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This session will piece together the history of a house collapse in nineteenth-century London. In 1857, James Fitzjames Stephen (later, Virginia Woolf’s uncle) accused Dickens of stealing a plotline from the news to get himself out of an awkward narrative situation. Stephen was convinced that the hasty denouement in Little Dorrit—where the villain, Rigaud, is killed by a falling house—was inspired by a real-life disaster on Tottenham Court Road. Dickens, never someone to let an insult go, was extremely angry. Their battle is striking for what it reveals about the Victorians’ understanding of fiction and its responsibilities. It is even more interesting for what it omits, skirts around, and simply takes as given. The house collapse on Tottenham Court Road attracted significant public attention at the time. It raised questions about the building trade, the efficacy of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and the nature of the city itself. It was far from an isolated case; many Londoners, often in poverty, lost their lives in similar events. But whose was this story, and what does it mean to attempt to tell it? In the paper, I will introduce some of the methodological, ethical, and writerly challenges the project has presented so far.

Ushashi Dasgupta is Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford and the Jonathan and Julia Aisbitt Fellow in English at Pembroke College. Her first book, Charles Dickens and the Properties of Fiction: The Lodger World (Oxford University Press, 2020), considers the significance of tenancy in the literary imagination. It reveals how rented spaces not only complicate our sense of the Victorian home, but also served as a rich narrative resource for one of the period’s most important novelists. She currently is working on two projects. The first is a book about the practice of re-reading, from the nineteenth century to the present. The second, from which this paper is drawn, is about a nineteenth-century house collapse on Tottenham Court Road. 

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