Tallow candles and meaty air in Bleak House
Henchman, Anna A.
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Citation (published version)Henchman, A., (2017). Tallow Candles and Meaty Air in Bleak House . 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Vol. 25. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.794
In Charles Dickens’s Bleak House there is a strange (and disgusting) pattern of characters feeling that they can ‘taste’ the air, and that that air tastes either meaty or greasy. Esther notices that snuffing ‘two great office candles in tin candlesticks’ at Mrs Jellyby’s ‘made the room taste strongly of hot tallow’, the mutton or beef fat out of which inexpensive candles were made. In Bleak House, candles retain their sheepy atmospheres and release them into the surrounding air when consumed. Mrs Jellyby’s home and Mr Vholes’s office are just two places in which Dickens suggests that the process of turning organic animal bodies into urban commodities (candles, parchment, wigs) has not quite been completed. Candles and parchment are part animal, part object, and they constantly threaten to revert back into their animal forms. The commodification of animal bodies occurs primarily in the city, where parts of formerly living bodies are manufactured into things. Filled with the smell of burning chops or a spontaneously combusted human, Dickens’s greasier atmospheres contain animal matter suspended in the air that the characters smell, taste, and touch. Once we realize that the apparent smell of chops and candles is, in fact, Krook’s body, this act of taking the air becomes a form of cannibalism that is at least as unsettling as Michael Pollan’s recent account of cows being fed cow parts in factory farms. Drawing on this insight and on Allen MacDuffie’s analyses of energy systems in Bleak House, this article focuses on instances in which Dickens defamiliarizes the human consumption of energy by having his characters unintentionally ingest animal particles. Studying Dickens’s treatment of animal fat suspended in air adds a new dimension to recent work on systems of energy expenditure and exchange in an age of industrial capitalism.
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