Household Words for our hard times

As Halloween approaches and we look around for tales of the uncanny to send shivers down spines, we might turn to Charles Dickens. There are supernatural happenings aplenty in the complete run of Household Words that Balliol has acquired through the generosity of alumnus, Michael Rhodes (matriculated 1958). Harry Daniels, studying for a DPhil in English at Balliol, reflects on the significance for our times of Dickens’ journal, both homely and unheimlich:

Balliol College Library has recently been gifted a complete run of Household Words, the weekly magazine edited and jointly owned by Charles Dickens from 1850 to 1859, which published works by Dickens himself, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leigh Hunt, George Meredith, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Harriet Martineau, amongst others. Though we must regret we cannot yet see the volumes in person, the sentiments behind Dickens’s venture might still afford us pause for reflection on our new life in ‘households’ within College.    

In recent weeks and months, the word ‘household’ has become a more familiar acquaintance of our lips, ears, and eyes than ever before. In the works of Shakespeare as much as Dickens (both authors being, of course, two of the most obvious examples of household names), the word stands for the most familiar. In Shakespeare’s play, King Henry V exclaims to his troops outside Agincourt that their ‘names’ will become ‘familiar in [the] mouth as household words’ after they succeed in France. But now, like the face of a childhood friend long forgotten when encountered by chance upon a street corner, the word ‘household’ has taken on a strange, uncanny guise as it now greets us out of the televised mouths of government. In Oxford, as in many places elsewhere, the necessary restrictions to deal with the coronavirus pandemic have grouped and divided us into corridor and staircase ‘households’. Perhaps like Pip at the end of Great Expectations, we find ourselves in a quasi-familial position to persons we had not quite expected to earlier in the year. 

Detail from the front page of Household Words, October 27 1855
Detail from the front page of Household Words from October 27 1855, published exactly 165 years ago.

But we might turn to the pages of Dickens, and in particular the sentiments behind Household Words, to work through the harder times of the period we’re now living through. While many of us have been barred from extensive travel (with many conferences cancelled and far-flung holidays forgone), Dickens teaches us to find pleasure and interest in the everyday, in what is already familiar to us. Dickens hoped that the magazine would ‘show to all, that in all familiar things, even in those which are repellent on the surface, there is Romance enough [sic], if we will find it out’, as he wrote in his ‘Preliminary Word’ to the publication.

Ghost-Music, a poem by Edmund Ollier, published in Household Words, September 29 1855.
Ghost-Music, a poem by Edmund Ollier, published in Household Words, September 29 1855.

Interest in all aspects of the everyday, as embodied by Dickens’ journal, is also reflected in the breadth of study and research that occupies members of the College. This set of books will be with the College community, to inspire and inform us, long after the current crisis is history. Just as Harry sees relevance today in Dickens’ nineteenth-century endeavour, future members of the College ‘household’ may find consolation, interest and amusement in these words and those of the other books kept in the Library for posterity.