).35 The book opens in a murky junk shop, crammed with useless, broken, or obsolete items, the debris of a chaotic and materialistic society:
The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to . . . hide their treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour, here and there; fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters; rusty weapons of various kinds; distorted figures in china, and wood, and iron, and ivory; tapestry, and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams.36
The dustiness and inutility of the dreary contents of this curiosity cabinet serve to indict both England’s murky, superstitious, and bellicose past, and the contemporary practice of discarding or ignoring it. Moreover, like the collections mocked in the previous two centuries, this collection exhibits mere accumulation rather than an aesthetic or scientific system. James Buzard remarks that this description is “an inefficient inventory” that “[lumps] possibly distinguishable items together” instead of demarcating them to “proliferate meaning.”37 The shop is tended by human versions of the contents. Grandfather Trent, the aged and gambling-addicted owner, is a reiteration of the antiquarian: “The haggard aspect: of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among old churches, and tombs, and deserted houses, and gathered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whole collection but was in keeping with himself; nothing that looked older or more worn than he.”38 He is a collector—a curious man—turned into a curiosity amid “a universe of dead things” that symbolizes England’s heartless capitalistic system, in which people are treated as objects and objects act maliciously.39
Many of the characters in the story appear as objects or quasihuman oddities. Little Nell Trent, the novel’s doll-like heroine; waxworks, transformations of the human body into inert material; giants, who pull the body past its natural limits. However, it is the monstrous landlord Quilp who best epitomizes a human curiosity. A dwarf so hideous he scarcely appears human, he explodes unpredictably in malice or anger, and terrifies merely by his appearance:
An elderly man of remarkably hard features and forbidding aspect, and so low in stature as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a giant. His black eyes were restless, sly, and cunning; his mouth and chin, bristly with the stubble of a coarse hard beard; and his complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome. But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face, was a ghastly smile, which, appearing to have no connection with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly revealed the few, discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog.40
His ludicrous dress—“a large, high-crowned hat,” and dirty linen—and his “frowzy fringe” of hair suggest a werewolfish creature, dressed as a man in order to infiltrate society for nefarious ends.41 His very name, which incorporates the French word for “who,” qui, hints at his outlandish and uncategorizable nature, as do his habits. He eats not only his dinner but also the plate that holds it, and regards his wife with cannibalistic relish: “‘Oh you nice creature!’ [he said], smacking his lips as if . . . she were actually a sweetmeat.”42 Quilp’s transgressiveness includes “crossing geographical and ideological boundaries” by trading on the black market as well as the official economy and “domesticating his counting house,” thus eroding gender boundaries.43 His dwarfish stature literally embodies not only his stunted morality but also his species marginality. Like the small-minded Lilliputians in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, he is a reductio ad absurdum of humanity, and thus both human and not.
The novelist Vladimir Nabokov remarked that curiosity is the purest form of insubordination. Thus, the urge to disobey rules, to push throughout boundaries, to transcend or fracture categories, marks curious people and things in British cultural and literary history. True, the identification of curious things, which elude categories, and curious people, who question established truths, gained momentum and cultural prominence in the Enlightenment from the seventeenth-century birth of science and the cheap printing press. Nevertheless, the wash-over between strange objects and pushy people spreads throughout British literature to the Victorian period—and beyond. Both the unclassifiable phenomena in curiosity cabinets and the inquiring people who insist on asking questions overstep boundaries, and by so doing hold both the promise of freedom and the threat of danger. Whether by satirizing or questioning God’s existence, or the social order; by valuing foreign, “outlandish” lands and customs; by intruding into closed spheres, private, male, or elite; by experiments that confuse the useless and the useful, the beautiful and the ugly; by prurient scopophilia in place of useful work; or by the imperial appropriation of other countries and bodies, exercises of curiosity challenge and unsettle conventional hierarchies of value. Although the birth of science and the cheap printing press brought curiosity into the center of culture in the Enlightenment, subsequent British literary history shows that all genres in some way elicit or contain curiosity and curiosities. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, indeed, novelists structure curiosity most purely as detective and mystery fictions, in which readers must (or should) actively forge the connections between isolated fragments of information to make the network that leads to the solution. The immense popularity of these genres suggests that, albeit we live in an age of information, we yearn for the practice and activity of curiosity. Curiosity, be it ambition or transgression, denotes dissatisfaction with the way things are. It is the urge to look under the stone for the hidden truth.
Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, introduction and notes by Martin Gardner (New York: New American Library, 1960), 35.
Barbara M. Benedict, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 4–5, passim; Arthur MacGregor, Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007), 1–30.
Thomas Shadwell, The Virtuoso (London: Henry Herringman, 1676), act 2, 30.
Craig Ashley Hanson, The English Virtuoso: Art, Medicine, and Antiquarianism in the Age of Empiricism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Brian Cowan, “Open Elite: Virtuosity and the Peculiarities of English Connoisseurship,” Modern Intellectual History 1, no. 2 (2004): 151–83.
See Pat Rogers, Essays on Pope (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 240–60; Lord Burlington: Architecture, Art and Life, ed. Toby Barnard and Jane Clark (London: Hambledon Press, 1995); Morris R. Brownell, “Introduction,” Alexander Pope’s Villa: Views of Pope’s Villa, Grotto and Garden: A Microcosm of English Landscape (London: Greater London Council, 1980), 7–9.
Alexander Pope to Sir Hans Sloane, March, 30, 1742, in The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn, vol. 4: 1736–1744 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 391; see also Morris R. Brownwell, “Introduction” to John Serle, A Plan of Mr. Pope’s Garden (University of California, Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1982), iii–xv.
John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, abridged and edited, with an introduction and notes, by Kenneth P. Winkler (1689; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), book 2, chapter 9, 56, emphasis in original.
Locke, book 2, chapter 9, 56, emphasis original.
Locke, book 2, chapter 11, 63.
James Steintrager notes the contradictions in Locke’s epistemological distinctions and the threat of the material in Pope’s work in “The Temptation of Alexander Pope: Materialism and Sexual Fantasy in ‘Eloisa to Abelard,’” in Sex and Death in Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. Jolene Zigarovich (New York: Routledge, 2013), 127–46. See Jonathan Lamb, Preserving the Self in the South Seas, 1680–1840 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 77–113.
Alexander Pope, “Advertisement,” Epistles to Several Persons, reprinted in F. W. Bateson, introduction to Alexander Pope, Epistles to Several Persons (Moral Essays), ed. F. W. Bateson (1744; London: Methuen, 1951), xvii, xi–xx.
Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998).
Pope, Epistles to Several Persons, pp. 16–17, lines 15–18.
Benjamin Boyce, The Character-Sketches in Pope’s Poems (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1962), 8–23. Jacob Fuchs observes a similar dynamic in Pope’s technique of forefronting the present in his Horatian imitations in order to illuminate the relationship between contemporary and ancient figures in Reading Pope’s “Imitations of Horace” (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1989), 19–20.
Bateston, introduction, xliii.
Bateston, 305, 313, 317, 309–10, 319.
Bateston, 326, 324.
Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, in Miscellaneous Poems and Translations by Several Hands (London: Bernard Lintot, 1712), 131.
Pope, Rape of the Lock, canto 2, 133–34.
Sarah Winter, “Curiosity as Didacticism in The Old Curiosity Shop,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 34, no. 1 (Autumn, 2000): 52.
Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1984).
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 293.
Nina Auerbach, “Alice in Wonderland: A Curious Child,” Victorian Studies 17, no. 1 (September 1973): 33.
Carroll, The Annotated Alice, 44.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1996), 52; see Donald Rackin, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning (New York: Twayne, 1991), 92.
Carroll, The Annotated Alice, 40, 38.
Rackin, Alice’s Adventures, 14.
Daniel Bivona, “Alice the Child-Imperialist and the Games of Wonderland,” Nineteenth-Century Literature, 41, no. 2 (September 1986): 143–71.
Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 100.
Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 4–5.
James Buzard, “Enumeration and Exhaustion: Taking Inventory in The Old Curiosity Shop,” Dickens Studies Annual, 39 (2008): 21, 20.
Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, 5.
Michael Hollington, “The Voice of Objects in The Old Curiosity Shop,” Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 1 (2009), 7. See his translation of Theodor W. Adorno, “An Address on Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop” (“Rede über den Raritätenlanden von Charles Dickens”), trans. Michael Hollington, Dickens Quarterly 6, no. 3 (1989): 96–101; Catherine Waters, Commodity Culture in Dickens’s Household Words: The Social Life of Goods (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2008).
Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, 23.
Gareth Cordery, “Quilp, Commerce and Domesticity: Crossing Boundaries in The Old Curiosity Shop,” Dickens Quarterly, 26, no. 4 (December 2009): 210, 223.