Christmas edition: Geologizing with Dickens

Charles Dickens in his Study, 1859 by William Powell Frith. From Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Dickens in his Study, 1859 by William Powell Frith. From Wikimedia Commons.

In the nineteenth century, Geology becomes very popular among the British society. Novels and newspapers often parodied scientists. One example of this is Professor Dingo, a very enthusiastic geologist from Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House (1852-1853).

Dickens was a very important literary figure. He mixed with a great number of scientific men and women. Among his friends was Richard Owen. Dickens published some of Owen’s work in his periodical, Household Words and All the Year Round. Mr Venus, the taxidermist in  Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) was slightly based on Richard Owen. By the time when Dickens wrote this novel, Owen was the curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Our Mutual Friend, also exhibits  traces of the work of Lyell, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and Darwin.

Cover of serial, "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens. From Wikimedia Commons.

Cover of serial, “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens. From Wikimedia Commons.

Dickens, contributed to the popularity of geology with the creation of ideas and images for public consumption, such as he did in Bleak House, with the description of the streets of London where ancient lizards roamed, and volcanoes and quakes shocked the earth.

This is the opening paragraph:

“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.”

It was the first appearance of a dinosaur in popular literature, but it was not until two years after the publication of Bleak House that the public saw the Megalosaurus reconstruction at the grand reopening of the Crystal Palace.


Dickens, Charles, “Bleak House”, Penguin Books, 1994.

Buckland, Adelene , ‘“The Poetry of Science”: Charles Dickens, Geology and Visual and Material Culture in Victorian London’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 35 (2007), 679–94 (p. 680).