Dickens, the Digital, and The Doctor

By Peter J. Katz, Syracuse University

In the latest Doctor Who Christmas Special (watch from 53:41 to 54:30), the Great Intelligence, a disembodied and purely intellectual power, threatens to take over Victorian London with an army of snowmen. At the last moment, The Doctor stumbles upon the secret weapon to use against the horde: a family crying on Christmas Eve. To be more particular, though: a Victorian family crying on a Victorian Christmas Eve. Doctor Who taps into a nostalgia that foregrounds the Victorian as a site where authentic sentimentality overcomes inhuman and disembodied technology.


Victorian novels insist on the embodiment of textuality. Dickens, at a dinner in Edinburgh, declaims, “I feel as if the deaths of the fictitious creatures […] had endeared us [readers] to each other as real afflictions deepen friendships in actual life; I feel as if they had been real persons, whose fortunes we had pursued together in inseparable connexion.”[1] The Victorian novel presents itself as an “actual life” filled with “real persons” whose sentiments surge off the page and beyond the novel as physical object.

The impulse behind digital humanities, from topic modelling to mapping and beyond, is to represent digitally the representations the humanities investigate. But, The Doctor suggests, one cannot digitize sentiment. The Victorian Christmas as the epitome of sentiment suggests that emotion, feelings, affect—to have a fleshy body—resists the disembodying impulse of technology.

The root of this representation lies in Victorian novels’ self-representation, the novel’s paradoxical awareness that it attempts to represent an irreducibly embodied sentimentality. If one attempts to read these representations digitally, the impulse of these novels warns readers, one reduces bodies to machines and thus reads improperly. In short, when we feel novels contain something that one simply cannot quantify, we feel that way because the Victorian novel told us that one cannot quantify the novel.

Doctor Who’s neo-Victorian impulse, then, arises from a discourse regarding the representation of Victorian sentiment the Victorian novel put forward about itself. Placing the Victorian family weeping over the hearth-angel (her adherence to this trope is admittedly wibbly-wobbly) Clara calls on a representation that recognizes itself as a representation: a novelistic depiction of sentiment as something exceeding the novel itself.

This something-that-exceeds comes together in the emotions and affects of the bodies entangled in Dickens’s “inseparable connexion,” both reader and character. William Cohen’s assertion that “in a particularly literary register, sensation affords [Victorian] writers a means of concretely representing emotions, desires, and impulses that tend—at least in nineteenth-century literary idioms—to be otherwise unrepresentably abstract or ethereal.”[ii] Simultaneously representational yet “actual life” embodiment in the Victorian novel forms a link to feeling that cannot be properly articulated.

The digital humanities, however, examine the text to varying degrees as a physical object; texts are bags of words, quantifiable, chartable, and otherwise constructed objects. Therein lies the tension: on the one hand the Victorian novel represents itself as something that transcends its status as an object, while on the other digitization insists on the words as objects.

This dichotomy would hardly be a problem were it not for readers so fully accepting the novels’ assertion that its feelings are real, that its bodies have “actual life.” The “inseparable connexion” resists separation at all turns. When the digital humanities dissolve embodied connection into mechanical operation, perhaps they miss the point—or perhaps, for the digital humanities, missing the point is the point.

[1] The Speeches of Charles Dickens, ed. By K. J. Fielding (Oxford: Claredon, 1960), p.9.

[ii] William A Cohen, Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 6.

Peter Katz is a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University, where he researches Victorian novels, their readers, and Victorian ethics of reading. For more of his Victorian and digital humanities musings, check out www.pkatz19c.wordpress.com.

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