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‘A Diversity of Dickens: Or, Should We Read Literature and Culture in Context?’

2013 April 26
by lucinda matthews-jones

Mary L. Shannon, King’s College London

Dickens’s London: Perception, Subjectivity and Urban Multiplicity (Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Literature), by Julian Wolfreys, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012, illustrated, £70 (hardback), xx + 251 pages, ISBN 978-0-7486-4040-9

Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition: Fielding, Richardson, Sterne, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Lamb (Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series), by Valerie Purton, London: Anthem, 2012, £60 (hardback), xxvii + 190 pages, ISBN 978-0-85728-418-1

Dickens and the Artists, edited by Mark Bills; with contributions by Pat Hardy, Leonée Ormond, Nicholas Penny, and Hilary Underwood, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, illustrated, $55/£25 (hardback), xi + 188 pages, ISBN 978-0-300-17602-5. Accompanies an exhibition at the Watts Gallery, Surrey from June 19 – October 28, 2012

The 2012 Dickens Bicentenary saw the publication of several new considerations of Charles Dickens’s life and writing, as the anniversary year attracted attention inside and outside the academy. One of the most unusual and thought-provoking of these offerings is Julian Wolfreys’s new book Dickens’s London, subtitled Perception, Subjectivity and Urban Multiplicity. Wolfreys revisits some of his interests from his earlier work, Writing London, but here the focus is firmly on Dickens.[i] However, Wolfreys’s study is as much interested in the process of reading (or ‘reading/writing’, as Wolfreys puts it) as it is in Dickens’s representations of London.

Dickens's London

In this compellingly complex book, Wolfreys brings phenomenological theory to bear on close textual criticism. He analyses how reading works for and on the reader, arguing that every act of writing is an act of reading, of interpretation. Wolfreys is interested in how reading works for the modern subject, and how readers and writers interpret the modern urban scene. Wolfreys argues that, in Dickens, the narrating subject’s ‘writing’, or account, of an encounter with the interiors and exteriors of London mirrors ‘the reading subject’s own continuous striving’ to fit fragmented urban modernity ‘into a pattern’ (230). The act of writing about a city is an act of piecing-together fragments of facts, memories, and perceptions into a reading, which ‘re-presents’ the subjective experience of place. This, for Wolfreys, is like the experience of the Dickens reader, who must search for connections amongst fragments (230). To the imagined objection that ‘this is true of any reading’, Wolfreys declares that, essentially, Dickens got there first: in Dickens’s descriptions of London, ‘the narrative mechanism meets the demands of reading the city, and does so through a phenomenological mode of perception’. Wolfreys’s Dickens is ‘a phenomenologist of the city, avant la lettre’ (230-1), a proto-modernist, who does naturally what Wolfgang Iser theorised in the 1970s when writing about modernist fiction.[ii] For Wolfreys, Dickens is the archetypal example of how reading/writing takes substantial ‘things’ and turns them into insubstantial ‘phenomena’.

Wolfreys’s interest in the process of reading emerges in the structure of the book itself. He presents his material in a way which asks us to reflect on the structure of an academic book, on how such books function, and on the ways in which we use them.  There are two different contents lists provided, each headed in a different font. Instead of conventional chapters, Wolfreys provides a critical commentary on long extracts from Dickens’s novels and journalism which describe different areas of London. These are arranged thematically according to the alphabet, from ‘Arrivals (and Returns)’ to ‘X Marks the Spot’; we never arrive at Z, as ‘Dickens’s London…never reaches an end’ (xx). Some extracts are provided without commentary, for the reader to consider for themselves in the light of Wolfreys’s other interpretations and discussions throughout the book. There is no ‘introduction’, as such, although the reader in referred to the essay at the end, entitled ‘Dickens, our Contemporary’, in lieu of an introduction. This leads to some oddities, as at one point the essay is written as if it comes after the extracts (231), and at another point it seems to assume it is being read before them (230). I would recommend that readers do, in fact, turn to the final essay first, as not only does it helps to orientate the reader within the unusual structure, but key terms used by Wolfreys – like the ‘Dickens-machine’ – are not clarified without it. What Wolfreys achieves, however, is to make the reader think about how academic books are constructed, so that the standard structure with which we are so familiar seems suddenly less self-evident.

According to Wolfreys, old maps and photographs cannot help us to recapture ‘Dickens’s London’, because the past was never ‘there’ in a straightforward, unmediated way (222). Wolfreys takes issue with the kinds of literary geography deployed by Jeremy Tambling’s Going Astray: Dickens and London.[iii] Literary tourism, for Wolfreys, represents a flawed attempt to recapture Dickens’s perception of London, when that perception, and the perception of his narrating subjects, was filtered through memory, interpretation, and phenomenological experience. Literary geography is therefore a ‘misunderstanding’ of the process of writing, and denies the true experience of reading. Wolfreys is critical of what he calls Tambling’s ‘biographical-historical reading’ of Dickens’s London, stating that ‘problems can arise if one treats the subject’s encounter with the urban space in straightforward historical or contextual terms, seeking in the process to relate fictive or imaginary vision to that which is real, historically speaking’ (12). I would suggest that there is nothing ‘straightforward’ about such contextual readings of literature, including Tambling’s, most of which are fully aware of the ways in which ‘fiction frames and so deconstructs reality… rather than the “real” thing being the ground for a mimetically or empirically slavish representation’ (35), but Wolfreys sets up a debate that is worth having. However, I wonder then why Wolfreys illustrates his book with images of modern and nineteenth-century London, as Tambling does? Wolfreys’s dense prose means that the reader is made to engage with the text and puzzle it out at every step: this is not a book to read for the first time in a snatched moment or without full concentration. The rewards for spending time on it, however, are great; this is a very striking book that could only be written by an experienced critic.

Book Cover

Valerie Purton’s Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition: Fielding, Richardson, Sterne, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Lamb is also interested in reading, but here the focus is on the favourite authors and dramatists who influenced Dickens’s own fiction. Purton’s book is more carefully conventional in structure than Wolfreys’s, but her declaration that ‘we now need to rehabilitate the adjective “sentimental” as a useful critical concept, rather than a casual term of condemnation or dismissal’ (xiv) is one of striking critical conviction. Purton presents sentimentalism as one of many rhetorical discourses available to a writer, and points out that critics who have dismissed Dickens as ‘sentimental’ were not solving critical questions, but raising new ones (xiii). Purton’s question is a straightforward one: how might the rehabilitation of sentimentalism as worthy of serious critical attention change our reading of Dickens in particular, but also Victorian culture more broadly (xix)? Purton invites us to consider the afterlife of sentimentalism in contemporary culture, a question of topical interest given reports of cinema audiences weeping happily at Les Miserables.

Purton begins by establishing Dickens as ‘a man of his time, part of a rich sentimental tradition’ (10). In chapter one she traces this tradition as far back as the medieval period and through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before presenting a selection of non-fictional eighteenth-century texts which developed what Purton calls the ‘sentimentalist tradition’. Following on from Wolfgang Herrlinger in the 1980s, and Isobel Armstrong on emotion in Victorian poetry criticism, Purton adopts a functionalist, rather than an etymological approach.[iv] Purton argues that Dickens divides sentimentalism from intellect, or ‘heart’ from ‘head’, ‘feeling’ from ‘thinking’ (or scheming) characters, and the sentimentalist from the comic mode. She draws a distinction between the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sentimentalist modes: the former is concerned with public benevolence, while the latter with the evocation of an intense emotional response, released through the ‘sentimentalist melting’ into tears (97).

Purton moves on to eighteenth-century novels and drama in chapters two and three. For Purton, Dickens’s childhood reading did not influence his style in straightforward ways: rather, what she calls Dickens’s ‘misreading’ of his eighteenth-century favourites made his own work very different from theirs. Purton shows convincingly how Fielding, Sterne and Richardson had access to both sentimental and comedic registers, and could switch between them and play them off one against the other. Dickens’s strength, on the other hand, lies (for Purton) in the way he separates the humourous and sentimental registers and then works to keep them apart by intensifying the emotions around value words (42). Purton gives the example of the description of “Dear, gentle, patient, noble, Nell”, a piling-up of adjectives which works, not through the differentiation of their separate meanings, but through a cumulative effect, which appeals to the heart and not the head. Purton continues this argument into chapter three, which tackles drama by Goldsmith and Sheridan (67). Purton is excellent on the workings of influence at the level of language, and her close reading reveals interesting connections across the different periods. Despite Purton’s excellent plot summaries, these chapters could have benefitted from a timeline of key texts and significant dates, for the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century specialist who has distant undergraduate memories of the other century. I also wondered if Purton could have made more of the other non-fiction influences on sentimentalism which she lists in the introduction?

Her suggestion in chapter four that ‘sentimentalist nostalgia’ could provide an explanation for moments of the uncanny in Dickens is interesting, and worth further exploration (71). This excellent chapter’s focus, however, is on ‘Dickens’s experience of assimilating sentimental popular culture by acting in it’, particularly in The Frozen Deep. In his amateur dramatics, Purton argues, Dickens developed an emotional, yet public link with his audience and tried on the role of the dandy and dilettante within the safe confines of the Victorian sentimentalist mode. Here, Purton discusses usefully the erotic strand of Victorian sentimentalism, where sexuality was encoded as ‘sentimentalist melting’ (90).

The final two chapters turn to Dickens’s fiction, which Purton divides chronologically between ‘The Early Novels’ and ‘The Later Novels’. However, Purton does not argue for a linear development from simple to complex sentimentalist effects over the course of Dickens’s career. Instead, she makes a case for the importance of contextual readings of literature, arguing that acontextual readings simplify texts, and that, with Dickens in particular, such readings leave us unable to see the ways in which he is re-working a complex literary tradition. Purton offers a new contribution to discussions about how Dickens established such a close and successful relationship with his implied and actual readers, as she argues that it was a ‘sentimental bond’, created through a complex mixture of public moralising (drawn from sentimentalism’s eighteenth-century roots) and private emotional sympathy (121). Purton made me appreciate The Old Curiousity Shop and Dombey & Son much more (never my favourites among Dickens’s novels), but I would be interested to know Purton’s opinion of Barnaby Rudge, given its eighteenth-century setting. This book has a cool clarity after the heady complexity of Wolfrey’s study, and demonstrates successfully how historical and biographical context, used well, can illuminate literary analysis.

Book Cover

Dickens’s novels established a rich body of contextual material all of their own, exploited by other writers, by dramatists, and, as the essay collection Dickens and the Artists (edited by Mark Bills) shows, by the visual arts. Dickens 2012 saw hundreds of events, talks, and exhibitions, and this book is the result of an exhibition by the Watts Gallery to display ‘the Dickensian vision in Victorian painting’.[v] The essays in this beautifully illustrated volume discuss the ways in which Dickens’s characters and social criticism inspired a wide range of nineteenth-century artists in an engaging approach to art history. Dickens is likely to forever be discussed as ‘a man of his time’, and these three books are recommended to those interested in considering the benefits and perils of approaching any work of art with an eye to its historical context.

Biographical Note

Mary L. Shannon has just completed her PhD on Victorian print culture, entitled ‘Wellington Street, Strand: The Print Culture of a Victorian Street’, at King’s College London. She currently teaches in the English Department there, and also works at King’s Centre for E-Research.


[i] Wolfreys, Julian. Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998.

[ii] Iser, Wolfgang. ‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’. New Literary History. On Interpretation: I. 3:2 (Winter 1972): 279-99.

[iii] Tambling, Jeremy. Going Astray: Dickens and London. London: Pearson Education, 2009.

[iv] Armstrong, Isobel. “The Role and Treatment of Emotion in Victorian Criticism of Poetry”. Victorian Periodicals Newsletter 10: 1 (March 1977):  13-16.

[v] Watts Gallery. “Dickens and the Artists”. Web. 21 January 2013 <http://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/exhibition/gallery-exhibition/2011/11/09/dickens-and-artists>.

One Response leave one →
  1. Sonia permalink
    May 14, 2013

    Excellent question, and brilliant article!

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