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Dickens and Mass Culture

2012 January 23
by lucinda matthews-jones

Dickens and Mass Culture, by Juliet John, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, xii + 321 pp., £50.00 (hardback), ISBN: 987-0-19-925792-8

Dickens studies needs this book; the first to wrestle, in a detailed way, with Dickens’s strangely overlooked relationship with mass culture. Juliet John provides some complex answers to questions such as: What was the basis for Dickens’s extraordinary popularity? Why has it persisted from his age to ours? How have relationships with Dickens changed? What makes Dickens so translatable “across different media, national boundaries, historical periods and cultural industries?” (p. 33). In doing so, she opens up broader scrutiny of “what is culture and who is it for?” (p. 289). Her answers to these questions are never straightforward, and the result is a multi-faceted, often unsettlingly double Dickens (“doubleness” is a word that recurs throughout the book) who “wanted to help and sell to ‘the people’” (p. 73). As he put it in a speech on his first tour to America: “I would rather have the affectionate regard of my fellow men, than I would have heaps and mines of gold. But the two things do not seem to me incompatible” (quoted p. 74). John’s book turns a steady gaze on such conceptual collisions in Dickens’s own attitudes to his audiences. Nuance and an enthusiasm for investigating the more uncomfortable facets of Dickens’s mass appeal are sustained throughout. Typically, one chapter offers the first attempt to examine Oliver Twist as culture text. The legacies of anti-Semitism in this text have, as John argues, made it unpalatable to recognise the extent to which Oliver Twist permeates the cultural consciousness.

Dickens and Mass Culture begins with chapters exploring the range of ways in which Dickens sought to engage with a mass audience, including his work as editor of two successful journals, and later career as public reader of his own works. An important chapter on American Notes charts Dickens’s disenchantment with a country that brought him “face-to-face (often literally) with a dystopian vision of mass culture” (p. 76). The more conventional scholarly emphasis on Dickens as novelist is displaced in John’s account, in favour of a broad view of Dickens’s engagement with a wide range of cultural industries. The rewards of this approach become vividly apparent in the wonderful second part of the book on ‘Afterlives’. This section offers new insights into the simultaneous development of commercial and affectionate relationships with Dickens in the production and consumption of the film and heritage industries. In her even-handed treatment of Dickens World in Chatham, John is able to illuminate the ground of continuing culture wars. She notes that “although it aims to bring Dickens to the mass market, Dickens World does not claim, as Dickens did, to reinvigorate either respectable or popular culture” (p. 277). The uneasy responses to the attraction dramatise an ongoing wrangle over the kinds of cultural hierarchies which Dickens attempted to depose: “to stand up to for Dickens World is tantamount to admitting one’s stupidity and vulgarity: to oppose it risks announcing one’s elitism” (p. 278).

John’s distinctive blend of cultural, historical and literary studies is inflected by an interest in affect and in things, two recent growth areas in Victorian studies. She has a great feel for the range of emotional and material investments in Dickens, and the book’s exploration of “a life of things that goes beyond their economic value” (p. 254) is an important addition to thing theory. Chapter Five, for example, develops work on the inter-relationship between people and stuff, through a virtuoso case for the marriage, in Dickens’s imagination, of “the mechanical with the human, the emotional, and the spiritual” (p. 183).

I wasn’t always as persuaded by John’s analysis of current affective responses to Dickens, particularly the argument that a refusal to recognise the commodification of the environment is typical of Dickens heritage tourism today (p. 252). Here, unusually in a project that is otherwise committed to the agency and imaginative acuity of ‘the people’, Dickens tourists appear as a wilfully unreflective crowd. I’ve spoken with visitors to the Charles Dickens Museum who enjoy the combination of historic home, shop and cafe, and there is a market for knowingly kitsch Dickensiana such as the Charles Dickens action figure in hard vinyl accessorised with quill pen and removable hat. These engagements with forms of the continuing Dickens industry suggests that at least some Dickens tourists and collectors share the author’s ease with the imbrications of the commercial and the affectionate. In continuing the argument for the heritage industry’s repression of Dickens’s commercialism, John cites the cultural legacy of A Christmas Carol arguing that it has “established a ‘heritage’ image of a quintessentially Victorian Dickens fiercely opposed to greed and materialism – a Dickens who elevated feelings and people above money and commodities” (p. 269). This insistence on hierarchy has an unusually flattening effect on the argument. Surely, this is another instance in which the value of feelings and money, people and purchasing, is combined. We might think of the celebration of the joys of socially responsible shopping at the end of the novella, as Scrooge purchases the largest turkey in town in order to gift the Cratchit family, and rewards the errand-boy (a suitably sentimental small, fluffy rabbit in the Muppets’ version) who buys it for him with an increased tip for his speed. Indeed, Carol Ann Duffy’s aftertext Mrs Scrooge (2009) riffs on the idea of an ethical market through a heroine who campaigns against factory rearing of turkeys. Dickens’s description of Scrooge’s change of heart, and many memorable translations of it, far from hiding the commercial mechanisms through which this transformation is enacted, revel in the market details of weight of produce, tips, transportation of goods, cab fare. In combining purchasing power with social responsibility Scrooge’s reformation is a fitting parable for a capitalist age not because it “represses the materialism” of his past (p. 271), but because it pedals the assurance that luxury shopping and consumables can be part of a humane, affectively rich existence.

A more significant reservation is that John says less than she could about the global engagement with Dickens beyond Britain and America. Her careful analysis of Dickens’s association with the idea of Englishness as “a result of his heritage aesthetic, by which place is simultaneously commodified and romanticized” (p. 268), is, in the main, restricted to UK and US perspectives. Briefly cited evidence of the popularity of Oliver Twist in China under the title ‘Foggy City Orphan’ (p. 267), or the South African film A Boy Called Twist with Rastafarian Fagin (p. 239), points to the richness of a more global approach for a fuller understanding of the relationships between Dickens and place, and the potential for radical political readings of his work in different contexts. This though, as Literature Compass’s project on the Global Circulation of Dickens suggests, would require (at least) another book.

Overall, the richness of John’s engagement with Dickens’s mass appeal has provided Dickens studies with a crucial missing narrative. This will be a valuable book for thing theorists, those working in affect studies, reception studies and film studies, as well as Victorianists and Dickensians. We can now better understand our impulses as we rush to consume this eminently adaptable author with an even greater urgency in the Dickens bicentenary year.

Holly Furneaux

Holly Furneaux is a Reader in Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. She is author of Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities (Oxford University Press, 2009), and co-editor, with Professor Sally Ledger of Dickens in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2011). She has also edited John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (Sterling, 2011). Her current research explores non-martial forms of masculinity in Victorian wartime, with a focus on the Crimean war. hf35@leicester.ac.uk

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