David Trotter is King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge. His publications include Cooking with Mud: The Idea of Mess in Nineteenth-Century Art and Fiction (2000), Paranoid Modernism (2001), and Cinema and Modernism (2007). His current work concerns naturalism in literature, cinema, and the visual arts, and aspects of Hollywood. He was co-founder of the Cambridge Screen Media Group, and currently directs the University's MPhil programme in Screen Media and Cultures.
The deathbed apart, there are few scenes more profoundly disturbing in nineteenth-century fiction than the household clearance, or the process of 'selling up': the identification of domestic material goods for sale at auction, either in situ, or elsewhere. Of course, we shouldn't be surprised at this, if the Victorians took the idea of home anything like as seriously as they made out. How could such a violation or wilful sacrifice of domesticity not be profoundly disturbing? This essay argues that scenes of household clearance in nineteenth-century fiction possess a density and an edge which exceed any shock they might have administered to the sensibilities of the house-proud. Such scenes expose to critical view an aspect of existence otherwise generally understood, then as now, not to require or to benefit from illumination. The aims of the essay are twofold: 1) to demonstrate the pervasiveness of scenes of household clearance in Victorian fiction, with reference to Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Hardy, and others; 2) to put forward an explanation for the imaginative charge they carry, which runs counter to a strong emphasis in the current understanding of nineteenth-century fiction's perspective on a newly abundant material culture.